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With Magnetic Fields Disrupted

With Magnetic Fields Disrupted

by Sproton Layer
World in Sound, Schwetzingen, Germany, 2011
CD, 15 Euros
Distributor’s website: http://www.worldinsound.com.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Most rock records from the 1960s that were written and performed by teenagers are   achingly rooted in the heart and loins, generating songs of love and lust.  This document of a teenaged band in a mid-American university town is cerebral, motivated by music, art, lore and existential questioning, not (at least primarily) by a craving for the affections of girls.  Or if their eyes were on the girls, its musical messages are veiled, literary and artsy, addressed to the more refined and aesthetic young women of their university-town circle.

Sproton Layer's singer and bassist Roger Miller was 18 when With Magnetic Fields Disrupted was recorded in the summer of 1970, and his younger brothers on guitar and drums, twins Ben and Larry, were 16.  The three were sons of an icthyologist teaching at the University of Michigan and lived on the northwest side of Ann Arbor within walking or biking distance of the campus.  The other member of the band was trumpeter Harold Kirchen, son of an automotive engineer.  At the time, Kirchen's brother Bill was playing exemplary country/rockabilly guitar with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the band formed and sometimes residing in Ann Arbor.  I believe I heard Sproton Layer, several months after this recording at our shared high school's springtime Creative Arts Festival.  Instrumental skill, interesting time signatures, and arresting stop-time have always characterized all three Miller brothers' work.  What strikes this listener 40 years later is how skillful this band was, assured, and confident within its genre, time, and active rock musical scene.

The album's opening track, "Gift", is fey and childish, the singer demanding attention to a picture he made; "It's red, and black, and blue, in pencil".  Chords descend the scale like in Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine," and it has the doe-eyed childishness of that band's co-founder Syd Barrett, evincing Barrett's profound influence upon the conscious English dandyism of Midwestern American psychedelic youth.  Michigan boys generally don't say (or sing) things like "I really think that it's quite nice to look at" after about age 7.  Kirchen trumpets with simple clarity, a medieval herald announcing guests to the castle.  The song easily segues into "Pretty Pictures, Now", its head-nodding beat insistent as the "One of us! One of us!" banquet chant in Todd Browning's "Freaks".  It has characteristics of psychedelic rock from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury or "Piper at the Gates of Dawn"–era Pink Floyd, from the bass solo by Roger and his ensuing interplay with Ben's guitar, to Larry Miller's drum rolls.

"In the Sun" has the propulsion of Pink Floyd's "Pow R. Toch", while Ben's guitar alludes to another bravura Michigan guitarist I never would have previously noted as influencing these Millers, Ted Nugent.  In the 1970s Nugent descended into macho self-parody, where he remains further freighted with right wing political editorializing but was a technically impressive player with his 1960s Detroit band The Amboy Dukes.  The structure and lyrical melancholy of the next two songs reminds one of the skillful Michigan band SRC, whose "Travelers Tale" album appeared about this time.  "Sister Regis" features a notable trumpet solo by Harold Kirchen and Tolkeinesque lyrics, and the moody "Bush" makes use of Kirchen's horn too, where there is a sweet tone like Herb Alpert, with occasional Tijuana Brass mariachi flourishes.  This reviewer remembers a party 40 years ago where Kirchen showed up in an over-the-head gorilla mask, which he also wore in the Ozone Parade, a goofy parody of the University of Michigan's annual Homecoming Parade.

"Tidal Wave" begins with an atonal guitar crunch prefiguring Punk around 1980, the era Roger was having success with his Boston-based band Mission of Burma.  Larry's drums are energetic and precise.  "Up" could have been performed by the White Panther Party-affiliated Ann Arbor band of that name, or the MC5.  Kirchen's horn, however, suggests something from the Bonzo Dog Band's "Urban Spaceman" album.

"The Blessing of the Dawn Source" begins pompously, then sails instrumentally into a clutch of lyrics rhyming "distance" and "resistance", "glimmer" and "shimmer."  It then swings back and forth a bit monotonously, evoking Spinal Tap, until Kirchen––an interesting foil for these consummate rockers––comes in with regal horn fanfare at the end.  "Nocturnal Mission" is a quirky two chord siren of spy-movie guitar and bass, beneath somewhat sophomoric (hey, half of 'em were sophomores!) stoner poetry, but that's OK, for it keeps up the momentum, with  Larry's furious drumming and crash cymbal, that Ann Arbor boys had grown to expect from older bands jamming at the free Sunday afternoon rock concerts all summer long.

One digs beneath the Sproton Layer's youthful flowering for seeds of these guys' later work.  The insistent, jagged edginess in this band certainly resurfaced in Roger's Mission of Burma, his solo piano album and subsequent tenure in Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.  Ben has continued exploratory guitar projects in New York City, including a guitar orchestra and collaboration with Glenn Branca.  The very title of one song here, "Pount of View," exemplifies an obstinate punning, whimsical as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, in Larry's mid-'70s EMPOOL zine, or his '90s band Larynx Zillions.

"New Air" (later the name of Roger's acoustic band with Leslie Orlin and Larry Wahl)  is one of those characteristically circa-1970 prog-rock pieces whose alternating slow and rocking parts demand focused attention, like the MC5's "Star Ship," which, in the latter case, usually resulted in audience members leaving the ballroom for a while.  Sproton Layer's final track here, "The Wonderful Rise," ends up with an oom-pah waltz beat not inappropriate for Ann Arbor, much of whose population descended from 19th century German settlers with names like Miller and Kirchen, or Schlenker, Kemf, Allmendinger and Fritz.  Four years later the Miller twins' high school classmate Jim Rees and some fellow residents of Joint House Co-op (at one time, home of Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy) obtained some brass instruments and antique horn charts to launch a German-style parade band.  Eschewing his teenage maturity and seriousness, Sproton Layer's cheery tootling also prefigures some of Larry's children's music of the past decade, performed––and frequently uploaded to YouTube––under the name Mister Laurence.  One wonders how the Teutonic turn in "The Wonderful Rise" is perceived by the German CD label responsible for this reissue.

The CD comes with a fun, illustrated booklet, with much information on when and where the lads wrote their songs and smoked their dope, assembled by Stan Rebo in 1991, plus a memoir by the recording's original producer Mark Brahce.  It is illustrated with minuscule reprints of the Millers' hand-penned lyric sheets and drawings on school notebook paper.  Not long after this recording, Gertrude Prokasch Kurath, a local folklorist and leader of children's folk dances, commissioned publication of Roger's songbook and deposited a copy in the Ann Arbor Public Library.  We are fortunate to have such documentary magic mushrooms of bohemian Michigan youth four decades ago as Sproton Layer's With Magnetic Fields Disrupted now available to us all.

Last Updated 1 January 2012

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