My Best of 2012


So much good, no, great music this year. Many of my favorite artists came through with excellent new releases. It’s always nice to know that music is alive and well, as it should be. 

Music:



Scott Walker - BISH BOSCH

What can I say? If you are hip to Walker, then you know what this album means. If you are not hip to him, then you just may not get it at all. The short story is: the one time member of ‘60s pop icons, the Walker Brothers, long ago abandoned the pop world and started creating music full of gritty realism and startling images. It’s been 6 years since his last release, TILT, and he’s gone even further into the darkness, yet retaining a sense of humor that comes through, as if to say, “This is all so dark and brooding, but it’s really just a joke.” 

The 69 year old Walker attacks a variety of subjects, often straining his baritone voice at its upper reaches, adding an edge to the proceedings. The music rarely follows any familiar song structure, but rather is an assortment of jagged sound blocks, percussion, and that mesmerizing voice. This is not an easy recording to listen to. The music is challenging, but it has such great depth upon repeated listening, that it’s worth sticking with and rising to the challenge. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 6 more years before he releases another album.



District 97 -  Trouble With Machines

D97’s 1st album, Hybrid Child, was one of my fave recordings of 2010. Their new release, Trouble With Machines, is an excellent follow up that finds the band both maturing, and solidifying their sound. Whereas Hybrid was often derivative of their influences (not a bad thing), Machines finds them stretching out and asserting their own sound more. It’s difficult to pick out a standout tune, but drummer Jonathan Schang’s, The Perfect Young Man, featuring prog legend John Wetton on vocals, is a dramatic tale where Wetton and D97 vocalist, Leslie Hunt, portray lovers in a troubled relationship that should be perfect. 

Hunt’s own, Open Your Eyes (also on one of her solo albums), is given a heavier arrangement, but retains its pop bounciness. The albums closer, bassist Patrick Mulcahy’s nearly 14 minute, The Thief, is a dramatic tail of love & loss. It’s a great melodic prog/metal workout with Hunt’s impassioned vocals shining. 

If you are not hip to District 97 yet, then you owe it to yourself to check them out. Oh, live they are killer and sound just like the albums, only better!




SAGA - 20/20


Back in 2008, after nearly 30 years, SAGA’s lead vocalist left to concentrate on being a family man. The band drafted Toronto area vocalist, Rob Moratti, to fill Sadler’s shoes. They released the excellent The Human Condition, and then Heads Or Tails LIve. Then the next thing you know, Moratti was gone and Sadler was back. I had my doubts about how these musical chairs would turn out.

This leads us to 20/20, the band’s 20th release (!) and possibly their finest effort. The opening, Six Feet Under, bubbles with throbbing synths, then kicks into driving drums and guitar. And on top of all that is Sadler’s magnificent voice. And it’s not just his voice, but his delivery. Sadler has a way of pulling you into a song, into the lyrics. Anywhere You Wanna Go has swirling synths and jagged guitar on top of funky drums. Again, Sadler’s vocals are killer.

The album keeps going from strength to strength. Ellery is one of those songs in 6 as only SAGA can do it. Lost For Words is a great ballad, while Til The Well Runs Dry is a driving rocker. I will admit that I miss the different edge that Rob Moratti brought to the band, but I’m also glad that Michael Sadler is back, as this is such an outstanding effort that shows the band still strong, creative, and relevant. 




Another veteran band that released one of it’s strongest albums in 2012. Opening with the 17+ minute, Gaza, the band shows us why they are still one of the greatest prog bands. The driving song features vocalist Steve Hogarth’s impassioned plea about how harsh life can be living in Gaza today. The title track is one of those beautiful, lush rockers that Marillion do so well. I’m always impressed with the sounds they use on each album, and how things are mixed. Marillion has one of the more interesting band sounds out there

The closing, The Sky Above The Rain, is one of those beautiful mid-tempo ballads that they do so well. Hogarth’s vocals are gorgeous, as is Steve Rothery’s guitar. This is the Marillion we know & love. Well done.



Heart - Fanatic

There seems to be a theme here, with another veteran group that delivers one of their strongest releases in ages. Fanatic harks back to the classic ‘70s Heart. The album rocks from beginning to end, with a few ballads thrown in. The opener, Fanatic, jumps in rocking, with big guitars and driving drums. Vocalist, Ann Wilson, shows why she has been such a forces for so many years. She’s gifted with one of the best voices on the planet, and also knows how to phrase and use subtlety. 

