(All Album Reviews by Baribrotzer)
Mike Johnson - guitars and compositions
Deborah Perry - vocals
Mark Harris - saxes, flute, clarinet
Matt Mitchell - keyboards
Dave Willey - bass + accordion
David Shamrock - drums
Kent McLagen - upright bass
Jean Harrison - fiddle
Ron Miles - trumpet
Dave Kerman - percussion
Leslie Jordan - voice
Mark McCoin - samples and treatments
The fifth offering from Thinking Plague, A History of Madness came out in September 2003. Very impressive compositionally, it makes good on the promise of In Extremis, standing out as a unified, consistently well-written, mature effort. Mike Johnson wrote it as a single body of work, and recorded it with the same band throughout, unlike the earlier release. A History of Madness also represents something of a stylistic shift: Frequently acoustic, it tempers Thinking Plague’s usual harsh and difficult RIO* sound with large doses of a noticeable ethnic-folk influence (possibly a carryover from Thinking Plague’s sister band Hamster Theatre), plus symphonic prog and guitar parts full of Hackett-like arpeggios, Howe-ish licks and McLaughlin-esque fusion lines as well as the usual Frith-oid jagged polytonality. As a result, it falls in an unusual space stylistically: almost exactly halfway between Henry Cow or the Art Bears on the one hand, and Yes or Genesis on the other.
Taking the first track, “Blown Apart”, as an example, a dense, complex, typically Thinking Plague vocal section segues into an almost Genesis-like middle portion and some near circus-music, before subsiding into an overdubbed choir singing mellotron-like chords, and a clarinet-and-piano coda. Like many RIO recordings, A History of Madness also contains a sort of ‘hit single’: “Consolamentum”: an Art Bearsish medieval dirge-cum-death-march with lyrics concerning a heretic awaiting execution, which suddenly explodes into a coda of dissonant, screeching, careening, Fred Frith-like guitar and synth lines.
“Rapture of the Deep” contains echoes of acoustic early-Genesis folk-rock, while “Gudamy Le Mayagot” presents a frenetic Norman-Celtic dance tune with dissonant accordion, guitar, and fiddle lines, plus unexpected interludes and tempo shifts. Following this, “Marching as to War, No. 1” appears, the first of four brief overdubbed multiple-piano pieces which slightly resemble Emerson’s “Three Fates”. “Our Way of Life”, with its squawking guitar cluster and atonal vocal melody, comes closest to a typical number for this band. However, the recording also includes two studio-constructed soundscapes: “War on Terra”, using many elements as source material, and “Le Gouffre”, using a Mark Harris saxophone solo and stream sounds. Finally, “The Underground Stream” and “Lux Lucet” both have a slight resemblance to busier, more-acoustic, more-dissonant Yes, but mostly sound like Thinking Plague.
From what I understand, the whole of A History of Madness consists of a concept album about the Cathars, a mystical Christian sect in medieval France whom the Inquisition eventually exterminated. In some ways, it seems like a far more listener-friendly sequel to the Art Bears’ Winter Songs, although most of the lyrics have a spiritual bent - very unlike Chris Cutler and very like Jon Anderson. Only a few tunes – “Consolamentum”, “Our Way of Life”, and (perhaps) “Blown Apart” - seem to relate directly to Cathar beliefs and history. Most of the material echoes the theme and central metaphor of Eliot’s The Waste Land (which also drew on old legends, history, and beliefs) - the search through a parched, barren, blasted land for the water of redemption, renewal, and divine grace. Tying in with this theme, the music often has an oddly medieval sound, due mostly to the frequent krummhorn-like wheeze of accordion or harmonium.
As a composer and guitarist, Johnson synthesizes rock, jazz, and 20th-century classical traditions into a unique, personal style, in which occasional passages may remind one of other artists but the whole copies no one. He also has an impressive ear for a hook, even though his music has only a remote resemblance to conventional pop music. Many of his pieces sound forbidding at first, with multiple busy, crisscrossing, angular, unhummable melodic lines and frequent interruptions, but after a few listens they begin to stick in one’s head like glue. The shorter ones seem to work the best - they maintain a tighter thematic focus, while still having room to develop and take themselves somewhere. His longer compositions, however, tend toward meandering Yes-like song structures: a series of strong, compelling, memorable sections follow one another with only a loose thematic connection, often interrupted by interjections in remote keys and suspended tempo; they don’t always sound like the parts urgently MUST follow one another or seem to add up to a single long arch of melodic and harmonic development. While not random-sounding, pointless, or poorly composed, those pieces just doesn't have a strong air of inevitability, of "well, of course the music went there and changed like that, how could it do anything else?" However, textures, themes and musical ideas do recur from track to track throughout the CD, and help tie it all together.
It also has a unity of tone, of emotional color, across all the stylistic shifts from dissonant to sweetly melodic. A History of Madness works superbly as a unified whole. And part of Johnson s artistic maturity shows in those more-consonant or ‘inside’ tracks and passages: They come across as the confident work of a composer with no need to prove anything or to constantly march in the front lines of the revolution - just to write the best music he can. In addition, his guitar parts, which lie at the heart of most of the songs, show the grown-up, fully-realized personal voice of a master musician, a man not enslaved by tradition or by the obsessive need to avoid it. He has a great ear for the right note, the right sound or phrase, yet often not the one you d expect and one very much his own.
