Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 2)

TAAB

Dear Matthew:

A mutual friend of ours, Syrup Trap editor Nick Zarzycki, once made an observation that has really stuck with me: he argued that the best comedic films, at least in terms of laughs per minute and broad popular acclaim, are almost always parodies.

I think he’s probably on to something. If you take a look around the internet for what people think are the best comedies of all time, Airplane!, Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles and their ilk are usually in the mix, and pretty near the top, too. And when I think of it, a lot of my more modern favourites are very much in the same mold — Hot Rod and They Came Together and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are some that spring immediately to mind, and there are definitely others.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Genre spoofs work well because the audience knows the material — you don’t have to do a lot of world-building or characterization, because you’ve already got a whole box of tropes and archetypes to work with. Since they’re spoofs of whole genres, they tend to age reasonably well, unlike spoofs of specific films — compare the staying power of the aforementioned Blazing Saddles with that of, say, Spaceballs.

The other thing about movies like this is that they tend to rate very highly with self-proclaimed ‘comedy aficionados’*. I think this is because, unlike a wholly original film, the story doesn’t really matter; in a genre parody, the plot is basically just a vehicle for jokes. In a way, the genre parody allows for filmic comedy in its purest form, because you aren’t writing anything that isn’t either the setup for, or the punchline to, a joke. You don’t have to sell the audience on a complicated story or complex characters — it’s just all jokes all the time.

I think a similar effect is probably why Thick as a Brick works so well. But the thing about TAAB is that it’s almost too good of a parody. Let me explain what I mean.

To reference Mel Brooks for the third and hopefully last time this article, TAAB suffers from a sort of reverse Springtime for Hitler effect. It’s intended to be a spoof of all of the most ridiculous aspects of prog, but in doing so, it embodies them so well that I, an admitted prog neophyte, would be hard-pressed to pick this out as a parody on first listen if I didn’t already know. It would be very easy for the less studious listener to mistake it for a completely serious endeavour — and indeed, some background reading on the album suggests that many did and still do.

The extremely dangerous internet time-sink TV Tropes refers to this effect as Poe’s Law. The law, roughly stated, is that parodies of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as being sincere, and that sincere expressions of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as parody — and paradoxically, the more extreme the idea/thing is, the more likely the confusion. This is why you get people who think that Stephen Colbert is actually a hardcore right-wing pundit, why people still think that Jonathan Swift actually condoned eating the Irish, why the Yes Men are able to get away with as much as they do, and one of the many reasons why LiarTownUSA is possibly the best thing to happen to Tumblr.

So, while I certainly got a kick out of the record, I expect my experience was similar to that of yours with Mr. Oizo — which is to say that I get it, but without a more deepseated love for the material being satirized, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly appreciate it on the level that you do. In my defence, it’s a pretty tall order to appreciate TAAB on the level that you do, but I’m still sorry to let you down.

But for what it’s worth, I did very much enjoy this pondering of the nature of parody that TAAB inspired. That, and the album sleeve is outstanding.

— Matt

* These people are the worst.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 1)

TAAB

Dear Matt,

So far in this project, I’ve endeavoured not to advocate too hard for the albums I’ve assigned you, to give you a bit more room to say your piece. I have mostly failed. This time, though, I’m throwing that whole notion to the wind because there’s no point in even trying.

There was a time in my life when I tried to purge myself of favourites. I’d say I had no favourite movie, no favourite book, no favourite composer, no favourite album. The idea was to embrace the vast and untameable diversity of stuff out there and not reduce it to a select few exemplary works. Or some bullshit like that.

Needless to say, it didn’t take. I was lying to myself the whole time: I have a favourite everything. My favourite movie is Brazil. My favourite book is At Swim-Two-Birds. My favourite composer is Mahler. And, beyond a doubt, my favourite album is Jethro Tull‘s Thick as a Brick.

People are often taken aback when I tell them that, because Tull is widely seen as a bit of a novelty act: that rock band with a flute player. But Ian Anderson’s flute playing doesn’t actually have that much to do with why I love Jethro Tull. Anderson isn’t just the guy who invented rock flute playing. He also has one of the most boundless and versatile imaginations in rock. The rest of the band is fantastic too, but they’re utterly dominated by Anderson — in a way that King Crimson, for instance, has never quite been dominated by Robert Fripp.