Pennsylvania is haunting and melancholy, while 59 Crunch is a driving rocker. Heart doesn’t show any signs of slowing down or resting on their history. Instead they have upped the ante with Fanatic and continue to tour across the land. They also were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame this year. Things don’t get much better.



Geoff Tate - Kings & Thieves

This is an album that millions will love to hate. After the very public, and on going, break up of Queensrÿche and vocalist Geoff Tate, fans are squarely divided into 2 camps: those for, and those against, Tate. Now Tate has taken a lot of criticism for leading the Rÿche into a more modern direction than keeping them strictly in the very heavy metal realm. Without getting into the debate here, Tate claimed to be the driving force behind the music, and it’s quite apparent here that he was. This album could easily have been the Rÿche’s follow up to there last release, Dedicated To Chaos. The sound is the same sort of modern hard rock/metal. Unfortunately, the haters will not likely give the music here a chance, and they will miss out on some great hard rocking music. No, this isn’t The Warning, or Empires, but those were over 20 years ago, and Tate has certainly changed in all that time. You can’t be an angry young man forever.

She Slipped Away and Take A Bullet are both solid rockers driven by Tate’s vocals. The music is crunchy and riff driven. Change is a dramatic, passionate ballad that brings back memories of Silent Lucidity. Dark Money is an anthemic rocker much like Empires. You can’t help but make the comparisons to older Queensrÿche material, as Geoff Tate was such a big presence. It will be interesting to hear what the 4 remaining members of the Rÿche, with new vocalist Todd La Torre, release in the future.



Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day

New Led Zeppelin? That is indeed a celebration day! Finally, after 5 years, we get the legendary December 2007 reunion show (on DVD/BluRay & CD). Jason Bonham, son of the band’s original drummer, the late John Bonham, fills in for his dad. What can I say? The band still has it, as they drive through a set of Zeppelin classics: Black Dog, No Quarter, Kashmir, Stareway To Heaven, Rock AndRoll, and others. If you are a Zeppelin fan, than this is just for you. These old guys can still rock!




The Montreal duo of singer/multi-instrumentalist Elsieanne Caplette, and drummer Stephane Sotto, return for their 2nd release. The music is often hynotic and ambient, with Caplette’s unique vocal stylings riding on top. She is one of the more interesting vocalists out there today. She has a way of changing the timber of her voice, changing tone, much like an instrumentalist would. The opener, Slowbirth, features a scat type section where Caplette sound more like a trumpet or sax. Underhelped is driven by a synth bass drone and deep toms. The rather jagged synth lines are layered with vocal washes and lines. 

Drummer Sotto is always inventive, bringing fresh rhythmic pulses to the music, like In The Shadows, where his drums dance through the song with offbeat accents. All the songs here are lush and atmospheric. A worthy followup to their 1st release, Hybrid.



John Cage - As It Is (Alexi Lubimov/Natlia Pschenitschnikova)

What an amazingly beautiful album! Pianist Lubimov, and vocalist Pschenitschnikova, had both met Cage when he had been invited to Mosow in 1988, so there is a direct connection here between composer and performers. The music covers a wide variety of pieces, from the lyrical piano of Dream, and the prepared piano of The Unavailable Memory Of and Music For Marcel Duchamp, to the soothing voice of Experiences No.2 and The Wonderful Widow Of Eighteen Springs. For all the angst aimed at Cage’s music for being too weird, he was capable of writing wonderfully beautiful and delicate music. The traditional clarity of ECM’s recording enhances the beauty even more. If you thought Cage was all about difficult music, this may be the recording of his to try.



John Cage - The Works For Percussion 2 (Third Coast Percussion) [DVD]

So here we are approaching the end of 2012, the centennial year of John Cage’s birth. As such, it’s been filled with all manner of live concerts, books, and recordings celebrating the genius of Cage. No other record label has been as responsible for promoting Cage’s legacy than MODE. This recording is the 45th (!) in their ongoing series of recording the vast Cage catalog. The young Chicago based percussion quartet does an excellent job of performing some of Cage’s most iconic percussion pieces, as well as the lesser known Living Room Music.

The DVD opens with Cage’s 3 Constructions, early works that have become staples for percussion ensembles. They are marvels of both rhythms and sounds, as all manner of percussion are used: Conch shells, tins cans, Chinese toms, Gongs, wood blocks, and various sheets of metal. There is an organic quality that makes this immensely listenable. I always marvel at Cage’s rhythmic construction, how he put things together. Third Coast really has the spirit of the pieces down. These are some of the most engaging recordings of the Constructions I have heard.

