Yesterdays

Yesterdays in 2009; Image made by Katusya of WikiCommons, from photos taken by Péter Birta

Yesterdays, a symphonic prog-rock band from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, might seem the furthest thing in the world related to Dante, but they’ve contributed a song to each of the 4-CD boxed sets based on The Divine Comedy.

Their Inferno song, from November 2008, was done with Jonas Reingold of Swedish band The Flower Kings and drummer David Speight (who currently works with former Yes guitarist Peter Banks). Their song on the Purgatorio boxed set, released October 2009, is based on Canto XXX, where Dante breaks down upon realising Virgil is gone, and soon faces an upbraiding from his lost love Beatrice on account of his perceived sins. For the first and only time in the entire poem, Dante is addressed by name.

The Paradiso boxed set came out in October 2010, on which Yesterdays did a song based on Canto XXXIII and appropriately entitled “33.” In that canto, Dante has an intense, indescribable vision of Divine Light and perceives the nature of God and everything in the Universe. He realises Love is the mechanism behind all creation.

A total of 34 bands participated in each boxed set.

The current members of Yesterdays are Ákos Bogáti-Bokor (vocals, keyboard, guitar), Gábor Kecskeméti (flute), and Stephanie Semeniuc (lead singer). Dávid Kósa (percussion) is a former member, and keyboardist Zsolt Enyedi passed away of a stroke on 11 May 2020.

Yesterdays have released three studio albums (two of which have had multiple remastered editions), two EPs, and eight singles. They’ve also contributed songs to five other compilations besides the Divine Comedy boxed sets.

The band was founded in 2000, and won First Prize at the now-defunct Félsziget Festival’s talent competition in Târgu Mureş, Romania. Their first album was released in 2006. In response to their great sales, esteemed French record label Musea snapped them up the next year.

In February 2007, Yesterdays organised the first MiniProg festival in Budapest, with Dutch band Flamborough Head and British band Harmony in Diversity. The latter band is the project of former Yes guitarist Peter Banks.

As of 2021, their fourth album is being written and recorded.

A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy

The great Franz Liszt began pulling ideas together for a symphony based on Inferno and Purgatorio in the early 1840s. During summer 1845, Liszt played an improvised version to French poet Joseph Autran on the empty Marseille Cathedral’s organ at midnight. Liszt later invited Autran to collaborate on an opera or oratorio inspired by Dante, but Autran didn’t follow up on the project.

In 1847, Liszt played a few fragments on the piano to his mistress Princess Karolina zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt wanted the music accompanied by a slideshow of Divine Comedy illustrations from Italian–German painter Giovanni Bonaventura Genelli. Liszt also wanted to use a wind machine to recreate the winds of Hell as the first movement concluded.

Though Karolina was more than willing to finance this lofty project, Liszt set it aside till 1855.

Franz Liszt, 1858

In June 1855, Liszt went back to work on his symphony with a vengeance, and finished most of it before the end of 1856. Simultaneously, he was working on his famous Faust Symphony. These are the only two known symphonies Liszt ever composed.

Liszt visited Richard Wagner in October 1856 in Zürich, where he played both symphonies on the piano. Wagner wasn’t wild about the conclusion, and told Liszt so in no uncertain language. Liszt agreed with this POV, and said he also had wanted to end it on a “fine soft shimmer,” but Karolina convinced him to end with a huge, dramatic flourish.

Liszt rewrote the ending music, but for the printed score, he gave conductors the option of following the pianissimo coda with the fortissimo one.

Richard Wagner, 1855

Though Liszt planned to add a third movement for Paradiso, and make it choral, Wagner convinced him it was impossible for any mortal composer to possibly come even close to accurately depicting Paradise. Liszt instead added a choral Magnificat at the conclusion of the second movement.

By not going all the way, some listeners and critics alike feel the symphony is unbalanced and ends on an unfinished note and unnecessary cliffhanger. Liszt scholar Humphrey Searle also argued that translating Paradise into music wouldn’t have automatically been a task too great for him.