That’ll have to do as a primer on what Jethro Tull is, because Thick as a Brick itself requires quite a lot of explanation. The famous backstory goes like this: Tull’s major commercial breakthrough came in 1971 with ‘Aqualung,’ the title song from their fourth album. The album itself got a lot of attention, and some critics called it a concept album, because it had a couple of major lyrical themes running through it.

This was news to Anderson, who saw Aqualung as ‘just a bunch of songs.’ Moreover, concept albums were the province of prog rock, which Anderson regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He saw Jethro Tull as an unusually adventurous blues-rock band — as different as you can get from the psychedelia-tinged pastoralism of Genesis, Yes, and early King Crimson.

So, when it came time to record the followup to Aqualung, Anderson decided to announce that difference in a characteristically outlandish way. He would produce ‘the mother of all concept albums’: a sprawling parody that would take all of the trends in progressive rock — longer and longer songs, circuitous and cod-philosophical lyrics, elaborate packaging — far beyond their logical conclusions.

The resulting album came with a satirical newspaper that took longer to produce than the actual music. It possessed a sly backstory wherein the album’s lyrics were written by a precocious (and fictional) eight-year-old named Gerald Bostock. And the record itself consisted of only one song, which spanned the entire length of the album. The fact that the technology of the time functionally prohibited this (you have to flip the record over mid-song) only adds to the absurdity of the premise.

It even manages to shoehorn a bit of elitism into the equation. The first line drips with open disdain for the listener: ‘Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.’ It would be offensive if it were serious.

But, the whole affair has ‘satire’ written all over it. Anderson has always claimed that he was basically taking the piss with this album, and that presumably spared him a great deal of vitriol when the early punks came along five years later. You seldom hear Jethro Tull cited as one of the key offenders in discussions of 70s bombast. They were just having a laugh, after all.

But here’s where that narrative falters: Thick as a Brick is the best progressive rock album ever made. It is bursting with energy, it is structurally ingenious (with almost all of the section transitions being based on the opening riff), and the lyrics are just as trenchant in their critique of England’s class system as they are in their parody of Pete Sinfield. And it’s fun. It’s just fun.

I mean, that word ‘best’ is subjective, clearly. But, among prog fans, rock fans, critics and everybody else, the idea that Thick as a Brick is in the top tier of prog masterpieces is completely uncontroversial. This, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly a piss-take.

And that is why you are listening to this album at this point in our correspondence. When you described Mr. Oizo as “taking the piss out of [dance music] and its fans — while still producing outstanding examples of it,” my mind immediately jumped to Thick as a Brick.

Your experiences with Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma and King Crimson should be enough to demonstrate what prog is like in sincerity mode. So, what do you think? How much irony is there in Thick as a Brick? And do these trifling matters of authorial intent make any difference at all?

And, most importantly, do you like it?

— Matthew

P.S. I once proved that Ian Anderson is a good singer, using math. You know, just in case you’re not sure how far my loyalties extend.

King Crimson: Red (pt. 2)

red

Dear Matthew:

Okay, maybe there is something to this prog stuff after all.

Don’t get too excited. I wasn’t blown away like I was by the Baroque accordions. I wasn’t nailed to my seat like I was by Brian Eno. In fact, ‘Red’ and ‘One More Red Nightmare’ are the only two songs I was really, really into. But hey, baby steps, right?

If this album is any indication, I can definitely see why you suspect that NoMeansNo are King Crimson fans. Indeed, if you like the song ‘Red’, I suggest you immediately check out some of the proggier NoMeansNo, like Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? One of my favourite things about this project has been discovering the foundations, or in some cases, what are essentially early versions of more modern music that I love, and I can certainly see why ‘influential’ is one of the most popular adjectives used to describe King Crimson.

You might be onto something with intuitive appreciation of music. I mean, I try to have an open mind, but realistically, I usually know if I’m going to like a song with the first few seconds — or if I’m going to really like it, anyway. To use a crude metaphor, it’s a bit like sex appeal: you usually know right away if you’re attracted to someone, but it’s often hard to pick out a specific reason why. It’s intuitive. And sure, there are people you warm up to over time, but with the most compelling people, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s definitely a lizard-brain level of liking music, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much a band’s — to use a word that accurately conveys the idea I’m talking about but makes me want to throw up a little — brand affects how much people like them. Maybe a big part of why I could never get into prog was all of the pretense — the stuff you pointed out that King Crimson doesn’t do. Would I have liked them as much if I’d gone into the album not knowing that? I’d like to think so, but you never know. (In my own defense, I can usually put aside ‘brand’ considerations once I hear the actual music itself; generally the most it does is keep me from listening in the first place.)

