Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews
Thinking Plague – Decline and Fall – Cuneiform Rune
Published on July 16, 2012
Thinking Plague – Decline and Fall – Cuneiform Rune 320, 46:51 [1/31/12] ***:
(Elaine Di Falco – vocals; Mark Harris – soprano saxophone, clarinet; Mike Johnson – guitar; Kimara Sajn – drums, keyboards; Dave Willey – bass; Robin Chestnut – drums (track 5); Kaveh Rastegar – bass (track 1); Dexter Ford – bass (track 5))
Listening to Colorado experimental rockers Thinking Plague is like hearing the apocalypse on the horizon. The band’s previous work, A History of Madness (2003), concentrated on the 13th-century French Albigensian Crusade, in which perhaps a million people were killed. Decline and Fall, the band’s sixth album in three decades, ups the stakes: it is a challenging conceptual piece which focuses on the decline and fall of man amid a planet wavering under humankind’s ecological indifference. Although group members, led by co-founder/guitarist Mike Johnson, might deny it, Thinking Plague can be compared to Rock in Opposition ensembles such as The Art Bears, Henry Cow or Univers Zéro. Thinking Plague does not necessarily sound like those groups but they share musical and aesthetic characteristics such as melding progressive rock, classical tinges, modern creative tonalities and plenty of nervous tension.
Thinking Plague has always had a convincing vision due in large measure to Johnson, who wrote the lyrics and music on the 46-minute, six-song Decline and Fall and helped record much of the material in a home studio. Decline and Fall continues to utilize multifaceted musical suites but the arrangements here are more moderate: slightly less dense then preceding projects, and there are less of the layered electronic sounds and sampling on other records. New vocalist Elaine Di Falco and new drummer Robin Chestnut (who is featured on “The Gyre”) join Mark Harris (soprano sax, clarinet), Johnson, drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn (who is on most tracks but has since departed) and bassist Dave Willey. There are also guest bassists on two other cuts.
Right from the start, on the opening number “Malthusian Dances,” Di Falco shows how well she suits the requirements needed to be a vocalist in such a demanding group. She brings self-assurance and discipline to lyrics which might cause other singers to stumble, particularly because the words must fit into complex musical designs. In fact, the printed lyrics are a must, since the words tend to get lost in the disorienting arrangements. Using a mix of close-quartered vocals backed by multi-tracked wordless harmonies, Di Falco notes how “niggling pundits forgo reason, demagogic cranks imagine treason” and how “diseases multiply and rivers run dry.” Thinking Plague escalates the musical intricacy and emotional upheaval during “I Cannot Fly,” where Di Falco personalizes a looming global crisis: “I cannot fly, wings are a lie, the air will not bear my despair.” Meanwhile, Johnson adds Robert Fripp-ish guitar audio sculpturing, while the bass and drums create a constantly shifting rhythmic foundation appropriately akin to King Crimson. Harris heightens the teeming arrangement with sax and clarinet hues which offset the band’s instrumental intensity. On the mostly instrumental, likeminded “The Gyre” (about the gigantic piles of trash which float in the oceans) Johnson produces more swirling, Frippian effects on his guitar, while clarinet and piano dart and sprint and bassist Dexter Ford (in keeping with the King Crimson comparison) brings to mind Tony Levin.
Open space becomes a constructive tool on the ambitious, nearly 12-minute “A Virtuous Man,” which has a strong philosophical bent highlighted by lyrics and oblique references to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, an account of his experiences and observations in the Spanish Civil War. While Di Falco sings about how one person’s idealism can become squeezed under the burden of human shortcomings, the rest of the band makes a multi-tiered stratum which includes elements of avant-garde, modern classical, prog-rock, film soundtrack qualities, free jazz and chamber music. Harris and Sajn in particular are noteworthy: the reeds have several stellar moments and Sajn’s various keyboard sounds (which range from electronic ambiance to organ-like embellishments) are very well represented on this track. Thinking Plague conclude with one final escapist conception, “Climbing the Mountain,” where Di Falco finds solace atop a tall pinnacle which rises above the approaching dark future. The music is equally serious and fluctuates from quiet measures to ascending chaos, which generates a cinematic spirit as well as an asymmetrical configuration.
TrackList: Malthusian Dances; I Cannot Fly; Sleeper Cell Anthem; A Virtuous Man; The Gyre; Climbing the Mountain