Writing Practice 5/5/2019 – Purple dragon

Purple dragon…

Purple Dragon is the psychedelic punk-rock album of 1975, released to much acclaim and fanfare as the third project of much-applauded Canadian trio Head In My Hole. This Junior project (freshman, sophomore, junior) effortlessly combines twisted guitar rhythms, bursting drum solos in almost every track, wicked lyrics tha trepresent the banality of life at every turn, and a series of song titles an themes which take the listener on an epic journey through an acid trip like no other.

The opening number, “set Aside Your Expectations,” is not just the introduction to the album, it sets the stage for the nearly mind-tripped experience to come. Hugh Laurie, vocalist and lead guitar, sets a pulsating, pounding harmony on his g-string, matched with his lyrics delivered in a raspy, sexy, smolders voice that seems a combination of Bob Dylan and Annie Lennox – mature, yet still naive enough to hope for a better future. “Set Aside…” tells of the advice given to our narrator by his older, wiser, more-stoned college roommate, upon his first foray into experiencing the magic and wonder of LSD. “Prepare for a purple dragon,” the narrator says. “It’ll show up when you least expect it.” And that sets the stage for the rest of the lyrics, music, and, in truth, experience of listening to – or, rather, immersing yourself in, Purple Dragon.

Over the next forty-seven minutes, Head In My Hole explores alternative rhythms and fantastical stories as our narrator recounts the multitude of new horizons pursued at the guidance of his leader. Drugs, sex, rebellion, even hard work.

I won’t spoil the ending. I won’t even give away how irrational it seems to say that it has an ending, for, as with much of the drug-rock of that era, Purple Dragon could easily be played on one continuous loop without losing any kind of continuity whatsoever. Start at track 5, go to 9, back to 1-4, and you would have a completely new, completely different, yet utterly coherent and enjoyable experience nonetheless. Thus the beauty of this album. Much more than a conglomeration of unrelated ideas, whatever happened to bubble up to the surface of the stew pot on the day Hugh and band mates were practicing and writing new songs, Purple Dragon is clearly a nuanced, planned, integrative album worthy of a listen. Find it in your local used Vinyl store. If not there, check eBay. I bet you’ll hatred that it’s certainly worth the effort.

Music Review – Breathing in the Moment

In the past this blog has been solely for writing about fiction, the process, and personal reflections. This post is one of many to come about a wide variety of topics – whatever I wish to write about.

I have always loved solo piano music, and New Age music (incorporating synthesizers and more instruments, only sometimes with vocals) as well. Beginning with Deep Breakfast by Ray Lynch, I have lost myself more times than I can count in rhythm, flow, countermelody, and just general peace. So I decided to write a review of some albums in my music library, to see if I can make sense of why I feel the way I do and whether I can convince you, the reader, I know what I’m talking about.

The following is a review of Breathing in the Moment by Michelle McLaughlin, released in 2012. Why this one? Because I would show myself quite amateurish reviewing the masters like George Winston or Yiruma without practice first.

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By 2012, when Breathing in the Moment was released, Michelle McLaughlin had been recording and performing for over a decade. Because of this, her fans and fans of modern solo piano in general have come to recognize (or maybe demand?) many hallmarks of such music: rhythmic left hand progressing through individual notes of major chords, right hand playfulness and trills, usually at least one (or two) shifts in tone within any one piece. Breathing is no exception.

I categorize the pieces on this album into two general types: playful or peaceful. An example of each is analyzed below.

[A quick note on production, I would have preferred a longer quiet time between songs. The current timing is only about 1 second of silence before the next song begins. I would prefer another 2 seconds. This would give me enough time to take a deep breath and “cleanse my listening palette”, so to speak, before the next song starts.]

Peaceful: This is the standard of modern solo piano. It sounds like someone trying to play you to sleep, so the left hand is generally very regular in tempo while the right hand will move up and down, but generally not too fast or too loud. An example of this is the title track Breathing in the Moment. This is a measured, rhythmical piece. It is concentrated in the middle of the keyboard, and there is constant application of the sustain pedal. Keeping the pedal on like this all the time  mutes the impact of the sound and tends to blend notes together to dampen their punch. This is fairly typical of music written and performed in this style since the middle-1980s.

Over half of the pieces on Breathing are of this type. Breathing in the Moment, The Beauty Within, Cheryl’s Hope, Into the Sunset, The Life Cycle, Finding Balance, Trilogy, Nostalgia, The Lunar Effect. Nothing spectacular, but no tragedies either.

Playful:  This is still New Age music, but in these kinds of pieces you’ll find more movement in the right hand, more trills and runs, and even some rests between notes occasionally for a change of pace. Stargazing is the best at this and it is my favorite piece of the album. I liked it because I could hear her skill with the intricate trills, adding beauty and flair that just don’t come out in a Peaceful piece.

Stargazing, Sisters, The Joy of Childhood, Breaking Free, Wonderment, Rejoice (Reprise) are of the Playful type, and I think these are more enjoyable to listen to. Sisters, especially, let me imagine two girls at play in a field, running and jumping, only to collapse satisfied and exhausted at the end.

Overall, Breathing is a fairly standard new age solo piano album. I did get surprised by Breaking Free, though, as this one had a bit of a sinister tone to it. It was up-tempo but still not “happy”, which added to the impression. Having some space between the notes enhanced that feel, and this ended up my second-favorite piece on the album. But to have a whole release of this type would be overwhelming, so McLaughlin is good to limit these. 

Current fans will not find anything to object in this album, and new audiences may be attracted by the divergence on Stargaing and Breaking Free. There seems to be something for many, but probably not all, and that’s okay. The heavy use of the sustain pedal makes this, like many contemporaries, less of an exhibition of piano or composition skill and more like covering the audience in a wide, warm, soft blanket of sound.