The graceful, dramatic art-song of mid-Hudson native Sarah Perrotta has always struck me as a variant of Prog rock. This is true both of her imminent new release — the gorgeous, career-defining Blue to Gold — and of her earliest work with the art-pop duo Outloud Dreamer. Perrotta’s abiding interest in keyboard-driven counterpoint, non-traditional forms, vertiginous dynamics, and lush, cascading sonics may seem to owe more to the great generation of female, experimental singer-songwriters of the Eighties and Nineties: Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan. But I contend that those brilliant women, too, were employed in the singer-songwriter division of Prog.
Literally no one agrees with me.
That’s the thing about Prog rock. Nobody raises their hand when you call its name. Nobody cops to it. Yet the Prog rock impulse continues to assert itself, transmuted and disguised, in the most unlikely places.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Prog establishment felt intense, evolve-or-perish pressure from Pub rock, Punk and New Wave. The Punk agenda seemed to target lumbering, arena Prog rock by name, tearing down its epic forms; its Ren Faire fashions; and its aloof, Spenserian lyrical pretensions born in the actual Hogwarts of Eton and Charterhouse.
Punk and New Wave purported to clear the decks of all that indulgent, quasi-orchestral goop, restoring hooks, pith, transgressive energy, sex, and political agency as the natural values of rock and roll, as Eddie Cochrane intended it. All of which landed punk’s greatest poet, Joe Strummer, the British diplomat’s son, on the arena stages he probably would have preferred to burn down with Pink Floyd and Asia still upon them. You go wrestle with that paradox. I am here to talk about Prog.
Challenged, energized, and in survival mode, Prog adapted. For a time, the evidence was all over the pop charts: Yes with the hit-laden, proto-sampled 90125 (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”) and Genesis with the bracing, groove-oriented mid-career highlight ABACAB (“No Reply At All.”)
Compare those cryptic and wordless album titles to such lavish predecessors as Tales from the Topographic Oceans or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Prog was learning to be terse.
Meanwhile, King Crimson, who had never considered themselves Prog, adapted with a big FU to pop: the fierce, lean, mathy and urgent ensemble art rock of Discipline and Beat, music so edgy and arrestingly fresh that it immediately fed back into the more adventurous things going on in New Wave, like the Police, Talking Heads, and XTC.
Genesis’s departed front man Peter Gabriel launched a solo career that, in time, would arguably invent cerebral rock minimalism, rock globalism, and an early version of man/machine hybrid electronica, arriving there, perhaps, a little before Prince, but after the Germans.
Prog’s last-gasp pop hits went the way of all pop, but the nervy nu-prog modalities pioneered by Crimson and Gabriel have stayed evergreen, a musical truth. Which brings us back to Sarah Perrotta’s Blue to Gold, due out in mid-October. Produced by the great drummer Jerry Marotta, whose paw prints are all over the best of solo Peter Gabriel, Blue to Gold features contributions from a a number of A-list players with prog and art-rock backgrounds, including Marotta, of course, as well as his Gabriel battery mate Tony Levin, Gang of Four’s Sara Lee, Bowie sideman Gerry Leonard, and more. It was recorded at Dreamland Studio and in Marotta’s personal studio Jersville.
Blue to Gold is a daringly maximalist and baroque record. Daring because minimalism is so in right now. Billie Eilish’s terrific new record Happier Than Ever, on which the Californian pop prodigy explores every teenager’s struggle with global superstardom, is richly musical in composition but threadbare in arrangement and soundset, as anyone-could-do-it populist as anything by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. And it is also the biggest thing in the world.
This age is crazy for highly personal lyrics of unmediated experience and unironic emotion. I’m old, so I call it “confessional.” Pitchfork is younger so they call it “transparency.” That lyrical value has a musical analog as well, evident in a lot of minimalist mainstage pop and in the recent singles released by my favorite eccentric roots-rock darlings Big Thief, songs so unarranged, undeveloped, and undercooked they sound like the doughnuts never quite made it into the fryer. They do it because they can.
Blue to Gold comes from that other universe, the one where choirs materialize and disappear, where armies of Eighties-flavored guitars percolate on top of global polyrhythms wrapped in delicate, expertly crimped and fluffed layers of synths, mellotron, strings, studio ambiance, and arrangements like geologic strata.
