Sky Cadmium The Great Balloon Race Mozart Toccata: An Anthology Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22489 ECLEC2486 ECLEC2487 ECLEC32519
Not available on CD for many years, this quartet of albums marks the final phase of Esoteric’s impressive remastering and revitalising of Sky’s back catalogue. Cadmium, the first album of new material from the band since 1981’s Sky Three, and the last to feature founder member John Williams, was released in 1983. The opening Troika (better known to millions as the basis of Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas) adds festive cheer to the album, but overall it does seem to be business as usual. Although it was overshadowed by Williams’ departure after its recording, it has a lot of charm and plenty of Sky classics to endear it to the public, particularly a wonderful track from Herbie Flowers —the excellent Telex from Peru— as well as Steve Gray’s Son of Hotta. The bonus tracks include an extended work-out of Troika plus a blinding version of The Fool On the Hill. Included in the double set comes a bonus DVD, again taken from the mighty BBC archives, recorded at Drury Lane and broadcast on 24th December 1983. Unsurprisingly, it features plenty of Christmas hijinks, not to mention some amazing live footage of Tuba Smarties and Son of Hotta, whilst the bonus performance of Troika from The Val Doonican Show rounds off a fantastic package.
Without a replacement for Williams, Sky continued as the core four-piece (Tristan Fry, Herbie Flowers, Steve Gray, and Kevin Peek) with additional help from extra musicians to fill out the sound. This is obvious on 1985’s wonderful release The Great Balloon Race, probably one of the most misunderstood albums in the band’s catalogue. Thirty years on, the time is right to reappraise its status.
Sky could have collapsed and folded after Williams’ departure, since he was their big name. Instead they carried on, with one of the most striking and original songs that ever opened an album, Desperate for Your Love. It features vocals from Tony Hymas, an English composer best known for his work with Jeff Beck, and Clare Torry, who had collaborated with Pink Floyd. Influenced strongly by the band’s time spent touring Australia, The Land is inspired by the Aboriginal struggle, whilst the title track is one of Herbie Flowers’ most memorable compositions, with touring musicians Ron Aspery (on sax and flutes) and Lee Fothergill (guitar) helping to flesh out the sound.
The final Sky studio album, Mozart, saw the group return to their roots with its mixture of classical music with rock orchestration, recorded with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1987. Fry’s work with the academy was longstanding (he had played on the soundtrack to the film Amadeus) and in conjunction with conductor Sir Neville Marriner the group selected and adapted a broad collection of Mozart material, interpreting it in their unique Sky way. Excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro, the last movement of Symphony No. 34, and Rondo all Turca are all reworked and performed to perfection. In this remastered version, the clarity of the interplay between band and orchestra is sublime.
Sadly this was the last release from Sky, a band whose collaboration ended on a high after an amazingly consistent run of six groundbreaking studio albums and an excellent live recording, all of which still sound fresh and exciting today.
If you don’t fancy dipping into the complete back catalogue and would rather have a taster of the band, Esoteric have recently compiled the two-disc anthology Toccata, which features prime cuts from the group’s seven albums, including such favourites as Westway, FIFO, Troika (also released as a digital EP) and the previously unreleased (on CD) single version of KP II. This is a well-edited and chronological collection that showcases the finest points of this versatile band, and the bonus DVD, The Bremen Broadcast (originally shown in Germany in May 1979) highlights the first lineup at their finest, including six previously unreleased live performances. As introductions go, this is pretty much perfection.
Procol Harum Procol Harum Shine on Brightly A Salty DogHome Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2498 ECLEC2501 ECLEC22503 ECLEC22505
Mention Procol Harum to anyone, and all they will tell you is A Whiter Shade of Pale, with the haunting refrain and mysterious lyrics that set the charts on fire in 1967, spending six weeks at number one beginning in June. Their back catalogue is ripe for revisiting, and with these expanded and enhanced remasters from Esoteric Records, we have the opportunity to do just that, starting with their 1967 debut (which, strangely, did not feature their big hit).
