Perfect Sound Forever


Photos from the Syngergy website

From Icarus to Metropolis,
Following the Electron Path by Marc S. Tucker
(May 2006)

In the world of progressive music, from whence electronic musics issue, blood, thunder, and lament are the norms, usually delivered in jackhammer beats with wailing choruses of human angst, screaming guitars keening out siren calls, drums roiling clouds and earth, and keyboards imbuing musical fabrics in shifting hues amidst poetic doom-mongerings prophesying damnation...

...and then there's Larry Fast.

Both progressive and modern electronic music have deep roots in classical and neoclassical realms, as well as in the rudimentary electronica spawned in the '60's. Brits, well-schooled in the ancient formulary, dominated the prog scene for a while - birthing it actually (with the Germans close behind) - but weren't the only adventurers. America had, to a much less prolific degree, been breeding its own scions in the new baroque, eventually disbursing them into the artistic landscape. When the debut Synergy (Fast under a stage name) LP hit the bins, no one was quite prepared for its uniqueness. The disc sold sufficiently, not spectacularly, but enough to generate a string of releases, all initially of very high caliber, and even a 2-LP anthology. This was back when artists didn't have to sell ten gigaskillion copies in order to continue to be published by the semi-majors: Fast never appeared solo on a major label. Passport, where Synergy and others appeared, was an oddly run but refreshing imprint distributed by ABC.

Synergy generated ripples amongst prog consumers. There'd been no real solid electronic milieu as such; composers were subsumed in either prog or classical venues, sometimes both, depending on how far afield they ranged from the norms. A few listeners were at least passingly familiar with the electronic geniuses (Erb, Druckman, Subotnick), though far more were enamored of the kraut maesters (Schulze, Tangerine Dream), the psych-heads (Pink Floyd, Moody Blues), and whomever else happened to be floating around in the periphery (Nik Racevik, the Barrons, etc.).

Fast's feet were planted firmly in the antediluvian but trod forward with maverick steps and, like Walter/Wendy Carlos, he wasn't content to merely regurgitate the canon, nor were the classics the untouchable relics they'd tended to be to others: interpolations were perfectly acceptable. This semi-improvisational mood, pastiching really, showed especially well on the second LP, which contained three remakes, including guitarist Ralph Towner's marvelous "Icarus", a song now nearly a jazz standard.

The first LP, Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975), was a landmark in a fusion style never before heard, save perhaps glancingly in Margouleff & Cecil's T.O.N.T.O. band. Fast was tearing the hide off the ancients, appropriating the palette of their offspring, and filtering both through a rock/jazz/prog gestalt. He then proceeded to spin everything according to rather incisive discretions, firmly planting a trademark. The result, as can be guessed, given the antecedents, was singular.

Sporting a surreal cartoony cover, the art alone arrested the eye of the casual browser. A claim of 'electronic realizations' next stood out against shifting graduated hues, intimating outré delights, and, !bang!, instant sale to those athirst for such fare. Once nestled in a turntable, the phantasmagoria poured forth. Immediately lush and measured, a pervasive sense of envronmental grandeur (never hurts to have a mellotron in these cases) informed the opening cut, "Legacy," which paraded through multiple time changes, first spacey and regal, then harpsichordal and antique. Completely avoiding any hint of what would later be the sort of thing John Williams made moribundly fashionable, Fast was unafraid to sail amongst timbral forests, sandwiching in a sonic slide show. Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" followed, a Romantic version with playful touches and not a little Brahmsian lullabying in a more vigorous adult context.

The title cut, after which he dubbed himself, was more purely electro, freely formed but far from out of control. At this point, the compositional voice was striking. Fast had no real companions in the field; that wouldn't happen until Pat Gleeson came along - a gent who seemed, when he went solo after a stint with Herbie Hancock, perhaps inspired by Fast's success, himself releasing takes on Holst and such. A mature and sophisticated album of high-brow progressive music, Synergy provided many hours of blissed-out re-listens, and still does.

