The Nice – Nice

“Won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group from England: The Nice.”

And so begins side 2 of the third album by the band where Keith Emerson earned his reputation as one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll. At this early stage in his career, Emerson had yet to begin his pioneering work using the Moog synthesizer. That would come a couple of years later in the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. So here, his talents are limited to just organ and piano. That is, if you could ever refer to Emerson’s playing as limited. Listening to “Nice” you can’t help but feel that it’s the instruments themselves that are limited in Emerson’s hands.

It’s easy to tell here how influential Keith Emerson was to ELP – and not just because both The Nice and ELP had keyboards as the main lead instrument. Like ELP, the songs on “Nice” integrate rock and roll with heavier doses of classical and jazz than do the psychedelic musings of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the dark, moody prog of King Crimson, Carl Palmer’s and Greg Lake’s respective bands prior to ELP.  Then there’s the many pieces of Nice songs that were incorporated into later ELP tracks.

The standout track however, at least to me, is the live track  “Rondo ’69”, which was based on the polyrhythmic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by jazz master Dave Brubeck, from his 1959 classic “Time Out“. “Rondo” became a keyboard showcase at Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts in the years to come.

I hate to admit it, but until the 1980s, when I started to expand my musical appreciations, I thought Rondo was an ELP original. Yeah, not even close. It’s pure Brubeck; the song is merely reinterpreted by Keith Emerson and the other members of The Nice. But I give them credit for the improvisational midsection. It was very…Nice.

The Pineapple Thief – Dissolution (clear vinyl)

The Pineapple Thief is a band I had heard and read a lot about before finally buying an album by them. I bought their 11th record mainly because Gavin Harrison, one of my favorite drummers, had been brought into their fold. I never realized why I liked Gavin Harrison’s drumming so much until I listened to The Pineapple Thief’s 12th album, “Dissolution”. I can not stop listening to this record. A good part of that reason I discovered, is Harrison’s influence.

It is rare for a drummer to be as intricately involved in the songs he plays on as Gavin Harrison is. There was such a shift from the “The Wilderness” to “Dissolution”, that I had to read through the liner notes to see what had changed. It was immediately obvious. Gavin Harrison co-wrote all but two songs with The Pineapple Thief’s founder, Bruce Soord. The shift was as noticeable as when Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson brought Harrison into their fold in 2002. Coincidence? I think not.

Although I am not yet familiar with The Pineapple Thief’s earlier work, I am willing to bet that adding Gavin Harrison to the line-up, is one of the best decisions Bruce Swoord has ever made.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not eager to check out their other earlier albums.

U.K. – Night After Night

Eddie Jobson is an amazing musician. Case in point: his role in the British progressive rock band U.K. Not only could he play keyboards to a level that would make even Mozart smile, he was even more so a virtuoso on violin.

After their debut album, the prog rock supergroup lost its original drummer, Bill Bruford and lead guitarist extraordinaire Alan Holdsworth over creative differences. For their second album, “Danger Money”, U.K. replaced Bruford with the equally talented Terry Bozzio. The band decided to replace Holdsworth with…well, nobody. They instead placed more emphasis on Eddie Jobson’s keyboards and electric violin for the solos. Jobson was more than up to the challenge with their newer songs.

But what about playing the older songs live, on tour?

“Night After Night” answered that question in true evocation of Holdsworth’s talent. It’s on Alan Holdsworth’s solos where Eddie Jobson proves how amazing he is. He not only switches from keys to violin flawlessly but also adopts Holdsworth’s complex jazz infused solos perfectly to the violin without so much as flinching. If this was the album where you first heard U.K. you would swear the solos were written for electric violin.

Come to think of it, this is the album where I first heard U.K.

Well then, there you go.

Fripp & Eno – No Pussyfooting

Two eclecticly creative talents. One creatively eclectic album.

I knew I was in for something different when I picked up this 1973 album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, but sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind.

Filled with often atmospheric soundscapes, “No Pussyfooting” is an album intended to subdue and entrance. Two extended songs performed solely on guitar and synthesizer. No drums or bass, no vocals, no outside musicians. This is an album that is intended to take your mind on a journey, painting pictures with sound. It could easily be the soundtrack to an avant-garde movie that was never made or a backdrop for deep meditation.

“No Pussyfooting” is a true original classic that sits far outside the mainstream. Then again, what else would you expect from the minds of the main creative forces in King Crimson and early Roxy Music?

Emerson Lake and Palmer – Trilogy

When most people think of rock and roll instruments, they think of the guitar. probably because most rock bands used guitar as the main lead instrument. Most, but not all.

Even though Greg Lake from Emerson Lake and Palmer did occasionally pick up a guitar, it was not his primary instrument. Greg Lake was first and foremost a bassist. When he left King Crimson to join forces with Keith Emerson, keyboardist from The Move, and Carl Palmer, drummer from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, to form the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer, guitar was a secondary thought. “Trilogy”, ELP’s third album, was proof that rock bands didn’t need to be all about the guitar.

The only significant guitar work on “Trilogy” is on “From the Beginning”, the only single released from the album. While only a fool would deny that it is impressively beautiful guitar work, it’s still the synthesizer work at the end of the song that steals the show. And stealing the show is what “Trilogy” seems to focus on; not just for Keith Emerson’s keys, but equally for Greg Lake’s ripping bass lines and Carl Palmer’s powerful, yet intricate percussion.

