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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Gary Hill

Earth (Parts One and Two) - Digital Only

Review by Scott Montgomery

(Editor’s note: This Gary Hill is the same Gary Hill who publishes Music Street Journal – and therefore is editing this review. I have edited for grammar and layout, but not for content at all. I asked for and received an unbiased review. I will interject that while Scott’s interpretation of the material is not precisely what my intent was in recording this, it is close. I’m not going to correct it because interpretation is really the key to the whole thing. The story should be different no matter whose ears are hearing it. Also, this double “disc” set is available only for download at lulu.com/strangesound, but each disc is available separately on CD at the same loction.) This is essentially a lengthy tone poem meditating upon environmental crisis and the Earth’s fate in humanity’s hands.  Divided into two parts, the entirety consists of 24 Impressions, ranging from 1:03 to 7:00.  Part 1 is broken up into 15 Impressions, while Part 2 consists of 9 Impressions.  The pieces are entirely played by Gary Hill – predominantly on keyboard with some guitar and sequenced electronic beats.  The pace tends toward the cadence of slow, almost meditative space music.  But if it is meditative, it is a desolate, discomforting meditation.  Not for relaxation, Earth forces a more existential meditation upon the immediacy of socio-ecological action.  On the whole, Earth is more akin to electronic soundscape experiments than it is to a more traditionally composed song cycle.  It sounds very much like the soundtrack to a film – and more of a Sci-Fi than terrestrially-centered epic.  There is a sparse, minimal quality to the composing that would seem to work best as an accompanying audio compliment to a visual presentation such as film or dance.  It seems intended to evoke imagery as might be the case with experimental multi-media installations.  It is more suggestive than explicit in terms of invoking any particular story-line.  There is no apparent narrative or thematic evolution, though the sub-titles of several impressions do give a sense of an overarching structure that begins with an invocation of a small planet in space, moving on to specific eco-systemic disasters, brink-of-extinction, and ultimately the possibility of hope for renewal (at the end of Part 2).  11 of the 24 Impressions bear subtitles which help guide the suggestive of this loose narrative structure.  The overall tone and color are somewhat dark and unsettling, as is appropriate given the ominous theme of Earth’s mistreatment by human hands.

 

As one might expect from a simple home-recorded project, the sound is a bit murky at times and some of the track transitions between impressions can be quite abrupt.  (Editor’s note: Not only are these recordings home grown under primitive conditions, this was originally released on cassette tape in the late 1980’s.)There is a primitive, unpolished, quality, but there is a certain charm to this homespun feel, particularly in this era of over-produced, sterile post-New Age soundscapes.  The rough edges of Earth make it feel a little more in line with some of the very early electronic experimentations of the earliest Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh, when these groups were very much focused on the effect of pure electronic sound.  This is not exactly Musique Concrète, but it does have a sense of electronic “found-sound.”  In this, it has equal affinity with avant-garde leanings than with the typically soft palette of most New Age music.  It is not “sit back and relax background music,” but challenges one to sit up, listen, and try to visualize the unfolding tale of ecological peril.  Those wanting a dreamy background-soundscape will doubtless find themselves annoyed by some of the electronic bleeps and pulses.  But those with an ear for something that weaves back and forth between the jumpy and the atmospheric, these tone poems with an avant edge might just satisfy and prompt expansive narrative visualization. 

 

