Monday, March 30, 2009

Hobbit Prog: Swords and Suckery

I don’t know why it is that I hate fantasy novels and hobbits to the extent that I do. I’m not talking Italo Calvino and Borges fanstasy, I’m talking those terrible Robert Jordan novels you see pony-tailed comic book clerks reading when they can pull themselves away from their thousandth re-read of The Watchmen, or on those rare and blessed occasions when they emerge from their basement hovels like albino veal claves, milky, soft, sick from drinking Faygo pop all night and carrying that peculiarly sweet stench the human body exhudes after about a week of 18-hour-a-day gaming sessions. While I identify with the need to recuse oneself from humanity and hunker down with total nerd obsessions and geekdom, I guess I just don’t get the attraction of living in a pre-industrial society rife with orcs and dragons and mighty wizards who can turn me into a toad on their curmudgeonly whim. I guess I essentially just regard as rubbish any cultural past-time that is not one I partake in. This is because I am an elitist snob. Or so I’ve been told recently.

Well, for whatever reason, I don’t like Hobbits any more than I like any other dwarves, and I freely admit that I have one prejudice that I have no intention of becoming “enlightened” about, and that is my fear and hatred of any man under 4’10 inches tall. Who knows what they’re planning and plotting down there? How can you trust someone who has to stand on a soap-box to piss? Demon-seed shriveled and twisted like a bonzai elm, given pitiful animation, dressed in clothes that never quite fit and carrying the hate in their hearts that only a freak could muster, dwarves are disturbing enough to The Curator – but give them pointy ears, a Phrygian cap and a mission to save some large-busted maiden and you have all the ingredients to make me get up and leave a movie theater, and not even bother to demand my money back. I like my heroes frankly more “heroic”, and not the kind of “special people” you see carting books at the Goodwill or holding court at a Waffle House outside of Louisville, Kentucky at 4 a.m. regaling all of society’s other losers with tales about what an asshole Chevy Chase was on the set of Under the Rainbow. So I’m not especially predisposed to remark favorably about an entire genre of Prog where the main characters are like extras from a Tod Browning film and the whole silly mess is scored by those ridiculous zap-gun synthesizers that were all the rage in the early 70’s. This could be a particularly piquant essay rife with nasty gibes and slanders, so all ye denizens faire of orcs and maidens, be ye warned nowe.

It all started with the grandfather of pretentious synth-based Worlds of Warcraft Prog, the great man himself, Mr. Richard Wakeman. Others will no doubt take issue with this selection – there were other LOTR-themed albums before 1974’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Uriah Heep had put out two very annoying Wizard-themed albums early in their career, and there was even a (very bad) pop act called The Hobbits bandying about lame psychedelica in the late 60’s. Hell, there’s not even a Hobbit or orc to be found in Journey – but there are all kinds of Jules Verne inspired critters that appear in the music, and the overall scope of the work implies a problematic and bookish childhood for Mr. Wakeman filled with parental neglect and numerous beatings on the cricket green delivered by the always-dastardly upper class lads who never picked up a book unless it was to swat their Paki houseboy for serving the tea too beastly hot. It’s a hard knock life, yes ‘tis; and this is why those who are knocked about so deftly by this merciless world retreat to lands of dragons, fascist overlords and natural-forces-warping Wizards, law-by-the-sword and mass slaughter, a world where “nasty, solitary, bruitsh and short” is an accolade and comely maidens swarm in a profusion of bountiful-bodices and who when they kiss you don’t have stale YooHoo on their breath – like in the real world of Geek Love. Escapism sometimes has another name – schizophrenia. And too many dragons in the belfry leads to rabid Python-quoting excesses and eventual diabetes thanks to the inhaling of Ho Ho’s and Red Hot Cheetohs that is the root nourishment of every D&D foraging expedition to the Heart of Darkness that is suburban alienation. Every hero in every proper fantasy ever written is the reader himself. And that kind of chowder-chest navel gazing is futile and deeply sad.

