Sunday, 20 July 2014 11:30

Record Review and Portrait: "NOW" Chicago XXXVI - And then ...

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The legendary band Chicago has released their album # 36, or XXXVI as it is called in the Chicago dialect. I have listened to the album, which has additional title of Chicago "NOW" . And I took the opportunity to turn my eyes back 45 years in time, when Chicago released their first LP.





Chicago then - "Introduction"

There are quite a few of us who eventually aspire to the category "grumpy old men" who have had a more or less engaged musical relationship to Chicago. After a few initial years as a cover band called The Big Thing, they started their recording career in 1969 under the name Chicago Transit Authority, and released a double album of the same name. Already here we sense the contours of a bunch of rock musicians who were not quite like other rock guys. For who start their career with a double album? An album where the strong opening track Introduction have these lines of introduction to their recording debut:


Hey there everybody
Please do not romp or roam
We're a little nervous
'Cause we're so far from home
So this is what we do
Sit back and let us groove
And let us work on you
We've all spent years preparing
before this band was born
With heaven's help it blended
And we do thank the lord.
Now we put you through the changes
And turned around the mood
We hope it's struck you different
And hope you feel moved
So forget about your troubles
As we search for something new
And we play for you



No doubt that this had to be good, and something very special. The term genre of music Chicago operated in these early years was by many called jazz-rock, although I personally think that rock with a horn-section might be equally apposite. And even with deepening prog-rock. This was otherwise in the daya when Blood Sweat & Tears also had just arrived at the arena, with a crew much akin to Chicago's. BS & T had yet a distinctly different profile, where jazz tendencies were combined with a rock that was more in direction of soul/blues-inspired rock, built around singer David Clayton-Thomas. Both Chicago and BS&T was often mntioned in subcategory Jazz-Rock, but the distance was great at the diametrically opposite camp that emerged in the wake of Miles Davis, with Chick Corea / Return to Forever, John McLauglin / Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report as the perhaps most foremost exponents.

Chicago Transit Authority had nicked named by the bus station in Chicago, and from album 2 was shortened to simply "Chicago." Chicago (II) and Chicago III was even greater commercial success than his debut album, although it probably is Chicago Transit Authority appears as his band absolute top album. Each of the first five albums had a strong character, and the music got a clear character of exploratory search, combined with enthusiasm, audacity and the rich variety of expressions you only get when there are many different musical personalities which stands for music expression, and through collaboration goes up a higher unit. The guitarist Terry Kath, pianist Robert Lamm and trombonist James Pankow were key songwriters, contributing simultaneously to give Chicago the breadth of expression that did unfold during the 70's.

Although there was always a slight evolution in the evolution from album to album, the first album that jumped slightly marked out from the other was Chicago VI. Here we are really a small notice about a change in direction that will come later. A movement towards a little more soft-rock, where jazz influences fade out. Chicago VII was a confusing and ambiguous step back to more searching and even symphonic jazz-rock, but also with many songs that come up after the new trend from Chicago VI. And to my ears, this album is on a par with the golden row of the first five albums, although it also differs much from these.

The albums Chicago VIII, X and XI (IX was a greatest hits) continued the trend that started with the Chicago XI - a move away from jazz and prog-rock, and a little toward more mainstream pop-rock and soft rock. It also did some numbers composed by singer Peter Cetera dominant accession, which helped give Chicago a very different identity. This applies especially to hit "If You Leave Me Now", which was quite controversial within Chicago.

January 1978 Terry Kath died of an accidental shot, and it was a very serious turning point for Chicago. It lead to some musical changes, although this probably had more reasons than Terry Kath's demise. Chicago sought new directions that would appeal to a younger audience. In my ears were not as interesting as the music of the 11 previous albums, and the crowd support was variable.

After Chicago Twenty 1 which was released in 91 it was practically not released a single traditional studio album of new music before Chicago XXX in 2006, and subsequent Chicago XXXII - Stone of Sisyphus in 2008, which strictly speaking was composed fifteen years earlier but withdrawed after controversy with the record label. Other releases after "Twenty 1" has mostly consisted of live releases, greatest hits and a pair of Christmas song album.



It is obvious that my enthusiasm for Chicago faded after Chicago XI, although not necessarily inextricably linked to Terry Kath's death. The quality of bands and musicians have really been equally high as during the golden age in the 70s, something that was prooved by exellent live performances of old material. But there has been very little of the newly created music after the 70's that has managed to arouse enthusiasm in me. is it even possible then that a new studio album in 2014 may have something sensible to offer, or is Chicago's heyday as an innovative band inextricably linked to the 70's?




«NOW» Chicago XXXVI

Let's start with a look at the crew of Chicago in 2014. The most notable is that the entire original core of blowing array is in place. That is, James Pankow on trombone, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, and Walter Parazider on saxophones and flute. In addition, the man regarded as the band leader - Robert Lamm still working and in a central musical position, not least as a songwriter.



