Special CD Review: The Progressive Sounds of Cuneiform and Cleopatra Records (Part I)

By Brian L. Knight


When first getting interested in progressive music, it is extremely difficult to find the type of music you want. There is techno progressive music; there is quasi-heavy metal progressive music; there is new age progressive music; there is classical influenced progressive music; there is jazzed base progressive music and there is experimental compositional progressive music. The list is endless and to like one style does not necessarily mean that one would like another type. Progressive music is broad ranged and many significantly different types of music permutate within its fold. The one binding agent amongst all the styles is the focus on pushing music forward. Although progressive music draws on historical styles such as jazz, classical and psychedelic, there is this inherent drive to create startling new forms of music.

In my personal evolution, I started my progressive music journey by listening to the likes of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. These roads took me a little further into the world of Marillion, which was always just an "80s version of early Genesis." For awhile I was in a progressive music rut, and then came Boud Deun. Boud Deun, who has been featured in these pages twice before, masterfully marketed themselves through the Homegrown Music Network and became lumped with the "jam bands" that are spreading across the United States. Although more complex and well…..progressive than their fellow jam bands, Boud Deun opened themselves to a whole new market. The live show of Boud Deun was exactly what fans of "jam bands" were looking for: high energy, intense improvisational music that you could dance to (In the case of Boud Deun, the danceability was a little more sporadic).

After my discovery of Boud Deun, I became more aware of a whole slew of progressive bands that have signed with Maryland’s Cuneiform Records and California’s Cleopatra Records. Coupled with my newly discovered passion for experimental and avant-garde music, such as the newer sounds of the Knitting Factory and the earlier innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, I soon realized that there was a lot of music out there to discover.

This newly discovered conundrum of musical thirst was quickly satisfied with Cuneiform’s Unsettled Scores. If you are familiar with Burlington Does Burlington, Vol.1, which is a compilation of Burlington artist’s performing other Burlington artist’s music, then this is Cuneiform’s take on the same formula. Unsettled Scores is a two disc set that features 26 tunes, but in reality it is double that amount. Not only get to hear some amazing compositions but you get to hear another artist’s take on them. Can you see the developing problem here? After listening to the cover and subsequently enjoying it, one is likely going to go out and buy albums by the original and covering artist. A smart marketing ploy I must say.


Despite the ramifications of potential financial woe caused by incessant CD purchasing, Unsettled Scores is an excellent journey into the world of progressive music. Through these two CDs, there is a little sampling of all the types of music that comprises the Cuneiform progressive family. There is the techno, synthesizer ambience of Peter Frohmader (covering Richard Pinhas). There is intricate, classical music based keyboard compositions of Hugh Hopper (covering Doctor Nerve). There is the complete cacophonous free-jazz breakdown of Henry Kaiser and Friends(covering Curlew). There is the hard rocking, guitar-laden jamming of Happy Family(covering Daniel Denis).

After reading that last paragraph, one’s first reaction (especially my own) would be: Who the hell are these guys? Well, for one they are some of the most talented musicians in music today. Often labeled as "intellectual rock", these musicians are mostly virtuosos with there instruments and brilliant composers. In most cases, they come from classical music backgrounds and they simply yearned to combine their musical education with their love of jazz or rock and roll. Their music is primarily lyric-less and the jams are long, multifaceted and not for the faint at heart.

Like the progressive musicians of yore, many of today’s progressive musicians call Europe their home. Countries like Belgium, France and Germany have a long tradition of progressive music (during the 1970s, progressive bands like Kraftwerk, Can and Caravan dominated the European progressive music scene) where the musicians combined the compositional vision of Stockhauzen, Lizt and Varese with their passion to improvise.

As Americans approach the millenium, the term "progressive" music has almost disappeared from the mainstream musical lexicon. There are no specials on MTV such as "Progressive Jams" or "120 Progressive Minutes". There are no "Progressive-palooza’s" dominating the summer festival circuit and a progressive band has never made it to the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin Magazine. Even VH-1’s well done and nostalgic "Behind the Scenes" have neglected the stories of great progressive bands. Only David Bowie, who is considered quasi progressive, made it to VH-1’s top 100 list.

