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The Nice - Ars Longa Vita Brevis CD (album) cover

ARS LONGA VITA BREVIS

The Nice

 

Symphonic Prog

3.24 | 84 ratings

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Einsetumadur
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 9.5/15P. This time the album doesn't drown in awful production, but rather in weird arrangements. Still, it's fairly essential due to the longer numbers and Keith Emerson's unexpectedly good and unexpectedly vast lead vocal presence!

On quite a lot of proto-prog albums the tiny pieces of magic rather unfold in the more unconspicuous moments than in the elements destined to make a magnum opus out of the respective album. Days Of Future Passed features some amazing short song parts (Evening, Time To Get Away, most importantly) along with some plainly awful orchestral arrangements which bother me a lot. Beggar's Opera started out in 1970 with an enormously ambitious debut album - a complete failure, in my opinion - but really grabbed me one year later with the brief Nimbus, still one of the most beautiful 'ambient' pieces I have ever listened to.

Ars Longa Vita Brevis is a completely different matter. It's beautiful in some of the more lightweight tracks, it's stunning in big portions of the longer tracks, but in total it's not really less of an inconsistent mess than the pretty unlistenable The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack debut record. And curiously it's really the pretentious experimentation which makes considerable parts of the album really captivating and rousing.

Let's start with the one piece in which everything is perfect: the Sibelius adaptation Karelia Suite Intermezzo. It already was a marching and rolling piece of music in its original orchestral version, and it also was framed by atmospheric fanfare parts in Sibelius' own score. This means that the modifications by The Nice do not mainly affect the form, but rather the plain substance. And this is the point which decides if a classical adaptation is bound to fail (e.g. classical melodies paired with a stupid rock beat) or if there's a chance that the adaptation might be a success. Since the Nice version consists of jazz-inflected 'fantasies'/variations on the Sibelius melodies to a large extent you may definitely expect the latter. The mixture of Emerson's inspired organ improvisation, Brian Davison's swinging drum groove, Lee Jackson's easy-going and rumbly bass lines as well as his atmospheric bowed bass guitar counterpoints makes up a lot of entertainment over the complete piece. Maybe this is also the track on the album which has dated least; it still sounds quite fresh today, even after a lot of listens.

The A-side of the album is a huge surprise for a very different cause: Keith Emerson handles all lead vocals on Happy Freuds, Daddy, Where Did I Come From?, on the bridge of Little Arabella and backing vocals on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. This means that Keith Emerson actually (temporarily) was chief lead vocalist of the band - and he doesn't do a bad job at all in the context of these lightweightish and psychedelic pop songs. Hardly anyone seems to notice this matter of fact as most reviews usually suspect the vocals to be yet another facet of Lee Jackson's unpredictable vocal capabilites.

Happy Freuds stands out as one of the rare songs which appeal to the same corners of my mind as some of the Pink Floyd songs from 1968-1970 (Richard Thompson's guitar solo in John Martyn's Go Easy and Kevin Ayers' Margaret, for instance, have the same effect). Think Summer '68 or See-Saw. This doesn't mean that Emerson tried to copy the atmosphere in any way. Actually, the atmosphere is very different, but the effect is similar. The opening riff of Happy Freuds is still rather quirky, but as soon as Emerson brings these dreamy organ carpets into this jaunty psych-pop tune I'm totally happy. Amazingly, he's composed a pretty complex baroque-style vocal arrangement here and sings all those high-pitched parts with full power in spite of his wobbly sense of pitch. In the end, the vocals turn out to be perfectly alright and even downright beautiful in places.

In spite of Emerson's good vocal job, the long album version of Daddy, Where Did I Come From? isn't a tremendously satisfying listen - especially if you know the alternative version which comes along as a bonus track on some reissues. The album version simply is too fast, too long and too overladen with pianos, acoustic guitars, orgasmic moaning and stoned babbling. The shorter alternative version still features Dave O'List on a fuzzy electric guitar, and played by this line-up you really understand how genuinely great the riff of this song is. This time, Lee Jackson handles the lead vocals, and if you listen to this version you know how well songs like these are suited to Jackson's hoarse voice. (Three years later, Dave O'List would perform Re-Make/Re-Model with Roxy Music in their first BBC session - both the guitar work and the overall sound of this session highlight in what way Dave O'List actually shaped the sound of both bands.)