Quartet, in 4 movements, moves through various tempos and is fascinating to watch. It must be mentioned that the filming of all pieces is exceptional. Part of the appeal of cage’s percussion work is the very visual aspect, as players move from instrument to instrument. 

The closing Living Room Music is just that. Recorded at the architecturally interesting Ford House, in Aurora, IL, finds the Quartet playing various objects and the house itself. 
As always, this is an excellent production from MODE. 

*Note: buy the DVD version, as it has the all important visuals, and surround sound - besides, you can always just rip the stereo audio from the DVD.



Save Percussion Theater - Aiyun Huang & Friends [DVD]

Another great MODE release. These works for solo through quartet were made famous by the legendary Paris group Trio Le Cercle. While not well known outside of percussion circles, they are important works none the less, as they combine music with a visual theater aspect. And what’s more visual than percussion anyway? The pieces here feature a lot of movement, some dance, vocalizations, and different percussion techniques. It’s difficult to describe the various tracks, as they really need to be seen/heard for themselves. Suffice to say, this is an interesting collection of eclectic music for percussion, all performed and produced with great clarity. My respect for MODE for producing another in a great series of percussion releases.

Literature:



Where The Heart Beats - Kay Larson 

Another new book on John Cage released for his centenary. This is a biography, but with a twist from all the other ones out there. Larson approaches Cage’s life through the lens of Zen Buddhism and Cage’s fascination with the Orient. We see the young Cage as a seeker who found what he was looking for in the Oriental philosophies of Buddhism, the I-Ching, and other Asian systems of thought. This was a perfect fit, as Cage was about bringing everyday sounds, noise, into the realm of music. His all inclusive philosophy challenged (and still challenges) our preconceived ideas of what constitutes music. A very worthwhile read.



John Cage - Rob Haskins

Yet another Cage biography, but with a different tone and approach. This is equally well written and illuminates different areas and thoughts about Cage and his life/music. 


2012 has certainly been the year for John Cage books, music & performances. Hopefully much of it will be well received and help dispel the idea of Cage as some sort of crazy composer who’s music is too weird for most people. If anything, all these releases should show how Cage was a very complex, multi-faceted man, who created an immense catalog of well thought out music. He was also a visionary who used things like turntables, radios, electronics, found percussion, and others before anyone else. If anything, the world owes him a debt for his creativity.


Film:



La Jeteé / Sans Soleil - Chris Marker (Criterion Collection)

One of the most important films ever released, La Jeteé, finally gets the Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment. Although only 27 minutes long, it has inspired countless film makers, including Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, which was a modern expansion on the original. La Jete´is a timeless science fiction film, shot in black and white, that is made up of almost all still images! The tale set in a futuristic Paris, after global destruction, is about one man's trip to the past to hopefully save mankind. The voiceover narration sets the tone and tells the story. Marker shot the still images on inexpensive 35mm cameras and proved that a great idea can be made into something memorable without having a gigantic budget.

San Soleil, from 20 years later, is a color travelogue set mostly in Japan & Africa. It is a hauntingly beautiful film that again asks us to check our perception of the world. There are no stars, no typical movie action, but the film pulls you in and keeps your interest.



Certified Copy - Abbas Kiarostami (Criterion Collection)

Another beautiful film that again tests our perception. It asks the question, "What is better, the original, or the copy?" Starring Juliette Binoche & William Shimell, the film looks at day day spent together by the two, her, an antiques dealer, him, a famous author who has written a book on the subject of the film. Our perception is tested as they start out as two people just meeting at a book signing. Later, they appear to be a married couple. Which is real? Which is a copy? Does it matter? Beautifully filmed and acted, this has become one of my most watched films.



Belle du Jour - Luis Bunuel (Criterion Collection)

Another great Blu-ray release. This classic erotic tale of a bored housewife who moonlights as a prostitute features the lovely Catherine Deneuve. The dreamy tale looks at class and  social mores and once again, tests our perceptions: what is real, what is imagination? 


Once again, two of my favorite labels, MODE (music) and Criterion (film), have come up with a host of fantastic releases. I highly recommend both to lovers of great music & film, and look forward to what they will have in store for 2013…

~ MB

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