Rarely does NOT going on tour ever result in an increase in a band’s popularity. Yet that was exactly the result when Sweden’s Beardfish, a modern mix of Zappa, Genesis, and their own unique flavors, missed out on what would have been their first American run with the latest (perhaps last) incarnation of the Progressive Nation tour back in 2009, due to financial issues with their label.
Apparently simply being temporarily included on the tour line-up was enough to spark the interest of North American fans, who have been anxiously awaiting news of new albums and potential live dates on this side of the Atlantic for years now. The band is certainly prolific enough, having producing five albums since 2003, so it’s not as if new fans have been suffering due to a lack of material to digest. Still, prog fans are a voracious bunch, so it was with great joy that news of the band’s latest album, Mammoth, reached our facebook pages, twitter feeds, and other channels for information late last year. Since then there have been a few juicy leaks here and there, such as some distorted and grainy live performance of two new tracks finding their way onto youtube (you can google them if you like, I personally think it will be worth waiting to hear the cleaner studio versions). The most enticing item however was released when front man Rikard Sjöblom (I dare you to pronounce that) appeared on the International Prog Rock Show to promote both Mammoth as well as his very enjoyable side-project “Gungfly”. The guys over at IPRS were kind enough to upload the edited version of the first track from Mammoth titled “The Platform”, which you can find below:
Note: If anyone can get me a stand-alone cut of the band’s cover of “The Little House I Used to Live In” that they played on this same show, I will love you forever.
Reviews of this album are already starting to pop up around the web on a few blogs (not this one! Unless someone with a promo copy is feeling super cool…*cough*), and they’ve been almost universally positive. Personally, Beardfish has been one of my favorite bands for the past two years, so I can’t wait to get my mitts on this new material. The album is set to land in consumers’ hands at the end of March, so be on the look out for it. If Mammoth is as good as I’m hoping it will be, it will cement Beardfish’s place as a major force in the progressive rock landscape for the foreseeable future.
Welcome back to class students, as we continue to review the stereotypes that make up that most divine of musical genres, progressive rock. So far we’ve covered some of the most frequent habits that progressive rock is known for, but there are still some other common characteristics that you should be aware of before you can consider yourself a fully informed prog hater/enthusiast. So without any further delay (I think 6+ months was enough) lets dive back in…
Stereotype 5: Girls hate progressive rock
The key thing to recognize here is that girls don’t actually HATE progressive rock. They don’t HATE video games, sports, beer, farting, action movies, comic books, or Dungeons and Dragons either. It’s just very rare that you’re going to find a girl who, of her own free will, chooses to take part in any of these activities. If you see a girl at a progressive rock concert there’s usually about a 93.521% chance that she was dragged there by her nerdy boyfriend/husband/legally appointed guardian and that she will have absolutely zero idea who Chris Squire is (even if she’s heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” before). In regards to the other 6.479% of the time, the majority of those girls are just as socially awkward as you, the average progressive rock fan. So go for it champ, and have that supremely awkward conversation! Try to segue into a pick up line after your conversation about which Frank Zappa keyboard player you thought was the best (example: “Did you know Bobby Martin created a program called ‘Look Great Naked At Any Age’? You know who else looks great naked? *point at yourself* This guy!).
Rarely, you’ll find a totally normal, attractive girl without any obvious mental issues who happens to like progressive rock. However the most this has ever lasted is 6 hours, because anyone who has ever met this elusive beast eventually wakes up in their own bed, cursing their dreams for tricking them once again.
Stereotype 6: You can’t dance to progressive rock
This stereotype is the result of a number of independent factors. First of all, the only ethnic groups who enjoy progressive rock are white people, Japanese people, and people from South America. Out of these three groups, only the South Americans are born with the ability to get their groove on. However, there has yet to be a samba, rumba, tango, salsa, or pasa doble designed to accompany a progressive rock epic (which I find shocking, considering that it’s been fifteen years since Spock’s Beard introduced us to Senior Velasco, who does in fact drink his milk with Tabasco). So really this stereotype stems more from the fact that no one who listens to progressive rock can dance, not that the music is un-danceable.
That being said, I’ve never seen a dance floor clear out as quickly as I did when a band I was in in college covered ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. And if Pink Floyd doesn’t get people bouncin in da club, I fear there may be no hope for the progressive rock dance craze (which is too bad, cause I already had moves figured out to half of Beardfish’s catalogue).
