A “Supergroup” Belies Its Contents: Blackfield’s IV

The main new sound that I’ve had in my ears this week has been an album I’ve been looking askance at in the store for awhile, but only recently purchased: Blackfield’s Blackfield IV. The main reason I had such an interest in it was that it was being promoted in-store (insofar as it was available to listen to at one of the listening stations), yet the line-up, as advertised on the front, seemed to be made up entirely of modern prog rock musicians (including the prog world’s Jack White, Steven Wilson). The juxtaposition had me curious, so I wanted to investigate.

What had happened is that I fell into the Asia trap. Asia is a band that could probably be considered a prog supergroup – Steve Howe from Yes on guitar, John Wetton from King Crimson on bass and vocals, Carl Palmer from ELP on drums and Geoff Downes from The Buggles and Yes on keyboards. There’s a lot of musical musculature there, and the assumption based on the line-up would be crazy ten-minute solos and key and time signature changes to make your head spin. But no. They made “Heat of the Moment”. Produced like crazy, harmonized arena rock fist-pumpers instead of seven-movement suites. And what’s wrong with that?

Looking at the pedigree in a supergroup, you can only understand what’s it’s going to be like in terms of each member’s previous bands sort of pasted together and shaken up. Really, though, the group could have been formed for any number of reasons, under any number of auspices. It may be an attempt for the members to go madly off in a different direction (see David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant, which made ample use of horns for which neither musician was famous). By the 1980s, most of the prog rock bands were sick of the longwinded noodling they were famous for, and wanted to shorten things up to see if they could hang with the next generation of bands coming in. It could be that the members just interact musically in a way they hadn’t foreseen and they just decided to go with it (Elvis Costello and the Roots recently put out Wise Up, Ghost, which seemed to come out of almost nothing as Questlove approached Costello after he performed on Jimmy Fallon one night). It could just be that they wanted to play some less serious music and just have a blast in their comfort zone and gettin’ mad radio hits. There’s no way in hell that “Heat of the Moment” is not fun as hell to play (and, quite honestly, it ain’t a simple walk in the park to do so either – it’s just not at the apex of difficulty like prog was in the 70s, which was often to the detriment rather than benefit of the songs)!

With all this in mind, I feel sort of silly for looking down on Blackfield IV for not being the electrifying prog record I was hoping that it would be (at the same time, however, that was foolishly why I bought it). What it does sound like is orchestrated pop (none of which I’ve any problem with, mind you – Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. and The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP come to mind), with a lot of jangly guitar picking thrown in and some pensive vocals, though it’s the meticulous production that is mainly what makes it sound flat to me. Though it didn’t necessarily need any ‘showy’ bits, it sort of failed to capture my attention vs. my expectations. I should not have been surprised, however, as the whole prog rock ethos is based around the integration of more ‘grown-up’ genres into rock, with classical music being a big part of that (Yes, ELP), as well as keen studio tweaking.

Even so, I find that with repeated listens, such an album improves vastly, as you can kind of shake away what you thought the album might have been, and concentrate on what’s there. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself humming something that you heard without knowing it, and you’re in.

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