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Class ?

Main Category: Avantgarde
Also applicable: Art Rock, Ambient
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a John Cale fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective John Cale fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1972
Overall rating = 9

A bit too bold a title for such a harmless version of avantgarde classical, I'd say.

Best song: KING HARRY

Track listing: 1) The Philosopher; 2) Brahms; 3) Legs Larry At Television Centre; 4) The Academy In Peril; 5) Intro; 6) Days Of Steam; 7) 3 Orchestral Pieces; 8) King Harry; 9) John Milton.

I didn't feel too good when I first put this on, I tell you. I've been told this was Cale's first serious attempt at "modern classical", and since normally "modern classical" is the genre most likely to make me start grumbling about the decay of them good ol' values and how the world would be a much better place without all these charlatans and pseudo-artists, I was prepared to get disgusted and end this review with something like "well, what could you expect from the mastermind behind 'Sister Ray'?"

But behold, I was pleasantly surprised. The Academy In Peril is not a chef-d'oeuvre, and rarely considered such even among the starkest Cale fans, but it's not at all unpleasant or ugly, and certainly does not accord with the stereotypic impression of modern classical as a bunch of discordant, dissonant noises. Actually, a few of these tracks aren't even "modern" classical - they're written according to quite traditional models; and as for the rest, well, they emphasize minimalism and ambience over chaos and dissonance, which is always fine by me. In 1972, "ambient" as a separate genre did not yet exist, but its prototypes were well developed in the works of John Cage and the like; thus, Academy In Peril is, in a way, a "mediator" between fully classical stuff and Eno-driven minimalism that actually had its origins in rock music. More than that - some of the compositions are, like, actually enjoyable.

I am primarily referring to the somewhat more dynamic stuff like 'The Philosopher', which takes a perfectly normal folksy guitar shuffle and then lays it over slices of slightly dissonant orchestration, isolated keyboard sequences and a bunch of production effects. In a way, it looks like a compromise: to a fan of "strict" modern classical, the unbreaking guitar pattern might seem at odds with everything else, i.e. he'd rather just listen to the orchestration and keyboards the way they are, with nothing like this silly toe-tappin' rhythm to distract him from the chaos. But in my mind's eye, it's exactly that contrast that makes the whole effort intriguing. Taken apart from each other, both the guitar rhythm and the orchestral dissonance are as generic as they come. Together, they can be treated as "weirdified blues" and "accessible chaos" at the same time.

Likewise, when Cale does deliver a track full of nothing but slightly dissonant string passages, without any evident rhythm base to it ('Legs Larry At Television Centre'), he makes it funnier by having some guy (I have no idea if it's really 'Legs Larry' - Legs Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band?) recite a set of TV commands over it. It's hardly a fantastic idea, and doesn't exactly guarantee the track a long life worthy of a sea turtle, but it does make the proceedings somewhat more amusing and intriguing. However, the only "real" vocals on the entire album come courtesy of 'King Harry' - a marimba-driven half-Eastern, half-Celtic drone with Cale whispering snippets of weird text that may or may not relate to King Henry VIII (or any other King Henry, for that matter; some descriptions of the album I've read say that Cale intended the whole thing to represent a surrealist picture of the history of England, but only two or three song titles on here seem to conform to that idea). As far as self-sufficient compositions go, it's probably the fullest realized track on the album, with some glorious trumpet brawl ending it on a high note.

Most of the rest are either orchestral (London Symphony Orchestra-backed, no less) or solo piano pieces that you can take or leave at your whim. I would certainly leave things like 'Brahms' (no relation to the actual Brahms, apart from, mayhaps, a quotation or two that I wouldn't recognize anyway) or the title track; this kind of piano minimalism, while not at all offensive to my ears, holds no particular purpose besides filling up space - give me the soothing, meditative sounds of Harold Budd over this any time of day. However, the eight-minute 'John Milton' that closes the album is a vast improvement, displaying a peculiar "dynamics-within-staticness" of its own. Its backbone is yet another minimalist piano 'melody', but this time it is propped up by quiet orchestral droning in the background, and the trick is to discern the subtle interaction between the two and pay attention to the unexpected "aggressivization" of the theme that happens from time to time, with the piano parts becoming 'sharper' and the orchestra engaging in swooping crescendos. Towards the end, the emphasis clearly shifts in favour of 'loud and bombastic', before the orchestra finally dies down once and for all and the piano melody descends in a fatalistic 'this is the end' series of low-key notes. Think Paul McCartney's 'Dear Friend' without the vocals or something like that.