Produced by Denny Cordell, the record features the six-piece version of Harum: Gary Brooker (voice and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), Robin Trower (lead guitar), David Knights (bass guitar), B. J. Wilson (percussion), and poet Keith Reid (words). Like so many psychedelic/prog innovators, the band formed out of rhythm-and-blues groups —Brooker, Trower and Wilson came from the Paramounts, who’d had a minor UK hit in 1964 and split in 1966. The Bach-inspired AWhiter Shade of Pale (now included in the remaster) with Fisher’s recognisable organ refrain caught the mood of the nation, and the self-titled album promises more of the same. Viewed as one of the precursors to progressive rock, Procol Harum is an epic and intelligent album, with the brilliance of the opening Conquistador. The album is dominated by Brooker’s piano and Fisher’s Hammond, blending their background in blues with Reid’s suitably mature lyrics. Following Me and Kaleidoscope move beyond the traditional pop fare that was common at the time, with a very English sound throughout the album.
1968 saw the release of Shine On Brightly (again expanded and enhanced here, with extra bonus tracks) and the same lineup. It consolidated their success and developed their sound, with the powerful and driving opener Quite Rightly So, a vocal tour-de-force from Brooker as he duets with Fisher’s distinctive and soulful Hammond organ. The best was yet to come, however: the second half of the album was taken up by the intense and magnificent seventeen-minute-long groundbreaking musical suite In Held ’Twas In I, a five-part mixture of spoken word, ambitious musical passages that, to my mind, act as a springboard for the lengthy progressive rock pieces that emerged in the 1970s. It presages the Beatles’ similar Abbey Road suite by over a year. Procol Harum were unique at the time in having Reid, a poet, as the sixth member. Although he worked solely on the lyrics, they hold the suite together, while the rest of the band perform with skill and dexterity.
By 1969’s A Salty Dog the band’s musical vision was firmly established, and the title track itself is one of Brooker’s finest vocal performances. Backed by an orchestra (their first on record), it shows their maturity and is possibly their finest recorded track to date. The fact that the album was produced at Abbey Road by Matthew Fisher, utilising the latest eight track technology, shows in the result. It has a lot more depth and warmth than its predecessor, and the sound is much bigger: Procol Harum in widescreen, if you like. By this time the group had become a very tight unit, and the rocking blues of The Milk of Human Kindness showcases Brooker’s wonderful piano playing, whilst Boredom raids the mythical musical cupboard of Abbey Road, a wonderful duet between Fisher and Brooker. Trower comes into his own on the wonderful Crucifixion Lane, which was to signpost his future musical direction and ultimate departure from the band. An excellent album full of hummable songs and sublime musical moments, A Salty Dog (expanded here with live cuts and demos that showcase the awesome musical power of live Harum) is definitely one of the albums of 1969.
By 1979's Home there had been some changes to the band, with both Fisher and David Knights departing, and Chris Copping replacing them as organist and bassist. To all intents and purposes, the band’s lineup was that of The Paramounts’ last incarnation. Their sound now tightened up, with Trower’s guitar in the foreground (as showcased on the hard-rocking opener Whisky Train), returning the band to their rhythm-and-blues roots. The darkly gothic Dead Man’s Dream and the acoustic Nothing That I Didn’t Know marry Brooker’s superb vocals to Reid’s dark lyrical themes. However, the centrepiece, and indeed highlight, of the whole album is the seven-minute epic Whaling Stories, with some amazing piano and singing from Brooker and searing guitar work by Trower, whilst the rest of the band build up to an epic finale, creating a powerful, heavy and devilish sea shanty. It is one of Procol Harum’s finest moments, and should be included in the pantheon of great progressive rock songs. Home, with its snakes-and-ladders parody cover, saw the band redefining their sound, something that they would continue to do into the 1970s.
These four albums, lovingly remastered and repackaged, contain the band’s first impact on musical culture, and continue to echo down the years, nearly half a century after that first hit single.