Then Sequencer (1976) was shunted out, with its Clockwork Orange-y opener, "S-Scape." Fast had grown a great deal more confident, displaying deeper polish and heightened arrangement skills gratifyingly. "Chateau" stood out as a cross between Scarlatti and a more joyful "Icarus," which appeared on Side 2 and was not alone in the LP's homages, Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" and Dvorak's "Largo, New World Symphony" (which many will remember Annie Haslam's lovely version of) being neighbors. The nearly twelve-minute "(Sequence) 14" provided a semi-free-form number containing a long and brilliantly suggestive quiet segment, eerie but regal, the centerpiece of the LP, contrasting much of what went on elsewhere. The synth and processing armada were expanding while the composer's voice was growing, and the authenticity of approach managed to pretty much nail itself down, fortifying the framework from which he'd venture thereafter. Attentions to melodies-within-melodies were arresting, as were the sudden bursting schizophrenias so brilliantly copacetic to each song's tone.

Cords came out in 1978, sporting a Hipgnosis cover, opening with the appropriately preludal "On Presuming to be Modern," a spacily humorous self-reference connoting many elder influences in the songs's futuristisms. Grand and opaque, it jumps into "Phobos and Deimos Go to Mars," a perky romp, more hunting song than galactic tableau. In it, Fast's newly favored percussives are evident - electronic percussives, that is, and programmed so well that they appear modified from human hands rather than patched-in. The whole interplay of thematics is fascinating, swelling and recessing various elements so that each machine gets its "solo" whilst holding the song intact. Through the procession, the listener couldn't help but drool, everything was stronger and more daring than ever.

Nor are we anywhere let down in the ten songs. The range marauds all over the map, experimenting with tempo and coloration while planting very subtle sub-structures far down into the mix, essential to each composition. Fast became a maestro who understood not only what the audience wanted but also what it didn't even know it needed to hear... until he provided it. You'd swear "Disruption In World Communications" was a crib from Beethoven, but it's not, and the writer's audacious shout-lines, erupting from the growing anthem, take over the song, transforming an ominous bottom into a fevered Egyptian ziggurat ensemble, another example of perfectly concubining the old and the new.

The keyboardist made a virtue of sticking to his instrument on the first two LP's but here breaks it... sort of. Pete Sobel appears with a guitar synth but good luck discovering which lines might be his: one of the "virtues" of the sound of outboard guitar modifiers is a near-indistinguishability from keys. Interestingly, almost ironically, Robert Fripp was temporary headmaster in the impartation of loop techniques here, featured in "Terra Incognita," making the tune a quasi-Frippertronics/Soundscape piece, departing slightly from Fast's forte due to its tail-chasingly introverted atmosphere.

In 1979, Games was published, actually a compendium of old, developing, and new songs, some reaching as far back as the initial slab. The B-side-long "Delta Three" collected ideas from Fast's tour with Peter Gabriel, knit together as successive movements. Problems crop up with this LP though, not the least of which is a marked inattention to engineering details. The overall sound is slightly masked and the spatial field quite narrow, hardly breathing. Too much emphasis is put on unchanging beats in several places while other sections are far too formulaic, almost mainstream. "Delta Four" is the standout, a strange squiggly labyrinth of unceasing undulations, high-pitched and extremely violinic in envelope texture, lubricious in slides and slurs. The chiefest attaction is an absence of the almost cinematic glare that much of the rest of the release carries.

Fast had thrown out the classically moded fundament to wade into a noticeably thinner sidestream of leaned-out sketches, pictures too spare to equal past tapestries. "Delta Three" contains several DX7-type patches, superficial, cheesy, and unpleasing, sitting like bare bulbs amongst sconces and lamps. "Delta 3/D" matches "Delta Four" in voice and intensity but doesn't redeem the suite. Though the entire LP was recorded in the first half of '79, it sounds like a collection of leftovers and canned side-projects thrown together to meet contractual obligations. As a stand-alone piece of progressive-electronic vinyl, it does well enough; as a continuation of its elder brethren, it's disappointing. One very small humorous sidelight was the establishment of the "Synergy Communications Interface" noted in the credits... otherwise known as 'a mailbox' to non-cyborgs.

Who then was ready for the quiet atomic bomb he'd launch in 1980's Computer Experiments, Volume 1? To this day still grossly underappreciated for its literately unique approach, the disc is a classic of modern electronic music. Fast had laid hold of a stochastic program from PAIA's (a long-famous home-twiddler's electronics mail-order paradise) John Simonton, one that allowed him to set up the groundwork through which a computer, via the 'brain' of programming, would compose music on its own. The result was a foreshadowing of what would come to represent a large segment of interest in the late '90's and '00's. Very quiet, relaxed, and free-flowing, Experiments is nonetheless extraordinarily deep. For so little occurring and in such a mellifluous environment, the descriptive powers of the "compositions" are amazing. The mood and bite of each is the equal of anything crafted by humans and the release stands, in importance, though not in manifest, alongside Eno's Music for Airports, sometimes akin to Morricone's soundtrack for the remake of The Thing, arch and foreboding whilst perfectly calm, almost satanically so, chilling in its prescience. Ironically, this album, created but not composed by the musician, is his crowning achievement and probably will never be recognized as such in our lifetime, scamped of its impact. Think about it: machines themselves making music! The alien-ness of the concept can be disquietingly registered on the very first listen and, up to this very moment, the release is almost completely unremarked.

