|Virtue in Futility
Louisville is as unlikely a place for progressive rock as any, yet that's where bassist Mike Sary's French TV hail from. It has been ten years since their debut album, yet Virtue In Futility (an apt title) is only their third. Seven years on from the last one and not much has changed, French TV still remain a collection of influences from all over the map - Yes, Genesis, Zappa, Brand X, Gong, the Canterbury bands and many more. You'll hear a little bit of everything on this one.
As a whole, all these disparate influences seem sort of hodge-podge. At times the music is breathtaking and splendid, at others it's stodgy and boring. A fusion track here, melodic "prog rock" here and wait a second - Reagan? Ollie North? Certainly, Sary does not shy away from political controversy. The music underneath the samples does nothing to save it either, a sequenced background with occasional gated sounding orchestral explosions.
I think trimming off about 20 minutes from this would have made the overall effect much more impressive, there really is some good music here, yet with all the filler it leaves me sort of in the middle. Seven years was far too much time for musicians with the talent of Sary's group to make an album like this. History, of course, has proven that this band went on to much better, almost awe-inspiring releases.
(Originally published in Exposť #5, p. 22, Edited for Gnosis 8/24/02)
|The Case Against Art
It took a few listens for me to realize that French TV's latest release titled The Case Against Art is actually BETTER than their previous release. I have been so impressed by their last one for so long, I hardly thought it possible for them to improve upon it. Will wonders never cease?
The creative force behind French TV is Mike Sary. For 20 years or more, Sary has been the one constant member in an ever-changing line-up of great musicians. Rolling with the punches through the years, Sary has always come out on top in his never ending quest to surround himself with the very finest musicians available, and The Case Against Art is no exception to this. Sary's fellow Louisvillian and drummer extraordinaire Chris Vincent along with San Diego-based multi-instrumentalist Warren Dale are the only people that accompany Sary on all five of the albums tracks. An incredible line-up of musicians join these three on various songs, including original Happy The Man frontman Cliff Fortney, world-class acoustic guitarist Shawn Persinger, Louisville KY legends like Kirk Davis and Greg Acker, and a host of other highly talented individuals.
"That Thing On The Wall" is the first cut on French TV's new album, and it eases into the frenzy with an initial few seconds of deliciousness that evokes memories of Pierre Moerlen. Take a deep breath at this point because in true FTV fashion the music suddenly changes, this time into an all out assault on your senses. You can go ahead and acclimate yourselves to this phenomenon as well, because there's plenty more to come. This piece changes direction more often than a housefly on amphetamines, and not only will it blister your eardrums, it just as easily leads you into the very choicest of blues segments, dreamy ethereal moments, contemplative interludes, and suspenseful, dramatic crescendos.
The second track is titled "Viable Tissue Matter", and like the previous song, compositional credits are given to Sary, Zigoris, Vincent, and Dale. It opens in utter space, and takes us gently into a beautiful interplay between Greg Acker on flute and Dean Zigoris on guitar. As Sary and Vincent masterfully set the pace, Dale mesmerizes you with his unique and subtle keyboard styling. After an uplifting jam into a beautifully timid climax, the band changes direction yet again into a then subdued, then not, frenzied "monsterpiece" that one would be quite sure could ONLY have come from a well-schooled Zeuhl ensemble. Now we roll into Zigoris weaving his magic on the six-string, as Sary and Vincent franticly send you into "prog rocking heaven." Never satisfied with keeping to one course, the tune graciously takes one through a plethora of changes as it gradually revisits the opening theme.
Cliff Fortney's composition "Partly The State", previously released on the Happy The Man album Beginnings, is (for the fan of great progressive music) simply to die for. Featuring the talents of Mr. Fortney himself, as well as legendary ex-Boud Deun axe man Shawn Persinger, this song realizes its full potential under the guiding hand of Mike Sary, who teams with Howie Gano on a stunning mix that truly spotlights the musicianship of not only Fortney, but all of the ensemble. This particular recording may well be the crowning moment of an overall brilliant album.
"One Humiliating Incident After Another" is the fourth cut on FTV #7. Somewhat whimsical at times (another trademark of the French TV sound), this track again reminds us not to get too comfortable with one musical style or direction. Again our senses are shredded as this song rolls us all over the map, never quite allowing us to rest long enough to catch our breath. This is some of the most tasty classic progressive jazz-rock fusion that I've ever heard, but not to stop at just that (as if that weren't enough), we continue to be vaulted through a maze of European progressive influences that one can't quite pin down to anyone for long, as these influences have combined to create something new and fresh.