But back to Rick Wakeman. Journey gets the nod in my book for “starting” the “Wizardry” fad (which led inexorably like a galloping unicorn to the Hobbits, unfortunately) because the album is both bloated and boring, in astonishingly just proportions. With an entire orchestra behind him and the game narrative talents of David Hemmings – who is trying desperately to take all of this seriously, like a good English actor should – there’s just enough bloat that you might think a fairly grand time could be had listening to the excesses of nothingness Wakeman pumped out from those keyboards in his career’s heydey like a Grand Vizier doling out the dates and figs to the harem’s ever-vigilant eunuchs. “There’s more where that came from, you sackless-bastards!” screams a contemptuous voice – and this could be both the Mufti speaking to the mutilated harlot-guards or Wakeman to his producer and record label, who obviously had neither the balls nor the common sense to put a stop to all of this bombast before it started putting people out of jobs.

But while Wakeman is the apex of this perversity, hordes of epigones came a-traipsing in the long turgid shadows he cast, many paying tribute to orc-friendly platters spun before. I’ve included in the pictures above not only Wakeman in his ridiculous get-up, but an arguably more absurd looking fellow, Chris Wilson, who moved to Greenwich Village, got an apartment on 8th Street and started calling himself “Gandalf the Grey”. The cover is mind-blowing, and a visceral reminder of everything about hippies that I despise; unfortunately, for the purposes of this article, the album itself is really not that bad. The production is shoddy, and it seems like the drummer was just some guy in the walk-up who they gave some reefer to and told to bang on a snare every fourth beat, but there’s nothing remarkable here, save a few boring moments, and an interesting little hippie-epic (almost seven minutes long!) “Here on Eighth Street” that is eminently enjoyable for anybody who ever dug on the Byrds. But I had to include this relic here, for the album art is surely something Mr. Wilson wishes he could have a do-over on.

Less sanguine are my opinions on forerunners of Hobbit Prog Jan Dukes De Grey (Sorcerers, 1970) and Bo Hannson’s 1971 snooze-fest Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings. Jan Dukes are particularly annoying, more just re-tread psychedelica than anything truly Middle Earth-y, and Hannson may have been “inspired” but this is another one of The Curator’s burdensome listening experiences that led to a torpor severe enough to warrant three hours of Led Zeppelin as antidote following this aural soporific. Man, there is just whole chunks of this fucking album where absolutely nothing happens – NOTHING! Big swooping major-chord empties, indulgences of atmospheric verisimilitude that go on like a bad Stephen King novel, dolorous shifts in structural emphasis that linger like a flatulent mongrel dog, and other stingless-beauties that are meant to be profound and are actually just the nesting roots of the cancerours weed that would someday be called “New Age” – yes, here is inchoate Tesh and nascent Yanni, and a true sign of a Bad Prog album in all its enervating glory. When you are listening to a song that takes five minutes to create an identifiable hook, you know you dwell in the pitiful penumbra that is Tolkien Street in Shit Music Town.

No list of shitty Sci-Fi or Fantasy Prog would be complete, of course, without multiple inclusions of the Yes family of terminally self-indulgent musicians. Wakeman is my favorite Blockhead Merlin, of course, but Jon Anderson can’t be ignored for his appalling 1976 opus Olias of Sunhillow, allegedly based on a series of books that sound suspiciously like Stanislaw Lem – or even the Kobaian cycle of Zeuhl Prog/fascist cult legends Magma. No matter the source material, this is an especially heroic effort of nauseating boredom, even for a shrill little nothing like Jon Anderson. Not only ruining the proceedings with his always waterboard-quality vocalizing, Anderson also decided to play most of the instruments on the record, which goes about as well as the guy who empties the shit bucket at a hospital deciding he’s seen enough to try some brain surgerin’ of his own. Oddly, the results are not dissimilar, as both the amateurly-lobotomized and listeners of Mr. Anderson will find themselves drooling, stupid and permanently damaged to the root of the old medulla oblongata.