With all of this blatant lack of public support or critical acclaim, some may infer that progressive music perhaps doesn’t deserve any attention. Wrong! Progressive music is the best thing out there today and there are countless bands who are not receiving musical attention yet are playing music so incredibly complex and talented, that it would send Dave Mathews spinning in confusion. For the Phishheads out there, Jon Fishman owes all of his musical influence to bands like Yes and King Crimson (How can you play music like that an not like Bill Bruford?) The music is out there, but unfortunately; you have to search for it. Fortunately for us, there is Cuneiform Records out of Maryland which specializes in recording the best American and European Progressive Music available to the public.


Birdsongs of the Mesozoic/Pyroclastics (1992)

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic are no newcomers to the musical scene. Formed in Boston on the eve of the 1980s, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic have been steadily combining elements of classical music, jazz improvisation and progressive art rock. A typical Birdsongs set can range from thrashing punk to beautiful sweeping classical compositions. Their cover tunes can vary from between cartoon theme songs (The Simpsons, Rocky and Bullwinkle), Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) and Stravinsky (Rites of Spring). Like their sound, the clubs that the Birdsongs have played in over the years have also fluctuated from dark, underground nightclubs to beautiful, acoustically sensitive concert halls. This 1992 album features Ken Field (saxophone, synthesizer), Erik Lindgren (piano), Martin Swope (guitar) and Rick Scott (synthesizers). Swope is an ex member of Boston’s proto-punk outfit Mission of Burma, which contributes to the heavy, aggressive sounds of the Birdsongs (Before Ken Field, Birdsongs was led by Roger Miller who was also an Ex-Mission Burma member). In addition to their primary instruments, the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic all contribute to their sound with percussion, which over the years have consisted of lawnmowers, 24-gallon water drum and washboards.

Throughout the years, Birdsongs have remained in a musical-definition limbo – too harsh to be classified as new wave classical and too complex and intense to be considered rock musicians. The songs on Pyroclastics, their six album, are extremely keyboard dominated and the songs can either be haunting or volcanic in their energy. In addition to the Simpsons theme song, Pyroclastics also features tunes by Brian Eno and the Beach Boys. Since Pyroclastics, Swope has left the band for Hawaii and has been replaced by guitarist Michael Bierylo. No matter the style that they are venturing into, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic approach each tune as an ensemble. The band members ensure that every note is played precisely and like a small orchestra, they play their songs while reading from music sheets. These is the ultimate testament to the Birdsongs’ intricate compositions.


Djam Karet/The Devouring

Like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Djam Karet is no stranger to the music scene. Djam Karet first came together in 1984 as a predominantly live act. The band played mostly at California colleges and universities, and the word of mouth was the driving force behind Djam Karet’s growing popularity. Somewhere along the line, Djam Karet decided to take their music to another level. Throughout their live performances, the band would continuously revisit musical themes and they decided that these themes needed to be expanded upon and refined. From that point on, Djam Karet slowly transformed themselves into a band that focused on extended compositions that touched on jazz improvisation, techno ambience, and Far Eastern spiritual music. The band didn’t completely abandon what they learned from there live acts, for they maintained the hard rocking drive that kept there older fans coming back for more. The end result of all of these influences is like a melting pot of Steve Vai /Phillip Glass and David Gilmour – an ambient Floydian, hard rock fest.

The 1997 release consists of 24 songs that run over 70 minutes in length. Djam Karet consists of Gayle Gellet, who primarily plays guitar (6 & 7 String electric, 12 string acoustic and 24 string steel guitar!); Henry J. Osborne, the master of the electric bass, bottled bass, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars; and Chuck Oken on drums and keyboard sequencing. The album also features the guest guitar of Mike Henderson who used to be a member of the band. In addition to the plethora of guitars, keyboards, percussion and sequencing/loops, The Devouring also features the Mellotron, which was an instrument made popular during the 1960s but has since lost its use in modern music. For another great look at a progressive band’s use of Mellotron, give King Crimson’s In The Court of The Crimson King a listen, which has a Mellotron creating the overall driving tone of the album. Djam Karet is Malaysian for "elastic time" which reflects the band’s sound. They seem to stretch both their influences and song styles to the limit.


