There have been a whole lot of ill-conceived orchestra/rock hybrids, ranging from the Beatles to Yes to Creed(!), and, as a general rule, they live up to their low expectations. Then there's the occasional rocker bidding for 'serious music' consideration, like Ian Anderson, Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, who never quite get the desired recognition despite all the hoopla surrounding the release. Frank Zappa's orchestral version of "Duke of Prunes" from Orchestral Favorites is probably the most successful integration of orchestra and electric guitar, but one tune only hints at the potential. It doesn't mean that the concept is without merit, it just shows that no one with the talent and vision to pull off a full program has made an attempt thus far. Until now.
The Metropole Orchestra is one of the best and busiest European orchestras of the last 50 years. In 2002, they commissioned Mike Keneally to come up with a program for guitar and orchestra and the result was The Universe Will Provide, a dazzling tour de force that finally delivers the goods. The first thing you have to understand is that this is not your average orchestra. This orchestra can play anything from jazz to classical and they can rock as hard as many rock bands. Keneally is a guitar and keyboard virtuoso who got his most serious musical training as a member of Frank Zappa's final touring band, and like his mentor, has developed a uniquely personal guitar style and melodic sense. Except for two pieces, Keneally came up with all new music for the project, and the results are unlike anything you have heard before. This isn't an orchestra playing rock songs with guitar solos, this is classical music specifically written and arranged for an orchestra that contains guitar (as member and featured soloist), electric piano and a killer rhythm section. The first track is nearly a lullaby, just strings and guitar and very pretty. "All of Them Were Quiet" begins with a bit of mystery from the full orchestra before blasting into what sounds like a guitar solo, but if you listen to all the orchestrations surrounding it, you'll realize that at least major portions of it are written out. Keneally is wailing, without a doubt, and most rock bands would kill for this powerful and tight a rhythm section, but it's all part of this amazing, exciting composition. "Room" is a polyrhythmic masterpiece over a piano ostinato that is joined by strings before going into a tasty electric piano solo where the electric bass picks up from the piano and strings. The song then switches gears into a more of a vamp before getting back to the original theme. The orchestrations by Keneally and Chris Opperman are just fantastic, revealing exquisite musical details with successive listenings. One of the more exciting tracks is "Archaic Peace Strategies," which opens with flutes and piano before launching into a great trombone solo followed by some amazing guitar/orchestra unison melody lines where, again, the orchestrations are nothing less than exciting. The album centerpiece, "Four Slices of Toast," is equally incredible, and really showcases the bass player and drummer (in addition to Keneally's guitar). The horn players also get a chance to shine, even improvising for a while behind Keneally! That's practically unheard of in the classical world. At nearly 12-minutes long, the piece never fails to hold your attention. And the action just doesn't let up. "Worrywart Spoonguy" piles tricky passages and rhythms on top of each other before heading into a hairy guitar solo that is rejoined by the full orchestra for the theme again, which comes back tougher with additional parts. Every track is great, right through "Bullies," which closes the album with another monster guitar solo and a majestic flourish. Special mention must go to monster drummer Arno van Nieuwenhuize: his playing is masterful and he absolutely nails everything (and to give an idea of how detailed the orchestrations are, 85-90% of his performance was written out). Keneally's guitar playing is just incredible throughout, not just as a soloist, but listening close reveals tiny but delicious details like the dissonant double stop 45 seconds into "All of Them Were Quiet," or the acoustic guitar work on "Not Just Flutes."
This is not your mom and dad's classical music. This is modern, vibrant music that shatters expectations of what classical music can be. Keneally fans will be pleased, because this is a Mike Keneally album through and through, despite the new surroundings. This is classical music to be sure, but it's likely to grab the attention of any open-minded listener, even from a rock background. This album should also open the eyes of some of the classical crowd to a host of new possibilities for orchestra composition. The fact that this music was not 'dumbed down' for the rock crowd is a big part of what makes it so successful. Hats off to Co de Kloet of NPS Radio for envisioning such a project and forming a label to release it, and to the Metropole Orchestra for playing their collective asses off. Kudos to Keneally for rising to the challenge, playing his ass off, and creating a masterpiece. You haven't heard anything quite like this.