The only piece of the album which seriously falls into the category of "generic modern classical" (the way it seems to the uneducated little me) is the lengthy trio of orchestral pieces in the middle. There, you'll find yourself the dissonance and chaos you could have been searching for if you were nothing like me - not a lot, but some. Me, I'd much rather take the cute one-minute 'Intro' of incessant piano waves (which, by the way, begs the question: how come, with all the benefits of modern technology, I don't hear piano loops instead of synth loops used in electronic dance arrangements? Imagine just how cool it would sound like!) and the immediately following 'Days Of Steam', a two-minute excursion into the world of instrumental art-pop, probably the only composition on the entire album I could recommend to the 'average Joe' if such a situation could ever arise theoretically.

Overall, well, I'm no prophet and I ain't no visionary, but I don't think The Academy In Peril could ever hope to truly put the academy in peril - it is much too unassuming to do that, and, frankly speaking, not all that groundbreaking. It's interesting that upon completing it, Cale moved back to the world of "experimental rock" rather than continued moving forward in this non-rock-oriented direction, and, although I have no idea of his real motives, it's quite possible that he just didn't see no future in this kind of approach. It's a bizarre record, but many bizarre records have a clear-cut musical vision behind them, whether it be Trout Mask Replica or something by the industrial pioneers of the early Eighties; Academy In Peril has no vision behind it, or, if it does, I'm not able to tell what it is and haven't seen anybody even try to explain what it is. Fun and harmless for one or two listens, but far from the stuff Cale could actually be remembered for. I mean, after all, there's more than just a matter of one letter that separates John Cale from John Cage, isn't there?



Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 12

This guy is actually normal! He's also attractive and diverse, trying out styles as if they were toothpaste brands...

Best song: GUN

Track listing: 1) Fear Is A Man's Best Friend; 2) Buffalo Ballet; 3) Barracuda; 4) Emily; 5) Ship Of Fools; 6) Gun; 7) The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy; 8) You Know More Than I Know; 9) Momamma Scuba.

By 1974 Cale all but abandoned the 'no-bull-experimental' approach to making music, especially after his early Seventies' modern classical efforts brought him next to no audience except for dedicated cult followers. Not that Fear was a bestseller, of course; but it's still one of John's most critically laudable albums, and for good reason. When I first bought it, I thought it would be something spooky beyond recognition. And my suspicions were all but groundless, considering it was my first acquaintance with John's solo career. Just put all the facts together: the most vicious experimentator in the rows of the Velvet Underground puts out a record called Fear on which he's pictured in black and white, no smile, hell, no expression at all. He also teams up with Eno (credited for 'Eno' on the album!! I mean, it says - 'guitars: Phil Manzanera, John Cale', etc., etc., 'Eno: Eno'), and comes up with song titles like 'Fear Is A Man's Best Friend', 'Gun', and, oh me my God, 'The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy'.

Now let me disappoint those who are looking forward to spend the evening accompanied by an audio analog of the creepiest horror flick in existence. All of these things are deceiving - this is a peaceful, quiet album, full to the brink with stripped-down arrangements, sad, melancholic piano/acoustic ballads, very moderate experimental tunes, and only a small ounce of true darkness and paranoia. Eno himself shows up only occasionally, particularly on 'Gun' (and probably 'Barracuda'), and his contributions, as always, are minimalistic and tremendously effective. And the tunes themselves are swell; their only flaw is that none are particularly memorable, as I suddenly figured out after the fourth 'airing' of the record. I understand critics who keep complaining about Cale's songwriting abilities never ranking up there with Lou Reed's: the instrumental melodies are mostly simplistic beyond hope (hell, 'Emily', the most beautiful ballad on the record, is based on, like, an endless repetition of four notes! Figures), and it's not the Beatles-style genial simplicity, too: Cale very rarely scales any epic or cathartic heights. This, however, does not mean that these are tunes you must listen to once or twice and dismiss as 'dated' or 'lightweight'. As we all know, Cale has a musical lingo of his own, somewhat similar to but also somewhat different from Lou Reed's, and Fear is an excellent example. Basically, John just grabs a bunch of musical genres and styles and throws them all together in a fascinating melting pot. Meaningless? Perhaps. Senseless? Probably. Hopelessly out of time? Definitely, but that's what makes the record so much more exciting today.

