Early 21st Century Masters

By now it’s become axiomatic that rock ’n rollers seldom age well. Rock music was, after all, forged in the newly emergent youth culture of the 1950s and it was young people who were its most ardent practitioners. But what was considered still a new art form as late as 1970 has by now become well established. And like any art form, rock music has developed its ‘classics’ as well as past and present masters, the same as Rembrandt is a past master of painting and Pablo Neruda a past master of poetry. Sadly, in the past few years we’ve seen a steady attrition as more and more of these masters pass off the scene. Rest in peace Alvin Lee, Chris Squire, Gary Moore, Richard Wright… I could go on but it breaks my heart to see the musical heroes whose work has brought me so much comfort and joy leaving us.

‘Fragile’ by Yes, an undisputed classic of Prog Rock, sadly was seldom equalled by the band.

For bands that hail from what is now considered the ‘classic rock’ period, creating new work that’s truly original—while still true to form—represents a special achievement. When classic groups release an album after a long silence, fans often wince in anticipation of music that’s too often a pale shadow of their glory days. Although I remain a huge fan of the band, one example is Yes, whose recent works have never been able to recapture the spark of sheer originality and cohesiveness evident on classic works such as The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. Though there are standout tracks on many subsequent albums, the band never recaptured this totality of perfection in their music.

Too often, it seems, popular musicians as they age become worse composers while at the same time becoming far better musicians. In part, of course, they’re up against the constraints of their art form—despite its reputation as a kind of musical free-for-all, rock music actually exists within a very narrow set of options expected by listeners. An exception might be Prog Rock, although even here, current Prog rockers are up against the past masters’ works and fan expectations. Yet there’s some amazing work being created in this field with bands such as Magic Pie, Riverside, Unitopia, Wolverine and others. (More on this in a later post.)

Steve Hackett, guitarist from the original lineup of Genesis and a longtime solo artist, has achieved that rare feat in popular music: getting better with age.

XTC songwriters Andy Partridge (left) and Colin Moulding. Courtesy YouTube

So it’s all the more inspiring to see that some rock ’n rollers have met the challenge of aging gracefully, avoiding the pitfalls of substance abuse and fame-induced egomania to simply become masters of their craft. I speak particularly of Rush, XTC and Steve Hackett, guitarist from the classic line-up of Genesis. Although composers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding of XTC have called it quits for the band, they’ve left us an amazing legacy of albums jam-packed with great songs. I’ve called them the Unknown Beatles before for their uncanny combination of catchy melodies and razor-sharp lyrics fused into a harmonious whole. It’s astonishing to me that XTC wasn’t as famous as the Beatles, since I can name a dozen songs of theirs right now that should have had instant chart appeal. Some of them did reasonably well—songs like Making Plans for Nigel and Senses Working Overtime, but by and large they remained a band with a worldwide cult following. Partridge and Moulding’s lyrics are always intelligent, well crafted, poetic and memorable—no easy accomplishment. Writing tight, focused and original lyrics is not a skill possessed by everyone. Often a fine composer of melodies can’t write a lyric to save his life. Hence the historic songwriting partnerships, where often one member of the team becomes the primary lyricist: Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney, Partridge/Moulding, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid of Procul Harum, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies of Supertramp, etc. I’ll profile the early 21st century work of XTC and Rush first:

The cover of Apple Venus Vol. 1: an instant classic for the 21st century. Courtesy Wikimedia

XTC. Easily two of the albums released on the cusp of the new century that qualify for Master status would be Apple Venus volume one (1999) and Apple Venus volume two: Wasp Star (2000). Volume one opens with River of Orchids, a stunning example of polyphonic composition introduced by a single melody line plucked on a violin or viola, joined by cello-like bass notes and a sampled horn phrase as counterpart. The “river of orchids” refrain is sung in Partridge/Moulding’s impeccable vocal harmony, a technique used to beautiful effect on the breathtaking Knights in Shining Karma and Greenman. River of Orchids is Partridge/Moulding’s appeal for a transition to a carbon-free future: “I had a dream where the car / was reduced to a fossil,” and London smells “like a Peckham rose” instead of car exhaust. Unlike much of XTC’s earlier work, most of Apple Venus is actually quite minimalist, with acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies carrying the day. There isn’t a wasted track on this album—quite an achievement in an era when most albums are lucky to have one or at most two standout tunes.

Apple Venus Vol. 2: Wasp Star completes XTC’s modern magnum opus.

Demonstrating their seemingly effortless prowess for writing instantly catchy tunes, Wasp Star reels out hummable songs like Stupidly Happy, I’m the Man Who Murdered Love and We’re All Light. The opening track, Playground, is propelled by a biting guitar riff worthy of Rush. Other standouts include the poetically named You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful. The Wheel and the Maypole is another of XTC’s graceful nods to English history and culture, along with Easter Theatre from volume one. Both these albums have since become somewhat of a collector’s item, and CD copies can vary from $22 to $110, so good luck tracking down copies. (NEWS FLASH: Andy Partridge has just re-released these two albums on CD! Get ’em now, get ’em quick! https://www.burningshed.com/store/ape/) Far easier to find are their earlier masterworks, the pastoral Skylarking (1986) and the politically astute Nonsuch (1994), both featuring similarly lush, flawless arrangements and not a single minute of the listener’s time wasted. I could write an entire column just on Nonsuch alone and I’ve already devoted an entire post to Skylarking (December 2014). An early classic, English Settlement (1982) is another must-have for music collectors, featuring such memorable songs as Senses Working Overtime, Ball and Chain, and Runaways. These guys blow apart the stereotype of the rocker as an intellectually challenged headbanger. And it’s great to see them go out at the top of their game instead of a pale imitation of themselves! (A trap too many bands fall into…)

The vastly underrated Power Windows from Rush’s ’80s period. A hidden gem.