Our final listen is with the last track of the CD titled "Under The Big W." This song features layer upon layer of rich and vibrant melodies, again visiting with the whimsical playfulness of French TV, then again visiting with the savage and torturous nature of the darker artist within, to carry us into so many emotions simultaneously that only the most adventurous of ears can grasp all of the forces at work here. With obvious classical influences here as well, this track in yet another lesson in compositional techniques from French TV.
Someone once asked me if French TV was a fusion band. My reply was:
"Yes, you name the style, and at some point Mike Sary has probably fused
it into one of his tunes." French TV #7 The Case Against Art is but
another fine example of this principle, in a series of such examples
that has continued for the last twenty years. If the previous six
albums weren't enough, surely this release gives the band their cue to
proudly take their place among the masters of progressive musicians.
|Virtue in Futility
French TV hails from Louisville, KY and has a handful of releases to their name since their inception in the early/mid-'80s. Led by bassist Mike Sary, they play an aggressive, complex, and somewhat eclectic type of prog which incorporates elements from a variety of styles including symphonic, fusion, and RIO. The seven tracks on Virtue in Futility cover a lot of musical ground, shifting constantly from one feel or style to another, and showcasing the considerable talent and versatility of the group.
Listening to this for the first time, one could easily mistake it for a new Japanese release; it has the same spirit, drive, and attitude as bands like Il Berlione, Ain Soph, and Kenso. There is some great interplay between the guitar, keyboards, and saxophone, all supported by active, powerful bass lines and solid, often busy drumming. The music is full of abrupt time changes and driving riffs which provide a launching pad for some fiery guitar and sax solos. These in turn fade into mellower, more melodic passages, featuring some nice trumpet solos and other guest appearances. There are a few less than spectacular spots on the CD; one track consists of a collage of excerpts from the Iran-Contra hearings mixed with some sound effects and drums, and while it is good for a few listens, it rather quickly becomes one of those tracks you skip over once you get to it. Another track has a main theme which sounds like it was taken right off of Jethro Tull's Warchild album.
The quality of the rest of the music on this CD goes a long way to make up for these blemishes; I just wish there was another track or two of the good stuff. Out of the 55 minutes of music on this disc, roughly 35 minutes are top-notch prog. The whole package is wrapped up by Sary in a delightfully humorous way, featuring entertaining liner notes and song titles like "Hey! Real Executives Jump From The 50th Floor." In all, Virtue in Futility contains some of the better instrumental prog of 1994, and is well worth checking out.
(Originally published in Expose #5, p. 22, Edited for Gnosis 8/11/02)
|The Violence of Amateurs
Wow. Really, wow. This album has been a joy to listen to ever since I first put it in my CD player. For the uninitiated, French TV plays a hybrid of Canterbury, RIO, Fusion, and Insanity, not to mention random little snippets of other styles. All this is packaged together into a whole that at times can be zany, and at others beautiful. All the compositions here are very strong, and along with the superb musicianship, the band create's something that is challenging, yet instantly appealing. What I find most engaging is the playfulness that runs through most of the album, but the band is still able to retain a dark and foreboding feeling in parts. An excellent balance. Bassist Mike Sary and Guitarist Dean Zigoris form the core of this outing, with many guests on drums, keyboards, various wind instruments, and even banjo.
Evidence of the wackiness of the band, the first track "The Kokonino Stomp" opens with a burst of horns that sounds much like something from a big band, leading into some zany, yet complex passages and even a banjo solo! If nothing else, this song is just fun. "The Secret Life of Walter Riddle" has a real groove to it and is brimming with searing guitar solos and short sax lines punching into the melee. This leads us to my favorite piece on the album, "The Odessa Steps Sequence"; slow building, dark and brooding, epic and cinematic. Filled with great themes, great rhythms that leave an excellent foundation for guitar and keyboard runs and even a beautiful flute solo. What more could you want? The next two tracks take a more lighthearted approach, with a nice eastern vibe in "Mail Order Quarks". This leads into the monster cover of Zamla Mammaz Manna's "Joosan Lost / The Fate", a wonderful juxtaposition of symphonic melodies and all out improv noise with a lullaby like intro.
The Violence of Amateurs has been a staple of my listening habits
since its arrival. The wonderful, of-the-wall humor of Sary and co. shines
through in the playful, yet difficult music being played. This is something
that should easily appeal to fans of canterbury, fusion or even the more
open minded symph fan, and it comes with my highest recommendation.
