Friday, August 23, 2013

Recent raves: Jason Becker + Space Opera

There are tales of dashed hopes and then there is the story of Jason Becker, a classical/metal shred-guitar virtuoso who landed his dream gig (the lead-ax spot in David Lee Roth's band) in 1989 only to be diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease before he could go on tour. I highly recommend Not Dead Yet, the new documentary about Becker.

The subject himself—now paralyzed, he communicates and composes music via a series of eye and facial movements—comes off as a hugely inspiring figure, but what grabbed me most about the film was the portrayal of Jason's parents. They'd always encouraged his art, and in the interviews featured in the doc, they seem as heartbroken as their son (and maybe even more so) over the fact that he wasn't able to seize the opportunity he'd created for himself. There's one moment that really stuck with me: Becker's parents recall how Jason once said to them (I'm paraphrasing here), "You know, Mom and Dad, my friends are always complaining about their parents, and I don't have anything to say." That clich├ęd heavy-metal narrative of a repressive upbringing just didn't apply to Becker, in other words. It's doubly sad, then, that he eventually encountered a much more severe obstacle to success.


A few weeks back, my friend Nick Podgurski—an extraordinary drummer, singer and composer who heads up the New Firmament initiative—introduced me to the self-titled 1973 album by a Texas band called Space Opera. Since then, I've been having a serious, extended Moment with this record. Nick relishes musical excavation, digging up weird, forgotten gems, whether they be ambient, psych, black metal, punk or what-have-you. I always approach his playlists/recommendations with curiosity, a feeling that sometimes morphs into delight or pure bafflement, depending on what I encounter. But when I heard "Holy River," I knew this was something different:

Some obscure records are good for a quick mindblow and then you set them aside; you're just as intrigued by the simple fact of the unknownness of a certain piece of compelling music as you are by the sounds themselves. This Space Opera album is different; it's an eccentric release, yes, but it's also incredibly soothing, nourishing and fulfilling—accessible is what I mean to say. It fits into life, rather than simply being an irreconcilably weird object that you hold at arm's length. It is an incredibly well-conceived record but also an improbable one. Space Opera bridges two worlds of early-’70s musicmaking that I love equally dearly yet that have always appeared entirely separate to me, namely U.K. prog/art-rock (King Crimson, Yes) and U.S. folk-rock (America, CSNY)—with a little twangy, Allman-style flash seasoning the mix. You can hear the resulting tension in the track above, in which placidness and harshness collide to brilliant effect. I'm trying not to spoil the surprise, but I'll say only that the entry of the distorted guitar is one of the more heavenly musical curveballs I've ever been thrown.

The whole album isn't this dissonant (and I mean that both conceptually and sonically); several of the songs choose one or the other of the two aforementioned camps (i.e., the prog or the folk) and hang out comfortably there—see "Country Max" and "Guitar Suite," respectively. But I'm completely cool with that, because the material is uniformly outstanding; Space Opera doesn't need to clash and disorient in order to impress. The peak for me might be "Prelude No. 4," where all sorts of other right-up-my-alley influences from the general period start seeping in—this track honestly sounds to me like Rick Danko of the Band sitting in with Steely Dan circa Can't Buy a Thrill, which, as anyone who knows me will tell you, adds up to a seemingly tailor-made musical nirvana for me—but I love the entire record. Dig in:

P.S. Go here for more info on Space Opera. They issued a comeback album in ’01; haven't yet spent good time with that one, but I look forward to it. There's also an odds-and-ends comp out, Safe at Home, which I think contains material from the period that produced Space Opera. I highly recommend this interview with SO member David Bullock, unfortunately available only as a RealAudio stream.

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