feature photo: Sal DeVincenzo, courtesy of Cuneiform Records
The notion of progressive rock often suggests the melding of rock with some elements of jazz or jazz fusion, due to extended song forms and an emphasis on instrumental prowess. Thinking Plague sets itself apart from most other arty rock bands in that it draws from other areas outside of rock to forge its identity, primarily in the extended composition techniques often associated with classical. It’s the hallmark of this band from its start in 1982 and the lone remaining founding member Mike Johnson is responsible for a symphonic approach to songwriting that has become almost a forgotten art anywhere near the realm of rock. His band is sort of a reincarnation of Henry Cow.
Maybe because these kind of songs take time to flesh out, Thinking Plague has issued only seven albums in that thirty-five year period, with its seventh one Hoping Against Hope released February 10, 2017, and like every one since the fourth one In Extremist (1998), under the Cuneiform label banner.
Thinking Plague is in its current configuration a six-piece band: joining Johnson and his guitar, samples and midi instruments are stalwarts Mark Harris (reeds and flute) and Dave Wiley (bass), as well as Elaine di Falco (voice, accordion and piano) and Robin Chestnut (drums and percussion). The newest addition is Bill Pohl, who adds a second guitar to the group for the first time in its history. That tweaks the dynamic of the music in favor of a stronger rock element, but nothing is diminished on the non-rock side of things, so what results is music that packs a little more punch. Meanwhile, more acoustic instrumentation — some provided by guest musicians — bolsters the classical and folk ingredients.
Johnson originally conceived Hoping Against Hope as an album that’s more uplifting and positive than it actually turned out, but political events of 2016 which I don’t need to explain here had turned the mood from “things are looking up” to “things don’t look so sporty right now but don’t lose hope.” Thus, it’s a (experimental) rock opera, but one with darker hues.
The anti-militarism communiqués “The Echoes of Their Cries” and “Commuting to Murder” gets their messages out through di Falco’s vocal which comes off more as sung poetry, which suits the mood and structure of songs like these better. The former is constructed around a bass figure between the beats with lyrics that become one with harmony by syncopating with that bass figure. In between are some knotty interplay among guitar, clarinet and accordion (uncommon in rock, indeed). “Murder” follows the stanzas with instrumental passages that straddle the line between yearning and despair and an uneasy guitar figure that pervades the entire song.
“Thus Have We Made the World” is an instrumental that’s played with the fine precision of a Swiss watch, with a current of avant-classical competing against rock, now reinforced with the presence of that second guitar. It’s fun to hear four or five instruments plays on parallel courses and rush in together in harmonic unison, jarring tempo shifts that signal the start of a new virtual movement.
The semi-dissonant folk chord sequence that launches “Hoping Against Hope” soon moves through several sections that might be technically complex but it’s really about imparting a feeling of trying to stay optimistic in darker times. The doom march of “The Great Leap Backwards” culminates into a dramatic, near-free climax. Much of the ‘dirge’ from “A Dirge For the Unwitting” comes courtesy of di Falco’s accordion, which was recorded in such a way as to sound more like an accordion section, throwing off a sonic thickness approaching that of a church pipe organ.
Like other Thinking Plague efforts, Hoping Against Hope uses uber sophisticated song-smithing and arrangements to get across straightforward messages. Only this time, the message — and thus the music — is a bit more urgent.
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