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Tag: orchestrated rock

A Sophisticated, Cleverly Lyrical, Climactic Studio Album From Paris Combo

Paris Combo take care to explain that their latest and possibly final album Quesaco – streaming at Bandcamp – is Covid-free. Notwithstanding the record’s characteristically slinky good cheer, there’s a tragic backstory. Like so many albums recorded in 2019, it was scheduled for release the following year. But their tour fell victim to the totalitarian takeover, and frontwoman/accordionist Belle de Berry died s that fall, soon after a cancer diagnosis. Would she be alive today if there had been no lockdown and she could have received early treatment? We’ll never know.

At least she went out at the top of her game. The band open with the album’s title track, Provençal slang for “what’s up?” It’s a lush, Balkan-tinged swing nocturne packed with cynical rhymes, beginning with a sun, who as du Berry tells it, doesn’t give a fuck about the approaching nightfall. It aptly capsulizes her indomitable, deviously playful worldview.

Paris Combo first took shape as a Romany-tinged swing band but quickly developed a distinctively upbeat, often witheringly satirical blend of sophisticated art-rock, jazz manouche and cinematic pop. Including this one, they put out a grand total of seven albums: all of them are worth getting your hands on.

The second track on this one is Barre Espace, du Berry’s gently caustic commentary on the atomization that inevigtably awaits those who abandon the real world for the virtual one. Bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac, drummer François Jeannin and percussionist Rémy Kaprielan lay down a pillowy. understated cumbia groove for pianist David Lewis and guitarist Potzi.

They stroll briskly through Seine de la vie parisienne, du Berry’s puns beginning with the title, Potzi taking a spiky, Djangoesque solo midway through. She reaches for a reggaeton-inspired delivery over Lewis’ organ and trumpet in Panic á bord (rough translation: Breaking Point), a bouncy but brooding Balkan/cumbia mashup.

Maudit money (Damn Money) is part hip-hop, part oldschool 70s disco, part Manu Chao, with a wry Nancy Sinatra reference. Du Berry holds off on the WWI references until the end of Premiére guerre as she contemplates a more psychological, interior battle, rising from balmy and lingering to a triumphant strut and then back.

Shivery strings and soaring trumpet interchange in Axe imaginaire (Imaginary Path, or close to it), a subtle battle-of-the-sexes metaphor. The band go back to a disco stroll in Cap ou pas cap (slang for “yes or no?”), Lewis’ trumpet sputtering and Potzi’s guitar spiraling over a sleek backdrop and du Berry’s coy enticement.

Guitar and trumpet reach for a simmering flamenco ambience over a suspenseful, cumbia-tinged groove in Tendre émoi (this one’s hard to translate: “tender confrontation” or “make a scene, tenderly” would work, prosaically). Du Berry takes a rare turn into English on track ten, Do you think, as the band go back to a bittersweet cumbia sway. They close the record with the low-key, reflective Romany swing shuffle Paresser par ici (rough translation: Hanging Around). Maybe someday if we’re lucky we can get a retrospective live album out of this fantastic and underappreciated band. And even if we don’t, this is one of the best of 2022 so far.

Mamak Khadem’s Rapturous New Album Transcends Tragedy and Loss

One of the most capriciously cruel effects of the post-2020 lockdowns was the separation of families from ailing, elderly parents. Because of totalitarian travel restrictions, singer Mamak Khadem was unable to return home to her native Iran to see her father before he died: divide-and-conquer taken to a particularly sadistic extreme. Khadem channeled her grief into an often wrenchingly beautiful, immersive tribute, Remembrance, streaming at youtube.

Although the album is characteristically eclectic and spans many genres, it’s 180 degrees from the exuberance and exhilaration of her previous release The Road, a 2016 brass-and-string fueled mashup of Balkan dances and classical Persian poetry. For whatever reason, this is more of an art-rock record.

The sound is more desolate and enveloping, sculpted largely by multi-instrumentalist Jamshied Sharifi, guitarist Marc Copely and cellist Chris Votek, with many other musicians contributing. Khadem sings in Farsi, opening with the title track. Mickey Raphael’s forlorn, bluesy minor-key harmonica is an unexpected touch in this slowly swaying setting of the Saadi Shirazi poem, Copely’s multitracks and Khadem’s imploring, melismatic vocals flickering over Sharifi’s atmospheric backdrop. It brings to mind peak-era, mid-zeros Botanica.