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest Legacy: Live at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire 2006 Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22511
Recorded on John Lees’ BJH UK tour of 2006, Legacy gives fans a rare opportunity to hear a brace of classic tracks performed by half the band that created them. Lees was joined by founder member and keyboard player, the late and much-missed Woolly Wolstenholme, as well as Kevin Whitehead (drums), Craig Fletcher (bass), and guest musicians Mike Bramwell (additional keyboards) and J J Lees (cornet). Pulling together a set that spanned the band’s long career and includes such favourites as the early classic Mockingbird, Child of the Universe (sadly as relevant now as when it was released in the early ’70s), the tongue-in-cheek Poor Man’s Moody Blues, In Search of England and Hymn. This is an impressive trawl through a criminally underrated band’s mammoth back catalogue. The performance throughout is superb, and watching the accompanying DVD (including extra tracks Harbour and Galadriel) is a wonderful experience —the band are on fire, and the affection and musical empathy between John Lees and Woolly Wolstenholme is obvious to see. This is a worthy addition to any BJH fan’s collection, and a testament to an amazing band.
Formed in the late 60s at the point when labels were signing bands and then pretty much letting them get on with it, Audience (Howard Werth, acoustic guitar/vocals, Keith Gemmell, flute, tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Williams, bass guitar, and Tony Connor, drums) began their careers playing the blues before branching out into their own sphere. Werth’s acoustic guitar and Gemmell’s sax mixed with the bass and drums created a distinctive new sound, and on their debut album, 1969’s self-titled Audience, you can hear them experimenting, mixing jazz, rock and blues. They became a part of the English progressive underground, despite retaining more of their blues influence than some of their contemporaries. For instance, the opening track Banquet is very similar to what Jethro Tull was doing at the time, but with the blues influence and the sax adding an extra dimension. Werth could sing heavy, powerful blues vocals but could also become soft and intimate on the mellower, flute-driven piece Poet. Waverley Stage Coach is a prime slice of British blues, showcasing the members’ various styles and skills, whilst tracks like Heaven Was an Island display their musical originality. The original album closer House On the Hill is a magnificent slice of gothic rock. Augmented by bonus tracks, as ever, this is a great remastering of one of those lost classic albums.
1970’s Friends, Friends, Friend saw Audience signed to the Charisma label. Instead of using established producer Shel Talmy, the band decided to go it alone, and this self-produced album is a fantastically confident record. The songwriting is tauter, the performances powerful throughout, and in fact the only thing that lets the record down is the faux psychedelia-by-numbers of the album sleeve, which the band also disliked. Beginning with the powerful harmonies and driving beat of the opener Nothing You Do, the album then switches to the completely different Belladonna Moonshine, a slice of country-tinged rock, with cracking lyrics and a real good-time feel to it. The complex and intense musical work of tracks like It Brings a Tear or Priestess really allow the group to flex their musical muscles, whilst the powerful The Raid is the stand-out track on this album. Inventive, intelligent, eclectic and diverse, Audience are one of those lost great bands from the musically creative period that was the late 60s and early 70s, and it’s good to hear their music remastered in such clarity.
Third World War Third World War Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2512
There’s a strong argument for seeing this 1971 debut release by hard-rocking group Third World War as the first punk record. Certainly the songs, written by bassist Jim Avery and vocalist/guitarist Terry Stamp, were very much of the working class and as far away from the proto-glam scene then developing as it is possible to get. Taking hard blues as its starting point, Stamp’s chopper guitar sound and Mick Leiber’s lead guitar work is minimalist but full of impact, enhanced by guest musicians Bobby Keyes and Tony Ashton whilst the anger of tracks like Ascension Day (Power to the People When They Rise) prevented the band from getting much BBC airplay, although they merely reflected the times in which they were recorded, with the Troubles and the strikes. At the time there were no other songwriters raising the banner for a working class alienated by contemporary popular culture. With the anti-Government song Teddy Teeth Goes Sailing (a thinly-disguised reference to the then-PM Heath) and the cynical take on showbiz of Stardom Road Pts 1 & 2, this is the dark side of the hippy dream writ large.