Audion (1981) commenced with an airy intro leading into the slightly sinister "Revolt at L-5," possessing definite progrock refrains in an, at times, almost dance-ish framework. Following more naturally after Games than Experiments, it seems the musician had decided on a prevalently modernist baseline, thus the LP's several steps above its siblings. Audion is the darkest item of the catalogue, not a doomsday machine but invested with a more cynically moody bent. Unfortunately, "Electric Blue", the lone throwaway cut, is highly objectionable, Jan Hammer-ish stuff- a Miami Vice piece completely at odds with anything Fast had previously written. "Ancestors," a dirge, shifts slightly but really only switches out writing chores. It contains, in truth, just enough of the genuine Fast savor to make it not only listenable but fairly enjoyable. Yet...

The cut "Falcons and Eagles" returns briefly to the classical, sans the earlier zest of contrasty interpolations. "An End to History" closes the LP in Vangelistic fashion but in no way allaying audience anxiety. Was Fast lurching forward? It appeared not. Everything had become soundtracky.

Therefore, 1982's Jupiter Menace, written for a movie of the same name, surprised no one, except in that Larry seemed to have reawakened some older fading discretions. He copped Holst's "Mars" for the backbone of "Rampage of the Elements/Jupiter Menace" (and a weak rampaging menace at that), restoring bygone engineering values, re-establishing the distinctive tang he'd established years ago. Nothing staggering, mind you, but inclined to make the punters in the bleachers a mite happier. Not nearly so bracing was the fact that about half the LP was actually pulled from earlier releases, making the collection an ersatz anthology. As a whole, it maintained staid unity, serving its purpose, but we'll note the release is benchmarked nowhere, deservedly so, and move on.

It appears the composer was not unconscious of all this; sales probably emphasized the fact. Two years later, a 2-LP 'best of' appeared, Semi-Conductor (1984), nicely packaged, of songs from every release except Experiments, plus two new cuts. It presented a fair try at smoothing the waters but didn't shake the market, so it'd be three years before we'd see Synergy again.

Metropolitan Suite (1987) appeared on a label the keyboardist had established in the meantime, Audion, a short-lived line of mostly unremarkable New Age ensemble collections touted as "progressive", though progheads weren't much falling for it. The short-lived effort was most obviously typified in Don Slepian's saccharine keys and Emerald Web's pleasant but boring post-hippie meanderings. Suite wasn't much different, just more bombastic and market-aware. Chiefly a mislabeled Private Music release, it wandered around in genre superfluities, appropriating every cliché under the sun, occasionally copping a riff or two from Isham's fusiony Group 87. If the LP's that clustered up after the stunning Experiments had tended to put tarnish where luster was needed, Suite applied the axe. Little good can be said of it; Fast had devolved down into a sophisticated counterpart of the East Coast Synthetic Pleasure collective (Lauri Paisley, The Nightcrawlers, Chuck van Zyl, Dana Rath, etc., many now passed on to mostly deserved musical graves) which had spawned him, a rather incestuous club whose ultimate incarnation has been the world-famous... *mega-groan!*... Yanni.

If Larry Fast has had troubles re-establishing himself in a solo context, it's because he forgot who he was, suffering from sonic amnesia. No pharmaceutical will help, alas, and the reader is warned to keep this in mind when considering Synergy's oeuvre. Several superb releases are here noted, and Experiments alone should cast Fast's name in lights well above the footnotes in electronic music history, but something occurred 'twixt the founding sublime masterpieces and curtain's fall. Dear reader, pursue what has been shown to be obviously worthy - with the rest, you're on your own - then fall to long-suffering knees with me, praying that the affable and estimable gentleman, when he (as he's hinted at) returns to a publishing schedule, clears out the commercial detrita and returns to smithing beautifully profound works once more, revivifying what earned him a place at the table of the eminants.

