Tag Archives: prog rock

The Dear Hunter: My New Prog Rock Obsession

It starts innocently enough, and slow, with the download (I think from emusic) of a six tune extended play called “All Is As All Should Be” by a band called The Dear Hunter. This happens maybe two years ago. Undeniably a great performance by extremely gifted musicians and a singer who is both super melodic and lyrically smart, here was a pop rock band playing challenging, memorable music, densely arranged, and expertly recorded. Perhaps because I download it at a time when I am consuming more music than I can carefully listen to, and also perhaps because I don’t have the physical artifact to carry around in the car or plop into the home stereo, this record, as good as it is, does not make it into heavy rotation, so it’s buried and somewhat forgotten.

Fast forward to Fall, 2019. Somehow, The Dear Hunter appears back on my radar. I’m not sure why. Maybe my attention is drawn by the appearance of a new and totally unrelated release by a band called simply Deerhunter. Maybe I listen again to that e.p. by The Dear Hunter and become curious. At any rate, I start to dig around. There’s nothing in my local record store. On the web, maybe in the iTunes Store or in the Amazon stacks, available for download but rare in cd and non-existent on vinyl, I discover an astonishing and prolific catalog of music from these guys going back thirteen or fourteen years. I discover, of particular interest to me, a penchant towards insanely ambitious projects: one, a concept album spread over an entire decade of recording, spanning a stunning five album sequence, all but one of them double l.p. sets, referred to collectively as “The Acts;” the second, a series of nine extended play records, four tunes on each, thirty-six songs altogether, titled “The Color Spectrum,” each record of which comes on a different colored vinyl disc, representing, you guessed it, all the colors in the spectrum. I find myself wandering over to eBay, where I have never made any purchases. I find “The Color Spectrum,” sealed, brand new, all nine 10 inch records in a box set for $300. 36 songs for $300? That’s outrageous, I think, and, to add insult to injury, terribly disrespectful of the musicians, who would not see a penny from the sale. But unable to resist, I place a bid on the thing anyway and I’m immediately and justifiably rejected by the seller. Eventually, I find the entire collection of “The Color Spectrum” on iTunes for the obscenely low price of $7.99. $7.99 for 36 songs. That I can do, but I still feel guilty, as the musicians, just as from the eBay sale, would not see a penny. Well, maybe a penny. I get over it and download the collection. I figure that if the band did not want the sales from iTunes, they would not have made their music available there.

I start “spinning” the entire 36 songs from start to finish. A first time. A second time. A third. Finally, I lose count but come to know these songs relatively well, and to love them, and to love them even more with repeated listenings–because of their wild abandon, their disregard for genre boundaries, their infectious melodies, their head banging tendencies, their humor (albeit infrequent), their musical virtuosity. Conceptually, I can really only guess about the significance of the color spectrum as an organizing principle. My only theory: the tunes, thematically or tonally, might approximate the color from the spectrum on which they sit, therefore, the heaviest of the tunes, and lyrically the darkest tunes, can be found on the black record. That’s the best I can do. And it does seem to be a theory borne out by the collection’s progression, as the tunes seem to get lighter (mostly in musical ways) as one moves through them. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Are the songs good? Yes, they are very good. I decide that I have discovered a new favorite band.

Eventually, as Fall progresses and changes to Winter, I discover that this band is not really a band, per se, but a guy, one Casey Crescenzo, who is the mastermind behind the project, and, I guess you could say, The Dear Hunter. He records and performs with a band of players, one of whom, the drummer, is his brother. I find a few youtube videos of them performing live, in particular songs from “The Color Spectrum,” and my fandom becomes a bit more rabid–as they are on stage as virtuosic and precise and energetic as they are on record. And finally, I find my way to The Dear Hunter website. Here, I find an exciting surprise: “The Acts,” all five albums, 9 full length l.p.’s on colored heavyweight vinyl, a bonus orchestral album, and a download of still another project, are available in a deluxe box set, apparently, only through their website. I stew over the purchase of this box for some time, decide maybe a month after its discovery to pull the trigger, when, lo and behold, I find it sold out through the website store. It can be purchased, it seems, nowhere else. It finally appears on eBay for up to $800. The band (or Casey) seems to have cultivated an air of scarcity about the music. None of the previous albums, save for digital download versions, appear to be available anywhere. eBay retailers are scalping these records to make a hefty profit, aware that it is unlikely that Crescenzo will release another printing.

To stave off my desire to hear this sequence of records, I discover on Spotify and begin to listen to regularly still another double album-length record from 2013 called “Migrant” from The Dear Hunter. The tunes here are every bit as exciting as anything on “The Color Spectrum,” and I am officially hooked. In desperation, I begin to listen to “The Acts” on Spotify. It is undeniably great and ambitious, and a hard physical copy of the project becomes, for reasons not entirely explicable to me, a kind of holy grail, a highly coveted item. A second-pressing prayer is answered. It becomes available again through the website and I snag on one just in time before it is once again sold out within days. The loot is photographed at the top of this essay. Not only is the music incredible, but the packaging and the presentation and the variety of vinyl color is exquisite, the whole thing a master-class in a hybrid of rock and roll and comic book art. No, I did not pay $800 dollars for it; instead, I paid a more than fair and somewhat lower average price than what you might pay at your local record store for a box set with 11 l.p.’s inside.

Now I find myself totally immersed in “The Acts,” listening repeatedly, and doing something that I do rarely anymore, something I would do obsessively when I was a teen: reading the lyrics along with the playback. I’m trying to figure out what these recordings mean, which is not something one usually does when listening to the rock music, especially these days. Even when my favorite childhood prog bands worked with the conceptual (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Hemispheres by Rush), it was relatively easy to grasp the gist of the story these artists were trying to tell. This project is perhaps the musical equivalent in rock of reading a rather dense novel. It’s sprawling; its canvas is wide. So it will take me some time. Maybe there’s a blog entry in there somewhere and sometime in the future. Or maybe I will just continue to stew in the mystery of it all.

The music on these records, all of them, “The Color Spectrum,” “Migrant,” “All Is As All Should Be,” and “The Acts,” is bombastic, epic, melodic, cerebral, complex, stylistically wide-reaching, theatrical, cinematic, emotionally evocative, beautiful, serious (but not entirely humorless), and immersive. It’s hard while listening not to feel totally surrounded, totally enveloped. The lyrics demand attention, otherwise, full appreciation is next to impossible. The Dear Hunter seems relatively obscure in the world of pop and progressive rock, but it also seems clear that they have (or he, Casey Crescenzo has)  reached a level of success and achievement independently that would be the envy of any ambitious independent artist. He runs a summer music camp for enthusiasts of The Dear Hunter. I’m not kidding. While I might not be in attendance at his camp, nevertheless, I am all in. But the true test: check back with me in sixth month’s time, or a year. My gut tells me that I’m in for the long haul. I’ve experienced nothing like The Dear Hunter in a long, long, long time, if ever. I’m along for the ride for the foreseeable future. I invite you to join me. At this moment I’ve got nobody to talk to.

 

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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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