TDs most innovative days were already behind them by the time their live performances began to be recorded “professionally” – but their 1970s live albums, and especialy “Encore“, offers rewards as well as frustrations.
Improvisation-orientated live sets which, at best, only offer quotes from the recorded catalog, ought to make them a highly collectible live act. The trouble is – having larely left “free” (tonally open-ended) improvisation behind, they adopted the sequencer pattern as the foundation of their music. Which – often – is as much of a turn-off here as it is in latterday dance music: giving the impression that they play in the same key for “hours on end” (sometimes literally), because in reality they’re not musically literate enough to do anything else. Add to that the snail’s pace thematic development of most of their live improvisations, and lack of any old-fashioned programmatic/expressive “soloing”, and you have a list of reasons not to listen.
But – the sequencer patterns and one-chord grooves are as deceptive as, say, the steady beat running through the “soundtrack” version of “Interstellar Overdrive” – once one has learned to listen past that, there is (often) plenty of invention taking place.
Which brings us to the aforementioned “Encore” album. Two of its four pieces show signs of some serious planning.
“Monolight” – though certainly not free from the one-chord sequencer pattern that dominates the entire album – is structured like a `proper composition’, and so manages to incorporate everything from acoustic piano lines reminiscent of both Rick Wright and John Cale’s “Church Of Anthrax” to a brief interpolation of the main theme from “Stratos-fear”, and a paraphrase of the `chamber music section’ that was the only memorable moment in the album “Ricochet”. The other highlight, “Desert Dream” is closer in spirit to their 1971-73 golden era – lengthy “abstract” sections in which the old TD motifs of “whale song” and “wind tunnel” sounds make a return, use of a real live bass guitar (just playing a pulse beat), a piano-driven “ballad” theme in the second half, Mellotron and percussion lines that recall King Crimson etc.
The other two less impressive pieces at least benefit from contrast and relief – passages of harmonic ambiguity and/or atonality, even some all-too-short guitar solos (in “Coldwater Canyon”).
One has the feeling this music was conceived with recording in mind – therefore they were motivated to actually make some compositional/arrangemental effort, and thereby strengthen the improvisation. Compare and contrast “Ricochet“, in which all their flaws come to the surface. Seldom do the one-chord grooves dissipate (and guess what, they’re all in the same key as the one that dominates Encore). The only remotely “abstract” section is a short burst of tape looped voice sounds that doesn’t go anywhere. Really, if not for the “chamber music section” the album would be completely forgettable. And there are worse live albums than this in the archival series – including a recording from Paris that’s so lacking in content beyond the one-chord grooves (no prizes for guessing in what key) it hardly qualifies as music. On the other hand, on the Sheffield volume (“Soundmill“), while there are plenty of monotonous sections, there are themes at the beginning and end which really could have been developed into substantial compositions – and which don’t turn up anywhere else.
What’s the lesser of two evils? Unambiguous, upfront, musical cluelessness – or undeveloped potential (aka squandering of time and money by those who should know better)?