Kurt Rongey’s With Form It Threatens Silence

By Ken Shimamoto

The story of how this review came to be written is kind of embarrassing.

I hadn’t heard from Kurt Rongey since witnessing an Underground Railroad performance on the Soundstage at Competition Music last September, where he played drums (something I’d never seen him do before and which he apparently hadn’t done in 15 years) while using a sequencer to play his complex, multi-layered keyboard parts. No slouch behind the traps, he; in fact, I found the three-piece Underground Railroad a more exciting live proposition than the full lineup with drummer John Livingston. As knotty and intellectual an aesthete as he can be, Kurt’s definitely a cat imbued with the spirit of music.

Then a few weeks ago, he hit me up on Myspace to let me know that he had a new CD out. Kurt has been marketing his own music since before the advent of the Internet, using contacts he made as an air personality and program director at Dallas classical station WRR-FM. These days, the Rongey catalog – which includes 1991’s Book In Hand and That Was Propaganda from 1998 as well as this new release -- is available exclusively online via Mindawn (www.mindawn.com), a service that allows users to download and purchase music using an iTunes-like standalone player, eliminating production, warehouse, and shipping costs associated with CDs. (O brave new world, that has such enterprises in’t.)

Sounds like an idea with some potential. Unfortunately, when I attempted to use the Mindawn player, I discovered that my Mac OSX version is too old to support it (it’s based on Mac OS 10.4). A few days later, he messaged me to inform me that the files would be available to prospective reviewers for a limited time via a top-secret web page. Because the files were in high-resolution Ogg Vorbis format, I’d need to download a plug-in to enable me to play them in iTunes. I was encouraged to see that the plug-in was at least compatible with my Mac OSX version. I read further. After downloading the plug-in, I’d need to do some manipulation of QuickTime, which iTunes apparently uses behind the scenes to play MP3 and AAC files. When I tried to download the plug-in, my connection timed out. Four times.

It was beginning to seem like, um, a metaphor.

Eventually, Kurt broke down and provided me with a prosaic CD-R along with a printout of the artwork and lyrics. (Thanks/sorry, Kurt.) Notwithstanding the difficulty my techno-illiteracy (I don’t own an iPod, cellphone, or microwave oven, either) caused in getting this review out of the starting blocks, I think Kurt Rongey can appreciate swimming against the cultural tide. The progressive rock tradition he loves and perpetuates is hardly mainstream, the brief ascendancy of the Mars Volta notwithstanding. As Kurt said when I interviewed him for the FW Weekly back in 2003, “Virtuosity has become a cardinal sin. The slacker mentality rejects anything that displays some effort. The ethic of achievement that prog represents has been vilified.” While that may be true in a general sense, the “ethic of achievement” he champions has its adherents. Within the small but tightly-knit prog community in the States and abroad, Rongey and his Underground Railroad co-conspirator, guitarist Bill Pohl, enjoy considerable reputations, and they have kindred spirits among younger local musicians in bands like Shaolin Death Squad, Urizen, and recent I Love Fort Worth review subjects Addnerim.

I suppose I was predisposed to receive this music favorably by regular spins, in the days before its arrival, of Civilization Phaze III, the career-summing, Synclavier-generated magnum opus of Frank Zappa, another appreciator of the “ethic of achievement.” While I’m usually not a fan of machine-generated sounds per se, the instrument Frank was using by the time he completed Civilization Phaze III shortly before his death in 1993 was capable of emulating pretty accurately the timbres of orchestral instruments. Conversely, many of the tones emanating from the trusty Kurzweil K2000 that Kurt used to play all the instrumental parts on With Form It Threatens Silence back in 1993 sound pretty dated today – which in this case is almost the point.

There’s programmatic content to these pieces -- in brief: science and technology good; religion-as-basis-for-decisionmaking less so -- but you’d have to be pretty astute to deduce it from Rongey’s lyrics, which are as impenetrable as Peter Gabriel’s back when he was writing songs with titles like “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” Indeed, some of the most intriguing music here (to these feedback-scorched ears, at least) is in the all-instrumental, three-part “Mechmech” suite, a paean to “the innate aesthetic beauty of man-made, mechanical things.” It’s notable that the showman in Rongey – the same creature that tosses his head while playing keys (doing what expat Fort Worth muso Nathan Brown, who played with Kurt in the short-lived ‘90s band Anne Hand, once referred to as “the mad scientist head thing”) – couldn’t resist giving the Kurzweil’s kinda clunky percussion emulator some bravura flourishes here. (Once a drummer, always a drummer?)

It’s not hard to imagine Underground Railroad essaying the opening selection, “Eroica,” except of course U.R. would leave room somewhere for Bill to shred. It’s a good introductory showcase for Kurt’s orchestral approach and especially his piano playing. “Lie Still” boasts some of the set’s most beguiling melodies. The most ambitious track here is the 23-minute “Kunstwolle,” a dense thicket of rapidly shifting time signatures and orchestral colors that seems to take its title from a concept (which translates approximately as “artistic volition”) originated by the 19th century Austrian art historian Alois Riegl. (Ulrich Weisstein, writing in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas: “Kunstwollen, which disregards all conventional canons of beauty, asserts itself most forcefully in primitive and highly sophisticated ages when man is either still afraid of his natural environment or has already transcended it spiritually.”) If you can keep up, you’ll be rewarded by some stunning passages of stately chordal majesty and others that rock hard, albeit in a highly cerebral manner. By itself, Rongey’s musical accomplishment is a convincing argument for his Man-over-Nature thesis.

In sum: A worthwhile listen for aficionados of challenging, classical-influenced rock music who own latest-generation computer equipment.