Graded on a Curve: Roger Miller,
“Big Steam” b/w
“Dream Interpretation”

Roger Clark Miller’s main claim to fame for the last thirty plus years has been as guitarist for Boston underground rock greats Mission of Burma. And while that band reconvened roughly a decade ago to exceptional results, it should also be noted that Miller has remained the busiest of the group’s members both during Burma’s hiatus and since their return to active duty. As evidence he’s got a new single in the racks, “Big Steam” b/w “Dream Interpretation.” It’s a very strong outing from one of rock music’s most rewarding and enduring experimental minds and worth the full attention of any Mission of Burma fan.

In terms of approach, Roger Miller has a fantastically light touch in his non-Burma work, where he has deftly combined elements of psychedelia, proto-punk, prog, pure experimentalism, and occasionally even influences of a non-musical nature (Duchamp, Max Ernst) in a variety of solo and assorted group configurations for years now. And if Mission of Burma’s status has shifted from an underground rock staple to a band of truly iconic stature through a righteous and longstanding resurrection, it’s also true that the fruits of Miller’s artistic labor beyond the land of Burma have flown a little under the radar and on a rather consistent basis.

But if that’s bothered Miller over the years he hasn’t shown it, the versatile multi-instrumentalist electing instead to just keep busy. Unsurprisingly, it was during Burma’s big break in activity that he seemed to be at his most active (or at least most prolific), knocking out a steady succession of releases both under his own name and through the constantly evolving band No Man.

If Miller’s tinnitus (the cited reason for Burma’s work stoppage) initially found him working in the decidedly quieter context of the electric piano, including two releases in 1987, the LP The Big Industry and the 12-inch Groping Hands, No Man seemed to slowly become his outlet for the guitar on one hand and flashes of a well-developed and very smart pop side.

Since Burma’s return to duty, Miller has mainly split his time between that band’s high-profile activities and his involvement with laudable silent movie scorers The Alloy Orchestra, whose live accompaniment to such diverse works of early film as Paul Fejos’ Lonesome, Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera and Fritz Lang’s restored and complete Metropolis has brought them a storm of acclaim, and all of it fully deserved. However, 2012 has saw Miller stepping outside the zones of Burma and Alloy for the first time in quite a while.

For starters he’s half of At Land’s Edge by M2, a collective improvisational duo with his brother Ben. And now Miller pops up again with a trim, spry solo single that manages to incorporate many fine aspects of his musical personality and all while feeling as fresh and necessary as anything Burma has released since recommencing.

For a guy that can get convincingly “outside” in his avant-garde excursions, “Big Steam” and “Dream Interpretation” might seem at first like relatively conventional ‘60s inspired rock tunes with well-integrated art touches, but with time spent they reveal themselves as two more installments in the long career of this fantastic Bostonian musical thinker.

A huge part of their success would seem to derive from Miller’s working method, which favors collaboration with a recurring set of players. For instance, this record features the contribution of Larry Dersch on drums, a name that figures in Miller’s scheme of things at least as far back as No Man’s 1989 LP Win! Instantly! While many musicians possessive of an art-rock bent display a restless need to engage with a revolving cast of creative foils, it seems that Miller works at least partially from a somewhat opposing sensibility; for example Ken Winokur, his partner in The Alloy Orchestra also plays on Win! Instantly! and he’s worked with his brother Ben and Larry all the way back to the late-‘60s/early ‘70s Ann Arbor-based psyche/improv/out-rock quartet Sproton Layer (that group’s With Magnetic Fields Disrupted LP saw reissue last fall, and happily there is more stuff in the pipeline).

“Big Steam” is described by its author as a blues, and that’s palpable. But it’s far from trad, dad. It’s an art-blues rock, and what’s more it’s very much a studio creation; along with vocalizing, Miller plays both guitar and bass on track, blending into Dersch’s strong drumming and Brian Arnold’s striking French Horn playing. Miller has stated Piper at the Gates of Dawn as his inspiration for this 45, but that doesn’t mean the tracks are blatant hommages to Pink Floyd. In fact, “Big Steam” doesn’t sound anything like Syd and company.

The flip however does radiate a fine Floydian vibe. “Dream Interpretation” finds Miller adding organ to his overdubbed arsenal of invention, and if explicitly connected to the sound of Piper, it’s again quite far from a mere copy. The biggest difference is in the degree of musicianship. This b-side unfolds as a killer bit of unfussy progress from a veteran musician at the top of his game; not flashy but definitely securely connected to the abilities of the guy who orchestrated it. Piper is surely an amazing piece of work, but the members of the Floyd weren’t virtuoso musicians at that stage of their career.

On “Dream Interpretation” Miller makes a beautiful case for the virtuoso rocker as something other than an annoying show-off. He’s not bragging, he’s building, and his structure is a superb modern architecture smartly informed by the past. I’d be tempting to describe this cut as Piper produced by the Floyd that came up with Meddle (or tore it up live at Pompeii), but that’s not right either. It’s actually just Roger Miller taking creative strength from a record that not only helped shape his youth, but also continues to resonate on his radar screen so many years later.

Lastly, I’ll mention that the design of this record by Brian Coleman’s Good Road productions is simply exquisite. As vinyl comes back into vogue, it’s clear that many will release product simply for its ability to shift units, but it’s immediately apparent from beholding this suave single that the interest in producing it was far more than just mercenary. It oozes the love of the endeavor, matching up perfectly with the sounds created by Roger Miller. Backslaps all around for a record well made.


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