Friday, July 25, 2014

Phish: Fuego Album Review

Written by: Frank DeVita

Date: July 25th, 2014

Depending on who you ask, Phish is legendary, infamous, or just a waste of time. Phish are peers of iconic bands like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors and Dave Matthews Band, and surfacing out of the 90s jam band music scene leading a revival of styles and improvisation dormant since the heyday of acts like Cream, Santana and the Grateful Dead. Naysayers cite the band’s live extended jams and oddly melodic movements as aimless exploratory noodling, and their sometimes self referential or fantastical lyrics as senseless, forced rhymes. Moreover, Phish’s permanent association with the subculture they inherited from the Grateful Dead fuels the flamethrowers of those that have written the band off for non-musical reasons.

The fact is that for 30 years, Phish has been playing and recording music that fuses classic rock, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, soul, Americana, bluegrass and classical music. Their dynamic concerts and intense touring keep their “phans” loyal, some returning over 50 shows. Phish’s has released 12 studio albums, and their most recent is June 24th’s “Fuego.” The album spans 10 songs, featuring 3 to 9 minute compositions and showcasing the kind of Phish never before heard on record.

Phish chose the realist psychedelia of Spanish painter Paco Pomet to represent Fuego visually. The blending of real subjects and unreal environments in the art aligns with the album’s effort to capture Phish’s live sound on record. In fact, Phish created Fuego by searching for musical ideas in their massive catalog of live and practice recordings, looking for starting material in their own improvisations. The band is touring in support of Fuego and celebrated it’s release with an extended set on The Late Show with David Letterman, which is available to stream online.

Fuego’s first and title track was cut mostly live in October 2013, reportedly during a sound check preceding the album’s live debut on Halloween in Atlantic City, NJ (then, it was tentatively titled “Wingsuit”). At 9 minutes,”Fuego” asserts Phish’s live prowess and unique style. Progressive rock tinged funk leads to a swift exploratory instrumental and back again before pianist Page McConnell carries the outro. “The Line” is another unique sounding tune whose wobbly choruses tells the story of college basketball player Darius Washington Jr.’s experience missing free throws that would change his life forever, and it’s chorus resonates with the the uncertainty commonly felt about the future.

The jam in “Devotion to a Dream” is a great example of classic rock Phish and the experience of their tight rock sensibility in a live setting. The rest of the track exudes Trey Anastasio’s pop rocking side usually reserved for his solo efforts. Penned by pianist/keyboardist Page McConnell, “Halfway to the Moon” is introspective lyrically, and it’s eerie, forthright piano groove creates a stark contrast against the previous two tracks. “Winterqueen” has a fantastical theme, alluding to troubled royals in what reads as a Narnia-like world, and is accompanied by a calm and soothing arpeggiated melody.

Tight instrumentation, ingenious lyrical wordplay and clever vocal treatments make the psychedelia-infused “Sing Monica” a standout track. It’s guitar solo is the stuff of legends, and the tune has transformed to a 60s rock homage from it’s debut arrangement on upright bass, (standing) cocktail drumset, Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitar. “555″ was written by bassist and sneaker connoisseur Mike Gordon, and the minor groove delivers on all fronts musically. The mix accentuates the song’s call and response vocals, well placed horns and choir like backing vocals add depth, and stellar takes from McConnell and Anastasio on organ and wah-wah’d guitar respectively top off a wholly satisfying experience.

“Waiting All Night” was released as the album’s first single and features instrumental motifs both new for Phish and (until now) reserved for the live setting. Drummer John Fishman’s prominent jazzy drum work fills much of the space, locking in with Gordon’s arpeggios and “bass bombs” (courtesy of his Meatball and Taurus effects pedals), Anastasio’s modulated guitar and McConnell’s high register organ sounds. “Wombat” embodies the fun, never-too-serious attitude Phish has embraced throughout their career. The funky tune’s lyrics reference the 1970s TV show “Fish,” the band’s own folklore and choice observations about wombats. Horns and choir vocals return here as well. “Wingsuit” bears the album’s debut title, and is a fitting closing to the album. Aphoristic lyrics allude to change, freedom and taking new beginnings head on. The album ends with the mellow, modulated feel that carries through a handful of tracks on the album and, of course, a huge soulful guitar solo. Subtle lead out electronic sounds accentuate the touch of former Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel producer Bob Ezrin.

