Chris Squire, 1948-2015

Chris+Squire+YesChrisSquireIn the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)

The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.

In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.

The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.

It still is.

As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.

I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1” by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.

As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.

He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.

This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.

Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.

Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the alt.music.progressive Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.

But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.

In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)

I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.

Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, yesworld.com. I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.

I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”

But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.

Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.

Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.

Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.

Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.

But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.

In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”

I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.

So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.

Rolling Stone obituary
Tweet by bandmate, keyboardist Geoff Downes

I found the photo of Chris in the late ’70s with his (in)famous triple-neck bass here. If anyone has a proper photo credit, please let me know.

Micro-Prog

Last night I learned about the Free Music Archive’s microSong challenge — create a song 15 seconds or shorter — and I knew immediately that I wanted to participate.

But not just participate. I wanted to record a prog rock epic suite that was 15 seconds long. Today I took the challenge. My song has been submitted, but as of this writing it’s not yet up on the site. However, that doesn’t stop me from sharing it here, because the contest requires that each piece of music be released under Creative Commons Zero license. So, here it is! Do whatever you want with it! No one can stop you!

The piece of music I created is called The Fall of the Village of the Infinitesimal Forest at the Hands of the Royal Aggressor [An Epic in Seven Parts]. In fact it’s not just seven parts, it’s seven measures.

In those seven measures there are 6 time signature changes (6/8, 7/8, two measures of 2/4, 7/8, 9/8 and 5/16). The song features a recorder trio (yes, those are real recorders, feebly played by me); MIDI drums, electric piano, B3 organ, Mellotron and analog synth; and real electric bass, two electric guitars and an acoustic guitar.

Here are the titles of the seven parts (and their time signatures):

I. In Which the Villagers Engage in Their Melancholy Dance [6/8]
II. Theme of the Royal Aggressor [7/8]
III. The Battle of the Infinitesimal Forest [2/4]
IV. A Hero Awakens in the Gloaming [2/4]
V. In Which the Hero Mourns His Fallen Love [7/8]
VI. Theme of the Royal Aggressor [Reprise] [9/8]
VII. In Which the Lone Survivor Surveys the Ruins [5/16]

And… here’s the music:

Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.

Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Finalists

Getting closer… I’ve eliminated a few albums that just don’t stand a chance *cough* *Heaven and Earth* *cough*. Here are the top 10 contenders for the final list. The final list finalists, if you will.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Com Truise — Wave 1
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Room 34 — 5mi
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Contenders

For the first time in the at-least-a-decade since I started doing these top 5 lists, I almost completely forgot to do one this year. It wasn’t until I happened to be on my blog this morning and my “On This Day” widget reminded me that I realized it was time for the list again.

Maybe I’ve just been too busy. Maybe there hasn’t been much good music this year (at least, good to my jaded and picky ears). Maybe it’s because I turned 40 this year and I’m now officially too old for anyone to care about my opinion on anything. Whatever the case, this year’s list was almost an afterthought. Almost.

But now I’ve remembered to do it, and if time allows I might just give the final list the attention it deserves. For now, we start off as in every year, with the list of contenders: all of the new albums I’ve purchased in 2014. (As if you needed further evidence of how out of touch and irrelevant I am… I not only still care about albums… I still buy music.)

Since my list of full albums this year is so short, I’ve decided to include for consideration EPs — even one that’s a reissue of an EP from 1996 — and, for the first time, my own music.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Boards of Canada — Hi Scores 2014 Edition [EP]
Com Truise — Wave 1
The Darcys — Hymn for a Missing Girl [EP]
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
J. Law — The Phoenix
Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Magma — Rïah Sahïltaahk
Pink Floyd — The Endless River
Room 34 — Thru
Room 34 — 5mi
Röyksopp & Robyn — Do It Again
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
Umphrey’s McGee — Similar Skin
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Yes — Heaven and Earth
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Update (12 December 2014): I used a “smart playlist” in iTunes to find all of the music in my library that was released this year, but I discovered a couple of albums that I actually bought on CD (how quaint) were missing because Gracenote didn’t fill in the release year. And so we have the addition of Foo Fighters and Pink Floyd to the list. Wait, what year is it again? I also had to add in the new Yes album, which isn’t in my library anymore because it’s so awful I actually deleted it. (Spoiler: It’s not making the final list.)