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Pocket Orchestra - 2011 - "Phoenix

(158:22 2CD, Altrock Records)


*****+

Prolusion. Americas POCKET ORCHESTRA is a so-called one-shot endeavor, whose sole studio album, Knebnagauje, was released by Israeli MIO Records in 2005. The material under review, a double-CD outing titled Phoenix, embraces everything the band has ever recorded. Apart from the said album, it features a set of the bands live tracks, most of which were previously unreleased. Oh, almost forgot: the outfit was formed back in 1979, but was creatively active only during the first half of the next decade.

CD 1 (79:01)
******

TRACK LIST:

1.  Imam Bialdi 6:24
2.  RV 7:04
3.  Regiments 14:59
4.  Letters 13:53
5.  Blueing 7:10
6.  White Organ Meats 7:03
7.  Grandma Coming Down 5:32
8.  Bagon 16:52

LINEUP:

Joe Halajan  clarinets, saxophones
Bill Johnston  violoncello
Craig Bork  keyboards
Tim Parr  guitars
Tim Lyons  bass
Bob Stearman  drums
Analysis. Running for almost 80 minutes, the studio album is made up of eight instrumental tracks. Three of those are long, epic-like, pieces, of which the two that follow each other somewhere in its middle, namely Regiments and Letters, are brilliant in all senses. Both of them are very balanced, almost totally structured compositions, where all of the musicians smoothly drift in and out of the spotlight. The style is RIO overall, in the vein of Henry Cow at its least jazziest or bizarre either: think Western Culture without vocals, in short. The former piece begins with a beautiful, classical music-evoking interplay between piano and clarinet, but very soon is transformed into a majestic chamber rock chorus of guitar, cello, saxophone, bass, keyboards and drums. Save one of its mid-sections, which brings to mind a sort of sympho-industrial avant-garde, and, well, another brief episode with a classical feel to it, the music follows the classic chamber rock rule that allows many of the players perform any specific part simultaneously or, in other words, although many solos are vectored differently, in total they create a highly cohesive musical palette. Another epic develops in a similar manner as the previous one, albeit its more melodically rooted, also revealing some folk music motifs along the way. In terms of intensity, it really does blossom out only within its third fourth, but nevertheless, even where the energy level is comparatively low it arrives at several wholesale thematic changes, always keeping the musicians busy all six of them most of the time. Then follow three more remarkable compositions, Blueing, White Organ Meats and Grandma Coming Down. All of them bring together RIO and avant-garde Art-Rock, which is somewhat reminiscent of King Crimson circa The ConstrucKtion of Light, and are for the most part structurally as dense as the piece described first. Imam Bialdi and RV normally alternate chamber rock moves with typically jazz-rock, emotionally jovial, ones, though each of them additionally contains some moments that I find over-eclectic: reminiscent of the more bizarre elements of Zappa, those growing increasingly (like mushrooms after the rain, in a way) on the recordings last track. Titled Bagon (16:52), it sounds improvisational much of the time, and although there are a few sections all referring to the RIO genre that evince skilled compositional craftsmanship, the music often goes into a maelstrom of spontaneous improvisations. So, the CD contains two good pieces and five excellent compositions: located right at its core, the latter run for 43+ minutes already enough for a full-fledged album. As for the one that I dislike, I think I can easily omit it while weighing the rating of the disc which, after all, exceeds one hour in length even without it.

Conclusion.

CD 2 (79:21)
****+

TRACK LIST:

1.  Annex 5:56
2.  Bagon/Wandering Aimlessly 14:48
3.  Blirt 4:05
4.  Blueing 12:01
5.  Letters 19:12
6.  Parade 5:23
7.  Regiments 11:32
8.  Corn Fed 5:37
Analysis. This CD is very long too, although three of the eight tracks presented, Blueing, Letters and Regiments, were, so to speak, previously available, as also, at least partly, was the one that takes second position here: its first half, titled Bagon, to be more precise. Musically, however, none of these appear as straight rehashes of their original versions mainly because theyre somewhat richer in purely impromptu moves than those. When listening to the indicated moments, I experienced much the same feeling as in the latest Nichelodeon release, the Come Sta Annie DVD (which I reviewed a few days ago actually), particularly in its Twin Peaks-related segment. Heres the heart of the matter: while the approach and instrumentation differ, the growing wave of free-wheeling solos is restrained from falling into complete chaos only by the good sense of the musicians behind their instruments, in both cases. However, one of the other pieces, Wandering Aimlessly (which forms the second track along with the above Bagon), has such a sound throughout, representing just what its title suggests. Totaling 21 minutes in length, the other four tracks that the band presents for the first time, Annex, Blirt, Parade and Corn Fed, are free of any frantic, over-eclectic, et cetera stuff. Like the majority of those from the studio album, each of them contains chamber rock arrangements, but only the disc opener, the excellent Annex, deploys those as its main genre feature, sounding much in the vein of the first two epics there. Blirt begins with a couple of jazz-rock moves (one of which is conventional: swing-based), but the rest of the piece is progressively strong. Representing something halfway between RIO and avant-garde Art-Rock, it well reproduces the style that the other three central tracks of the sets first item are done in. Besides the previously named idioms (the ones that only concern the new tracks, of course), the compositions Corn Fed and Parade include Balkan and Chinese or maybe Jewish and Japanese, not sure folk motifs respectively, and are in places lushly flavored with those. Both of them are more accessible than any of the bands other pieces, but personally I like them much better than either of the two that are created spontaneously. Finally, there is a hidden track at the very end of the disc, a cut actually, which comes across as a jazz take on RIO.

Conclusion. The first disc is overall excellent, and Id recommend you repeated listens: given time, most of its compositions will blow you away. The live album is inferior to the studio one both musically and (particularly so) in sound, which in quality is far from modern standards. Anyhow, the whole package is worth buying above all, because it covers the entire work of this unusual ensemble.

VM=Vitaly Menshikov: February 20 & 21, 2012
The Rating Room


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