[10 October 2011]
Let’s say you’re a drummer and you happened to play on two of the seminal progressive rock albums (King Crimson’s In The Wake of Poseidon and, along with fellow recent ex-Crimson compatriot Ian McDonald, on McDonald and Giles) as well as what some consider the quintessential prog album of all-time, In The Court of the Crimson King. Then you paid the bills and further made your mark with steady session work and a solo album here and there for the next couple of decades. Then another decade passed and you were still very much alive and well. What would you do? Continue making music, obviously.
Michael Giles, the drummer not everyone knows but everyone who everyone knows name-checks (see: Peart, Neil), continues to make music, and that is a good thing. Better still, the music he is making right now, with his Mad Band, is still progressive, even if it does not rock. Think about that for a moment, and consider how many musicians who were recording over four decades ago are still alive, much less still relevant. Consider how many acts from the grand old days are out on the oldies circuit, or releasing their umpteenth greatest hits rehash, or incapable even of going through the motions with an entourage of back-up players a third their age. Think of the very short list of names that continue to resist time and skirt the boundaries of convention and expectation. None of this is to begrudge any and all of those old time rock and rollers from extracting every last nickel from eager/gullible fans; more power to all involved.
Still, it’s cause for rejoicing to see a gentleman past retirement age who not only refuses to retire, but provides an example any of us, regardless of our age, would do well to emulate. Personal appearance, for better or worse, is often less than half the story (and the least important half) when it comes to art and the people who make it, but the fact that Giles looks about half his age speaks volumes. Checking out recent pictures or catching some videos of his band in action make it abundantly clear that this is one geezer whose body and mind are very much intact. If that sounds vaguely patronizing, once again consider the physical and mental states of most of the people who made music in the early ‘70s.
Quite appropriately, his latest release (the second by the Michael Giles Mad Band) is entitled In The Moment. This description is both literal and…literal. It’s “in the moment” in terms of what he and his bandmates are doing right now, but it’s also unrehearsed material, spontaneously created and recorded. This disc captures what Giles describes on the back cover as “an exploration of sound, silence, space and time.” (Prog rock lives!) If that sounds entirely too vague, or pretentious, it happens to be a pretty accurate depiction of what this ensemble is up to. On this set the band (Giles on drums and percussion along with Daniel Pennie on guitar and Adrian Chivers on horns and “found sounds”) is joined by ex-Crimsoner and piano playing wizard Keith Tippett. Tippett, of course, lent his considerable talents to In the Wake of Poseidon and has actively honed his craft across multiple genres in the ensuing years. It’s a wonderful occasion to see these two wise if not wizened old(er) men join forces once again.
How to describe the sounds? It’s minimalist without being subdued (a signal of extreme confidence) and deliberate without being forced. Giles and Pennie provide rhythmic framework and Chivers and Tippett splash and spray the canvass with color and light. Sometimes the roles reverse and frequently all four are increasing the energy or unwinding the agitation in unison. The result is a series of industrial, percussion-based landscapes. There is an assortment of purposeful clinging and clanging with carefully orchestrated guitar-fueled tension. It occasionally resembles a ruckus but it’s a syncopated ruckus. This, at times, is a musical equivalent of getting in the car and driving, not figuring out where you are until you get there. In the hands of indulgent or untalented hacks, this is a recipe for sonic atrocity; with experts behind the wheel the journey is enjoyable as it is unpredictable.
At times it could almost be called free jazz (the horror?) or even free rock (the horror!) but it works. Suffice it to say, this is not for people who need a beat created by computers, or vocals extolling the virtues of expensive products. In other words this is art. Possibly even art for art’s sake. Imagine that. And enter at your own peril.
Still with me? Good! This work is certainly meant to be experienced in its totality, and yet a few tracks really stay with the listener. These include “Water Colour Mystery”, which if an obligatory (and ostensibly facile) comparison is needed, would not sound at all out of place on Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (ironically, an album neither Giles nor Tippett played on). There is an ominous edge that creeps along, undercut by Tippett’s strategic tinkling. On “Care and Attention”, the interplay between Giles and Tippett sounds like exactly what it is: two proficient veterans able to parlay an aesthetic telepathy into a beguiling—and very unique—dreamscape. If you’ve ever wondered what a player piano in a western saloon would sound like…in space, this is it. (Still with me? Good!) On album closer “And Yet (In the Fullness of Time)” Tippett once again comes to the fore while Pennie unspools a surreal ambiance that eventually envelops everything before slowly fading to black.
Listening to this music, and watching the clips available online, convinces one that catching the band live is the way to go. Seeing is believing, and watching this small band make all these sounds is a compelling proposition. Of course, hearing is believing as well, and it’s good news all around that we have this organic and very alive work for the permanent record. The thing about music, as the great Eric Dolphy remarked (lamented?) is that “after it’s over it’s gone in the air…you can never capture it again.” This is why it’s important to step back sometimes and marvel at the things we tend to take for granted: the rarest artists grow and challenge themselves (and us) and we have a means to preserve the spell that was cast in real time—in the moment—and keep as something to savor.