Bug Music #1

Talebones - Winter 2000Originally Published in Talebones
Winter 2000

Ratings Scale:

***** Diamond fine
****  A raw vein of silver
***   Shiny as Fool’s Gold & just as valuable
**     Common limestone
*      Kick this clay clump from your boots


It’s an honor to be the Bug.

When Patrick Swenson asked me a couple months back if I would be interested in taking over this column, I had to think about it for a bit — not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I’ve been following “Bug Music” since the early ’90s — it was called “Sound Speculations” back then, when Patrick took it over from editor J.C. Hendee in Figment magazine. While “Sound Speculations” died with Figment in 1993, its soul crept on to be reborn as “Bug Music” in Patrick’s own Talebones.

So this column has a good bit of small press history behind it. Now, I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, even written some. And I’ve been a weekly music columnist at a Chicago area newspaper for more than a decade — longer than I’ve been regularly writing fiction — so I wasn’t concerned about handling the content of the column… but being the new Bug is a singular honor. I hope my musical cilia tap on the right beats for you. Let’s skitter on into it, shall we?


Batman Beyond Various Artists
Batman Beyond
(Rhino/DC Comics)
* * * *

It’s pretty rare that instrumental soundtrack music hangs together as a cohesive listenable album for me; usually it gets a bit too orchestral and boring, or sounds like a series of interconnected bits of incidental sound effects — sometimes cool and evocative, but still just a bunch of moody aural fragments (as in the latter half of the recent Stigmata soundtrack, composed by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan).

The soundtrack to the animated Batman Beyond series, however, avoids that pitfall. While most of these tracks are under 3 minutes in length (they average about 2 minutes per track) they still come across, for the most part, as complete songs. Taking its cue and energy from industrial dance music, Batman Beyond relies on crunching guitar riffs, pounding beats and eerie background synthesizer effects and samples to create the mood of a modern but always somewhat sinister Gen X Gotham. There are 20 tracks on the disc, composed by four Batman and Superman animated series veterans — Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion and team leader Shirley Walker.

There are creepy, throbbing backgrounds of frenetic electronic tension (“Bat-Slapped in Store” and “Batman Chases Inque” by Carter),  edgy percussive underground dancemix-ready tracks (“Terrific Trio Vs. Rocketeers,”  and “Batman’s First Fight” by McCuistion, “Cold Vs. Hot” by Ritmanis), guitar-overdrive flights of finger (“Batman Defeats Chappell,” by Carter) and beautifully melancholy melodies of piano and steel (“The Legacy Continues” by McCuistion” and “Farewells,” by Ritmanis) The latter track is one of the most evocative tracks here, evoking comparisons to some of Savatage’s quieter instrumental passages.

Bat-tom line? It rocks and slithers; this is background music that’s meant to be cranked loud.


Rick WakemanRick Wakeman
Return To The Centre of the Earth
(EMI Classics)
* * *

Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman has revisited an old project of his — a Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It was 25 years ago when Wakeman first did a music and narrative recording following the gist of Jules Verne’s novel with the London Symphony. That recording, as he notes in the CD jacket, was limited by the recording technology of the time. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern studio technology, he felt the time was right to record an expanded new take on the story: Return To The Centre of the Earth again pairs the London Symphony with Wakeman (who wrote an original story about a group of travelers who try to duplicate the route of the original travellers).

The disc is set up with Patrick Stewart of “Star Trek:TNG” fame reading the text of the story over light keyboard and symphonic backgrounds on every other track. On the tracks in between, Wakeman pairs up with an array of guest vocalists to deliver symphony augmented songs meant to spotlight particular points of the narrative. The result is that you can listen to the whole narrative story with frequent song breaks, or you can program your CD player to play the odd numbered tracks and just listen to Stewart’s rich voice reading the story or play the even numbered tracks and just listen to the songs.

While a few of the songs don’t quite gel — some of the lyrics don’t seem in sync with the point of the narrative — it is certainly good listening for fans with an appreciation of classic SF (not to mention classic rock) history. Wakeman has paired Ozzy Osbourne‘s snarling vocals with a huge orchestra and angelic backgrounds by the English Chamber Choir in “Buried Alive.” Bonnie Tyler handles a grandly somber track in Andrew Lloyd Webber tradition in “Is Anyone There?”

Fellow one-time Yes-man Trevor Rabin handles the rock vocals on “Never is a Long, Long Time,” Katrina Leskanich resurfaces from Katrina and the Waves obscurity to handle “Ride of Your Life” and Moody Blues frontman Justin Hayward croons the gentle string-driven ballad “Still Waters Run Deep.”

It’s an ambitious project that both hits and misses. There are moments of symphonic brilliance and excess. But Wakeman deserves kudos just for the attempt if nothing else. And there is something else. Patrick Stewart’s narrative voice is magical, Hayward’s ballad is dreamily calming and often the orchestral arrangements truly transport the listener to a different land.


Snakefarm Snakefarm
Songs From My Funeral

* * * *

I should probably admit right out that I’m no fan of country and folk music. Despite this, Snakefarm’s Songs From My Funeral easily became one of my favorite releases of the past year. Snakefarm is the duo of vocalist Anna Domino and guitarist/programmer husband Michel Delory and their debut release takes 10 traditional folk songs about death and murder, lays them atop throbbing and ambient grooves and completely reconstructs them to fit a modern muse. The twang is replaced by echoing guitar strums and mysterious keyboard sighs. This is dark fantasy music with historical bloodties.

Listen close and you’re bound to recognize many of these from childhood — who hasn’t heard “Tom Dooley” or the 1800s railroad ballad “John Henry”? But Snakefarm takes brave and darkly beautiful liberties with these classics; “campfire songs” is not what you’ll be thinking as you listen to this CD, despite the fact that folky campfire singalongs is where you were most likely to have heard them before. Domino’s voice has that quietly powerful flavor that made Cowboy Junkies so successful, and her reading of these songs will leave you thinking things like spooky, haunting and strangely moving.

“This Train That I Ride,” with its background vocal tension, open synthesizer bass groove and sci-fi sonic wash of warmth and repetition stands ahead of anything Madonna and William Orbit managed on Ray of Light for airy techno brilliance. And if the words weren’t so familiar, you’d probably never even place the classic “(House of the) Rising Sun,” which, instead of being pumped up with the rock force of The Animals’ famous version, prefers to stick with a somber recitation of the lyrics over an appropriately dirgelike rhythm and splashes of Western wah-wah guitars. It’s a coolly disturbing take.

It’s amazing, really, to look at the genesis of these songs, and then to hear how immediate and modern Snakefarm makes them. There’s no feeling at all that these are dusty, cautionary folk ballads. Yet “Pretty Horses” (now built on a sinister groove) was a lullaby sung to a master’s child by a slave who must leave her own child to cry alone, “Rising Sun” is an 18th century bordello lament, “Tom Dooley” is about the hanging of a murderer in 1868 and “This Train That I Ride,” one of the discs most eerily groovin’ rewrites, is about the early conquering of the American frontier.

Songs From My Funeral acts as both a tribute to America’s past and an ethereally danceable new work of art to live on in its future. It also makes for a great mental portal to another place.


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