Little Arabella - just like the more hectic Tantalising Maggie - wanders around dangerously on the ridge between messy lounge jazz and classicistic organ pomp. I don't like either of the two tracks mentioned too much, although later Little Arabella would become a fun live track due to Brian Davison's fabulous jazz drumming. In the studio he mainly sticks to a tambourine and some uninspired snare flams while Lee Jackson sings the stanzas. The bridge, however, makes up for the messy stanzas and reliably prevents me from skipping this track. Curiously, it again features Emerson on lead vocals and gives the song a sudden majestic note, including some mighty trumpet fanfares which might well be remnants of sideline-trumpeter Dave O'List's sparse contributions to the sessions. This brief part conveys a pretty strong wistfulness, but unfortunately it's really brief and soon leads back into the relaxed jazz shuffle. Emerson's organ improvisations in the second half are indeed pretty good, but the additional piano work distracts a bit from the nice organ tone. As I said: the sparse live version recorded at the Fillmore in 1969 is far superior to the studio recording. That's what I meant with my 'arrangement' remark in the review introduction.

This leads us to Ars Longa Vita Brevis. It's hard to explain how a combination of a muddy piece of beat-poetry-laden proto-jazz-rock, a lengthy drum solo and a swinging adaptation of one of Bach's Brandenburger Concertos can go together that well. But they do, in a way. And they do without one elaborate interlude and without any arc of suspense. So why does it work? Firstly, the drum solo (which usually is a safe means to ruin a longtrack) can be regarded as a percussive piece with closer touch points to Richard Strauss than to Ginger Baker. It still ain't 'ambient' to the extent of the percussive melodicism of Nick Mason's Grand Vizier's Garden Party, but it's a lot more than the typical showcase drum solo. Secondly, the pop song part is based around a catchy 3-3-3-3-2-2 jazz shuffle with lots of space to improvise around, and it features a rudimentary and gruff, but nicely jangling rhythm guitar part a bit along the lines of the first The Who albums. It's played by Malcolm Langstaff, a fellow Newcastle musician who played in some minor beat bands until his death in 2007; seemingly, Ars Longa Vita Brevis was his only session work, although he was part of the plethora of musicians who played with Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages. (Did you know that this band served as a professional diving board for Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, Nick Simper, Nicky Hopkins, Mick Abrahams and Danny McCulloch?)

Before I miss the point completely I'd like to point out that the Brandenburger part is really cool. Admittedly, Emerson's 1969 combination of Brandenburger and Bob Dylan's sketchy Country Pie is a lot more adventurous (I mean - who thinks up such a combination?), but both the idea and the slight discrepancy between the stiff playing of the orchestra and Davison's loose swing guarantees some amount of fun. Unfortunately (or rather 'unconsequently'), the orchestra is used neither in the song parts nor in most of the instrumental work-outs. This could have been a severe deficit, but fortunately there's a pretty gorgeous introduction part with Hammond organ, drums, bass and orchestra (also reprised as a 'Big Coda' in the very end) which placates me a lot. I would have loved to call it an 'exposition' or an 'overture', but it's neither; it's just a really decent classical work-out around some little motives which only share faint traits with the melodies of the vocal parts, augmented by a non-boring variation on the popular A-G-F-E passage which has been used quite often in progressive rock as a rewarding jam vehicle.

All in all I have to admit that The Nice stroll around on very thin ice on this record, but somehow they always bravely manage to keep away from overly pretentious pomp; instead there are some moments of great beauty here, though sadly they are a bit lost in the messy concept. The album would have profited a lot from the slower and less maniac version of Daddy, Where Do I Come From?, the addition of the gorgeous psychedelic pop song The Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon (including Keith Emerson's only recorded use of the much-detested Mellotron) and the mighty progressive rock classic America; the latter, by the way, seems to have appeared on the US version of the LP. I'm a bit helpless about the final rating, but I think that a good 3 star rating will do best - combined with an honest recommendation for those with a certain amount of interest in recent music history, in interesting psychedelia/proto-prog and - of course - in Keith Emerson's vocal talents.

Einsetumadur | 3/5 |

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