Franz Liszt, 1856, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Liszt completed and polished the symphony in autumn 1857, and it premièred at Dresden’s Hoftheater (later destroyed by fire and rebuilt as the Semperoper) on 7 November 1857. Due to not enough rehearsing, it didn’t go very well, and Liszt, who conducted, was publicly humiliated. Despite this, he soldiered on and conducted it again in Prague on 11 March 1858, with two of his other works.

Karolina drew up a program for the audience, so they could more easily follow along with this unusually-structured symphony.

Interior of the old Hoftheater

Some people classify A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy (better-known simply as The Dante Symphony) as more of two connected symphonic poems than a true symphony in the classical sense. As the genre’s name suggests, a symphonic poem musically evokes the mood of a poem, artwork, novel, landscape, short story, play, or other non-musical subject.

This symphony is one of the very first pieces of music using progressive tonality, wherein a composition doesn’t finish in the key it began, but rather progresses to something entirely different. It also contains many other musical innovations, like fluctuating tempi, wind effects, atonality experiments, and unusual time and key signatures.

Liszt scored it for one English horn, two oboes, two flutes, two clarinets, one bass clarinet, one piccolo (doubling as a third flute in the second movement), two bassoons, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, two trumpets, four horns, one tuba, two harps, two sets of timpani, a tamtam, a bass drum, cymbals, a harmonium (pump organ), strings, and a women’s choir with sopranos and altos.

Happy 40th birthday, Double Fantasy!

Image used solely to illustrate subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 17 November 1980, Double Fantasy was John Lennon’s seventh and final studio album, and the fifth album he did in collaboration with Yoko Ono. Many critics panned it initially, not necessarily because of the music itself, but because they thought it painted an unrealistic picture of John and Yoko’s marriage. Strangers always know best about other people’s personal lives, don’t they?

Sales weren’t particularly good until John’s murder three weeks later. The album then proceeded to jump to #1 in many countries. It also won 1981 Album of the Year at the 1982 Grammy Awards, and was ranked #29 on Rolling Stone‘s list of best Eighties albums.

But does it hold up on its own merits 40 years later?

DF is a concept album, structured as a call-and-response dialogue between John and Yoko. They each sing seven of the fourteen songs, going on a journey through their relationship, from fractured bonds on Side One to domestic bliss on Side Two.

This was the second of John’s solo albums I got, since it was the only one available at Mystery Train Records on that day. Back in 2002, online shopping hadn’t really taken off, so we were at the mercy of whatever merchandise was in a store, or had to put in a special order.

I gave it 5 stars on my old Angelfire page, and really liked it. Listening to it again after many years, I’m more inclined to give it 4 stars. There’s a lot of strong material, but it’s not one of the greatest, most memorable albums of all time. Some of the songs also veer a bit close to filler.

If you’re a Yoko-basher and don’t want to even try giving her music a fair listen, you’re gonna have a bad time with this album. Half of the songs are hers, like it or not, and it wouldn’t be the same album if it were only John’s songs.

Yoko was well-known and respected in the avant-garde world long before she met John, and her music has been hugely influential on other artists. Like The Velvet Underground, her influence is massively disproportionate to actual sales, radio play, and visibility.

People who think she only did tape loops and screaming betray their total unfamiliarity with her musical evolution. Sure she doesn’t have a classically-trained, conventional voice, but her music took on a more mainstream direction as time wore on.

Some of her DF songs have a very New Wave sound, which was right in line with other early Eighties music.

John and Yoko famously separated during the 18-month Lost Weekend, reconciled at the start of 1975, and welcomed their son Sean on John’s 35th birthday that October. From that time on, John was a contented househusband and put his musical career on hold.

During a sailing trip from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda in mid-1980, John was caught in a bad storm, and was the only one not stricken by seasickness or fatigue. As the last man standing, he had to steer the yacht for hours.

This experience fortified John’s confidence and made him contemplate the fragility of life. As he explained, “I was so centered after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos—and all these songs came!”

John and Yoko recorded dozens of songs that autumn, some of which later found their way onto the posthumous Milk and Honey (1984). Their sessions were top-secret, and they had to pay for studio time out of their own pockets, since they weren’t signed to a record label.