Given the quasi-cinematic feel of the tone-cycle, it is tempting to try to read a narrative into the unfolding soundscape.  Though not explicitly outlined in terms of narrative script, the sub-titles of some of the pieces direct this invitation to read a story within this succession of impressions.  Nonetheless, the tale told seems to be left somewhat open to the listener in terms of the details.  Indeed, the dividing of the large-scale work into Impressions rather than Movements is appropriate.  We are given sonic impressions that evoke feelings as much as lucid story-line.  This open-endedness in terms of narrative interpretation draws the listener into a world of visualization – mentally creating one’s own version of the story-line.  For this reason, I hope that the reader will indulge me in treating the pieces in terms of visual evocation of a story.  These somber tone-poems invoke landscapes that shift and change with an unfolding sense of ominous, foreboding dissolution into desolation.  It is a tale to be sure, but a tale that the listener must actively envision and unfold.   This is not a tale of death and rebirth, but rather of death of the old planet and colonization of a new.  The old planet – Earth – is irrevocably dead.  New hope seems to be offered, but given the dark tragedy of the tale of Earth, one wonders whether this second chance will be equally squandered.  The subtitle “New Hope?”, posed as a question, gives pause to wonder if this is indeed a happy ending, or else the prelude to a second act of continued planetary abuse and destruction.  Thus, the grand arc of this Sci-Fi epic offers slight promise, though the chance for redemption exists.  It is ultimately a morality play in which humanity is confronted with its prodigious capability for global destruction and its seeming imminence.  Hope is offered, but in order to regain and realize it, humankind must ultimately confront and rectify its wanton greed and will to destroy.  Here is the challenge.  The entire song cycle appropriately offers a sonic challenge, echoing the overarching social commentary that is implied in the tale.  The music is not so much music, but rather a sonic tone-poem that challenges the listener’s ears as its’ narrative challenges the mind.  And so, Gary Hill has shepherded the listener through a grandiose, epic tale told in sound.  It is a voyage – one that is not easy to undergo, but one that is ultimately thought-provoking.  Earth cannot be considered relaxing, comforting music, for one cannot really settle back and passively listen.  Rather, this is a somewhat in-your-face sonic voyage that demands attention and often aggressively undermines any sense of relaxing quietude.  It requires that you pay attention and actively visualize its tale.  This is most appropriate, given the desperate immediacy of its pointed warning.  Complacency is no longer an option, active engagement is required to save Earth.  (Note that the track by track reviews are the same as the single CD versions and much of this overall review is duplicated in the review of all three versions/parts.)


This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Earth Part 1
Earth Crisis Impression 1 (Earth)

This is a slow processional introduction played on synthesizer with dual piano and organ patches playing the melodic line.  The sparse figuration brings to mind some of Florian Fricke’s more minimalist work.  The mood is somber, appropriately introducing the theme of global crisis with suitable seriousness – opening the entire suite with something sounding like a requiem.

Earth Crisis Impression 2 (Song of the Wild)

After the quietude of the first movement, the synthesized percussion beats that open this movement are an abrupt and unexpected change.  Atop a repetitive, simple beat, the synthesizer plays an ambling melody using a tone that sounds like a muted trumpet patch.  It is a bit curious that a movement entitled “Song of the Wild” should have such an electronic rhythmic underpinning.  However, the sparseness of the melodic line does give a sense of solitary wilderness, which would probably be more evocative without the somewhat distracting beats which eventually trail off.

Earth Crisis Impression 3

Bending organ notes introduce this movement.  These gently surging staccato pulses are faintly echoed with additional organ tones in an upper register that add to the ineffable atmospheric quality of this strangely disquieting section.

Earth Crisis Impression 4 (The Seas)
Slow surging waves of keyboard washes crash against a rocky shore as though heard in the distance.  This short segment is one of the more successfully evocative pieces in terms of aural visualization of a distinct place.  This sea is not tamed, but ominous and uncontrolled.
Earth Crisis Impression 5 (Eco Systems)

Again bending keyboard notes quiver over slow electronic beats.  The shifting tone of the keyboard melody seems to invoke the flux of fragile eco-systems invoked in the movement’s subtitle.  While the slow rhythmic pulse remains consistent, the foreground melodic line is ever-transforming, creating an ultimately unstable aural environment.

Earth Crisis Impression 6 (Extinction)

Extinction is heralded by deep bass notes, played on an acoustic guitar, which are periodically punctuated with a short four-note melodic line played on the upper strings.  I am not certain how this evokes the idea of extinction, other than the shift from keyboard to guitar marks an abrupt change in the sonic palette, perhaps hinting at transition to different life-forms, while others are obliterated.

Earth Crisis Impression 7 (Rain Forest)

Dramatic, low organ swells take us to the density of the rain forest.  The thicker keyboard texture invokes the almost impenetrable density of the foliage.  This seeming impenetrability is sporadically broken by higher notes that suggest errant shafts of light cutting through the thicket.

Earth Crisis Impression 8

From the adamantly earthly we are carried to the otherworldly.  Heavily echoed synthesizer blips seem to suddenly hurtle us above the forest, high into space.  Eventually turning into relentless syn-beats, the sparseness of space is transformed into a barrage of beats that almost conjure an asteroid field battering a spaceship.  (“In case of sonic attack…..do not panic!”).

Earth Crisis Impression 9

The electronic beat settles into a slow, consistent pace, while brooding organ swells and a modulating synthesizer wash swirl about it.  Subtle twittering noises and squeals add to the ominous feeling before everything but the beat abruptly drops out before a sudden stop.

