Prog-rock on the prairie

Lams and Griesgraber’s Untamed Lands is a concept record about prairie travelers.
  • Lams and Griesgraber’s Untamed Lands is a concept record about prairie travelers.

“It’s a concept album, with a storyline that goes with the music,” says Chapman Stick player Tom Griesgraber, whose newest collaboration with Bert Lams (California Guitar Trio), Unnamed Lands, is a prog-rock western set in 1840. “I had this three-part story idea come to me, about a group of covered-wagon travelers,” he says of the narrative, which developed after the duo distilled around 30 hours of recorded instrumentals down to 14 potential tracks. “I knew nothing about the period, hadn’t been reading or watching anything about it, [so] it was really strange the way it came to me. That gave us the title ‘Prairie Suite’ for that piece.”

“We then spent several months reading historical diaries, manuals, and accounts of actual prairie travelers to base our own story.” The resulting album sounds both earthy and otherworldly, mostly due to the sonic flexibility of composing songs around the Chapman Stick, a 12-stringed instrument championed by bassist Tony Levin during stints with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. Griesgraber picked up his first Stick in 1997, after seeing Levin performed a trade-show demonstration by tapping the strings both overhand and underhand, with bass and melody strings tuned alternately and independently, allowing for almost endless choral and lead experimentation.

Combined with Bert Lams’s adventurous guitar work (which continues to evolve, long after touring with Crimson’s king Robert Fripp), Unnamed Lands explores tonal territories rarely covered. “I’ve played with quite a few musicians over the years, but most of them drummers. In that scenario, it’s easy, because the Stick and drums each have their own sonic space. With Bert on acoustic guitar, the two instruments are much more similar.... Bert doesn’t think anything like a conventional guitarist. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find him strumming chords on the entire album! He plays tuned in 5ths, Robert Fripp’s ‘new standard tuning,’ and spends a lot of time playing counter riffs and melodies to what I’m doing.”

Adding depth and context to Unnamed Lands is an accompanying booklet, illustrated by two brothers from Lams’s Belgium homeland. “We gave them the rough story ideas and mixes, and they came up with the idea to make the whole package look like a diary of someone on this trip, with original artwork in a hand-drawn sketch style, as well as diary entries, as if this traveler was making notes about their experiences on the six-month trip.”

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Griesgraber offers further insight into Unnamed Lands at - "We wrote most of the material together over a period of about four years. Bert would fly out and stay here for a week or so at a time. Most of the pieces started with improvisations in the studio. We would just set up all the gear, hit record and see what happened. Eventually, we would listen back to the improvs and find our favorite moments. Using these as rough ideas, we then started trying to combine and elaborate on them and slowly turned them into pieces that could be played live."

"We took these out on tours around the US, further refining them each night. Along the way, we wound up with about 30 hours of material recorded. Eventually, we realized there was a core group of fourteen tracks that seemed to really work together as an album."

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