The sound of the record - the approach taken to arranging, mixing, and production - has some problems, however. It comes far closer to a modern-classical chamber ensemble like the Bang On A Can All-Stars than to what most of us would usually call “rock”. This may have something to do with the way Johnson recorded it: I gather each musician learned parts from scores and computer demos, then laid down tracks separately. They apparently never worked on it together. While they all play very well, they don’t really seem to interact or play off one another, and A History of Madness tends to lack the synergistic feel of a rehearsed band. Also, the voice and all the instruments sit at roughly equal volume levels; rarely does any one element stand out in a striking fashion. As a result, it sounds a bit flat.
The lion’s share of the notes come from Johnson’s electric and acoustic guitars, with keyboards - Matt Mitchell’s piano, harmonium, and synths, plus Dave Willey’s accordion - a close second. Mark Harris’s saxes and woodwinds take a comparatively minor role. Deborah Perry's small, breathy, Astrud Gilberto-like voice frequently appears overdubbed into staggered, rhythmically offset doublings of the same line, into dissonant counterpoint, or into a full choir. Combined with her murmuring, conversational delivery, the music's density, the difficult vocal melodies, and some awkward prosody, this renders many of the lyrics pretty hard to make out. Like Jon Anderson, she often seems more like another instrument than a conventional singer.
Significantly, the rhythm section - Willey on bass and David Shamrock on drums - seem de-emphasized and sit unusually low in the mix. They function as in a chamber setting: laying back, frequently dropping out, occasionally underlining harder passages, but very rarely driving the music as those instruments usually do in a rock band. This has less to do with their performances, which seem strong, than the low-keyed arrangements, the recording quality, and their low volume. The drums sound remote and slightly muffled, as if heard through a heating grate from the basement two floors below, and the recording of them seems slightly clipped. In consequence, A History of Madness has quite a bit less punch than In Extremis, and comes off a bit weak-sounding. The hard-to-follow vocals don’t help, though that may also have something to do with the mix and EQ. I can’t help concluding that Thinking Plague may have lost a significant amount of production skills with the departure of Bob Drake (who didn’t participate in this recording at all).
In conclusion, A History of Madness stands out as a strong, stylistically unified work. Surprisingly accessible, it often comes close to a rather dissonant acoustic version of traditional symphonic prog, closer than you’d think this band would or could go. It hangs together quite a bit better than In Extremis, and the individual pieces display a high, consistently high compositional level, equal to the best tracks from Thinking Plague’s earlier effort. However, it also doesn’t rock as much, partly because of a less aggressive musical style, and partly because of some production and arrangement problems.
* I know that ‘RIO’ only refers to five specific late-Seventies bands. However, by now it’s become a word, the generic shorthand for “avant-garde progressive rock with significant modern-classical chamber music influences”, in much the fashion of “Frigidaire”, “hoover”, or “Kleenex”.
(All Album Reviews by Hippy Pants)
What an unexpected treat this CD this is. I picked up a copy earlier this year even though I hadn't heard of anything from Thinking Plague beforehand. Their sound follows in the tradition of the RIO bands, and expands upon that avant-prog style. Upon my initial listening, I thought, man, these folks are venturing into a totally non-commercial area, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think it's more a cerebral album--one of the things that struck me first was the textures and complex nature of A History Of Madness.
The first song, “Blown Apart”, kicks things off in almost a manic, clip and paste manner, sort of reminding me of something that maybe John Zorn might have done. The vocals by Deborah Perry also evoke an ethereal, dissonant landscape for one's mind to go exploring into. The vocals are a bit atonal at times, as Perry double tracks over herself for harmonic effect (or that could be Leslie Jordan on backups). The songs take a while to absorb into the brain, so don't expect to absorb it in the first two or three listenings. I'd say Thinking Plague draw upon many different influences from Henry Cow to Zappa, classical & chamber, and beyond. Each song seems to be solidly structured with an array of instruments: synths, guitars, clackers and noise makers, percussions, and ethereal ambiences.
I have to admit my favorite cuts are the ones that take an obtuse tangent into ambient zones like Our "Way Of Life" and "War on Terra," which starts out with this strange repetitive guitar riff as Perry punctuates with poetic precision before the song fall off into a spatial abyss. That is followed by another mind excursion, "Least Aether for Saxophone & Le Gouffre." This cut starts out with a haunting sax solo channeled or electrically modified, and then changes into a soundscape that sort of sounds like applause at first, followed by water flowing, followed by electronic spaciousness. Both of these songs are very cool, and took me totally unaware, and for me, are the highlights of this album. I hope Thinking Plague continue to experiment in this manner.
If you enjoy something different to listen to, and are not opposed to complex, adventurous music like Art Bears, Henry Cow, Univers Zero, then you might want to check out Thinking Plague and backwash the brain for a bit.