Multi-instrumentalist C.W. Vrtacek aka Chuck Vrtacek aka Charles O’Meara surfaced on the independent American scene in the early 1980s. As a self-declared “President of the Avant-garde”, he created a stir in underground distribution networks with his first two LPs and a cassette parodying the Residents’ mannerism. Conflicting coverage in the then trend-setting magazine Option proves that Vrtacek’s music was often misunderstood, even by his own audience.
He then unexpectedly turned to brief, tightly sewn, levellist rock forms. Ever since, his musical output followed a dual path. On the one hand, he sought to localize the perfect format for graphically transparent avant-rock ‘songs’. Rhythmically eclectic and often fiery, his guitar-based trios and quartets eventually led in 1989 to the foundation of Forever Einstein, self-proclaimed as an exponent of ‘cubist country progressive’. Drummer John Roulat has accompanied Vrtacek in this adventure since the beginning.
By contrast, in his piano compositions Vrtacek expounded uncanny flair for nostalgic melodism. Flashes of genius cannot conceal the fact that he is well acquainted with both Eric Satie and ZNR – the legendary eminences grises of experimental melancholia.
Early in his career, Vrtacek was capable of combining these nascent, apparently contradictory threads with evocative and often whimsical musical illustrations. These figurative collages, facilitated by early versions of samplers, proved highly rewarding at a time when many other avant-garde artists were also exploring the genre with memorable effects (e.g. Motor Totemist Guild, John Zorn, Alfred 23 Harth).
Since the late 1980s, Vrtacek has also been a member of Colorado-based collective Biota.
The record opens with a Satiesque nursery melody. The stippled piano motif is intimate, but playfully pastel in character. It springs charitably, thanks to a pre-school left hand ostinato. The perfectly terrestrial melodic vector plunges us into the dominant mood of acclimatized longing.
History of the Heart, Mystery of the Mind
With its foundation in classical guitar, the dusky, ruminative harmony marinates in objectless nostalgia. A harp tiptoes around, like Nino Rota’s sad marionettes from Fellini’s confessional ‘Casanova’. Equally regrettably, what promises to take us on an odyssey is almost instantly suspended without conclusion.
Part of Me Here, Part of Me with You, Always
Vrtacek underwrites this vignette with a DX7 keyboard and manages to sinter through it colorful hesitations, demurrals and waivers. The piano solo is saddled with a heavy responsibility to deliver a thematic development of Klimperei – like levity. The composer passes the test.
Another piece with the harmony and tempo defined by the acoustic guitar. An aphoristic piano rhapsody will spin here with the lightness of a newborn butterfly.
Preparing the Bridge (for Heaven)
From here on, Vrtacek will gradually densify the atmosphere. Brown noise effects gnarl at a distance until highly pitched synthesizer glissando drapes over the lyrical majesty of large, open spaces. Irregular, inarticulate cracks barely distract us from the cinematic, cloudy, non-denominationally mystic ambience. Nor will electric discharges and thunderous backdrop prevent the liturgic metaphor from evolving inside the electric lumpen-organ.
Saying Goodbye to the Beauty and Complexity of Life on Earth
Accustomed now to the merger of the organic with the naturalistic, the listener wakes up to dulled keyboard chords stuck in incessant, metronomic manacles. The Pierre Bastien-like regularity is too muffled to be directly cross-textual. The electronic romanticism of rainy glissandos recurs, underlined by a bass line growling between its whiskers.
When Heaven Comes to Town
Chuck invites us to an American diner. What a national institution; noisy, cluttered, predictable, staffed with waitresses on the edge of poverty, rife with the busy smell of people in a rush. The coffee is weak. The eggs filling. The service über-hasty. And furtive diner recordings are just too irresistible to be infrequent. The doors swing, the cutlery cutlers, the voices cluck. And then? Then a piano intones a sketchy, dangling sub-theme. But, rather than conjugating nostalgic reminiscences, Vrtacek changes the course with static, noises, tunnel-echoed black soul singers, street din and ballroom piano poetry. All will compete for space in the multi-layered, overcrowded kaleidoscope of sounds. The composer of this collage will hesitate whether to confine us to the jostled eatery or to let us venture outside, where footsteps, announcements, fizzing liquids and frizzling burns coexist unaware of each other. The piano is now replaced by a clavinet-sounding keyboard and kalimba-style idiophonic scale. A more joyful, non-linear melodic attempt succeeds when a jangly, percussive zither solo bypasses the main spotlight. The composer attentively regulates the spigot of the electro-burr before leading us back to the piano solo. He betrays his preference for representational aspects, known from his first two records. When melodica and a throbbing keyboard rhythm induce some suspense, it is instantly devastated by the fast forward of an analog tape swishing by an oversensitive recording tape. Radio knob petting showcases meaningless shards – news in English, Spanish telenovelas, classical music, old-time jazz, resonant timbales, mariachi-type fanfares, Spanish-language commercials, English talk radio, Mexican radionoticias, soul crooners and the like. As this pageant of auditory borderland begins to wear off, percussive effects envelop the physical space. A triste, lonesome piano nocturne makes a comeback through the sizzling haze, a supra-imposed romantic orchestra and a humming factory. The piano never really shakes off the man-made stridor of the industry and classical concert halls. Although the quasi-aleatoric proceeding experiments with funk and Latin dance interferences, this last chapter is mainly marked by a bold, muscular, proud tango. Its exalted melodrama strides on cheap piano keys, light drumstick snare and glissando electronics, sneaking around an urban landscape with its windy, wet streets, random voices, the brattle of glass and marginal ventures into ragtime and Debussy. The leading threads decompose into increasingly pointillistic miscellany of kettles, sniffing, commuter crowds and their causeries recorded at New York’s eternal Grand Central Station.
Vrtacek finally rediscovers the form of a suite, allowing the opening theme to return in a bout of melancholia overpopulated with the familiar sonic faces of the rude waitresses, spoiled teenagers, and all that confused bedlam from… the diner.
C.W. VRTACEK: “Victory through Grace” (1980-81)
C.W. VRTACEK: “Days And Days” (1980, 1982)
C.W. VRTACEK: “Now Available” MC (1983)
C.W. VRTACEK & DANCING LESSONS: “Monkey on a Hard Roll” (1984)
C.W. VRTACEK: “Learning to Be Silent” (1985-86)
C.W. VRTACEK: “When Heaven Comes to Town” (1988)
FOREVER EINSTEIN: “Artificial Horizon” (1990)
FOREVER EINSTEIN: “Opportunity Crosses the Bridge” (1991)
C.W. VRTACEK – Chris CUTLER – Thomas DiMUZIO: “Preacher in Naked Chase Guilty” (1993)
C.W. VRTACEK: “Fifteen Mnemonic Devices” (1986-1994)
FOREVER EINSTEIN: “One Thing After Another” (1997)
FOREVER EINSTEIN: “Down with Gravity” (1999)
FOREVER EINSTEIN: “Racket Science” (2004)
Nick DIDKOVSKY-Steve MACLEAN-C.W.VRTACEK: “Flies in the Face of Logic” (2006)
Both C.W. Vrtacek and his Forever Einstein also appear on compilation “Unsettled Scores”, performing compositions by Erik Lindgren and George Cartwright.
I have a particular meta-nostalgia for the first two positions in Vrtacek’s discography.