Thinking Plague

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A Thinking Plague , 6/10
Moonsongs, 6.5/10
In This Life, 6.5/10
In Extremis , 6/10
Bob Drake: What Day Is It (1993), 6.5/10
Bob Drake: Little Black Train (1996), 6/10
Bob Drake: Medallion Animal Carpet , 7/10
Bob Drake: The Skull Mailbox , 6.5/10
Bob Drake: 13 Songs And A Thing (2003), 6/10
Thinking Plague: A History of Madness (2003), 6/10
Vril: Effigies in Cork (2003), 6/10
Bob Drake: The Shunned Country (2005), 5/10
Bob Drake: Bob's Drive-in (2011), 6/10
Nimby: Songs For Adults (2006), 5/10
Hail: Hello Debris (2006), 6/10
Vril: The Fatal Duckpond (2009), 5/10
Thinking Plague: Decline And Fall (2012), 4.5/10

The Thinking Plague were a Denver-based ensemble formed in 1981 by guitarist Mike Johnson and bassist Bob Drake. Only 500 copies of A Thinking Plague (Endemic, 1984) were released. The album's suits displayed a Zappa-esque passion for orchestral arrangements (Possessed) and for collage techniques (the 15-minute Thorns Of Blue And Red).

Moonsongs (Dead Man's Curve, 1987), featuring vocalist Suzanne Lewis and keyboardist Eric Jacobson, was the album that established their credentials within the prog-rock community. Warheads is a typical prog-rock collage equally inspired to Art Bears and Frank Zappa. The band's naive approach is redeemed by the exoteric ending. Moonsongs is the extended piece that promoted them among the genre's protagonists (thanks to voice manipulation, chamber strings, free improvisation, tribal percussion and the closing song), but the album's standout is easily the astral psalm of Inside Out. Moonsongs sounds like Van Der Graaf Generator updated to the generation of alt-rock. The intellectual stance is occasionally out of control, but avantgarde pretentions are actually quite restrained.

Thinking Plague's first two albums were later collected as Early Plague Years (Cuneiform, 2000).

Virtuoso bassist Bob Drake also played in 5UU's.

Mike Johnson and Bob Drake recruited Shane Hotle on keyboards and Mark Harris on woodwinds to record In This Life (ReR, 1989 - Cuneiform, 2015), that contains material composed during the whole decade including Lycanthrope (7:17), the chaotic and wildly polyrhythmic Organism (11:46) and the bluesy, agonizing (and unusually melodic) Fountain Of All Tears (7:40). This was their last album to feature singer Susanne Lewis.

I Thinking Plague sono un ensemble di Denver (Colorado) fondato nel 1981 dal chitarrista Mike Johnson e dal bassista Bob Drake. A Thinking Plague (Endemic, 1984) venne pubblicato in sole 500 copie.

Moonsongs (Dead Man's Curve, 1987), con la cantante Susanne Lewis,

(Translation of the English text by/ Tradotto da Paolo Latini)

I primi due album dei Thinking Plague saranno poi raccolti su Early Plague Years (Cuneiform, 2000). Warheads è un tipico collage prog-rock ispirato tanto dagli Art Bears quanto da Frank Zappa. L'approccio naif della band è vilanciato dal finale esotico. Moonsongs è la traccia estesa che li promuove tra i protagonisti principali del genere (grazie alla manipolazione delle voci, gli archi da camera, l'improvvisazione libera, le percussioni tribali), ma il pezzo migliore dell'album è decisamente il salmo astrale Inside Out. Il fine intellettuale è qua e là fuori controllo, ma le pretese avanguardiste sono veramente ridotte.

Il secondo album aumenta il fattore orchestrale (Possessed) e perfeziona le tecniche di collage (i quindici minuti di Thorns Of Blue And Red), fino a suonare ancor più zappiano.

Il bassista Bob Drake suonava anche con i 5UU's.

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Drake e Lewis registrarono anche Venus Handcuffs (1986) come Corpses As Bedmates, e poi tre album come Hail: Gypsy Cat & Gypsy Bird (Prolific, 1988), con Star In The Sky, Turn of the Screw (ReR, 1991), che comprende anche canzoni del disco precedente, e Kirk (1993).

