Willie Reviews “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s “Out of the Blue”

Willie Reviews “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s “Out of the Blue”

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“Buzz fades, but quality doesn’t” is an opinion we hold paramount here at RPM. After all, what’s hot today is cold tomorrow, but what’s great is great--be it 1978 or 2019. So when record label Unseen Worlds re-released “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s ’70s avant-garde pop masterpiece, we had our expert on all things esoteric--the incomparable Willie McDonagh--show you how he’s keen on Blue Gene. Take it away, Willie:

 

After 40 years, keyboardist “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s 1978 album Out of the Blue remains a riddle difficult to parse in its totality, and one that’s only become more cryptic with time. Unseen Worlds just released a 40th anniversary remaster and it’s set to be reissued on vinyl at the end of May. Made up of just four tracks, not one of them resembles any other in musical styling. The album’s talking points include “Is it jazz? Is it pop?” and “Just what is this?” With that in mind, it’s a real joy to dive into a collection of music that’s so intentionally evasive. After a few listens, I found its themes to be surprisingly consistent and its production always unfamiliar. It ends up making sense for this record to exhaust all its musical influences in one go.

The first track, “Next Time Might Be Your Time,” introduces the eclectic band in all its quirks, all the while announcing the Gene’s spot-on pop sensibilities. A double-tracked clean guitar riff is the highlight in the mix, which also includes flute, a harpsichord-y synthesizer, clinking drums, and a dirty, dirty saxophone. It’s a mix between a jazz fusion ensemble, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and the backing band in Godspell. Progressive rock and jazz techniques get all mixed up with show tunes bits, and it makes a kind of unpredictable pop song with a predictable core. You can sing along, but will you? It has a simply legendary hook, an easy chord progression, and a happy tone of voice, so it’s pop. But then again, it’s eight minutes long, includes a whole bunch of solos and breaks, and it refuses to end in the place it began, so it’s not pop. Really, the thing that breaks down its free and easy spirit is the lyrics. The vocals by Patrice Manget are bright and include “honey,” “love and honor,” and “what friends are here for,” but it ends up articulating a vague wish to not be alive. She sings, “Can you go back to before you were born? / To the smiling place / Where having to stay who you are day after day / There must have been a light / Before the stories took away your fight.” It’s a mourning for the loss of a non-physical body. There’s really only one way to return. The world is boring, and you may be tied down to “Arizona or France.” It looks like nothing’s going to come along soon, but you can hold out hope that something like death will take you out of it. When the chorus ascends in the trademark Broadway style, I imagine a choreographed number with a friendly grim reaper shuffling across the stage and tapping each actor on the shoulder, who each laugh and sing while shimmying away to the grave. Still, it’s a good time.

 

"Blue" Gene Tyranny - Out Of The Blue [full album] [1978]

 

“for David K.,” the second track and the only instrumental, may best be summed up as funky sort of circus prog. There’s another vicious refrain, this time in the horns, and it sounds like a big metal object bursting through the door. It’s all happy excess, and it has a clear fusion sound. Gene’s keyboard is always whirling, and it injects a weird pause into a song that’s mostly very assured of itself. This song is a baffling outburst, even on an album that already stretches itself in every direction. It’s free of all lyrical baggage and thus hides very little. It’s a product of its time in a different way than the rest of the album. It could very well have been a radio hit and might have gotten the band on Soul Train.

“Leading a Double Life” ends up describing itself as a song, always hovering between two moods. It starts with a novel slow ballad combo of expressive piano and tinny synthesizer sound. It becomes clear in the piano that it’s turning into a gospel hymn, and then the voices appear. Jane Sharp and Lynne Morrow sing together, backed by this smaller instrumental setup. There are a couple of uncanny elements, however. One is the constant presence of the electronic keyboard. When Gene plays the real piano, it’s with great attention to dynamics and ornamentation. But when he plays the synth, it’s limited and unable to reproduce the same subtleties. Even the most skilled Moog player of 1978 wouldn’t be able to compare to the touch of a human finger on the piano. So it sticks out, but the accompaniment persists the whole way through. Another sticking point is the register of the dual vocalists. They’re not straining, but it’s just high enough to cut through some of their vibrato. Then, again, the lyrics betray the genre-tags of the song. It keeps the “hold out hope” theme of so much gospel, but there’s never any talk of salvation. It’s intentionally not a religious song, only suggesting it in tone and subject. The first lines promise “He is in the blue distance / He is getting nearer,” but does He arrive? Nope. The speakers turn inward and sing, in unison, about the anxieties of “me” and “I.” Even their vocal delivery suggests they are willing to let go of this life entirely. There’s a chance that something or someone is going to come along. But then again, if nothing happens then that’s all right too. The central point of concern for the duet is the concept of two lives being lived simultaneously—inward and outward, living and dead. There’s an admiration for the others who have gone between the two planes, whatever they may be. I want to wrap it up nicely and conclude that, again, it’s a frustration with living, but the lyrics are too cagey to warrant that. In any case, the song doesn’t like to pick a subject, and loves seeing into many consciousnesses.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny

The album closes with a 25-minute track called “A Letter from Home.” It’s the centerpiece of the album’s philosophy, stating in spoken word what was only suggested through song. It’s set up as a letter to “Blue” Gene from an unidentified speaker. Throughout, the speaker reminisces on their relationship, breaks for song, then comes back and speaks. The woman speaking becomes a dual portrait of her and Gene, a wide-ranging surrealist fiction, and a New Age theory of consciousness. You have to meet it where it’s at. It’s an invented history, and one that involves personal relationships totally foreign to the listener. Consider this vexing passage, and see if you understand: “I remember you said that a child growing up, the growth of the feeling of being inside yourself, and the sound changing over space and time were similar experiences. Their motions had the same shape. Oh, boy.” I understand the sentiment of “Oh, boy.” But really, it’s another reference to idea of there being more to this world than our humble collection of experiences. The choruses between each spoken word break are beautiful, and I got the sense that this was Gene getting to stretch out. There is something so satisfying about the chorus singing “Hey, ‘Blue’ Gene.” How does a 25-minute track keep its listenability? I don’t quite know, but a drone ties it all together, and the listener gets to eavesdrop. There’s an abundance of rich phrases, and the music is sweet. It’s filled with memories of the past—invented memories and memories we certainly don’t know. Even when it totally departs from the letter format and becomes absurd, like when the letter-writer recalls Gene’s young cousin spontaneously speaking in Polish, it doesn’t stray too far.

The experience of listening to Out of the Blue is best described by the letter-writer, who mentions “the day we made up that weird theory about a history of consciousness. Of course, it was just as arbitrary as any history.” Circumstances and coincidences are not privileged over possible events and things that haven’t happened yet. It’s arbitrary, yes, but it opens the doors for beautiful music-making and an invitation to the listener. It has an impeccable sense of pop and its worldview will dazzle you, even if you don’t buy in completely. It’s oh-so-seventies in so many ways, but it’s still fresh after 40 years. What a friendly invective against gross “circumstances” here on Earth! So please don’t let it fool you, it’s already more clever than you think.

 

Score: An irresistible sound I might have heard “4100 or maybe 3700 years ago.”

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