Stereotype 7: Progressive Rock Vocalists are Horrible
The least important piece in the prog rock puzzle is always going to be the vocals. Even when you have a phenomenal vocalist like Russell Allen of Symphony X, people in the progressive rock community are going to focus on guitarist Michael Romero’s stupidly technical and ludicrously fast fret work instead. Thus when a vocalist isn’t exactly at the same level as the rest of the members of the band he or she will stick out like a lone straight man at a Jonas Brothers concert.
Another problem (or ‘prog-lem’, my newest addition to the prog dictionary) is that many prog vocalists, while talented, chose to sing in a style that most listeners aren’t used hearing and enjoying. In this category we have the extremely well documented ‘guy who sings far too high’ (see examples one, two, three, four, five, and six). There are also the less frequently heard ‘guy who is trying far to hard to sound mentally unstable’ and the ‘woman who sounds like a failed opera singer’. It’s no wonder that bands will simply write instrumental songs and avoid these problems all together. It’s got to be far less awkward to tell your vocalist to take a 12 minute piss while you and the other musicians wank on stage than fire him or her, right?
Stereotype 8: No one can actually define progressive rock
Well then what the hell do you think all these stereotypes are for? I’ll be honest, any time someone asks me how I define progressive rock the answer is going to be pulled directly from my ass, and the longer I go on speaking the less I know what I’m talking about (to anyone who has asked me to define progressive rock, I’m sorry, but I probably said something completely absurd and false to you at some point in that conversation and I hope you saw through my bullshit).
Defining progressive rock is like trying to define what pornography is. Everyone knows it when they see or hear it, and most people have to hide it in a closet to keep it from corrupting their children. Yet no one can agree on a definition of what makes smut smut and and art art. Over time we’ve agreed on some common themes and put together some loose ideas, but we’ve never been able to perfect our unified theory of progressive integration assessment (UToPIA). The problem is that we keep finding new bands that don’t meet any of our previous criteria, but we still want to embrace them as part of the genre. At the same time new bands continue to spawn that fit nearly every progressive stereotype, and we chose to shun like illegitimate children. Until we learn to stop these practices and be happy with the bands we have I’m confident that we will never reach UToPIA.
Stereotype 9: Progressive rock is the product of way too many drugs
This is basically true. Though drugs can also be credited with jam bands, jazz, and every single one of Terry Gilliam’s movies, so they can’t be all bad can they? (note: A Prog Blog does not endorse drug use). In fact prog bands are starting to creep back into the hippie-jam-band festival scene, and the High Voltage Festival in Great Britain has an entire stage devoted ENTIRELY to progressive rock.
Sure, there are some prog artists that are either straight edge or too old to be hardcore drug addicts, but there are just as many nerds who get their inspiration from a bong as there are reggae artists who…well, are reggae artists. And I’m sure Robert Fripp has done just as much acid as Jerry Garcia. Some how though there aren’t nearly as many tragic drug related progressive rock deaths as there are in other music genres. Sure, very few prog artists are high profile enough that they’ll even get a 10 line article on a random news website when they die of whatever ends up killing them (odds on favorite for cause of death for every prog artist ever: stroke caused by attempts at writing a song in in 4/0), but the fact is that prog artists don’t really die, let alone die of drug related issues. Nerds just know how to handle themselves when it comes to hardcore drug use, I guess.
So once again, I hope this helps provide a decent framework for understanding the progressive rock genre. If you don’t feel like actually learning anything, you can use these tools to at least pretend that you know what you’re talking about next time you encounter a progressive rock nerd (which will be any day now, I promise!). Keep on the look out for further installments whenever I can come up with new things to criticize about prog rock and its fans.
The first thing I should say, as a disclaimer, is that we should all be happy that the music of Frank Zappa is still being played today. In a world where a lot of young music fans are starting to compare the Jonas Brothers to the Beatles, presenting his music to new audiences is vitally important.
Until a few years ago, I have to (shamefully) confess that I was only a casual Frank Zappa fan. I owned Hot Rats, a greatest hits collection or two, and some random tracks via the internet, but that was the extent of my Zappa experience.