Khadem rises from a wary tenderness to fullscale angst in Mina, a brooding, drifting setting of a Saied Soltanpour text lowlit by Sharifi’s piano and Benjamin Wittman’s clip-clop percussion. Khadem goes to the Rumi repertoire for the lyrics to Entangled over dissociative, rhythmic layers of vocals, cello and wafting synthesized orchestration.

Khadem takes a backseat, contributing vocalese to Across the Oceans, Coleman Barks narrating the Rumi poem over a loopy, simple backdrop with spare contributions from Roubik Haroutunian on duduk and Ivan Chardakov on gaida bagpipes. Dead and Alive begins more calmly, in a pastoral Pink Floyd vein, then Copely pulls the energy skyward. It’s an apt poem for this point in history: one of its central themes is to be open to serendipity.

Khadem sets an emotive Fatemeh Baraghani poem to a starkly gorgeous traditional Armenian theme in Face to Face, Mehdi Bagheri adding ravishing, spiraling kamancheh fiddle. Copely plays spare resonator guitar behind Khadem’s warm, hopeful delivery in Messenger, Sharifi turning up the enveloping keyboard ambience. The final cut is Don’t Go Without Me: Barks’ English narration is especially poignant considering the circumstances, as is Khadem’s gentle, wounded interpretation of the original. As her harmonies rise in the distance, the effect is viscerally heartbreaking.

Singles and the Mother of All Blockbuster Revelations For Early April 2022

Gonna make you wait until the end of today’s self-guided playlist for the blockbuster revelation (yeah, you can cheat and scroll down, but you’ll miss a whole bunch of good tunes and lots of laughs). Click on artist names for their webpages, click on titles for streaming audio or video.

Let’s start with what is fast becoming a hallowed tradition here: one of Media Bear‘s reliably funny, snarky protest video pastiches. Today’s pick is based on a surprisingly lesser-known song, unless you were around back in 1988 when the Cure released the title track to their album Fascination Street. The original was a drony, hypnotic downtempo goth-scape. This one’s a close approximation: the parade of creepy tv talking heads leaving a trail of lies that didn’t exactly age well is priceless.

Now for an even more outrageous four minutes of comedy: JP Sears is the best female swimmer in the world, or so it would seem, anyway. This one you have to watch because the sight gags are just as good as the jokes. You will piss yourself laughing. Thanks to Dr. Paul Alexander, the Linton Kwesi Johnson of the freedom movement, for passing it along.

Time to get serious: the central archetype of Lydia Ainsworth‘s lush, ethereally orchestrated new baroque pop single Queen of Darkness “offers protection to her subjects in the most shadowy of times.”

Venus Principle‘s new single Shut It Down is an ominous, bitter 6/8 art-rock anti-lockdown dirge written during the first wave of the 2020 global takeover.

Don’t let the rap-rock format of the Sonic Universe‘s viral smash Hold the Line scare you off: these dudes speak truth to power.

The first single from Lizzy McAlpine‘s brand-new record is aptly titled Erase Me: it’s minor-league Fiona Apple, basically.

The funny backstory behind this live archival audio clip of paradigm-shifting jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein with the Erwin Lehn Orchestra is that when she first heard it, she couldn’t identify it! If you play as many shows as she used to, that’s not as surprising as it might seem. A youtube commenter identifies it as her 1988 tune This Old Fairy Tale. Fairytale or magic moment fortuitously captured on a field recording?

OK – time for the blockbuster revelation. In her daily Rumble feed, Dr. Pam Popper – author of the very first of the plandemic exposes, COVID Operation – explains how the virus was circulating in Spain as early as March of 2019! Researchers at the University of Madrid discovered antibodies – real antibodies, not just protein detritus magnified by a meaningless PCR test – in wastewater from schools and nursing homes. In order to be detectable, levels in wastewater need to be significant.

By now, pretty much everybody is aware that Covid was detected in blood samples of patients in Italy in September of 2019, in France three months earlier, and then in Pike County, Ohio that November. These Spanish revelations only underscore the reality that the virus ran rampant throughout Europe for a full year before the March, 2020 lockdowns. So, in 2019, where were the mounds of dead bodies? Let’s not forget that 2019 was a year with one of the lowest global death rates on record. Why weren’t there refrigerated trailers full of all the corpses that wouldn’t fit in the morgues? Why weren’t all the hospitals overflowing with mortally ill patients? You do the math.

