Sunday, 27 March 2016

Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game

The works of Hermann Hesse have the rare capacity to force the reader to reappraise his or her attitudes to life and the world around them.

Of Hesse's novels, The Glass Bead Game, which I recently read for the second time, is one of the longest and most intricate, but the questions which it poses can be very readily distilled. The story basically revolves around the character of Joseph Knecht and his life of study and teaching.

Knecht enters the "pedagogic province" of Castalia, and becomes well-versed in the book's titular pastime, although a detailed knowledge or grasp of the game's niceties is by no means essential to an understanding or enjoyment of the novel.

Essentially, the theme of the novel is the tension between the abstract and the worldly, between the ethos of rarefied,contemplative study and that of the more "sordid" and instinctive life outside Castalia. This conflict, and the conclusions which spring from it, are explored with reference to the author's fascination with Eastern concepts of duality, transitoriness, renewal and rebirth. Certain characters in Knecht's orbit are held to be symptomatic of the existing set-up, or precursors of the future.

The heart of the argument, as I understood it, is to what degree "esoteric" academic and cultural pursuits such as the Glass Bead Game have any value for the real world, but equally how much such undertakings contribute to man's reason and enlightenment, bestow practical applications , and therefore lead to a more peaceful and just world.

Of course, this intellectual "elitism" was in effect subsidized by the man in the street. Such "luxuries" would clearly be jeopardized when emergencies such as war arose. As I deciphered it, part of the message here was that Castalia should try to inculcate Castalian principles and values in society proper.  This presumably on the theory that a more stable society would help to ensure the survival of Castalia in some shape or form, by nurturing a more conducive social and economic climate.

Some of the passages which ruminate about intellectual and cultural developments remind me of Thomas Mann. Some of this was tough going when compared to the purely biographical bits, but they are important in the overall.

The Glass Bead Game works on more than one level. It is easy to dwell on the societal ramifications of the Castalian set-up and its relations with the outside world, but the effects on individuals are equally pertinent. The suffocating impact of the secluded existence, being cut off from "real life", as well as the nagging sense that their talents are not being used for the general good, or indeed for an individual's own spiritual well-being.

An abiding trait of Hesse's writing is that he touches the very essence of life, our make-up and our equilibrium, the soul and what animates it. He makes such things seem so elementary and tangible, but also induces a yearning for self-discovery in those of us who have found the equilibrium elusive and troublesome.

The Hesse works regularly take place in remote settings or situations, but the characters are invariably wrestling with universal turmoils and concerns. Hermann Hesse has been a major influence on my life, and my outlook, in recent years.  Just a few pages are sufficient to rekindle that feeling of serenity and hope, like a reconnection with some semblance of love and truth, if only fleetingly.

In a broader way, the story supports the notion that we benefit from a change of scenery, encountering different people, points of view, and atmospheres, and that we should not prolong phases of our life which have begun to decay and pall, and should move on. Of course, this is easier said than done for most people, and most would not rationalize such impulses in the "exotic" manner favoured by Hesse. We should also try not to entirely estrange ourselves from things which appear alien.

My feeling is that Hesse relied on the sensitivity and perspicacity of his readers to constantly juggle these levels of meaning, and to discern them in the first place. Otherwise, his writing would not possess its unique flavour and vitality. What first drew me to Hesse, when my life had been to a dark place, was the weight placed on self-discovery and enlightenment.  But knowing what we do about the man, it is apparent that he had an eye for wider social commentary, in addition to chronicling the journeys of individuals, the latter often serving as metaphors for the former. Matters of some moment were indirectly addressed in a digestible and "non-threatening" form, but the point was undeniably there.

The Glass Bead Game is grandiose by Hesse standards, and the occasional geopolitical tangent is atypical of the author's usual approach. Its depth renders it more demanding and draining on the reader's faculties. Contained within The Glass Bead Game is a conventional Hesse novel, but it is more "fleshed out".

To some less discerning observers it might seem that the story "tails off" or fizzles out, but one must remember that this is not a conventional novel, Hesse had said what he meant to say, and of course the manner in which the main bulk of the tale concludes encourages the reader to assess the possible interpretations. A whole vista of possibilities should really open up.

Admittedly, this book does not quite leave me with the warm and buoyant sensations engendered with some other Hesse works, but this is counter-balanced by the amount, and variety, of food for thought which it serves up. Thoughts about ourselves, our place in the world, and our responsibilities.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Vive La Trance - Amon Duul II - album review

It is the early albums made by the German rock group Amon Duul II which tend to define their influence, their legacy and their popularity, but my listening allegiance has lately shifted decisively towards their subsequent output.

Later releases, those released between 1972-1974, exhibit more melody, additional flair, and greater variety.  They also sound less forbidding - an easier and more pleasant listen, to be honest. Their level of invention, musical intricacy and elusive mystique has proved a revelation to me in recent times. Prominent among this batch of LPs is Vive La Trance, issued in 1973.

