06 July 2010

CD REVIEW: RPWL - The Gentle Art of Music (2010, Gentle Art of Music Records)

Compilation albums are kind of a sticky wicket, really.

On one hand, they are a great way to discover a band. One usually assumes that a compilation works as a sampling of pieces the band (or most often, label) feels are most exemplary of that group’s output. As such, it’s a great way to sample an artist without making a massive investment in a half dozen or more albums, just to find out that they’re really not your cuppa Earl Grey (or Darjeeling, but that’s just me and my tastes). The problem arises, however, when one decides that they have moved from curious audient to dedicated listener. Suddenly you are out there buying the half dozen or more studio albums, and live releases, and DVDs, and import EPs, and that single that the bassist recorded when he was 15 and in some No Wave band from Croydon. Meanwhile that compilation CD sits, unattended to, gathering dust and wondering what it did to earn your ire, when all it did was what it was designed to do…get you interested.

Over the years, the compilation CD has evolved. Gone in general are the bog standard best ofs and greatest hits CDs, filled to the brim with all the tracks we (maybe) know and (mostly) love. Oh, sure, those songs are still on there, but labels and bands have gotten smarter…or at the very least, more cognizant of the bottom line. Compilations have become almost an album art in and of themselves, and often these familiar songs are supplemented (or replaced, in some cases) by new tracks, unreleased material, the occasional outtake, and remixes of the familiar, all in an attempt to separate you from the brand new twenty dollar bill sitting in your pocket. Let’s face it…if you are in a record store, and have a choice between an album from a band you’ve never personally heard, or a compilation that features songs you are familiar with in NEW! NEVER BEFORE HEARD! FORMS!, what are you going to do?

OK, don’t answer that. Just go with me on this…the label and band are hoping you’re going to decide you what to hear what you’ve already heard in a different form. It’s an easy way of ensuring that their newly released compilation is going to appeal to more than just potential new audients…they want to hook the already hooked.

RPWL is offering up just such a release in The Gentle Art of Music, out now on their new self-run label Gentle Art of Music Records. A 2 CD set, the first disc is the pretty standard compilation/best of type deal, while the second disc is the sweetener, 11 tracks from past catalogue releases revisited for this set, recorded newly with different arrangements, different musicians, and mostly in a stripped down (but not fully acoustic/unplugged) format. Thus do RPWL appeal to both sides of the coin; the new listener gets an introduction to a hand selected group of songs the group feels define who and what they are as musicians and bands, while the long term fans, who perhaps have been following RPWL since their early days as a Pink Floyd cover band, have all the more reason to part with their hard earned dosh to acquire these new renditions.

This is the point in the review where I make my revelation to you; this is the first RPWL album that I have ever owned. As such, it is perhaps aimed best at someone like me. I have a familiarity with their music, as it gets played frequently on progressive music web radio stations like Delicious Agony. As such, I have a passing knowledge of their general sound; it’s melodic, their songs are catchy, and occasionally their vocalist bears an uncanny resemblance to David Gilmour. Guitar playing is usually emotive, with solos relying on sustained and bending lines, much like the aforementioned Gilmour or Camel’s Andrew Latimer. The focus on more tightly written, hooky songs brings to mind transitional period Genesis. And in doing this, I’ve consigned the band to sounding like a mass of influences, but honestly, they have a sound that is pretty much their own. I’d be tempted to call them neo in a lot of ways, but that’s not necessarily fair, and is a confining, ghetto-ising type designation, even if the focus on melodicism and more personal lyrics might work toward that.

Anyway, moving on.

CD 1, as mentioned, is the bog standard best of type set. For me, this has been an enjoyable listen, and I’d say that the songs are very much Summer songs. By that I mean the upbeat feel (even if the tracks tend to range toward the mid-tempo side of things), the layered vocals, and the instrumentation seems to evoke for me the smell of cut grass, laughing on the lawn as kids are chasing down Frisbees, and cool drinks under an umbrella or porch. There are some very enjoyable songs on here, and I am drawn most toward opener ‘Hole in the Sky,’ ‘Home Again,’ and ‘Roses’ among the 11 tracks selected for CD 1. ‘Roses’ features Ray Wilson, formerly of Genesis and Stiltskin, and if you’ve ever wondered how a second Genesis album with him at the helm might have sounded, one listen to this song will make you really rue the day that Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks decided to knock that line up on its head. ‘Roses’ is a gorgeous song, with fantastic vocals, wonderfully emotional guitar playing, and lush keyboards that does both the band and Wilson proud. Mini-epics are present courtesy of ‘The Gentle Art of Swimming’ and ‘Silenced,’ both at or very near the ten-minute mark, showing RPWL capable of adapting their tight songwriting craft to a slightly longer format with no loss of conciseness.

