William Shatner has been in a perpetual state of evolution since he hung up his Star Fleet captain's uniform at the conclusion of the film “Star Trek Generations”. Throughout his 50 year professional career this Canadian born actor was featured in over 30 movies; appeared as a lead or re-occurring character on TV series such as “Hot In Cleveland”, “$#*! My Dad Says”, “Boston Legal”, “The Practice”, “3rd. Rock from The Sun”, “TekWar”, “T.J. Hooker”, “Barbary Coast”, “Star Trek”, “Dr. Kildare”, “For The People”; host of TV series and specials such as “Rescue 911”, “A Twist In The Tale”, and “How William Shatner Changed The World”; as well as appearing on such popular programs throughout the decades as “The Outer Limits”, “Playhouse 90”, “Kraft Theater”, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “Thriller”, “The Twilight Zone”, “Mission Impossible”, “Columbo”, “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air”, and “Psych”, to name a few. His TV credits date back to 1951.
Shatner's acting career seems to have mirrored that of Leslie Nielsen. Both started as serious dramatic actors – then later in life reinvented themselves from drama to light comedy.
But acting is just one of Shatner's many accomplishments. As a writer he's penned nine Star Trek novels and is the creator of the TekWar series. He is also an accomplished director and producer, as well as a recording artist.
His spoken word albums include “The Transformed Man” (1968), “William Shatner Live” (1977), “Has Been” (2008), and “Seeking Major Tom” (2011). And it's here – as a recording artist – where Shatner often finds himself the object of parody and ridicule. His album “The Transformed Man” is regarded as a camp classic and his rendition of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was voted the most massacred Beatles song in 2003. And for anyone who's ever heard his version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” … well let's say it's something you're not likely to forget.
But nothing will keep Shatner for doing what he enjoys. Critics be damned! His second studio album “Has Been”, featuring songs written by Shatner and Ben Folds was actually well-received, prompting him to push the envelope even further with “Seeking Major Tom”, a heavy metal album featuring well respected musicians such as Zakk Wylde, Brian May, Peter Frampton, Steve Howe, Ritchie Blackmore, Alan Parsons, Bootsy Collins, John Wetton, and Brad Paisley - recording space themed songs such as “Major Tom”, “Space Oddity”, “Mr. Spaceman”, “Walking On The Moon”, “Space Cowboy”, Space Truckin'”, “Rocket Man”, and even the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
It stands to reason that if golden boy Pat Boone could record the heavy metal album “In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy” then a rough and tumble headbanger like William Shatner should be able to pull it off with even more panache. And he did so.
So when I recently read an article on the Sy-Fy Channel website Blastr trashing William Shatner's new album “Ponder The Mystery”, suggesting its 'much worse than a train wreck', you can imagine my delight when Ron sent me the promo to review.
Not because I wanted to jump on the band wagon and add a few barbs of my own … but to see what exactly it was they were so averse to. After all, his heavy metal album was pretty well received. So what made this album so god-awful? And it turned out to be exactly what I expected.
The basis of the negative criticism had more to do with the music genre Shatner embraced for this project than his performance on the recording … progressive rock.
Progressive Rock … the bastard step child of the music industry.
“Ponder The Mystery” is as much a Billy Sherwood album as it is a William Shatner album. It would have been more appropriate to call it Shatner and Sherwood since Shatner wrote the lyrics and Sherwood composed all the music.
And after recently reviewing Sherwood's latest Prog Collective album “Epilogue” I'd suggest his musical compositions on William Shatner's 2013 release “Ponder The Mystery” are actually far better. And on “Ponder The Mystery” the amazing collection of guest musicians are given much more room to stretch out and make their contributions fully realized. It's not simply a lead dropped in here and there over Sherwood's compositions … but the musical prowess and personality of each contributor enhances the overall composition. Sherwood takes a back seat to Nik Turner's brilliant sax work on “Rhythm Of The Night” as the sax is the dominant instrument, giving the tune a smoky jazz flavor. The same could be said of the tracks “Twilight” with Edgar Winter and “I'm Alright, I Think” with Dave Koz; both tracks feature some fearsome and moody melancholy sax work, setting the tone for each tune. And Rick Wakeman's keyboard work on “Change” is vintage Wakeman at his best … not something just mailed in to add to his discography. Fantastic Moog leads reminiscent of his early solo albums and 70s' era YES make the track “Change” a stand-out.
