Piano Magic

Artists' Rifles

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The notion of making a concept record seems antithetic to the standard operating procedure of Glen Johnson's Piano Magic, a collective who relies on revolving-door collaborations to materialize oft-scatterbrained pop experimentalism. When you think about it, staunchly adhering to that loose-natured principle can be as limiting as painting yourself into a corner. So ha -- here it is, a concept record from Piano Magic based on the first World War that whittles the number of instrumentalists down to six, opposed to the This Mortal Coil- or P-Funk All-Stars-like tally involved on prior records. Musically taught, conceptually focused, and a lot more open to interpretation than the memorial-depicting artwork implies, Artists' Rifles is Piano Magic at their most solemn and lulling, splitting what seems to be communication between a soldier and his lover (vocals are shared between Johnson and Caroline Potter), with a handful of brief instrumentals. Everything glides by at a funereal pace -- played by guitars, bass, drums, and cello -- implying the same inner violence that Joy Division songs like "The Eternal" or "I Remember Nothing" carry, but with less weight and more emphasis on resigned melodies than haunting production nuances and a troubled voice. The most significant -- or only other -- pop record to base itself on a World War is Pink Floyd's The Final Cut, one of the most stifling what-you-hear-is-what-you-get deals on such a subject; where Pink Floyd and movie directors like Oliver Stone practically tell you what to make of it, Piano Magic is more on the Stanley Kubrick end, leaving each moment open to interpretation. The most audibly violent aspect of the LP is the martial drumming that bookends it. Indeed, the listener is just as important as the players. A thoroughly spooked record and equally lovely.

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