Birdsongs of the Mesozoic began in 1980 as a side project by Roger Miller and Martin Swope, half of Boston's now legendary Mission Of Burma. Miller and Swope joined forces with Rick Scott and Erik Lindgren for what was originally conceived as a recording project only. In 1983, they released a self titled EP, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
With the demise of Mission Of Burma at about the same time as the EP's release, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic became a full-time band for all involved. In 1984 they released their second LP, Magnetic Flip, and began extensive touring to support its release. A year later they released another EP, Beat of the Mesozoic, and again set out on tour.
Roger Miller left the group in 1987 to concentrate on solo projects and was temporarily replaced by saxophonist Steve Adams, who would in turn be replaced by current saxophonist Ken Field. Birdsongs' new lineup recorded Faultline, released in 1989 for Cuneiform Records. The follow up, Pyroclastics, appeared in 1992. Shortly afterwards, guitarist Michael Bierylo replaced Martin Swope, who moved to Hawaii. In 1993 a collection of previously unreleased material from 1980-1987, The Fossil Record, featured the band's first lineup. This release paid tribute to Birdsongs' early years not covered by the Ryko release, Sonic Geology, another compilation featuring tracks from the first three LPs. 1995 saw the release of Dancing on A'A, the first album to feature the current lineup of the group.
Birdsongs' instrumentation is as varied and striking as its music: two keyboards, guitar, and saxophone blend with electronic and acoustic percussion (including a Mercury Cougar hubcap and a paint can) to produce sound "as meditative as it is physical, as rooted in classical structure and jazz improvisation as it is in rock 'n roll" (The Boston Globe).
Since 1994, the members of Birdsongs have been Artists-in-Residence at Dartmouth College and Massachusetts College Of Art. Other recent notable performances have included the Knitting Factory in New York City, the Honolulu Academy Of Arts, and the Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire.
The band's latest and most likely best album,
Petrophonics, was released in 2000 to widespread acclaim. The band
has played quite a few dates in support of the album including two
festival appearances (NEARfest 2001 and Guimarces Art Rock Festival in
Portugal), as well as select NYC appearances at the Tonic, Knitting
Factory and Triad Lounge. The band also celebrated its 20th anniversary
with a concert in their hometown of Boston. Work is slated to begin soon
on new material for a possible 2003 release.
|The Hammer||3-August-2001||Sonic Geology (1988, Rykodisc, RCD 20073)|
Sonic Geology is a near-complete collection of songs from Birdsongs' early 80s releases on Ace of Hearts (Beat of the Mesozoic, Magnetic Flip, and the self-titled EP). These albums were never released on CD, but this compilation contains 16 of the 21 songs featured on those early releases (as well as two previously-unreleased songs: "Pulse Piece" and "The Common Sparrow").
This early version of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic featured pianist/composer Roger Miller. Miller wrote about half of the material that appears on this compilation, and as such was an integral part of the band's creative nucleus (indeed, the band originally began as a studio project of Miller's). Miller left the band in 1987, a year before their first Cuneiform release, Faultline. This album is a snapshot of the Miller-era Birdsongs.
Compared to more recent albums from Birdsongs, the material on Sonic Geology is raw and perhaps could be described as "noisy". An eclectic (to put it mildly) brand of music mixing RIO prog with neo-classical/minimalism and avant-garde styles, Sonic Geology is difficult to pin down with labels. The band relies heavily on keyed instruments (three of the four members on SG are credited with either piano or synthesizer), but they also throw in anything and everything that they can get their hands on. The CD liner notes contain an exhaustive list of various other instruments (sometimes makeshift, such as "hubcap" or "chain on metal") used by themselves or a slew of guests.
The typical song on this album is three to six minutes long, and features a basic theme that is then twisted, turned, and generally deformed to create something delightfully different. Highlights of this compilation for me include "The Tyger", "Ptoccata", and "Pulse Piece". More importantly, there are no songs that I would complain about as being bad... one by one, every song on this 71+ minute compilation steadfastly refuses to suck. Not all are memorable, but none are terrible or out of place.
While the band has since released The Fossil Record (1980-1987) on Cuneiform, this album remains important. Out of the 18 songs on Sonic Geology, only two ("Sound Valentine" and "Pulse Piece") also appear on The Fossil Record. The Fossil Record mostly contains previously-unreleased material, as well as two songs from the early Ace of Hearts albums that didn't make Sonic Geology. As such, The Fossil Record is not a replacement for the now out-of-print Sonic Geology, but rather, the two compliment each other. Together, they offer a complete look at "early" Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
For established fans of the band, purchasing this disc is a no-brainer. Despite being out of print, I picked up a copy of this CD from eBay (for a mere $2.25... some CD vendors just don't realize what they have). For people interested in hearing the band for the first time, however, I would suggest picking up a copy of Petrophonics or Dancing on A'A (but if you see Sonic Geology being sold somewhere, grab it - you'll thank yourself later).
1988, Rykodisc, RCD 20073
Roger Miller - Piano, percussion
1. Shiny Golden Snakes - 3:03
|Greg Northrup||3-August-2001||Petrophonics (2000, Cuneiform, Rune 137)|
Damn. Another excellent album from the Rock-in-Opposition/Avant-Garde wing of the progressive rock family tree. Although the group was described to me as RIO, Petrophonics was certainly not what I expected. The album is extremely melodic and beautiful, putting the listener at ease rather than jarring him with teeth grinding dissonance. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic play in a highly experimental style driven mostly by piano, synthesizer and smooth saxophone. The band combines traditional prog, RIO, jazz, electronic and classical music into a distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable blend. Electronic pulses and percussive textures quiver behind grand piano dashes, swelling synths and soaring, melodic sax. The band delves into intentional repetition and dissonant territories every once in a while, making the ethereal melodies all more powerful when they return. Definitely an inspired band that knows what they're doing.
Some of my favorite tracks include "One Hundred Cycles", with its
enchanting rhythms and surprisingly effective turntable scratches. Another
is "Birdhead", which uses a distorted drum track as the basis for its choppy
piano rhythm, to fascinating effect. "Dinosaurs Theme" simply
rumbles over you with its churning guitar riff, while "Gravity Theme" has
a beautiful, lilting jazzieness to it that reflects a delicate compositional
touch. My only problem with the album is that it runs a little long and
tends to lose me if I attempt to take it all in one sitting, which would
keep me from declaring it an unequivocal masterpiece. Other than that this
is extremely original, inspired and definitely something different for me.
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic is one of the jewels of current progressive music,
and though I haven't heard their prior albums, Petrophonics is
supposed to be their best yet. Definitely a must for fans looking for
adventurous contemporary progressive outside of the symphonic realm.
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