And I did indeed say 'gentleman.' Between a very intense summer (2005) schedule of various projects and preparing to tour with the Tony Levin Band afterwards, Fast agreed to an interview and, in its course, disbursed a wealth of well-explicated insights, new data, small anecdotes, and various insights. He's a well-spoken individual with much to say, vast interests and expertise, and, truth to tell, I'd have liked nothing better than to have conducted a much more far-ranging colloquy... but this is Earth, time rushes us all, and few only rarely get what they really want.

PSF: The initial Synergy LP was quite idiosyncratic. Those who expected Druckman or Subotnick were in for a very different experience, much more like a cross between TONTO and Carlos. What made you decide to take identifiably classical bases and flip them into the future?

FAST: All I did was pursue what I wanted to hear. For the most part, there wasn't a calculated plan other than that I knew the sounds I liked to create on synthesizers and also knew that I wanted them to be presented in a well-produced, well-engineered fashion that I wasn't hearing anywhere else. If I couldn't find music written and produced like this, I'd do it myself. What I couldn't fathom was why, with the same studio and synthesizer tools available, no one else had been doing things quite this way. Even in the early 1970's, I was sure someone else would do what I had envisioned, sooner and better, but that didn't happen.

My own influences of classical and rock musics, and studio production concepts, obviously directed where the Synergy projects went. As a composer, I've always had a strong respect for melody and structure, but I've also loved exploring new sonic territories and techniques. You've heard the results of that marriage.

PSF: That LP came out in quad. I've never seen a stereo version, though I know groups like Mahahvishnu Orchestra issued double versions of at least one LP. Were there two versions of Electronic Realizations? If so, was the quad version merely electronically re-channelled or had you shifted material as well? Quad evolved into Surround Sound, but what are your thoughts on the failure of the old format?

FAST: A little background here. The Electronic Realizations album master was mixed only in 4-channel 1975-vintage surround. That's a 4.0 format with LF, RF, LR, and RR channels. The master was mixed to two tape machines; one was a 4-track 1/2-inch analog machine which made the master for, get this, the Q8 Quad 8 track format production. The other was a 1/4-inch Dolby track master which held the 4-track mix encoded to 2-track stereo, passed through a Sansui QS quad encoder. That created a stereo mix which had the encoding information "unfold" the rear channels when played through a QS decoder. Technically, it's very similar to present-day Dolby ProLogic surround movies. Play the album on a regular stereo (or even mono) TV audio system and all of the sound is there; pass them through a decoder and the extra channels are unfolded.

Interestingly, with the QS quad on Electronic Realizations, because the encoding technique is so close to Dolby Surround, if you play the mix through a surround home theater system, a lot of the quad information will be decoded.

Quad was a format with a lot of promise but ahead of its time. The analog version, however, wasn't as good as the digitally encoded systems we have now. 4.0 was lacking some of the better aspects of our 5.1 systems in terms of imaging and solid bass, a very inspiring creative art form. As a producer/mixer, I like working in multichannel sound, but until recently, after almost 30 years, only now is the playback equipment priced reasonably enough and, thanks to DVD and home theater, has made it into enough homes to make multichannel audio possible.

PSF: Credits on the LP thank Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson as well as Craig Leon, who issued a couple of unusual but obscure electronic-music LP's. Other than the technical work you did for Wakeman, what was the Yes connection and how did Leon figure in to Realizations?

With Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson, the story's very simple. Before I was releasing my own music, I was already creating electronic music, first for college music study and, later, on my own or with bands I played with. While still in college, I was building my own synthesizer modules. When Yes was still a new and almost unknown band, I was put in touch with Rick Wakeman and commissioned to build him some of my modules. Later, I visited the band in England while they were in the studio. I had some of my reels with me in the UK, which I was using in attempting to land a recording deal myself. Rick and Jon's enthusiasm for what they heard led to some pivotal phone calls being made on my behalf, which, through a long and convoluted path, led to the first Synergy album, about 18 months later.

Craig Leon was a staff producer and A&R person at Sire Records, which originally co-owned the label I recorded for: Passport. Though Craig wasn't directly involved in the creative work on my project, we shared a lot of the same musical sensibilities and have stayed in touch right to the present. Craig also did some of the boring technical work that record label personnel must during an album's production, such as securing studio time and overseeing release details. For that, I wanted to thank him.

See Part 2 of the Larry Fast article

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