Sunday, April 5, 2020

Group 87 - 1984 - A Career In Dada Processing

Group 87
A Career In Dada Processing

01. Postcard From The Volcano 4:51
02. Pleasure In Progress 4:42
03. The Mask Maker 5:40
04. The Apple Bites Back 5:20
05. Lough Erin's Mist 2:58
06. A Career In Dada Processing 5:42
07. Angels And Obelisks 4:55
08. The Death Of Captain Nemo 4:00

Electronic Drums, Drums [Acoustic Drums], Percussion – Peter Van-Hooke
Guitar, Guitar Synthesizer, Violin, Mandolin, Percussion – Peter Maunu
Trumpet, Electronics, Keyboards – Mark Isham

Recorded at Strawberry Recording Studios, South Dorking, Surrey – November 1983 through January 1984.
Mastered at A&M Studios, Hollywood.

 Group 87’s second album came out nearly four years after their debut, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all had former Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer and newly- hired EMI/Capitol executive Bobby Columby not been the catalyst for the band’s signing with Columbia Records back in 1980. Columby was a firm believer in Mark Isham in particular, and after Columby left Columbia and moved on to EMI he was interested in acquiring new talent for the label but lacked major investment capital. A Group 87 album was an attractive option considering the former members of that band were all local, independently successful, had a polished sound, and were a known and reliable commodity.
By 1984 Terry Bozzio had found fame and fortune by planting his scantily-clad wife in front of a microphone as the voice of Missing Persons, and had secured former Group 87 bassist Patrick O’Hearn to support the effort. So the former trio became a duo, and was in need of a drummer. While Michael Barsimanto and Wire Train drummer Brian MacLeod were credited on this second and final release, the drum tracks were primarily recorded by Mike & the Mechanics member Peter Van-Hooke.

And in large part the drum work is electronic, as is much of the album’s other instrumentation. That is the most noticeable difference between this and the first Group 87 album. From the opening “Postcard from the Volcano”, the breadth of synthesized music is quite surprising, and is in large part what makes this album a bit of a disappointment. The compositions are for the most part as fresh and tightly constructed as the first album, but the dull thud of digital drums and layers upon layers of synthetic keyboards give the music a sheen that at times becomes too predictable, and even too polished. Other than some doodling guitar work from Isham, the first two tracks (including “Pleasure in Progress”) are mostly programmed sounds tapped out on a couple of keyboards. This may have been innovative in 1984, but much like some of the early Kraftwerk albums it doesn’t stand up all that well in today’s hyper-digital computer age where pre-teens can mix identical works on a Casio connected to their laptop.

On “The Mask Maker” Isham vacillates a bit between keyboards and his trumpet, and the soft brassy tones of that instrument bring the sound back closer to what made the band’s first release so inviting. I’m not quite sure what Maunu is doing on guitar, but it sort of sounds acoustic, which means it probably isn’t or you’d think I’d be sure. This is a very slow and delicate tune, almost a new-age number, which is not surprising considering both these artists would lean that direction in their careers following this release.

Isham keeps the trumpet going on “The Apple Bites Back” and even adds some mandolin, which combined with Maunu picking up the tempo a bit on guitar makes this an upbeat and energetic piece. Like many of the songs on their first album though, Isham stops short of really developing the composition and it comes off as kind of a sound- bite demo. Too bad, this one had real potential.

“Lough Erin’s Mist” is a short, almost ambient track that is pleasant enough but never really seems to go anywhere. Not sure what the point was to this one.

The title track is both the longest and most interesting track on the album, with a combination of digital and some acoustic drumming, long and spacey trumpet work intermixed with the keyboards, and what almost comes off as a slight climax toward the end. Again, this is more new-age than it is neo-progressive or anything else, but Maunu’s guitar work is quite innovative and the keyboards at least blend well instead of sounding canned. Also Isham experiments with some harmonic keyboard progressions that are rather unusual and so are at least interesting.

Other than some slightly jazzy guitar, “Angels and Obelisks” is another purely ambient track that seems to be heavily inspired by some of the stuff Andy Summers and Robert Fripp were doing together around the same time, although a bit less energetic. Here again Isham’s trumpet (and violin!) give some texture to an otherwise rather dull tune.

The album (and the band’s career) closes with “The Death of Captain Nemo”, a song whose title says ‘epic’ but whose score is mellow. This thing is more about trying to make keyboards sound like running water and slow waves than it is about any kind of progressive arrangement. Kind of a disappointing end to kind of a disappointing album.