I was still in this frame of mind a year after college when I convinced some friends to make the 18 hour drive to Manchester, TN to experience the Bonnaroo music festival. There were a ton of bands I wanted to see (as there are every year), and one that caught my attention specifically was Zappa Plays Zappa, a Zappa cover band fronted by Frank’s son Dweezil.
And so it happened that one afternoon that weekend while my friends went to see BB King play what I was told was an amazing set on the main stage, I chose to visit one of the secondary stages for ZPZ’s set. It was during that hour and fifteen minutes that my true Zappa-fandom was born. I was exposed to Zappa’s music in a whole new way, and the fact that I was surrounded by fellow Zappa-worshipers all singing their hearts out made the experience both surreal and heavenly.
Since then I’ve become a complete Zappa-phile. My knowledge, ownership, and enjoyment of his catalog has grown exponentially, and it pains me more than any other deceased musician that I never got to see him perform live. Thankfully Zappa Plays Zappa does a fabulous job of presenting Frank’s music to new audiences. However, they aren’t the only prominent Frank Zappa cover band around today (hooray, he’s actually getting to the point of the article!).
Project/Object first started touring in 1998 and are basically considered to be the ‘other’ Zappa cover band, despite of the fact that they’ve been around longer than ZPZ, and, maybe more importantly, have a former member of Frank’s line-up consistently performing with them. Both P/O and ZPZ have been blessed by the presence of various Zappa alumni during their numerous tours such as Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ray White, and dozens of others, but P/O has had the advantage of having Ike Willis, the vocalist for a number of Zappa albums including the iconic Joe’s Garage, performing with them on every tour. I’d wanted to check out this Zappa troupe out for awhile now, but it was only this past week that I was finally able to catch one of their shows. Thus last Thursday I made the 5 block stroll (I love living in Manhattan) down to BB King Blues Club and Grill, something I found ironic considering the circumstances of my Bonnaroo Zappa baptism, to finally check P/O out.
In all honesty the most I knew about BB King (the venue!) before the show was that they have a Beatles Brunch on Saturday afternoons with a looking-a-like band and a gospel brunch on Sundays. Other than that it was simply a venue I walked past whenever I go to the movies. I anticipated that it was going to be a classier place than a lot of other venues in NYC and probably a little more expensive given the area it’s located in (right outside of Times Square on West 42nd Street), so I tried to brace my wallet for the hit. Upon arriving and purchasing my ticket I moved into the main room, and I was asked if I want to be seated. I usually hate sitting for shows as moving around and physically rocking out is a big part of any concert for me, but I saw that sitting would put me drastically closer to the stage compared to standing at the bar, so I accepted the invitation and was escorted to a seat.
The club sits guests together as they come in, so I ended up at a table with two older gentlemen, two young men my own age, and a foreign couple (note: I found it pretty funny how many guys had dragged their hesitant girlfriends to the show. This was not a generational thing either, there were couples in their 20’s and couples in their 50’s who were having the same conversation about loving/reluctantly being there at every table). The seating was a little cramped and the forced proximity to others could have made things slightly awkward if I and my new friends weren’t social butterflies, but everyone was paying attention to the band anyway so it’s wasn’t all that terrible a situation to be in. Seated guests were also required to spend at least $10 per person on food and/or drink, but seeing as beers were $7 dollars each this was hardly an obstacle. The staff was quick and professional, but they were constantly trying to get everyone to spend more money on drinks during the performance, which became pretty aggravating by the end of the show. Still, if one’s not careful he or she can easily end up spending a shit ton of money on $7-10 dollar drinks and entrees that start at $15 dollars and max out at over $50 (note: a steak at BB King will cost you more than a steak at Ruth’s Chris).
But oh yeah, there was music too! The opener was a bluegrass band that one of the P/O members plays with while not Zappa-ing called Astrograss. Their set was entirely Zappa covers, which I have to salute the band for for being absurdly creative. The highlights of the entire night may have been the bluegrass covers of “Stick It Out“, a filthy song about having sex with robots, and “He’s So Gay“, which is pretty easy to figure out the concept of. Not only were the songs hilarious in both concept and execution, but you could tell some of the other members of the band could barely believe what they were playing. Astrograss isn’t the most talented bluegrass band I’ve ever seen but I have to give them an A+ for being ridiculous, ambitious, and having most of the audience on the floor laughing during their entire set.