One last thought: in terms of contemporary bands, your description of how the band as a Fripp-powered engine that looks completely different every time it’s reassembled reminds me a lot of Gorillaz. Gorillaz is, at its core, a Damon Albarn solo project with art design by Jamie Hewlett, but it features so many guest musicians and producers that every album almost sounds like a different band. Dan the Automator’s influence is all over the self-titled record, and Danger Mouse is definitely on display on Demon Days. (I believe Plastic Beach is produced by Albarn himself.) In fact, now that I think of it, this sort of band is actually pretty common, if not quite to the same extent: Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor, LCD Soundsystem is James Murphy, Queens of the Stone Age is Josh Homme, etc.

Anyway, congratulations — I didn’t completely hate a prog album!

— Matt

King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

Magma: live in concert (pt. 2)

Symbole_de_Magma

Dear Matthew:

That was certainly a prog rock band.

Now, I’m not ready to give up on prog just yet. There’s got to be something out there I can really get into. Maybe I should finally give these King Crimson guys that everyone keeps talking about a spin. But Magma is definitely not for me.

There’s no arguing that Magma are talented. The tone their bassist gets out of his instrument is incredible. Their drummer’s vocal solo in what you informed me was your favourite Magma song of all time would put any classically trained tenor in the world to shame, and his drum face is amazing. There were definite moments in the set that I enjoyed. But there’s only so far that raw talent can take you in terms of making music that’s actually enjoyable for (most) people to listen to. Sure, it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures and invent an entire language in which to sing. But that means you end up with music with no riffs to ride on, no grooves to lock into, and no vocal hooks to lodge in people’s brains.

In other words, you end up with probably the least accessible music I have ever heard.

I expressed this sentiment to you after the show, and you didn’t disagree. And indeed, the lack of accessibility doesn’t seem to have prevented Magma from growing a solid fanbase over the years — a substantial portion of the crowd were nodding/singing/otherwise moving in a way that suggested rather intimate familiarity with the material. So what’s the missing link here? What am I not getting?

You’ve said that you don’t like not liking things because it makes you feel ignorant, and that’s kind of how I’m feeling about this. I found myself asking myself the same thing you asked of Beardyman: ‘What is this music even for?’ Since everything is so abstract and non-traditional, they could be just standing there making shit up for an hour and a half and I would have no idea. In calling these guys out, though, I feel kind of like the guy who complains that his three-year-old could paint a Jackson Pollock.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s telling that I was at the same venue less than a week prior to see the Ting Tings, who are about as diametrically opposed to Magma as you can get while still actually playing drums and stringed instruments. Maybe going to a show with the intention of intellectualizing it afterward is a flawed approach, especially when an MC comes out before the show and explicitly instructs the audience to not try to intellectualize the show. But the more I think about it the more I realize: apart from virtuosic performances, that show had almost none of the elements I appreciate in live music, or even music in general.

But that’s not what a band like Magma is going for, is it.

— Matt

Magma: live in concert (pt. 1)

Symbole_de_Magma

Dear Matt:

How appropriate that immediately after my confused, vaguely angry response to Die Antwoord, you’re coming with me to see Magma in concert.

Let me explain Magma. Magma is a jazz-fusiony prog band from France, led by virtuoso drummer Christian Vander. They’ve made 11 albums, each of which further expounds the sprawling utopian sci-fi mythos that they’ve developed over the course of their half-century of existence. Magma doesn’t just do concept albums. They’re a concept band.

The actual story that the albums tell is pretty tough to discern, because the bulk of the music is sung in Vander’s constructed language of Kobaïan, which is sort of a blend of French, German and speaking in tongues. Vander even came up with a Kobaïan name for the genre of music Magma plays. It’s called “Zeuhl” (pronounced “tsoil”), and it is characterized by slow-burning repetitive patterns, chanting from the small choir of backup singers that always accompanies the band, and virtuosic free improvisations on the bass, drums and guitar.