GTR GTR Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22508
Take two progressive rock guitar legends from the bands that defined prog rock in the 1970s, Steve Howe (Yes) and Steve Hackett (Genesis), add elite session men like Phil Spalding (bass), Jonathan Mover (drums) and vocalist Max Bacon, throw in the production techniques of Howes’ Yes and Asia bandmate Geoff Downes, and what do you get? With these CVs, one might expect the resulting album to be a progressive triumph out of step with the era (the late 1980s) in which it was produced, but in fact it slotted nicely into the contemporary sound, classic rock given a studio sheen —not at all dissimilar to how Trevor Rabin rebooted Yes in 1983, or indeed to Asia’s inception in the early 80s. It still contained epic tracks like Jekyll and Hyde, and while the production may be a little ‘of its time,’ the material transcends it. The bonus disc here is a live concert recorded in LA in 1986, featuring a blistering version of Genesis’ I know What I like (In Your Wardrobe) and Yes’ Roundabout. Sadly, this was the only album that the Hackett/Howe partnership produced, which is a shame, but it certainly demonstrates their ability to weave their individual talents together to create something incredible. Hackett would later go on to work with another Yes-man, the late bassist Chris Squire.
Fronted by Hull-born guitarist Mick Wayne and including musicians like John Cambridge and John ‘Honk’ Lodge, this group recorded and released one album, Battersea Power Station, in 1969. At the same time, Wayne and Rick Wakeman also played on Bowie’s Space Oddity single, and in fact worked in his backing band throughout the year. Luckily this double disc rescues Junior’s Eyes from being nothing more than a footnote in Bowie’s musical history, containing Battersea Power Station in its entirety, single A- and B-sides, demos and BBC sessions —everything they ever recorded, in fact. It resurrects for reassessment a superb canon of intricate songs.
The group had honed their skills on the London live scene in the 60s, so that when they came to the studio they were already a tight musical unit. Singer Graham Kelly interpreted Wayne’s lyrics superbly. From the opening suite on the album, made up of seven tracks flowing into each other, to the closing Freak In via Circus Days and My Ship, these are superb rock pieces, whilst the second side includes I’m Drowning and White Light (the evolution of which can be heard on the demos on Disc Two). Prior to becoming Junior’s Eyes they were briefly known as the Tickle, and their sole release in this incarnation, the intriguing single Subway (Smokey, Pokey World) and its B-side Good Evening are included here. In comparison, the later singles Star Child and Woman Love show how the band subsequently developed. Unfortunately, all the extra-curricular activity with Bowie spelled the end for the band: Wayne headed off to America to be an artist and sadly died in a house fire in 1994, whilst Tim Renwick ended up as a touring guitarist with Pink Floyd and the rest of the band either joined Bowie or formed the backbone of 70s rockers Quiver. An important band with some amazing songs, Junior’s Eyes deserved to be bigger than they were. This well-compiled collection helps to set the record straight.
Tea and Symphony An Asylum for the Musically Insane Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2509
Wrapped in a gaudy psychedelic sleeve, this eclectic record could only have come from the fertile musical scene of 1969. The Birmingham-based trio of Jeff Daw, James Langston and Nigel Phillips sits firmly in the acid folk bracket along with Comus or Spyrogyra. With elements of folk, blues, and ragtime jazz amongst many others, the band seem to have taken a grab-bag approach to their songwriting. The production by Gus Dudgeon is sympathetic, allowing them to expand on their vision. The resulting music sounded like nothing else around at the time, despite the fact that they were lumped in with the contemporary underground. There are hints of Incredible String Band on Feel How So Cool the Wind, with its sparse arrangements and eerie vocals, whilst Sometime has a darker tone: running percussion, harsher harmonies and doom-laden chords. The Come On is piano-driven and lazy, with an end-of-the-night blues club, ragtime sound to it. Terror (In my Soul), with its dark gothic chords and haunting production, is the sort of acid folk that nightmares are made of. The bonus track, a cover of Procol Harum’s Boredom, is tailored to fit their musical sound superbly.
Wilfully and deliberately outside the mainstream, this was (astoundingly) released on EMI Harvest —in no other era would a record as uncommercial and free-spirited as this attract the interest of a major label. It was a time when underground gems such as this one could sneak out.