Peter Ceterea retired in 1985 and was replaced by Jason Scheff . Somewhat strikingly, he took over both the position as bassist, but also the tone of voice of Peter Cetera, and has been lead vocalist for Cetera`s ballads on live sessions. Tris Imboden replaced Danny Seraphine on drums in 1990, while Keith Howland came in 1995, guitarist and vocalist. Lou Pardini came in 2009 on keyboards and vocals, and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. joined in 2012.



What expectations can we have to the music on the fresh studio album "NOW" Chicago XXXI? Is this a continuation of recent studio albums where the musical direction has a bit of a gap to my preferences?

The intro of the opening track and title track "NOW" makes me a bit skeptical. Easy associations with vignetting music for the Norwegian animation series "Elias" does not forecast innovative measures, but on a lighter inspiration from "Eart Wind & Fire," and perhaps a touch of Toto - both bands that Chicago has cooperated with in the past. That said, this is very well polished, well played and quite a bit catchy.

Next track More will be revealed is even more evident similarities with Toto, yet we find distinct elements of "old" Chicago. This is particularly true in the intermezzo arising conclusion. This is in the spirit of the "golden row" in early seventies, and have distinct characteristics from Robert Lamm, who is a composer with Phil Galdston.

Much of the music in the 70s had a strong political character, and it also applies to a couple of tracks on Chicago XXXVI. On the tune America I think this does not work at all - the music-happy character may require you to listen very carefully to the text to understand that this really is harsh guardian against the American politicians. Then Naked in the Garden of Allah is far more successful. I see this as a form of criticism of U.S. policies in parts of Asia, and musically it's also a bit interesting hybrid of rock and eastern music.

Crazy Happy is one of my definite favorites on this album. It is a very beautiful happy tune, signed Jason Scheff and Robert Lamm. And the tab that pops up in your mind when you least expect it. Also Free at last sung by Robert Lamm is a highlight, and also this song has creative elements that provide a link to the early 70th century, although the language is of today.

Love Lives On is the only pure ballad on this album, and is beautiful and low-key, sung by a brilliant Jason Scheff. I would assume that it has a potential to become a single hit in line with prunes from Peter Cetera, although this is much more accurate balanced in sugar content in my ears.

Something's Coming, I know is signed Gerry Beckley (America) and Robert Lamm, and the song plays on a lot of the same strings as Policeman from Chicago XI. With Watching All the Colors signed Lamm and Pardini is perhaps the song I find least interresting on this album.

The song Nice Girl is interesting for two reasons. In addition to being a really good and catchy song it is funny to note that it is signed only by "newcomers" in Chicago, although there are clear links to the late 70th century Chicago. And so I agree that it is in excess brutally calling musicians who have been in Chicago for up to 30 years "newcomers".

The closing track Another trippy day is my absolute favorite on this album. It has a very clear identity with its somewhat subtle, urban feel and is at the same catchy in a little low-key manner. It is clear identity of Robert Lamm here, and touches of synth sound that is reminiscent of the intro to the distinctive, subtle and very different Italian From New York on Chicago VII helps to set the mood of the song.

It is a crazy long line from the Introduction to Another trippy day - the band's opening track on the first album, to the final song on the latest album. It has been a very long journey, in varied terrain. And although there has always been a bunch of exceptionally gifted musicians and smooth peformers, it is a fact that they have not caught my interest equally strong all the time. It is therefore particularly gratifying to me that "NOW" Chicago XXXVI is an album where Chicago relly is back on track. This is in my ears by far the best studio album after Chicago XI, released 37 years ago! I consider it to be qualitatively equivalent to the albums released after Chicago V, although the style is different. "NOW" has a music style which is normally at the edge of my interest, but as with so much else, it is the quality that is essential. With sufficiently high quality, all forms of music are interesting. There is also a very strong pull that "NOW" Chicago XXXVI grows every time you listen, and not quite a few of the songs buzzing popping up in my mind from time to time.




This release has had a very unusual production procedure. The recording tracks have tended to occur in hotel room with mobile equipment, while the band was on tour. It has been recorded tracks with up to three musicians at once, and this is later mixed and produced in the studio. In other words, so far away live recordings you can get.

I have listened to the album on both CD, and Flac in 24bits/96kHz. The sound is very well polished and with good resolution. My experience is still that it has not particularly high dynamics, and a bit difficult to establish a very high enthusiasm for the sound. 





Have you read this entire article is superfluous to repeat that "NOW" Chicago XXXVI is a release that has aroused my enthusiasm for Chicago again. This album is a must for old and perhaps apostate Chicago fans. And then you take that also Chicago's musical direction has changed over the years. The world goes ahead - it has nowhere else to go ...

"More Will Be Revealed" [from "NOW" Chicago XXXVI] from Chicago The Band on Vimeo.


"NOW" [video Premiere] on Billboard from Chicago The Band on Vimeo.

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Karl Erik Sylthe

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