“Trilogy” was an album that was a team effort for ELP. It is an album that focuses on the virtuosity of all three members, not just one. That is what made ELP such a fantastic band. Each of the members was such a master of their individual instrument that a band could have been formed around each of them alone; but to have them all in one band together, focusing on their trilogy of talent was amazing.

Emerson Lake and Palmer released a couple of good albums before “Trilogy”, but this is the record where everything first fell perfectly into place for them. This was the album where Emerson Lake and Palmer stopped being former members of other bands and became a collectively combined force of three great musicians – a trilogy…in which guitar was not the primary instrument.

Bad Company – Bad Co.

“The sum is greater than the parts” is a truism that is perfectly evidenced by the band Bad Company. How much greater that sum can be was immediately evident on their debut album.

All of the members of Bad Company were accomplished players in successful bands before forming the band. Singer Paul Rodgers and Drummer Simon Kirke had been in the band Free. Mick Ralphs was the guitarist for Mott the Hoople, and Boz Burrell played bass for King Crimson. As great as each of them was individually as parts of those bands, it was no comparison to the success they would accomplish when they came together in 1974 to form one of the most successful supergroups of all time.

Bad Company’s synonymous eponymous debut topped the Billboard album chart and remains one of the most successful debut albums in rock and roll. That success was not short-lived either, for the band or the album. “Bad Co” was the first of three albums by Bad Company to reach the top five position in the Billboard charts and the start of an 11 album run to break Billboard’s top 200. Several of the songs off the album are still played regularly on classic rock radio stations today.

Laurie Anderson – Mister Heartbreak

Perhaps one of the most unusual artists to gain popular success in the eighties was Laurie Anderson. “Mr. Heartbreak” is her second album. Like its predecessor, “Mister Heartbreak” is a combination of musical experimentation spun together with a combination of spoken word and sung lyrics.

It may take some people a couple listens to fully appreciate “Mister Heartbreak”, or any of Laurie Anderson’s music for that matter. The interplay of the words and sounds is unlike any album that had come before it.

With as different as “Mister Heartbreak” is, I am actually surprised the album did as well as it did, hitting number 60 on the Billboard top 200 album chart in 1984. Certainly, Adrian Belew (King Crimson) on guitar and Peter Gabriel (Genesis) appearing on a couple of songs didn’t hurt it having a broader appeal to some people, making them want to give it a listen. I am glad I was one of them.

The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

Even though I had never heard anything by The Pineapple Thief, I had been wanting to pick up something by them for a while. I had read some good things about them and they were referenced a lot by other bands I liked. But the clincher that got me to pick up “Your Wilderness”, was Gavin Harrison jumping on board as their drummer.

Gavin Harrison is one of those rare drummers who plays the drums not to merely rhythmically hold songs together, but like my other favorite drummers, Harrison approaches the drums as another instrument that adds to the composition – not just underlying, but overlaying the architecture of the music. Although he is not as well-known, I hold Gavin Harrison in the same league as Bill Bruford of Yes and Neal Peart of Rush.

This album takes influences from numerous bands that are notoriously unique. If I had to pick three that most prominently shined through, it would be The Flaming Lips, Porcupine Tree, and early Radiohead. There are elements of many others, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with those bands since rec of them are masters at combining a diverse combination of musical influences into something totally original.

I love albums that focus around a central theme. Maybe that’s why I liked this album so much on the first listen. All of the songs seem to revolve around losing that one special love in your life and not realizing that it was your own shortcomings that tore things apart until it was too late. It’s a theme encapsulated in the lyrics in the opening track, “In Exile”: “Don’t be afraid to miss me / Don’t be afraid to hate me”. It’s also a sentiment that is sadly and romantically reminisced in “Where We Stood” the song that brings the whole emotional tug-of-war of this album to its inevitable open closure: “I don’t remember if we stood up there / I don’t remember if we stood”. This is a somber album and for the most part the music fits that mood. In all honesty, the playing is much more laid back than I expected, only breaking out a with some serious jamming on a couple rare occasions. But then, this is an album that is all about composition and song structure and making the listener feel this is a personal story. Their own personal story.

“Your Wilderness” is everything I had hoped for based on what I had heard about The Pineapple Thief. It is definitely a progressive rock album. But it is not one founded only on early prog. In a true progressive tradition, “Your Wilderness” is a musical collection built upon the influences of post-progressive rock bands that were influenced by the original prog rockers – an end result that is as inspiring and impressionable as the music that inpired and made an impression on it.

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord changes. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.

King Crimson – Larks Tongues In Aspic

I think “Larks Tongues In Aspic” is one of my favorite King Crimson albums because this, the fifth incarnation of the band, featured violin as one of the main instruments. It truly gave this album a distinctly unique character. Not that King Crimson’s music ever needed any help with being distinct or unique.

This was an album you had to be sure to take proper care of. It has many quiet passages, and if not treated properly the scratches could easily overwhelm the music. The album opens with one of those quiet passages, some soft percussion work by Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, which leads into the an elegant violin intro played by David Cross, which is then torn out of existence by Robert Fripp’s frantic guitar work. This kind of slow then fast, quiet then loud roller coaster ride is a kind of theme throughout the entirety of “Larks Tongues In Aspic”. The glue holding all these diverse parts together is the solid bass playing by John wetton, who also does all the singing.

I suppose Larks tongue could be a difficult album for some to listen to, but it’s one well worth putting the effort into. Like a good brandy or a fine wine, “Larks Tongue In Aspic” is an acquired taste. It’s an album that intrigues your ears and mind. This is music that is intended to be interpreted, not merely listen to. Then again, that could be said of all King Crimson’s work.