So what do we have here? 'Fear Is A Man's Best Friend' is vintage Cale, his own inimitable style based on a simple piano pattern with haunting psycho imagery strewn over it: 'Darkness warmer than a bedroom floor/Want someone to hold me close forever more/I'm a sleeping dog, but you can't tell/When I'm on the prowl you'd better run like hell', and the classic word of pessimism to end it all - 'Fear is a man's best friend/You add it up it brings you down'. I'm not exactly pleased by the way he howls out the refrain over and over again at the end of the tune when the music has already faded away, but that's a matter of taste and tolerance. But if this track can be said to represent Cale's true face (note - I'm not sure about that), then nothing else on the album does.

What can be said of 'Buffalo Ballet'? A country-western song of lament for the vast plains of America and the buffalos exterminated by choo-choo trains? (The melody is ripped off from Dylan's 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', but hey, you never heard me say that...) Is it Cale? The violas are probably Cale, but little else is; yet the tune is beautiful, peaceful and majestic, even if it never reaches the devastating effect of the 'original'. And what about the above-mentioned 'Emily'? The Velvet Underground? A powerful operatic ballad it is, slightly reminiscing of an underarranged Queen song (only better), with stately ocean noises in the background and beautiful, fully suitable female backing voices on the 'maybe we'll love again' chorus. Then again, somebody might probably compare it to Sinatra. I suppose I'll just cut out the comparisons, thank you very much... 'The Man Who Couldn't Afford To Orgy' turns out to be a jolly, somewhat hilarious 'pseudo-doo-wop' ditty with sexy female overdubs and a philosophical message - turns out that we're supposed to pity the actual fellow. 'You Know More Than I Know' is 'Emily Volume 2', but just as pretty - perfect mood music for those who can't tolerate ambient and who are too tasteful to be entertained by Phil Collins.

There are some rabble-rousing tracks on here, too: Cale does pay his dues to loudness and electronis psychopathy. Then again, it's not just Cale. On 'Momamma Scuba' it's Cale paying tribute to Morrison - truthfully, he sounds exactly like Jim, and the song's 'tribal' character only emphasizes the analogy. And 'Barracuda' is Cale paying tribute to good old España, peppered with Eno and spiced up with just a trifle dissonance. This is also the place where you'll finally encounter the main proof that this is a Cale recording - a nearly-atonal, feedbacky violin solo. But if you're still hungry after the Velvets, look forward to the album's centerpiece - the eight-minute 'Gun'. This is where Cale really rocks out, first time since he left the band in 1968. The tune might be, in fact, viewed as a logical successor to 'Sister Ray', except that it's shorter, more explicit (the lyrics are sung from the point of view of a, ahem, mutilated outlaw), and supposedly features Phil Manzanera on the crazyass guitar solos, so it has more chances to put you into a trance than 'Sister Ray' ever had.

In this way, Fear turns out to be just about the best introduction to Cale's solo work: diverse, entertaining and rich with musical and emotional content, even if short on catchy melodies. It also heralds a series of firsts - Cale's re-appearance as a credible, sincere rocker, for one, and maybe even more important - the beginning of his long-time association with Eno. The two geniuses of Bizarre Sonic Textures have finally met each other and they couldn't go wrong; over the next twenty years, they would often collaborate on each other's records.



Year Of Release: 1975
Overall rating = 10

Cale's glam/show-off-eeee peak. But there's too much ambition here, and too few original musical ideas for my taste.

Best song: MY MARIA

Track listing: 1) My Maria; 2) Helen Of Troy; 3) China Sea; 4) Engine; 5) Save Us; 6) Cable Hogue; 7) I Keep A Close Watch; 8) Pablo Picasso; 9) Coral Moon; 10) Baby What You Want Me To Do; 11) Sudden Death; 12) Leaving It Up To You.

This record put Cale on the border of the crevasse: one more step, and it took him six years to get out of the mess he was in. The fact that he's pictured in a strait jacket on the cover is no small coincidence - I don't exactly have any information on whether he was really suffering from serious drugs or mental illness at the time, but he might as well have been; during one of the shows that were supposed to promote his record, he incidentally (maybe not) decapitated a live chicken on stage, thus on one hand predicting the future debacles of Ozzy Osbourne and on the other hand sending his own career all topsy-turvy. He was deserted by his own backing band and eventually retired to quiet producer work, not to record another studio album until the Eighties.