As an album, “Fuego” shows Phish’s drive to innovate and abandon their comfort zone. It stands in stark musical contrast to the band’s previous albums and always variable live performances but blends their general concepts, illustrating the ingenuity of the jam band that defined the genre. Despite what reputation Phish gets among it’s loving fans or steadfast opponents, one thing is clear: Phish is an American band to the core. They blend styles, write, and perform live with unbridled optimism, as if there is no limit to their capabilities. Live and on record, they strive to draw the listener to an experience of creatively filled, dynamic musical space. Phish have never been preoccupied with record deals, cash advances, radio play or critical acclaim and they are certainly not about to start. They’ll continue to deliver soulful, creative, and interesting music under the radar as long as they can, and Fuego is proof of that concept.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mastodon Bashes Some Life Into Pop

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 18th, 2014

What Mastodon seems to be attempting on “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” which dropped this past June, is a consecration of the marriage between the commercially viable and the head-bangingly heavy, between the “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and the aggressive affront of the double-bass drum and the crunchy, long-sustaining guitar lick, between the often scoffed at pop-song structure – verse, chorus, verse, bridge, etc. – and the seemingly interminable riff against intricate, modal, sometimes offensive harmonies; an admirable ambition for a band to have, and if these Atlanta boys were musicians of a lower caliber they would have certainly botched such an ambition.

The opening track, “Tread Lightly,” ironically enough, stampedes its way across the album’s first five minutes. The song begins with what sounds like a sitar riff played on guitar – whose melody recalls parts of Jimmy Page’s “White Summer” – and then, about 30 seconds in, comes an almost cosmic crash that sets “Once More ‘Round the Sun” into motion with relentless force; a force that does not let up until the last seconds of the album. What I think is so striking here and elsewhere about Mastodon’s new record is how they manage to fit the riotous momentum of metal comfortably within the pop music form.

Take, for instance, the song “High Road,” whose opening riff and verse screams out a debt to the Melvins’ “Hooch” but then goes into a chorus you’d hear on a Foo Fighters record, with soaring vocals, spot-on harmonies and all: “You take the high road down/I take the road below you.” “High Road” never strays far from the verse-chorus-verse structure; the exception being an instrumental bridge section that leads directly into dueling guitar solos – Mastodon is after all a progressive metal band. But I don’t point out Mastodon’s adherence to a traditional music form as a criticism. What I think they’ve accomplished on “High Road” and many other songs on this new record is giving new life to an old form. Much in the way The White Stripes revitalized the 12-bar blues in “Ball and Biscuit,” Mastodon has given new life to the otherwise dead form of popular music.

Despite adopting a mainstream approach to writing music, Mastodon never fails to thrash their listeners with fast rolling drum fills, chunky palm-muted guitars and lyrics that could have been taken out of an ancient epic; from “Chimes At Midnight”: “I saw the mountain crumble down/I saw colossus in flames/I heard the ocean draining/Nothing that I could ever tame.” And it’s through this relatively new accessibility, which really came to a head on their album “The Hunter,” that Mastodon honors their heavy metal antecedents.

Friday, July 11, 2014

You May Not Have Known: Musician’s Dystonia

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 11th, 2014

Dystonia may not be a term you’ve come across before, but it’s the third most common movement disorder, next to essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease; and about 300,000 people in North American suffer from one form of dystonia or another. According to a 2012 fact-sheet from the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder. Improper signaling in the brain causes the muscles to contract and twist involuntarily. These muscle spasms may force areas of the body into awkward positions or movements. Dystonia may interfere with daily activities, and some forms of dystonia may be painful.”

But the term Dystonia is sort of a catchall, used to classify a whole slew of very specific movement disorders that can affect numerous parts of the body. There’s, for example, spasmodic (or laryngeal) dystonia, which affects muscles associated with the vocal cords, making the simple task of speaking (not to mention singing) increasingly difficult; there’s blepharospasm, which causes the eyelids to either blink uncontrollably or remain shut – imagine driving with such a condition; and there’s generalized dystonia, which causes cramps and contortions in a number of body parts at once making even the most basic movements troublesome. Each form of this neurological disorder can be debilitating in its own way, but what I want to focus on here is task-specific focal dystonia, or, colloquially, musician’s dystonia.

Task-specific focal dystonia is not necessarily specific to musicians, per se – the word focal denotes dystonia affecting a single, isolated part of the body and task-specific means that the dystonia is related to the completion of a particular task or type of movement. But because musicians naturally move a particular body part in a very repetitive manner, they are generally associated with this form of dystonia.

