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Baroque Rocks! Reviews

LES FRADKIN - "Baroque Rocks!"

RRO Entertainment (RRO-1031)

Les Fradkin-

On this album, Fradkin's  expertise on the Starr Labs Ztar Midi Guitar, is simply brilliant  with an added  dash of  amazing.  He used  the Midi guitar to  simulate   fantastic keyboard and orchestral sounds while   providing solid percussion; added with his flawless technique, Les has created another winning disc.   

Baroque Rocks! definitely pays a huge homage to Antonio Vivaldi. The first track begins with the opening movement of the ninth concerto of Opus 8.  As with most of the tracks, Les plays it rather straight and  sticks with the compositional building blocks of the music, but the Mellotron and  harpsichord and  percussion, give it  a new take; surprisingly,  I was hooked with this   excellent new interpretation. 
 
The majority of Vivaldi's ‘The Four Seasons’  makes up tracks 4 through 7. Aside from the opening track, this  is my personal favorite part of the album. Fradkin varies the illustrative sounds that Vivaldi composed with  the addition of his signature digital effects and technique. In the ‘Winter’ section, Fradkin keeps it  closer to the great  composer by his use of harpsichord sounds.
 
Mason Williams’ ‘Classical Gas,’ Pachelbel’s ‘Canon,’ and Handel are all Fradkin-ized on the album, the former utilizing some killer synth sounds. But after listening to 2/3s of Baroque Rocks! ,besides the high quality masterly of the instrumentation,  a subtle sameness to the approach slightly overpowered even Fradkin's expertise.  Too much of a good thing? Or not enough variety in the composer's and song choices?  Difficult to say. 
 
Baroque Rocks! is like having the Boston Pops married  with Yngwie Malmsteen's technique, and clever digital trappings that  make it very enjoyable. I was happily surprised how Les approached  the  body of work, adding his mastery (and  digital spin), without  venturing into  corny or hokey territory.  By the way,  production quality is very good. 
 
I would consider this one of the best classical  homage albums done by  a rocker. If this is your bag, this  a  definite must  buy.   But  as a  progrocker, I  would have  loved to  have Les used a few more dynamic  composers that  would have  fit  into a more proggy motif.   Still, Les clearly shows a deep love  for the  Baroque Classical  composers, and this fondness definitely is contagious to this listener. Nice job.
 
Rating  8.9   (If you are a hardcore or experimental prog fans, you  need not apply.  Grading  is entirely subjective).
Les Fradkin- "Baroque Rocks!
LES FRADKIN "Baroque Rocks!"
RRO Entertainment (RRO–1031):

The Myth Of El Cid; Handel Rocks; All The King’s Men; Spring; Summer; Autumn; Winter; Classical Gas; Canon In D; Air On A G-String; Baroque And Roll; Anthem For All Nations

Music of the Baroque era has commonly been raided by rock instrumentalists beguiled by its melodic inventiveness, its variety, its exuberance and its wide-ranging instrumentation, all of which aspects are mirrored in this collection. The Fradkin workshop centres around the remarkable Starr Labs Ztar Midi Guitar (have a look at YouTube to see it in action).


Most of the parts were played from this remarkable instrument, drums included (percussion on this CD is very much to the fore and is handled superbly). Orchestration software takes in Moog, Mellotron and the Vienna Symphonic Library (strings, oboe); the CD insert provides further details of musical resources including harpsichord, organ and a variety of guitars. It’s a joy to listen to this formidable range of equipment in the hands of such an inventive musician.

Vivaldi occupies a special place in the Baroque canon and does so on this disc, as Les exploits to the full key elements of Vivaldi’s craft, not least the “rushing scales, driving rhythms and piercing timbres” singled out by Alex Ross in his fine profile in the The New Yorker of February 2001.

The CD gets off to a cracking start with the opening movement of the ninth concerto of Opus 8, the set which gave the world ‘The Four Seasons’. Presented as either an oboe or a violin concerto, it is best listened to in its former guise — an elegant and tuneful piece featuring smoothly-oiled woodwind played off against penetrating strings and bobbing continuo. In Les’ hands it’s pure dynamite: the Venetian building-blocks are there and fully respected, but the explosiveness of the opening notes is sustained with the Mellotron, harpsichord and the rest reinforced by pounding percussion including — strikingly, in tune with the new title with its Hispanic associations — the clatter of castanets along with timpani and shakers! Track 3 draws on the closing movement of violin concerto No.8 in the relatively neglected but highly accomplished collection published as Opus 7. It’s a sprightly, busy piece wafted along by extremely robust continuo. Here it’s given extra pep, to put it mildly: conjured up is a picture of courtly bustle, ‘a bit European and regal’ as Les himself puts it, hence the title.