An unlikely name for a collective of progressive musicians from Louisville, Kentucky, French TV is essentially bassist/bandleader Mike Sary, and whoever he happens to be working with at any given point in time. From one album to the next, the high turnover rate in the lineup may at first lead one to believe that French TV is more of a solo project - yet considering the time elapsed between recording of the band's four releases (nearly eight years in some cases), these are only snapshots of what has been a gradual change. The roots of the band date back to the early eighties, when Sary and co-founder Steve Roberts were members of another local band called Festung Amerika. When Festung called it a day, Sary and Roberts split off to concentrate on writing, and eventually forming their own band with two younger members, guitarist Artie Bratton and drummer Fenner Castner. "Originally I was the drummer for French TV", Roberts explains, "just as I was the drummer for Festung America. We auditioned keyboard player after keyboard player, and although some of them were technically very good, they all sucked as composers! One day we auditioned a guitarist who fancied himself the next George Benson. He was very good but wanted to do soft jazz covers all the time! His name was Bo Castner. His little brother came along one night and played the shit out of my drums! I thought right then that we had to change our thinking, and I went out and bought a Roland keyboard and became the keyboard player in the group. Then Fenner brought his friend Artie along one night to jam on guitar and there was never any question about it, at the end of the first session we all just kinda said "when do we get together next?". We all just started treating Artie as our guitarist from the minute he started playing." Immediately they went to work on producing their first, eponymous LP, skipping the normal route of playing live and developing a following. That first album was released in early '83, in a pressing of 500 copies, produced by the band and distributed locally and via mail order. The disc was finally reissued on CD in early 2001. Stylistically, French TV covers a lot of territory, from an electrified instrumental Canterbury sound to fusion to free improvisation and more. The youthful energy of Bratton and Castner (from the photo on the album insert neither of these guys could be a day over 16) plays off the refined chops of Roberts and Sary, and the results are a unique blend of diverse influences - original and challenging enough to remain interesting after many listens, but accessible enough in some cases to follow the listener around all day. Two cases of the latter point are "Dream of Peace" and "The Artist's House" - both penned by Roberts, they are catchy and melodic, and offer a refuge from some of the albums more abstract and challenging material. Speaking of which, "No Charge" is a lengthy free improv that wanders around a lot, but seldom gets off the ground for long. "Under Heaven There is Great Disorder," penned by Sary, brings guest saxes into the band's mix. The album's gem, though, has to be "Earth, I Wait", a positively bizarre tune, sort of a quirky Spanish-meets-reggae number that sputters along with a few odd missing beats, graced by a splendid guest cello solo to boot. This would be Roberts' last recording with the band, though, citing business and family commitments as the main reason for leaving. Roberts explains: "The original lineup got together in the summer of '82, and in true prog style, disbanded about one year later." Sary would continue to direct the band, writing all the material for their second album while remaining one of Louisville's best kept secrets - in fact, the band never played a regular live gig until after their second album. During this period the band usually consisted of Sary, Bratton, and Castner, though the latter was away at college much of the time, and a variety of other players who came and went, some who were featured on the second and third albums, and others who were part of various live incarnations - among them Bill Fowler (piano), Clancy Dixon (saxes, clarinet), Bruce Krohmer (saxes, bass clarinet), Paul Nevitt (keyboards), Mike Buren (guitar), and Ondraus Cissell (drums, percussion). Three years after the first album, the appropriately titled and much anticipated After A Lengthy Silence was finally released, with Sary firmly at the helm. While the first album demonstrated the band's abilities in many areas, the second was far more focused and monolithic. The jazzy and RIO-ish tendencies of the first album, while not absent here, are subdued somewhat, as is the overtly melodic. Instead, the music yields more to a directed jazz-rock style that is heavier and darker than previous explorations. On several of the tracks, but most noticeably on "Friendly Enzymes," Sary's bass playing takes on a zeuhl quality not unlike that of Jannick Top. I suspect that Helmut Hattler (Kraan) might also be an influence, given the freewheeling funkiness that permeates "You Fool! You Broke The Yolks!" The nine minute "Vacilando" is another group improv, this one being far more consistent than the similar offering on the first album. While the oddly-timed "And The Dead Dog Leaped Up and Flew Around The Room" may at first hint of "Earth, I Wait" from the first album, it owes at least as much to Frank Zappa's synclavier work, and to the keyboard atmospherics of Happy The Man. Topped off with Browning's 'Angry Hornets' guitar solo, it comes close to being the album's best track. But that honor belongs to "Go Like This," which occupies the better part of the album's second side, working through many mood shifts and tempo changes, with plenty of energetic solos and dreamy passages, offering some evidence of Van Der Graaf's influence. In all, it's a very different album than the first, but still unmistakably French TV. Work on the third album began almost immediately after the second was finished, and continued through 1990, yet it wasn't