What’s most interesting about the story is that it was originally reported by no less corporate an outlet than Forbes, in June of 2020. Why didn’t it go viral? It may have been hidden behind a paywall before Reuters picked it up. A duckduckgo search also reveals that as obscure as the story was at the time, the censors at the “factcheck” sites all rushed to try to discredit and bury it.

A Gorgeously Poignant, Long-Awaited Art-Rock Album from Carol Lipnik

When Carol Lipnik put out her album Almost Back to Normal in 2015, little did anyone know how profoundly prophetic it would become seven years later. Awash in waves of neoromantic piano, water imagery and allusive references to disasters of oceanic proportions – Fukushima, Hurricane Sandy, massive oil spills – it’s no less relevant now. At the same time. what a coincidence that the planets would be continuing their slow transit into a long-foretold Aquarian Age.

Since the mid-teens, Lipnik has not exactly been idle on the recording front. The woman widely regarded as the most spectacular singer in New York has a grand total of three new albums scheduled for release this year. The first is Goddess of Imperfection, streaming at Bandcamp. In keeping with Lipnik’s earlier work, there’s plaintiveness and mysticism along with her trademark phantasmagoria and moments of sly wit.

What’s new here is that for the first time, Lipnik has engaged a lot of her favorite artists in a series of collaborations. The album’s first two tracks are co-writes with another dramatic singer, Tareke Ortiz. As a child growing up in Coney Island, Lipnik was haunted by the sound of the wind swirling around the Astro Tower, reflected in the first track, Aeolian Tower Lullaby. Pianist Matt Kanelos shifts from a meticulously articulated, pointillistic glimmer to a stately waltz, matched by Lipnik’s sober, wintry metaphors.

Lipnik reaches for her signature poignancy, soaring through her four-octave range over Kyle Sanna’s wary, lingering reverb guitar, Kanelos’ rippling piano and Jacob Lawson’s strings in the imploringly rapturous title cut.

She reinvents Wildegeeses. by cult favorite freak-folk songwriter Michael Hurley as elegant, spare art-rock, Sanna’s sparse, resonant guitar mingling with Kanelos’ darkly circling piano. The Poacher, the first of two collaborations with David Cale is one of Lipnik’s best and most metaphorically-loaded mystery narratives, Kanelos’ gracefully bounding piano anchoring the lush Elizabethan ambience.

The slow antiwar anthem Nonviolent Man. a big concert favorite by Kanelos, packs more of a political wallop than ever, Lipnik’s unflinching, plainspoken delivery over steady, understated art-rock. Her expansive, psychedelic, bluesy reinvention of the title track to her early zeros album Hope Street hits just as hard: Lipnik’s vocals, from muted, flinty, Nina Simone-esque angst, to aching, fullblown angst, will give you chills.

A History of Kisses, the second co-write with Cale, follows a typical Lipnik dichotomy, playfulness juxtaposed with a brooding melancholy over Kanelos’ steady, restrained 6/8 rhythm. The album’s most symphonic cut is Ride on the Light of the Moon: spooky vocals notwithstanding, it’s ultimately about a triumph of the soul. Lipnik closes the record optimistically with Love, a psychedelic trip-hop number: “A beast breathes fire in and out, in and out of your sleepy paradise,” she observes. “Which side will you see when the hawk hunts the sparrow?”

It’s been a slow year for artists outside the ever-tightening orbit of subsidized recording projects, but more and more people are resurfacing. If this understatedly breathtaking project is any indication, Lipnik’s next scheduled release, Blue Forest – scheduled for this June – is also something to keep your eye on.

In Memoriam: Gary Brooker

Gary Brooker, the visionary pianist, main songwriter and frontman of pioneering art-rock band Procol Harum, died last Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 76.

If the Beatles invented art-rock, Procol Harum were the world’s first fulltime art-rock band. Blending epic classical grandeur, expansive psychedelia, proto-metal grand guignol and occasional goofy theatrics, they were the first rock band to include two keyboards. Brooker’s piano typically filled the role of rhythm guitar, with Matthew Fisher’s baroque-inflected organ and Robin Trower’s guitar sharing leads.

Procol Harum were also unusual in that lyricist Keith Reid was an official band member, but did not perform with them. Utilizing a flowery, ersatz Byronian vernacular, Reid’s lyrics could be ridiculously over-the-top. Yet they could also be venomously succinct, notably in protest songs like Conquistador or As Strong As Samson.

