Friday, March 20, 2009

Members of The Syn expand the view of progressive rock

Merriam Webster defines the word "progressive" as "moving forward or onward." And so when it came to progressive rock, the members of Led Zeppelin always looked at themselves as progressive. John Paul Jones told me in a 2001 interview that to him, the word meant "forward-thinking" even in the context of progressive rock. "We always used to think that Zeppelin was a progressive rock band until it became a slightly dirty word," he laughed.

The popular press uses the label "progressive rock" to indicate something musically akin the rhythmically challenging, lugubrious anthems of such acts as Jethro Tull, Genesis or Yes. But now, I'm talking to more musicians who agree with what Jones told me eight years ago. He continued, "Well, we thought we played progressive rock. People asked, 'What sort of band are you?' I said I had played ... progressive rock -- thinking that it just meant 'forward-thinking.'"

Today, I asked two members of a band called The Syn to define progressive rock for me. Their latest album, Big Sky, is slated for release on April 21 by Umbrello Records, hence the occasion for my speaking to them today. And my conversations with them also helped to tell some other stories regarding members of Led Zeppelin.

Jimmy Page's brush with Yes members

The Syn originated in England, with Chris Squire on bass just a few years before he formed Yes. Jimmy Page had a chance to work with Squire in what would have been his first band after the breakup of Led Zeppelin. At the time, Yes was on hiatus with its future up in the air, and Squire was keeping himself busy with other projects, usually involving other Yes members. He described in a recent interview how it came to be that he nearly formed the band XYZ with Page and drummer Alan White:
"That was not long after John Bonham had passed away, and I ran into Jimmy at a Christmas party, and he said, 'I'd really like to get back into playing, oh and by the way, I'm moving from my house to close to where you live.' And I said, 'OK, well, we'll get together.' So, he came over to my place, and he heard some of the stuff, and he said, 'Oh yeah! Let's do your songs!' He was like, 'I just wanna play and do some work and, you know, move on, really.' And it was funny at that time because he'd been so affected by John Bonham dying, he was even smoking cigarettes through a cigarette holder. Mr. Clean at the time! It was, like, quite peculiar. ...
"I once went down to Peter Grant's house to discuss the new project with him, and we were discussing it for about 96 hours straight, not really getting anywhere. It was quite funny because my dad, actually, while he was alive, knew I was involved in that project, and he said, 'Well, the obvious name for that project would be X-Y-Zed, you know, X-Y-Z. Ex-Yes-Zeppelin. So, there I was at Peter Grant's house saying to him, 'That's the natural name for this project! Yes is on hiatus. We're not sure what's going on with that. And Zeppelin, you know, is presumably not gonna be anymore.' And Peter Grant kept saying to me, 'Yeah, but I don't like the idea of Yes being before Zeppelin.' And I said, 'Well, Peter, it's the alphabet. X-Y-Z.' I said, 'X-Z-Y? I don't know.' And we had that same conversation for about 96 hours. ...
"The idea was that Robert was going to come and join in, but I think I heard Alan say that the music was too complicated. I don't think it was that. I think, um, it was just too soon for Robert. He didn't want to just jump back into another project. He was still upset, I guess, about John's death."

Squire's fellow founding member of The Syn, Steve Nardelli, recalls that he was working with Squire at the time of these XYZ sessions. In my interview with him today, Nardelli recounted many of the same details Squire had, adding on that XYZ rehearsal sessions took place both "at Jimmy's house and up at Squire's studio in Virginia Water." From Nardelli's perspective:
"The thing about that was they were hoping to get Robert Plant to sing, and then he wouldn't. ... It never quite got off the ground. I think in the studio they never quite, quite gelled. It didn't quite work."

A jazz-fusion guitarist joins Robert Plant's fold

Page and Plant both moved on soon thereafter, releasing their own debut solo albums on Led Zeppelin's old Swan Song label in 1982. It was about a decade later that Plant was recording his sixth solo album, Fate of Nations, and invited guitarist Francis Dunnery to sit in on the sessions. Along with Nardelli, Dunnery is the other member of The Syn who spoke with me today, and he was gracious enough to speak about the time he spent in the studio and on the road with Plant. When I asked Dunnery what brought the two together, he said it was a result of sharing representation in common:
"I was doing one of my solo CDs, and I was managed by Robert's [manager, a guy] called Bill Curbishley. And Robert just invited me down to play some guitar."

