Generally this particular time of year, there’s typically not a whole lot going on in terms of notable new releases in the music world. So this issue, I’m focusing on some interesting finds from my recent explorations in independent music stores and thrifts and the like. I really like hitting the thrifts, because, well, people die, or have other life changing events—and sometimes their family members don’t have a clue what’s in the donation box they drop off. Sometimes the contents are surprisingly interesting! And there’s such a relative glut of cheap CDs currently out there—I enjoy the hunt for that elusive disc, and getting it for minimal cash outlay; I avoid ordering full-price CDs if at all possible. There’s some notable stuff here, but some of it was completely unknown to me—I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I have!
The Church – Magician Among the Spirits
There’s a St. Vincent DePaul Thrift near me; I often drop in, and have been surprised at the variety of the CDs that are typically on the shelf. The prices tend to be a bit higher than my real comfort zone ($2 versus the typical $.50 – $1); I’ll buy just about anything for $1 or less, but am a bit more selective at the $2 price point. Magician Among the Spirits had been on the shelf for several months running; the case was cracked badly, and the disc release date was 1996—which is typically beyond the point that I consider The Church’s classic period. However, the sign on the front door greeted me with “50 Percent Off Everything!”, so I decided, what the heck and dove in.
Here’s the thing: I’m a huge fan of The Church, especially from about 1985 through 1995 or so—what I consider their classic period. But I’d never heard of this album, ever; never seen any reference to it, and, of course, most of my catalog experience with a lot of bands was based on pre-internet, pre-Tidal or Qobuz experiences. The 1980s brought a lot of change to me personally; I got married, new baby, a couple of step kids, moved to Atlanta, new job, new house—you get the picture. It made keeping abreast of much of what was going on in the music world somewhat difficult for me. I still heard the Church played on local college radio, and “Under the Milky Way” got played to death (still love it, though), but they basically only existed on the margins of my consciousness.
Magician Among the Spirits came at the tail end of The Church’s Arista Records period, where Steve Kilbey, bassist and de facto leader of the band approached Arista with the new record in 1996. The Church had their biggest commercial success on Arista with 1988’s Starfish; and while the Arista period was something of a mixed bag creatively, financially, it had been a successful one. Arista, however, outright rejected the new album, and immediately dropped The Church from the label. Undeterred, Kilbey decided to self-release the record on his own label, Deep Karma/White Records. It would take $250,000 dollars to make the deal happen, and the $250k was every penny the band had left in the coffers.
And of course, without a mainstream record label, the band had no mainstream distribution system, so they brokered a deal with another independent. As everything was coming to a head, the distributor suddenly went bankrupt, and all $250k worth of CDs ready to ship were held in limbo. By the time the legal issues were resolved, the warehoused merchandise waiting in the U.S. had simply disappeared without a trace; for all practical purposes, the album had no release status outside of Australia, and received virtually zero airplay and exposure anywhere else. This just about crippled the band in every imaginable way—Steve Kilbey conveyed to the press that The Church, for all practical purposes, was essentially dead, and Magician Among the Spirits was probably their last record. Fortunately, they soldiered on, and the band still exists to this day. I saw an interview with Steve Kilbey a while back where he mused on how amazing it is that he’s even still around, because he’d probably spent close to a million dollars on heroin (he’s been clean for a while) over the course of his lifetime as a musician!
When I got home with my new find from St. V’s, I immediately replaced the jewel case (yeah, I’m a nerd, and still have a huge box of replacement CD cases in the basement), and during my inspection of the disc and booklet, I noted that the CD was sourced from Australia. So somehow, it made it here to the U.S.—rare, but not nearly as rare as the handful of U.S. pressings that must be out there somewhere. When I loaded the disc into dB Poweramp to rip to my music server, I have to admit that I was a bit shocked that it actually pulled metadata from the internet—so some successful rips had obviously been made in the recent past. Of course, after getting it onto my music server, I started checking out any availability elsewhere—next to zero, in terms of purchasing the CD, with a few very highly collectible discs available on Discogs, Amazon, and eBay. But—and here’s the good news—surprisingly, it’s available for streaming on a variety of sources, including both Tidal and Qobuz. Yay!
