A PASSAGE TO CLEAR
If your thing is symphonic prog, ambient, electro-prog, or anything associated with keyboards, you might as well stop here. That's not what John Miner and the Art Rock Circus is all about. This is ostensibly Rock-n-Roll in the most visceral sense, guitar bass and drums. A casual listening might cause you to toss this in the "standard music" pile. But there's a catch ... the Art Rock Circus steps out of the mold with some strange twists which put this music squarely into Art Rock genre, and with many parts which can only be described as Progressive.
The Art Rock Circus are a group of performers who gathered to perform the rock opera Heaven's Café as a theatrical production in Las Vegas. I'm not sure if the name refers to just the band or also includes the dancers and other performers. But the members are fluid, John says it's like a real circus where performers come and go. The ringmaster of this circus is guitarist John Miner, who composes the songs and most of the lyrics.
There's hardly a song on Heaven's Café that's in 4/4 time, John prefers 5's, 7's, 11's and more intricate structures. In addition, John is tired of the standard guitar tunings, and has invented several alternates of his own. He uses a doubleneck guitar which allows him to switch back and forth between alternate tunings and standard when playing live, or between two different alternate tunings. The impression this gives is sometimes like the guitar is a bit out of tune, but he can also play chords virtually impossible to finger with a standard-tuned guitar.
Heaven's Café is a Rock Opera in the epic sense, and it's written to be performed rather than just listened to on a CD. The stage production was full of actors, special effects and dancers ... one can only imagine how they felt trying to dance to a piece written in 11/8. To be honest, the live CD's sound quality is, shall we say, less than the most slick production you've ever heard. In spite of that, Heaven's Café Live is much more interesting than the studio version. Heaven's Café is the studio version, which is basically a sketch in charcoals of the finished piece performed in a Las Vegas theater. The live recording captures the performance of Nov. 22, 1998.
The sound quality and texture harks back to The Who's original Tommy, or the stage version of the Rocky Horror Show (not the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was the movie). But the closest comparison to Heaven's Café Live would be Continental Circus or Camembert Electrique-era Gong. This is especially true of the cuts "Classical Man", "Labyrinth" and "Again". Also, "The Dark" is almost exactly the same as "Wurm" from Yes' The Yes Album. Not that this is a bad thing ... I do think it's really a case of parallel development, not a rip-off.
A Passage to Clear is subtitled (a story album). Not a rock opera in the sense of individual characters singing their parts, but a story told partially in lyrics and partially in the sleeve liner notes. Oddly, this album is arguably even more progressive than the Heaven's Café albums and will probably be more rejected by the "progressive rock community" simply because it doesn't fit comfortably into any of the traditional "prog rock" genres. Miner is once again going his own way and not trying to be symphonic at all. The pieces all feature guitar as their main instrument (acoustic, some distorted electric and lots of clean electric), and Miner's oddball chord progressions and odd meters (he seems to like 13's for this album, one song organized in phrases of 7 followed by 6 beats per measure, and another 8 and 5). The other main "instrument" for this album are the two female vocalists Karyn Anderson and Karen Rene'e who sing very professionally, but not in a terribly progressive sort of way.
The closest analogy I can draw for you to visualize (audialize?) what this music is like is to say it's what you might hear in a coffee bar where everyone is drinking expresso, smoking cigarettes and wearing berets, listening intently to the band and occasionally commenting, "that's really deep, man" to each other. I can also once again draw comparisons to Continental Circus or Camembert Electrique-era Gong, which I am frequently reminded of when I listen to this. The combination of the guitar sounds, the sax playing and the ethereal female singers somehow create this effect. I also must say, however, that Pip Pyle sounded very comfortable playing in these odd meters with Gong, but Miner's drummer Devon Lesback sounds like he would rather be playing in 4/4.
My advice: Try out Heaven's Café Live first. If this is to your liking, then you should enjoy A Passage to Clear as well. If you just loved Heaven's Café Live and want to see how it evolved, then check out Heaven's Café last. -- Fred Trafton
The Making of A Passage to Clear
A Passage to Clear came out of a continuation of the creative momentum generated from The Rock Opera...I felt a need to get back to roots in a sense and just start making music again instead of having a hand in every aspect of an enormous theatrical production including sitting in the directors chair for the Charleston performances of Heavens Cafe'. Performing much of the record in small coffee houses around town I was able to slowly assimilate the pieces and get the music in order to start the recording process. So again with me it's always about finding the right drummer. That being the foundation of any rock record. After seeing drummer Devon Lebsack perform with Jon Cornell's ska band, it seemed he had the chops to tackle such an undertaking....In between his studies at Berklee College of Music we were able to get the bulk of the record done in a relatively short period of time considering the complexity of the project.