Brooker developed his signature throaty, expressive, soul-inspired vocal style in the early 60s while fronting British band the Paramounts, who played covers of American R&B hits. He brought along his bandmates, Trower and drummer Barrie Wilson, when he founded Procol Harum in 1967. Although they put out ten frequently brilliant albums in their initial incarnation, their biggest hit single proved to be their first release, A Whiter Shade of Pale, a mashup of Bach and Blonde on Blonde Dylan surrealism. The song is reputedly the UK’s most-played radio single of alltime, as indelibly linked to the decade of the 60s, via innumerable film and tv scores, as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower is here.

Procol Harum were both utterly unique and years ahead of their time: gothic before gothic rock existed, and metal just when that style was sifting out of long-form psychedelia in the early 70s. Although pop acts had made orchestral records as far back as the 1930s, Procol Harum were the first rock band to record a live orchestral album. That 1972 release, Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, remains one of the greatest and most foundational art-rock records ever made. Although their influence has waned in recent decades, they had an enormous impact on their similarly ornate colleagues from the 70s, including Pink Floyd, Supertramp, the Strawbs, Nektar and Jethro Tull.

After what was left of the original Procol Harum broke up in 1977, Brooker served as Eric Clapton’s musical director, sang with the Alan Parsons Project and recorded with Kate Bush as well as putting out a handful of R&B albums under his own name. He regrouped Procol Harum in 1991 as a touring project and ended up recording three studio albums with a new supporting cast, although the music lacked the fire and spontaneity of Brooker’s earlier work.

Beyond the live orchestral record, the group’s best studio album is Shine on Brightly, a commercial flop in 1968 despite being the first rock record to feature a sidelong suite, arguably the band’s deepest plunge into psychedelia.

In the fall of 1991, a future daily New York Music blog owner made the long trip to the Town Hall in Manhattan from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn with his girlfriend to see Procol Harum perform their first American concert since the 70s. With Tim Renwick playing a volcanic recreation of Trower’s leads, it was a transcendent show, most of it captured on an old lo-fi Sony walkman recorder. The recorder disappeared with the girlfriend, but the tape remains in this blog’s archive.

Finally, a Great Alan Parsons Live Record

Since most rock albums from the radio-and-records era are riddled with overdubs and were never meant to be replicated live, it follows that only a small percentage of bands from that time ever officially released a good live recording. So it would make sense to assume that the ultimate digital-clean studio band of the 70s and 80s, the Alan Parsons Project, would have been hard-pressed to deliver onstage, right?

But what if they had the ambition (and the financing) to make a live record with an orchestra? Procol Harum did, and that album ended up defining their career. The Moody Blues did it twice, with inspiring results. In the fall of 2021, Parsons and the latest incarnation of his band made an epic double-disc album and DVD with the Israel National Orchestra, One Note Symphony – Live In Tel Aviv, streaming at Spotify. That an act this old, let alone one assembled from almost all replacement parts, could pull it off at all is quite a feat. That the songs – some almost a half a century old – could sound so fresh and vigorous is astonishing. And the setlist is killer, weighted heavily by deep cuts rather than the top 40 singalongs.

What’s more, playing with the orchestra ends up exorcising the kind of roteness that inevitably creeps up on a band who’ve been playing the same old hits night after night for decades. Granted, this isn’t the same crew that gave us Pyramid or The Turn of a Friendly Card, but they are definitely committed to recreating a sound originated on instruments that very few musicians use anymore, let alone in concert.

The title song may be a musical joke, but it also seems to be a cautionary tale. While the Alan Parsons Project are best remembered for a long string of singles, they were addressing the dangers of digital technology and surveillance as far back as the mid-70s. “Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says the voiceover midway through the song: in this context, a word of warning.

In a stroke of serendipity. the orchestra are high in the mix, and their presence ropes in any tendency for the band to go over the top. And yet, they seem to be on a very loose leash: when Jeff Kollman or Dan Tracey’s guitars, or Todd Cooper’s sax, or Tom Brooks’ keys punch in for a flourish or a single bar, it hardly sounds scripted.

The orchestra play the first part of the big guitar solo in Damned If I Do before Kollman gets all shreddy. Interestingly, they don’t play the central synth hook, which mimics an orchestral woodwind section. The strings create an airy bittersweetness that’s been missing in Don’t Answer Me – Parsons’s moment to leave Phil Spector eating his dust – since forever.