Magician Among the Spirits came at a time of transition for The Church, and some personnel changes had taken place; Steve Kilbey’s bass and voice was still front and center, and it was still very much his show. Kilbey’s distinctive voice is one of the band’s calling cards, and it’s as addictively sultry as ever here. The core group of Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper was augmented by the return on four of the songs by another founding member, guitarist Peter Koppes, who had quarreled with Kilbey regarding the band’s direction. New drummer Tim Powles was joined by violinist Linda Neil and various percussionists; when Peter Koppes departed a couple of years earlier, Kilbey felt freed to follow a slightly more exploratory musical direction.
The centerpiece of the album is the fourteen-minute-plus title track, which is a dirge/vamp of sorts which drones on in a remarkably delicious groove, in which Kilbey’s near interminable bass figure just powers on and on. Marty Willson-Piper and Koppes trade guitar solos back and forth to great effect, and Kilbey and Koppes trade vocals through the verses, which also provides the tune with an enjoyable mix-up. At several points throughout, there are longish breaks with really atmospheric bells and percussion—the overall effect makes for a truly enjoyable listening experience.
This is not the “great, lost The Church album,” but if you’re a fan of the band’s important period from the mid-eighties through the mid-nineties, it’s absolutely essential listening. And that’s made so much easier by the current availability on the streaming services. Recommended.
Deep Karma/White Records, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer)
Bruford – Master Strokes 1978-1985
I’ve been a huge Bill Bruford fan since the early Yes days; throughout his involvement with everyone, from King Crimson, his own group Bruford, UK, Earthworks, and other solo projects, his tasteful, jazz-inspired drumming has been one of the hallmarks of progressive rock. He’s definitely considered one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, and the diversity of his work outside of Yes and King Crimson shows that he’s one of the greatest drummers, period. That said, I kind of zoned out in real time during the “Bruford” period; I stumbled onto this CD, Master Strokes 1978-1985, at a 2nd and Charles (always hit-or-miss) for $4 last fall. Post-Yes, Bill Bruford was an integral part of the second incarnation of King Crimson, and in-between the third Crimson revival, he focused on his own proggish group Bruford. Which featured legendary guitarist Allan Holdsworth, along with Dave Stewart (not that Dave Stewart!) on keyboards and Jeff Berlin on bass. This core group produced two excellent albums, Feels Good to Me (1978) and One of a Kind (1979); Holdsworth exited and was replaced by the very decent guitarist John Clark for the third album, 1980’s Gradually Going Tornado.
Master Strokes 1978-1985 contains selections from all three Bruford albums; also included are selections from two albums with another former Yes sideman, keyboard wizard Patrick Moraz, 1983’s Music for Piano and Drums and 1985’s Flags. As odd as the pairing of drums and keyboards sounds, the results are surprisingly enjoyable and effective. I ended up finding the vinyl for most of the albums covered here, as well as finding CDs for the Bruford titles. The Bruford/Moraz CDs are a bit more difficult to locate. This was actually an interesting and fertile period for Bill Bruford; the “Bruford” side gig ended up creating the near-legendary UK album with Holdsworth, former Crimson compatriot John Wetton, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson. UK is generally considered one of the pinnacles of Progressive Rock, and you can hear the seeds being sown here in this excellent collection.
There are multiple highlights here; one of the great things about this period is that, unlike during the upcoming third King Crimson iteration, Bruford had not yet stumbled onto his fascination with the Simmons SDX electronic drum kit. Bruford’s later Crimson albums showed good work on the synthesized kit, but it’s nowhere nearly as interesting as I find him on acoustic drums. So that’s the big bonus: everything you hear on the drums here is completely acoustic. One of my personal favorites is Bruford’s take on the Max Roach tune “The Drum Also Waltzes,” which is a really outstanding drum solo taken from the Flags album with Patrick Moraz. And Moraz’s contributions from the two duet albums are outstanding; even though the two ex-Yes men came from different eras of the band, they share an amazing synergy on their tracks together. From the Bruford album One of a Kind, both “Hell’s Bells” and the title track are really imaginative prog workouts, with ample room to display Bill Bruford’s talents at the drum kit. “Travels with Myself—and Someone Else” is a nice and slow, keyboard-heavy, proggy ballad, where Bruford’s drumming reaches more into the jazzy side of the equation. Feels Good to Me is represented by “If You Can’t Stand the Heat” and “Beelzebub,” both are very fast-paced prog workouts and the entire album is definitely worth picking up. While I feel the tracks from Gradually Going Tornado are very good, I definitely missed Allan Holdsworth’s remarkable guitar work—but, still a great opportunity to observe more of Bill Bruford’s great drumming.
