V (2) ASTRONOMER

SIDE ONE

Most of the discography of Johannes Kepler was produced in the early sixteen hundreds. His first producer, Prince Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg, helped him move beyond teaching to become a major player in the scientific revolution of the 17th-century.

Kepler’s early genre was mathcore, though he dabbled in spiritual jazz (astrology) and progressive rock (astronomy). In keeping with the times, a Christian theme runs through much of his work. A collaboration with space rock pioneer Tycho Brahe was hugely influential, especially later for Kepler’s sci-fi concept album. Kepler also jammed with Galileo, but they never recorded together.

The first major album Kepler released was Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Cosmographic Mystery, 1596), defending the work of Copernicus. Kepler was very keen on a model of the solar system based on polyhedral shapes, suggesting his generative role in fantasy role-playing games has been severely under-estimated.

Kepler with his prototype stereo phonographic stylus

Landing the gig as imperial mathematician was good news for Kepler. His primary duty was the creation of horoscopes for Archduke Ferdinand (and anyone the Emperor pointed at). It was a good time for Johannes, who worked on the Rudolphine Tables and one of his biggest hits, describing the Inverse-square Law governing the intensity of light.

There were other major releases, but one stand-out is his Somnium (recorded around 1611, but not released until after his death). Considered by many to be one of the very first science fiction stories, it tells of Duracotus, a lad who studies astronomy with Tycho Brahe (sound familiar?) before returning home to his mother, who happens to be a witch with an interest in astronomy too. What’s more, she knows how to summon daemons, spirits able to transport young Duracotus to Levania, the Earth’s moon. The daemon tells him that Levania is “fifty thousand miles up in the aether” and that the daemons can take him there in four hours. “Bring it on!” shouts Duracotus, in Latin.

There follows an adventure on the moon wherein the inhabitants explain lots of interesting aspects of their planet and lifestyle, including their abhorrence of sunlight. To avoid the dangerous rays they live on the dark side of the moon, which is why we knew nothing about them until Pink Floyd.

Kepler ends the story abruptly with the rather hackneyed “I’ve-run-out-of-ideas” stratagem “…and then I woke up”. Although it probably wasn’t so unoriginal four centuries ago.

SIDE TWO

Louis F. Davis—aka “Chip” Davis—was born and raised in Ohio. He graduated from the University of Michigan music school, majoring in bassoon and percussion. Chip worked as an advertising jingle writer, teaming up with William Fries—that’s right, Chip joined with Fries—to pen the #1 CB radio hit “Convoy” which they recorded as CW McCall. 

Breaker breaker.

In 1974, Davis formed his band Mannheim Steamroller to explore a fusion of rock and classical music. Generating little recording industry interest, he formed his own label, American Gramophone, and, with a wink to the famous Deutsche Grammophon imprint, released Mannheim Steamroller I in 1975.

American Gramophone records are noted for their excellent recording techniques and overall sound quality. People often buy them for the sound rather than the music. One particular genre where the Steamroller has been very successful is Christmas Music. It seems that pressing classical stylings, rock voices and festive tunes into crystalline recordings has resulted in sales in the tens of millions (according to the Wikipedia page on Mr Davis, citations needed).

The first seven Mannheim Steamroller albums—called Fresh Aire, Fresh Aire II, Fresh Aire III, Fresh Aire IV, Fresh Aire V, Fresh Aire VI and Fresh Aire VII, released between 1975 and 1990—were all certified ‘Gold’ in the US, suggesting that Chip Davis was absolutely right to back his vision of neo-classical, gently prog-rocking, new age friendly, keyboard-based music.

I first heard Mannheim Steamroller when I worked in the Record / Hi-Fi shop, where the crisp drum sounds and vibrant dynamics were ideal for demonstrating our better sound gear. Back then the music didn’t do much for me. I was into King Crimson’s Red so it seemed old-fashioned and safe. Sounded great, though.

SIDE THREE

What made me purchase Fresh Aire V, not long back? 

Certainly not the announcement on the front cover that Chip Davis’s trio was accompanied by London Symphony and the Cambridge Singers. That combo has the deadly whiff of MOR and dinner jackets about it. Neither was it familiarity with the two Mannheim Steamroller albums already in the VC hoard. I don’t really know them well, and only think of them when I’m contemplating auditioning new speakers, an activity that occurs every fifteen to twenty years, or thereabouts. 

Was the pull a lingering audiophile hangover, an after image arising from the new turntable of 2016?

Then again, a glance at the back cover revealed Fresh Aire V (1983) to be a concept album. The inveterate prog-head in me simply can’t resist a concept album. And what a curious notion: an album of two halves, “To the moon” and “On the moon” inspired by the story Somnium by Johannes Kepler. 