‘The Four Seasons’ is made up of four concertos each of three movements, the central slackening the pace and providing sharp tonal and thematic contrasts with the outer. Tracks 4–7 take in the opening movements of all except ‘Summer’, which is represented by the third movement with its dynamic storm sequence. ‘Spring’, that perennial favourite invested with one of Vivaldi’s killer melodies, bursts into life with Moog and Mellotron set against a background of hammering percussion, the famous bird cries given a winningly ‘electronic’ edge as they erupt from either side of the stereo soundstage! Recent flamboyant interpreters of Vivaldi have naturally had a field day not only with these but also with the violent storm scene that follows on, and Les rises to the occasion magnificently with a searing sound picture of the eruption of thunder characteristic of the Mediterranean spring climate, the crashes reinforced by fearsomely droning synth effects. Hailstones accompany thunder in the closing movement of ‘Summer’ in a cascading, swirling flurry of sound from Moog and Mellotron with sharp-toned violins courtesy of Vienna Symphonic Library and adroitly managed percussion. The opening movement of ‘Autumn’ depicts the peasant song and dance that follows upon the safe gathering in of the harvest, the drinkers falling into an intoxicated sleep. The dance here is more of a stomp as Les brings in a characterful Hammond organ to complement the rich palette of sound and hammer home the exhilarating melody. With ‘Winter’ percussive effects take a back seat and the spotlight is on Moog supported by strings and — as scored by Vivaldi to point up the picture of biting winds and icy cold that sets the teeth chattering — that coolest of instruments, the harpsichord.

Tracks 8 to 11 present a mixed programme. Mason Williams’ ‘Classical Gas’ certainly reflects the pace and colour exhibited by much Baroque music (here we are treated to a big bold acoustic guitar sound, actually a nylon string guitar sample played from the Ztar, with snazzy synth orchestration) while Les’ own ‘Baroque And Roll’ is a proud, stately, richly textured piece mirroring the stylistic grandiosity of the period.

Between these we have two thoroughly familiar compositions. Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ all too often drearily blights Baroque anthologies, but here it comes over as exceptionally vivacious: the famous melody is complemented by a lead Stratocaster that contributes a melody of its own (penned by Les) and accompanied by a sonorous Rickenbacker 12-string. Next, its frequent soulmate, Bach’s ‘Air’, the lead of which consists of a custom made soprano sax patch; it sounds, well, nice and airy, if rather low-key in the context of the CD as a whole.

Let us end with another of the giants of the era. Handel is said to have remarked to a compatriot: “What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear.” Les has done well to pick out one such specimen for track 2, the boisterous second movement from Opus 6, No.2. What would Handel have made, one wonders, of that larger than life bassline and the thumping percussion competing strenuously with the thrilling lead sounds of Moog and Mellotron? The same ‘Concerti Grossi’ set provides the impulse for the last track. This is the closing movement of Op.6 No.5, a typically elegant minuet dazzlingly transformed into an anthem of truly Handelian majesty (note the striking evocation of an ethereal choir from 2:45). Les deploys four Mellotron dubs to create an awesomely ample soundstage recalling the huge musical resources mustered by the maestro himself in the anthems he composed for the wonderfully reverberant acoustics of Westminster Abbey.

‘Baroque Rocks!’ is very far from being just another ‘RI goes Classical’ collection. Full of clever touches, it constantly surprises, much like Vivaldi’s compositions, and furnishes an object lesson in the skilful use of modern technology to create an illusion of large-scale musical forces — a sleight of hand that brilliantly re-interprets shining compositions sourced from what an eminent writer on the period has termed ‘a fascinating cast of musical magicians’.

Reference: New Gandy Dancer, Issue 90 [July 2009], pp.13-14
Malcolm Campbell - New Gandy Dancer Magazine-July 2009 (Aug 7, 2009)