By Chris Anderson
Tributes And Astonishments
2016 continues to move along and, unfortunately the music world continues to lose some of its most beloved legends. While we were still mourning the sudden losses of Lemmy, David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, news came down the pike that Paul Kantner, founder of Jeffersons Airplane & Starship, passed away on the 28th of January. Kantner’s work with the Airplane was by far the most visionary of all the members of that band, and the all-star transitional albums he did between Airplane and Starship, such as Blows Against The Empire and Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun still stand as some of the best psychedelic records that San Francisco ever had to offer.
On the very same day, his fellow Jefferson Airplane co-founder, Signe Anderson, also sadly passed away. While her presence was only ever felt on the first Airplane album (after which she left the band to raise a family and was replaced by Grace Slick), she possessed a soaring voice whose harmonies defined the San Francisco Sound. Her version of “Chauffer Blues”, from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off will stand your hair on end.
Speaking of the San Francisco sound, we also lost Dan Hicks on the 6th of February. With the Charlatans, and soon after with his longtime band, Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks, he was responsible for infusing a certain old-timey, Victorian vibe into the sounds and styles of Haight-Ashbury. Just last month, I bought my first Hot Licks album, and it totally blew me away. I am looking forward to digging deeper into his work but am also sad that I will never get the chance to see him perform.
Just a couple of days before that came the passing of Maurice White, leader and founder of Earth Wind & Fire. Fusing pop, funk, jazz, and soul, as well as bosting one of the greatest horn sections ever assembled, Maurice White and EWF created the sound of the seventies with a string of hits that are still among the most ubiquitous. He also was one of the only popular musicians to regularly play the kalimba, which is just about the coolest thing ever.
Lastly, on a far more tragic note, a car accident on the 13th of February, in Sweden, claimed the lives of the entirety of the up-and-coming British indie band, Viola Beach. While they had only released a couple of singles so far, their star was quickly on the rise and they were set to give a potentially career-defining performance at the SXSW festival, in Austin TX. My heart hurts for all the losses this year, but this one hit especially hard.
The music world lost some major players in 2015, but they were few and far between. The year-end tribute lists were not as long as they often are. This year has been quite the opposite of that and, frankly, this trend needs to end. RIP to all the above.
Meanwhile, however, there has been a fair bit of great new music trickling out this year. One of the more impressive is the latest from Dream Theater, who offers up their thirteenth studio album, The Astonishing, a double-album rock opera that finds the prog superstars pushing their craft further than it’s ever been taken. A futuristic tale about a dystopian America, the story follows the efforts of the rebellious Ravenskill militia to overthrow the tyrannical Great Northern Empire Of The Americas using the power of music. In a way, the general theme of the story is somewhat reminiscent of “2112” by Rush, long known to be idols of the Dream Theater guys. This, however, takes the idea to a much higher level, turning it from a simple concept piece to a full-blown musical. The lyrics, written by guitarist John Petrucci and delivered by the amazing James LaBrie, almost completely consists of dialogue by the various characters in the story and, honestly, despite his astounding efforts, would probably be better sorted had they taken the extra step and brought in a cast to deliver those lines. Otherwise, it often gets a bit confusing if you don’t have the lyric book in front of you (and, honestly, even if you do). That said, the fact that LaBrie is able to tackle all these different roles at once, and inject different personalities into those roles, is just evidence of his brilliance as a singer. Being that much of the text is dialogue, often in soliloquy, there is heavy reliance on slow songs, as is often the case in a musical. Fortunately, this is offset by some amazing instrumental sections, including the opening “Dystopian Overture”, which is one of the most impressive slices of prog ever committed to record.
This is an album that, probably more than any other in their catalogue, is really dividing fans. There are legions of fans that have been skeptical of everything the band’s done since drummer Mike Portnoy’s exit in 2010, and they are not likely to slow their roll after this dense album. There are also those prog-snob purists that can’t handle the idea of a Dream Theater album with 34 short songs, as opposed as one with a few 20-minute epics, and no matter now potent the short songs are, they won’t ever be pleased. And then there are the gripes about all the slow songs. At the same time, there are the fans for whom this band can do no wrong. Obviously they love this, and they love to antagonize all the skeptics. And then there are the fans, such as myself, that may not fully “get it” but can’t help but applaud the band’s vision. It will certainly take many more passes through this album for it to fully set in but there is no denying that this is a massive stroke of genius and Petrucci (as well as keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who co-wrote the music, as well as the rest of the band) should be extremely proud of themselves. Astonishing, indeed.