Tentative Review #127


(released 1978)

1. On Presuming To Be Modern I ***1/2
2. Phobos And Deimos Go To Mars
     (i) Phobos
     (ii) Deimos
3. Sketches Of Mythical Beasts ****
4. Disruption In World Communications ****1/2
5. On Presuming To Be Modern II ****
6. A Small Collection Of Chords ****
7. Full Moon Flyer ***1/2
8. Terra Incognita ****1/2
9. Trellis ****
10.On Presuming To Be Modern III ***1/2




Cords was the third album released by Larry Fast under the Synergy name. More importantly, it was the first to be released after Fast joined Peter Gabriel's band.

The All-Music Guide has suggested that many of the Synergy albums are plagued by a self-sameness quality, and that Fast eventually became trapped in the limitations of his chosen genre. There is some truth to this claim. The first Synergy album was, in many ways, a technological follow-up on the works of Rick Wakeman -- appropriately entitled Electronic Realizations For Rock Orchestra (1975), it explored the various sonic potentials of the synthesized medium. By the 1980s, Fast was still following the same formula, making "niche" recordings for a shrinking genre. The music was still fairly good, for the most part [see the Tentative Review for Audion, 1981], but the innovation which marked the original Synergy project was gone.

The All-Music Guide's assessment is mistaken, however, when applied to Cords. This album rivals the first Synergy album for innovation, and may actually surpass it in overall musical quality -- and I have to think that Fast's time spent with Gabriel has something to do with this. True, no one would ever mistake Cords for Peter Gabriel I on purely musical terms. But working with Gabriel gave Fast the opportunity to meet Robert Fripp, whose unseen influence on this album is perfectly clear.

Indeed, what makes Cords stand out from the rest of Fast's catalogue is not his own performance. Larry, as is his wont, spins a web of high-tech/high-skill keyboard work over the album; it's good music, for the most part, but it doesn't distinguish Cords from the rest of his catalogue. That honour rather falls to the elusive Peter Sobel, who had previously worked with Fast in the Intergalactic Touring Band. Sobel's guitar synthesizer techniques -- obviously modeled on the two Fripp & Eno albums -- take Cords to occasional levels of sublimity. It's actually a bit of a shame that the Fast/Sobel partnership didn't last longer, if this can be taken as the standard of their collaborative potential.

As the track listing should suggest, a recurring composition motif appears throughout the album via the "On Presuming To Be Modern" tracks. The first such piece is essentially the lead-in to the work as a whole, an eerie/gothic (not goth!) work featuring pseudo-organ lines occasionally broken by pseudo-drum rolls. Though the sound is quite obviously artificial, the melodrama isn't entirely silly; perhaps it's the irony factor. Some angelic sound-effects and various variations appear juxtaposed in the work. A good introduction, but not substantial enough to rate higher on its own.

The attention then turns to the two-part mini-epic, "Phobos And Deimos Go To Mars" [in case anyone doesn't know, I should point out that "P" and "D" are the two moons of Mars ... clever, isn't it]. The "Phobos" section is a forum for Fast's electronic feats, with somewhat dated sounds being manipulated according to a general will-to-eccentricity. The body of the song sounds as though it may have been an unused backing track for Gabriel's band in its original form. With "Deimos", Sobel is unleashed upon the world with a lengthy guitar-synth solo that counts as an easy highlight of the track; unknowing listeners might well assume that this was actually Fripp, providing an anonymous contribution. The quality of the second section overwhelms that of the first, though both are still perfectly listenable.

"Sketches Of Mythical Beasts" is a more overtly descriptive work than most other tracks here, in that the opening keyboard sounds actually do seem to represent beasts stalking in unknown terrains. The effects in this number are frequently nothing short of bizarre, with a monolith of sound carrying the work forward at times; that said, though, the beasts seem to become more disciplined by the time the piece ends. A most entertaining piece, in its own way.

The best track on the album, all things considered, may be "Disruption In World Communications". Fast begins the work with a rather baroque keyboard part, accompanied by an organ setting in the background. Pure classical influences dominate the track in conjunction with more eclectic elements by the mid-point; the latter elements reach the foreground by the time the track ends. This plot outline may not seem overly daring, but the content of the music more than justifies this storyline (even if a few of the last sound-effects are a bit silly).

We are then treated to a sudden reprise of the "Modern" theme, in the most rewarding of its three incarnations on this work. Aside from making more sense after the previous musical ground has been traveled, the triumphant effects of this number don't sound overly out of place (though that may be because we're only halfway through). Some feedback effects appear towards the end, perhaps consolidating the track's ironic nature.

Side Two (I own this on clear vinyl, by the way) begins with the brief "A Small Collection Of Chords", a pleasant-sounding classical line played on synthesizer. This century probably doesn't need more updated Bachs or Scarlattis, but this is still a respectful enough number.

"Full Moon Flyer" is a mixed success at best, hindered somewhat by a overly Hollywood-esque dramatic motif; one could look upon the first two minutes of this track as a prototype for David Foster, actually. The track then improves -- the melody becoming oddly similar to that of Wakeman's "Searching For Gold" -- but the track still seems undercomposed. Fast and Sobel play their parts well enough, but something seems to be missing throughout this lengthy number. This track then segues into "Terra Incognita", wherein Sobel takes the leading position again. This is another pre-Frippertronics piece, of course, with a good musical showing from Sobel; as per the track's precursor, however, one might have wished that PS had worked out a few more details in advance. This is a minor quibble, to be sure, but it still deserves to be mentioned.

Perhaps jealous of Sobel's role in the spotlight, Fast then returns with a vengeance on "Trellis", a thoroughly bizarre number featuring good keyboard lines at the beginning, and downright disturbing loop-edits at the end. The weirdness is deliberate, of course, but no less entertaining for that. With this nightmarish section reaching its conclusion, we then come to "On Presuming To Be Modern III", which its opening "procession of the damned" motif and interplay of keyboard sounds. The development of this work isn't entirely successful, but Fast does manage to contextualize the work well enough.

Given the interest in Fripp's work these days, it's somewhat odd that this album remains obscure. Cords is certainly recommended to all readers interested in sonic experimentation of this sort, and those curious in the Synergy legacy could do worse than start with this album. Recommended.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 24 Sep 1998)

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