“A Rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Riley
The avant guard underground of the 60’s was alive with the progress of the unknown, the uncertain and the Cage-ian ideas of chance, non-music, improvisation, the bleeps of electronics and the whir of excitement coming out of the minimalist composers focusing on simple, repetitive mantras: the Phillip Glass, the LaMonte Youngs and the Terry Riley’s.
For the most part, the music these composers made was fascinating in theory, incredibly groundbreaking in sound and style while being very boring and/or difficult to listen to in practice.
Yes, there was perhaps a limited application of the endless “drones” and “under tones” and “over tones” and “mantra, drone state of minds” preached by Young.
Glass was a bit more conceivably enjoyable as his style was later co-opted by some rock bands, such as Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno as he himself simplified his approach to create minimalistic operas and soundtracks that diluted his approach for a more mainstream audience.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty big deal for somebody like Glass to “make the mainstream” such as he did (in a limited fashion) but there’s one composer who I think made an even bigger impact on the burgeoning rock/pop/soundtrack scene and who did so with one simple, easy to digest 40 minute album.
Of course, I’m talking about Terry Riley and his album “A Rainbow in Curved Air.”
I realize that it would have been easy for me to make a fairly lame joke there, such as “Of course, I’m talking about the eternal Axl Rose and his beloved masterpiece ‘Chinese Democracy’” but I’m not in the mood for such shenanigans and frankly am getting rather bored of such tired set ups.
I just want you the reader to know I could have made the joke. But didn’t. You’re welcome.
Anyways, Riley’s album was probably THE break through avant guard pop album of its time. David Crosby worshiped it and played it endlessly. Pete Townshend named “Baba O’Riley” partially in honor of him. Curved Air took their name from the album.
Hell, even Ritchie Blackmore and Dio got into the act!
Okay, so “Rainbow” is not named after this album. Sue me.
Why did this album take off in such a (minor) way? Probably because it’s completely listenable, light hearted and even fun while also maintaining a strict experimental edge. Riley is pushing the envelope and attempting to change the musical world but doing so in a way that many more people can enjoy.
He does all this while maintaining strict allegiance to the idea of chance music and “found” sounds. It makes the album a fascinating listen from beginning to end and it sounds ahead of its time even now.
Naturally, it consists of two side long tracks, the first of which is the title track. The basic approach of this track can be summed up by…well, you know how Townshend named “Baba O’Riley” after this track?
Think of the first minute or so of that song with the repeating synthesizer figure. But a lot more complex.
A basic riff enters into the scene that holds down the fort for Riley’s improvisation, the first of which is perhaps the most memorable: the ascending sequence of notes that turns into a radar “call and response” tone that increases in speed to a fever pitch.
Every instrument on the album is played by Riley painstakingly overdubbing and it creates a fascinatingly dense layer of sound that never becomes over powering. Instead, the synths and organs pulse in repetitive but ever changing ways.
And no dissonance: he isn’t blasting out ugly noises or barraging the listener with untenable noise: it’s all listenable and if you threw a drum beat under it, even danceable.
The one complaint I feel you could lodge (fairly) at the track is that it can become rather tiresome by the end. It feels like Riley has run out of completely amazing ideas by the last…three or four minutes of the track. By then, however, one should totally be in the “trance” state of mind described by LaMonte Young and it won’t matter.
The second track, “Poppy No Good and the Phantom Band” isn’t quite as good because it’s nowhere near as dynamic. It’s more of a “drone” piece with Riley overdubbing a lot of saxophones on top of his sustained keyboards.
However, Riley is a competent and at times even great saxophone player so it isn’t worthless. Sometimes he plays some interesting repeated saxophone riffs that are overlaid with intriguing keyboard parts. That doesn’t stop this track from being a bit of a harder sell when compared to the first.
In spite of the relatively difficult sound of the second track (which does at times approach dissonance) it’s still a solid achievement that brings a little diversity and a slower pace to the album.
What I find so fascinating about this album is how often it’s been copied by other artists in not just the sound but in the structure. How many two track Tangerine Dream albums are there on the market? How many of them start out with a faster, dynamic piece and then slow down for a more drone based tone poem?
For that matter, how many Ash Ra Tempel albums follow that same format? How many ambient albums?
Of course, repeating synthesizer figures weren’t exactly invented by Riley or even perfected by him. Although I generally find the album to be pretty timeless, it can feel a bit “thin” by today’s electronic music standards, even with all of Riley’s mad overdubbing.
But it’s still a groundbreaking, endlessly listenable and heavily enjoyable album. Find it, if you can.
Songs to Youtube:
“A Rainbow In Curved Air” should tell you all you need to know.
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