I’ve been waiting a year for this album. I saw the Stick Men play live last year in Manhattan (with the California Guitar Trio), and I loved the show so much I saw them again a few days later in New Jersey. They played with high energy, humor, and most importantly, Chapman sticks! Some of you might wonder what that is… Well I’ll get to it in a minute.
First of all, introductions: The Stick Men actually consists mostly of people who need no introductions to any self-respecting prog fan. The group is led by Mr. Tony Levin himself, the king of the bass, the leader of sidemen, the funk finger extraordinaire! Ok, sorry… Next up is Mr. Pat Mastelotto on drums! Again, should need no introduction. The third member is a bit of an enigma, but hopefully should not remain so for long. Mr. Michael Bernier joins Mr. Levin on the Chapman stick. That’s right, two Stick Men. Oh hey, look at that, Stick Men, how funny. With Pat’s drumsticks, that makes four sticks and three men. Anway, Mr. Bernier is a relatively unknown Chapman virtuoso who is so good he actually taught Tony a few techniques! After having seen them play live, it’s hard to tell which of the two is better, but I bet each of them would say the other is.
For those of you who don’t know, the Chapman stick is an electric string instrument played by tapping that’s somewhat similar to a Warr guitar (if you know what that is), and kind of sounds like a guitar, but I think it can hit the range of a bass. That was a terrible description, so just do yourself a favor and google it. Anyway let’s just say you haven’t lived till you’ve heard a Chapman stick rendition of King Crimson’s Red and Elephant Talk.
The album, Soup, is similar in sound to King Crimson, which is understandable considering parts of the lineup. There are bits of the Red era, but it mostly recalls THRAK, except for the fact that it’s mostly instrumental. It’s also a lot jazzier than either King Crimson era. Not that I can label it jazz, but it’s certainly some variation of that nebulous term we use called fusion.
The album has some flaws. I, for one, am not a fan of the vocals on most of the tracks that they appear on. Thankfully these tracks are few, and the majority is instrumental. The vocals are done by both Tony and Mike. For those of you who have listened to Tony’s last album, Stick Man, you will know what to expect. I don’t find Tony’s vocals unpleasant, I just find him to be a bad singer. What a strange thing to say. Anyway, I don’t find Mike to be quite as bad a singer. Either way the vocals don’t detract much.
Past readers should be aware of the fact that I generally don’t like ANY vocals, unless they’re from a select few that most people hate anyway (such as Peter Hammill).
Anyway, onto the track rundown.
1: Soup – Allow me to contradict myself and say that I actually enjoy the vocals on this track. The lyrics are very funny, preformed in a sort of mock rap style, and they’re about supercolliders. A very good question would be: why. Honestly, I don’t care, because it’s amusing and there’s always a place for humor in the world. Musically, the track isn’t quite as interesting as some later tracks, but it’s still pretty damn good. Tony shows off his trademark funk here, but perhaps a little more repetitive than usual. Still, the sound of two Chapman sticks pounding a funky beat with Pat’s solid drumbeat works really well. There’s also a crazy solo that goes on for a little bit in the middle. Not sure which of them did it, but it sounds like Mike’s “bowed stick” technique. (He plays the Chapman stick with a violin bow)
2: Hands (Parts 1-3) – Split into three parts on the album, reviewed as one, because it is a whole. This track is very complex and it drives all over the place at times. I really really love it, especially part one. Part two is slightly less interesting because it contains vocals. The lyrics are philosophical and interesting, but I still prefer the music. And yet, it returns after what is but a short interlude, so how can I complain? Part three is instrumental again, though there are a few spoken words. It’s also a bit darker and heavier than the first two parts.
3: Inside the Red Pyramid – This track is very spacey, this effect likely coming from the “bowed stick” technique I mentioned earlier. It sounds REALLY good along with the other stickist/Pat playing. Overall it’s much more rhythmic than Hands, so they form a nice contrast. Later in the track the spacey theme switches to a sound similar to a down-tuned guitar, but, of course, played on a stick. Probably one of my favorite tracks on the album.
4: Fugue – I don’t know much about music theory, but I do know that Michael Bernier released a solo album with a similar name. For this reason, I suspect it might be from there, despite the fact that I have never seen a tracklist. I assume the synthesizers in this track are done by Pat, because he’s the one who did it in the shows, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the track is very complex, but in general each stick takes a specific part and runs with it through the entire piece. One becomes the “lead guitar” sounds very much like one, playing a very rhythmic sort of music. The other (who I suspect to be Tony), takes the background and plays the “bass”, occasionally jumping in front for a quick “bass solo”.
5: Sasquatch – Similar to Part 1 of Hands, this track is all about the Stick interplay. It’s very complex, switches style a lot, and sounds great. Not much more to say. Along with Inside the Red Pyramid, this is another one of my favorite tracks.
6: Scarlet Wheel – Probably my least favorite track on the album. It’s the last one with vocals, and I don’t find them to be very pleasant. They’re actually Mike’s this time (at least I’m pretty sure they are). I don’t find his voice to be bad, I just find… I don’t know… a certain blandness. The music itself isn’t really that bad, I just don’t really find anything interesting about it.
7: The Firebird Suite – Yes, that’s right, a Chapman stick variation of The Firebird Suite. The idea for this probably came from Pat’s work with Trey Gunn, since the two of them did a version of it in their band TU. Either way, the track is incredible. It’s exactly what you would expect, unless you were expecting something that wasn’t incredible. There’s not much more for me to say about it besides “I really really like it”. It’s The Firebird Suite on the Chapman stick.
8: Relentless – Appropriately named, this track is drives forward with force. It’s a fast, heavy one. Not necessarily heavy like metal, but about as heavy as a Chapman stick can get. An excellent closer to an excellent album.
1: Soup – 5:44
2: Hands (Parts 1-3) – 8:40
3: Inside the Red Pyramid – 4:43
4: Fugue – 5:47
5: Sasquatch – 5:41
6: Scarlet Wheel – 5:19
7: The Firebird Suite – 13:17
8: Relentless – 5:55
* Michael Bernier – Chapman Stick and Vocals
* Tony Levin – Chapman Stick and Vocals
* Pat Mastelotto – Drums, “Traps and Buttons”, and Vocals