Sunday, 10 June 2012

From ARZ to XYZ

ARZ are a progressive rock duo from Portland, Oregon, consisting of Merrill Hale on drums and Steve Adams on everything else (vocals, guitars, bass, keys), and they kindly sent me a copy of their new album, Turn of the Tide, released last November on Unicorn Digital (home to Mystery and other bands).

While Steve and Merrill met in a Yes tribute band, for me the first half of the album evokes Signals-era Rush more, both in its music and in its intelligent lyrics. Other influences are apparent as the album progresses. The bombast of "Hope and Glory", for example, is more in the vein of ELP, and a work-out for Hale on drums.

But, like Mars Hollow, another band I've championed, what makes ARZ worth trying is that they are more than the sum of their influences. They have their own style and Turn of the Tide successfully combines toe-tapping, hummable melodies with interesting arrangements and strong playing, making the longer pieces on the album still fly by. If I have a complaint, it is that the band could do with a more distinctive sound palette.

Speaking of Rush, just out is XYZ—A Tribute to Rush, a 5-song EP of Rush covers from Dave Kerzner's Sonic Elements project. As a keyboardist, Kerzner has worked with the likes of Kevin Gilbert, Steven Wilson and Simon Collins, but he is also the founder of music software company Sonic Reality. The gimmick behind XYZ is that it uses a set of drum tracks recorded by Neil Peart and available through Sonic Reality (Vol. 2 The Grooves sample library). Kerzner has then assembled various guest stars to record these covers of "Tom Sawyer", "Red Barchetta", "YYZ" and "Limelight" around Peart's playing.

For Yes fans, the interest is in Billy Sherwood, who appears on every track: bass on "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight", additional bass on "Red Barchetta", bass and guitar on "YYZ" and bonus track "Trifecta" (more on that below). Other guests include Porcupine Tree's John Wesley on "Tom Sawyer" (vocals, guitar) and "Limelight" (guitar), and Rik Emmett (vocals, guitar) on "Red Barchetta" (vocals, guitar).

These are great songs, well played, making for a fun EP. The interest in a covers project is often in how it relates to the original recordings. Here, Kerzner, Sherwood et al. stick very closely to the source material. Kerzner's keyboard work at the beginning and end of some of the tracks is where he deviates most from the original versions. I, as I'm sure many of you reading this, are very familiar with the originals, so even small differences stand out and provide interest, but I would have liked more variation.

Perhaps that conservatism in the arrangements is a necessary result of using Peart's drum tracks. Perhaps as a counterpoint to that, there is an extra song on the EP, "Trifecta". This takes the drum track for "YYZ", but Kerzner and Sherwood have recorded a new composition around it. (A second original piece, "Times Gone", built around the "Tom Sawyer" drum track, was also available for those who pre-ordered, but I missed that opportunity.)

As an experiment, "Trifecta" is interesting, but I didn't find it wholly successful. The piece has some OK riffs, but I don't feel it hangs together in its own right. The ghost of "YYZ" hangs over the piece, dictating the overall flow.

Sonic Elements have plenty more in the pipeline, much with Sherwood, including both covers and more original material. The covers include Yes songs, but the next planned release is another EP, It—A Tribute to Genesis & Peter Gabriel.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Two poll results

Part II of the poll of albums with 3+ Yesmen covered the 1980s and '90s, not perhaps the most impressive period for the multi-Yesman album compared to the likes of Fish Out of Water and The Six Wives of Henry VIII in the 1970s, but there were 102 votes and these are the result:

1. Symphonic Music of Yes (w/ Anderson, Bruford, Howe): 31 votes
2. The Buggles: Adventures in Modern Recording (w/ Horn, Downes, Squire): 18 votes
3. Steve Howe: Portraits of Bob Dylan (w/ Anderson, Downes): 14 votes
4. Tales from Yesterday (w/ Banks, Howe, Moraz, Sherwood): 10 votes
5. Esquire: Esquire (w/ Squire, White, Horn): 8 votes
6. Rick Wakeman: The Classical Connection II (w/ Squire, Bruford, Howe): 7 votes
7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Welcome to the Pleasuredome (w/ Horn, Howe, Rabin): 6 votes
8. Peter Banks: Can I Play You Something? (w/ Squire, Bruford): 3 votes
9= Encores, Legends and Paradox, A Tribute to the Music of ELP (w/ Banks, Downes, Khoroshev): 2 votes
9= Clive Nolan & Oliver Wakeman: Jabberwocky (w/ R Wakeman, Banks): 2 votes
11. Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Liverpool (w/ Horn, Howe, Rabin): 1 vote

The winner, Symphonic Music of Yes, is a bit of an oddity, often overlooked. The core band performing with orchestra and choir were Howe, Bruford and bassist Tim Harries (from Bruford's Earthworks), with Anderson guesting on two tracks, and ABWH additional keyboardist Julian Colbeck guesting on another, but the key figure behind the project was arranger/keyboardist Dee (then David) Palmer. Palmer is best known as a former member of Jethro Tull and did an orchestral album of Tull music in 1986 with various Tull members. She followed this with an orchestral Genesis album in 1987 and one for Pink Floyd, before Symphonic Music of Yes in 1993. Further albums for Queen and The Beatles followed.

I was surprised by its win given it doesn't seem like a particularly well regarded project. Symphonic Music of Yes is sometimes best remembered for a promotional appearance on US TV by Howe and Bruford in which they performed "Roundabout" with Howe, ill advisedly, singing lead vocals.

Second placed Adventures in Modern Recording has received new found attention as the bonus tracks on the latest re-release include a two-part "We Can Fly from Here" and a piece that became "Life on a Film Set" on Fly from Here, as well as a regular album track "I am a Camera", The Buggles' version of "Into the Lens".

The final poll, for the period from 2000 onwards, is now on the main page.  Every one of the eligible albums involves Billy Sherwood, nearly all in the leading role. Sherwood has become the nexus for projects with multiple Yesmen, and Cleopatra Records is often the label involved. As well, Kaye is on all but one of these (Conspiracy) and White is on all but one (Raised in Captivity), illustrating how both work regularly with Sherwood. In contrast, none of these projects involves Anderson, Moraz, Khoroshev or any of the more recent Yesmen.

Once part III has run its course, there will be a final poll with the first and second place from each part, plus any new releases. (There are several multi-Yesmen albums in the pipeline: Nektar's Spoonful of Time is expected to feature Howe, Wakeman and Downes, while Sherwood's Prog Collective and his Supertramp tribute both include Kaye, Squire, Wakeman and Banks, and at least one also has Downes.)

We then had another poll about the possibility of Yes - The Musical! This was after Squire mentioned the possibility of Yes doing a project on Broadway, although a second interview has since made clear that he means some sort of residency rather than a musical production. Still, here are the poll answers (120 votes):

No, oh my god, no, no...: 51 votes (43%)
Yes: it should be a science fiction story based on Roger Dean's artwork: 41 votes (34%)
Yes: it should be about the history of the band: 22 votes (18%)
Other: 4 votes (3%)
Yes: it should be a fictional story about regular people in the 1970s/80s: 2 votes (2%)

The 4 'other' votes included 2 suggesting the residency idea that we now know Squire means, 1 opposing the whole idea, and another suggesting the creators of South Park produce it - clearly a great idea. So, that comes out as a narrow majority in favour of the idea, most of whom then favour something sci-fi-y connected to Roger Dean's artwork.