RUSH. Now here’s an example of a classic rock band I only came to appreciate late in life. For me in the early days of the band the deal-killer was Geddy Lee’s voice, although I thought the Robert Plant-style vocal gyrations of their first album actually worked quite well. Naturally there was never any question of their mastery as musicians. My interest picked up strongly with 1980’s Permanent Waves, where Lee finally took his vocal histrionics down a notch. This of course was followed by the massively popular Moving Pictures (1981), still a staple of classic rock radio stations to this day, with Tom Sawyer one of the most signature tunes of its era. And although fans widely dislike more synthesizer-heavy albums such as Grace Under Pressure (1984) and Power Windows (1985), it was the latter album that got me listening to Rush in the first place. (Grace Under Pressure is another sadly underrated yet fine piece of work.) Songs such as The Big Money, Grand Designs and especially The Manhattan Project are textbook examples of understanding the nuances of songcraft, aligning tone, intensity and pacing seamlessly with the subject matter of the lyrics. Lyricist Neil Peart has been a fascinating writer even from the band’s early days, moving from the mythic themes of their ’70s albums to the more biting social and political satire evident on these two albums and songs such as New World Man from Signals, one of their less cohesive ’80s albums. As my wife remarked: “Wow, a rocker who can quote Coleridge in a lyric—how rare is that!” (Xanadu, from A Farewell to Kings, 1977)

The cover art from Vapour Trails Remixed: a masterwork rescued.

Then, after the death of Peart’s wife and daughter in the 1990s, the band took a six-year hiatus, returning in 2002 with a stunning comeback effort, Vapour Trails. Sadly the mixing on this album was somewhat botched in the then-popular craze for everything loud, louder and loudest, but thankfully the band has re-released the album as Vapour Trails Remixed (2013). It’s one of the first times a “remixed” album has actually lived up to its title. Considering that Lee has said this album was very difficult for the band to make, given that “we had to learn how to be Rush again,” it’s an amazing record—not a bummer track in sight. The thundering riff of the opening track, One Little Victory, lets it be known the boys are back in town with a bang. Ceiling Unlimited has a jangling guitar sound reminiscent of U2, and throughout, the band creates dynamic juxtapositions of crunching guitars interspersed with acoustic sections and far more vocal harmonies than were historically present in their records.

Rush were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Courtesy CBC.

Peart has emerged from his soul-harrowing personal tragedy a wiser, more mature man and it shows in his superb lyrics, both here and in the next album, Snakes and Arrows (2007). Both albums are peppered with flashes of deep insight and poetry worthy of Canada’s Master Bard, Leonard Cohen. “If culture is the curse of the thinking class… If laughter is a straw for a drowning man…” (Ceiling Unlimited) Peart sets the lyrics in Vapour Trails to the theme of the tarot card deck, a rich mythic vein to mine. Like any thinking writer, Peart was responding to the anomie of the early 2000s, with events on the world stage seemingly spiraling out of control with increasing poverty even in the West, corporate control of governments and the Iraq War. Given the general sense of hopelessness fostered by the Bush and Harper regimes, this makes lyrics like, “Talk of a peaceable kingdom / talk of a time without fear / the ones we wish would listen / are never going to hear” (Peaceable Kingdom), especially poignant. An Age of Disillusionment that has hopefully ended. And if you thought the band’s stock of memorable riffs was used up by the turn of the century, think again—Vapour Trails is wall-to-wall with killer guitar lines.

Snakes & Arrows may be Rush’s most mature album yet, a sure sign that these masters continue to grow as artists.

Rush hits another creative high point with Snakes and Arrows, a somewhat more reflective album with generous helpings of acoustic guitar and subtler passages. Geddy Lee creates some incredibly sinuous, mind-blowing bass lines throughout (e.g. The Main Monkey Business), reminiscent of his work in Power Windows, which for my money has some of the best work of his career. (Though sadly Power Windows also suffered from lousy mixing, resulting in the thin, jangly sound typical of early digital recordings.) Unlike other aging singers, for whom losing an octave off the top of their voice can be disastrous, for Lee this has added a richness and depth lacking in the band’s early days. Once again Peart’s wit is honed to a keen edge in another set of superb lyrics, and once again he accurately reflects the dissonance felt in civil society in songs like Far Cry: “It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit…” Peart may be one of the few rock lyricists to actually succeed at poetry, with the lyrics to The Larger Bowl, written in the pantoum form (look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantoum), which succeeds in both form and content. It’s a masterful social commentary in an age when the One Percent have succeeded in yet another giant rip-off of the working public. With The Way the Wind Blows, Faithless, and Bravest Face the power trio succeeds in creating songs that qualify as the anthems of the age. “I don’t have faith in faith / I don’t believe in belief / you can call me faithless / but I still cling to hope / and I believe in love / and that’s faith enough for me…” (Faithless) We Hold On could easily be an anthem for activists the world over, or anyone concerned about social and environmental justice: “We could be down and gone / but we hold on…”

This is exactly what we look to our artists for—to reflect the world back to us simultaneously in stark clarity and the softening edges of a higher vision. Thanks, guys.

(More on Steve Hackett and the Prog Rockers in a future post. For now I highly urge you to check out Hackett’s latest album Wolflight, another instant classic…)

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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