Much of this record is eminently accessible to mainstream listeners, but the adventurous impulses remain. It surprises and disappoints me that Vive La Trance is not singled out for greater attention when their discography is being appraised. Unless I have misjudged things completely?

The production on Vive La Trance has a fluency and freshness which permits the music to breathe and sparkle. The greater utilization of keyboards and other instruments (saxophone, violin, cello and so forth) supplements and enriches what might otherwise have been a stodgy recipe of guitars, bass and drums.

As the opening song, "A Morning Excuse" very much establishes the tone, with its bright and rhythmic foundation. I would have to say, though, that the highlights of the album are the tracks "Fly United" and "Jalousie".  The former is a very diverting piece with several haunting melodic touches, and a highly effective vocal arrangement. Indeed, the satisfying mixture of female and male voices is a hallmark of this record. "Fly United" has an enigmatic beauty which is hard not to find captivating. "Jalousie" is a highly tuneful and seductive affair, driven primarily by a confidently expressive Renate Knaup lead vocal.

"Mozambique" is a politically charged piece, which is hardly surprising for a German "progressive" act of that period, but the lyrics are perhaps more strident and blunt than one had grown to expect from Amon Duul II. "Trap" is another one of those numbers which make Amon Duul II sound uncannily like a New Wave act of the early 1980s, with its energetic, uncluttered flavour. Those looking for more experimental fare will be catered for by "Im Krater Bluhn Wieder Die Baume" and "Apocalyptic Bore".

Another thing to mention about this album is the largely sparing and tasteful use of guitars. The laboured and heavy riffs are few and far between, and there is considerable emphasis on melodic, dynamic and intertwining guitar parts which have an earthiness, but also a delicacy.

Vive La Trance has an enchanting and beguiling air of mystery and freedom which is difficult to resist. It still sounds vibrant after all these years. Give it a listen, and you will be impressed and entertained, believe me.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

This Is Spinal Tap

When I am asked to compile a list of my favourite films of all time, This Is Spinal Tap always threatens to penetrate the higher reaches. It is not necessarily the "best" or the most profound, but it is right up there in terms of entertainment value and enjoyability.

Basically, This Is Spinal Tap, released in 1984, is presented as a documentary, or "rockumentary", following the fortunes of British heavy rock outfit Spinal Tap as they tour North America to promote their latest album. Numerous disasters and setbacks ensue, and these episodes form the basis for much of the comedy, and no little pathos.

I cannot really make up my mind why the picture is made in the style which it is.  Some of the "sloppiness" may be intentional, while some may even be a product of budget constraints.  Either way, many segments have a very gritty, "fly on the wall" character, either consciously or unconsciously drawing inspiration from some of the music documentaries of the past (D.A. Pennebaker's work springs to mind).  I also like the way that dialogue is delivered by the actors in an "untidy", ad-libbed manner. This adds realism, as does the editing.

The "amateurish" style is one of the factors which helps this picture to endure, whereas other similar efforts fall short by being excessively glossy or calculating. In addition to a certain innocence, a lot of elements in "Spinal Tap" conspired to engender a peculiar magic, the kind which defies straightforward explanation. Much has been made about the the cliches which the movie celebrates, but people forget that many of these cliches were popularized by the film itself.

A facet of This Is Spinal Tap which receives insufficient attention is the nature of the settings. Almost every scene is situated in a hotel room, concert venue, dressing room, airport or vehicle. This serves to illustrate the confined, claustrophobic and unreal world inhabited by rock musicians.

The acting by the main players has a naturalness which is a delight. The deadpan delivery is a key, especially at the funniest junctures. The more minor roles add much sparkle. Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman, and Paul Shaffer as Artie Fufkin really stand out. These characters are not stereotypes as such, but may be exaggerated conceptions of people who might have been around at the time.

Whilst according the cinematography and the acting due credit, it is the writing and the humour which really transports the film onto another level. Many lines and phrases have entered into the lexicon of popular culture, which is a tribute in itself. Moreover, many of the jokes and sketches are still fresh. I have viewed the film untold times, but still find myself laughing out loud.

The narrative manages to elicit sympathy, too, as Spinal Tap stumble from one misfortune to another. It is a little while before grim reality registers, and the downward spiral in the band's fortunes arrives almost imperceptibly. Gallows humour is mixed with humiliation, and desperate efforts to remedy the predicament (such as the "Stonehenge" sequence).

When I first saw this movie, many years ago, I recall being startled by the quality of the music. The songs, however, do not really stand up to the stresses of repeated listening and scrutiny, even if the lyrics remain hilarious, shedding none of their lustre.

Yes, the film satirizes the Neanderthal attitudes and pretentiousness of some rock musicians, but it also becomes a celebration of the absurdity and the energy of the genre. The running jokes about "drummers" and "the album cover" help to imbue the piece with some structure and continuity.

Viewers can probably discern references to certain real-life groups and artists, but a notable thing is that Spinal Tap can not be directly pigeon-holed and directly compared to such-and-such a band. There is a vaguely "Lennon and McCartney" dynamic in the relationship between David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, but only vaguely. Half the fun is looking out for allusions, but the writing is sufficiently subtle to leave one guessing.

An endearing feature of the movie is the amount which is left unsaid or unexplained. There is plenty going on in various scenes, involving extras and so forth, and enigmatic lines are left hanging in the air.

Of the characters, Nigel Tufnel's persona is perhaps the most forcefully projected, his uncomplicated and naive dimness shining throughout. The others are maybe less easy to pin down. Tony Hendra, as the group's manager, gets some of the most interesting and substantial lines, although the character himself feels more like a 60s/70s managerial type.

It feels like the funny lines are packed in to the picture, even "under" the closing titles, which is a testimony to the amount of strong material which the writers had. This Is Spinal Tap remains fine entertainment, and retains its unique charm after all these years. Modern audiences might be nonplussed by the absence of slickness, but the accent is on creativity and content, and not the "packaging".

A wonderful film.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Genesis - Selling England By The Pound - album review

In assessing the progressive rock music of the 1970s, certain albums can be seen as important or meritorious examples of the genre. One of these is Selling England By The Pound, released by Genesis in 1973.

The title of the record could easily be construed as a commentary on the "state of the nation" at the time when the album was made. England was enduring a period of industrial strife, economic stagnation and generally diminished influence. It seems, however, that the the moniker signifies the plight of indigenous English folk-culture amid a tide of "Americanization". There are overt English references among the lyrics of one or two songs, and even flashes of folk-tinged music are discernible. Did this very "Englishness" cost Genesis commercial mileage in some territories, such as the US?

Proceedings open with "Dancing With The Moonlit Knight", which contains an eerie motif later reprised in "Aisle of Plenty".  The song has its moments, but to me it feels like they were trying a little too hard, and it almost becomes a case of "Genesis-by-numbers". It does resemble "Supper's Ready", in fact. The lyrics do actually have something to say, and they are not just there to create an aura of erudition or "cleverness".  The instrumental passages ramble unconvincingly on this opener, however.

"I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" is one of the group's better known songs, because it is concise and whimsical, and also because it was a hit single in Britain.  It is unclear to me whether the track is in keeping with the train of thought suggested by the album's title. I find it difficult to dislike, although I can see why others might be hostile to it. There is a healthy slice of English eccentricity, in a semi-surreal form, and the melodic patterns are sharply executed.

I would contend that "Firth of Fifth" is Genesis's finest recorded achievement, in part because the playing and the arrangement have real conviction and verve, and also because the individual talents of the musicians are permitted full expression. The exciting piano opening may not be as technically demanding as it seems, but it sounds wonderful! The later instrumental passages are exhilarating and dramatic, with special praise due to Steve Hackett's exquisite "slide" guitar solo. Just when it seems to have run its course, it goes somewhere else.  Another ingredient in the song's magnetism is the strident imagery in the lyrics.

"More Fool Me", with Phil Collins on lead vocals, is a ballad, but subjected to the Genesis 1973 treatment, it works very well, sandwiched in between more complicated pieces. It also points the way forward to some of the material recorded by the band in the post-Peter Gabriel era.

The next number, "The Battle Of Epping Forest" is an intriguing song from a lyrical standpoint, but the complex "prog" arrangement is incongruous. The keyboard sounds are nice, but in all honesty the track never truly "happens" for me.

As an instrumental, "After The Ordeal" serves its purpose in helping to break up the rich diet of more "epic" offerings with something more simple, but still pleasing to the ear. Like the whole of this album, it sounds fresh, uncluttered and organic.

The introduction to "The Cinema Show" is almost as glittering and diverting as the one to "Firth of Fifth". The twelve-string guitars underpin the early portion of the song most agreeably.  Another brilliant instrumental sequence follows, as energetic as it is elegant, with Collins in fine form.

It is customarily asserted that British progressive rock reached a tipping point during 1973, and that the genre's decline thus commenced. The music released around that time is assailed and derided as excessive and bloated, having crossed some invisible line. Selling England By The Pound to some degree bucks that trend, as the music is relatively restrained. Genesis still appeared to be flourishing, radiating ideas and creativity, although of course the harmonious state of affairs would not last for long.

The record does not necessarily scream "classic!", but it contains some thoughtful songs and much accomplished playing. Saying that parts of it have not "aged well" may be more a negative reflection of our times than of 1973's musical landscape.  It is a very listenable album, if one approaches it with an open and receptive mind.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Fifth Dimension - The Byrds - album review

I recently listened to Fifth Dimension, the third album by The Byrds, released in 1966. When the Byrds back catalogue was remastered and re-issued back in the 1990s, I remember thinking that this album was very patchy.  Would the passage of time have altered my opinion of it?