Curlew/Fabulous Drop

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and Djam Karet represent the hard driving, guitar blazing, keyboard laden side of progressive music. Their tunes are long and complex and their albums are works of expertly produced art. These two bands definitely find their influences in the concept of art-rock – multifaceted compositions that strive to show musical intellectualism. That is necessarily the case for New York City’s Curlew, which has been an member of the Big Apple’s "downtown" scene since 1979. This avant-garde, punk-jazz quintet, which has been a component of the Knitting Factory’s experimental sound since its inception, is led by saxophonist George Cartwright. What Cartwright adds to Curlew and is missing from other progressive bands is the presence of avant-garde jazz and total, all out improvisation. Instead of tunes that contain premeditated soaring guitar solos and synthesizer madness, Curlew looks to explore the outer limits of music through instrumental meditation. Although influenced by the free jazzers like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman (Cartwright attended Woodstock’s Creative Musicians Studio where he studied with free jazz contemporaries like Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton), Curlew does not completely abandon the music structure. Cartwright also throws his psychedelic, blues, alternative, funk and rock & roll influences into the fold of Curlew.

When listening to Fabulous Drop, Curlew’s interest in post-modernism is immediately evident. The opening tune, August, resembles a late Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders spiritual that features a broken down introduction. This eventually breaks into a highly rhythmic groove with Cartwright and guitarists Chris Cochrane and Davey Williams trading dissonant solos on top of drummer Kenny Wollenson and bassist Rupels incessant and unrelenting beat. Things change up for the second tune, Not Innocent, which bears a resemblance to a Sonic Youth-like feedback jam. Once again, the soloists provide the chaos and the rhythm remains reliable. Throughout the album, there are hints of famed New York avant-gardist John Cage, who thrived on turning everyday noises into a music form. Curlew accomplishes the same thing by adding random noises to their sound. This is most evident on Crazy Feet, Sensible Shoes which has moments where the song sounds like some one turning the dial on a AM radio and than other moments sounding like some sort of Morphine-like surf romp. On By Argon, the band heads into a chaotic Reggae romp that sounds a little like the work of fellow New Yorker James Blood Ulmer. Fabulous Drop is definitely an album full of different styles, genres and influences and through Cartwright’s astute leadership, Curlew is the epitome of an eclectic band. Not eclectic in the sense that they play different styles of music, but eclectic in the sense that use different genres to create their own style.


Forever Einstein/One Thing After Another

Forever Einstein, who has been together since 1989, may be the relative rookies of the crew of reviewed bands. This fact does not defer from the band’s amazing discipline and cohesiveness. Up to this point, a unifying feature of all of these progressive bands has been their size. To accomplish their sounds, many progressive bands used many players who in turn use many instruments. For every band member, there were about three instruments they could play. In the tradition of great progressive bands such as Rush, Forever Einstein is a trio consisting of C.W. Vrtacek on guitar, John Roulat on drums and Jack Vees on bass. Forever Einstein does not attempt to overwhelm the listener with an onslaught of textures, themes, loops and sequencing, but rather uses their tight knit interplay to create a quirky and energetic sound.

As many of the progressive bands play extended, almost haunting compositions, Forever Einstein manages to maintain a happier tone to their music. Forever Einstein’s happy-go-lucky approach to a power trio is also reflected in their song titles. With names such as "Oh Lord, Please Bless this Rocket House and All Those Who Live Inside The Rocket House", "Curly, Get The Ladder" and "Stand Back! You Bloated Museum of Treachery", it is apparent that Forever Einstein have a humorous, carefree approach to their music. The tunes are shorter, tighter and far from long and brooding. In a 1990s combination of Frank Zappa and Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, One Thing After Another blends surf, psychedelic, blues and jazz to create something that resembles Dicky Dale on acid.

These are a few of the bands that comprise the Cuneiform Records catalog. In the next issue, we will visit the sounds of California’s Cleopatra Records and recordings by Caravan, Jean Michael Jarre, Anubian Lights, Ash Ra Tempel and the Genesis tribute album.