Replacement lead singer P.J. Olsson strains to hit the high notes of Time, but the band elevate to an angst-fueled sweep even before the orchestra come in. The big guitars come out for Breakdown, the orchestra leading a triumphantly marching outro. In the global context of early 2022, hearing the crowd spontaneously breaking into a chant of “Freedom, freedom!” will give you chills.

From there they segue into the first Edgar Allan Poe number, The Raven, rising from hazy psychedelia to a peak with band and orchestra going full tilt, “Nevermore, nevermore, never!” A mighty gong hit separates a propulsive Lucifer from a puckishly rearranged, sharply truncated Mammagamma. The high point of the show is the epic Silence And I, which, forty years after it was released, finally gets the arrangement it deserves, from funeral-pillow ballad to Respighi-on-acid stomp.

The first disc winds up with I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You and a surprisingly gospel-inflected, rampaging take of the individualist anthem Don’t Let It Show. The orchestra open disc two with an aptly witchy, deviously metal-tinged version of the famous Dukas classical theme The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The band leap back in with a robust, refreshingly unhurried version of the anthem Standing On Higher Ground, then take a turn into catchy Matt Keating-esque folk rock with As Lights Fall, from the 2019 album The Secret.

I Can’t Get There From Here is not the haunting art-rock song from the Pyramid album but a low-key pop song from The Secret. Brooks’ warped faux-Chopin solo piano interlude that interrupts the big powerpop anthem Prime Time is bizarre, but the diptych of Sirius and Eye in the Sky gets transformed into an art-rock rollercoaster.

Old and Wise doesn’t have the luscious Procol Harum organ that the 90s version of the band used, but it does have one of the most dynamic arrangements here. A hard-edged, funky take of (The System Of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether makes a good setup up for the requisite Games People Play. How much does nostalgia play in this appreciation? Hell, at this point in history, anything from before March of 2020 sounds better than ever.

Turfseer Share a Vast, Venomously Funny, Historically Rich New Protest Song Album

Turfseer‘s epic new 33-track Scamdemic Collection – streaming at Soundcloud – is the bucket of ice water at the end of the marathon. It’s a suicide hotline on wheels. If you’ve been thinking the New Abnormal nightmare will never end, this record will lift your spirits. Outrageously funny as many of these songs are, they speak truth to power.

The studio-only project’s mastermind, Lewis Papier, started writing protest songs shortly after the global totalitarian coup in March of 2020 and he hasn’t stopped since. He’s the missing link between Jeff Lynne and Jello Biafra. Musically speaking, his big anthems are a blend of New Pornographers and ELO, with frequent, sarcastic detours into theatre music, circus rock and occasional stabs at country that sound more like Sean Lennon. The Alan Parsons Project are also a good reference point, considering that band’s rotating cast of singers and musicians. Behind the hilarious lyrics, there’s forceful neoromantic piano, sweeping strings and lush harmonies, or scruffy guitars and soaring pedal steel.

What’s it like to listen to all 33 tracks? Redemptive AF – and a little chilling, with moments of full-blown PTSD. Papier, who hails from Queens, doesn’t mention the lines outside Trader Joe’s, or the cringe-inducing nightly 7 PM pots-and-pans psy-op ritual, but he has vindictive fun satirizing every other scam the behavioral scientists of the Gates Foundation and the propagandists of CNN have subjected us to since then. And not all the songs are satirical.

The first track is Forever Freedom Brigade. a cheery, upbeat anthem spiced with banjo and pedal steel: “They keep us apart, we all have been fooled, freedom is something you don’t learn in school.” Things get considerably more grim from there through the end of the record, but Papier’s message is clear and bright: you’re not alone.

Papier is wise to Covid groupthink as both death cult and new religion. The Virus Is My God, a brisk Old West gothic shuffle, is one of the most tellingly detailed parables here, right down to the out-of-work bartenders and hookers, and the hanging judge who’s going after the town doctor. An unidentified woman sings the piano ballad My Mystery Cult with an unrelenting, rapt reverence, even as the initiation ceremony transforms her DNA into something distinctly inhuman. And amid the baroque-rock cadences of Church of the Pandemic Mind, “If you don’t believe, you’re a snake, we’ll burn you now at the stake.”