Whether or not Fifth Dimension is the first proper psychedelic album is neither here nor there. For several reasons, it has a different feel to the two Byrds records which had preceded it. The warmth of the folk ambience has gone, to be replaced by something more brittle and disjointed. There is no lack of ideas per se, but musical inspiration and substantial songcraft are in short supply.

The absence of Gene Clark from the majority of the album is keenly felt. The emotional depth of his songwriting, not to mention the authority and personality contained in his vocals. This, together with the decision not to include Bob Dylan covers, left the band's resources exposed. The creative onus was therefore largely on Jim/Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, Chris Hillman having yet to emerge as a songwriting force. The philosophical raw material was certainly present, but the musical content did not match up to it.

Many reviews of this album describe it as "uneven".  I don't fully share this assessment. If anything, it is flat and uninspired rather than uneven.  In purely melodic terms, some of the songs sound like they could have been rejected for inclusion on the first two albums (the "title" track, perhaps, and "John Riley").

For all these misgivings, the vocal harmonies and the chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar are always a joy to behold, even if these ingredients are less pervasive here.  The songs explore a wide range of interesting and often challenging subject matter. Ambitious, if not thematically consistent.

A track such as "Mr Spaceman", though somewhat lightweight, comes as light relief. It reflects McGuinn's fascination in areas such as space, science-fiction and aviation. Stylistically it illustrates the band's growing interest in country music, a direction which would continue to burgeon.

The two most overtly "psychedelic" numbers are "I See You" and "What's Happening". The former in particular presages the kind of material which would characterize "Younger Than Yesterday" the following year. "What's Happening" is quintessential Crosby, and it works well here, as it doesn't draw undue attention to itself.

Arguably the centerpiece of the set is "Eight Miles High".  However revolutionary it may have seemed in the mid-60s, today it feels less markedly awe-inspiring. As with other pieces, it feels like in trying desperately hard to be "cool", the Byrds risk sounding uncommitted, anaemic and detached.

"Hey Joe" is energetic, but ultimately must be seen as filler.  The same tags apply to the instrumental item "Captain Soul". "John Riley" is very crisply performed and pretty to the ears, and the strings are judiciously used, but it's nothing out of the ordinary.

2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song) adds some novelty as a closer. I like the guitar riff, too.

To the uninitiated, Fifth Dimension might sound like a compilation of out-takes, curiosities and left-overs. It is an album which is more important "culturally" than its musical and artistic substance truly merits. An experimental pivot between two periods in the development of The Byrds.  They are to be praised for expanding their horizons, but the results are mixed. Few would have guessed that the next two albums to be recorded by the band would be their best.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Pink Moon - Nick Drake - album review

Nick Drake's final studio album, Pink Moon, released in 1972, has a character all of its own. The terse or brief song titles, and the fact that this was the singer-songwriter's last record, have led people to jump to certain conclusions.

The songs have sparse and stripped down arrangements, consisting mostly of the voice accompanied by acoustic guitar. There is none of the decorative instrumentation or trimmings present on Nick's two previous records, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter.

It is true that some of the content of Pink Moon is bleak, but it is not unremittingly so, and the general perception of the LP's mood is no doubt compounded by the hypnotic and metronomic nature of a few of the tracks - "Place To Be" springs to mind in this regard. In a few cases the tempo and rhythms suit the atmosphere, but elsewhere things are less straightforward.

Some of the numbers, such as "Road", have a more pronounced "folk" feel to them, and the sparer sound allows Nick's acoustic guitar technique to show through.  I suspect that the word "ascetic" is used with some regularity when Pink Moon is discussed.The melodies are understated and uncomplicated, and the vocal delivery sometimes indistinct, as if the offerings are not really meant for public consumption.

For me the outstanding track is "Things Behind The Sun", which carries the odd echo of Five Leaves Left, in its greater complexity. It is also longer than the other compositions here. "Parasite" is quite unusual for the Drake catalogue, in the relative "crudeness" of its imagery.

Melancholy is the word so regularly, and often blithely, associated with Nick Drake's work. In the confines of Pink Moon, "melancholy", when understood in a broader sense, assumes its own identity, as if it is a realm in itself, existing in parallel with the real world. Without adopting a stereotyped view of Drake-songs, one can see a poetic beauty about this "other" world. People who have been there will doubtless identify with some of the sentiments expressed, even if they are done so cryptically.  This, together with the musical approach, helps to give the album an acute, occasionally unsettling, intimacy.

Pink Moon lacks the conventional "entertainment" value of Nick's other work. It is much more direct, but no less affecting.