On this episode we connect the dots between Cardiacs, Robert Wyatt and Greg Lake. All paths lead through Annie Barbazza and her label Dark Companion Records. The commitment to audiophile recording values and the true open-mindedness of progressive music makes this artist and this record label, very much worth your time.
Tim Smith receives Doctorate from Royal Conservatory of Scotland: https://youtu.be/Zr9SZVHjFT0
Folly Bololey performed live: https://youtu.be/Tt18LIAGNys
Welcome back to the MPOMY Escape Pod podcast. My name is Michael Pomerantz and I am your host. A few bits of housekeeping first:
Since the last podcast there have been I think two additional videos posted on the YouTube channel. They are covers for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy and also Fleetwood Mac Gold Dust Woman. You can check those out by going to YouTube and searching for “mpomy escape pod.” While you are there, please leave a like and subscribe to the channel and tell your friends about it. Emily’s vocals are characteristically awesome and I’m doing more experimenting with producing so I’m anxious for you all to check it out.
That being said, it’s been a good long break here and we’re going to be getting the podcast back up to speed with probably a little more emphasis on music and a little less on video games, although my interest there hasn’t waned.
Also, I want to explore tech and procedures for home recordings and collaboration. I’m working on trying to do Ableton projects the same way I used to work on Google Docs, where people in different physical locations (different studios) can have full access to production on a project whenever they want. This has caused me to learn about “Splice,” which is a cloud based music collaboration platform that works with Ableton and a few other DAWs. I’m only just starting to experiment with that, and it’s supposed to be pretty much “set it and forget it,” all working in the background, but we will have to wait and see if that is actually the case. So, there will be more discussion of that and certainly more home music production, both with Emily and soon with others who are outside my quarantine bubble.
OK, let’s get to some music discussion. I want to share with you what I have learned about the artist Annie Barbazza and the label Dark Companion Records. Ms. Barbazza was born in Milan, is only 27 (can that be right?) and has already had a pretty amazing journey as both a musician and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a music business professional. As best I can tell, she is either THE boss or one of the bosses of the Italian music label Dark Companion Records. I haven’t looked at Italian corporate records, but I’d be willing to bet that she founded this label, which has already been around for a few years now. And did I mention she’s 27.
Her identity as a musician is much more obvious. Her Facebook page identifies her as “musician” and says nothing about the record company. Her wikipedia page notes that she is a drummer and singer. She has a few releases under her own name, including a couple acoustic covers records and now one album of originals, which was released late last year on Dark Companion. I haven’t spent enough time with the album, called “Vive” to have a lot to say, but I can say a lot about some other music that Ms Barbazza has contributed to, including the record that was my favorite release of 2019. Old news I know, but news I’ve wanted to talk about for quite a while. So let’s start 2019. My favorite record of that year.
The way all of this came onto my radar was when, in 2019, Barbazza’s Venn digram intersected with THE POND — that peculiar universe that grows out of music by and related to the band CARDIACS. Ahh, Cardiacs, I shouldn’t get started. Cardiacs is now a big deal for me, pretty much the biggest deal. And the music is so odd that I’m not sure how to broach the topic directly in the context of this podcast. Maybe this is where it begins — with just this side mention.
Here’s a short version — Cardiacs is a British rock band from the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s that came at punk and ska and rock and pop with a Zappa-like musical genius that inhabited the body of Tim Smith. He composed with such ecstatic joy and abandon that nothing like it has been heard before or since. Sadly, Smith was left paralyzed in 2008 when he suffered a heart attack that deprived his brain of oxygen. The community of musicians and music fans who had already formed a cult around Smith’s music drew together even more tightly as we prayed for Smith to somehow recover. Although he did not, there was a recent change in status whereby we, the fans, learned more about Tim’s condition, struggles and day-to-day life. Following this opening up, he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in 2018, which he accepted in person — the ceremony is available on YouTube and I will put a link in the comments. Countless loved ones were in attendance and it was a profound moment of recognition for this amazing, though not well-known musical revolutionary. In 2020 Tim finally succumbed to his condition. He was 59.