Once their publicist broke the news, offers from record labels swarmed in. On 22 September, they signed with the new Geffen Records because David Geffen spoke to Yoko first and considered her John’s equal. Mr. Geffen believed in them so much, he signed them before hearing any songs.

John made it clear from the jump that Yoko would be an equal partner on this album (which is subtitled A Heart Play). The strength of her material compelled record execs to take her seriously. She earned her place on DF through her own talents.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“(Just Like) Starting Over” (#1 in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, and The Netherlands; #2 in Austria, New Zealand, and Norway; #3 in Sweden; #4 in South Africa and Belgium; #6 in West Germany; #9 in France)
“Kiss Kiss Kiss” (ends with an extremely realistic faked orgasm and very sexual words in Japanese)
“Cleanup Time”
“Give Me Something”
“I’m Losing You”
“I’m Moving On”
“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”
“Watching the Wheels” (#3 in Canada; #6 in Switzerland; #6, #7, and #10 on various U.S. charts; #12 in Austria; #20 in Ireland; #30 in the U.K.; #45 in Australia; #46 in West Germany)
“Yes, I’m Your Angel”
“Woman” (#1 in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe; #1, #2, and #4 on various U.S. charts; #2 in Switzerland; #3 in Austria; #4 in West Germany, Australia, and South Africa; #5 in Norway; #11 in The Netherlands)
“Beautiful Boys”
“Dear Yoko”
“Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him”
“Hard Times Are Over” (gut-punching, knowing what would soon happen)
“Help Me to Help Myself”*
“Walking on Thin Ice”* (released 1981) (#6 in Sweden; #13 on U.S. Hot Dance Club Songs; #18 in Australia; #22 in Canada; #35 in the U.K.; #48 in New Zealand; #58 on U.S. Billboard)
“Central Park Stroll” (dialogue)*

DF reached #1 in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Austria, France, and Japan; #2 in West Germany; and #6 in Italy. It was certified triple platinum in the U.S.

While DF has never been one of my favoritest albums or something I regularly listen to, I’ve always liked it and found it very solid. I understand why some people might be off-put by songs about a relationship they’re not in (regardless of who the couple is), but this is after all a concept album telling a story. It just happens to be a real story, not a fictional one.

Happy 50th birthday, Plastic Ono Band!

Image used solely to illustrate subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 11 December 1970, Plastic Ono Band was John Lennon’s first proper solo album. While he’d done four prior solo albums, they were all collaborations with Yoko Ono, not 100% his own songs.

There were also two Plastic Ono Band albums released that day, with slightly different covers, though most people are only familiar with John’s album of that name. Yoko’s POB only reached #182 on the U.S. Billboard chart, and none of the six songs became singles.

John’s POB was the very first solo album by him I got, in January 2002. At the time, John was still my favorite Beatle, so it made sense to start my journey into the band’s solo work through him.

These songs are so raw and emotional, strongly influenced by the Primal Scream therapy John had recently undergone with Arthur Janov. He’s laying his heart, soul, and mind bare for the world to see, exposing these deep pains and traumas which had stalked him for so many years.

The first time I heard the opening track “Mother,” maybe two years before I got the album, I deeply sobbed through almost the entire song. That was one of the most emotional listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Penultimate track “God” is also one of the three songs which always gives me full-body goosebumps, getting stronger and stronger with each “I don’t believe in…” declaration. (The other two are The Monkees’ “Zor and Zam” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven o’Clock News/Silent Night.”)

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks. (Though it just seems wrong for there to be any bonus tracks! The album was already perfect as-is.)

“Mother” (#3 in Switzerland, #9 in Austria, #10 in The Netherlands, #12 in Canada, #26 in West Germany, #30 in Japan, #43 in the U.S., #57 in Australia)
“Hold On” (includes John’s impression of Cookie Monster)
“I Found Out” (he so gives the finger to everyone in this song!)
“Working Class Hero”
“Isolation”
“Remember” (ends with a reference to Guy Fawkes Night and the sound of an explosion)
“Love”
“Well Well Well”
“Look at Me”
“God”
“My Mummy’s Dead” (only 49 seconds long)
“Power to the People”*
“Do the Oz”*

My favorite tracks are “God,” “Love,” “I Found Out,” “Mother,” and “Working Class Hero.”