At the onset of musician’s dystonia, a player may wrongly perceive his or her inability to perform what would otherwise be instinctive on an instrument as the result of bad technique or inadequate practice. The types of musician most associated with musician’s dystonia are pianists, guitarists and brass players. Pianists and guitarists generally suffer from dystonia in the hand, which, according to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “is characterized by involuntary, abnormal movements in the hands and/or fingers…. Symptoms of hand dystonia may include subtle loss of control in fast passages, lack of precision, curling of the fingers, fingers ‘sticking’ to keys, involuntary flexion of the thumb in strings, and tremors.” While brass players are generally affected by embouchure dystonia, which “targets muscles in the mouth, face, jaw, and tongue,” and includes “air leaks at the corner of the mouth, sometimes accompanied by a tremor, and involuntary contractions of the muscles in the face.”

What causes musician’s dystonia, or any other type of dystonia for that matter, is still unknown. Genetics, past physical trauma, exposure to certain types of medication, and other neurological conditions, it is believed, all may have something to do with the onset of dystonia, but the actual biochemical processes generating these symptoms remain a mystery. And while there is no known cure, dystonia may be treated in a number of ways that are usually tailored to the needs of each individual case. A neurologist may treat dystonia with anything from surgery and Botox injections to daily relaxation and breathing techniques.

I asked Beau Monde’s own Lou Bottone to answer a few questions about his own struggle with focal dystonia. Here’s what he had to say:

How and when did you discover that you had focal dystonia?

I noticed the onset of dystonia around the time I turned 21 years old. While in college, I was working in a cover band playing three to four nights a week. I can remember being at a gig, in the middle of playing the solo for Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” and my fingers completely tripping over themselves. I immediately knew something was wrong.

Not being able to physically play the instrument you spent years learning and loving must have taken its toll psychologically. Can you describe how focal dystonia affected your psyche as a musician?

For most musicians their instrument is an extension of themselves. I had been playing guitar since I was 11 years old, it was my identity. It took a huge psychological toll on me. I was obsessed with finding a cure although I knew there was none. Focal Dystonia is a death sentence for a musician.

How did you go about treating it?

Before being properly diagnosed I sought numerous alternative treatments. I tried everything from massage therapy to acupuncture and physical therapy to chiropractic care. I even entertained hypnotism. After almost three years of searching for an answer I met with an orthopedist who recommended a neurologist conduct an EMG. The test results were negative, however it was suspect of dystonia and I was referred to see a specialist at Columbia Presbyterian in NYC. Once my diagnosis was confirmed the methods used for treatment were splint immobilization and Botox injections. Unfortunately for me, these treatments yielded no results.

What is the state of your focal dystonia today? Have you figured out a way to live with it?

My dystonia seems to have plateaued. It does not seem to be getting any worse, but it is definitely not getting any better. I have tried to retrain the brain using sensory tricks such as finger splints and latex gloves, but I find as I get older I have less time to devote to the instrument. I have learned to accept my dystonia and am glad I can still be involved with music in some capacity.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hyponomics: The Klon Centaur

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 3rd, 2014

The Klon Centaur, at first glance, seems an unassuming overdrive pedal. In its first incarnation, the Centaur came simply, and rather unattractively, in a matte gold casing with burgundy knobs for gain, treble and output; the only frill being an unadorned illustration of the mythological half-man, half-horse creature, after which the pedal’s named, wielding what looks like a sword or cudgel right below the gain and treble knobs. For such a minimalist aesthetic (compared to, say, anything Electro-Harmonix puts out), no other overdrive, or for that matter any other effects-pedal, inspires such contentious debate or even downright vitriol on music blogs, guitar forums, and the comment section of product reviews on YouTube than the Klon Centaur.

The reason for all the cyber animosity is that the Centaur, which has been out of production for years, is just so damn pricey – a used original (or, if you’ve already doled out the cash, a certified pre-owned original, hand-built by Bill Finnegan himself’) will cost you upwards of two-thousand dollars. As you may have already gleaned, the most frequent complaint about the Centaur by bloggers, commenters, trolls, etc., is that you’re not so much paying a couple grand for the astounding tonal quality – the warm, robust, tube-like breakup it’s purported to deliver – but the hype that for whatever reason has developed like ectoplasm around the fabled overdrive.

