Dusted Reviews

Kyrie Eleison - Complete Recordings (1974-1978)

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Kyrie Eleison

Album: Complete Recordings (1974-1978)

Label: Mio

Review date: Apr. 22, 2004

Through the back channels of Dusted Magazine’s byzantine discussions, someone once raised the question of the history of serious criticism of rock music within academic circles. A 1970 excerpt from the British journal New Left Review was cited as an example of where some famous thinkers stood on the “rock question.” In this case, NLR editor Perry Anderson (under the pseudonym Richard Merton) and Andrew Chester debated the relative political merits of late 60’s rock music. After a thorough materialist analysis of the rock aesthetic, all that this humble reader could make out was that Anderson definitely liked the Rolling Stones better than the Beatles, and that Chester thought The Band was also interesting. Notice how Chester brilliantly covers his ass:

“The Band's construction is astonishingly pure rock, whose aesthetic values are purely musical. It is not a synthesis that will propel the music on a radical forward course. This will not happen until or unless the problem of rock vocalism is solved. I am not suggesting that very different departures, such as cross-fertilization of rock with certain 'serious' forms (e.g. Velvet Underground or Soft Machine) may not be a more secure way forward, and may not be from certain perspectives more aesthetically rewarding.” (NLR 62, 1970)

To give these gentlemen credit, however, good writing about the aesthetics of rock music is hard to find. Chester and Anderson raised important points about the origins of rock within popular culture, its possibility of any radical agenda in rock, and its viability vis-à-vis the “higher” musical forms. Today, most widely-used models of criticism veer toward the extremes of gonzo travelogues or the great equalizers of cultural studies (formerly known as “Madonna Studies”). For the rest of us who would rather not down a bottle of pills with a whiskey chaser, or do a Ph.D. dissertation on reality TV, the options for constructive thought are limited. It's even harder to find thoughtful writing on the widely maligned sub-genre of progressive rock.

One rare example of smart thinking on the subject is by Bill Martin, a professor of Philosophy at Depaul University in Chicago. Martin may be famous on the armchair Marxist circuit, but he is equally notable in the Cheetoh-laced annals of prog bulletin boards and box set liner notes for his musings on progressive rock. While some practitioners of the genre, such as King Crimson ringmaster Robert Fripp, have categorized their feats in the early 1970s as unclassifiable and unlinked from prog, Martin attempts to establish a rubric for situating progressive rock within its time and place in society. His book Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978 (pub. 1997) presents a case for the avant-garde nature of the genre. The best groups (Martin places Yes squarely at the top) moved from the tepid protests of the late 1960s to a project of romantic utopianism based on English traditions of poetry and myth by the early 1970s. It combined this with a forward-looking aesthetic that Martin identifies as a partially Marxist undertaking, whether the groups knew it or not. This ideological approach was later corroded by groups that replaced the Marxist language of future societies and other worlds with an Ayn Rand-inspired Objectivist approach, focusing on the individual and his or her success within our present world. In other words, Yes became Rush.

There are certainly many valid criticisms of Martin’s agenda and viewpoint. Since most prog rock bands did not have a ten point platform for ending capitalism, their gnome-infested tree worlds would fall more within a Saint-Simonian socialist paradise than a Marxist realm originating from the contradictions inherent in our own gnome-free society. Also, while bands such as Yes and ELP tended to dabble in outer-worldliness, and groups like King Crimson were infused with a nebulous existential dread, there were examples of politically grounded prog bands. Gentle Giant had its concept album Three Friends, for instance, about class and livelihoods, and Genesis (with Peter Gabriel at the helm) discussed political cronyism, the corruption of the church, and social engineering.

