It seems like the last year has seem loads of new releases from classic artists in the so-called ‘prog rock’ arena – the dreary Asia recording ‘Omega’, the over-produced ‘Emotion and Commotion’ from Jeff Beck, and more recently the Yes recording ‘Fly From Here’. At the same time, writing about Bill Bruford’s autobiography and discovering King Crimson’s ‘Absent Lovers recording has brought the music of that Crimson era to the fore in my mind. So it was with marked enthusiasm – yet some reserve – that I checked out the new recording from three legends of rock: Tony Levin, David Torn and Allan White.
I had gotten a very positive vibe from the intro video for the recording – there was just SOMETHING I heard in the music … a sort of joyous abandon, a fearlessness that told me to expect great things. Well, now I have had a few days to listen to the final product, so let’s take a look at how it ended up!
Summary: Let me get this right out in the open: whereas Asia’s recording was a pathetic nostalgia play and the latest Yes record was borne out of a 30-year old abandoned track, Levin-Torn-White is completely rooted in 2011. There is a solid air or modernity to it that is more often found on the recordings of jazz and fusion elders than those of rock legends. From the very start the record says “it is 2011, this is OUR music … DEAL WITH IT”!
It is that attitude – one shared by all three artists and producer Scott Schorr – that makes this a wholly successful outing. Is it perfect? Of course not! But if you are a fan of improvised music I challenge you to give this a fair listen and NOT fall in love.
The album opens with a challenge – it is atmospheric to the point of my younger son calling it ‘a bit scary’, but at the same time it brings in all of the elements you will hear throughout: strong rhythmic push, syncopated play between the musicians, a focus on thematic development through harmonic structure and the lack of a clear set of roles or power structure.
I have to admit to getting a bit concerned as the second song ‘Ultra Mullet’ began – while I loved the incredible stereo separation of the guitar and bass sections of Levin’s Chapman Stick, the figure he was playing was very much out of the sonic realm of early 80’s King Crimson. But then suddenly the song launched into something entirely modern and fierce, and I realized – the opening figure was ‘context’ that simply informed and set up the rest of the song.
That is an important distinction – just as Pat Metheny’s ‘The Way Up’ contains elements, quotes and stylistic references to the 30 years of compositions before it, it is not beholden to them. They are waypoints that inform development – contextual references. Everyone is a product of their history, and for musicians such as Levin, Torn and White to NOT include every aspect of where they have traveled musically would have resulted in a dishonest recording that would have been either bland or show-boaty and banal.
This recording is neither bland nor banal. Far from it, from beginning to end there are polyrhythms that keep the pulse going but challenge the listener to follow the groove; atmospheric elements that weave a tapestry around the pounding bass and driving drums; and colorful cymbal and bass interplay that produces fireworks behind the scenes.
At times I was reminded of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti from Mils Davis’ album of the same name. In that recording there is a lead element, but it is there to support all of the action happening in the rhythm section instead of the other way around. Here we have Levin playing what my brain terms ‘rhythmolodics’ – sort of harmolodic structures but playing out against varied rhythms instead of against a melody.
I read a preview where Levin called David Torn not just the perfect guitarist for this project but the ‘only’ possible person. I really didn’t know what to think about that, as I have heard Levin in excellent combinations with a variety of guitarists, some melodicists, some shredders and some atmospherists. But at the same time, Torn was awesome on Bruford Levin Upper Extremities – so I was thrilled when I listened to the album again and again and truly understood the depth and power he lent to the proceedings. He brought it all – melodics, some shredding and atmospherics – sometimes all within a single song!
Similarly, my admittedly limited view of Alan White has always been ‘that guy who replaced Bruford in Yes around the time I stopped listening to Yes’. But that has never been a reflection upon White, it simply meant I never knew much other than he was a very talented drummer. After almost 40 years with Yes and limited work outside, I had no idea what to expect. But as with Torn, White fits perfectly into the proceedings because this isn’t simply Tony Levin with a couple of guys – this is a true trio effort, with each musician bringing considerable weight and impact to the proceedings.
The unseen hand on a recording is the studio – producer, engineer, and so on. On the liner notes the musicians all thank Scott Schorr for helping them realize their ideas, who was not only the producer but is also listed as adding some keyboards to the mix. The vision of the artists was very complex and layered, and it would have been entirely too easy for that vision to get lost in a clouded mess of mid-tone instruments powering over one-another. Yet as I mentioned before, the character of the sound was an important and engaging part of the proceedings. This sound quality is something I am mentioning more and more lately, as listening to first-run CDs from the mid-80’s compared to reworked re-releases has reminded me of how critical a factor it can play.
Another thing I liked about the album was the flow. I mentioned how it had an uncompromising beginning, and from there it proceeded into a series of songs that highlighted different thematic elements or rhythmic outlooks. Gradually textural and environmental overtones took center stage as the heavy rhythms drifted more to the background until returning dramatically for the final few tracks.
Levin-Torn-White is not for everyone. The audience for instrumental music is relatively small, and this music is stylistically uncompromising to the point that my wife simply couldn’t stand listening to it. My kids enjoyed it more than I thought they would (I’m wearing them down), liking the rhythms and the driving feel and the wild atmospheric textures over the Stick work. My older son remarked that it was pretty much rock without words, but in some ways like some of my out-there jazz fusion stuff. My younger son called it highly structured chaos. Both views show insights into elements of the music, as do terms like ‘instrumental prog rock’ and so on. Many people immediately associate instrumental improvisation with jazz, but this really is much more of a blistering rock album.
But aside from trying to assign genre labels, the most fitting label is ‘collaboration’. This recording is about three great musicians working together to share a vision of music with each other and with their audience. To that end they have constructed a cohesive set of statements borne out of rhythm and harmony and a passion atmosphere that is instantly communicative yet reveals more with each listen. This is a glorious celebration of music and one of my favorite recordings of 2011! Now we can only hope they decide to come on tour … and play close to my area!
Choice Track (and why): “Cheese It, The Corpse” – Choosing this song was surprisingly easy. There are a lot of great songs, but this song took me immediately to a certain time and place. From the opening figures I was reminded of the song Noonward Race by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It isn’t that the song is very much like the older Mahavishnu song, just that there was a certain adventurous spirit and some structural elements that were reminiscent. At once I was in the basement of my parents’ house listening to lousy tape copy from a radio station … but just as quickly I was yanked into the present day as the song kept shifting from theme to theme. It is a great song that can be distinct and individual and yet transport you back in time without ever becoming derivative.
You Might Love This If: If you are a fan of improvised music – rock, jazz, fusion, whatever – you will find something to like. If you are looking for a nostalgia trip, look elsewhere … this record is pure 2011!
Here is the promo video featuring ‘No Warning Lights’: