Three

This is my latest album. It is called Three. I’ve just made it available for free streaming and download over on my music site.

Warning: here there be dragons. Well, not really dragons so much. I would classify the album as progressive rock, but not the wizards and sorcery kind of prog rock. Still, if you’re not in the mood for 20-minute rock suites or free-form improvisation, it may not be your bag, baby. There’s Mellotron. A lot of Mellotron. Never fear, there’s also a long essay describing the album’s creation in copious detail for your insomnia-curing pleasure. Enjoy!

(Note: CDs are on their way in the next week or so…)

On separating artists’ work from their beliefs

Seals and Crofts: Unborn Child
Magma self-title

My musical tastes have taken a couple of painful blows in the past 24 hours. First, an old friend and fellow musician tipped me off to an ongoing controversy over French prog rock/jazz drummer Christian Vander (founder of Magma) and his possibly pro-Nazi beliefs. Ouch.

Then, my growing interest in exploring the catalog of early ’70s soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, best known for the hits “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass this Way (Again)” (gotta love those parenthetical song titles — they just don’t do that anymore), was waylaid by learning about the controversy over their anti-abortion song and album Unborn Child, released in 1974, right after the Roe v. Wade decision. The song led abortion rights activists to protest against the band, and probably accelerated their demise.

Christian Vander

The stuff about Christian Vander and Nazism is truly disturbing, although it should be noted that there’s no concrete evidence that he really does (or ever did) espouse these beliefs. Taking an honest look at Magma’s work, though, it’s not a huge leap to that conclusion. There’s plenty of Wagnerian influence in their work; Vander’s concocted language, Kobaian, sounds heavily Germanic, especially when shouted with a Hitler-like cadence (as did happen on some of their early recordings); and the band’s overall concept — a select group of humans flee an apocalyptic Earth and settle a new homeworld — is like a sci-fi version of the Third Reich. Another friend and Magma fan even pointed out that there’s a swastika in the cover art from the band’s first album, something I had never noticed before.

Of course, even with all of that, there’s no concrete evidence that Christian Vander is a Nazi. But since all of the band’s lyrics are sung in his own made-up tongue, and he’s never published an official Kobaian-to-French (or any other real language) dictionary, the best knowledge we have of what he’s actually singing about is the result of questionable fan translations.

Seals and Crofts

As for Seals and Crofts, one song written from the perspective of a fetus is a far cry from an entire body of work that may (debatably) promote a white supremacist agenda. But as a pro-choice liberal, knowing this song is part of the Seals and Crofts canon alters my perspective on the rest of the band’s work. Abortion is a complicated issue, however, in ways that Nazism isn’t: as far as I’m concerned, there’s absolutely no way to justify Hitler’s beliefs. I find Nazism so abhorrent I can hardly even talk about it.

But it’s possible to support abortion rights even though you think, ideally, no one should ever have an abortion. I would like to live in a world where abortion didn’t have to exist, but no one who hasn’t been in the position of having to make that difficult decision should feel like they have the right to take the option away from someone else. I don’t wish to belabor the abortion discussion in this post, however, as it is not the point. (And I think far too many important issues already get derailed by the abortion argument; case in point, the recently passed House bill for health care reform.)

The Big Question(s)

In both of these cases, the question for me becomes: Can I still enjoy the work of these artists, knowing that I disagree with their beliefs? I think there’s an important corollary to this question, and that is: Are the artists actively trying to promote their controversial beliefs with their art?

In the case of Seals and Crofts, on the second question, I would have to say yes they are, quite explicitly. To have released the song “Unborn Child,” with lyrics like “Oh unborn child, if you only knew just what your momma was plannin’ to do / You’re still a-clingin’ to the tree of life, but soon you’ll be cut off before you get ripe,” mere months after Roe v. Wade was a clear response to what was going on, and an unequivocal statement of beliefs on the issue. But, like I said, abortion is complicated. I think it’s possible to appreciate the difficulty of the decision, the moral ambiguity of the act, and still, ultimately, believe in a woman’s right to undertake it, if her circumstances lead her to do so.

As to the first question, I’m not sure this one song by Seals and Crofts can take away from the merits of the rest of their work, especially when you consider this song in the context of the band members’ Baha’i faith. I’ve tried to do some research (since I’m ignorant on the matter) on what Baha’i says about abortion (you can google it for yourself), and have come to the conclusion that, just as I’ve been saying, it’s complicated. There are certain readings that say it is “absolutely forbidden,” but also a broader interpretation that says it’s up to the individual conscience. This leads back to my general belief on the matter, which is that the decision should be left to the conscience of the person who is making it. If you feel abortion is an absolute wrong, don’t have one. But it’s a legal right, and its morality is a subject of debate. Don’t impose your beliefs on others who may also have carefully weighed the matter and conscientiously arrived at a different conclusion.

The song states the band’s (or actually, lyricist Lana Bogan’s) beliefs on the matter. And if you really read the lyrics, the message, repeated again and again, is “Stop, turn around, go back think it over.” Think it over. Not “don’t do it.” This is not a message I necessarily disagree with. The song, on the whole, feels a bit like the simplistic, emotional body blow delivered by the “I could wiggle my toes at 18 weeks!” pro-life billboards. A bit disingenuous and distasteful, focusing on one narrow aspect of the debate. For that reason, I think I may never be able to appreciate this particular song. But it’s not going to turn me off from the band otherwise.

Thinking about these two questions in relation to Magma leads to much different conclusions. First, it needs to be repeated that there’s no concrete evidence, at least none that I’ve seen so far, to suggest that Christian Vander is in fact pro-Nazi. I deeply wish to believe that he is not, because although there’s much tension and fury in Magma’s music, there’s also a tremendous life-affirming energy, and I would hate to think that is tainted with repugnant anti-Semitic beliefs. But, assuming for the moment that the story is all true, where does that leave me with his music? First, it’s important to consider whether he’s actively promoting these views within his art. That question is almost impossible to answer, given the fact that I have no idea what he’s actually singing about. This has nagged at my conscience since I first heard the band, but I dismissed it for two reasons: 1) I rarely pay much attention to lyrics anyway, focusing mostly on the instrumental parts and harmonic structures in the music I enjoy, and 2) since I couldn’t understand any of the words, I could appreciate the vocals as abstract sounds. I always assumed that this was Vander’s main intention with the invented language: since the vocal performances are somewhat operatic in nature anyway, with extended repetition of lines, removing any recognizable meaning from the words allows the listener to focus solely on the sounds of the voices. Of course, it’s just as easy to interpret this decision as his way of getting people to listen to his deranged rants without realizing the horror of what he’s talking about.

I sincerely hope that it’s not the latter. But knowing that it might be, and that this is a fundamental part of not just one song, but the band’s entire body of work, is extremely off-putting. Fortunately I haven’t been listening to Magma much lately anyway, but until I can learn more about the truth of these allegations, I will find it difficult to give them any attention at all.

In general, then, the conclusion I arrive at is that I can separate an artist’s work from their beliefs, if they do. But as with everything, it’s complicated. One isolated work that promotes a viewpoint I disagree with is one thing; an entire body of work devoted to actively promoting an abhorrent philosophy is fundamentally unacceptable. But that’s a pretty extreme scenario, one that’s unlikely to exist except in rare cases of extremely idiosyncratic artists… like Christian Vander. It’s tough to face the prospect of abandoning long-held enthusiasm for the work of such a gifted musician, especially when I’m not sure there’s any foundation to the accusations leveled against him. But it’s something to consider.

Disidentification

I was discussing this situation with SLP, and she mentioned a concept that came up yesterday in a class she’s teaching: disidentification. Disidentification arises mainly in queer theory, in the context of discussions of gender role identification. I hope I’m not committing an egregious offense in appropriating the term, but I think it has broader implications as well, in the form of “deeply engaging with ideas/theories and using them, but not identifying with them.”

This concept shows up a lot in art (especially music): talented artists can write from a perspective that is not necessarily their own. I am thinking in particular about “The Rake’s Song” from the recent Decemberists album The Hazards of Love. Colin Meloy is embodying a despicable character, one who has murdered all of his own children just to be rid of them, yet no serious listener assumes that Meloy himself is filicidal. From this perspective, it’s possible — though a bit of a stretch — to assume that Christian Vander is writing lyrics from Hitler’s perspective in order to reflect critically upon that perspective, or that Seals and Crofts are pro-choice but exploring the worldview of someone who is not.

As a listener, it is possible, of course, to hear “The Rake’s Song” and not feel the urge to act upon its message, nor even to be particularly appalled by it. After all, it’s tongue-in-cheek; the rake is an outlandish cartoon of a character in an already outlandish rock opera. It’s also possible to engage critically with the genuine views expressed in Seals and Crofts’ song without agreeing with them. And, presumably, it’s possible too to engage with whatever Christian Vander is singing about, even if you don’t like it. The questions then raised are: 1) do you want to engage with them, and 2) if not, why not?

I’m inclined to say “no” regarding engagement with possible pro-Nazi messages in Magma’s music. As to why I feel that way, is it because I find these views distasteful, even if I wouldn’t have known about them through the music alone? Or is it because I’m self-conscious that someone else might think I don’t just l like the music, but I actually agree with what he’s saying? Well, it’s probably a lot more likely that an outside observer would just think I was a nut for liking something so obviously weird, but I’m used to that.

Probably what it really comes down to for me is that, most of the time, I’m just not interested in engaging with these difficult topics. I have not devoted myself to a life of activism. I prefer to spend my time focusing on the positive things I enjoy. That doesn’t make the bad things go away, and it doesn’t make me care any less. I’m just not that good at that kind of engagement, and it just leaves me frustrated and upset that the things I dislike exist in the first place. Perhaps that’s a weakness to be overcome, but in the current context, I think all it means is that, for a while at least, I’ll be listening to more “Summer Breeze” and less “Kreühn Köhrmahn Iss de Hündïn.”