At some point in the late 80s, early 90s, Bill Finnegan conceived of a guitar effect that would emulate at lower volumes the organic distortion of a turned-up tube amplifier. One could get their hands on an Ibanez Tube Screamer at the time, but Finnegan, in an interview with West Warren from Premier Guitar Magazine, thought they “compressed the transient response of the original signal a lot, had a midrange character I didn’t like, and subtracted a noticeable amount of bass response from the signal as well.” What Bill was after was an overdrive that accentuated the natural characteristics of a quality amplifier, not something that filtered them. From the same interview: “[Finnegan] really wanted… a big, open sound, with a hint of tube clipping-a sound that would make you unaware a pedal was involved.”

For about four years thereafter, Finnegan, with the aid and technical expertise of MIT graduate Fred Fenning, slaved away on the design of the Centaur’s audio circuit, which Bill claims is a bit more involved than the circuitry of your traditional overdrive pedal. Moreover, the circuit they were devising made use of germanium diodes (as opposed to the silicon diodes that are generally found under the hood of an overdrive) that he was able to purchase on the cheap from a distributor who had a sizeable overstock. To Finnegan’s ears, the inclusion of these diodes in the circuit produced “a very natural-sounding distortion in terms of the harmonic response. It’s not harsh, but it also doesn’t round off the highs excessively. It doesn’t compress the signal as much as many germanium diodes seem to, but on the other hand it provides a little bit of what-to me-is exactly the right kind of compression.”

Despite an impressively acute concern for detail and embodying an admirable DIY ethos, Finnegan’s venture proved all too quixotic, never destined to last very long. Because of the exorbitant price of real estate in and around Boston, where Finnegan lived and worked, he was never able to expand production of the Centaur. For 15 years, about 8,000 Klon Centaurs were hand-built by Finnegan “on a cheap folding card table in a succession of small apartments,” using, exclusively, custom-made parts, which jacked up the aggregate production cost to “seven to eight times that of a pedal built with off-the-shelf parts” and, for an overdrive pedal whose retail value was only around $329, did not lend itself to hefty returns, much to Finnegan’s dismay. As it’s been shown here and elsewhere, time and time again, idealists tend to make lamentable businessmen. In the mid 2000s, Bill Finnegan stopped building the Klon Centaur.

During its modest lifespan, a number of marquee-names in the guitar world took a liking to the Centaur’s crafted tonal personality. A simple Google search will give you a disparate list of guitar greats who’ve been enamored by Bill Finnegan’s progeny: Jeff Beck and John Mayer and James Hetfield and Joe Perry and why don’t you just go ahead and pick a name out of the hat. In a piece Pedal Board Spiel, Nels Cline of Wilco writes, “Why the Klon Centaur?… It’s an amp in a box. No more worries in the world of amp du jour about overdrive tone. It will always be OK. The Centaur will take care of it. Consumers: It’s worth the wait to get one. I’ve had this thing for years now. What did I ever do without it?” With this kind of celebrity attention, it’s no wonder the price of an authentic Klon Centaur – there’s a whole market of Klon “Klones” – has skyrocketed in recent years.

Even Bill Finnegan seemed baffled by the hype-economics of the Centaur. In an effort to reproduce the greatly sought-after distortion of his original overdrive, Finnegan manufactured a short run of the KTR overdrive, which was based the original audio circuit he and Fred Fenning had developed but produced in a much more cost-efficient manner. Right below the footswitch, the KTR carries Finnegan’s somewhat wry inscription: “Kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.”

There are overdrive pedals on the market now that are purported to rival the Klon Centaur sonically. Some examples being the Soul Food by Electro-Harmonix, which to my ears sounds a bit chintzy but not a bad alternative for those with thin wallets (a demographic that constitutes most of the music-making population), and the Kalamazoo by Lovepedal, which frankly I couldn’t tell apart from the Centaur, but that’s just me, and costs a cool $200. But the question these gear-geeks forget to ask on whatever guitar blog, forum, or product review: Is all this obsessiveness with tone manipulation and gear hording really so necessary? I think someone like, say, Steve Albini would agree with me ­– largely because I’ve heard him make a similar point – if I said that great music can be made on even the crudest equipment. And just because you bought the perfect distortion tone doesn’t mean your music isn’t complete shit. And so unless you’re Nels Cline, an interesting guitarist in his own right, I recommend that you don’t buy the hype.