ROGER POWELL Fossil Poets Inner Knot Records/Discipline Global Mobile INK0680 (2006)
Being a huge fan of Todd Rundgren and Utopia, I was elated to hear that electronics wizard and keyboards genius Roger Powell has released a new solo CD (this being the first in two decades!) But first, before I review this masterwork, a little background information on Mr. Powell: Hailing from Virginia, Roger studied classical and jazz piano, as well as trumpet, in high school. In 1970, after a three-year stint at a recording studio in Atlanta, GA, Powell relocated to Boston to work for ARP instruments helping to design and demonstrate their synthesizers. After touring the country demonstrating ARP's latest synthesizers, he eventually recorded his first solo CD, the much praised Cosmic Furnace (note: the album was recorded in Boston on Newbury Street in a studio that would become The Cars studio).
In 1974 Powell was asked to join the critically acclaimed super group Todd Rundgren's Utopia, with whom he would go on to tour the world many times over and record several adventurous and finely crafted albums. In 1980 Powell recorded the groundbreaking album Air Pocket, which even featured a guest appearance by rock icon and band mate Todd Rundgren. During this time, Powell's pioneering in the world of synthesizers, computers and all things electronic would reach a plateau as he would invent several essential products for keyboard players and musicians such as the Powell Probe, a handheld keyboard controller. Powell also pioneered in the development of MIDI sequencer software by authoring "Texture", one of the first computer programs for composing with a MIDI interface.
Which brings us to date and the monumental release of Powell's new solo effort Fossil Poets released on Discipline Global Mobile. If there were ever an award for the 'Art Of Noise,' Roger Powell would surely win one (right along with former Mother Of Invention Don Preston). Upon listening to this gem, many clichéd descriptions pop into my head like ethereal, pastoral and improvisational - not that the music is clichéd at all, on the contrary, it is like a breath of fresh air! Fossil Poets explores unknown musical territory with nods toward past styles.
Billy James talks to Powell collaborator Gary Tanin...
How did you hook up with Roger?
I met Roger Powell in the early 70's when he was a clinician for ARP Synthesizer Company. It was late 1972 or early 1973. He was doing a road show presenting demos for the brand new ARP 2600.
Roger joined Todd Rundgren's band Utopia soon after we first met. I reconnected with him in the mid 80's when I was a contributing writer for CMC, a magazine for Computer Musicians. Roger had, at that time, released Texture, one of the very first sequencer programs for the IBM-PC. I interviewed him and wrote a software review for the publication.
We re-connected a few years ago. I sent Roger copies of my most recent album productions. Roger had been composing and recording pieces that became the basis for Fossil Poets for several years by the time we re-connected.
What instruments to you play on the CD - how much composing did you do?
I played a number of synthesizers on the project including a Roland D50, my MOOG Source, and Software Synthesizers (Garritan Orchestra) for Violins, Viola, French horns (an example is on Delayed Reaction) and Reason. I came up melodic ideas on top of the basic arrangements for Greg (Koch) [the guitarist] to use as starting points for his parts.
I did arranging on the record creating what would be verses/ choruses/ bridges , etc from the segments that Roger originally brought. Greg would then use those melodies I played as starting points for his parts.
Greg and I would work on additional ideas or changes for melodic ideas that weaved their way into the songs. Those then would go back to roger for his final overdubs.
I understand Roger recorded a lot of the tracks and then brought them in to the studio to you to help produce - can you explain your role in the production/recordings?
Roger brought what he had been working on to Milwaukee on our first visit for this project a few years ago. He left me with those tracks and pieces of compositions to work with.
I spent two or three months constructing some arrangements from the loops and segments that Roger created. Some of the 'ideas' were more finished than others. Usually sections of song ideas needed to be built before we had an arrangement ready for adding parts to. I worked with Greg for a couple of months on guitar ideas in the studio ultimately recording the finished parts.
I would start with a melodic idea first. Then Greg would lay down some rhythm guitars on top of the basic song constructions . Once we had tracked those parts I flew out to San Francisco to record Roger’s signature licks at his studio. That included all the cool instruments he played organ, Electric Piano, MOOG, flutes, Accordion, and Flugelhorn... And of course, guitars. It was a number of very intense and busy sessions.
Any other plans to work with Roger again in the future?
Roger has been working on new material. We’ve talked about a second CD. The critical reviews for Fossil Poets have been so overwhelmingly positive that it would be a shame to not continue down the path that has opened for us as a result of this this record.
In describing some of the music: various tracks remind me of Jeff Beck's later work where there's a rhythm track and coinciding sequenced pattern driving the piece with unusual melodies and improvisations dancing atop. At times the music sounds like early 1970's funk-fusion ala Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters.
Although you hear aspects of Powell's first two solo albums, Fossil Poets takes the music a step further chartering new electronic adventures. On a side note, on track 9 entitled "Trial By Fire", at one point I almost forget I was listening to Roger Powell and thought it was Mike Oldfield (whom I dig as well).
In aiding with his new musical venture, Powell enlists the help of Greg Koch (guitars, bass and effects) and Gary Tanin (synthesizers, arrangements, recording and production). Along with Roger, both musicians contribute to the composing of some of the tracks on the CD. Powell himself, as well as composing, arranging and producing, plays synthesizers, guitars, mandolin, Tin Whistle, Native American Flute, Accordion, Flugelhorn, piano and organ.
Fossil Poets is an album that rises above the gamut of musical meanderings being released these days. If you want to hear pure artistic expression by a keyboard legend then I urge you to BUY this CD!!!