New blog: Hall of Prog

It occurred to me tonight, while reading a post on outsidedown, that I know of two sources on the planet of encyclopedic knowledge of progressive rock: YouTube and my own brain. And YouTube is catching up.

With that in mind, I have started a new blog: Hall of Prog: A Curated Exhibit of Progressive Rock on YouTube. The idea is simple: there are tons of videos of obscure 1970s progressive rock bands on YouTube. All you have to do is search for them. But you have to know what to search for. That’s where I come in.

The plan is to post a link a day (or more) to interesting progressive rock performances available on YouTube, with a small side dish of my own commentary. Though not usually known for brevity (a trait I share with most prog rockers), I will keep my writing to a minimum, and let the music speak (ad infinitum) for itself.

Strictly for the Yes fan(s) out there

I realize I’m not exactly surrounded by a vast sea of Yes fans. We’re few and far between, and with every further Spinal Tap-esque step our beloved band takes, our numbers dwindle even more.

Perhaps no step the band could have taken would epitomize their claim to the title of “real-life Spinal Tap” more than the tour they’ve undertaken this year. With legendary lead singer Jon Anderson facing a long recuperation from acute respiratory failure, and longtime keyboardist Rick Wakeman no longer up to the rigors of touring either, the band forged ahead on the potentially dangerous decision to have Rick’s son Oliver fill in on the keyboard duties, and they (temporarily) replaced Jon Anderson with a guy named Benoit David, lead singer of a Montreal-based Yes tribute band that bassist Chris Squire discovered on the Internet.

True fans may see parallels between the current situation and the infamous period in 1980 when, faced with the abrupt departure of Anderson and Wakeman (Anderson’s first, Wakeman’s second), the band recruited The Buggles as replacements, because they happened to be recording in the same studio at the time.

Trevor Horn may be a great producer (may be), and he’s a decent enough singer. But he could never be a replacement for Jon Anderson, and not just because Chris Squire made him perform songs at Madison Square Garden after only having heard them on a cassette during the limo ride to the gig. (Does it really happen? It can happen.)

Although I have seen Yes live more than any other band (five times), I had no intention of seeing them on this tour. That may be in part because it would’ve required driving to Milwaukee, but I’ve driven to Milwaukee for a concert by a prog rock dinosaur before (King Crimson in 2000). Mostly, though, I was afraid of Benoit David.

Then I saw this:

Pardon the poor sound and picture quality. Apparently Yes is OK with having video from someone’s cell phone represent them on their official site. So be it. But the lack of visual clarity only helps to reinforce the message I’m trying to convey here. You wouldn’t know by looking (the white pants, the vest, the quasi-conductor dancing) — or by listening — but no, that’s not Jon Anderson. It’s Benoit David. And now I get why Chris Squire was so excited to bring him in as a substitute. Too bad teh interwebz didn’t exist 28 years ago.

And too bad we can’t shut up the tone-deaf holder of the cell phone.

Full disclosure of geekdom: 8 or 9 years ago, before Yesworld was established, I ran a Yes fan website — well, it actually poked fun at the band, song by song, album by album, but it was done out of love — and I was approached to be the webmaster for the band’s official site. It was not a paid gig, of course — I would’ve just been compensated with some merch, backstage passes, stuff like that. I decided it was too much work for too little reward; plus, it would probably mean I’d have to take down my own site. Which I eventually did anyway.

OK, Amazon MP3, I love you.

Although I had for the past several years been an unabashed devotee of the iTunes Store (it’s Apple, after all), lately I’ve been finding myself buying more and more of my digital music on Amazon MP3 instead. Why? Let me enumerate the ways:

  1. No DRM. (OK, surprisingly enough that one doesn’t really matter to me that much, but I definitely prefer not having DRM.)
  2. Higher quality. iTunes does have “iTunes Plus” which, at 256 kbps AAC, is higher quality than Amazon’s 256 kbps MP3. But 256 kbps MP3 beats 128 kbps AAC, and it’s not tied to Apple. (Again, not that I care on the last point.)
  3. Cheaper. Yes, cheaper! Almost always! Individual tracks are sometimes 89 cents instead of 99 cents, but I usually buy the whole album, and so far I’ve found that if the album has less than 10 tracks, they almost always just charge the per-track price instead of $9.99. Sometimes it can be a lot cheaper, such as when I downloaded the remastered version of Bitches Brew for $7 instead of $20!
  4. Selection. Early on Amazon’s selection was paltry, but I’ve been finding more and more obscure ’70s stuff lately, such as what I sought out tonight: the first two Greenslade albums. Well, OK, I just looked on iTunes and they have them both now too, for the same price… but at the lower bit rate.