Also I wanted to write the whole record musically before any lyrics were to be penned. ..then once that was done I started hunting for vocal talent..I found Karen Marquart through a friend who said "hey I know this great vocalist...her name is Karen..." and I thought ok..she was doing kareoke bars and winning all the local vocal contests....lets get her into my universe and see what happens!....about three quarters of the way through the record there were a few tracks which seemed to just not be working and I think Karen got frustrated...then a cold that lasted for months motivation seemed waning and I told her I would look for someone else to finish the remaining tracks...it really seemed it was just not going to get done...and that.. I think is my biggest fear as a producer..My friend Karyn Anderson had a listen to where the record was and agreed to help out...then right in the middle of all this my studio was broken into and nearly everything stolen.. It was a terribly sad moment in life to have that happen...I couldn't do anything for months....then having to replace all kinds of vintage gear...and stuff. just awful..awful...Luckily the master tapes were removed from the recorder the night before and were not lost...that was truly a saving grace...
So Karyn and I just kinda went at it alone...it was very different and at times uncomfortable for her to do because her vocal style is strongly rooted in blues and she is a very passionate singer with lots of nuances and character....which of course was thrilling for me to try to bottle that lightening....but awkward for her. Karyn is a strong Buddhist so we spent a lot of time chanting and experimenting in quest of the clear energy. When we finally got to the finish line it was really a great feeling of relief and accomplishment. I think A Passage to Clear is a very fitting name for the record...I guess the day I make a record that happens easily in two weeks with no drama or dire frustration is the day I make a boring sterile lifeless record...!!
PASSAGE TO CLEAR
IN THE STUDIO WITH "A PASSAGE TO CLEAR"
[HOW THINGS STARTED] [STRANGER OF MY FIND]
[THE PROMISE][UNDERGROUND] [A PASSAGE TO CLEAR]
[CLEAR] [LOVE][SHADOWS OF STYLE]
[GOODBYE THE LIE] [STRANGE][POETIC INJUSTICE]
[HEAVEN][COSMIC COBWEBS AND LOLLIPOPS][ALONE]
STRANGER OF MY FIND
Stranger of my Find...I had been noodling around the guitar for some time trying to find a series of chords that would be
similar in character yet encompass nearly the whole neck of the instrument and somehow bring it all back together
into some type of musicality..Devon's idea to use heavy Cuban grooves was very much welcomed and I don't think anyone
has ever heard a song like this...I really have no idea what to call or categorize it in anyway shape or form...And I'm in no way against doing that! Trying to find the vocal melody was like trying to remove the sculpture from the slab of marble...you know it's there but how do you get it out? This was the first song I threw at Karen and it was no easy thing to record.
I had experimented some with polyrhythmic structuring some
with Heavens Cafe'particularly on The Dark and I wanted to
do a little more exploring in that arena. This time I liked
the 7-6-7-5 meter and went into that ...basically
phrasing it around the bass line. I think Devon was
excited with this piece..I mean it's not everyday a
Vegas drummer is asked to lay down this kind of groove!
Devon again let the Cuban influence take charge
and gives another compelling performance. When it came time
for vocals I had worked out the melody in a way to smooth
out the piece and give it room to breath and air out a
bit. There were a lot of minor notes being played in the
guitar line so it really had no other option than to be
rather haunting I think. We recorded it fairly quickly
and painlessly and I did a duo with her toward the end
in what I call the "creepy part!" ....We just sang it
together into one mic...a small PL6 condenser I had laying
around and it just worked out real nice.
Underground started from a bass line I'd been toying
with and Devon just really felt a kinda jazz shuffle
thing to it.. which again was nothing close to what
I had in mind originally! Being a more experimental
record we just went with it and I decided to try and
darken it up with my favorite A minor tuning and use some
dark sounding chords on top.. Dark swing music!