The devil is in the details throughout the rest of the record. Kids’ video games are weaponized to spread fear porn in the ominously swaying historical parable O Holy Roman. The Tyranny Train is where you’ll feel “the noose slip round your neck, and not so loose.” And the Statue of Liberty recurs as an unnamed, tarnished image throughout the angst-infused Nevermore.

Other songs draw deeply on how history repeats itself. The Ballad of Typhoid Mary, a ragged circus rock number, recounts the doomed saga of the feisty Irish cook who was the first to be accused of asymptomatic disease transmission, which we now know is basically an old wives’ tale. 1692 Was a Very Good Year, the most vivid ELO/Carl Newman mashup here, makes the Salem Witch Trials connection. The funky I Drank the Kool-Aid references the Jim Jones massacre. And the brooding folk-rock anthem Days of No Immunity traces the turbulent and largely unsuccessful early history of vaccine science.

There isn’t a song here that doesn’t have a wicked punchline. Some of the funniest tunes include Who Stole the Boston Cream Pie, a snarky, witchy parable of lockdown-era binge-eating, and the faux-earnest Sheeple University, whose students pledge never to disobey or think for themselves. Gaga’s Gone, packed with sarcastic Lady Gag references, ends with a couple of breathless, diehard fans being turned away by security on the way into the concert. And It’s Just a Mask features a fierce debate between a guy who’s in the Covid cult for life, and the soulful belter who wants to sing her way out of lockdown.

1984 Is Here, a parody of American Idol excess, quickly escalates to where “They’ll give you some loot if you persecute all those who don’t fit the mold.”

“No more indoor restaurant dining, now there’s no more whining, you can always order delivery,” is the cynical message in Passport to Hell, a Vegas noir ballad. The most sinister of all these songs is The Commandant, a menacing, Schumann-esque art-rock piano anthem where

I’m the Commandant, you must play by our rules
You didn’t listen, we gave you the tools
That’s what you get, a knock on the door
We’ll take you away, you’ll be feeling quite sore
We blocked all your funds, you can’t pay the rent
You don’t understand, we brook no dissent

Someday, when the world has a much smaller population, children will ask some of us what the plandemic was like. Not many of us are going to want to talk about it: Instead, we can give them this album as evidence of how we survived…and how so many others didn’t.

Verdant, Hopeful Chamber Pop and Art-Song From Bodhild Vossgård

There’s no lack of irony in that cellist Bodhild Vossgård doesn’t play on her latest album. She couldn’t, she explains, because of a bad case of tendinitis. Instead, she sings, in a bright, expressive soprano while Ilmari Hopkins takes over on cello and Ida Mo Schanche plays piano. The record, Calming – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled. Vossgård sings in her native Norwegian; her lyrics focus on the beauty of the outdoors and our imperiled ecosystem.

The most carefree track here is Manen Seglar Stille (The Man Is Still Sailing); likewise, Blomar Blomer Stille (Still Blooming), a cheery, stately piano ballad. Hjarteslag (Heartbeat) is slower and much more somber, up to a big, insistent crescendo. Kvil is a rhythmically shapeshifting number with lilting rhythms and jaunty piano flourishes which begin on the piano and end on the cello. It’s a charmingly playful touch.

The most bracing, brooding track is Sov Min Vesle Klode (Sleep, My Little Planet): it’s here that Vossgård’s choice of steady piano arpeggios and cascades over stark, ambered washes of cello cuts through the most intensely. At a moment in history where humanity is staring down an icy stalemate with global forces of evil, we need fresh, springlike albums like this to remind us of all we have to live for and look forward to when this madness is over.

A Lush, Symphonic Art-Rock Album From Gyda Valtysdottir

The last time that cellist Gyda Valtysdottir was on this page, it was the dead of this past February and at that point, her most recent release was a celebration of her fellow Icelandic composers. On her new album Ox – streaming at Bandcamp – the Mum cellist makes a halfway return to artsy, invitingly dreamy, atmospheric rock, retaining the orchestral sweep of her previous effort, Epicycle II.

The opening piece is Alphabet, a slowly unwinding, vast seascape, strings and winds soaring warmly overhead. Valtysdottir sings in cautious English in her distinctive, whispery high soprano.

A conspiratorial spoken-word piece set to densely orchestrated, opaque trip-hop, the second song, Black Swan comes across as symphonic Radiohead.

