3 stars (out of 4)
Steven Wilson, mastermind and leader of modern progressive-alternative outfit Porcupine Tree, is an earnest and ambitious musician. Sometimes to a fault.
Over the course of Porcupine Tree's 10 studio recordings, Wilson has crafted atmospheric, far-reaching, often complex rock music that goes for the widescreen, Technicolor image every time. When it works -- as it did during so much of the band's last album, the Grammy-nominated "Fear of a Blank Planet" -- the music is able to blend the epic romanticism of Pink Floyd with the dour post-modern heaviness of Nine Inch Nails. When it doesn't -- which tends to be one or two times per album -- it tallies up a bit short on the emotional connection side of the ledger, mostly because Wilson can come off as a bit self-involved, if not downright pompous.
"The Incident" is, happily, the finest 90 minutes of music Porcupine Tree has yet offered, but don't be misled -- Wilson still comes across as an incredibly serious dude, a sensitive soul given to finding more layers of potential meaning in the everyday and commonplace than might be healthy.
Porcupine Tree is, at heart, a modern prog-rock band, and its fans are the same sort you'll encounter at gigs by the likes of Rush, King Crimson and Tool. That faction will be more than pleased, one assumes, with the manner in which this new album opens.
The title track is a 55-minute, 14-movement piece that suggests what it might sound like if one made a mash-up of "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Downward Spiral," and then commissioned Tool to perform it. To call it sprawling doesn't quite cover it, but it's a start. The song moves from passages of ambient melancholia, through full-bore prog-metal bits, and finally, fragments that suggest fragility and serenity.
The finest sections involve the significant contributions of former Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, who is a master of the ethereal -- sometimes downright creepy -- soundscape. Porcupine Tree can be incredibly heavy, but it's in the active contrasting of light and shade that the band finds its magic.
Disc II is not exactly a letdown after the hour-long title piece, but it can't help feeling a bit more conventional and "old-school Porcupine Tree" than its sibling. That said, the addition of the "short" songs doesn't feel arbitrary or unnecessary. For the first time in its career, this band has released a complete album that smacks of necessity.
-- Jeff Miers
EYAL MAOZ'S EDOM
"Hope and Destruction"
3 1/2 stars
Let's get real here. Let the Bad Plus and Medeski, Martin and Wood get all the jazz publicity they want, the most interesting young post-rock musicians in jazz's wide orbit right now are those who sometimes call what they do "Radical Jewish Music" and frequently record for John Zorn's Tzadik label -- and, almost as frequently, emigrated from Israel to New York (either downtown or Brooklyn).
Guitarist Eyal Maoz did all of those things. Born in Haifa, Israel, he is a regular member of Zorn's group Cobra. But with his own four-piece group Edom featuring keyboardist Brian Marsella, you would have to be forgiven for thinking he fulfills a lot of the implicit avant-gardism in John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra (which McLaughlin avoided by centering the group on his mind-boggling, thousand-fingered guitar virtuosity).
Maoz's fearsome foursome wallows in Middle Eastern modes and melodies over the brilliant rockish drumming of Downtown percussionist Yuval Lion and then, just as naturally, melds into sweet melodic wistfulness and exhilarating and blood-curdling Downtown noise. What else could you expect from an Israeli musician who cut his chops electrifying the music of Bartok and Satie?
This is exciting music. In none of its constituent parts is it all that shocking, but all put together it is completely fresh. "The harmonic lyricism of Bill Frisell and the angst and skronk of Marc Ribot" is how "Radical Jewish Culture" prophet Zorn describes Maoz, which only proves that the guitarist's own leader can't quite get his whole head around his music either. Terrific.
-- Jeff Simon
Performed by various orchestras and soloists including Vladimir Ashkenazy and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman
[Ondine, four discs]
There is no one in the world of classical music quite like the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which is why Ondine's re-packaging of its superbly idiomatic Rautavaara catalog is so appealing. He was born a month earlier in the same year (1928) as the great film composer Ennio Morricone and spent his youth with his cause auspiciously espoused by 90-year-old Jan Sibelius -- not to mention being taught in America by no less than Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions and Vincent Persichetti. His music covers a wide soundscape of style and sonority but it is seldom far from the neo-Romanticism and mysticism that seemed to establish itself when he finally became a full-time composer at the age of 62 (after spending his life teaching, too).
The end results on these 12 concertos for different instruments is an approachability and gripping expressivity, whatever the style of featured instrument, whether violin (soloist Elmar Oliveira), cello (Marko Ylonen), double bass (Esko Laine), piano (Ralf Gothani and Vladimir Ashkenazy), clarinet (Richard Stoltzman) or, among others, the famous "Cantus Articus" for tapes of bird song and orchestra. The concertos date from 1969 to 2001 and the performances by German and Finnish orchestras from 1991 to 2005, the period of his major international discovery. (These performances are a good part of the reason why.)
JOHN FOGERTY/THE BLUE RIDGE RANGERS
Immediately following the implosion of Creedence Clearwater Revival, back in 1972, John Fogerty -- bitter and world-weary after watching his group collapse beneath the weight of serious inter-band acrimony -- released his first solo album beneath the moniker the Blue Ridge Rangers. A collection of country and folk tunes Fogerty had long admired, that album found the CCR leader playing every instrument and every last lick of music himself. Think he was trying to make a point?
Thirty-five years later, Fogerty has finally made a Blue Ridge rangers follow-up, though this time around, he brought some serious musical muscle into the studio to push the proceedings along. (No one really needs to be reminded that Fogerty was the brains, the brawn and the brilliance behind Creedence any longer.)
Guitarists Buddy Miller and Herb Pedersen, steel player Greg Leisz, and drummer Jay Bellerose form a core band that is augmented by guest performances from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles' Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. If such a roster of musicians suggest a pull-out-all-the-stops affair, well ... let's not get carried away. "Rides Again" is a pretty mellow affair, more a front-porch, whiskey-jug jam session than a Saturday night at the honky-tonk throw down.
That's no dis, however. Fogerty picks songs that will satisfy purists, pieces penned by John Prine, Buck Owens, Delaney & Bonnie, Ray Price and Jerry Gillespie. He also throws in a few surprises -- who would have pegged Fogerty as a fan of John Denver, whose "Back Home Again" he offers a straightforward, emotional rendering of? And "Moody River" is a song associated with Pat Boone, for goodness' sake. Fogerty gets away with all of it, though, on the strength of his ageless voice, the taut, brisk, playful arrangements, and the contributions of the stellar cast of pickers and singers.
The duet with Springsteen on the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" is a hoot, too.