100 word minimum? No Problem. I’m ranting a bit tonight, so instead of cranking out 1000+, let’s just focus on one song, OK? Can you tell I like the album? Can you guess what my rating is going to be?
“Like the white dot in the middle of the TV when you turn it off…” That’s right, we’re going to the infinite universe that is ‘Abigails Qusetion.’ And quoting the lyrics is not where you expect a Beardfish review to begin. I keep saying the same thing to anyone who will listen, but I can’t believe how much I like the lyrics for this band. That’s not supposed to be true for a prog band, or at least not usually. That’s exactly the reason I’ve enjoyed so much international prog over the past twelve months. Take away any understanding because you’re hearing Polish or Portuguese or French, or whatever. But these guys are fans of Zappa, and the written (and spoken and sung) word was such a big part of what made his music special. It was not just comedy – it communicated a big idea that could not be captured by the music alone. ‘Billy the Mountain’ (once described as a movie-for-your-ears) is my favorite example, but there are many others. The fascinating thing is that THESE GUYS DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH TO EACH OTHER. They don’t speak English to their friends and family. And while it is clearly far more common for a Swedish person to be fluent in English than visa-versa, being able to have a nice conversation in English is one thing – writing about the infinite universe, with idiom, simile and metaphor is something else entirely. Yet, for some time now, for Rikard and the band – no problem.
Now, it’s best not to speak about Zappa too much in a Beardfish review, lest the reader get the impression that this is a one-trick-pony of Mothers-impersonators. That’s not the case. No way. Then why do I even bring it up again? because the music, the notes, the time signatures, the arrangements are tough, at times, on the listener, particularly the new listener. And that criticism may be reasonably directed at much of Zappa’s music. And also, these guys know the Zappa schtick upside-down, backwards and forwards, and they don’t care to hide that fact. The thing to remember is that it is merely a jumping off point, and it is not the thing itself. Too often I see the word ‘retro’ associated with this band, and I cringe. With all due respect to Mike Portnoy’s very kind words about it being just like 1974, this is not retro. This is progressive. Ideas from the past, particularly those involving intensive composition, are being recombined and mixed with NEW sounds and NEW ideas to make NEW music.
“Nothing has a beginning. Nothing has an end.” What a comforting thought. It reminds me of Neil Young (perhaps the most un-prog of artists) who said “It’s all one song.” Well, despite that lovely refrain, Abigails Question certainly does have a beginning and an end. It also has a TON of material in between, including a little chit chat about the density of space (basically a vacuum) compared to the density of complex living organisms, like tadpoles. But even with that unexpected (and very welcome) roadsign, this was the song I was waiting for on this record.
At a little more than nine minutes, this is concise, especially given the variation of music contained therein. After a very brief bit of atmosphere, the verse begins, supported by something akin to soft mellotron hits and guitar that sounds like it’s processed an octave up. Drums and bass drive steadily while keys, guitar and vocal meander in a daze through the first 50 seconds. In order to get to the “Nothing has a beginning…” refrain there’s a quick little somersault that feels meant to be disorienting for the listener, but it happens so fast that we find our feet right away, and are rewarded with a bit of synth melody that would make Tony Banks proud. Unlike most Genesis, that melody is with us for less than twenty seconds – which is actually a small eternity in Beardfish time. Now we’re back to verse two. The short cycle basically repeats until we’re just under the two minute mark. All change!
Now it’s time for a somewhat anxious meditation on how an infinite universe could be a bad thing. This is matched with an unsettling up-chop on the guitar that is so not reggae. Basically the song is contemplating the spontaneous and immediate end of everything. This troubling thought leads directly into a polyrhythmic section where it seems everyone is regimented in their own march. It reminds me of Wetton-era King Crimson. We are then rescued by an instrumental statement, similar to that earlier synth melody, but now carried by the organ. There is a little groove here, almost like beautiful and mellow rock’n’roll music. Is Beardfish about to become a jam band? What do you think? This lovely bit of music goes from just before the 3 minute mark to about 3:34. Again, in the life of this song, that’s a pretty nice little jam.
Now it’s the same melody, transposed and counterpointed to be a little peppier and a little more edgy. At 3:57, we’re back to the original key for this part, and there is a small sense of resolution, small because we know it is temporary. Just around 4:15 some synth (Moog?) foretells the next transition. It’s the same key change, but VERY quickly followed by hits at the 4:36 mark (which is the exact halfway mark, by my calculation). Now we’re gently meandering, noodling a bit even. Organ, bass, drums and guitar, kind of just going together, but constantly changing direction. This is hard on the listener, unless it is setting something up. Why yes, that’s the same theme we just heard back at the 1:14 area. Ahhh… I feel so relaxed. i hope this is not a false sense of comfort. That floor tom is hitting a bit hard.
Now some noodling and hits and then really fast vocals about checking out the trail left from that first kiss. The lyrics are delivered so quickly that I needed to look them up, but they’re followed by the old demon voice (octave down) confirming that yes, “You should totally check it out!” OK, stoner! Now, at 5:23, the stage is set for something tasty. Why, yes, that IS a delightful little clavinet solo. Such easy rockin’ music is rudely interrupted by the aformentioned chat about the density of intergalactic space compared to some complex stuff here at home. This voice reminds me of the seemingly benevolent super computer controlling everything on the starship, which computer (emotionless) may or may not be planning on killing the crew. What IS definitely killing is Rikard’s organ solo, which only runs from 6:40 to 7:16. Again, that’s a long time to be in the same progression for this song. What I love is the maturity on that tiny little solo. He’s got a very small amount of space and he delivers chops AND emotion. It is an ecstatic high point to the record and perfectly sets up the rest of the band to take us home.
Repeat that extra fast lyric and then we close in on the BIG FINISH – YES!! Nothing has a beginning, Nothing has an end! Except with those sustaining Hammond chords and the very tasteful and understated guitar melody accents, we’re pretty much in jam band heaven from 7:28 to the finish. It is an extremely rewarding finale for a listener who has gone through the whole experience described above and it shows the emotional power that this quartet can muster to bring the chaos to a sublime conclusion.
The rest of the record is also very good.