Song Of The Day 11/8/2014: Tonto's Expanding Head Band - "Timewhys"


I've probably gone on too long, at least in the conversations I have with myself in dark rooms, about how strongly I feel about Stevie Wonder's '70s output. Four albums from 1972 through 1976: Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. I'm not alone in ardor for those albums, although some people pass over FFF in favor of the other three. They led Stevie, previously a prank-loving singles machine on the Motown/Tamla roster, into absolutely unforeseen acclaim, mammoth sales and perpetual influence, despite the fact that nobody's made anything since that sounds remotely like those albums and would be called out if they tried.

In particular those albums redefined the part of the synthesizer in rock music. Stevie found a way to shape the previously cold, mechanistic waveforms that nobody could sincerely get into before, and integrated them into plausible components of a pop song. Pete Townshend had managed the same thing with hard rock and the ARP on Who's Next, but Stevie's synth playing forged the machines into something circling the landing strip of human feeling. The keyboard came out of the lab and onto the dance floor, or at least the adjacent bar.

What I wasn't aware of until a relatively short time ago was where a good deal of the groundbreaking sounds on those Stevie albums came from: a British duo who went by the name Tonto's Expanding Head Band. Their weapon was a "multi-timbral polyphonic analog synthesizer" called T.O.N.T.O. ("The Original New Timbral Orchestra"). Calling it a mere "synthesizer" is sort of misleading. It started out as a lone Moog keyboard, but Band members Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff kept adding other synthesizers, and parts of other synthesizers, to the original, reshaping and customizing the framework, accumulating so many parts and units that it eventually became the biggest synthesizer in the entire world, a title it still holds. I mean, look at this thing. It's the size of an entire bank of air controller consoles. The nuclear fate of the world is concentrated into a set of controls maybe half the size of T.O.N.T.O. This is an Olympic-sized synthesizer. There's gotta be at least eight beverage cup holders on this thing. It's still around, by the way, reportedly somewhere near Woodstock, New York. Of course.

Stevie was blown away by TEHB's album Zero Time, which came out in 1971 just as Wonder was getting restless. Zero Time is a really lovely piece of work, wrangling what remains the most delicate, assured synthesizer sounds that side of Richard D. James. Stevie immediately called in the Expanding Head Band to work on Music Of My Mind, a very good album that served as a warm-up for Wonder's golden age. You can hear them working in consort on the next three Stevie albums, especially tracks like "You and I," "Superwoman," "Living for the City," "They Won't Go When I Go" and "Creepin'." (Actually, just looking at the credits, it looks like Stevie just hijacked the T.O.N.T.O. and played it himself on a lot of those tracks.)

"Timewhys" is one of Zero Time's catchiest tracks, one that draws together all the relative strengths of the T.O.N.T.O. from mechanical sequencing to that strange melisma in the subtle pitch bends. "Cybernaut" is another good one. So's "Aurora." The whole album's good. You'll be forgiven for sleeping in late tomorrow morning. Or afternoon if that's your choice.


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