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Published: 2003/01/23
by Michael Lello

Controlled By Radar – McGill, Manring, Stevens

Free Electric Sound 4002
A music geek’s dream come true, McGill Manring Stevens’ Controlled By
Radar also boasts something one might not associate with instrumental
experimenters on the self-proclaimed progressive fusion scene: soul.
Sure, there are the odd meters, challenging flurries of notes, and Scott
McGill’s very Robert Fripp-like guitar soundscapes. But if you’re looking
for a stodgy, lifeless exercise in prog rock, you’ve come to the wrong
place. The two-disc set – an electric disc (Right Brain), and an
acoustic disc, Left Brain – is more about atmosphere than detail,
more about tone than melody and more about feel than chops.
McGill, like Fripp, paints the sonic landscape with broad brush strokes,
often evoking more of an overall mood rather than heavily formatted and
sectioned prog arrangements. Witness the slow-building, hazy Indian raga,
"Me Is Invisible", on the acoustic disc, where the rhythm is subtle and the
guitar snakelike. Or the electric "Umkhonto We Sizwe", with its
Discipline-era King Crimson world beat drums courtesy of Vic Stevens,
Michael Manring’s bubbling fretless bass and McGill’s washes of guitar. The
heavy-metal romp of "Argentine Scalp Massage" sticks to a loping, elastic
drum groove, and – like the rest of the electric disc – is prog with an
attitude. No high-concept artifice, no flashy keyboard solos (in fact, no
keyboards at all).
Make no mistake, this is challenging stuff, but it challenges not only the
mind and the ear, but also the heart and soul.
Also highlighting Right Brain is the funky "(In Walked) Bogus Boy"
and "Have Sex Get Paid – Part II" in which McGill coaxes synthesizer sounds
from his guitar while a palpable rhythmic tension is built by his bandmates.
In "Cash Of Chaos", McGill layers three guitar parts and on "I Am Totally",
an amorphous, rhythmless tonal exploration becomes a proper song, with
Manring leading the conversion.
The second disc, the acoustic Left Brain, leaves much of the prog
rock behind in favor of free jazz. While the first disc offers a nice and
often pleasing mix of songs and song sections with melodies and without
melodies, with defined rhythms and without defined rhythms, the second disc
is even more sparse and wide open. Without much to latch onto rhythmically,
the disc often proves less enjoyable than the first; the give and take of
the "familiar" and the "experimental" is gone. You’re pretty much left with
the latter.
That being said, disc two does just as good of a job as disc one when it
comes to setting and developing moods. It’s just that there are simply less
of these moods on the airy disc two, and what makes disc two so attractive
is the contrast between the moods and the little journeys between those
Both discs could be considered cinematic in scope, heavy on emotion and
scene-setting. Left Brain, though, is so loose that it often fails to
fight to the forefront of your mind; that is, if you’re not consciously
working to listen to it, it has the tendency to regress into a
background-music state. Ideas float rather than develop, guitar lines peek
around corners briefly but never bother to focus on what they see, and what
we’re often left with feels a bit hollow.
Of course, if you are nonplussed by disc two, it may, by contrast, enhance
your enjoyment of disc one — which, after all, is a fine, free-standing
piece of exploratory, compelling and emotional progressive fusion.

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