Could this be a new genre? What kinda dance steps to
this I wonder.... The Vegas Lindy?
We brought in Ken Wenzel who in the scene is probably
the hottest young sax cat around to blow more life
into the number and Karen again did her sultry thing
and we got a song!I had met Ken out on the scene and
he played the role of Classical Man in the second run
of Heavens Cafe' at the Charleston Theater.. We even had
him blow some sax there as well...
A PASSAGE TO CLEAR
Being the little instrumental piece between songs,
kind of a short medley of ideas, Passage
to Clear strangely became the name of the record.
When things were later strung together
it just didn't feel right to go from Underground
straight into Clear....hence the little interlude.
I had messed with this technique quite a bit on
Heavens Cafe' so it seemed the right
thing to keep a bit of that energy here as
well. The little country guitar piece was a
favorite of mine to play around campfires and
such and it seemed the right place for it here..
Erica and I had fun with the interplay between
violin and guitar near the end...
I think Clear is my personal favorite on the
record..just one of those songs that just works
from top to bottom. Devon's powerful drumming
sets things up nicely for the bass
and guitar lines. It's the first time
we hear Karyn Anderson and I really love the vocal
melody here..kinda a rolling Greek to middle eastern
flavored line backed by my punkish
shouting just underneath. I did a split
guitar track to attempt to keep up with
the energy level the piece was developing.
If Tributary ever releases as Greatest Hits
I hope this would be on it! The 7/ 8 thing at
the end I think helped to bring things back to
the previoussong and aided, I feel, in the overall
flow of things...We developed an even more
aggressive playing style with it live at recent
Art Rock Circus gigs..
Love started from a poem I had written about the
devastating news that they (The Government here in the USA)
is planning on shipping all the nuclear waste of the nation
60 miles north of where I live, across the nations highways
and within a stones throw of 25 million people. Karen's
voice so smooth felt like the tranquil soft desert
against the abrasive piercing guitar..the waste.
There seems to be a struggle and a back and
forth debate between forces of man and nature,
society and sociology and art and
science....and this still goes on today.
SHADOWS OF STYLE
This one in particular I had been crafting for some
time and originally had penned it for my great friends
Kris and Karen for their wedding song first dance.
It seems a popular request when playing solo gigs
in coffee houses and such. I think it's just a real
pretty song and it adds nice contrast to the two
surrounding pieces. Karyn's voice is in nice form
here and you can really hear some complex nuances
in her voice with a close listen.
GOODBYE THE LIE
Goodbye the lie was a song that had been left over
from Heavens Cafe' and almost..and maybe should
have been on that record. Miche whom played the Guardian Angel
did the original version, but I wasn't really happy
with the mix and pre production so I did a different
take on it here.. I used three tracks of volume pedal
guitar and shaped that into a sad and introspective
story of love gone bad. The boomy kick drum is like
a pounding heart a bit out of rhythm....heavy and
haunting. Karyn actually cried while recording ... as
it had stirred up some recent emotions of her own.
I think we really got close on this one to bottling
lightening. One of my favorites on the album artistically
yet a difficult one to listen two as well.
Everyone, at least in the progressive rock world talks
about the difficulty of writing a song
in 13/ 8 meter...That was the experiment
here..Yes..a bit Strange. If you like this kind of
stuff you've come to the right place....if not ...skip to
the next track.
Things start to run amuck here...I read this poem at a
coffee house poetry reading night
then recorded some back tracking music
for it to aid it's climactic build...really
just a bit of abstraction to move things along.
This was actually the first song I had written
specifically for this record. We all want "Heaven"
in one way or another.. now or later...Karyn gives
another emotionally packed performance
and I think the ending of the song as it
builds and goes through the key changes worked
very nicely...It's really the kind of guitar work
I like the best...not so much gymnastics but
really "note selection"... is the challenge.
COSMIC COBWEBS AND LOLLIPOPS
Here we just played around a lot, experimenting
recording different sounds and arrangements until
we got to something like this and it felt light,
dark, fun, and interesting.
Cosmic Cobwebs and Lollipops either makes perfect
sense to you or it doesn't...I'll leave it at that..
If Alone sounds familiar it may be because you
already own one of the Heavens Cafe' records.
In keeping with tradition I did a little rearrangement
of Never Alone with a bit of a twist and a shot of lime juice!