CD 2 is where things get interesting. The second half of this set is titled Revisited, and features 11 additional tracks (no repeats between CD 1 and CD 2, which does add value to the set) re-recorded in a stripped back format. I know a lot of people were assuming this meant acoustic/unplugged, and while there are plenty of acoustic instruments on display, the arrangements are not fully unplugged. Additionally, female vocals, strings (cello, violin, viola), saxophone, and ethnic instruments (Saz, hang, and undetermined ‘Indian instruments,’ as they are credited in the notes) are added to the mix, casting an entirely new light on these older RPWL tracks. Now, as I obviously have no familiarity with the original versions of these songs, I am not qualified to tell you how they differ from the originals. Sadly, that means if you are reading this review as a long time fan hoping I will provide precious insight as to whether this release is essential for you, I will disappoint.

Here are a few things I can say, however: ‘Sleep’ is a very enjoyable set opener, with killer guitar and great use of Indian instruments to create a pastiche of 1970’s psychedelia that still feels honest and true. ‘Trying to Kiss the Sun’ continues the somewhat Eastern theme, with Saz replacing the generic ‘Indian Instruments’ and sounding very much like a much, much lighter take on some of the sounds and riffs that are part and parcel of Alamaailman Vasarat’s CV. Granted, this song has vocals and AV typically doesn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that the song opens with a sonic palate unlike other RPWL songs on this set. ‘Watching the World’ is a slower, almost bluesy track, with more traditional instrumentation and a nice combination of male and female vocals. ‘World Through My Eyes,’ the title track to RPWL’s 2005 effort, takes the Eastern sound perhaps as far as any song on this set, with Indian percussion and Hang (neat fact…I looked up the Hang on Wikipedia, and pictured there is Manu Delago, who is featured on this track) taking this song somewhere in southern or eastern Asia. I don’t know how the original sounds, but I love this arrangement more than is perhaps healthy.

The question at this point is this: has this compilation done its job? Well, I can say that it’s made me interested enough to maybe pick up an album or two, which is certainly not a bad thing. I can’t voch for the second disc vis a vis differences between the original songs and these rearrangements, but I will say I found the explorations of sounds that don’t seem necessarily germane to RPWL’s standard MO enjoyable and refreshing. I think for long time fans, The Gentle Art of Music may well be worth purchasing, while still allowing the interested and prospective new listener an easy way to sample what this German band has to offer.

CD1 - Compilation

1. Hole In The Sky

2. Crazy Lane

3. I Don’t Know

4. Home Again

5. The Gentle Art of Swimming

6. Sun In The Sky

7. Roses

8. Wasted Land

9. 3 Lights

10. Silenced

11. Choose What You Want To Look At

CD2 - Revisited

1. Sleep

2. Trying To Kiss The Sun

3. Moonflower

4. Watching The World

5. Start The Fire

6. Farewell

7. World Through My Eyes

8. Cake

9. Fool

10. Breathe In, Breathe Out

11. Bound To Reach The End


Yogi Lang – vocals, keyboards

Kalle Wallner – guitars

Chris Postl – bass

Phil Paul Rissettio – drums

Stephan Ebner – bass

Andreas Wernthaler – keyboards

Manfred Muller – drums


Manasvee Mezz – Indian Instruments/Percussion, arrangements

Tom Norris- violin, viola, string arrangements

Conny Kreitmeier – vocals

Bine Heller – vocals

Mehmet Bayrakcoglu – Saz

Julia Schroter – vocals

Ferdinand Settele – saxophone

Jost Heckler – cello

Manu Delago – Hang


Don said...

My biggest concern about albums featuring reworked material (and the biggest obstacle towards me buying this package) is whether or not I'll ever go back to them. As interesting as stuff like Marillion's Less Is More is, I doubt I'll ever give it more than a cursory listen because it didn't add anything to the originals. Then you get stuff like, say, Peter Hammill's live takes on his recorded output, because while the studio versions may have been with a full band (or four different PHs thanks to the magic of multitrack recording), in a live setting it's just a man, his voice, and his piano/guitar.

I'd be interested to read a follow-up from you after you've had time to digest a bit more of RPWL's material to find out if you go back to the second disc at all, or if the originals hold up better to your ears.

Bill K. said...

That is something I hope to do, for myself and for the blog. It just may take some time.