Special CD Review: The Progressive Sounds of Cuneiform and Cleopatra Records (Part II)

By Brian L. Knight

In the last issue, the Vermont Review covered the American progressive bands that comprise the Cuneiform label. In this issue we visit the great progressive bands that make up Cleopatra Records – Caravan, Ash Ra Tempel, Jean Michael Jarre, Anubian Lights and the bands that make up the Genesis Tribute album.


Caravan/Songs for the Oblivion Fisherman

The 1990s are showing us that the BBC holds some of the best classic rock recordings available. Already, sessions from Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Genesis have been released to the public and have attained amazing criticisms. Now, there is Songs for the Oblivion Fisherman Caravan, which chronicles Caravan’s sessions with the BBC from 1970-1974. Caravan, which formed in 1968, was one of the main components of the Canterbury progressive music scene throughout the late 1960s – early 1970s. Just as San Francisco was synonymous with psychedelia and Liverpool was the home of the Beatles, Canterbury serves the same purpose as a geographic hamlet for progressive music. Along with Soft Machine, Camel, and Gong, Caravan was a musical leader in the English progressive sounds. Caravan along with the jazzier Soft Machine, arose out the ashes of Wilde Flowers in 1968. The original Caravan lineup consisted of Richard Coughlan (drums), Dave Sinclair (keyboards), Pye Hastings (guitar, vocals) and Richard Sinclair (guitar). The band’s sound belongs somewhere between the Yes and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. At times, Caravan resembles the bumble gum pop that popularized the waves during the 1960s, with their upbeat quirky lyrics. As the band progressed, their sound became more mature and instrumentally more complex. This range is represented by the upbeat "Hello Hello" to the more complex "In the Land of the Grey and Pink". The disc also features previously unavailable studio versions of "Mirror for the Day" and "Virgin on the Ridiculous".


Ash Ra Tempel/The Best of The Private Tapes

Across the English Channel from Canterbury, Manuel Gottsching was making progressive waves with Ash Ra Tempel. Throughout the 1970s, Gottsching used Ash Ra Tempel, which always varied in its lineups, for his musical ideas. Manuel Gottsching grew up listening to the Beatles and Stones, loves the jazz guitar playing of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, studied classical music as a youth and pioneered ambient/techno music throughout the 1970s. By combining these influences and experiences, Gottsching defined the German progressive sounds – at some moments, he rocking away while at others, the sounds put the listener in trance. Private Tapes was originally a 6 CD set that consisted of music from Gottsching’s personal archives. The majority of the music was recorded between 1974 and 1979 while on tour or resting at home. Gottsching recorded many little ditties that never made it to an official album while some other tracks are unreleased live performances. These can be labeled as demos, sonic masterpieces or noodling, but it is all very enjoyable. Like the rock & roll incarnation of his music, Ash Ra Tempel, the music on the Private Tapes swings between guitar mastery and keyboard wizardry, with Gottsching handling all the duties. Like his German contemporaries, Kraftwerk, Gottsching melded the sounds of 1960s pyschedelia and 1970s techno perfectly. Two interesting side notes 1) Look to Trey Anastasio’s One Man’s Trash for an equal representation of a one man eclectic jam session 2) The Ra in Ash Ra Tempel is a direct reference to the Egyptian Sun God. Just like the other musical namesake of the God, Sun Ra, Gottsching employed a perfect combination of improvisation and composition. Both Sun Ra and Gottsching placed an emphasis on the structure of a song but then allowed for free interpretations to follow.


The Fox Lies Down/A Tribute to Genesis

Genesis, along with Yes and King Crimson, may be one of the most influential progressive bands. With the band’s masterful combination of fantasy-like lyrics, complex musical composition and virtuoso performances, Genesis was the defining band for the progressive era. Genesis’ true ‘progressive’ time was approximately between 1970 and 1977, when the band was the most prolific and creative with its songwriting process. Similarly, the bands that comprise this Genesis tribute chose songs from the same time period. Many can argue that Genesis’ 1974 double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was the band’s crowning achievement. In addition to the fact that the title of the tribute album is a variation of the 1974 title, the influence of that album is felt by the presence of the Strawbs playing "Carpet Crawlers", Controlled Bleeding performing "Broadway Melody of 1974" and Architectural Metaphor’s version of the "Waiting Room". Earlier work is also represented by "In The Beginning" (Mother Gong), "Can Utility & The Coastliners (Brand X), "Cinema Show"(The Flower Kings) and "Return of the Giant Hogweed" (Spirits Burning). It isn’t all Peter Gabriel era Genesis as Patrick Moraz (of Yes fame) tackles 1976’s "Los Endos" and John Wetton (of King Crimson fame) takes a stab at "Your Own Special Way". Not only does this album provide excellent alternative versions for the Genesis fan, but also introduces a whole slew of new bands.