If you’re interested in all things Bill Bruford, his book, Bill Bruford, the Autobiography, is available and is an exceptionally enjoyable read that covers his entire musical history. His writing style combines a great deal of dry humor to the mix, and it’s an arresting read that’s almost impossible to put down. Master Strokes 1978-1985 is very highly recommended as an introduction to this period between Bruford’s ongoing involvement with King Crimson. This excellent collection—as well as just about everything else that stemmed from this period—is available on Tidal and Qobuz for CD quality and high-res streaming.
E.G. Records, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer)
Deep Purple – Machine Head 2012 Remaster
Deep Purple’s Machine Head is one of the seminal albums from the first period associated with what became known as “Metal” music; many consider it the very first example of the genre. I don’t doubt or deny that one bit, but I’m sure there are a lot of Black Sabbath fans that would probably take issue with that assessment. Myself included, there are a ton of would be metalheads out there whose first attempt at picking out a tune on a guitar was “Smoke On The Water.” I know this album like the back of my hand. If I could write guitar tablature, I could easily write out the entire album; I’ve either played or heard every song a bazillion times each. And it never gets old.
There’s an independent record store near me called CD Warehouse; there are two locations in Atlanta, and it’s always a good place to pick up catalog disc titles for generally around the $5 mark. If I absolutely have to have it, even as much of a cheapskate as I am, I’ll pay $5 (especially for a Japanese CD!), and I grabbed this disc just prior to the holidays. The standard catalog issue of Machine Head has always seemed congested, lacking clarity and dynamics, and with an extra dollop of hiss on top—it probably wasn’t transferred from the original master tape. It’s serviceable enough that I enjoy listening to it on occasion on the music server, but for real thrills, I’ll pull out the vinyl.
I think everyone out there probably knows this album as well or better than I do, so I’ll not give any blow-by-blow (sorry, Jeff Beck!) comparisons, but on first listen—like, WOW! This remaster betters the catalog issue in every way imaginable, and has power, dynamics, and clarity in spades—this is as close to listening to the vinyl as it gets! I’m totally blown away by this CD issue, it’s like hearing this classic music for the very first time. As far as I can tell, the Tidal and Qobuz high-res masters are taken from the same remaster. Very highly recommended!
Warner Brothers Japan, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz)
Cyrus Chestnut – Soul Food
I first became aware of Cyrus Chestnut in the early Nineties; I was working a job with a large commercial printer, and my function there took place in 200 square-foot self-enclosed, air conditioned unit that was freestanding inside a massive un-airconditioned paper warehouse. I’d get the occasional visitor, but not many—so I could spend the vast majority of the day listening to a lot of music generally uninterrupted by anyone. Because of the configuration of the building, I had virtually zero radio reception; I could pick up the local small-college jazz station, as well as an AM all-classical station. I listened to the jazz station a lot; they had the occasional promo offering, and on one occasion, I won a Cyrus Chestnut CD, the excellent trio disc Revelation. Which has gone on to become one of my go-to discs for evaluating bass response on a good system—it’s a remarkably good disc. Anyway, over the years (especially in the pre-internet era), finding additional Cyrus Chestnut discs was pretty much a non-starter—especially after Tower Records went bust.
I picked up this disc at a Goodwill in Charleston, SC, this past August, while visiting a relative. This Goodwill was undeniably the biggest dump of any I’d ever visited in over a decade, with the poorest selection of CDs I’d stumbled across in a very long time. There were probably fewer than a hundred CDs on the shelf, and as I scoured them several times, this disc, Soul Food, suddenly jumped out at me. Holy crap, a Cyrus Chestnut CD! Released in 2001, this is another outstanding title that has only helped build his sterling reputation in my mind.
All over the place stylistically, this disc offers Chestnut’s traditional trio setting on several numbers with Lewis Nash on drums and Christian McBride on bass. And on a handful of tunes, Stefon Harris is added to the mix on marimba and vibraphone. A full brass section, featuring James Carter on sax, Marcus Printup on trumpet, and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone appears on a couple of tunes, and the three individually make appearances on a few other tunes.
This is one of the most well-recorded, best-sounding CDs I’ve ever heard—if you happen to stumble across a copy, grab it. This is one of those discs that will definitely make you think that CD quality might just be good enough! And it’s available to stream on both Tidal and Qobuz in CD quality, so check it out if you get the chance. Very highly recommended.
Warner Brothers, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer)
Header image courtesy of Pexels/Cottonbro.