I never got to see him live, but once I started to understand his music, once I could make sense of this other-worldly talent, I realized no music was more important and more affecting to me than this. One could do a whole senior thesis on just one song by Tim and Cardiacs. It seems the majority of people who actually “like” Cardiacs music also feel as though there is no finer music. All or nothing. I fit into this category. Cardiacs is my most favoritest band. So we’ll put a pin in that for now and get back to Annie Barbazza.
A good place to start with this part of the story is with a musician who is, in some ways, the polar opposite of Tim Smith — talking about Gregory Stuart Lake, late of King Crimson and the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer — that Greg Lake. I suppose there are some commonalities. You can say of Lake and Smith that they are both Brits, although from different generations, but that they both possessed a significant degree of musical talent and were both well-loved by those with whom they worked. As to the style of the music? Well, that’s really where the divergence comes in.
In Lake you have an underachiever (sorry) who was very much in the right place at the right time, but always too overshadowed by his collaborators. His skills in lyrics and composition are significant, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the same success without the collaboration of such bona fide revolutionary geniuses as Kieth Emerson and Robert Fripp. That’s a conversation for another time, but perhaps in recognition of Lake’s good fortune, it seems that he took it upon himself to mentor and promote younger artists. This is how he got to know Annie Barbazza. No surprise that he would have some affinity for an aspiring Italian progger since Italy gave such tremendous support to early 70’s prog when many audiences still just wanted to hear the Blues.
So the story goes like this — Lake has decides in 2013 or thereabouts, that he was going to revisit some of his greatest songwriting, but in the most stripped down way possible. Just acoustic versions with guitar or piano, to highlight the song’s DNA. As the project is just starting to together, with arrangements being completed and the artist gathering a head of steam, tragedy strikes. Lake is stricken with the cancer that will eventually take his life. By all accounts he undergoes great hardship between 2014 and December 2016, but he never gives up on this project. While clearly not well enough to perform himself, Lake nominated one of his pupils to take the reins, explicitly instructing her to carry on his legacy. NO PRESSURE OR NOTHING.
That was, of course, Annie Barbazza and the album is entitled Moonchild, and, I have to say, it sounds quite a bit more intense when you know the backstory.
I don’t want to get too into my personal assessment of Greg Lake’s professional output. The fact that he is not one of my favorites takes nothing away from the extraordinary success he achieved as a musician and, I guess, as a mentor. I just never really think about the guy that much. And when I do, I think about how Fripp moved on from him in King Crimson, although, in fairness, Fripp moves on from everybody in King Crimson. I also think about the excess of ELP, which got out of control and started to take away from the musical output. As a super-group, ELP went on too long. Emerson in particular had the blessing of both Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. There is not a more potent combination of affirmation that any musician could ever ask for, but I don’t think Emerson could quite handle it. His creative juices dried up long before he took his own life in March 2016, just nine months before Greg Lake’s death.
So with that excess in mind, and the sort of slow and tragic decent of ELP, I can’t help but contrast the way-too-short musical career of Tim Smith. ELP came to produce music as a commodity, especially in the 80’s and beyond. That concept appears to be completely unknown to Tim Smith and his acolytes. Not just with Cardiacs, but throughout the artistic family tree (which is vast) there appears to be a complete aversion to doing what’s popular, fashionable, accessible, listenable. It’s not just rock in opposition. At times Cardiacs is downright combative and disturbing.
(TARRED AND FEATHERED?)
But fear not! For we have Annie Barbazza to bridge the gap. We fast forward to the years following Lake’s death, including the release of Moonchild on Lake’s label in 2018. In the meantime, Dark Companion becomes a haven for the aging British progger. Hey — you got a skill of being able to make it work with one of these old white dudes, why not try again? Who picked who, or how Dark Companion has gotten its roster of artists is unknown to me, but it is through that young label that I discovered John Greaves.
Greaves is a Welsh progger, a bass player that I didn’t know about. His CV is impressive, including Henry Cow and other acts that are part of the Cantebury prog scene in the 70’s. One guy that Greaves collaborated with back in the day was Robert Wyatt — now we’re getting somewhere. Wyatt I knew through my internship at the old record label Rykodisc back in the day. Ryko was reissuing Wyatt’s early work, but the naive me of the late 90’s was not able to digest Wyatt’s genius at the time.
