Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Symphonic Rock, Part 2

One of the main things I hate is that the "symphonic rock" label was first applied to progressive bands like Yes and Genesis. How many ejaculatory congratulatory genres are we going to laude these bands with? Essentially, in the Seventies, any progressive band that utilized a keyboard was considered symphonic; Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, hell even a lot of Led Zeppelin's later works were lumped into the genre. Now, I realize that it had a lot to do with the arrangements of the songs, which were written in a way that almost seemed to be orchestral compositions, but what I don't like about it is that it confuses people when it comes to the burgeoning but barely recognized genre of classic rock songs translated into completely orchestral compositions, resulting in very few composers actually doing it right.

Probably the main reason this genre is practically stillborn is because no one really cares about it. People who enjoy classical music hate rock music, and people who enjoy rock music hate classical, and they view translating them to orchestral arrangements as marring an already perfect rendition almost as badly as hearing Celine Dion cover a Squarepusher song. It basically appeals to a small demographic of very open-minded individuals, which means that for the composer, the orchestra, and most importantly, the record label to get any revenue from the performances, they need to attempt it on bands with the widest and most varied fan bases, hoping that this small and open-minded demographic might be included. Hence bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, U2, and Rolling Stones get symphonic treatments while bands who are seriously crying out for it, like Rush and Dream Theater, are passed.

The other problem with the symphonic label being applied to progressive bands is that it seriously confuses some composers on how truely symphonic, orchestrated music should sound. Most think it's okay to mix in traditional rock drumming, bass, and guitar and just use the orchestra to cover the keyboard parts and the singing, which generally results in what sounds like a session band performing karaoke covers of popular songs off-key. I cannot stand this. There's almost no variation and what little there is only serves to annoy me. When I want to hear orchestrated rock songs, I want them to be orchestrated, not half-assed. Either do something all the way or don't bother doing it.

That is why I love Jaz Coleman's symphonic reinterpretations and loathe most others. Jaz Coleman is about the only composer I've heard who has taken the time to fully translate the original songs into fully orchestrated compositions. Yes, the Jaz Coleman from the post-punk industrial goth band Killing Joke. In doing a little research on him, I discovered that he actually has more musical heritage than you might come to suspect just from listening to the genre limitations in which the Killing Joke are trapped. For instance:
He studied piano and violin from the age of six and at eight was admitted to sing for the Addington Palace Choir. By 10 he had sung in many of the great cathedral choirs of England and achieved the most prestigious accolade for a chorister, the Saint Nicholas Award. By 14 his prizes included the Gold Medal at the Bath International festival, the Rex Watson Festival challenge cup at the Cheltenham festival and Grade 8 with distinction for the violin.

In 1982 Jaz began composition and orchestration studies that led him (five years later) to Minsk in Byelorussia and Leipzig in DDR and later still to study with Hungarian master Dr. Peter Saunders. In 1989-90 Jaz began a study of quarter tones and instrumentation of Arabic music at the Cairo Conservatoire and in the studies of the celebrated composer Ammar El Sherie. This period culminated in the album Songs From The Victorious City which was composed with Ann Dudley (Art of Noise, The Crying Game, Phil Collins) and recorded with the awesome Arabic violinist Aboud Abdul Al and the Master Arabic Musicians of Cairo for TVT/China Records. Completed in 1991, Symphony No 1, "Idavoll" and "Fanfare For The Millennium" were the first large scale Orchestral works.
He is also rumored to have an IQ above 190, but it's never been verified to my knowledge, except perhaps unto himself, so the more I find out about the man, the more respect I seem to find for him. You can hear the difference his orchestral compositional training makes when comparing the symphonic rock songs he created to those of other conductors. I'm going to compare samples from three of his albums to three from the Pride: Symphonic U2 album, which features an awesome cover that parallels U2's Rattle And Hum album cover only with a female cellist displaying cleavage and some really, really bad symphonic compositions.

Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones was Coleman's first attempt and it was mostly botched by the label and the band's producer insisting they include traditional elements to attract fans of the Rolling Stones, such as vocals by Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, and Michael Hutchence, but you can still hear promise in his orchestrations, particularly the completely instrumental renditions of "Paint It Black" and "
Gimme Shelter."

Jaz went on to rewrite select songs from two of Pink Floyd's most popular albums, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. To me, "
Breathe" seems to just encompass Pink Floyd's sound. Maybe not this selection, but overall, it ws the first song that really made me feel like I was listening to a Pink Floyd album instead of a symphony orchestra. He seemed to really be able to get inside the heads of the original songwriters and translate their melodies to an entirely different medium. His liner notes for this and the Led Zeppelin albums are brilliant.

Finally, from the symphonic Led Zeppelin suite, my favorite of the songs he selected to translate, "
When The Levee Breaks." Overall, he was most faithful to the original Led Zeppelin songs, going so far as to even translate John Bonham's drumming to orchestral percussion. His rendition of "Levee" really made me appreciate all the subtle nuance of the original song.

Then there's the U2 songs. After getting the Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd songs in the late 1990s, I was on a big symphonic rock kick and I picked up a lot of symphonic rock albums, including this one and one from Genesis. Both paled drastically in comparison to Jaz Coleman's albums, and you'll be able to see why. Genesis was the better of the two. Although it contained many of the same flaws, they weren't nearly as prominent in the mix like sonic icepicks shooting into your eardrums.

Pride" might have well just been an instrumental version of the original. Almost nothing was changed, just embellished a little, and the vocals were redone with brass and shrill violin. (Not that violin is shrill. It's one of my favorite instruments when done properly, but this was done in no sense of the word.)

When I saw "
Even Better Than The Real Thing" in the tracklisting, I immediately thought of how powerful the opening guitar riff would sound performed with a full strings section. However, apparently the composer figured that would take too much time to arrange and instead had it performed using the most irritatingly high-pitched keyboards to ever make a person's ears bleed. Then the horns come in. Oh God, the horns. I never want to hear again.

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" What the fuck is this Kenny G shit?! Save this for the Slow Jazz Tribute to U2, surely soon to be released from Vitamin Records. Do not include it on a symphonic rock compilation because it is not symphonic and barely rock.


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