Supernatural phenomena are the unexplainable wonders of the world that may or may not be visible to the naked human eye. An example of this is the aurora borealis, the plasma bolts in the northern sky that illuminate the atmosphere with vibrant colors when plasma combines with oxygen, neon, hydrogen and nitrogen. The colors explode, giving the earth an image of natural fireworks in the sky. Color is a phenomenon in itself. I’d like to pose a hypothetical scenario to you: Imagine if all the notes in music- A, Bb, C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G and A# were all colors on the spectrum of light. Music as we know it to exist as an audible art form was broken into something visible. It was not heard, and not felt, but seen, and interpreted as something entirely unique from what we see it as. If music was not auditory, would it still affect people in the same way? Would you feel the same emotions if you ‘saw’ music, rather than hear it? Would you feel anything at all? As weird, melancholy and stupid as this case may seem, a San Francisco psychedelic rock band knew how to personify their music into something that isn’t just heard. Quicksilver Messenger Service’s live album Happy Trails is strikingly visual enough to paint a metaphorical ‘sound canvas’ in your mind. But this is not as wonderful as I have made it out to be. They juxtapose what they are trying to visualize among many different moods, whether it be experimenting on blues, or brooding despondency. Quicksilver’s live album is a gem among dirt, like a diamond in the rough, [is the most commonly used simile]. Between the dueling, experimental guitar interplay between John Cipollina and Gary Duncan with Duncan doubling as the vocalist, and a tight rhythm section of bassist David Freidburg and Greg Elmore, Happy Trails is a psychedelic orgasm. It has all the atmospheric guitar playing, the Latin inspired breakdown beats, groovy percussion, and a thumping, percussive bass rounding it all out. Quicksilver never got the recognition or fame of their San Francisco counterparts, Jefferson Airplane, but they made just as good a psychedelic record, making them the unsung heroes of their genre. Happy Trails just even further epitomizes that observation.
I usually write my reviews in a common Introduction- Pro- Pro-Con-Conclusion format. I like to start off by saying what’s good about the album. Not this time. Let me introduce you to a fantastic album by telling you how amazingly difficult it is to listen to it in one sitting without losing your mind. By no means is it bad, but unless you like experimental, avant-garde music, you have no business listening to Happy Trails. It’s kind of intimidating to hear that a fifty minute pseudo-blues/ psychedelic album is made of at least 20 minutes of ***ing around with guitar tones and weird noises, but it is. If you thought that Frances the Mute or Deloused in the Comatorium by the Mars Volta was the most experimental rock album so far, Happy Trails will most likely make you think otherwise. It can be extremely overwhelming and tedious to inept ears, which is a word of caution. But who is to say that blasphemous amounts of guitar experimentation is not fun to listen to? Because if you thought the two aforementioned Mars Volta albums were at least ‘good’, you are sure to love this album.
As you can probably tell from the amount I’ve used the phrase ‘guitar experimentation’, this live, airy album is almost entirely driven by the guitarists, Gary Duncan and John Cipollina. Duncan is a very good guitarist, but because he has the tiresome position of vocalist, the very little you hear from Duncan’s guitar is extremely limited when he is singing. Otherwise, he knows his ***. But of all the material heard on Happy Trails is driven by John Cipollina, the band’s guitar guru. Cipollina is not a very conventional musician, and rather ignores most of the rules that come with songwriting. He’ll often astray from the song to fabricate some winding, cumbersome guitar solo with all kinds of weird sound effects and techniques that will make Omar Rodriguez-Lopez fans whore themselves out to get a hold on the album, and every narrow minded pop punk fan shudder. For instance, I’ve never heard someone bend the b-string up at the peghead so much that it sounds as if the string is snapping, but all they’re doing is picking the string simultaneously at the bridge, to create what sounds like a brittle scream. If only I could see how many pedals Cipollina used on his board, I’d probably wince. But he does not limit himself to experimenting only on a regular six string guitar. Why should he? He’s only playing on an experimental psychedelic album. His mission is to go as far out as possible without making you go deaf. Therefore, he mellows it all out with jams where he switches to slide, and lap steel guitars. And this is as ballsy as the jams on their handheld brother, just not as hasty or chaotic.
Happy Trails is not just a balls out jamming wankery, where one guitarist plays five minute guitar solos that sound completely identical on every song. In fact, the members of the band juxtapose the stylistic experimenting quite a bit. They know how to play hushed chord progressions, with angst ridden vocal yelps above mellow chord progressions (…. Do You Love series). They know how to play attitude filled hard rock with that tough guy, slick style of guitar playing that makes you stomp your feet in the middle of class (Maiden of the Cancer Moon). And best of all, they know how to play Mariachi (Calvary). And this is not the cliché Mariachi you see in sitcoms and movies where the three guys wearing sombreros play maracas, trumpet and acoustic guitar. Their own brand of Spanish guitar playing is electrifying, and lively, with frequent rhythmic breakdowns where only the congas, toms, and snare is chugging along with a spicy Latin groove. And of course, Cipollina throws in a crazy guitar solo every here and there, but what good is it without guitar? But possibly the most enjoyable aspect of Happy Trails is how Quicksilver knows how to contrast their own ideas- They let the bass stand out. This is not a biased opinion based on a bass player’s love for his instrument standing out in trippy music, but more so a love of accord. Freidburg is not a flashy player by any means, anyway. But his ability to groove is unmatched by any other psychedelic bass player. He does not ever play more than he needs to, but he can go fast. His ability to lead the melody, given his bandmates fade out, is unprecedented in the genre, and more so, the melodic quality to his playing is very special. Gary Duncan, on the contrary to being overshadowed by Dino, Valenti knows how to sing, as well. His voice is rather dirty and laid back, but he can yelp and croon just as good as Gregg Allman, making the vocal and lyrical portions of Happy Trails enjoyable.
So, a psychedelic album is experimental. Get over the fact that you can be put into a tedious position, listening to guitar solos for an hour. John Cipollina’s fashion of guitar mastery is not merely just auditory art- it can paint quite a visual picture. Over the course of fifty minutes, and thirty seconds, a handful of moods are expressed through guitar playing, voice, and rhythm- and you can feel what they are trying to get across. In other parts, you can envisage their music into your own interpretation of what music might look like if it were translated onto canvas. And if you can ‘see’ what you are listening to, even if it is just for the slightest bit of time, a miniscule second- then Quicksilver has done their job, regardless of what you think of their music. You consider music more than just sound now. And what could make a band happier than that?
[quote=Entwistle]C# is Db, for those of you who read bass clef music.[/quote]:D
Hahaha, when I did that contest a while back, I forgot to tell you guys that the viola player lost his music so he just performed off the bass clef. :p
I just bought this yesterday and have listened to it once. Cipollina's guitar work is excellent, like you pointed out several times in the review. I'd give it a 3.5 right now, because I can't get into Mona or Calvary yet the opening track is awesome. I'm sure this will grow on me much more after I listen to it a few mroe times.