The list of contributing artists is pretty impressive: Simon House and Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Robby Krieger (The Doors), Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream), Rick Wakeman (YES), Mick Jones (Foreigner), Joel Vandroogenbroeck (Brainticket), Edgar Winter, Steve Vai, Al Di Meola, Vince Gil, Dave Koz, Zoot Horn Rollo, and the late George Duke
When I first heard about Shatner's foray into progressive rock I didn't find it at all surprising, considering he recently appeared on Sherwood's Prog Collective album “Epilogue”. He seemed right at home lending his talents to a musical genre just as misunderstood as his recording career. Progressive Rock is the perfect genre as the backdrop to the roguish tongue-in-cheek exaggerated narrative only William Shatner can deliver. And deliver he does!
In a different age when record stores flourished and the local record shop was your primary source for new music, “Ponder The Mystery” could easily have been filed under the category of either 'progressive rock' or 'spoken word'.
And because most younger readers will never know the joy of foraging through stacks of LPs or CDs in a record shop, they probably aren't even familiar with the 'spoken word album', assuming it refers to 'Audiobooks' – or Rap. But no … there actually was a specific section in record shops dedicated to the 'spoken word' well before urban Rap artists took to rhyme. The most popular among the counterculture Beat Generation of the 50s' were William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, and a handful of comedians like Steve Allen.
But the best spoken word artist … hands down … was premiere voice-over and spoken word recording artist Ken Nordine. His 1957 “Word Jazz” album is the best example of the Beat Era spoken word recordings. And if you were around during the 70s' and 80s' you'll probably remember his voice-over work on the series of commercials for Levi Strauss Jeans which showcased trippy Peter Max style animation artwork and the rhythmic smooth talking voice-over from Ken Nordine.
Shatner's voice is equally well-suited for his poignant poetic prose, with a soothing resonance in his tone, and a flair for the dramatic. And as a lyricist he is quite the wordsmith. His thought-provoking tales and monologues are well composed descriptive passages combining all the poetic tools of the trade like alliteration, simile, and onomatopoeia delivered with the panache of a campfire storyteller. Whether he's pondering the mysteries of life, existentialism, describing the rhythm of the night in infinite detail, expounding on the loss of youth and the realization that death is but a heartbeat away, or the humorous self-analytical “I'm Alright, I Think”, Shatner guides the listener on a unique and enjoyable aural journey.
He even takes a page from Ken Nordine's playbook by writing an ode to his dog Bucky on the track “So Am I”. Nordine paid homage to man's best friend on his 1979 album “Stare With Your Ears” with the song “Scratch”. Canine buddies pop-up occasionally on progressive rock albums like: Seventh Wave's “Old Dog Song” on the 1974 album “Things To Come”, Gentle Giant's “Dog's Life” on the 1972 “Octopus”, and Pink Floyd's “Seamus” from the 1971 album “Meddle”.
William Shatner isn't the only Hollywood personality to toss his hat into the spoken word recording industry. Geoffery Lewis, who has appeared in a number of Clint Eastwood films like: “Every Which Way But Loose”, “Any Which Way You Can”, “Thunderbolt And Lightfoot”, “High Plains Drifter”, “In The Garden Of Good And Evil”, “Pink Cadillac”, and “Bronco Billy”, as well as the gravedigger in the made-for-TV Stephen King film “Salem's Lot”, has fronted the new age spoken word group Celestial Navigation, recording a total of nine studio albums between 1988 – 2008. And unlike Shatner, Lewis assumes a variety of characters and dialects during the course of the album.
Shatner, on the other hand, assumes no persona other than his own. And like Ken Nordine before him, Shatner need only recite his lyrical monologue with the natural resonance of his voice - odd dramatic inflections and all - and we're whisked away by a master storyteller.
This isn't something you'd bring to a party or pop-in the CD player with a carload of friends on a long road trip. But, if you're fan of progressive rock, then you might find “Ponder The Mystery” the perfect traveling companion on a solitary nighttime cruise. Just you, your thoughts, and William Shatner along for the ride, imparting his words of wisdom and some light-hearted banter between friends.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on October 20th, 2013