There is an expensive surprise around every corner of this record. This more-is-more aesthetic can sometimes lead to music that is all doily, no table. But the rhyming partners Perrotta and Marotta, along with Marotta’s preferred mix engineer Michael Cozzi, worked hard to ensure that the songs and Sarah’s whispery vocals are kept unfailingly in focus. Every element serves the cresting and falling tidal arcs of these songs and their sweeping emotional intent.
Things begins minimally enough with a distant, monophonic piano melody and an intimate right-in-your-earhole vocal at the top of “On the Other Side.” But give it a minute. By 2:50, that same intimate voice is soaring atop a choir of angels and a gigantic power-ballad beat. By 4:20, Perrotta reprises the fragile piano/voice intro, and the epic scope of Blue to Gold has been unmistakably established.
It works, and one reason is the rather sublimated tin-pan-alley values of Perrotta’s songcraft. As rock bands continually discover when trying to go symphonic, you can only festoon so much complexity atop a one-four-five. Perrotta’s deft, crafty songs provide plenty of harmonic sophistication for choirs and sound design to feed off. Some tunes here, like the lovely “Echo of Joy,” take on an almost musical-theater quality.
After an opening three-song sequence of epics, we are refreshed with a couple of sub-four-minute pithy pop numbers in “Firestorm” and “Heartbeat,” the latter of which knowingly echoes the two-beat vocal phrase of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” After that, we head back into the land of the art-pop epic for the duration, a four-song sequence that includes several of the record’s highlights, to my ears: the groovy, complex, and soulful “Spectrum of Color.”
The impressionistic balladry of the title track (Sarah and I have bonded many times over our love of Debussy) and the awesome album-closing classical-meets-doo-wop of “Circles” fade into the same gentle hiss from which “On the Other Side” first arose.
This record is a journey: challenging, enveloping, and transformative. No wonder it took so damn long to make.
“The conception of the songs all had a simple start,” said Perrotta. “They all start with a feeling, which might be an epic feeling, but the initial execution is raw and simple, with just voice and piano. I brought these songs to Jerry, and we built them up slowly over time, distilling their essence, combing over them a million times until we both felt they were ‘done.’
“Although the album is lush, nothing is overplayed. Jerry asked me to record my piano parts with one hand at a time, directing me to simplify my parts as much as possible. The layers are built rhythmically with simple patterns. It’s how all of these parts relate to each other that creates the feeling of grandeur.”
Blue to Gold is clearly from the dynamics and trust of the artist-producer relationship. “I don’t believe in the end we ever argued about where a song ended up,” said Marotta. “Sometimes you need to try six wrong ideas until you find the right idea. Some of my favorite songs I’ve produced have very little to nothing on them. Often, producers and artists feel like ‘we’re making a record, shouldn’t it have more going on?’ I don’t believe in piling stuff on for the sake of placating the artist. I rely wholly on my instincts. How does it affect me? Do I like it? Is it moving me?”
Each song is approached individually. Each song had its own personality. “Kind of like people,” said Marotta. “I was acutely aware of maintaining Sarah’s presence on every song. If one is not careful, the artist can be overwhelmed by the production. I feel like we did a good job of balancing artist-song-production. In Sarah’s case. she has the ability and talent to be artistic one minute and catchy the next.”
“The songs are each like a prayer or meditation for me based on relationships and life experience,” explained the articulate Perrotta. “Topics include the awe and selflessness of parenthood, transition, embracing our primitive dark side, rising above conflict, not wanting a good thing to end, being open to following dreams, finding unity amid misunderstanding, a tribute to a friend who died suddenly, a call to live life fully and observing the cyclical beauty of it all.”
Perrotta is an artist in the true sense of the word, concluded Marotta. “Warm. Kind. Passionate. Soulful. The way she is with her children. Her husband. Her family. Her friends. Music. She’s an inspiration. She touches people whether it be through playing piano, singing, or just entering a room. I’m eternally grateful that music brought us together. We will always remain friends. I’m already thinking about what the direction of a future record of hers should be.”
For more information on Sarah Perrotta, visit sarahperrottamusic.com. For more on Jerry Marotta, visit jerrymarotta.com. Blue to Gold is scheduled for October 15 release on 7D Media/Third Star Records.