Earth Crisis Impression 10

An electronic thud announces the next movement, which is marked by low rambling tones reminiscent of an electronic bassoon.  Understated, deep undercurrent beats and sounds build until joined by pulsing synthesized swells.  At about the two-and-a-half minute mark a call-and-response synthesized dialog ensues over the relentless beat.  While the tone is significantly less ominous than that of other movements, there is still a sense that this is not an amiable conversation between the two synthesized entities.

Earth Crisis Impression 11

With a clatter, a more fragmented percussive web introduces a thickly-textured wall of sound that undulates with dissonant sound.  We seem to have been dropped into a noisy construction site.  This evokes the rapacious building that threatens the earth’s pristine natural beauty.  Mankind, in all its destructive constructive zeal, has arrived on the scene, rendering life out of balance.  As the clammer of building dies down, we are left with persistent hammering of the electronic beat.

Earth Crisis Impression 12

The densely-layered wall of construction continues.  Before long it settles into an unsettlingly discordant piano accompanied by a high, mutating syn-trumpet voice.  Even as the thick aural-weave settles into a piano and syn-trumpet duet, the overarching air of discomfort remains, a sense that is augmented by the sparser instrumentation.  Alternately ambling through more spacious passages and more manic bursts of piano arpeggios, this movement traverses a great landscape of uneasy contrasts.

Earth Crisis Impression 13 (Requiem)

An apocalyptic swirl of hot, howling desert wind, invoked by the synthesizer seems to bring us to a barren wasteland.  The rich foliage of “Impression 7 (Rain Forest)” has been denuded, leaving a barren desert over which the malevolent wind whistles its requiem.  Life seems to have vanished, leaving a leveled, cratered moonscape in the place of the once verdant earth. 

Earth Crisis Impression 14 (Apocalypse)
Organ – swelling, rising and ebbing brings us to the apocalypse.  But, this is not a cataclysmic crashing of sound, but rather a development off the sparse, post-apocalyptic topography left behind in the aftermath of humankind’s rapacious destruction.  The undulating, solo organ suitably plays this apocalyptic coda.  It does seem as though this piece might be more suitably subtitled “Requiem”, while the previous movement could conjure the Apocalyptic aftermath.
Earth Crisis Impression 15

Ponderous keyboard sets a slow, ominous pace, soon to be joined by a persistent syn-percussion beat.  Scraping synthesized sounds almost conjure falling debris atop the beat, prompting the rhythmic pulse to increase in tempo and urgency as the keyboard sounds become more insistent, persistent, and forebodingly cataclysmic.  Dark, low key-bass notes prompt another change in tempo – now slowing.  Toward the end, sporadic guitar joins the fray, only to vanish, with the synthesizer, leaving the trailing electronic beat…which halts abruptly as though a heartbeat has flat-lined.  It seems as though the Earth has finally given up the ghost – killed by the relentless assault of human mismanagement.  The first CD of Earth ends on this somber, desolate note, leaving the listener wondering how this story could have anything but a tragic ending.  Here at the end of the first CD, there is no resolution, no hope –only the silence of a dead planet.

Were the cycle to end here, the tale would be an adamantly tragic one.  Ecological abuse, demise and desolation carry us on a downward spiral not only to our own obliteration, but that of our planet and, by extension, all other life-forms on Earth.  This is pretty somber stuff.  The lo-fi aspect actually augments this sense of misuse and tragedy, as though sonically conjuring our baser selves, removing any positive application of technological development.  While largely performed on modern keyboards, the lack of excessively polished production seems to undermine the positive role of technology, stripping it bare to reveal its use (really misuse) in the rampant and rapacious destruction of the planet.  Not only human greed, but human technological development seems indicted by this sonic tale of woe.

But…the tale continues.  One wonders how this could be, as it seems that Part 1 had not only brought Earth to the brink, but had chronicled its irrevocable demise, or murder, at the hands of the human virus.  Dark stuff indeed, but the tale of planetary disaster continues.

Earth Part 2
Earth Crisis Impression 16 (World Gone Wild)

This opens with a clatter as a battery of percussive bursts forge a clanging underpinning for meandering electronic noodles and bursts.  This gives appropriate theme to the idea of the world gone wild, as suggested in the title of this impression.  It would seem that the final throes of Part 1 had not invoked absolute dissolution, but perhaps were only the somber precursor to the coup-de-grâce.  The world has not so much gone wild, as the state of balance has gone wild - tipped toward the final, devastating end.  The barrage of percussive clatter evokes a bombing – perhaps the ultimate nuclear folly with which humanity has toyed for decades.