Lyric translations are not available because many Kobaïan words don’t have literal meanings. However, we do know that the basic premise of Magma’s mythology is that after an ecological crisis on Earth, a segment of humankind takes to space and colonizes the far-off planet of Kobaïa. Then there is adventure and and there are wars and there is quite a lot of chant-based spirituality.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out whether Vander actually believes that this story will come to pass. Most of his interviews are in French, so I’ve had trouble getting a handle on him. But, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he thinks himself a prophet.

Look, I obviously disagree with some of what you said about prog back in your Van Der Graaf Generator response. I don’t think that prog is silly by definition. But Magma is fucking ridiculous. Magma is everything that you thought Van Der Graaf Generator was, times an infinity. An entire infinity. They are maybe the silliest band ever, even more so because they are completely sincere, and most of their audience appears to enjoy them without the barest hint of irony, as well.

I find this a completely untenable way of approaching Magma. They’re the sort of band that leaves me reaching for Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to explain why I enjoy them. But I do enjoy them, very sincerely. It’s just that a significant part of my enjoyment comes from my sincere appreciation for ridiculousness. I’m completely okay with the sort of music where the artist’s reach exceeds their grasp, many times over. I even find it preferable to most of the alternatives.

I’m a bit jealous of you for getting to experience Magma for the first time, live. Their shows are famously impressive and intense, to the point where their live albums almost make their studio output feel superfluous. The lineup has changed constantly since the 70s, but every cohort has been pretty much equally stellar. They’ve made some of their most acclaimed music in the last decade.

I have my doubts about whether this will be for you. But, you’ll at least be able to say that you’ve seen one of the strangest acts in popular music. This is like seeing Beefheart, or Henry Cow, or John Cage blending vegetables in front of an audience.

So, I’ll see you Thursday, for the greatest evening of virtuoso sci-fi jazz you’re ever likely to experience. I’ll expect your response sometime Friday.

I am ludicrously excited.

— Matthew

Van der Graaf Generator: Godbluff (pt. 2)

godbluff

Dear Matthew:

Oh dear. What have I gotten myself into?

I’ll start by saying that your hodgepodge of adjectives was spot on — this album is certainly bombastic, dramatic, and more than a little bit camp. But I think you and I might be operating on different definitions of the word ‘lean.’

Here’s a not-very-surprising confession: I don’t like prog. But it’s not the seething punk-rock hate I had for it in high school, more as a knee-jerk contrarian reaction to my peers discovering and loving it than anything. Instead, it’s now more that I just don’t really rate it.

I think there’s a sort of window in which you have to first be exposed to certain genres of art and culture, and if you miss that window, some things won’t ever really grab you. Take high fantasy, for example. If you don’t get really into swords and dragons and all that stuff before you graduate high school, you probably never will. (HBO’s shameless attempts to titillate notwithstanding.) I think it’s probably the same with prog, and as I mulled this album over thinking about what to write, I think I have a theory as to why.

It’s because these genres are all, at their core, very silly.

But it’s more than just silliness. It’s a sense of epicness and grandiosity — underpinned with an often endearingly naive worldview — operating on a sense of scale that’s just so different from the modern Western rat-race nine-to-five wage-slave life we see around us that we find compelling at that age. Rush’s 2112. The Star Wars films. Iron Maiden. Japanese role-playing games. Anything Tolkein. Fight Club. Are you kidding me? Pissed off teenagers eat this shit up.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to devalue prog or sci-fi or fantasy by calling them childish or anything like that. These things are widely loved and bring a lot of joy to a lot of people, and there is a pretty clear societal value in their existence. I’m just saying that I think I missed this particular boat.

What’s confusing me, though, is what I alluded to earlier: I didn’t really dislike Godbluff, either. I almost wish I had, because that might’ve made for more entertaining reading. Instead, I was just kind of nonplussed. And the more I try to articulate why, the more it stresses me out that I can’t.

Which is ludicrous, when you think about it. Here’s this guy wailing about epic battles and this music rising and falling and all of this virtuosity and energy all but jumping out of my speakers and smacking me upside the head — and yet it just doesn’t do anything for me.

Maybe I’m still not doing a good job of approaching the music on its own terms. Maybe I’m desensitized by hearing bands like the Mars Volta take things even further off the sonic deep end. Maybe pop music has ruined my attention span. But whatever the case, I’m determined to get to the bottom of this. If this project doesn’t end up opening my mind to new music, maybe it can at least help me figure out why.

And you’re right. That man really can’t play the saxophone.

— Matt