Sunday, September 27, 2009

Phantasmagorical, Master and Musicain II - Phil Keaggy

Phantasmagorical: Master and Musician volume II, by Phil Keaggy

A deep disappointment, a raging delight (! - ?)

One may wonder how I could ever be disappointed in a Phil Keaggy album, but my disappointment has nothing to do with the music, but rather with part of the title.

Title part One: Phantasmagorical.
Linear notes read: Phantasmagorical: 1) a shifting series of phantasm, illusion, or appearances, is in dream or as created by the imagination. 2) A changing scene made up of many elements 3) an optical illusion in which figures increase or diminish in size, pass into each other dissolve, etc. This note perfectly describes the album and everything that makes it work. I fully applaud the title part of the title.

Master and Musician II.
Nope. Sorry. This subtitle set me up. I expected something with greater musical and spiritual connection to Master and the Musician, one of the great albums in the history of the world. I have long wanted just such a followup and was thrilled to see that someone else held my vision. But this is not that album.

Not that Phantasmagorical isn’t top of craft. It’s a very mature work showcasing lessons learned in the thirty years since M and M’s release. But this album misses so many elements that made Master I a distinctive work that there is no good reason to ride off of its coattails. And the compassion disappoints.

Master and Musician one was what we used to call a concept album. The total functioned as a unit, built around a theme... In this case the theme came in the form of a real story, reminiscent of little mini tale by George McDonald (or Lewis or Tolkien) spilling across front and back of the album sleeve. The story itself set a stage for hearing the music, so that even though Master and Musician featured VERY diverse musical components (an M and M highlight), the story wove them together. Linear Notes from the 30 year Anniversary reissue, note that the story was created after the music was created, in part as a way to present (and justify) the ground- breaking instrumental to a largely Christian audience. Even so, the story helped us hear the music as part of sacred narrative, complete with castles, golden halls, a wedding feast and the calling of distant land. I heard Christ wooing his bride. I head Aslan padding in the Hall. Indeed, I remember a review from the time. It asked what in fact might make a Christian instrumental album different from any other… (if not lack of skill;) -- But the reviewer said something that made sense to me. M and M, sounded “anointed.” That is, in disposition, skill and beauty it carried audio blessing beyond the mere music.

Beyond that Master and the Musician featured something that was a hall mark of several early PK recordings… The artful weaving (or sometimes immediate shifting) from acoustic to bold rock and back to acoustic. Master did this in a way I had never heard before. Was it jazz (or classical) or rock? (It was all and more)Master 2 simply doesn’t invite immediate comparison.

Phantasmagorical does feature several “madrigal” tunes that could have been placed in Master and Musician and fit very well. The album also masters the art of shift and weave, but it more from ambient acoustic to jazz acoustic. Gone are the blazing rock anthems. The biggest difference however is in the narrative. Phantasmagorical functions as a conceptual unit, but there is no story line or jacket notes to prime our imaginations. No knights or brides or castles. No Christ wooing his beloved. No throne with seraphim. No Aslan padding through the forest.

Lest I be misunderstood, I would not begin to suggest that M and M is "Christian", in a way that Phantasmagorical is not. Within the calendar week both Friday and Sunday belong to God. An album need not be baptized in Christian language or themes to bring pleasure to God or his people. It’s simply that Master and Musician fed my sacred imagination directly whereas as Phantasmagorical functions at the level of a sonic treat. Phantasmagorical needs no reference to M and M to justify its existence (or sell more records.)

So…. What does Phantasmagorical do right? Most everything …. (Except the subtitle!)

This is a mature album that incorporates elements of all that has gone before it. Here are the strong acoustic rifts of Acoustic Sketches and Freehand, Here are the melodic elements of the Quiet Hours or Cinemascapes. Here are stellar musicians playing a host of instruments, working with PK in the spirit of Beyond Nature (though less dense), and here are some of the weird and slightly hypnotic experiments of the highly looped album: Roundabouts.In two months I have listened to Phantasmagorical near one hundred times... This is an album with that real lasting power. It may be that real musicians, playing real instruments, give this album depth not heard n PK's lower-budget solo albums. And the song “Caffeinated Dessert” may be one of the loveliest most satisfying melodies ever created. Ever.

Beyond that, there are musical textures in this album that I have seldom -- if ever heard. When is the last time you heard and electric guitar and a clarinet (or oboe?) in tight harmony?

In short, Phantasmagorical reaches a level of musical complexity that may eclipse his earlier works. It’s beautiful. I highly recommend it. It’s just not M and M.

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