Earth Crisis Impression 17 (Life’s End)
A single synthesizer note appears to suggest a tiny vestige of life.  Joined by ascending and descending electronic percussive patterns this lone keyboard tone meanders through a suitably desolate sonic landscape.  Warbling amidst the sporadic beats and elegiac organ, the synth tone picks up life until the entire sound wall dissolves into a quiet, sparse guitar pattern that slowly devolves before picking back up in shimmering patterns and resettling into a lonely simple phrase (which cuts off in a discomfortingly abrupt manner).
Earth Crisis Impression 18

The dark, atmospheric organ returns in a Spartan roll of waves that settle into an otherworldly spacescape.  Perhaps we are now suspended in the relative quietude of the planet’s atmosphere, looking down at the devastated orb below.  Growing more forceful and busy, the atmospheric tone diminishes, as though descending toward a crash.  A rhythmic pulse emerges to accompany the organ, leading to a brief, dark bass (?) solo that descends into lugubrious chaos before ascending into an ebbing-and-flowing cacophony of rock-guitar-rhythms with percussive beats and crashing laser bursts of sound.  What this all means eludes me.

Earth Crisis Impression 19

The longest piece of the cycle begins with sustained organ notes supporting an increasingly busy, ascending plucked piano figure – all played on the synthesizer, of course.  Above the warbling organ, the piano noodles in a spaceless space, seemingly suspended in time.  Where we are now is unclear.  There is no subtitle to help us conjure a sense of place within a narrative, and so we are left adrift, unsure of our location and direction.  Aside from the persistent organ swells, the front-line tones and patterns change dramatically, dancing across the space as though offering snippets of a fast-moving visual field.  For some reason my mind conjures the disorienting race through time and space toward the end of Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey.  Perhaps we are experiencing a move through space – in search of a new world to colonize after having obliterated our homeworld.

Earth Crisis Impression 20

Again the rhythmic pulse slowly carries an ethereal, wandering synth line.  Is this metered procession traveling through space?  There is a more ponderous feel, searching perhaps for a locus of new life.

Earth Crisis Impression 21
Clatter, disruption, near-chaos - are we landing on a new world, bumpily crashing through its atmosphere?  But, as atmosphere implies the possibility of life-sustaining air, this careening passage offers the sonic contractions for the birth of a new world.  The keyboard batters against the ever-swelling organ like so much atmospheric debris.
Earth Crisis Impression 22

Short bursts of keyboard blasts could signal landing thrusters.  This is not an easy arrival on a foreign planet.  But is it truly foreign?  The jumble of sounds and sonic blasts has become familiar – from the death-throes of the old world.  This would seem to create an ominous reminder of the inglorious past of human planetary folly.  There is a paradox here – as the foreign, new world might offer the hope of a second chance while simultaneously reminding one of the tragic absurdity of humanity’s failed first chance.  Clanging remerges, as though literally conjuring the hammering of construction as a new habitat is built.  Sustaining shelter to-be-sure, but one can hardly neglect to recall that similar construction aided the destruction of the initial home planet.  Thus, this building a new future seems to parallel the building of the disastrous past.  Has humankind been saved, or is this simply the overture to another planet being lost?  As the hammering carries on over several uncomfortable minutes, one wonders if this could be anything but the construction of a new destruction.

Earth Crisis Impression 23

Swelling space bursts of synthesized flourishes here seem to bring Keith Emerson to the planet, as the opening keyboard wails of ELP’s “Rondo” come to mind.  However, here the setting remains adamantly extraterrestrial, with none of the rollicking rhythm that would ground it in the terrestrial romp of “Rondo.”  The allusion is perhaps apt, as this rondo returns us to the setting of the opening of Earth – with a world in danger.  The tale has truly come around again – the serpent bites its tail, humanity again threatens to level a planet.

Earth Crisis Impression 24 (New Hope?)

Life seems to remerge and take hold, in ponderous steps overridden by near-ebullient keyboard embellishments.  A tentative sense of wonder is conjured.  It would seem as though hope has returned with the possibility of a second chance on a new planet.  This promising soundscape fades off – into space? Into oblivion?  On to a new world?  We have not so much reached a conclusion, but the suggestion of a new chapter.  And thus, this filmic sound journey closes with an audible “to be continued….”

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