By the time Belgian Proggers Machiavel were making albums like Jester (1977) the occult-fad was beginning to die out as a purely symphonic rock exploration. Another one of my obsessive hatreds, jesters and other jocular court fools are presented in most popular culture in a way completely removed from the melancholy and misanthropic carping they – and they alone – were allowed to provide in the courts of kings. Lear’s Fool – probably the best minor Shakespeare character who isn’t plotting to suborn murder or take back the castle in the name of his slain father – is a perfect study in what the Jester really was supposed to be. And it wasn’t what Machiavel had in mind – or the even more superfluous Marrillion, who “brought back” Prog a few years later with Script for a Jester’s Tear (1982), an album that is incredibly interesting to people who have no idea that a man named Peter Gabriel used to front a band called Genesis. One of the more explicit rip-offs and second-rate forgeries of the Prog era, Marrilion was inexplicably huge for many years in Europe and even sold records to Progged-out American audiences still recovering from the fifty or sixty Todd Rundgren projects that had clogged the airwaves during the latter 70’s. And while Marrilion is derivative, Machiavel is just bad – my cohort here DJ Micah is particularly keen on belittling these guys and thought I would enjoy hating their spurious creative output. As is usual on all things Prog, Micah knew precisely what would chafe my chassy and make the cream on the canoli go rancid with bile; Jester is a seriously lame record, the music incredibly boring and the only thing elevating it to alternative classic status being the horrific vocal maulings of Mario Guccio. Still mewing out in his own distinctively shrill fashion some of the most shallow lyrics of the Prog era, 30 years later and Signor Guccio stands to have his own wing at the PRHOI, with masterful rapings of poor Terpsichore both his crime and entree to these virtual halls where justice at last shall be done to bands as bad as his. Not even recommended for shits and giggles, Machiavel is just a big fat nothing and as frustrating to listen to as jacking off while on Prozac.

While the Seventies were indeed a time of orotund effusion and pointless orc-gasms, the end of the Hobbit Prog experiment roughly coincided with the demise of “classic” Prog itself. When one of the original and arguably greatest Prog bands – King Crimson – re-emerged in 1980 with a completely different line-up and jazz-influenced fusion sound, the great era of wretched excess ended and even Yes decided to make a “pop” record – hiring a guitarist 20 years younger than the rest of the band and stinking up FM radio for the bulk of 1982 with 90125. With this ending, a new flourishing was hoped for by fans who had seen the music become bloated and boring, albums suppurating with the pus of ego and the cancer of hubris. Perhaps, when Prog inevitably re-emerged from its hiatus in a few years, the music could get back to its original arty roots without all of the bombast that had wrecked the whole party from the moment Keith Emerson’s grand piano was lifted off the stage and spun around over the audiences head – with Mr. Emerson still playing the thing, of course. That hope was decidedly dashed by the skull-fuck-of-doom emergence that was Neo-Prog – a sub-genre that had a particular obsession with orcs, druids, ensanguined fields of medieval slaughter and other fun-time masturbatory enthusiasms of the young guitarists who sought to take the technical excesses of Eddie Van Halen and combine them with the wretched obscurantism of Jethro Tull.

We’ll cover the excrement that is Hobbit Prog: The Metal Years in part two of this essay, which is below. - TR

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved Tolkien, but when I see "Tolkien-inspired" I smell a rat. It's as if being derived from Tolkien is supposed to stand in for putting in some effort to make it, you know, good.

    As for the '80s: The post-punk hip consensus had it in so much for prog just on principle that I suppose they couldn't tell the good from the bad. Unfortunately, it seems the remaining musicians couldn't, either. I'll always remember the first time I heard Script; my reaction was essentially "Well, it's better than nothing." The musicians just don't have the music chops (as opposed to playing ability) that someone like Tony Banks had. I thought Crim was better, but it wasn't what I really wanted, if that makes sense. (Speaking of which, I remember an old interview in Melody Maker in which Fish professes to prefer Peter Hammill to Peter Gabriel, and if I listen to his performance in that light it makes sense to me; Marillion, ISTM, really wants to be a cross between VDGG and Genesis. OTOH, he prefers Stephen Donaldson to Tolkien, which makes no sense to me.)