Hawkwind The GWR Years, 1988-1991 Esoteric/Atomhenge ATOMCD31403
This trio of releases, originally on GWR, have been remastered and reissued in replica CD sleeves and a clamshell box, and, of course, are slightly cheaper than the expanded individual re-releases. These albums span a period in which the Hawkwind line-up changed, beginning with that of The Xenon Codex, which hinted, on Wastelands of Sleep and Neon Skyline, at the direction that the band would later take, although there were also nods to the group's history on the opener, the hard-driving The War I Survived. The next release, Space Bandits, introduced the configuration that would take the band into the next decade. Bridgit Wishart had joined on vocals, and the group, with Dave Brock, Harvey Bainbridge, Alan Davey, Richard Chadwick and a returning Simon House on violin, moved even further into the electric ambient space-rock field. The new line-up demonstrated its power on Images, Out of the Shadows, and the closing TV Suicide, with Wishart providing a brilliant contrast to Brock's vocals. On the accompanying live album Palace Springs from 1991, the classics Lives of Great Men, Damnation Alley and Time We Left are given a new lease of life by a revitalised band.
Barclay James Harvest XII Esoteric Recordings ECLEC32563
Esoteric continue their superb reissue programme of BJH’s classic Polydor recordings with this definitive re-release of 1978’s seminal album. The legendary quartet had bedded in on the Continent, with hit records and multiple sold-out concerts in Germany –-hence the inclusion of the song Berlin, about the (at the time) divided city.
John Lees and Les Holroyd had really hit their stride as songwriters, and tracks such as the brilliant Loving is Easy are still in the John Lees BJH set today. This would be the last BJH collaboration with talented keyboardist Woolly Wolstenhulme, whose fine sound was part of the glue that held the band together. Other tracks looked at disintegrating trade unions/government relations, a hot topic in the months prior to 1979’s winter of discontent, while the more escapist Nova Lepidoptera was concerned with a species of butterfly, also depicted on the fantastic album cover. This was a key recording by one of the great prog bands, and now we are spoiled by a deluxe three disc re-issue.
The first disc contains the original album, remastered with bonus single versions and unreleased mixes of album tracks. The gems of this collection, however, are to be found on Discs 2 and 3, where Steven Wilson, a sonic genius of contemporary music (and one of the busiest men in prog) unleashes his remixing skills on XII. Disc 2 is a full new stereo mix of the album, which brings out more of the original record. However, to hear it in all its power, you have to pop Disc 3 into your 5.1 surround sound player and listen as the album washes over you. BJH have always been lush and luxurious when it comes to production values, and this new mix brings out all the nuances and subtleties in the songs: it really sounds as if the band are in the room with you, and breathes new life into classic songs that you may have heard many times before. The 5.1 remix takes the music to a higher plane.
Unicorn Blue Pine Trees Too Many Crooks One More Tomorrow Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2575, 2576 & 2577
This superb collection picks up ‘lost’ 1970s band Unicorn from their second album Blue Pine Trees (originally on Charisma, 1974) to their final album, 1977’s One More Tomorrow. They were helped by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, who produced all three of these records (and borrowed the song There’s No Way Out of Here from Too Many Crooks for his own solo album David Gilmour).
With lush vocal harmonies, a very laid-back vibe and obvious Crosby, Stills and Nash influences, Unicorn had an impressive pedigree. They formed in the 1960s and became Billy J Kramer's backing band in 1968. A residency in Copenhagen also gave them valuable live experience, so that by the time of Blue Pine Trees, with its memorable Hipgnosis cover, they were an established band with strong songwriters. Gilmour's production skills (not to mention guest performances on tracks like I’ll Believe In You and The Farmer), and the fine vocal harmonies on Nightingale Crescent, make this a strong progression from their debut, which, as it was released on Transatlantic, sadly isn't included in this reissue series. This is an enchanting and well-crafted album. (Interestingly, as a result of this project, band members Pete Perryer and Pat Martin helped out David Gilmour on demos for a new female singer whom he had discovered, who just happened to be Kate Bush.) The release enjoyed some, albeit limited, success in the States, so that the band got work supporting Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, and Linda Ronstadt, as well as a young Billy Joel.