released in a commercially available form until its CD release in '94. The lineup involves many of the same names that appeared on the second album - Sary, Castner, Bratton, Nevitt, Krohmer - plus some new names as well, offering some insight to the band's ongoing evolution. The music on Virtue in Futility blends elements of symphonic, fusion, RIO, Canterbury, and other styles, as well as Sary's sense of humor and left-of-center political leanings. Again, some reference points here might be Zappa, Hatfield, Bruford, Happy The Man, and Henry Cow, though the zeuhl tendencies so evident on the second are not so apparent here. Then the came the real lengthy silence. Between the last recordings for the third album the release of the fourth in 1995, the band experienced a near complete turnover in lineup, save Sary himself. Members were constantly coming and going. Sary notes "At several points there were actually two bands - one doing the studio work, and another playing live gigs." Even Roberts rejoined the band a few times for some live shows. "The best line-up was the 'power trio' version with myself, Dean Z, and Jeff Mullen" explains Sary. "We played a killer version of 'Red', which inspired drunken women to dance! Really, Steve has it on video!" Brattan, who had never played with the live band, moved away and was replaced eventually by Tony Hall, while Castner, away at the university most of the year, was only able to play in the band a few months in the summer. Eventually he moved away also, and new permanent members were recruited. French TV was now Sary (bass, Chapman stick), John Robinson (keys), Dean Zigoris (guitars), and Bob Douglas (drums, vocals). Wait a minute....vocals? Yes, after three albums of purely instrumental music, the latest album Intestinal Fortitude features six long tracks, three of which feature vocals - either by Douglas, or Tony Hall, who played guitar on the album and contributed two songs. Are the vocals part of an effort to appeal to a wider audience? Douglas' Peter Hammill styled voice on "No Raven Tonight" is hardly one that would have any mass commercial appeal, but Sary explains that the only reason French TV never used vocals on past recordings was because there was nobody in the band who had a voice that was remotely tolerable. Again, the album features numerous guests on sax, flute, violin, and trumpet. Overall, the album is split 50/50 between the sort of Canterbury/fusion/RIO influenced material typically featured on FTV albums past. Tracks like "Um Tut Sut" and "The Souls of the Damned Live in Failed Works" are mostly contributed by Sary, and the more direct progressive rock style of tracks like "Perseids" and "Black Day, White Light" are contributed by guitarist Hall. Closing the album is a haunting cover of Van Der Graaf's "Pioneers Over C," featuring vocals by Douglas. This cut also appears on the Mellow Records VDGG tribute Eyewitness. In all, a good release that shows a band not afraid to move in some different directions. French TV's next release would come two years later with the live album Yoo Hoo!!!, which also coincided with festival appearances and a brief nationwide tour. The disc captures the four-piece lineup of Sary, Zigoris, Douglas, and Robinson at their most powerful and cohesive, offering a sure-footed authority over their material, and having a hell of a good time in the process. In his review in Exposť 14, Jeff Melton desribes the album this way, "... a real American anachronism: a complex unit (with their unique brand of improvisation) based in the heart of country music land: Louisville. Live they play their own refined style, which isn't much like anybody (except for possibly Gentle Giant circa Acquiring the Taste), and that's great mind you! Plus, they do it LIVE and that's the key conditional word to consider. The album cover says it all: a rabble of pigs running break neck from a movie premiere! What on earth did they encounter, you might ask? French TV don't take themselves too seriously, in fact quite the opposite; flamboyant self parody is the modus operandi of the band. They would like you to listen to their serious work with a grain of salt. If you thought these guys were just a studio band, you couldn't be further from the truth. Not bad for a bunch of self-anointed Smurfs, so track this down. It's worth your hard earned dollar and appreciates on replay." Indeed the sense of fun at work in this set is hard to resist. Now any new French TV album is always a load of fun and great playing, but with 1999's The Violence of Amateurs, the band took a big step forward, both in the composition department and in the quality of production overall. The band here seems to have found a space somewhere between a progressive rock groove and the Hatfield/NH style Canterbury sound, with strong Zappa-like influences. A fairly consistent band membership over several albums now, with the core of Sary, Zigoris, Robinson, and Douglas, contributes to the cohesive whole, with other members contributing on several tunes. They are also joined on three of the album's six tunes by Volare drummer Brian Donohoe. An excellent take of Volare's "Odessa Steps Sequence" is one of the disc's high points. "The Secret Life of Walter Riddle" (with its hilarious marching intro and strong surfbeat inclinations) and the quirky twelve minute opus "Tiger Tea" are high points also. The ten minute "Mail Order Quarks" is a very polished jazz oriented tune that features guest violin and voices. Closing the album is a cover of an obscure Samla Mammas Manna tune, 20 minutes in fact, giving another peek into FTV's wide range of influences. But where are those funny song titles this time, Mike? Okay, the funny booklet cover art makes up for it. At any rate, this is FTV's best studio effort to date. Recommended. [The bulk of this article originally appeared in Exposť 9 (p. 30-31; 1995), the review of Violence is excerpted from the writer's review in Exposť 19 (p. 54; 2000)]
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