After Astrograss, Project/Object made their way on stage. The non-Zappa-alumni came on stage first to very little fanfare, followed by Ike Willis to massive applause. I had seen recent pictures of Ike before the show, and it’s good that I had because otherwise I’d have probably mistaken him for the homeless guy outside my apartment. As a young douche bag I know I can’t really judge people on how well they age, but it’s really like seeing two different people compared to what he looked like back in the late 70’s/early 80’s (I couldn’t find a good picture of him back then, but check this out and then compare it to now). Also joining P/O on this tour is Ray White, who has aged equally well, to the point where he looks EXACTLY like John Witherspoon.
I have to admit that my expectations had been set pretty high by Zappa Plays Zappa. ZPZ features phenomenal musicians who pull off flawless covers of Zappa’s music, and the band includes saxes and an auxiliary percussionist who add another layer of authenticity to each performance. I quickly became aware that P/O was going to be a different type of Zappa cover band experience. They’re a smaller group than ZPZ, featuring no horns or percussion outside of drums (at least currently, the composition of both groups changes semi-frequently, and sax was included on some songs in the second set), and to be perfectly frank their performances aren’t as clean as ZPZ’s. Part of this falls on the shoulders of Willis and White, who really aren’t the performers they used to be. In their prime they were both amazing vocalists offering stark contrast to Zappa’s emotionless, almost monotone spoken lyrics. On this night neither of them even tried to challenge their vocal ranges after the third song. Ray White in particular disappointed me with what seemed like a total lack of effort, which was especially surprising considering I had also seen him play with ZPZ at Bonnaroo back during the performance mentioned at the beginning of this review and his performance then, outdoors in the summer heat, was infinitely more impressive. The non-Zappa alumni of P/O are all fine musicians, with their current drummer Jim Ruffi standing out especially. However none of them with the exception of Ruffi would have made it in Zappa’s band, and frankly their overall sound just shrinks in comparison to that found in ZPZ.
All of those criticisms aside, I still found many things to enjoy in their performance. The band played two sets of a solid length, and their set list choices were spectacular. “Big Swifty,” “Little House I Used to Live In,” “RDNZL,” and “City of Tiny Lights” (one of my top 3 Zappa songs of all time) were choices I did not see coming and was thrilled to hear. The band is also very relaxed on stage, and captures the casual atmosphere of what I’ve learned Zappa’s original shows were like much better than ZPZ, who barely ever converse with each other or the crowd outside of Dwzeeil’s semi-awkward banter. Lyrics to favorite Zappa standards were constantly being changed for comedic effect (i.e. Tiger Woods jokes), and the band seemed like they were genuinely enjoying performing the music of one of their idols/friends, for fans who knew and appreciated Zappa for years. There was no encore but given the length of each set I wasn’t crushed. Also, the violin player they featured on some songs is really, really hot, so bonus points there. The audio for both the opener and P/O sounded just fine through out the show, although the bass solo in “Apostrophe” was totally undecipherable, partially due to the player and partially due to the mix.
I came away from the show happy that I went, and that’s really all I can ask for from any performance by any band. I do understand why people view P/O to be the ‘secondary’ Zappa cover band, but I would not let this keep you from seeing them perform if you have the chance. I think P/O is a band for long time Zappa fans, while ZPZ works well for both the hardcore fan and the neophyte. I definitely would prefer to see them in a different venue, as I think BB King kept the crowd reserved and polite, which is just foolish behavior for a concert featuring Zappa’s music. Next time I want to be back in a crowd of people cheering, bouncing, and singing along with the music, otherwise it’s just not Zappa.
A Pound For A Brown (On The Bus)
More Trouble Every Day
City Of Tiny Lites
I’m A Beautiful Guy>
Beauty Knows No Pain>
Charlie’s Enormous Mouth>
#I’m The Slime (w/ Dumb All Over, Let Me Ride by Dr. Dre)
Big Swifty (w/ Stratus by Billy Cobham, Come Sail Away by Styx, Killer Queen by Queen)
Bamboozled By Love
#Peaches En Regalia
Pick Me, I’m Clean
*Little House I Used To Live In
Evelyn, A Modified Dog>
#Katie Jacoby on violin
*Ed Palermo on sax