Lewis recorded the solo albums Kissyfur (1994), Frambuesa (1995), Susanne Lewis (2000).

I Thinking Plague assumono poi David Kerman dei 5uu's alla batteria, per sostituire il bassista Drake che si e` trasferito in Francia, e la cantante Deborah Perry per sostituire Lewis che si e` trasferita a New York. In Extremis (Cuneiform, 1998) contiene il materiale registrato durante gli anni '90, per lo piu` da una formazione con Johnson, Perry, Harris, Kerman, Hotle e il bassista Dave Willey. L'album, come i precedenti, e` disseminato di sonorita` Henry Cow (Dead Silence), Yes, King Crimson e Frank Zappa (This Weird Wind).
Piu` sperimentali i due lunghi brani: Les Etudes D'Organism, rocambolesco e clownesco, e` forse il loro capolavoro, mentre Kingdom Come indulge forse troppo in cambiamenti repentini di stile.

What Day Is It (Squidco, 1993 - ReR, 2006) was bassist Bob Drake's first venture into avantgarde roots-music. Boasting Yes-like vocal harmonies, Drake penned atmospheric ballads such as The House and The Cemetery Trees, enhanced with slightly dissonant acoustic guitar, but mostly excelled at the psychedelic bluegrass romps of Weeds and Spiders. His virtuoso and perverted musical genius shone in irreverent pieces such as Rainy, a fantastic series of twisted variations on the melody of John Brown's Body, achieving stunning levels of abstraction in apparently humble statements such as the industrial interlude Plates and the funereal, impressionistic Death Valley. The use of unorthodox techniques derailed each and every piece. Coupled with a youthful verve, this approach yielded an unlikely combination of modern and ancient that was the perfect definition of life in the metropolitan far west. (Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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Il bassista Bob Drake ha registrato da solo alcuni dischi di avanguardia, per lo piu` strumentali. Little Black Train (Crumbling Tomes Archive, 1996) e` suonato all'insegna di un country-rock mozzafiato ma tutto fuori misura. Drake e` un virtuoso della chitarra e del basso e stona in maniera aristocraticamente intrigante il furibondo "picking" del bluegrass. Ne vien fuori una versione folle del country impressionista di Leo Kottke, che spazia dalla quadriglia ubriaca di Charge all'honkytonk quasi punk-rock di Conductor, dal valzer romantico di Leach Field Coyote alla magica atmosfera di Haunted Love. Il limite del disco e` che i brani migliori sono quelli piu` brevi. Quando Drake si ricorda del progressive-rock, il disco si affloscia (salvo gli spunti di Graveyard Variations e Ends Of Time).
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Bob Drake's second album, Medallion Animal Carpet (ReR, 1999), is a more ambitious enterprise. Drake alternates on guitar, bass, drums, violin, electronic keyboards and you name it. A few friends help out, but Drake does most of the chores. No less fragmented (24 tracks, mostly under two minutes long) than the previous one, the album takes full advantage of modern recording processes. Drake's virtuoso picking is left in the background, while the mixer runs the show. Drake is reluctant heir to a tradition of freaks and hippies of an era long gone. He evokes the lunacy of the Residents and of Captain Beefheart (Detrimental Robot, Dehydrated), matches the drunk folk gags of the Holy Modal Rounders (Maybe It's, Title Unknown and above all Over In The Glory Land, a triumph of sorts). Industrial/concrete techniques and wild sampling lead the maverick to the glorious craziness of How Was It and Hideous Shrub, up to a most demented form of super-avantgarde (How Was It). The gusty country-rock at breakneck speed of the previous album, the ancestor of this album's genre nose-thumbing, resurfaces in Mound and Title Unknown. On the other hand, Slab could fit on an Enigma album. Two memorable, albeit grotesquely comic and unabashedly amateurish, hippie singalongs such as I Wish It Had Been A Dream Handing Me Down My Walking Cane close the song cycle on a quasi-religious note which owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Bob Dylan. Drake's is a wild ride down the dark but fascinating alleys of a very perverted musical mind.

Drake is also a member of the progressive-rock ensemble Science Group (with the likes of Chris Cutler and Fred Frith).