This is a really interesting band that had an opportunity to have a real influence on a whole generation of post-rock and experimental artists that would come along starting just a few years after their demise. But instead the band plays it very safe on this release, mixing then-popular digital keyboards and fake drums with spacey tempos and flat rhythms. I’m going to give this one three stars, but in reality that is just rounding off what is probably a 2.6 star effort. If you want to know what this band was really capable of, buy their first album, or pick up Isham’s self-titled solo album of upbeat new- age music that came out six or seven years after this, or try Maunu’s inspirational but hard-to-classify solo debut ‘Warm Sound in a Gray Field’ instead.

Group 87 - 1980 - Group 87

Group 87
Group 87

01. Future Of The City 5:01
02. Magnificent Clockworks 4:30
03. Frontiers 1856 3:16
04. Sublime Feline 6:25
05. The Bedouin 3:21
06. While The City Sleeps 2:25
07. Moving Sidewalks 4:24
08. Hall Of Glass 2:34
09. One Night Away From Day 5:55

Bass – Patrick O'Hearn
Bass, Keyboards – Mark Isham
Guitar, Keyboards, Violin – Peter Maunu

Piano – Peter Wolf
Drums – Terry Bozzio

Producer – Ed E. Thacker & Group 87

GROUP 87 were formed as a trio of highly-successful session and solo artists in the early eighties. While they existed for only a few years, they left behind two highly-acclaimed instrumental albums that are considered landmarks by many new-age, jazz, and progressive rock artists even today. The band consisted of multi-instrumentalists Mark Isham and Peter Maunu, as well as bassist Patrick O'Hearn.

Isham began his musical career early as a sort of child prodigy in a number of San Francisco area bands including the psychedelically-influenced SONS OF CHAMPLIN, founded by future CHICAGO keyboardist/guitarist Bill Champlain, before moving on to the jazz quartet RUBIZA PATROL. He also performed and recorded with blues legend TAJ MAHAL, as well as with VAN MORRISON and BOZ SKAGGS, among others.

Maunu performed as a classical violinist and gained the rating of concert master while still in his teens, earning him a scholarship to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He recorded with JEAN-LUC PONTY, BILLY COBHAM, and AIRTO among others, and was a founding member of the L.A. EXPRESS.

O'Hearn began his career as a touring member of FRANK ZAPPA's band while barely out of his teens, before basically being fired when he turned his energy and attention to the GROUP 87 project at the close of the seventies. The three met and became friends while in their teens in California, performing and recording demo tracks together in between their various other projects. Former BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS drummer Bobby Columby played a part in their signing by Columbia Records in 1979, which led to their debut release. While former Zappa drummer and future founder of MISSING PERSONS Terry Bozzio declined an invitation to join the band, he did contribute drum tracks for their first album.

The band drifted apart soon after their debut release, a victim of a depressed music market, fast-changing public tastes, and too much success by the individual members in their respective solo and project efforts. Columby left Columbia about the same time, but resurfaced three years later with EMI/Capitol and signed Isham to reform the group for their final release, 'A Career in Dada Processing' in 1984.

The band's sound was a highly-polished blend of jazzy rock and techno with sometimes intense guitar and drum arrangements, while overall having the feel of early new-age music. Their compositions were all carefully arranged instrumentals with layers of keyboards and synthesizers and accented by Isham's trumpet (and mandolin with the second album). There is virtually no improvisation in their music, suggesting them to be somewhat closer to a progressive electronic sound than to more traditional jazz/fusion. Guest drummers appeared on both albums (Terry Bozzio on the first, and MIKE AND THE MECHANICS drummer Peter Van-Hooke, long-time L.A. area session musician Michael Barsimanto, and former WIRE TRAIN drummer Brian MacLeod on the second). Peter Wolf also appeared on the first release.

All the members of GROUP 87 have enjoyed great critical and commercial success in their careers following the band's demise. Isham has released a number of new-age jazz recordings, including the famed 'Vapor Drawings' in 1983 and a Grammy award-winning self-titled album in 1990. He has also produced dozens of film and television soundtracks and theme songs. Maunu released a well-received new-age solo album entitled 'Warm Sound in a Gray Field' in 1990 after several years as a featured performance in the Arsenio Hall Show band, and has appeared in or produced a number of movie soundtracks of his own. And following a stint in Bozzio's new-wave eighties MTV-darling band MISSING PERSONS, O'Hearn embarked on a lengthy and still-going career as a new-age solo artist.

