THE NEPTUNE COLLECTION (click here)
AQUARIUS RECORDS: :From the minute we saw the cover, we knew this had to be something special! I mean we can easily see this psychedelic graphic of a hooded horn-playing figure with a gnarled tree emanating from below being a new record by any number of druggy experimental outfits from psych-folk to pagan eco-metal, but this Smithsonian Folkways reissue is from the Entourage Music and Theatre Ensemble, a modern ambient classical outfit who hailed from Baltimore. Recorded in 1973, the ensemble of musicians performed with a dance troupe making these strange tripped out pieces of abstracted sound and movement heavy on viola, keyboards, percussion and guitar, with an emphasis on interesting harmonics, organic percussion and textured melody. The music is impressionistically gorgeous, conjuring all kinds of mental sound pictures, reminding us of a combination of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Harry Partch, but also Barton Smith, or perhaps a hippie folk version of Philip Glass. The ensemble was active until 1983 when the founder and director Joe Clark died. They put out two records, this and The Neptune Collection from 1975, both produced by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, and both incredibly amazing!!
Psychedelicfolk.com: “Entourage was a kind of holistic group of a kind which could or would only be developed well in the right times, the early seventies. It was very much a multi-media ensemble with music and dancers in a theatre context as a way to create an experimental-spiritualistic environment. Like in Noh-theatre, certain movements could become like a language to mobilize, visually and with music, certain dynamic capacities of a global, almost abstract conception. Most of it sounds very improvised with certain sections of I think are developed musically from ideas on certain moods. On the first album,”ENTOURAGE”, the first track sounds like a cross of Brother Ah and Third Ear Band, moody improvised acoustic music based upon acoustic guitar, thumb piano and what sounds like a jazzy oboe (the soprano sax). The second improvised track has the use of a -typical for 70s- over-effect of echo with percussive sounds and flute mostly. A similar effect is also added on the next, rather meditative, part with improvised guitar, piano, viola, organ, drums. The somewhat longer fourth part, with piano and viola sounds like a more emotional driven piece, which is slightly classical but still from an improvised nature. Two small viola improvisations alternate with small sections. The first time this viola improvisation uses different harmonic pitches, and improvises, slightly contemporary but not too complicated around certain notes and chords, an introduction before a more oriental dance (with oscillating viola, percussion, and a soprano sax improvisation), like a sort of a folk dance (comparable again slightly to Third Ear Band’s early work). This goes over in a percussive improvisation, and then an electric viola improvisation of another contemporary vision, with a bit of piano and percussion added. The last track remains very improvised piano with viola, hand percussion, bells, of which the last few notes on guitar sound koto-like.”
“By the time of the second album, The Neptune Collection, the group had one more musical member, Wall Matthews, who played acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, dulcimer and temple bells ; Joe Clark played E-flat and B-flat soprano saxophones, electric keyboards, acoustic piano and gong ; Rusti Clark played viola, acoustic guitar, gong, bird and rabbit ; Michael Scott Smith played assorted percussion instruments and did a druid dance with his fists, knuckles and finger pops.
The second album clearly took a step away from pure moody improvisation, to more developed advance, composed and musically rich music. The tracks hang more together, there’s more dialogue, as if they are now cooperative composers involved with the group, more than separate improvisers in a group entity. This is also due to the extra, talent in acoustic guitar playing which has a more composed character, which is enriched with other more improvised arrangements. But also the piano is more descriptive as before, showing waters and rivers of evolutions. The tracks have more focused titles which have also a meaning outside the improvised context and the continuity and flow between the tracks has developed with the advantage of experience. “Druid Dance” for instance sounds like a next step to the folk dance of the previous album, which with the extra guitar, and the sophisticated hand driven percussion is rather special. “Neptune Rising” has an interesting contemporary acoustic guitar picking lead which shows touches of still meditative avant garde, mixed with a sort of koto-like guitar, glockenspiel and percussion, with a beautiful interactive creativity. Other tracks are rather chamber-folk-like (an area which is slightly comparable to some Quebec groups of that time, although in a different context). Just one of the parts, near the end becomes a bit weird, called “Space Needle Suicide”, with a series of notes played with electric guitar and viola. It is really a shame to know this was the last recording of the group. I think they deserve a proper reissue, with a decent booklet.”
WAXIDERMY: I picked this album up recently half-expecting some excessively artsy, self-indulgent improv noodling with maybe a redeemable moment or two sprinkled within. The “Theatre Ensemble” part of the name kind of just gave me the willies for some reason. On the other hand, it is on Folkways and it has a cool cover with some intriguing song titles (Tar Box Poltergeist, anyone?). Fortunately, my initial guess about the music turned out to be far off base. This is a small group (4) of open minded musicians dipping into a communal folk/jazz/chamber/new-age bag with lots of lovely nature sounds mixed in to excellent effect. They’re definitely creating something unique here, and yet it doesn’t feel like work to listen to this at all. It would be excellent nap music, save for a couple of shrill moments that would probably jolt you out of any prospective slumber. (July 23, 2006)
THE MAGNETIC GARDEN: If you can remember correctly, Entourage was a collective beginning in 1971 and active for over a decade. They were a performance art group that incorporated music, poetry and dance, occasionally featuring as many as fifteen individuals. The group cites world music as an important influence on their sound and it is notably obvious in their use of various percussion instruments. Because of this influence, along with an aesthetic that can only be described as quasi-spiritualism or mysticism, I would consider Entourage early architects of the New Age movement. Their sound is a freer, unconstrained by melodramatic melody or programmed hifi world percussion, but the hallmarks are there.
The Neptune Collection is the follow up to The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble’s eponymous debut, and it’s more of the same free-form, experimental acoustic loveliness. This album features Wall Matthews, who had recorded previously with Biff Rose and went on to record a fusion record on Fretless. At some point in the near or distant future, I will post an updated recording of Entourage’s debut, as well as Matthews’ subsequent releases for any completionists out there.
(July 23, 2006)
LULLABIES FOR INSOMNIACS: What are you listening to at the moment?
The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble was a 70’s ambient/theatre group. Their healing powers are insane.
TOYS AND TECHNIQUES: There’s a certain kind of hippie commune wellness Xian folk music that I really like. The Christ Tree album, Children Of One, and some Sufi Choir records are like that. Certain parts of Berkeley California are still like this. But The Entourage Theater and Music Ensemble sets the high water mark. It’s the sound of centering yourself and emerging from your teepee to join in the muesli harvest or a summer solstice initiation rite. The upstate NY and later Connecticut-based Entourage put out two records on Folkways, and they are both excellent.
Doom And Gloom From The Tomb: Thanks to a tip from the ever-reliable Michael Klausman, I’ve been blissing out to this live recording of the Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble. Pretty great stuff, with a very nice new age/minimalism blend. Healing vibes! We could all use some of those, couldn’t we?