Theo Travis and Double Talk Transgression Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1052
Saxophonist, flautist and clarinettist Travis is a go-to man for many artists including The Tangent, David Gilmour, Steven Wilson, John Foxx and Bill Nelson, and this new album, produced by Wilson, shows why Travis is seen as the premier jazz-rock saxophonist of his generation. With a taut band made up of Mike Outram (guitar), Pete Whittaker (organ), and Nic France, Transgression showcases Travis’s versatility with a mixture of new material and reinterpretations of classic pieces (like Robert Wyatt and Phillip Catherine’s Maryan). The line between Travis’s type of jazz and progressive rock is a very fine one, and this (like King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison’s Cheating the Polygraph from earlier this year) segues between them with style and aplomb. A particular highlight and stand-out track here is the reworking of Travis and Tangent main man Andy Tillison’s co-write (and the title track of a 2006 Tangent album) A Place in the Queue, with Travis’s sax, the organ of Pete Whittaker, and instrumental improvisation by the band making something new and exciting of the original —no doubt Tillison would approve. Elsewhere the co-write with Dave Sturt, the fantastic Everything I Feared, and the epic title track showcase the best of Travis and his band.
Dave Sturt Dreams and Absurdities Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1056
Bassist Dave Sturt has had a long and illustrious career working with artists like Theo Travis, David Gilmour, and Steve Hillage, and is currently the bassist with Gong. This album of ten atmospheric and intelligent instrumental tracks is a who’s who of contemporary progressive rock, slowly drawing the listener in with its ambient soundscapes and mood pieces. Sturt’s bass is fluid and sinuous throughout. The haunting opening of Mirage evokes early 80s minimalism, whilst Hollow Form features Theo Travis’s sax work alongside the subtle sounds of Clare Bhabra’s violin and Deirdre Bencsiks’ cello. Late Gong leader David Allen appears here on the aptly titled Unique and Irreplaceable, working his extraordinary magic on guitar, whilst the equally distinctive guitar work of current Gong (and Knifeworld) guitarist Kavus Torabi interacts beautifully with Sturt’s bass on (In my Head) I’m Swimming. Again, Bill Nelson contributes haunting guitar on the ethereal White and Greens in Blue. It is a testament to Sturt that he has attracted so many talented collaborators to enhance his already amazing sound. This is an album full of wonder and beauty, not something that can be dipped into, but rather an immersive experience which becomes more compelling with every listen. It is as much about the spaces within the music as the music itself.
Stephen W Tayler Ostinato Esoteric Antenna EANCT1054
His is not a name with which many are familiar, but Tayler is a versatile and talented producer who has worked with Peter Gabriel, Underworld, Howard Jones, Rush and most recently Kate Bush (on her latest records and recent live performances). Here his own musical vision unfolds on an intense, exciting and beautiful journey which combines the minimalism of Terry Riley or Phillip Glass with the electronica of John Foxx or Tangerine Dream. With powerful metronomic rhythms, subtle and haunting electronics and distorted voices, the album is kicked off by the heavy trance of Euro Star (reminiscent of Rob Duggan’s more ambient stylings), whilst the percussive power of Peripherique makes it an astonishing musical tour-de-force —its pulsing beat summons up the atmosphere of a chilled-out club scene. Drawing on forty years of top-flight experience in the music industry, this album is full of beautiful sonic worlds that insinuate themselves into your head. The wonderful final track The Boy Who Said Yes features a sample of the thirteen-year-old Tayler performing Brecht and Weill’s Der Jasager, and works perfectly in the context of the album. This is a refreshing, exciting and absorbing piece of contemporary electronica.
