Rick Wakeman Art in Music Trilogy: The Sculptor, The Writer, Sketches Esoteric Recordings ECLEC32597
This is a bit of an odd one from the Rick Wakeman back catalogue. Well, I’ll qualify that — the music isn’t odd, but the concept and ethos are rather different to those of many better-known Rick Wakeman albums. During the late 1990s, his style of music –so unfashionable in earlier times— was starting to make a comeback. However, it was at this juncture that he decided to record this series of new age albums, which is worlds apart from his other, more commercial releases. At three discs, it’s a bit challenging to listen to in go. Yes, it’s Rick Wakeman, and there is no denying his obvious skills and talents, but for me (as is generally my problem with new age music) this sounds like the bland muzak that you might encounter at a health spa, just meandering without ever reaching a conclusion. This is probably my own subjective attitude: on the few occasions when I use music to relax, I generally prefer Mike Oldfield, Vaughan Williams or Elgar, whose work actually goes somewhere. The new age music scene is popular and it is understandable that it would attract Wakeman, with his spiritual leanings, but for me one piece blends soporifically into another. Frankly, these albums simply don’t have enough oomph.
Bodast Towards Utopia Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2503
When you listen to the opening Nether Street on this lost album from fleeting rock group Bodast, you wonder why it is essentially the riff from the closing coda of Yes’s Starship Trooper. Then you realise that one of the driving forces in Bodast was Yes guitarist Steve Howe, and that this album (recorded in 1969 but never released) shows the progression of his career after Tomorrow finished.
Teaming up with Dave Curtiss and Bobbie Clarke, the band were known as Canto (and the bonus tracks on this album are three songs recorded in this incarnation). They then brought Clive Skinner in on vocals, and so Bodast —the name taken from the first two initials of the original members’ first names— was born. Remastered by Steve Howe, this is the ‘lost’ album, finally presented in a way that the artists intended. It is astonishing that this album has been completely neglected up until now. Steve Howe’s distinctive guitar work is as sublime as ever throughout the recording, and at this point he was already beginning to craft the trademark sound that would influence Yes in the 1970s. However, this is not just the Steve Howe show: the rest of the band are tight, with Clarke and Curtiss displaying plenty of power. A wonderful collection of rock songs is on offer here. This album was recorded at the dawn of prog and heavy metal, at the transition from psychedelia into pastoral forms of rock, and Bodast cover all the bases here. That doesn’t mean that this is a mishmash of sounds, but it is a collection of virtuoso performances. From Nether Street (named after where they were living), with that embryonic prog riff and some fantastic vocals, via the brilliant Do You Remember (a classic rock song if ever there was one) to the very deep Beyond Winter, there is a great deal of variety here.
This is, obviously, a wonderful collection to buy if you are a Yes and Steve Howe fan, but it would also be of interest for anyone keen on late sixties music. It is a fantastic album in its own right, and not just a musical curio. (As an aside, Skinner and Curtiss went on to form their own duo, and wrote a song called Sepheryn, which became Madonna’s Ray of Light!)
Clear Blue Sky Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2595
When you first see this debut album from the band Clear Blue Sky, you instantly recognise the signature style of cover artist Roger Dean. However, the music that it contains, produced by Patrick Campbell-Lyons from Nirvana, is much harder than the type that Dean usually illustrated. Given that all three band members were only eighteen when this was made, it is a well-rounded hard rock album, if typical of its time.
The original Side One is a three-piece suite subtitled Journey to the Inside of the Sun, kicking off with an excellent instrumental called Sweet Leaf (a few years before Black Sabbath wrote a song of the same name), which, with its big riffs and impressive performances, is a cracking (and bold) way to start an album. The Rocket Ride and I’m Coming Home round out the first part, with some great vocals from guitarist John Simms. The sound is very much proto heavy metal from that hybrid period when hard rock was merely blues played louder and heavier, and this album sits in the same bracket as Uriah Heep’s Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble or Nazareth by Nazareth. There is a lot of interesting experimentation around a particular type of sound and plenty of soloing in tracks like You Mystify, but like many bands of the time Clear Blue Sky only produced one album, raising the question of what might have been. Nevertheless, this is a great contemporary snapshot, and one that bears repeated listening.
Second Hand Death May Be Your Santa Claus Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2594
A very strange record cover —incredibly random and like a Hipgnosis design gone bad— adorns a release named after a horror movie for which the band had provided music (some of which appears on here). This was the second album from London-based prog band Second Hand, and was originally released back in 1971. Formed by Ken Elliott, with his brother Bob on vocals, George Hart on bass and vocals, Kieran O’Connor on drums, and Ken himself on organs, mellotron, piano and vocals, the group released this album independently after being dropped by Polydor.
Of course, this release is from the era when everyone was trying everything, and musical experimentation runs riot throughout the record. This is particularly striking on the title track and Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. The symphonic sound of the keyboards dominates the album, and the band build the rest of the music around it to create a real, quirky gem. Esoteric’s ongoing project to re-release obscure albums of the prog era is creating an alternative history of the time.
The Paperweight Array Kaleidoscope of Antiquities (EP)
In a review for the Progarchy website last year, I coined the term Rushdenbeat (which has taken on a life of its own, including a Facebook group and a hashtag) to describe the unique music scene of that small Northamptonshire town, encompassing The Fierce and the Dead, the brilliantly eccentric Orange Clocks, and these chaps, the psychedelic rock-tinged Paperweight Array.