The sound on Too Many Crooks represents an obvious development from the second album. Gilmour's production on both albums is clear and uncluttered, giving the finely crafted songs room to breath. Again, this 1976 release is housed in a striking Hipgnosis sleeve, full of rich, warm textures and colours which resonate with the sound of the album. Unicorn do sound very much like a band out of time here, when you consider that 1976 in the UK was punk's supposed year zero. This album is full of finely crafted songs and superb production, all of which is on show here: Bullseye Bill contains an amazing solo that has echoes of Pink Floyd, while Disco Dancer demonstrates that, with their blend of rock and softer sounds, Unicorn were one of the most versatile bands around.
1977’s One More Tomorrow saw the record label ditch the sympathetic Hipgnosis artwork for an airbrushed painting of a bikini-clad woman on a beach and a rocket coming out of the sea. It might have been an attempt to promote the band, but it looks very incongruous and does not match the content. Although Gilmour had already produced most of it, the label then decided to get involved, bringing in Muff Winwood to craft more songs and change the angle. However, despite this, the album is far more coherent than you would think. Regardless of the producer, a good song is still a good song, and having two different—but excellent—producers on board did not do the record any harm. Although the album contained such gems as a cover of John Fogerty's Have You Ever Seen the Rain?, the brilliant British Rail Romance, and The Night, the record label did not seem to know what to do with Unicorn or where to position them. This, unfortunately, was the band's death knell, and although it fractured and its members went their separate ways in the music industry, it is a great shame that music of this calibre, power and beauty never got the respect that it deserved at the time. Now, however, it is ripe for reappraisal, and this release provides an opportunity to discover great 'new' lost music. With bonus B-sides, demos, and live sessions, this is the definitive Unicorn collection -- one to lose yourself in.
Kaprekar's Constant Fate Outsmarts Desire Uranium Club Records
This band is new to me, an eight-piece specialising in the sort of evocative progressive rock on which Big Big Train have built a career. While there are plenty of similarities, the way that the tracks build, the peculiarly English perspective (which seems more coincidental than deliberate), and the presence of legendary Van Der Graaf Generator saxophonist David Jackson and his amazingly talented vocalist daughter Dorie give this album its own unique style. (Dorie Jackson is also a successful songwriter in her own right, and her voice shines here on the hauntingly beautiful Pearl of the Lake, on which she demonstrates that she is one of the finest female singers around.)
The record was written by the duo of Nick Jefferson (bass) and Al Nicholson (guitars and keyboards), with Bill Jefferson on vocals, Mike Westergaard on keyboards, Phil Gould (from Level 42) on drums, and Paul Gunn adding ambience with spoken word. The opening instrumental Hors d’Oeuvres sets the scene, as the band builds up and leads into the brilliant seventeen-minute-plus Blue Bird about the land speed record. This is where the spoken word comes in: instead of trying to get rights to use archive material covering the land speed record attempts, Paul Gunn delivers the linking narration in a superb traditional BBC RP accent. The music and his narration capture the era perfectly, evoking the romance and the danger of the attempts.
The closing Houdini –King of Cards, the longest track on the album, is about Houdini's various card tricks. Again, it builds into a classic of the genre, with some fantastic sax from David Jackson. The way that the music and lyrics merge is sublime, and the length allows the band to tell their stories and give the music the room to breathe that it needs. Hallsands is another miniature epic at fourteen minutes long, evoking historical memories of the dockyard at Devonport.
Kaprekar's Constant have produced one of the defining progressive albums of the year, a timeless record to which you will want to return time and again.
Here is a little jewel of an album that I have loved for many years, having owned it since the mid 2000’s on its first CD reissue. Now Esoteric have remastered it, and it sounds amazing.
A bit of back-story: Caroleanne Pegg and her then-husband Bob came to prominence in the early seventies as folk duo Mr Fox. The combination of Bob's dark, Yorkshire moors-influenced and folklore-based songs and Caroleanne's voice and violin created atmospheric, otherworldly music. It was also controversial, bewitching and dividing the folk-rock community (they were even at one time touted as possible members of the nascent Steeleye Span). When they split up, Caroleanne moved to London and recorded this gem, originally released in 1973. With a stellar line-up including Albert Lee on guitar, Keith Nelson on banjo, Dave Peacock on bass and Michael Lavelle on mouth harp, the whole album hinges around Caroleanne's sublime vocals and violin playing. The only cover is Open the Door (Song for Judith) by Judy Collins, and the album showcases Caroleanne's talents at writing contemporary folk song. The brilliant A Witch's Guide to the Underground is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Caroleanne's reputation and describes her experiences in the big city, while Clancy's Song was dedicated to her daughter. Songs like Fair Fortune's Star, The Lady and the Well, and Wycoller all draw heavily on Caroleanne's folk background. The overall effect was of a type of folk-rock that no-one else was creating at the time and which, unfortunately, met with little commercial success. This glorious remaster, with excellent sleevenotes, brings out all the subtle nuances of the record and proves that it is ripe for rediscovery.