John Hackett Another Life Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1053
John Hackett, whose distinctive flute sound has been a fixture of many progressive albums, is best known for his work with his brother Steve. Here Steve returns the favour, guesting on John’s latest rock album (the follow-up to 2005’s Checking Out of London). They are joined by guests including Nick Magnus and another former Genesis guitarist, Anthony Phillip, while the sharply-observed lyrics are by collaborator Nick Clabburn: the themes of Another Life, for example, are heartbreakingly poignant. John’s voice is superb, and whilst he is working in the same genre and is inevitably going to be compared by some to his brother, this is a very different sort of record: the team of Hackett, Magnus and Hackett build tracks in a way that is marvellously organic and wonderful to listen to. Steve’s guitar work is great, as always— on the funky and threatening Burn Down Trees he lets rip with a blinder of a solo —while Magnus’ keyboard work shines on Forest, an amazing piece of music with some classical prog sounds. A wistful air permeates much of this album, created by a trio who are all extraordinary musicians in their own right, and achieve perfect alchemy together on this powerful record.
Emmett Elvin Emmettronica 1998-2012 Bad Elephant Music
Following on from Elvin’s debut album for Bad Elephant last year (‘Bloody Marvels’) comes this double CD reworking of pieces originally recorded between 1998 and 2005, and now expanded to a double disc set including 14 new pieces recorded and previously unreleased between 2006 and 2012. In total there are 29 short tracks typically between 2-4 minutes long, with various themes and styles, all programmed together by Emmett to create an atmospheric and ambient collection of some highly distinctive and varied electronica sounds. Everything here is pure Emmett, from the jazz-esque Radar Search to the soundscapes of 3AM On the River of Sleep. It is as wonderfully diverse and eclectic as the samplers that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used to produce, and covers all sorts of musical bases. It shows how talented Emmett Elvin is, whether as a solo artist, composer or band member.
Twice Bitten Late Cut Bad Elephant Music
Originally released on cassette as No Third Man back in 1985, this debut album from acoustic prog duo Rog Patterson (acoustic guitar/vocals) and Greg Smith (acoustic and electric guitars/bass/vocals) makes its long-awaited return to availability, here on CD for the first time on the Bad Elephant label.
Formed in Nottingham in the early 80s, the group described themselves as ‘heavy wood,’ music relying solely on acoustic instruments with no drums or keyboards, and bonded over a mutual love of Anthony Phillips. His influence is evident in the intricate and beautiful guitar work on tracks like the emotive and highly English instrumental Rain Stops Play, whilst the beauty of Ocean, with its superb musical power and strong lyrics, demonstrates what can be achieved with guitars, bass and vocals. The whole album is a real case of ‘less is more,’ showing that acoustic work can be just as powerful (or more so) than layers and layers of keyboard and guitar. Of course this approach only works if you’re any good as a guitarist, and both Rog and Greg are superb performers —their guitars weave together to create a big sound in a way that makes them the equivalent of Jansch and Renbourn for their era. The closing two tracks from the original album, Blue Sky Century and West End, contain some of the finest songwriting that I have heard for ages, and it’s no surprise that Bad Elephant were so keen to re-release this lost gem. The two new pieces on here, Endplay and Crocus Point, show that Twice Bitten have lost none of their musical depth or power. This is an absolute treasure, and one that rewards repeat listens.
The Room Beyond the Gates of Bedlam Bad Elephant Music
Formed in 2010 by former Grey Lady Down members Martin Wilson (vocals) and Steve Anderson (guitars), together with Andy Rowe on bass and Steve Checkley on keyboards (recently augmented by drummer Chris York), the Room now release this, their second album as a follow-up to their highly acclaimed debut Open Fire. The new musical collaborators build on the foundation established by Grey Lady Down in the late 90s, taking that highly melodic approach to progressive rock in new directions. The highly emotive power of Martin’s vocals has an electrifying effect in tracks like the brilliant opener Carrie and the superbly epic Full Circle, with amazing keyboard and guitar work that almost makes them stadium rock worthy. As the years have gone by Martin’s voice has matured, so that now, with the Room, he is at the peak of his vocal power. The musical ability of the band as a whole is superb, bringing The Book, As Crazy As it Seems and Bedlam to life. This release puts the Room firmly at the top of my bands-to-see-live list.
