Music

Chris Gestrin: Stillpoint

Alison Wong

Chris Gestrin

Stillpoint

Label: Songlines
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The first aspect that you notice about pianist/composer Chris Gestrin on the album Stillpoint is that he likes to play with the aesthetics of sound and that, for him, music is about craftsmanship. His influences are wide-ranging, from the likes of Chick Corea and Miles Davis to Dmitri Shostakovich, but the applications of their influences to his music are understated, morphed behind the conceptualization of avant-garde jazz. There's such a feeling of unquiet about the album that one could very easily disengage from it before realizing its depth. The music explores space, tranquility, time, and distance using traditional jazz instrumentation and sampled sounds. To some, this will be just another one of those pretentious modern music albums, a series of random notes thrown together and mixed in a pot, without realizing that there are subtle structural elements connecting the framework. At only 29, Gestrin's music already possesses a sense of maturity, exemplified by his ability to flesh out original musical ideas by employing a slew of compositional devices with an obvious thoughtfulness. The exhilarating part is that the music is not written out in its entirety. There is a sense of rawness to the music, the kind that is only associated with free improvisational jazz.

The title and opening track is atmospheric, where Gestrin draws on an acute sense of space and harmonic overtones to produce an impressionist statement with short, repetitive piano statements initially segmented by cymbals. It builds to a moderate crescendo as piano and percussion lines intertwine. The next track, "Never Summer Range", has an altogether fuller sound, with a piano pedal as the backbone. Beginning with an aural wash of shimmering cymbals and musings on bass, the piano enters with a theatrical arpeggiated pedal. The saxophone follows with a sweet melody reminiscent of the late Miles Davis. The piece builds as the music segues to a drum and cymbal interlude before departing into another interlude driven by a five chord piano pedal with improvised saxophone that leads to a relentless and intense climax. The piano is uncompromising in the background, while the saxophone on top struggles to break away, squealing like a strangled pig.

Gestrin's background is in film composition (he's a graduate of the Berklee College of Music), and at times this is apparent on the album. While his music can, for the most part, wholly engage your attention, there are occasions where it seems to want to interact with another artistic medium to maximize its effect. "Outpost" opens with a distorted trumpet noise and electronic music sounding like something out of a horror movie soundtrack. Filled with suspense, it easily conjures up a visual scene of a dark, dank night, waiting for something to emerge from the shadows. The track ends imperceptibly before you're shaken up by the loud thuds that introduce the next track.

"Complex One/City" promises much to begin with, but in the end it delivers less than expected. There is an under layer of rhythmic African shakers and programmed percussion, with more improvised saxophone on top and interjecting piano chords. The layers don't blend together as well as they might and, at 7.5 minutes, the track is a tad long. At this point, it is clear that Gestrin's leadership is paramount to the success and delivery of the music. Without a strong piano part, this piece lacks direction and cohesiveness, despite some obvious structural signposts.

"This Past Tuesday" is a piano solo played by Gestrin and is easily the best track on the album. Standing at a mere two minutes long, it evokes a Debussy Prélude. The piano creates a dreamy ambient landscape with short, unhurried chordal statements that fade off into the distance.

The mind begins to wander in the latter half of the album. The samples become a little too distracting, mostly in a weird and disconnected way, and the cacophony descends into a rumbling of experimental noise. Redemption comes on two tracks: "Cliffs and Clouds" is fast paced, rhythmically strong, and intense, while the following track, "My Painted Dream Bird", is beautifully poignant, crafted from long sustained notes on the flugelhorn and supported by a gentle piano background.

This is some of the most original and innovative new music on the scene today. Admittedly, it's not entirely accessible even to those with the most open of minds, but for those who are willing to pursue, it's well worth the effort.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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