Michael McGear Woman Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2569
Famous as a member of the legendary Liverpool band The Scaffold, whose hits included Thank U Very Much and Lily the Pink, Michael McGear was very much the songwriter of the group. In 1971 he was keen to move away from The Scaffold's comedic vent and record an album of his own material. With such artists as Zoot Money, Andy Roberts, Gerry Conway and Brian Auger, amongst others, adding their talents, McGear's debut solo album Woman was released in 1972.
McGear is, of course, also the younger brother of Paul McCartney, and you can tell on first listen that a talent for writing a great tune runs through the family like the word 'Blackpool' through a stick of rock –-although that is the only comparison that can be made, since, with a changed surname and a totally different career to that of his brother, McGear is a unique artist in his own right. This is an album of singer/songwriter material, an English answer to some aspects of the US West Coast music scene. (This, unsurprisingly, disconcerted EMI, who were expecting an album full of Scaffold-type material –-McGear contacted Island Records, who bought it off EMI and released it). From the opening title track with its superb lyrics and musical accompaniment, to the more bluesy Witness, the album is chock-full of amazing songs and brilliant arrangements. There are, however, still hints of the old McGear on the rather satirical and amusing Edward Heath (our strong and stable leader in 1972) as well as songs interspersed charmingly with readings of nursery rhymes by his daughter Benna.
When I was going around record fairs in the early 1990s, this record was one that I always wanted to find. Copies were as rare as rocking-horse teeth, selling at £25-30 a pop (a lot for my paperboy money). I am so glad that I finally get to hear an album that I’ve been wanting to listen to for over twenty-five years, and in glorious remastered sound – believe me, it does not disappoint at all. The songs have stood the test of time, and the arrangements all work very well, a testament to McGear’s skill as an artist. This great album draws you in and demands that you listen to it again and again.
Tim Blake Crystal Machine Blake’s New Jerusalem The Tide of the Century Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2578, ECLEC2579, ECLEC2591
Musical innovator and synthesiser player Tim Blake has performed with artists as diverse as Hawkwind and Gong. When the latter’s implosion caught him up in legal disputes, he spent a lot of time in France working with Patrick Warrener and his crystal and laser light shows. Blake was currently experimenting with the ‘crystal machine,’ a mammoth bank of synthesisers, and between them they put on light and music shows –what would now be called multi-media installations.
The debut album Crystal Machine, released forty years ago in 1977, is in Blake’s own words “a collection of music written whilst I was looking for a record deal,” but there is far more to it than that. Blake had a prodigious musical talent, and had served his musical apprenticeship in two of the most far-out bands of the 1970s (as anyone who has ever heard chunks of live Hawkwind or Gong from that era will testify). By working with some of the finest musical improvisationalists of the era, he had developed his own distinctive free-flowing musical sound.
The album itself is a diverse collection of studio material and live performances (Last Ride of the Boogie Child from 1976 and Synthese Intemporel from 1977) which seem to be the culmination of Blake’s initial music journey, and pull together all sorts of dynamic electronic sounds and effects. This is about as far removed from albums by seventies keyboard wizards like Wakeman as it is possible to get: Blake works in a similar vein to Jean-Michel Jarre, and specialises in eclectic electronic music. As a debut, this album signalled a crossroads for Blake.
The follow-up in 1978, Blake’s New Jerusalem, was a larger-scale album, with more expansive sounds and a title track which took up the whole of side two. Whilst the album was originally intended to be purely instrumental, Blake’s lyrics fit in with the overall theme of rebirth and the new age, so that this is seen by many as a seminal new wave album. The symphonic electronic music is varied and progressive, and still sounds fresh and contemporary although it was recorded using early technology at the start of the synthesiser revolution.