Jack Arthurs Treasure House Bad Elephant Music
Bad Elephant’s first release of 2016 is the second album (and the first for BEM) from Newcastle-based singer/songwriter Jack Arthurs, whose first album Only Dreams Are True made a big impact back in 2012. Here, he follows up with ten solo acoustic tracks. With a warm voice, and a mighty sound considering that he is operating solely in the one-man-and-a-guitar arena, Arthurs is a writer of well-observed meditations on the human condition. The beautiful opener Change Your Mind features a great guitar riff and his sublime vocals, whilst songs like North Star with its personal, touching lyrics and the superb, wonderfully bluesy instrumental Spirals give the album depth. This is a heartfelt and intimate release—with only voice and guitar, there is nowhere to hide, and all the emotions are there for us to hear. What a uplifting experience it is. There is also some striking artwork courtesy of Martin Matthews.
Anthony Phillips Private Parts & Pieces (Parts I-IV) Esoteric Recordings ECLEC52510
After leaving Genesis in the early 70s, founder member Anthony Phillips stepped away from the limelight and worked on a number of tracks at home, which, after his debut solo album The Geese and the Ghost (also remastered by Esoteric and available in 5.1 surround sound), he slowly put together for release. They began to appear in 1978 after his second solo album Wise After the Event.
To date eleven of these albums have been put out, and Esoteric, in co-ordination with Phillips, have put the first four in a handy little box, complete with the bonus disc Private Parts & Extra Pieces, which features companion and alternative recordings covering the period spanned by these recordings. The first of the albums covers Phillips’ post-Genesis years —interestingly, the track Silver Song was a co-write with former bandmate Mike Rutherford. From the off, Phillips’ trademark guitar virtuosity is in abundant evidence on this collection of what are essentially demos and sketches. His musical dexterity is obvious, while his very English sense of humour is never far away: Harmonium in the Dust (Or Harmonious Stratosphere) takes it title from a Goons sketch.
The second release is a more focused affair than its predecessor, featuring unpublished material composed for different projects, including music for a planned adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and offcuts from Wise After the Event. The first five tracks, featuring Mike Rutherford and Andy McCulloch on drums, formed part of the aforementioned project, which was subsequently shelved but is re-edited here into a piece called The Scottish Suite. The sound is similar in vein to The Geese and the Ghost, bringing Phillip’s classical expertise to the forefront. The drums and bass pull the piece together and flesh it out. I am always surprised when hearing pieces as wonderful as this, which leads me to wonder how many other superb musical projects got lost in the 70s and 80s and are languishing in vaults somewhere. The other tracks on here are musical linking pieces removed from the Wise After the Event album.They include a spectacular Mel Collins flute part on the wonderful Tremulous, whilst the improvised keyboard piece K2 is a superb piece of ambient electronica, showing that Phillips is a master of other instruments in addition to the guitar.
The third release, in 1982, saw another change of direction for the project. This was the first album to be specifically recorded as part of the series, and featured a collaboration between Phillips and guitarist Enrique Berro Garcia, recorded over a couple of long weekends. The musical bond between the two men is obvious here: their guitars complement each other beautifully, and give the pieces a classical feel, particularly on the four-part Hurlingham Suite, which builds up to a haunting finale. Esperanza has a distinctly Sky-like sound. The warmth of the guitars throughout this collection makes it a particularly interesting entry in the series, and the alternative cuts of tracks including Bandido show how this recording evolved.
The fourth album (1984) went back to basics, a compilation of material recorded between 1979 and 1982. It includes music written for the wedding of two friends, compiled as the four-part Arboretum Suite, which showcases Phillips’ compositional skills to great effect. Other pieces include the improvised (and slightly sinister) Earth Manor the funky, bluesy Bouncer (which has hints of Mike Oldfield about it).
The bonus disc dips into the archives to add to the collection, with unreleased and alternative versions of tracks from the four albums, such as Birdsong Link (a variation on Birdsong from Wise After the Event), the experimental Lines in the Sand recorded during sessions for The Geese and the Ghost, and others. Compiled in the spirit of the series, lovingly remastered and with superb sleevenotes, this five disc set is an absolute joy for anyone who loves Phllips’ improvised and intricate guitar work. It is one of those wonderful box sets that you can lose yourself in for days on end. This is a fantastic overview of the alternative side of a career that is still going strong. --James R. Turner