Birdsongs of the Mesozoic
The Call of the Stone Age
by J.L. Fernández
If you're tired of obsessive record collecting, or prone to align every album according to genre, a Birdsongs of the Mesozoic LP presents you with an issue. Do you file it under Ambient or avant-garde? Or alongside Cuneiform label-mates, like Dr. Nerve and Blast? Such trivial indecision is more evidence of how difficult it is to pigeonhole their sound, as distinctly personal as the gone-but-never-forgotten Penguin Café Orchestra.
Since their embryonic years as the upshot of Roger Miller and Martin Swope's Mission of Burma careers, to their current lineup – Michael Bierylo (guitar), Ken Field (wind instruments), Rick Scott (synthesizers), and Erik Lindgren (piano) – several cambric layers have amassed, but the strength of Birdsongs' conceptual music remains. What's more, they've gotten better over the ages. They're the opposite of Kraftwerk insofar as their music speaks to the prehistoric era; they live up to their name. Any of their seven studio albums will strand you like a time traveler in a desolate Jurassic park, and you'll relish the experience of this beautiful and unique music, a virtual posit of Steve Reich as a Neanderthal.
"In 1977, I started the Moving Parts, and when our original guitarist Mark Booth left for California, Roger Miller answered [our] ad, in the winter of 1978," recalls founding member, pianist and composer Erik Lindgren. "Roger grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and really had an appreciation for the Motor City sound of the Stooges, MC5 and the Up. Since the individual members were moving in different directions, we decided to call it quits in December, which is when Roger, our bassist Clint Conley, and ex-Molls drummer Peter Prescott formed Mission of Burma. My songs were getting mathematically complex, while Roger's were more heartfelt and rock-based. Despite the friction, I'm quite pleased with our musical vision.
"Since Roger was an accomplished pianist, he wanted to showcase some of his experimental compositions, and called me up in 1980. We did two of his pieces – "Pulse Piece" and "Sound Valentine" – at my 4-track studio, which became the roots of Birdsongs. Roger recruited his old Ann Arbor keyboard friend Rick Scott, along with Burma soundman Martin Swope, who also played guitar on the original recordings we made. Not long after, we received a recording contract with Burma's label Ace of Hearts Records and eventually did three records for them."
Moving Parts – documented on the retrospective Wrong Conclusion, released on Lindgren's Arf Arf label – embraced a kind of avant-garage akin to Pere Ubu and MX-80, with elements of jazz showing their disregard for musical prejudices. Several years later, after Burma's break-up, Miller's move to Birdsongs, and their minimalist pulse of piled-up keyboards, seems a logical conclusion to post-punk, similar to Bruce Gilbert and Edward Lewis abstract minimal/industrial forays as DOME after their Wire days.
Birdsongs Mk I (Lindgren, Miller, Swope and Rick Scott) are documented on two compilations: The Fossil Record (1993; Cuneiform) and Sonic Geology (Rykodisc; 1987). The albums include out-takes and tracks extolled from their debut The Magnetic Flip (Ace of Hearts; 1985) and the Beat Of The Mesozoic EP (Ace of Hearts; 1986). According to Lindgren, the group's fabulous name came from Roger Miller, who was watching an LP called Birdsongs of America spin on a turntable, and he bizarrely misread the title as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
The group's early recordings swivel in and out of rock and contemporary music, the foundation for the more polished mid-'80s sound; as on Lindgren's great "Slo-Boy," the material is infected with a rusty, lo-fi, and somewhat robotic sound. The 23-minute epic "To a Random" proves the band capable of risk-taking, a flowing wave of adventurous music intersecting Varese, early Tangerine Dream, and the lunatic avant-garde Kevin Ayers & the Whole World took charge of with the epochal Shooting at the Moon.
By 1987, Miller had left the group for solo projects, although he's always been close to Birdsongs, who usually refer to him as a family member. His brief replacement was saxophonist Steve Adams, who soon left to join the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. In response to Miller's query, "Can you read music?" Berklee graduate Ken Field came into the fold. Taking some rough multi-phonics fortunately salvaged from Steve Adams, the band released Faultline (Cuneiform; 1989), an album that defined the Birdsongs sound.
On Faultline, Lindgren calibrates Steve Reich-isms with a jeweler's hand in the beautiful "Magic Fingers," while Swope reveals himself an inspired composer with both the slow instrumental "On the Street Where You Live" and his sublime deconstruction of "Chariots of Fire," which outlined everything Vangelis couldn't see in his own track. The record forecloses the counterpoint of rhythm machines and Lindgren's piano in an idiosyncratic riposte to the darker tones of the Residents' Not Available (Ralph; 1978), and the plastic elegance of Tuxedomoon's You (Cramboy; 1987).