After touring the album, Blake dropped off the scene for a while and nothing was heard from him until he released Magick in 1991, which was followed, after another break, by 2000’s The Tide of the Century. Recorded –like so many other albums— to celebrate the dawning of the twenty-first century, it’s a bit of a mishmash of stunning ideas and occasional clunkers. Although Blake’s talent is obvious throughout, some of the musical ideas on here are half-formed and could have been refined or removed entirely. The reggae and rapping on Tribulations, for example, is not consistent with the rest of the record, and the idea behind Sarajevo (Remember) is unsuited to a song. On the other hand, the title track and Crystal Island showcase Blake’s talents to the full. The Tide of the Century is definitely the weakest link in this trilogy. I would recommend the first two albums without reservation, but Tide is more for hardcore devotees.
Nirvana Local Anaesthetic Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2588
Initially a full band, by the time this album was released in 1971 on the legendary Vertigo label, Nirvana (not to be confused with the later nineties grunge behemoth) had become the vehicle for songwriter/performer Patrick Campbell-Lyons’ musical vision. In essence, Local Anaesthetic is a solo album in all but name. Campbell-Lyons was assisted by Patrick Joseph Kelly, who had played piano in the musical Hair in the West End (and had been introduced to Campbell-Lyons by the sensational Alex Harvey and the former Nirvana member Alex Spyropolous). Kelly co-wrote the lengthy piece Modus Operandi,which took up the whole of side one.
Totally different to the ornate psychedelic sound for which Nirvana had become known, this minimalist, stripped-down album saw Campbell-Lyons writing about the aftermath of his divorce and life as a single father to his young daughter —it was a sort of musical catharsis. The album was split into two parts, with a raw and intimate edge. According to Campbell-Lyons, one side of the record reflected the dark situation in which he currently found himself, and the other side released “those demons I had at the time.” Nevertheless, while the material is intensely personal, you never feel like an uncomfortable observer but rather as if you are the writer’s confidant, as he shares his emotions with you. Modus Operandi runs the gamut from folk to hard rock sounds, and Kelly’s piano contribution should not be underestimated —it provides an important foil to Campbell-Lyons’ vision. On the second side suite Home, split into five songs, we hear progressive music in the truest sense, showcasing the development of Campbell-Lyons’ song-writing over the years. Patrick Campbell-Lyons has always been one of the most individual song-writers to emerge from the London subculture, and on this album his vision is realised to its fullest potential. You will not find many records like this on the shelves of your local music emporium, and it is a worthy addition to the Esoteric canon.
Patto Patto Hold Your Fire Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 2581 & ECLEC 22582
Always the guitarist’s guitarist, the irreplaceable Ollie Halsall --who died in 1992-- graced many records throughout the seventies. It was in the band Patto, fronted by Mike Patto (who sadly passed away in 1979), with John Halsey on drums and Clive Griffiths on bass, that he first came to some prominence. The first two albums by this highly inventive and innovative band, which straddled rock, jazz, prog and many other genres, are now in print again after being unavailable for many years.
Patto, the debut album, originally came out in 1970, and like so many records of that era refused to conform to the limitations of any particular genre. It was a time of great experimentation, and this is one of the most explosive and exciting debut albums ever to have been released. Mike Patto’s vocals are superb, and the accompanying band create some astonishing sonic templates upon which he weaves his magic: Time to Die, The Government Man, and Money Bag are worth the price of admission alone. Halsall’s unmistakable guitar sound is the lynchpin of this record, creating many spine-tingling moments.
1971’s Hold Your Fire is presented here in a two-disc edition with five extra tracks from BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert. These include some incendiary performances of tracks from the first album which highlight just how electrifying Patto were as a live band. There are also some fine unreleased outtakes that provide glimpses into the development of the second album. Sophomore efforts are sometimes disappointing, since the band have shot their bolt by using up all their best tracks and tricks on the debut. This is not the case here: firing on all four cylinders, and with plenty to say, Hold Your Fire captures a band comfortable and confident in their own abilities. The sound is expanded and refined on the tough social commentary You, You Point the Finger, the elaborate rocker Give It All Away and the mesmerising, driving Air Raid Shelter. Halsall and Patto are at the peak of their powers: the vocals and guitar contrast and combine with each other in the sort of musical partnership that only comes along occasionally (they would be reunited in the late seventies as Boxer, but that’s another story), while Halsey and Griffiths capably anchor the sound. The band were paradoxically both of their times and far ahead of them. Immerse yourself in some of the best music that you have never heard. --James R. Turner