Still, the locus of progressive rock within music history needs to be re-analyzed. To start, one must remove the essentialist fixation with geography that Martin (and most writers on rock music) insist on. Progressive rock, as with hooliganism, has always been identified with England. But understanding the key facets of this sub-genre must take into account its international resonance. The Israeli-based reissue label Mio has recently released the complete recordings of Kyrie Eleison, an Austrian prog band that existed from 1974 to 1978, on a triple CD set. The band is known for one record only, The Fountain Beyond the Sunrise (1977), a four track opus that clearly would never have been created if not for the inspiration of early Genesis. Indeed, one look at the cover of this set confirms the source for leader Gerard Krampl’s main muse, as the tea-set symbolism mimics the early 70s Genesis records Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, with a little Roger Dean flourish. Kyrie Eleison’s mild success after their single effort allowed them to open for some of the late 70s bloated prog behemoths that went through Vienna, including Van Der Graaf, Amon Duul, and Collosseum. The band’s name itself is notable for several reasons. The phrase, although Greek for “Lord, have mercy upon us,” is spoken with variations in the Latin mass of both the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches. Probably for this reason, the first song on The Electric Prunes’ Axelrod-penned Mass in F Minor shares the same name. There is no doubt that the keyboard-laced band at its prime would have been spectacular in the true sense of the word, fit for a concert in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home of the world’s largest pipe organ.

The first disc of the set, entitled Blind Windows Suite, features early demo sessions by the band, albeit with a different line-up. This disc is highly unremarkable, borrowing heavily from the German prog tradition of the likes of Eloy as well as British stalwarts such as Yes and Genesis. The band treads musical water while the original singer, Wolfgang Wessely, barks with nonplussed fervor. The second disc features live recordings from 1975, still with the original lineup and slightly less tedious. It is only with the final and real release by the band, The Fountain Beyond the Sunrise, that the influences are nicely woven. This is mostly because of the presence of new singer Michael Schubert. Schubert comes pretty close to nailing Gabriel’s style on much of the record, and the band is also fairly interesting. While the group never had the recording resources of its idols (The Fountain Beyond the Sunrise was mostly played to 2-track), the production is charming in its resemblance to the early Genesis it emulates, especially Nursery Cryme. After all, it is debatable whether any prog record recorded in 1977 actually sounded good, due to the advances in technology and vapidity most bands took advantage of in spades. Perhaps the band simply benefits from their limitations, ensuring their commercial failure but also their newfound cult status.

However, this limited run set and its 36-page booklet is best left to the extreme Genesis enthusiast who needs one more Gabriel fix, despite its sub-par content. The mere existence of Kyrie Eleison, though, points at a possible interpretation to the prog rock “question.” Prog, like disco, did not die out in most countries as it did in the US and UK. Here, it has been defamed and libeled ever since by the music intelligentsia, blamed for everything wrong with the 1970s that Nixon couldn’t take credit for. The cultural exchange between the US and UK from the 1960s onward became the benchmark for how all other popular culture was judged, its merits aside. Indeed, “foreign” music is usually accepted into pop culture only if it assimilates successfully. While the debate is still ongoing as to whether the United States is imperial in the political sphere, America's cultural hegemony is obvious. If one doubts the power of this culture dropping on the world like steroid-laced manna, just look at the dwindling number of independent French films and theaters every year, and the increasing rise of heart disease in Japan. Culture is judged not only on its resemblance to the imperial model, but also how well it follows its timetable. Prog was deemed unsuitable for the 1980s zeitgeist of tax cuts and evil empires which was well underway by the late 70s. The turn towards Fountainhead libertarianism in progressive rock that Bill Martin documents is a direct result of this process. Instead, the culture provides new and profitable avenues through which music must be channeled if it can be taken seriously. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t just talking about economics when she said, “There is no alternative.” The perspective from the cultural core derides the periphery for not catching up to the forms that have been forced upon them. Interestingly, Kyrie Eleison’s lyrics are the only thing they don’t take from early Genesis; instead, it’s a mishmash of Christian Gnosticism and New Age malarkey. Gerard Krampl, after disbanding the group, thus reinvented himself as a full-fledged New Age soldier with his project Indigo in 1984, completing the transformation. The trajectory of New Age as a home for so many former prog rockers is no accident. It is a nursing home for shattered dreams, either the ones that Martin believes existed in prog or more earthly ones. Although the psych and garage sounds from around the world have been rightly documented and celebrated, less effort has been expended discussing how many countries took prog and made it their own. In the days of import substitution and dependency theory, rock and roll was valuable capital for countries outside the cultural core. It arguably did more for the world than any paltry US foreign aid program. However, by the 1980s this cultural space had closed down, and bands such as Kyrie Eleison were the last gasp before imposed austerity took its toll, with the inevitable results of nihilism, stagnation, and finally today, nostalgia.

By Kevan Harris

Read More

View all articles by Kevan Harris

Find out more about Mio

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.