"From there, our compositions became more classically conceived," says Lindgren, who cites Pere Ubu, Brian Eno, Wire, and the No New York scene as early influences, along with Erik Satie, Varese and English psychedelia. "Our sound is a combination of our diverse personalities and musical influences. The primary thing that sets us apart from most ensembles is our chamber music aesthetic. Pretty much all of our compositions are scored out, and we read music on stage. Birdsongs is much closer to the Kronos Quartet than most progressive rock bands. The irony is that we also have a deep appreciation for innovative and cutting-edge rock. I am personally influenced by a lot of '60s garage and psychedelic music; Michael is fascinated with techno; Rick likes jazz, and Ken is into world beat. It's this melting pot of styles that I suspect makes our music intriguing."
Birdsongs were an anomaly in the '80s, bringing classical sensibilities to contemporary rock. Erik makes clear that his compositions are classically based, and the fact that Miller, a post-punk kid during his Burma days, was looking for musicians who could read shows how much Birdsongs avowed any prejudices and musical preconceptions. Their vision was highly eclectic; it's perhaps because the four founding members (and their replacements) grew up in the seventies, and so much different music filtered through their brains.
Rick Scott grew up in Detroit, and though Motown was the obvious influence, the region was also a hotbed of rock and jazz. "In my childhood, I was glued to ancient AM radio in my parent's basement", he remembers. Ken Field spots early Procol Harum as a big influence: "I'm sure that Procol Harum influenced what I've done with Birdsongs, both compositionally and in terms of how I approach performing Erik, Michael, and Rick's pieces. I later became a fan of early Gato Barbieri, and still aspire to his ability to play a single note with more gut and emotion than many musicians can attain in an entire solo!"
A tour to Hawaii in 1990, resulted in the last personnel change, when Swope decided he would stay at Honolulu, enamored with the island. This wasn't the only influence on Pyroclastics (Cuneiform; 1992), as Ken relayed to a local newspaper: "The cover is an image of a volcanic eruption, and the title is the word for the objects that are ejected out of a volcano, which also isn't a bad way to characterize our music." Pyroclastics reveals the group's sense of humor, in the videogame saloon music of "Tyronglaea II," and the Latin-tinged "Why Not Circulate," with great scathing guitars by Swope, and Field supplying Barbieri-like ripostes at his most inspired. Covers of the theme from The Simpsons, Brian Eno's "Sombre Reptiles" and the Beach Boys' "Our Prayer" further the Birdsongs' restless attack on music, as they try to mold it to their will. Everywhere, good taste goes hand in hand with craftsmanship, innovative ideas and Flinstone-ian energy.
"[If we're] hard to categorize, we have been successful in creating truly new music," says Lindgren. "The way that people typically define a band's sound is to compare it to another band that they sound like; we're happy people can't use this approach to describe us, since it means that we might be creating our own musical style." For Rick, "the Birdsongs Sound has always been difficult to define, because neither the band nor our music fits neatly into any existing category. We have always been square pegs in a musical world of round holes. Our music has a heavy rock influence, but unlike most rock bands we have no full-time drummer or bassist. We freely use jazz elements, and one of our main instruments is saxophone, but there is little improvisation. In the classical tradition, our pieces are thoroughly composed – we play from scores – but we have often performed in rock clubs and bars.
"Adding to the difficulty is the fact that our music is continually changing; we are not even consistent within our own genre-bending. Though some similarities exist, pieces from our earlier periods are quite different from those currently in our repertoire. Since no readymade label easily fits, writers and reviewers are continually inventing new ones to describe us. A few of my favorites are 'classical, jazz, punk, car-wreck music,' [it sounds like] 'a party in a cubist roadhouse,' and 'Philip Glass with a Whoopee cushion.' To me the sound is simply a reflection of the musical personalities of the band's members, coupled with the aggregate experience of our time playing together."
In contrast to the melodic Pyroclastics, Dancing on A'A (Cuneiform; 1995) is a frenzied affair, and the first to feature the current Bridsongs lineup. You'll hold your breath while Ken Field's sax scales tectonic layers of percussion ("A Band of Deborahs"), then dance a rhumba with swarming pterodactyls ("Electric Altamira"). Lindgren tentatively tiptoes through a maze of sax and synthesizers that melt like lava eruptions ("Ptinct"), and in a piece donned by Miller, the aptly titled "Swamp," newcomer guitarist Michael Bierylo does the work of a snake charmer. The Mesozoic bolero "Sirius the Scorching" is an equally unsettling finale for this brilliant album.