Beam me up, Spirit.

Inner gatefold painting by ‘visionary artist’ Gilbert Williams*

Things open angelically with the Cambridge Singers doing a fine Abbey chant (“Lumen”) before the medieval synth-rock trio kick in with “Escape from the atmosphere”. It has to be said that this sounds less like Rick Wakeman than The Alan Parsons Project. Allmusic said that, and I pretty much concur. If that’s your cup of keyboard, you’ll love V.

“Dancin’ in the stars” is a pretty tune laden with orchestral flourishes, while side two leads off with “Z-Row gravity” (see what Chip did there?), an exploratory synth piece that sounds like Vangelis messing about in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—one of my favourite tracks here. “Earthrise” is quite epic in a soundtracky way… Chariots In Space, perhaps. 

This is a well-played, beautifully recorded and thoroughly polite album. Yet there is a certain charm that makes me think I’ll drag this out now and then, perhaps when I want a lush, comfortable trip to the lighter side of the moon or the morning after a dream about space daemons.

* Gilbert Williams did the artwork for I Am The Centre, the 3 LP Light In The Attic compilation reviewed here.

25 comments

  1. What?? There is a Mannheim Steamroller / “Convoy” connection?

    So we crashed the gate doing ninety-eight, I said “Let them truckers roll. 10-4.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of all the unusual facts in the post, that really is the most astonishing, isn’t it?

      Like

      1. Yeah! And I didn’t think this was the place to raise that old, tired space-prog purist argument about how Kepler’s sound was just so derivative. Copernicus or GTFO!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Intriguing post. Humourous too.
    Following the minor coincidence theme, today I added couple (B) speakers to the stereo in the lounge and was in trial mode. Desired shimmering cymbals effects achieved (Tony Williams). Mannheim Steamroller would have been good if I had had any. Maybe tomorrow.
    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it DD. We aim to (occasionally) offer entertainment and elucidation. Was it Mr Williams as leader or elsewhere?

      Like

  3. I know nothing of Mannheim Steamroller, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks J. The ‘five’ series is nearing its end (or perhaps has just ended) and I knew this one needed a wee bit of something different to get it across the line. 17th C astronomy immediately leapt to mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. An obvious choice, huh?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. While I don’t think I can stomach any Mannheim Steamroller, this wonderful post definitely makes me want to dip into the Kepler discography!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Would it be unfaithful to the LP if I said that I enjoyed writing the backstory more than listening to the music?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved this Bruce, thingy Williams clearly isn’t the only visionary artist working around here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my visionariness is based on the Hubble mirror model. Flawed and a bit distorted. But a big thank you anyway, Joe.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Definitely the most entertaining record review I’ve read in years. An agonizing swither over what I like best in this, but the whole thing is a trip, spinning planets & platters, and hysterical. Always loved hearing Kepler on the late-night program “Climbing the Charts with René Descartes”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Delighted you enjoyed it Robert. Thank you. (And if you swithered via the VC back pages, a further note of appreciation.)

      Having only a Marconi 1.3 crystal set, I could never pull in “Climbing the Charts with René Descartes” from antipodean Melbourne, a loss I mourn daily. I wonder if there’s an archive at the “Cartesian Rock Duels” web site?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, thank you also for that great word “swither” a new one to me!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. A 5 star post, Bruce. Informative and entertaining. Off to explore Mannheim Steamroller now …

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I quite like the opening line to the closing paragraph – when thinking about my favourite records, I would usually think of the performances as excellent & the production equally so. But I hadn’t previously considered the politeness of a record, interesting criterion to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is brilliant work, full stop. Well done, sir!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Aaron. Enjoyed writing this one.

      Like

  10. SIDE ONE cracked me right up, can’t say im over it yet, kick me to wipe that smile of my face. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it tamijo. No kicking necessary!

      Like

  11. I’ll pop back and read this in depth. Bruce I think I have a couple unopened albums by these guys. I was always on the outside (not through dislike just other music took the time). My good friend was a huge fan and that’s where i was introduced. Yeah I’ll be back to read the take. Has my interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I stand humbled by your originality, Bruce; love the conceit! (And who knew that Kepler invented the phonographic stylus?! 😉 )

    I crossed paths with Mannheim Steamroller many years ago; it was one of their Christmas offerings–don’t remember which one–but I quite enjoyed it. Theirs is an interesting sound, best sampled in small bits.

    Question: what does MOR stand for and why does it have a deadly whiff?

    Like

    1. There are several Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums and as you suggest, they are perhaps best enjoyed annually.

      Middle of the Road. Anodyne. Pleasant. Unruffling. Safe.

      And finally, as always, thank you for your support.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Ah, middle of the road…got it!

    Liked by 1 person

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