More important, Helen Of Troy really captures John on a downwards slide. After the weird mood panorama on Fear and the glam showman posturings on Slow Dazzle (which I don't have, but have read about), he continues in the same vein. Helen is a loud, dazzling album, with lots of screeching and growling guitars, grizzly Enotronics, and plenty of Cale's paranoid, all-encompassing vocals. The problem is that the record is far less substantial than Fear: beneath all the glam and the atmospherics, there are very few interesting melodies. And even worse, this time around John isn't really able to get away with it relying on the atmospherics alone. Because the atmosphere of this album is generic: there is very little interesting experimentation, and many of the songs have a fake and artificial feel to them. Basically, what I don't like is the fact that I really don't know what to do with the album and how I should justify its existence. No memorable melodies, no visible innovation, and fake, trumped up emotionality a la early Seventies' David Bowie - isn't this the typical formula for a crappy glam album?

It is, and therefore, Helen Of Troy can in no way qualify as one of Cale's better products. That said, I still give it a ten because most of the songs are at least vaguely interesting; after all, Cale is such an incredibly talented and unpredictable fellow that even the worst of his records are always enough to at least stir a slight sparkle of interest. And I also like to think of this album as a record that closes up an epoch. Funny coincidence, but the same month Eno released his Another Green World; doesn't that suggest some epoch-defining ideas? Figure it out if you have some free time.

Two of the songs are covers - and, while Cale's version of Jimmy Reed's classic 'Baby What You Want Me To Do' is overlong, clumsy, badly arranged and in brief, just butchers all the charm of the original, I couldn't say the same of 'Pablo Picasso'. Yeah, you probably know that one. A Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song, isn't it? The funny thing is that, while Richman recorded the song as early as 1973, the album on which it was recorded was never released until three years later, and that means that the notorious line 'Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not like you' was first heard by the general public from the reverend mouth of Mr Cale, not Mr Richman. By the way, Cale does the song perfect justice, solidifying the melody with several overdubbed guitars and croaking out the vocals with absolute conviction - what a blessing for the upcoming 'punk revolution'.

And now, what about the originals? Hit and miss. The more powerful, arena-rock standards are actually decent, with at least one half-great number opening the record: the blatantly anti-religious and anti-war 'My Maria'. Cale sings so pathetically and the angelic backing vocals are so beautiful, while the grumbling, distorted riffs underpinning the song are so strong and stylistically so out of place, that it's enough to make a lasting impression. Likewise, 'Save Us' is scary and disturbing, a dark apocalyptic prayer with spooky organs and nervous, dissonant percussion rhythms (by the way, Phil Collins plays drums on some of the tracks). And the orchestrated arrangement of 'I Keep A Close Watch' is also majestic and stately... except for the fact that it very closely reminds me of some Ringo Starr tune I can't exactly remember. Which is not that surprising: stylistically, the song is a power pop piece with strong elements of what later would be deemed as 'adult contemporary'. Go figure.

Everything else is either okay, distinguished by just one or two worthy factors, or completely forgettable - even if nothing is exactly bad. The title track is only saved from its self-parodic posturings by funny synth-horns and Eno's weird airplane noises and whatchamacallit; 'Coral Moon' has a superb funky bassline; 'Sudden Death', true to its name, takes you at unawares with its unexpected viciousness after the more or less steady and inoffensive flow of the record; and 'Leaving It Up To You', a track with provocative lyrics that was originally banned from the album in the States and replaced by 'Coral Moon' (as you can see, both are now present on the record), is only redeemed by the lyrics themselves and Cale's hysteria, maybe the only genuine piece of F-E-E-L-I-N-G on the album.

The other tracks just pass by kinda unnoticed, and I'm not in the mood to discuss them now. Buy the album, you motherfuckers. (:)(:) And remember, never do an extravagant album that turns out to be devoid of ideas. It all comes back to people in the end. This is a perfect example of a talented artist overabusing modern trends: he still has enough forces and talent to make the album not sound completely boring, but he's not strong enough to break the circle, either. Bummer.


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