Dreamy vocals waft over a simple guitar loop and icy piano as the vampy In Corde gathers steam, up to a swaying, hypnotic orchestral crescendo. Cute Kittens Lick Cream is a peaceful instrumental tableau with steady piano amid the mist, flutist Alex Sopp adding whimsical flurries at the end. Riffs diverge, flicker in and out of the ether in Miracle, the most atmospheric track here.

Individual instrumental voices peep and burst up through the mist in Prism as a steady, circling rhythm develops. In Heavenly Piracy, Valtysdottir sets surreal, vaguely assaultive spoken word over a slowly coalescing trip-hop groove. Is that lyric “Bite me rightfully?”

With dissociative harp and shifting string textures, the brief Tell It evokes a broken music box. There’s a return to immersive angst and also more lavish sweep in Amaying, the album’s final cut.

A New Vinyl Box Set For Lovers of 70s Psychedelia, Mystical Indian and Middle Eastern Sounds

It may seem strange that an Indian-influenced German jamband would name themselves after a Mayan creation myth. But Popol Vuh’s influences, and the scope of their music, were vast. Bandleader and keyboardist Florian Fricke came out of the minimalist side of the German avant garde, but by the time the band were through, they’d taken successful plunges into ornate, High Romantic orchestral rock, psychedelia, ambient music and movie scores. Much of it is unselfconsciously beautiful.

Werner Herzog asserts that without Popul Vuh’s soundtracks, several of his best films never would have existed: endorsements don’t get better than that. This year saw the reissue of four of the band’s best-loved albums – 1973’s Seligpreisung, 1979’s Coeur de Verre, 1983’s Agape-Agape Love-Love and the 1987 score to Herzog’s film Cobra Verde – as a lavish vinyl box set complete with original artwork, posters and expanded liner notes. Considering that Popul Vuh’s albums were European imports, expensive to begin with and now command daunting prices on the collector market, this is a goldmine for 70s art-rock fans. Each of the records is streaming at Spotify (click the links in the titles below).

There’s a verdant Moody Blues Romanticism to much of Seligpreisung, fueled by Robert Eliscu’s soaring, expressive oboe over Fricke’s bright but often hypnotic, mantra-like piano and synth work. With the addition of guitarists Conny Veit and Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher, this was the group’s first real rock record, veering suddenly from moody Pink Floyd interludes to the careening Grateful Dead-influenced jams that would pervade much of the rest of their rock material. Selig sind die, die da hungem (Blessed Are Those Who Are Hungry), with a long, bluesy, Gilmouresque guitar solo from Fichelscher, perfectly encapsulates all that. As with all these records, there’s a bonus track, in this case the rare single Be in Love, a sunny chamber pop ballad.

Fricke and Fichelscher switch out the second guitar for Al Gromer’s sitar, adding both lush texture and curlicuing mystery to the Coeur de Verre soundtrack, incorporating more of the incantatory instrumental raga-rock sound of the band’s 1973 Hosianna Mantra album. Blatter aus dem Buch der Kuhnheit (Pages From the Book of Fearlessness) sounds like the Dead taking on a Scottish air with Indian tinges, while Der Ruf (The Call) comes across as a soaring, loopy three-man Dead jam. Rising from anxious minimalism to a crescendoing, clanging triumph, the big epic here is Engel de Gegenwart (Today’s Angel). There’s also a deliciously dark, chromatic interlude, Huter der Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold). The bonus track is Earth View, a spare, sober 1977 Fricke solo piano piece.

Veit’s guitar returns on the harder-rocking Agape-Agape Love-Love, which foreshadows King Gizzard’s uneasy, chromatic Turkish trance-rock by almost forty years. Singer Renate Knaup’s crystalline, sepulchral vocalese sails over a similarly haunting Middle Eastern-inflected backdrop in the Rumi-inspired Behold, the Drover Summons. Circledance, the bonus track, fades up and eventually out like a second-set interlude by the Dead, who were arguably at their peak as a live band at the time Popul Vuh recorded this. Interestingly, the only piano-driven track is the starry closing nocturne Why Do I Sleep.

The Cobra Verde soundtrack is even more Indian-inflected and lushly symphonic, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus serving as kirtan choir in a theme and variations that hark back to Fricke’s beginnings. He reaches for the orchestra’s ominously drifting ambience in the marketplace scene with a couple of subsequent solo synthscapes. It’s a well-chosen way to bring the box set full circle.