This is an entirely instrumental album, consisting solely of drums, trumpet, bass, and guitar, with the remainder of sounds coming out of a variety of keyboards and synthesizers operated by Isham. This is a sound that is undeniably eighties, but is also rather difficult to classify. While one might be tempted to lump then with more traditional jazz/fusion bands, there is nothing improvisational about this music. Every note seems carefully orchestrated and executed with precision. Each arrangement starts around a central basic rhythm, and then constructs a series of progressions that often seem to have little to do with that rhythm, usually with a combination of percussion and synthesized keyboards. The whole thing works deliciously well.

“Future of the City” starts with a cold and glistening electric piano that is joined by a quiet, jazzy trumpet before blossoming into a rich blend of guitar, drums and cymbals. The whole thing sounds like a Joe Jackson (ala ‘Night and Day’) piano-bar tune with a little cool Al DiMeolo thrown in for effect, while Maunu’s guitar work is just pure fusion. Midway through the tempo shifts with a warm synthesized passage with Isham’s trumpet rising above in an almost celestial fashion. A great opening to an unusual album.

The basic rhythm of “Magnificent Clockworks” reminds me a lot of Jeff Beck’s version of “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat” with its purposeful and driving beat that is at the same time smooth and soothing. Guest drummer Terry Bozzio is spectacular, particularly as he works above the rim with some great percussion. Maunu’s guitar work is funky but very measured and Isham lays some melodic and spacey keyboards on the whole thing to give it a bit of a fast-paced ballroom feel. If you’ve ever heard Georgio Morodor’s work on the ‘Electric Dreams’ soundtrack, you’ll have an idea of the tenor of this track.

The group slows down considerably for “Frontiers: 1856”, a lazy keyboard-driven piece with some very lush bass and acoustic guitar passages that just seem to float around the room on a good stereo. The acoustic qualities of this track are just superb. My only complaint about this particular recording is that it is entirely too brief. This could have easily been developed with some nuances of time and movement built into the arrangement to even greater effect.

Maunu gets a bit funky with his electric guitar on “Sublime Feline”, with Isham seeming to work at keeping up with Bozzio’s aggressive tempo. Isham also weaves some really unusual trumpet work in, very dissonant tones that blend very well with keyboards. Behind all of this is a persistent bell-like synthesizer rhythm that gives this a futuristic feel, or as close to one that a twenty-seven year old recording can muster. The disassociated ending is very unique, and much more interesting than the fadeout ending used on most of the tracks.

The back side of the vinyl album opens with “The Bedouin”, a pulsating, snared beat from Bozzio along with a stark piano score that sounds very much like the album’s opening track. This almost sounds as if the band took the opening number and just slowed it down a bit, but the slightly syncopated beat dresses it up with a completely new sound. Other than the drums, this is an almost completely synthesized composition, and would not have been out-of-place on one of the later Alan Parsons Project albums.

“While the City Sleeps” is also heavy on early techno sounds, but like “Frontiers” the tempo is slow and smooth. Isham’s trumpet here is as close to pure jazz as he gets anywhere on the album, but once again the whole thing seems to be more like a sampler, and should have been developed quite a bit more.

“Moving Sidewalks” is centered around a choppy electric piano riff and string-driven synthesizer, along with more of the interwoven and understated trumpet work that almost sounds synthetic itself (heck, maybe it is). Useless trivia – Moving Sidewalks was the name of ZZ Top Billy Gibbon’s first band. Has nothing to do with this song, but thought I’d bring it up.

“Hall of Glass” sounds like something that Luc-Ponty might have done, quietly executed with careful attention paid to each note, but no particular theme to drive it and so left to the interpretation of the listener. While the album as a whole is quite strong, this one borders ever so slightly on filler.

The album closes on “One Night Away From Day”, dominated almost completely by Maunu’s soaring guitar passages and Bozzio’s avant drum work. This is another track that could easily pass for something from Jeff Beck around the same timeframe, and works very well to cap off the album.

Like I said before, this is a rather unusual album that is difficult to classify. While on first listen it seems a bit light and fluffy, repeated playing reveals the high level of precision and virtuoso playing of each musician. The band suffered from poor management as well as a major slump in the record industry in the early eighties, so there was little promotion of the album, and the members moved on to other ventures. They would reform for another album a few years later, but it lacked the fresh feel and quiet energy of this debut. This is a great recording for those who enjoy skillful musicianship and tight fusion with an early techno feel to it. A worthwhile investment if you can find it.