I couldn’t detect any of the soaring synth work or heavy guitar melodies that was the hallmark for the particular flavor of prog I favored back then. Well, shame on me, because one of those records was something called ‘Rock Bottom.’ This 1974 release is pretty fantastic. Definitely proggy, but also intensely original and emotional. There is a sincerity that cuts through the pretentiousness of prog from that same era. Anyway, Rock Bottom must have had quite an effect on Barbazza and Greaves because they collaborated on this 2019 re-interpretation / appreciation of the Wyatt record. They called it Folly Bololey after lyrics that appear on the record and, in the interest of making a bigger sound that really emphasizes the original work’s compositional genius, they recruited the North Sea Radio Orchestra, which is a direct outgrowth of Cardiacs world. The NSRO is helmed by Craig Fortnam who is a Tim Smith disciple/collaborator/friend. Fortnam’s composing and arranging has the hallmark of gentle grandeur that lurks within much of Cardiacs’ flamboyant recordings. The charts he prepared as musical director for Folly Bololey transform the original, a modest masterpiece, into this powerhouse of art and energy that just sounded so good to my ears. I was absolutely knocked on my ASS. It doesn’t hurt that prominent Cardiacs alum and keyboard genius William D. Drake also appears on Folly Bololey as part of the NSRO.
So I went NUTS for Folly Bololey, and I still can’t stop listening to it! It’s been like two years. But, the even more important thing that came from listening to that record, more important than discovering the original and learning to appreciate that as well — all good, but the MOST important part was discovering Dark Companion records, which released Folly Bololey as an NSRO title. If you think of a boutique label as a curator of sorts, Dark Companion is offering a pretty special selection. Let me read from the manifesto:
“The aim of Dark Companion is to gather together musical excellences from the most various fields, from all the countries and release artifacts both records and cds, entirely handmade and individually numbered. From Songwriting to folk, from contemporary classics to real jazz, from experimental to classical music from both western and eastern cultures. We want The Dark Companion to represent the musical research The sound is everything. We do believe that “klang" is the centre, so we spend all our energy to ensure our records, both vinyl and cds, have the most vibrant, realistic, high-end sound quality possible. Nothing can match the energy and soul that moves a live gig. So some of our records are recorded live with no overdubs or tricks, but using the best microphones and technology in order to give the listener a real audiophile experience.”
If that doesn’t push your buttons a little bit, then I don’t know how big a fan of music you are. This ethos recalls a time gone by, when we thought about things like half-speed mastering, diamond needled turntables and the warm glow of tube amplifiers which cost as much as a new car. I remember buying records produced by Eno because I knew they had THAT sound. Like and OBJECTIVE assessment of quality.
And perhaps it is the power of suggestion, but after all this time, I do trust my ears to filter out the bullshit. So, even though I am streaming these recordings, they still have an extra sweetness and fidelity. And, if you think about it, they had better. This is the central claim of the label, so all the music geeks and audiophiles are on alert to be extra persnickety. But the Dark Companion stuff I have heard so far all passes this lofty test, even when streaming. Just think, the business model is to elevate expectations, which makes it harder to meet and exceed them. That’s some chutzpah, but the content is that strong.
You can hear it Folly Bololey and Barbazza’s recent solo record and on Paul Roland’s Lair of the White Worm.
So, I would say all of this merits your further attention. Check out Dark Companion records. Even though they want you to buy the vinyl, you can also get all the digital goodies on Bandcamp, which is just the best “website” ever. The extreme democratization of the music industry is so great when you know WHERE TO LOOK! New music is just a click away.
Also, for the Folly Bololey experience, with the petit orchestra jammed into what looks like someone’s living room, there is an extraordinary YouTube of the entire show, featuring all the known associates, including Barbazza, Greaves, Fortnam, Drake, Fred Frith and the whole NSRO which includes a young guy on vibes wearing a Tool t-shirt. Link is in the show notes.