Anubian Lights/Let Not The Flame Die Out \

Anubian Lights is a collaborative project, featuring the members of Pressurehed Farflung, and former members of Hawkwind Pressurehed and Farflung hail from the Los Angeles/Hollywood area and their goals are to continue with "Kraut"/Space rock" popularized by German bands such as Ash Ra Tempel, Kraftwerk and Can. Despite its relation to the music of Germany, the inspiration draws from the music of Englishman Robert Calvert. Calvert, along with Anubian Lights members Nik Turner, Del Dettmar, Simon House and Brandon LaBelle, were the core members of the English space –rock group Hawkwind. Hawkwind was the British Isles answer to ‘Krautrock" and the band was considered the forerunner of the new wave/punk era that was to arrive in the 1980s. Calvert was much more than a band member, he was the eccentric leader who created a cult of personality for many future musicians to follow. In addition to his musical innovations, his stage presence, poetry and theatrics created an additional visual element to an already overbearing audio sensation. The music on Anubian Lights is not a tribute to Hawkwind or Robert Calvert, but rather an expansion upon their ideals. Anubian Lights adds a little bit of the Middle East to create a smooth Egyptian-like groove. If the breadth of electronica scares you, than the sounds of Anubian Nights is a great starting point to delve into the world of moods.


Jarre Logic/A Tribute to Jean Michael Jarre

Musicians such as Ash Ra Tempel, Anubian Lights, Hawkwind, Fat Boy Slim, Art of Noise, Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Phillip Glass, and Sun Ra, all owe a little debt of gratitude to French composer Jean Michael Jarre. Jarre revolutionized the use of the keyboard and synthesizers in modern music. Jarre went much further than simply incorporating keyboards into existing musical forms: he created a new art form all together. After starting off in rock and roll and jazz groups and studying at the prestigious Conservatorie de Paris, Jarre blew people’s minds with 1976’s Oxygene. Along with his subsequent albums, Jarre’s goal with Oxygene was to create a musical landscape or soundscape. Jarre may be considered the much cooler, hipper, earlier influence on John Tesh, Yanni and Windham Hill Records as he incorporates different natural sounds into his performances and grandiose concerts. For instance, Jarre will be playing his Millenium concerts at the Pyramids of Giza. This tribute consists of Kenton Files, Timescape, Michael Bondee, Gravity Four, T. Anderson and Jarre Experience all doing their own takes on Jarre’s classic compositions from his albums Oxygene (1976), Equinoxe(1978), Magnetic Fields(1981) and Rendez-vous(1986). Although interesting to listen to, the real Jean Michael Jarre’ albums are the definitive listening experiences for they create amazing trance like moods.

This is just a sampling of the bands that comprise Cuneiform Records and Cleopatra Records. Although each and every band has a unique sound, they are still bound by some common themes. For one, there is an intellectual element to their music. Their music is very complicated and requires brain usage when listening to them. This high musical intellectualism may also contribute to the longevity of these progressive bands. Some bands have had the same lineup for years on end while others have been characterized by continuously changing lineups. Regardless of lineup, these musicians and their desire to make music has been incessant and Cuneiform and Cleopatra Records are responsible for providing their quality music to the masses. In addition to their obvious connection to ancient Egypt, these two labels share the characteristic of assuming the difficult task of compiling this music. The difficulty comes with both a lack of mass appeal and availability. The music of the Cuneiform and Cleopatra does not find itself to the airwaves that often so unfortunately, the music is also relatively hard to find in stores. So stop by at http://members.aol.com/cuneiform2/cuneiform.html and http://www.hallucinet.com/cleopatra to find out more.