The album reached #1 in Canada and The Netherlands, #3 in Australia, #4 in Norway, #5 in Japan, #6 in the U.S., #8 in the U.K. and Sweden, and #39 in West Germany.

POB is widely considered John’s greatest solo album by far, and it’s always been my personal favorite as well. Many of those incessant best-of lists rank it quite highly.

It goes without saying that I highly, highly, highly recommend this album!

How my amazing journey hit a short-lived snag

Twenty years ago today, 30 November 2000, I got my fourth Who album, Odds and Sods. Based on all the glowing reviews at thewho.net (whose review section is now only viewable through archive.org), I was prepared to instantly love it.

But instead I hit an unexpected snag which left me wondering if I’d made a mistake. For a brief while, I had second thoughts about continuing my amazing journey with more albums.

That day, I had to go into town for an observation project for my child psychology class. Since I hadn’t a car, and didn’t know my way around Amherst well enough to trust getting on a bus out of the immediate vicinity, it had to be a place I could reach on foot. And none of the daycares and preschools I found in the phonebook were within walking distance.

Luckily, I found a church with a preschool whose teachers were more than happy to let me come over and observe. It was either First Church Amherst on Main St. or Grace Episcopal Church just off of Main.

Even that fairly short distance from campus seemed a long way to me! When you’re not familiar with a place, and are by yourself, you have little choice but to stay in a straight line if you don’t want to get lost, and not to go too far down any side streets.

After the conclusion of preschool, I decided to go into Newbury Comics on Main St. I’d wanted to go for awhile, but was held back by not being sure how to get there. Did I feel stupid when I realized how easy it is to get there! Approaching it from the other side provided a lot of obvious perspective.

Was I thrilled to find Odds and Sods in the CD section! I bought it with the cash I got from a recent study I’d taken part in for social psychology class credit. The checkout guy seemed kind of surprised by my purchase, though I never figured out if it were positive or negative.

This seems so hypocritical coming from someone who’s never cared what others think of me and who takes great pride in being different from the others, but for years I was held back from buying classic albums in stores because I was afraid the cashiers and customers would make fun of me for liking older music.

And now we have all these Gen Z kids on YouTube patting themselves on the back with comments like “Teeheehee, I’m only twelve and I love [band/singer from an earlier generation].” What do you want, a cookie and adults praising you as so much cooler than your peers?

That night in my single room in Chadbourne, I sat down to play O&S. Right away I was greeted by the shocking harmonica jolt of “I’m the Face.” I wouldn’t describe it as bad shocking, just not the type of sound I was expecting.

Because O&S is a compilation of, well, odds and sods, instead of a studio or even live album, the songs seemed kind of random and inconsistent. I didn’t think they were bad songs, just presented a bit confusingly.

Having both CD and vinyl now, I prefer the track order of the vinyl. It feels like more of a deliberately arranged album, odds and sods though the songs may be.

The CD remaster presents the songs chronologically, which gives an entirely different listening experience. After twenty years, I’m obviously more than used to it, but I can’t help but wonder how it’d sound if it were arranged as the original album plus bonus tracks.

Because of my experience with O&S, I always write album reviews as though a newbie is reading them. Some fool on Amazon once mocked me because I always mention if an album is ideal for a new fan or more for established fans. Why do so many people write reviews as though only longtime hardcore fans are reading them? I had serious second thoughts about getting another Who album because none of the reviews I read mentioned how O&S, while great, isn’t the most ideal album to get so early in one’s amazing journey.

I got my fifth Who album, The Who Sell Out, on 6 December, so I obviously wasn’t derailed for that long. Had O&S been my first Who album, however, it might’ve gone a lot differently. Tommy was challenging enough as my first.

But as Fate turned out, O&S was my fourth, and it just feels right. I couldn’t imagine any other album as my fourth.