Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Plenum: Ilk-- Language of the Court

I have been walking down some interesting musical paths these last few years, mostly following the breadcrumbs of Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, across the street to Can and Faust, and all the way, up ahead, on the horizon, I can see the red blaze of an ascending prog-rock sun. My 80s' punk rock instincts kick in and without thinking I shade my eyes. But like any good cultural mystic, I decide to gaze straight into the star and see how long I can take it.

There are a few acts I could never take quite seriously, like Genesis and (I'm sorry to some of my dear friends) Rush*. But there has always been a soft spot in my heart for some of the precursors to the mainstream prog acts. King Crimson, ELO, the Moody Blues, and even some of the more satyr-ific moments of Jethro Tull have remained a secret joy for me. And then just last month two things happened almost simultaneously. I heard Roy Harper's StormCock for the first time, and then I chanced upon Ilk.

Ilk is one of the many incarnations of the experimental musician Andew Paine and underground artist Richard Youngs, (whose recordings with Jagjaguar are astonishingly powerful). I didn't know that he was involved with other outfits, but thanks to a small review in The Wire, I discovered the CD-R recording by Ilk, Language of the Court. And now I am happy also to have made the acqaintance of Paine, who by all accounts is not only an incredible musician, but a gentlemen as well.

Ilk is progressive rock when stripped of its pretense and its bombast, uncovering the human element that infuses the best of the genre. It's not without artfulness, but where much of the late 70s prog musicians favored technique and fiction, Ilk goes back to the folk roots. But rather than taking a romp through the woodlands, Ilk hooks them up to a Tesla coil. It's like the difference between a Grimm's fairy tale and a Disney version of the same. The former isn't afraid of the mud and the fecundity, the violence and the dread; the human. The latter adds sugary sweet songs and de-sexualized caricatures of what had been rich archetypes.

While Roy Harper offers an unplugged acoustic vision of this denuded form of prog, Ilk starts at the top with all the electricity and the echoes, but has removed those things that get in way of real emotion. If Harper and Ilk met in the middle, you would have best of the early King Crimson recordings. By themselves, they each remind us what is so compelling about rock and roll that aims for the stratosphere, and once in a while for the stars.

If Ilk are cosmic, it's only because they sometimes sound like a microphone aimed at the center of a nebula, full of radio noise and wonder. Language of the Court is a mesmerizing experience. There is a bit of jangly guitar strum on the first track that leaves me breathless and the song "Again Recurring" is one of those late night tracks to play over and over.

I'm not sure how many copies of this are available, but if you want to be reminded of how even the fuzziest rock can inspire spiritual introspection, try to get a hold of this.

-Ilk: Salutation of the Elders

*Truth be told, Farewell to Kings had a huge impact on me (science fiction and mysticism!) but I was turned off by Rush's later stuff and I think I retroactively stopped liking even that album. I think it deserves it going back and giving it another listen.

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