Pat Metheny Group: Imaginary Day -- by George Graham
(Warner Bros. 46791 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/8/97)
The pop music business being what it is, creativity and popularity seem almost to be mutually exclusive. The innovators tend to work in obscurity, and those musicians who achieve popularity usually do so by following and exploiting the trends which were developed years earlier by those relatively unknown innovators. But one artist who has managed to achieve the rare feat of relative commercial success while remaining consistently innovative is guitarist Pat Metheny and his Pat Metheny Group. The Group's new twelfth album is entitled Imaginary Day.
Missouri-born guitarist Metheny, while still in his teens, attracted the attention of established jazz artists and indeed started toward the path of straight-ahead jazz, playing in the group of vibist Gary Burton in the mid 1970s. But Metheny was soon to start his innovation by being one of the first guitarists to use a digital delay device to create a new kind of sound. It was jazz-rock fusion without the high-voltage electric sound in the tradition of Jimi Hendrix, but instead a more mellow but still quite electric approach that allowed a much greater degree of harmonic subtlety than would be possible with a distortion-based sound. Metheny formed his Group, and with it his nearly twenty-year collaboration with keyboardist and co-composer Lyle Mays on an album simply entitled Pat Metheny Group in 1978. And since then, Metheny, Mays and company have enjoyed remarkable success, winning seven Grammy awards, as the Group over the years and, consistently being one of the top-selling jazz-rock fusion bands. And making it all the more remarkable has been their restless creativity, always coming up with new sounds and styles, all the while relentlessly touring.
Metheny, both with and outside of his Group, has touched a remarkably broad range of styles, from the melodic but musically sophisticated sounds of the early PMG albums, through the electric and synthesizer based sounds of their 1980s efforts, to Metheny's collaborations with jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and others. He has backed jazz vocalists, played on albums by Joni Mitchell and Bruce Hornsby, and done an album of cathartic guitar noise.
The Pat Metheny Group seem to alternate between recordings aimed at the popular market and those of a more innovative bent. The PMG's 1995 studio album We Live Here borrowed from hip-hop rhythms and at times seemed to "dumb down" as they say, while at others was more typical of the Group's multifaceted sound. Last year, the Group scaled back to a quartet and did what was essentially a more straight-ahead jazz album. This time around, on Imaginary Day, they have come up with what I would call a remarkable progressive rock or "art rock" project, with very electric instrumentation and the kind of complex and innovative arrangements and instrumentation that leaves the fan of such things downright amazed. In fact, Imaginary Day comes across as a kind of grand art rock concept album with long, almost symphonic compositions that segue one into the other, with moods ebbing and flowing as the album moves along. Metheny acknowledges it as a kind of concept work, calling it "an extended journey into a musical zone that lets you imagine your own scenario and stories, and emotions to go with them." The style of compositions is reminiscent of the Group's First Circle album, but this record is sonically richer, and perhaps the most eclectic yet by the Group, ranging from almost cinematically orchestral to introspective ballads to a piece with what even Metheny himself calls "thrash-metal guitar." Along the way there are hints of flamenco, Celtic and even techno. The result is one of the most intriguing and downright exhilarating albums ever by this very creative and virtuosic group.
In addition to the usual core quartet with Metheny, Mays, bassist Steve Rodby and drummer Paul Wertico; multi-instrumentalists and wordless vocalists Mark Ledford and David Blamires are again with the Group. Long-time member Armando Marcal has departed, feeling he wanted to move on since this album's sound has very little of the Brazilian influence that has been kind of a PMG trademark in recent years. Additional percussionists Mino Cinelu, David Samuels, Glen Velez and Don Alias supplement the regular Group on many of the tracks.
Some new instrumentation is also heard on this CD, with Metheny playing a fretless classical guitar on some of the tracks, also a 42-string so-called "pikasso" acoustic guitar, and a new guitar synthesizer instrument. Ledford and Blamires also play some brass instruments including trumpet and mellophone.
