Deep Listening: Time on Your Hands? Try Diving in and Unraveling These Dense, Multilayered Albums

Jeph Duarte San Antonio News

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A s COVID-19 ravages the land, many of us are living in a mashup of Groundhog Day and Outbreak. Music can be an escape from reality, a voyage to an astral plane where an LP may have as much world-building as Dune or Watership Down.

Appreciating albums with that kind of depth demands repeated listens, and that requires a time investment. During the quarantine, many serious music fans now have an abundance of time on their hands.

The Beatles pioneered the concept of a fleshed-out alternate reality with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a way to avoid touring, even though they dropped the concept before the end of the first side. Much more insular is the second side of Abbey Road, a continuous piece that heralded the dawn of progressive rock. They even reprise the opening track “You Never Give Me Your Money” near the end.

So, with a Beatlesesque trumpet fanfare, here are six deep-listening albums to get you through the world pause.

Transatlantic — Bridge Across Forever (2001)
Prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic is led by Neal Morse, formerly of Spock’s Beard, himself heavily influenced by Abbey Road. Also including former Dream Theater skins pounder Mike Portnoy, The Flower Kings’ guitar monster Roine Stolt and Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas, Bridge Across Forever fills 79 minutes with just four tracks. The multimovement suites seem like standard Yes-borrowing prog, but the closing epic reprises virtually every melody and riff of the openers. It’s a hell of a lot to take in but exhilarating once you have internalized the pieces and they pop up like flashbacks. Caveat: some listeners may need to ignore the overtly Christian lyrics.

Dawn of Midi — Dysnomia (2015)
Dysnomia is like teleporting to the 1950s and looking through virtual reality goggles. Dawn of Midi features a standard trio lineup — piano, bass, drums. But standard thinking ends there, as this album unleashes a continuous piece that unspools more like a DJ set. The band created the album by improvising in an electronic-influenced style, cutting the tapes into a composition, and learning the result to perform start to finish. The result is simultaneously loose and tight, combining the spirit of jamming with the control of a good DJ.

Phish – Live in Utica (2011)
For almost 40 years, jamband progenitors Phish have played three-hour concerts that pull from their massive, hit-free repertoire and presented them without opening acts to keeping the focus squarely on their music. There’s no particular jumping-off point for Phish, but this gig from 2010 does a good job highlighting their playful sense of continuity with spontaneous, repeated quotes — referred to as “teases” — from their prog rock opus “Guyute,” both before and after a performance of the song midway through the first set. All told, the band teases “Guyute” musically or lyrically in no less than five of the first set’s 11 songs. And if that seems like a lot of tunes for these jam demigods, consider that the show contains 23 songs as a whole — 2010 is one of the versatile band’s least-jammy eras. When you roll in Phish standards such as “Birds Of A Feather,” “Split Open And Melt” and an encore of Zep’s “Good Times, Bad Times,” you’ve got yourself a great intro to a band that may demand further listening.

Afroskull — Monster for The Masses (2000)
Combining the funky horn-driven charts of Galactic or Lettuce with doom-flavored riffs played a bit up-tempo, Afroskull have an immediacy not usually associated with bands that grow with subsequent listens. However, despite the high energy instrumental funk, and one vocal tune, the compositions that make up Monster For The Masses have a complexity not apparent on casual listens or even initial in-depth listens. Music-theory heads may find themselves counting obsessively, particularly on the polyrhythmic, Zappa-esque “Layers,” the album’s kookiest arrangement. Some listeners may wonder what a heavy, nuanced band might do with some of the underlying riffs, sans horns. The whole thing is tied together by hokey, fake news clips about a Godzilla attack. Despite, you know, the vibe of B-movie monstrous destruction, the music is given its evil juju by tonality rather than kaiju.

Dungen — Ta Det Lungt (2005)
Swedish psych-rockers Dungen are a much more casual listen than virtually any other band on this list. The songs on Ta Det Lungt are drenched in a druggy, late ’60s California vibe that feels comforting right out of the gate. However, these songs are a tough fit for a random playlist because they’re sung in Swedish. That, plus the strong sequencing, make a solid argument that the album demands to be listened to straight through. Bonus points to the band for releasing an insular recording that doesn’t require a dissertation to explain.

Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ — Fly Me Courageous (1991)
Radio rock listeners familiar with the anthemic title track may have done a low-level spit take on this choice. It’s true, the Southern rock gems of Fly Me Courageous are not difficult listens. Main man Kevn Kinney’s voice might be a bit of an acquired taste, but anyone able to deal with REM’s Michael Stipe should do just fine. The true brilliance of this album shines once it’s broken in like an old shoe, and the vintage AC/DC-to-Zeppelin-esque riffs are burned into your brain. The songs have stayed relevant in any number of eras, including this one. The imagery is straight out of a classic Southern novel, and the apocalyptic scenes are just as relevant right now as they were — gulp — 30 years ago.

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