When Fate of Nations was released, Dunnery ended up being on only two songs on the finished product. That was because of a combination of factors, mostly because Plant had brought in not just the members of his touring band to record the album but also multiple other guitarists, drummers and other musicians, and everyone was vying for a spot on the album. But when it came time for Plant to choose his band members for his excursion in support of the album, Dunnery was one of two. He credits this to the fact that he wasn't begging Robert for the gig:
"I wasn't desperate for the job -- because I had my solo career with Atlantic Records. So I was down there almost like there was no pressure on me at all. I didn't have any pressure on me at all. And I think a lot of the other guys who'd auditioned for the job -- obviously it's such a big job that, um, they were really desperate to have it. And it wasn't so much my guitar playing that (laughs) had Robert choose me. I just think it was because I wasn't desperate and I was at ease and I had fun. In the rehearsals, I had a lot of fun, and they liked my energy, so I think that's why I got the job. It certainly wasn't because of my guitar playing."

The other guitarist on Plant's 1993 tour for Fate of Nations was the blues guitarist Innes Sibun, whom Dunnery complemented by virtue of the fact that he was more of a rock-fusion guitarist himself rather than a blues guitarist. Dunnery admits that he and Plant have "absolutely no common ground in music whatsoever." He said:
"I don't get into blues at all. Blues is not my thing. I don't really relate to [the blues]. ... We used to have some interesting conversations about blues and stuff like that, but we were completely opposite in musical tastes. We had absolutely no common ground at all in music whatsoever. He thought that everything I liked was just a load of crap (laughs). He liked the blues because it was dangerous. And I suppose I come from a dangerous background, so I don't have to pretend in any way I'm dangerous because I was brought up in an Irish Catholic family with a lot of alcohol and violence, so I don't need to pretend that stuff. I was trying to escape from it! And I guess Robert had come from a better background than I did I suppose. And so, he was fascinated by the blues guys and that kind of ghetto life. I think that was -- and the spirit of that. But I was brought up in it, so I was trying to get away from it, and he was probably fascinated by it, so it was a pretty interesting marriage, I think, between us."

The pairing of Dunnery with the blues-based Sibun is, in a way, like the combination Plant later used in his 2001-2006 band the Strange Sensation, which featured, at different times, rock guitarists Porl Thompson and Skin Tyson, pitted across the stage and sonic soundscape from guitarist and "world" musician Justin Adams, who fused African and Arabic elements into the band without ever having played in a rock group before.

Defining progressive music

That brings me back to progressive rock. It's fusions like this that progressive music is all about! It's more about the attitude of constantly moving forward than it is any particular sound or structure. Talking with Dunnery really brought this out. He said wonderful things about Robert Plant, his intellect ("The guy's incredibly intelligent; I never see that written about him in interviews, but he's probably, realistically, one of the most intelligent people that I've ever met in my life") and his motivation:
"One of the things I would define Robert by is that he doesn't like the past. He likes to move into the future to use -- He likes to navigate into the unknown and hang out in the future. He's future-oriented. He likes the future. ...
"And that's the kind of guy he is. He's always taking risks. He's always taking intelligent risks. He's never one to sit down and rest on his laurels. He's completely plugged into the current music scene and always has been, regardless of what it is. ...
"I think people should give him a lot of credit for that because he's got -- rather than lapsing into being Robert Plant from 1974 off
Physical Graffiti or something like that, he's always -- give the guy his due. Look what he's just done with Alison Krauss. He's always diving into some risk. And people knock him for it sometimes, but you know what? He has my absolute 100 percent respect because he's got balls like nobody's got."