As usual, most of the pieces are joint Metheny/Mays compositions. Metheny says that in preparation for the album, each wrote music independently earlier this year, but when they got together in the spring to record, they threw most of it out and began collaborating, with each coming up with snippets, motifs and fragments, and then weaving them together into the complex musical tapestries that comprise Imaginary Day. Of the writing process for this album Metheny says, "Our goal this time was to just let our imaginations go and to dream up settings and musical environments where it wasn't necessarily obvious that they would be within our immediate realm."
That is well illustrated in the title piece Imaginary Day which opens the CD. The track highlights the fretless classical guitar, and draws in the influence of Indonesian gamelon music. Metheny also notes some blues textures that went into the intent of the piece. <<>> In keeping with the nature of this album, the track, like many others on the CD, moves through lots of musical and mood changes. <<>>
The next track, Follow Me is rather more musically conventional, and is constructed around the natural harmonics of guitar strings, <<>> before it goes through a typical Metheny Group dynamic build. <<>>
Metheny's 42-string acoustic guitar, an instrument with several sets of strings running in different directions allowing a harp-like sound and sympathetic vibrations, is highlighted on the solo piece Into the Dream. <<>>
For me the most impressive piece on this musically absorbing album is The Heat of the Day, which combines all that these remarkable musicians are so good at, a complex tune with nevertheless a melodic sound, in a mind-boggling time-signature with influences running from flamenco to Iranian music with some symphonic-like flourishes thrown in for good measure. <<>>
That flows right into one of the more laid-back pieces, Across the Sky, which Metheny points out is one of the few tracks on the CD on which he plays a conventional electric guitar. He notes the unusual form of the piece in which the various sections essentially do not repeat. <<>>
Another of the most unusual pieces is The Roots of Coincidence, which is based on a synthesizer rhythmic line reminiscent of techno dance music, while Metheny plays on a very grungy guitar. But the complexity of the piece with its sudden dynamic shifts and almost cinematic impressionism makes it anything but alternative rock. Instead, it is art rock for the late 1990s. <<>> Ledford and Blamires add their brass instruments to the atmospheric ending section. <<>>
The album concludes with The Awakening, another example of the collaborative process between Metheny and Mays. Metheny said it was one of the few compositional ideas to have survived from his writing in advance of the recording. Mays added his melodic development, and the influences range from Celtic to a rhythm that Metheny describes as "almost Moroccan." Mays puts in some subtle synthesizer lines that hint at bagpipes <<>> before he goes into a gorgeous piano solo. <<>>
Imaginary Day, the new twelfth album by the Pat Metheny Group is one of the best and most musically sophisticated of this uncategorizable ensemble's 20-year career. Metheny and his collaborator and co-writer Lyle Mays have never lost their creative edge, their stylistic restlessness, over what it now a very durable association. Jazz-rock fusion is the broadest description of what they do, but every album is different, and this one shares the conceptual and impressionistic qualities of the best art rock with far better musicianship and a wider ranging style and set of instrumental sounds than anything progressive rock bands of old could ever muster. The result is absolutely fascinating, absorbing and memorable listening that is likely to become a real milestone in the career of this always innovative group.
Sonically, the CD unfortunately has a problem. The recording and mix by Rob Eaton are excellent, capturing the subtleties of the almost dizzying number of instruments and added sounds going on. But the sound was ruined in the CD mastering process where mastering engineer Ted Jenson added an absolutely inexcusable amount of sonic compression, almost completely killing the dynamic range of this music that uses dynamics so effectively. Looking for a reason why this CD sounded so sonically squashed, I found, upon examining its digital audio levels, that for many of the tracks, including those with a musical ebb and flow, the sound level spent close to 90% of its time confined within the top 3 db available on a CD, out of an available dynamic range of over 90 CD. So the CD becomes a big disappointment on a good stereo system. The lousy mastering job also makes the recording sound cold and a bit shrill. This CD should definitely be recalled for remastering -- it won't be the first time this kind of thing has happened.
One intriguing aspect of the album is that fact that liner notes are in a pictorial code, and the disc itself serves a kind of old-fashioned decoding ring to help read the notes. There is also a decoding computer program available on the group's Website. The credits are printed conventionally, however.
Disappointing sound notwithstanding, the Pat Metheny Group's Imaginary Day is very impressive album that takes this innovative band to an even higher level.
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