Album Review: Stick Men – Owari

Stick Men

photo courtesy of Moonjune Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Stick Men: Owari (Moonjune Records)

The credentials of the members of Stick Men are a jaw-dropping resume of epic musical proportions. The collective of bassist/Chapman Stick player and vocalist Tony Levin, drummer/percussionist Pat Mastelotto, guitarist Markus Reuter and guest keyboardist Gary Husband is a creative force to be reckoned with. Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Mister Mister, The Rembrandts, Jack Bruce, Paul Simon, John Lennon, John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth, among others, have all benefited from the contributions of key members in this ensemble.

This album was recorded live in Nagoya, Japan at the Blue Note Club on February 28th, 2020. At this time, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic was emerging throughout Asia, and the band soon realized their sold out tour was about to come to a grinding halt. But, as they say, the show must go on, and they fulfilled their last date on the abbreviated tour, with this stellar document before a modest crowd.

“Hajime (Peace)” opens the album with some taped spoken word by Deborah Carter Mastelotto reciting frequent King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield’s poem “Peace.” It’s kind of an overture or ambient piece featuring feedback guitars, odd sounds, and orchestral washes.

“Hide the Trees” slowly builds into some wild intrepid guitar passages that blend with softer melodic lines and odd time signatures. Dense and complex soundscapes underpin heavily syncopated rhythms and Gary Husband’s keyboards.

Stick Men - Owari album cover

image courtesy of Moonjune Records

A constant pedal figure by Tony Levin anchors the controlled chaos and interwoven melodies of “Cusp.” Various themes waft indiscriminately through the dense musical blend, with effective drum accents by Pat Mastelotto.

The King Crimson classic “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part II)” is an interesting transition, with its ever changing rhythm structures and key modulations. The song gradually builds in sonic power and emotion. There is a raw metallic energy that is offset by Husband’s jazzy dissonance on piano.

The cleverly titled “Schattenhaft” maintains a strong funky groove. It’s kind of an improvisational free-for-all, with a real sense of urgency typified again by intriguing keyboard comps from Husband.

“Crack in the Sky” changes the mood slightly where Levin recites vocals with poetic élan. It’s a dreamy, cinematic track that also puts the spotlight on Markus Reuter’s virtuoso legato guitar lines.

The title track “Owari” translates to “The End” in Japanese. And, in many ways, it signifies the state of being the band was in when faced with having to cancel the rest of their tour. It’s kind of a spacey, open-ended piece that musically bridges the gap between dreams and nightmares.

“Prog Noir” in effect translates to “dark prog.” And that’s exactly what this is. It’s a lurking behemoth-like monster of a tune, with its ominous vibe and feel. Levin’s smooth lead vocals and odd phrasing give this an otherworldly quality.

“Swimming in T” offers more experimentation and a swirling collage of sound and vision. “Level 5” is reminiscent of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s asymmetrical rhythms and rocky sound. It’s a real showcase for all the improvisational strengths of the band.

The bonus track, appropriately titled, “The End of The Tour” is one huge soundscape that builds to a monumental crescendo. Husband steps out prominently on piano and synthesizer and rises above the ensemble’s well constructed tension.

For a live album, the engineering by Robert Frazza is amazing. It’s so quiet and clean as if it was recorded in a studio. You don’t hear any audience chatter or noise. I don’t know if that says something about the politeness of Japanese audiences or it’s more about the editing skills of Frazza, but it sounds phenomenal. Highly recommended!

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