Then, a few minutes later, we got around to talking about what could be expected on The Syn's new album, Big Sky. He said it wasn't going to be a bunch of "15-minute pinao solos or something like that," which would be one of the stereotypical traits of what poluar media believe progressive rock to be. Dunnery just wanted to dispel that notion right off the bat. He continued:
"That's not what progressive music is to me. Progressive rock is about -- is future-oriented. Like, what most people think of as progressive rock is actually '70s music that sounds like Genesis or Yes. When most people talk about early-age prog rock, that's what they mean, but that's actually not progressive rock. That's not progr[essive] -- probably Bjork is progressive, or Radiohead, or, you know, certain bands like that. They're doing something new and different that's future-oriented.
"And I think the main thing that people will find that's progressive album is Steve Nardelli's lyrics. Because he's a progressive. He's a progressive animal in terms of, he's future-oriented, Steve -- very, very similar to Robert, he's future-oriented. He's not interested in the past. He's got hope and optimism. He's the eternal boy. Or, in Latin, what they would call the
puer eternis, which is kind of like a Peter Pan-type figure that remains eternally optimistic and youthful. And I think Steve Nardelli embodies the spirit of the puer eternis, or Peter Pan in many respects in his lyrics because he's looking out into the sky in wonder and in amazement about what's possible in the future. So the album is extremely progressive like that, and it's very, very, very, um -- It's an album of the times, and I think what the Germans call zeitgeist ... it means a spirit of the times. There's no English equivalent of that, but that's what the Germans meant. It meant a spirit of the times. And I think this album carries the spirit of the times because we're all looking for some hope, and faith in the goodness of life after being destroyed for so long after the last, you know, so many years."

Dunnery's comments prepared me for a very deep interview of Nardelli a few hours later. I knew what to ask about the album, and I also had something to pursue as far as how Nardelli felt about his own definition of progressive rock. He started off:
"Progressive rock is, um -- uh ... If you go back to the, uh, to the era ... of the, um ..."

I thought his hesitation signaled that he wasn't prepared for the question. But no, he just had somebody else breathing down his neck for something. He told that person to wait and then got back to me, starting over:
"If you go back to the days of the '70s. I traced -- If you trace back what I would describe as the progressive movement, I would go back to Sgt. Pepper's. In terms of an album that really changed the way bands looked at creating albums and writing songs. I think the Beatles had a huge influence on that. I think that Sgt. Pepper's had a huge influence on The Syn and the direction that Syn took, which eventually morphed into Yes. I would say that probably was the first out-and-out progressive rock band. That said, they set the mark. ...
"But really, what progressive music is about is about what the term 'progressive' meant, and that is, you know, thinking forward as opposed to backwards, moving in a forward direction. And I think that's what, if you chart music, from the '60s into the '70s, progressive music, you could actually ... then basically what you saw was bands pushing the envelope out continuously, moving forward, progressing into a new format and new design and arrangements and presentations of music.
"I think one of the problems that the progressive movement had is that it kind of, by the time it -- Obviously then, the punk movement came as a complete reaction to it, and then out of that came the '80s or synth-type stuff ... that whole synth side of the '80s, which I didn't like at all. And then, by the time the '90s came around, bands started to look back and, when thinking about 'progressive' -- they thought that progressive was that '70s window, and I think one of the problems was they tried to emulate it; they'd sort of copy it. So instead of being truly progressive and taking it forward, and trying to develop it into another dimension, if that's the right term, they actually tried to recreate what we'd done in the '70s. And I think that was a mistake, and I think that's where progressive music kind of disappeared down the plug-hole, in terms of the audience acceptance to it. It just lost its way.
"But I think what we tried to do with The Syn, and in the reformation of The Syn now, is to redefine progressive music in the 21st century as music that's different to the other music that is around today, but looks forward rather than tries to be a retro -- create a retro sound that's right from the '70s.
"That's kind of like a long-winded answer. I hope it makes sense."

Yes, yes, it does! It reinforced my definition of the definition of the term "progressive rock," which I formed in 2001, at the precise moment John Paul Jones gave me his. I assured Nardelli that his long-winded answer did make sense and informed him of the John Paul Jones definition I gleaned eight years ago. He then offered some further support to the assertion that Led Zeppelin is a progressive band, saying, emphatically:
"And they were truly progressive, so ... People may not recognize them as progressive, but they were truly progressive in the true sense of the word 'progressive.' And that's why they're probably the most successful band of all time. ... You know, if you take a song like 'Stairway to Heaven,' how can you not call that a progressive song? It's a hugely progressive song -- in a true sense of progressive music. So, yes, I agree with John Paul Jones: They are progressive."

Based on my conversations with these guys, I just can't wait to get my hands on their new album to hear what kind of stuff they've just finished recording that fits their definition, and mine, of progressive music. Their album should be available April 21 from Umbrello Records, and The Syn goes on tour in the United States that weekend. Check their tour schedule for dates near you.

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