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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Sundog

Insofar

Review by John Pierpoint

Sundog is a side-project by Penguin Café front-man and pianist Arthur Jeffes, teaming up with violin player Oli Langford. I first heard the duo on a BBC Radio 3 magazine programme, playing live and chatting to the host. I was impressed by the technical ability, and the raw emotional impact of the music. So when I spotted the album a few weeks later, I just had to have it! 

Much of the music is clearly influenced by the repetitive, riff-based compositions of Philip Glass or Micheal Nyman, but it has more delicate and complex textures in places, and Langford’s soulful violin adds a touch of Jerry Goodman. The pair play fast and loose with timing and time signatures, which can be disconcerting at first, but which soon becomes another source of interest as the listener learns to anticipate the changes.

Jeffes plays various keyboard instruments such as piano, dulcitone, Rhodes electric piano and harmonium. But it doesn’t stop there: he uses some clever recording and sampling techniques to extract new and interesting sounds from his instruments. Anyone interested in recording experimentation will find this music (and the technical explanations given in the copious sleeve notes) to be a great source of inspiration. Because the use of synthesisers is avoided – and aided by a superb production - the music has a pleasing, organic quality that draws the listener in.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Light on Stone
This has a very familiar sound, so I may have heard this before as background music on a TV programme or advert. A slow, rich deeply-echoed piano begins, accompanied by a deep thumping rhythm. The piano accelerates to reach cruising speed, and executes some delicious key changes, while more percussion joins. All the percussion is derived from sounds made by various bits of the piano, so in fact everything you hear is the same piano!
4Lb
Here, two keyboards play in different time signatures, so that each bar seems slightly different as they move across each other. The violin plays a melancholy melody over the top, clearly mimicking the ominous sound of air-raid sirens at one point.
For You, When It Rains
A simple and beautiful solo piano tune, the notes say that it was deliberately written to be easy for anyone to play (all white keys), so this should prove popular with piano students.
Boso I
An urgent, damped-string piano riff, which conjures up images of clocks and mechanisms is heard here. It opens out to a full grand piano sound at intervals. It cross-fades to the next track.
Boso II
The same piece is recorded using a Rhodes electric piano, using techniques (described in detail in the notes) to emulate the damped-string effect and generate samples which are used for the percussion. A ring-modulated piano produces eerie bird-like sounds in the background.
The Heart Waits
This is a dramatic piece that would work beautifully as a cinematic soundtrack (and in fact it is a little reminiscent of Nyman’s “The Piano” in tone). Towards the end, there is a slow interlude, before the original theme returns.
Shadows In Water
A fast and complex series of riffs, with timing interplay between the violin and piano is on display here. There’s no electronic trickery on this one: simply the two live instruments. The tune ends suddenly on a violin trill.
Parise (Song For Wayland)
This begins with rhythmic damped/harmonic piano notes (á la Esbjorn Svensson), but changes suddenly to a slow theme, before a new chiming piano sequence comes in. The fluid violin soars over this.
Machell
The same 5/4 pattern is given three different treatments in this piece. Although mostly piano and violin, there is also subtle percussion made by tapping the piano case.
Je Crois
Langford’s violin evokes memories of Stéphane Grappelli on this tune, with its initial repetitive piano riff bursting forth into a strong and beautiful melody.
Things Fall Apart
So far, this one is my favourite. It’s a blend of the four keyboard instruments, with the rasping, distorted tones of an overdriven Rhodes taking the star role. The percussion comes from careful mic work on a harmonium to extract its clicks, taps and thumps as the keys are depressed – without any air passing through, so not producing any actual notes. The tune begins with what sounds like a gamelan, or possibly a recording of some intricate mechanism at work. The Rhodes bursts in with an addictive riff that reminds me of The Shadows’ “FBI”(!), closely followed by the organic, breathy thumps of the harmonium. The title is very apt – it gives the impression of some machine running wild, with bits spinning out of control and flying off. The tune tapers down to the initial gamelan-like noises to finish.
A Simple Loss
This solo piano piece has a Latin-American sound (although the notes say it is based on a Congolese tune), and is deliberately played loosely, to give a sense of just being slightly out of control.
Perc’y
This piano/violin piece uses some cunning timing changes to wrong-foot the listener, but remains an enjoyable, light-hearted tune, although it must be a challenge to play! Perhaps the title is meant to be read as “Perky”, as it certainly is a perky tune. Towards the end, the violin is multi-tracked to produce overlapping layers.
Both Hands in Pockets
This is another experiment in microphone work on a piano, which apparently uses a “singing rock”! (You’ll have to read the sleeve notes to find out how this works. . .). At the end there is a brief spoken comment from Jeffes.
 
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