In September 2000, after a five-year hiatus, Birdsongs reappeared, bringing their best music to date: Petrophonics is a cocktail of Weather Report ethno-jazz and New Music, stirred with glacial sounds straight from the ECM catalog, and chamber rock (RIO and the like). It's a more stylistically varied and compositionally solid album than their last, and the glue that holds this coherent vision together is, as ever, Erik Lindgren's classical approach. The record is divided in three conceptual sections, "The Insidious Revenge of Ultima Thule" being the most organically focused. It starts with Lindgren's trademark syncopated style, gradually incorporating atmospherics courtesy of Scott's keyboards and Field's woodwinds. Scott's "Study of Unintended Consequences" and Bierylo's "Allswell That Endswell in Roswell" are even more startling in their otherworldliness: here, the music is elated with symphonic colors coming through every angle, a quadraphonic portrait of a Mesozoic landscape by night. While Rick is open about his intention to evoke atmosphere, feelings and emotions ("Melodies are more a way to flesh-out a musical idea," he says), I asked Michael Bierylo how he frames this approach, in the view of the intensely rhythmic style of the group.
"'Allswell' really started out as a song, and was developed into a longer piece. It's really kind of a mini-suite with the main theme being the [first] song. The second, more ethereal section is a kind of contrasting theme; it's meant to evoke a kind of wide-open space, perhaps a desert at night. In the final section I try and steer the listener back to the main theme though a series of variations from both – this section is pretty rhythmic and leads to a restatement of [the main theme] in this context. When we were doing the Petrophonics CD, Ken had recently returned from a trip to Roswell, New Mexico, where he recorded his Subterranea CD. I was struck by the imagery of UFOs and Ken playing sax in the desert, and some of these images contributed to the programmatic nature of the piece. The main synthesizer part is a sound I designed using a Waldorf Microwave XT. When I can up with the sound, it really served as the initial inspiration for the piece. It's a really great ethereal sound that has a hint of pitched percussion, as well some grit to it."
Around this time, critics started to talk about Birdsongs as a good example of contemporary Progressive music. "Curiously, I don't really think any of us would cite Progressive rock as one of our primary influences," refutes Lindgren. "We all grew up listening to Yes, Soft Machine, Procol Harum, and ELP, so it's probably embossed into our brains." However, their affinity with some Prog rock commandments ("We have been influenced by Prog artists who push the envelope," Rick says) divined an invitation to play NEARfest, and beautiful Roger Dean cover art for their last album, The Iridium Controversy (Cuneiform; 2003). "We had not thought of ourselves as a Progressive rock band until our NEARfest performance in 2001," states Ken. "Our music was well received by that audience, and we realized that our style of compositionally intensive music had quite a lot in common with some of those bands in the Prog scene. We're very happy to be a new part of that community, after over 20 years of making music outside of it! Rob LaDuca asked us to play in 2001, which was quite a revelation– a lot of people, including Roger Dean, were introduced to us at that festival."
The Iridium Controversy is perhaps the hardest Mesozoic record yet, with complex counterpoints foregrounding their taste for Henry Cow/Stravinsky rhythmic density. Their syncopated beats have also grown in prominence, often in unison lines of sax and keyboards, or solo piano in tracks as the Tarkus-like intro of "Primordial Sludge" (Tarkus itself being a Stone Age parody) or "Lost in the B-Zone", where Ken's sax flirts again with the "Peter Gunn" theme. A revision of Miller's "The Beat of the Mesozoic, Part 1" placed at the end of the disc, featuring Miller, brings Birdsongs full circle with its past, a nod to its origins and a happy conceptual end.
"Each of our discs has some hard-edged material, and we always try to rock out on some numbers," says Erik. "In contrast, there are always other pieces included that accomplish different goals. I liked including new recordings of 'B-Zone' and 'Beat' [chestnuts dating from the mid-'80s] which was a challenge since the compositions are quite different than where the ensemble is nowadays. It's a nice link with the past, and they feature Roger playing his aggressive style of piano, which is something that I'm not really capable of doing with his intensity. It's important to realize that we are a band with a history and I think our 24 years of activity show the evolution of a group. For better or worse, our compositions has evolved, and become quite sophisticated. I like to think that we have never lost the urge to rock, although our definition of rock may be quite different from what MTV says it is. To me, rock is a spirit and an attitude – remember, we all grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It's hard to deny your roots."
For his part, Michael sees the last two records as an actual evolution of the group as a whole. "They're pretty good snapshots of where we were at as a group when they were done; Erik has really stretched as a composer on these, and really integrated the guitar as more of an equal voice in the group."
"The other real development in these recordings is that both were really a product of the studio, whereas the earlier CDs where mostly documents of the group's live presentation." Bierylo is also well aware of where the band is situated in the current landscape. "As far as the references to Stravinsky and minimalism – I listen to a lot of ECM stuff – I think we're honored to be included in the category of modern concert music. We like to think of in as New American Art Music. Concert music has always been influenced by popular forms, and while Stravinsky borrowed Eastern European folk forms, we nod are collective heads to Punk/Garage Rock. That make sense?"
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