The Muffins were a Washington, D.C. area progressive rock band who were active from 1974-81 and then again (with their best-known line-up still intact) from 1993-2015. It is rare for any group to reform after more than a decade apart, and still rarer for them to resume their creative life rather than indulge in nostalgia. But this was not just any band: progressive rock pioneer Fred Frith declared them "the finest progressive band that America produced," and they served as one of his backing bands for his solo album Gravity (Ralph Records, 1980; remaster Fred Records, 2002).
This 12-disc set (plus a DVD of one of the concert performances in the physical box set) presents a bonanza of previously unreleased material. Most of the tracks come from live performances in front of an audience (in spaces large and small), plus some studio recordings and ones made in the band's practice space. The bulk of the material (8 discs) comes from the band's first period. In fact, the first two discs are almost proto-Muffins. Founding members Dave Newhouse (keyboards and woodwinds), Tom Scott (saxophones and woodwinds) and Billy Swann (bass and guitar) were joined by co-founder guitarist/violinist Michael Zentner and two different drummers to form a quintet. The signature musical style was there from the beginning, but the final core quartet was formed with the addition of drummer Paul Sears who first appears on Disc 3.
On the first disc, "Brix" has a strong Soft Machine vibe, as does "Three Days That Won't Soon Fade" (complete with a recited introduction). "Bartok Stockpot" takes an inventive improvisational turn at music by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. On Disc 2, opener "English" combines a cheeky recitation about English social life with music from the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (which somehow works despite being the wrong nationality). "1916/Why Pursue It/Captain Tugg Tocatta/Swashbuckler With a Brainblock" comes from the pens of Swann and Newhouse, so it should not be surprising that the Muffins sound is present in all of its eclectic glory. Zentner gets in a good guitar solo and is also a prominent voice on the violin.
The third disc signals the arrival of Paul Sears, introducing the classic personnel. The band set about creating new repertoire, so for the first time in the set there are some pieces that are replayed several times from one performance to another. But the program begins with one of the few covers, Fred Frith's "Solemn Music" from the second Henry Cow album Unrest (Virgin Records, 1974), showing another key influence for the band. "Expected Freedom" has the sound of European art rock, moving from counterpoint to a lyrical theme. "Amelia Earhart" begins with a free kalimba, percussion and recorder atmosphere before launching into Henry Cow-like chamber music, interspersed with rocking modal sections.
The fourth disc includes two versions of "Expected Freedom," illustrating the flexibility taken in interpreting the same basic form. Billy Swann plays a brief fuzz bass version of "Amelia Earhart." "Not Alone" gets the first of several performances, alternately swinging and rocking. Among the many other highlights are the vocals on "Zoom Resume," "Boxed and Crossed" and "Queenside" (notable for a band that was primarily instrumental). "The Grammy Snap" features Fred Frith on guitar, and "Bit Hand" includes Cuneiform head Steve Feigenbaum's guitar playing. "Dirty Trousers" is performed entirely by horns, like a brass chorale. "World Maps" is a Billy Swann guitar feature, on both electric and acoustic guitars. "She Wears Her Dead Mother's Hat" has a strong swing feel, while "Hobart Got Burned" is another Muffins standard with a strong Soft Machine vibe. "East of Diamond" has an especially epic melodic theme, and Disc 9's "Dancing in the Street" cover (which the band had played with Fred Frith on Gravity) is a grooving version which could fly under many listeners' radar, since it does not include the song's melody.
Disc 11, a live performance at the 2005 NEARFest, displays the band at full power. The set includes many of their standards, including a complete performance of "The Adventures of Captain Boomerang." The disc is offered as a stand-alone download and as a taster does an admirable job. The set is an obvious recommendation to fans of the band. But it is equally recommended to anyone who is a fan of progressive rock, in any of its manifestations. It simply does not get any better than this.
Prelude; Phase 1 – Portable Hollow; Interlude 1; Phase 2 – Buzz Aldrin; Interlude 2; Phase 3 – What a Place for a Wart; Brix; Three Days That Won’t Soon Fade; English; Bartok Stockpot; The Return of Uncle Don; Blind Cave Tetra; English; Teddy Roosevelt; Egress Gnome Odd; Wombat; 1916/Why Pursue It/Captain Tugg Tocatta/Swashbuckler With a Brainblock; Courtesy of Your Focal Interest Span/Please Do Not Open Dr. Fisher; The Manilla Robots/Joe Crop on a Toxic Planet/The Bush; Chronometers; Crezner Okay; Intro; Solemn Music; President Nixon’s Retirement; 3 Ways Till Sunday; Carbons; Expected Freedom; Prince Albert in the Can; Monkey With the Golden Eyes; Amelia Earhart; Intro; Expected Freedom; Band of Brothers; Expected Freedom; Not Alone solo; Amelia Earhart solo; Imprimatur; Not Alone; Closing Hours; Monkey in the Middle; Lady in a Brown Paper Bag; Amelia Earhart; Monkey With the Golden Eyes/Hobart Got Burned; The Adventures of Captain Boomerang; Not Alone solo; Whistling While We Work; To-ing and Fro-ing; Children and Art; Not Alone; Under Dali’s Wing; Horsebones; The Grammy Snap; Under Dali’s Wing (false start); Under Dali’s Wing; Horsebones; Horsebones; Zoom Resume; Boxed and Crossed; Zoom Resume; Bit Hand; Wonder World; Not Alone solo; silence; Chrestomathy; Through Shawn’s Lens; Father Tongue; Dirty Trousers; Horsebones; Under Dali’s Wing; Squeaker's Dream; Boxed and Crossed; Zoom Resume; Queenside; Angle Dance; Antidote to Drydock; World Maps; Bob the Bat; In the Black Room; Ups and Downs; Poetry Drive; North of Muffin Head; She Wears Her Dead Mother’s Hat; Talking With the Planets; Down From the Sun Tower/Impossible John; Dancing in the Street; Horny Toads; There Not There; Vocabulario; Hobart Got Burned; silence; The Highlands; The Two Georges; Breaking The X; Walking the Duck; These Castle Children; World Maps; Under Dali’s Wing; Horsebones; Dear Mona; People in the Snow; Out of the Boot/Nan True’s Hole; East of Diamond/The Adventures of Captain Boomerang; silence; Writing Blind; Combo; Intro; These Castle Children; The Adventures of Captain Boomerang; The Ugly Buttling; Walking the Duck; Dear Mona/Impossible John/People in the Snow; East of Diamond; The Man in the Skin-Painted Suit; Childhood’s End; Stethorus Punctum; Intro; Exquisite Corpse/Out of the Boot/Sam’s Room; Smaller but More Heads; Maya; Aquatone; Angel From Lebanon; Queenside/Antidote to Drydock/Angle Dance; Choombachang; Amelia Earhart; Beat 10; KGB.
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