The Skull Mailbox (Rer, 2001) continues Bob Drake's journey through a fantastical musical past with a 27-episode saga that focuses on melody, as if he got sick of the pop-revival fad led by the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. His "pop" music is, needless to say, not "pop" at all. Drake shows amazing dexterity in articulating catchy refrains and concocting charming arrangements with a multitude of instruments (all played by him in person), but then drowns them in dissonances, sound effects and mad counterpoints. Worse: each song is like truncated after a few syllables (very few songs reach the two-minute limit).
Incomplete fragments like The Tower and You Can't Outwit That Thing could easily become top-10 hits in the hands of mainstream songwriters. Drake "wastes" them in a few seconds. And so pieces like the cacophonous lullaby They Live In The Well and The Demented Statuary evoke a cross between Syd Barrett and Half Japanese. Cellar Of Madness and In The Tomb show that Drake must have spent quite a it of time listening to old operettas, but each "aria" is given a surreal twist by the fireworks of acoustic guitars, accordions, banjos and violins. For someone whose lyrics are the quintessence of primitivism (including a couple of one-line songs), Drake goes to a grotesque extent to dramatize the music. Drake has been evolving towards a complex form of song structure, as proven by The Miraculous Reliquary and Some Accursed Things. The Horrible Garden sounds like a spoof of progressive-rock, of Yes and of Thick As A Brick-era Jethro Tull.
The first Drake album placed emphasis on his guitar playing. By the third one, we hardly notice his impeccable fingerpicking (with the notable exception of The Wig Screamed Murder). The guitar is only one element within a complex whole.
This is Drake's answer to pop "tours de force" like Olivia Tremor Control's Dusk at Cubist Castle and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over The Sea. Drake's album is as hummable and as baroque as theirs. But he has got enough imagination, and enough perversion, to turn each melody into a musical nightmare, or, better, into a fascinating nonsense.

13 Songs And A Thing (ReR, 2003) continues in that "pop" vein with the noir atmosphere of Ten for a Dime, the angular roots-rock of In Case the Insulator Fails, and the 13-minute nightmare of Building with Bones.

Thinking Plague's A History of Madness (Cuneiform, 2003), with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's drummer David Shamrock, marks a new zenith of eloquence for Mike Johnson. It is not only the crystal-clear production and the calmer, wiser pace that creates a different feeling. There is also a new approach to mixing elements of different cultures, and, particularly, a new way of setting the stage for the vocals. This is exemplified by Blown Apart, a sophisticated juxtaposition of Deborah Perry's renaissance-style vocals and absurdist instrumental parts that borrow from Henry Cow and Frank Zappa. At the same time, Rapture Of The Deep exemplifies a new technique in morphing neoclassical elements to the point that they dissolve in open-ended structures, a refined abstraction which is almost the exact opposite of "baroque". The two techniques merge in Out Way Of Life And War On Terra, which is both an ambitious electronic poem and a tribute to the human voice. The Underground Stream and especially Lux Luce further deteriorate the texture and the dynamics, leaving the vocals exposed to all sorts of instrumental dementia.

Vril is Bob Drake, Lukas Simonis on guitar and Chris Cutler on drums. Their debut album, Effigies in Cork (Rer, 2003) is a set of post-modern guitar instrumentals, that mimick anything from surf music to Mexican polka (Supersonic Canteen), from ragtime (Inexplicable Jar) to country yarn (Spangled Farmyard), from Duan Eddy-ian epics (Wrinkled Lantern) to Chuck Berry-ian blues-rock (Groovy Vitamin).

Drake's solo The Shunned Country (ReR, 2005) consists of 50 brief vignettes inspired by gothic tales.

Bob Drake of Thinking Plague and David Kerman of 5uus joined forces to form Nimby, a quartet of prog-rock veterans (also guitarist James Grigsby and trombonist Jerry Wheeler) that devoted each song of Songs For Adults (ReR, 2006) to a different genre of music: the musichall skit of Midlife Crisis, the slow ballad Four Ways To Love, the pounding folk rigmarole of I'm The Grumpy Old Man Now, the bossanova Detour De Jour, the reggae novelty of Disability Waitress, the vintage garage-blues of The Mass Is Crass, and especially the martial country-pop ballad The Ballad of Nimby. The Mersey-beat refrain of Tattoo Removal is derailed by surreal noises, the solemn singalong of Not In My Backyard is drowned in distortion, and the big-band jazz of Everybody's Hanging is pierced by atonal guitar, but mostly the conventions of the song format rule supreme. This is mostly casual amusement by a group of pranksters, but at least the first song, Slap The Patch, is pure genius: what starts as a take on Grand Funk Railroad's American Woman, soon escalates to an epic theme a` la Ennio Morricone.

