Number 8 – A Floydian Slip

BIG NEWS: The first of the new tunes is now up and ready for your patient ears.  Please take a listen to “Deep”, which you can hear here.  Also, we’re trying to get some gigs out in eastern MA soon.

Now, on to number 8 in my list of my top 10 most influential albums:

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#8 – The Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979)Imagecvr

So, as it turns out, Pink Floyd had more or less ceased to exist as a “band” sometime after 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon. Floyd had pretty much been the legendary Syd Barrett’s band before a psychotic break tragically cut his career short. Roger Waters had assumed the primary songwriting duties in 1968 after the departure of the ailing and erratic Barrett and had progressively imparted his own voice to the Floyd sound. David Gilmour added a new blues virtuosity to the sound and progressively added his own songwriting talents to the mix, but Waters really drove the bus.

Still, Barrett’s shadow loomed large over the band and over Waters in particular. His childhood friend’s debilitating mental illness caused Waters to ponder the nature of fame, and humanity, and sanity. These explorations gave us Wish you Were Here, Animals, and – eventually – The Wall.

I first encountered The Wall as a 10-year-old kid at my friend Jeff’s house.  It is worth noting in passing that Jeff was my gateway not only to Floyd but also to Queen and Styx. Over school vacations we would stay up late into the night, listening to records (yes, records – by which I mean vinyl) late into the night and trying to pick out both great sounds and dirty words as we went from track to track.

To this day, I believe the solo to Comfortably Numb might be the greatest guitar performance, ever – not necessarily in terms of technical virtuosity, but because of Gilmour’s ability to convey raw human emotion and voice through guitar. It is not fast, it is not particularly difficult, but it is perfect.

The Wall was also my first experience of an album that told a complete story over four record sides. Yes, there were songs, but they all came together to do something larger. It’s one of the reasons that today I value albums much more than songs. With my own music, I try to group ideas in such a way that they can each build on the others over the course of an album, should I be privileged enough to hold onto my listeners’ attention.

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The album artwork is also a thing of beauty – disturbing, raw, emotional, but a perfect representation of what Waters et al were  looking to accomplish. Gerald Scarfe is the artist behind the drawings, and I have run into his work many times since.  His caricatures are particularly wonderful, and I recommend the opening credits to Yes Minister. (In fact, I just recommend Yes Minister as a show, if you’re in the market for a laugh at the expense of British politics.)

 

These reflections might end up being novels if I don’t stop myself, so I’ll call this installment a wrap and leave The Wall here for your consideration. I have to get on to writing more music.

Number 9… Number 9….

Ok, folks – first let me give you a little update on a few things from the Steeling Time/Tunnel 18 side of things, beginning with the band name.  Steeling Time was always a little bit of a name of convenience, and a poor one at that.  I (Chris Steele) didn’t just want to put stuff out under my own name as I want to turn this back into a band project at some point. I don’t need to have everything under my own name for my ego, and I just like the band aesthetic a lot more than the solo artist one.  Tunnel 18 was the name of the band that always felt like home to me.  There were a few personnel changes over the years, but this is the group I was in from about 1987-1993.  I’m in the process of getting approval from all of the former members before I make the final name change, but I see the current songs as a very logical progression from what we were doing then and – therefore – as appropriate to add to the Tunnel 18 catalogue.

On top of the songs you can already find at Soundcloud, there are 3 or 4 more that are in process and are likely to be posted soon.  In particular, look for “Deep” and “By the Side,” both of which are in final retakes and mastering.

Now, on to the next in our list of top 10 most influential albums:

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#9 – Fragile (Yes, 1971)

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By 1971, Yes had gone past the concept of harmonies and incredible musicianship and on to full-on self-indulgent progressive art rock excess.  Fragile was the fourth studio album by the group, and there had already been changes to the guitarist (Steve Howe in, Peter Banks out) and the keyboardist (Rick Wakeman in, Tony Kaye out).  The band had found its “classic” lineup, and had also found a guy who could give the music suitable graphic representation in album art (Roger Dean – and by the way, we’ll come back to album art more over the course of this little series).