Hail returned with Hello Debris (ReR, 2006), a collection of 18 brief songs sung by Susanne Lewis spanning a broad range of styles.

Vril returned with another joyful collection, The Fatal Duckpond (ReR, 2009), that added second guitarist Pierre Omer to the trio of Cutler, Drake and Simonis. The show ranges, like the first time, from nostalgic vignettes (Duckpond, the highlight) to clownish garage rave-ups (Baffling Calcium Lantern Light), from drunk blues (A Base Knave Behind the Arras) to gallopping country & western (Casa Incognita), from quasi-Merseybeat (Enter Pabstus Tack) to psychotic bluegrass (Fateful Speech Impediment) (the third highlight). Alas, too many of the other brief concoctions sound half-baked.

Bob Drake's Bob's Drive-in (ReR, 2011) is an album concept that pays tribute to the genres and styles of the 1950s and 1960s. Keep Light Away from This Product is a clownish hiccupping country & western gallop, Recreational Guide to the Solar System for Humans mocks musichall and Western movies with Frank Zappa-esque verve, Pardon My Varmint and Everybody Wants to Meet My Raccoon (perhaps Drake's all-time melodic peak) outdo Beatles at silly refrains and vocal harmonies. For about seven songs this is Drake's best album (and craziest idea ever). The live section replays 11 of these ditties.

Thinking Plague's sixth album Decline And Fall (Cuneiform, 2012) featured new keyboardist and percussionist Kimara Sajn and vocalist Elaine DeFalco, but not bassist Bob Drake. Mike Johnson's compositions mark a regression to a more convoluted and cryptic format compared with A History of Madness. It is not all for the better. In fact, the instability of Malthusian Dances and the endless mutations of I Cannot Fly make it difficult to grasp the purpose and even to enjoy the skills of the players (the singer simply vocalizes wordlessly). The ethereal atmosphere of closer Climbing The Mountain could be the antidote to all the creative frenzy of the previous pieces, but here it's the vocals that don't quite seem to fit. The Art Bears influence is not always beneficial. The conventional prog-rock song Sleeper Cell Anthem almost comes like a relief. The 12-minute A Virtuous Man swims in and out of electronic effects (and samples), and contains an eerie chamber intermezzo, but, again, the predictable instrumental and vocal phrasing of the refrain kill its pathos.

Thinking Plague's Hoping Against Hope (Cuneiform, 2017) contains the ten-minute Hoping Against Hope with Kathryn Cooper on oboe, and the 13-minute A Dirge For The Unwitting with Dave Willey on accordion and Adriana Teodoro-Dier on piano.

Johnson also performed with Dave Willey's ensemble Hamster Theatre that released Siege on Hamburger City (1998), Carnival Detournement (2001), and the live The Public Execution of Mr Personality / Quasi Dayroom (2006). Dave Willey also released Immeasurable Currents (2011). Drake and Dave Kerman recorded Bob's Drivein (2011).

Bob Drake released many solo albums after 2012: Lawn Ornaments (2014), containing 16 "overproduced" miniatures, with an unusual amount of keyboards; Etudes et Improvisations pour Banjo (2015), ten of which were recorded outdoors during a strong wind; Classic Guitar Stylings (2015); Arx Pilosa (2016), containing 20 short songs; the sour-song EP Black Sulphur Spring (2016); the 15 organ improvisations of Withered Bouquet (2016); the 16 rock and pop songs of L'Isola dei Lupi (2018), some of them bordering on hard-rock; the nine guitar improvisations of October Improvisations (2018); the 10-minute EP 2 Improvisations dans une Eglise (2019); 11 Miniatures for Piano and Bass (2019), none longer than one minute; The Gardens of Beastley Manor (2019), which contains compositions (not improvisations) for a variety of acoustic, electric and electronic instruments.

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