Not content to stop at massive conceptual pieces like “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise“, the band’s members took advantage of the long playing record format to share individual pieces outside the limits of the band itself.  The album includes a classical pastoral guitar piece, a synthesizer reinterpretation of Brahms, a multi-tracked vocal of … I don’t really know what, a song about fish made up only of bass parts, and a composition created purely by math (Bill Bruford’s “Five Per Cent for Nothing”.)

The album gave me what I forever think of as a classically miked piano sound (listen to South Side of the Sky at 2:08) as well as my first exposure to ambient sound used in music (see “We Have Heaven,” but Pink Floyd were already leading the way here before 1971).

(While we are on the subject of Prog Rock, it is worth mentioning that the genre has many detractors, but also many champions who have moved the art of the extended form song to heights well beyond that which may have been envisioned almost 50 years ago.  This latter example is why nerds like me like to play with alternate tuning and time signatures.)

I can’t think of when I first heard “Roundabout” or anything else from this album, but I do remember playing it very loud on my dad’s prized Emerson stereo (with the big speakers) in the living room.  I remember trying to belt out Jon Anderson’s vocals (very unsuccessfully).  And I remember being blown away by what the bass could achieve as a melodic instrument, in addition to translating the beat.

Later – in college – friends introduced me to even more of Yes.  Relayer showed me what true musicianship and self-indulgence could be.  And Drama showed what could happen if a few buggles fell into your band (real fans understand).

In short, Fragile was a gateway drug into the world of progressive rock and musicianship, one that I continue to find a welcome challenge and that pushes me to learn ever more.  If you haven’t listened to it (and I find that hard to imagine), start here, and then try a little more Yes.

Starting Fresh, and the Listing of Ten

What better way to get our listeners in the mood for new music than sharing with you some of the things that started us writing music in the first place? While we get along back to our own tunes, I’ve decided to share with you a few of the bands and albums that shaped me as a songwriter and musician, and maybe remind you of some well-loved albums that have fallen to the bottom of your playlist.

Thorough examining albums (as opposed to songs), I also want to point out how much our experience of music has changed.  An album might be an artist’s attempt to tell a fuller story than one song might present, or it may just be a collage of where an artist was at a particular point.  Regardless, by listening to a 30-60 minute collection, we as fans got the chance to immerse ourselves in a voice and approach in a way that is far less common today.  We would have friends over to listen to the latest Rush album, or hear the incredible new sounds coming out from Seattle. Albums brought us a deeper appreciation of the music and the songwriting and even, sometimes, the artist’s emotional voyage.

Single songs are great of course, but they can only say so much on their own.  Through the efforts to curate an album, the artist is forced to say something broader, or at the very least to hold the listener’s attention for more than 3 minutes at a time.  This is the musical experience of losing oneself in a movie or a play, rather than a 7-minute cartoon.

So here we go – I’ll give you my own notes on the albums (and this author’s memories of them) as we go along.  And I promise I’ll also drop the new Steeling Time/Tunnel 18 tunes in here as they are ready.

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#10 – Superunknown (Soundgarden, 1994)

Soundgarden were already well established at this point, acting as a driving force in the Seattle grunge movement.  Their mix of heavy grooves, deep guitar, and Chris Cornell’s incredible vocal range made for the kind of music that could be played loud, but could also be listened to for the lyrics.  (Granted, “Spoonman” – the first single off the album – was more than a little odd to traditional hard rock ears).  Songs like “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun” set a higher standard for what could be done with a rock lyric. And other songs – particularly the opener “Let Me Drown” – would simply kick your ass.  On top of this, Kim Thayil’s guitar playing was deceptively simple.  For one, it was impossible to replicate on a standard-tuned guitar! Kim did drop D, drop D/G, and drop full-step in ways that forced new songs to come out of the standard instrument.  From a songwriting perspective, Superunknown was a pinnacle of riff-based hard rock, showing how to do things that were melodic, complex, and hard all at the same time.

 

 

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I first heard this album in a pool hall in Chapel Hill, NC (Zog’s) in 1994 and instantly fell in love.  I’d been listening to a lot of Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and the like before this came on.  Suddenly there was this voice, and then the wail at the chorus. I played this over and over again on long drives, long runs, and while studying – and of course while shooting pool.

Soundgarden’s next album Down on the Upside was also well worth listening to, but it felt a little forced.  As it turns out, the band was feeling forced as well; they disbanded in 1997.

 

Stay tuned – I promise that installment 9 won’t take months to write….