This, their second EP, was released back in September 2017, and is available from bandcamp. The power trio of Aaron Hemmington on guitar, Just on bass, keys and guitar, and Dunc on drums are ever-so-subtly updating 1960s English psychedelia for the new millennium.
The opening blast of Through the Stratosphere is brilliant psych-pop, with stunning guitar work. The title track has some delightfully English lyrics that could have come from any late sixties Kinks album and tie in beautifully with the cover art, which is a glorious piece of work. Although there are only three of them, the band make a mighty noise, with some superb solos. The closing The Man Who Stole the Times is a piece of quirky rock with hints of XTC and some sublimely funky bass and drums. This is another confident and exciting collection of material from a fantastic band.
Cobalt Chapel Cobalt Chapel
Does anyone remember the hit single Daydream in Blue by the mighty Sheffield band I Monster back in the early 2000s? I Monster were typical of Sheffield pop/rock acts: subversive, intelligent and well-written music that bypasses the norms. Part of the band’s charm and appeal is their off-kilter Sheffield attitude to music. Half of I Monster is Jarrod Gosling, who plies his prog trade as the Regal Worm, a connoisseur of classic prog and psych from the 1960s and 1970s, and Cobalt Chapel’s debut album, released last year, is his collaboration with Cecilia Fage, best known for her work with Matt Berry’s musical projects. Gosling and Fage’s mutual love of early seventies acid folk shines throughout this absolute wonder of an album. It sounds like the cross between the soundtrack for some long-lost Amicus horror film and music by female-fronted bands like Comus and Trees. Gosling has a natural feel for the genre and proves himself a versatile musician, and his collection of synths helps to give this its authentic feel. Fage’s ethereal, haunting vocals fit this music like a glove. Including the Wickerman-esque sound of the unsettling We Come Willingly, the dark beauty of Black Eyes and the astonishing Singing Camberwell Beauty, and an arresting cover of John Tavener’s The Lamb, this is bound to become a cult album. It is a startling and arresting debut, perfect late-night-walking-home-alone-through-the-woods music.
Dipper Malkin Tricks of the Trade
John Dipper (one third of the English Acoustic Collective, on viola d’amore) and Dave Malkin (guitar, vocals) have combined their not inconsiderable talents into a musical juggernaut. It’s astonishing to think that this is only their first album. With John’s viola d’amore to the fore on this record, there is a mighty cast of supporting artists including Tom Dennis and percussionist Corrie Dick. New and traditional compositions are here reinterpreted for the unique tone of the viola d’amore, which, combined with Dave’s guitar work, brings a lush warmth to the opening Wine and Women, whilst Tom Dennis’s flugelhorn on King Storm really blends in well with the rest of the musical ambience.
James McArthur and the Head Gardeners Burnt Moth Moorland Records
Former Paul Weller collaborator James McArthur and his group the Head Gardeners recently released their second album. Mixing a contemporary folk feel with some fantastic vocals and a hazy chilled-out sound, this reminds me at times of the Beta Band at their least energetic, the perfect soundtrack to a quiet afternoon. Tracks like the wonderful 14 Seconds, Glitch Kids, and the title song showcase McArthur’s vocal talents perfectly, with sympathetic arrangements for mandolin, violin, piano, harmonica and acoustic guitar. The record evokes the majesty of John Martyn or Nick Drake and combines it with a modern style.
Sally Barker Ghost Girl Old Dog Records
Soulful and best-known for her work with The Poozies, Sally Barker has worked the festival circuit, reached the final of The Voice in 2014, and stepped into Sandy Denny’s shoes in the re-formed Fotheringay. This, her sixth solo album, was released to coincide with her support slots on Fairport Convention’s fiftieth anniversary tour.
Kicking off with the sharp and excellently observed Emperor of Cool, Barker delivers this bitter break-up song with a swagger and stunning vocal performance that set the tone for the record. Ghost Girl, the title track, originally appeared on the Poozies' Into The Well, and here she radically reinvents it, whilst the haunting Theme to Ghost Girl reprises and rounds off the album in style. I’m Not Whole, written by Barker’s son Dillon Harold Thomas, proves that talent runs in the family, mixing evocative images of a lost love and coastal landscapes. Jazzy Hand of Fate is inspired by Barker’s time on The Voice, with silky smooth backing vocals and a funky riff —Ian Crabtree’s acoustic slide guitar is a delight. Barker is also joined by Dillon on guitars, as well as regular collaborator Ian Crabtree, and P J Wright, who provides distinctive guitar work on the energetic and entertaining Mr Bang. The mix of light and shade on the record shows Barker’s vocal skills off superbly. This is a really enjoyable album to be listened to again and again.
Nicki Leighton-Thomas The New Enzyme Detergent Demise www.nickileightonthomas.com
This amazing record combines the phenomenal vocal talents of jazz singer Nicki Leighton-Thomas and the songs of the late, great Dory Previn. The lyrics are razor sharp, with a keen eye for detail and a mood of intelligent, wry cynicism, while Leighton-Thomas’s wonderful voice and the superb backing band of John Reynolds (drums), Vladimir Srkalj (guitar, bass), and Simon Wallace (on keys, piano and Hammond) are ideally suited to them. Leighton-Thomas brings the right amount of sass to Starlet, Starlet on the Screen and the caustic Michael, Michael, making this record a contemporary classic. These songs about love, loss, and sexuality are so well-written that they haven’t aged at all. This record unites two extraordinary women. In a word, brilliant.
Sam Brothers Farewell To My Old Days White Mane Records
The press release bills this as “the record that nobody wanted,” which seems an odd way to promote your new discovery, but it is an allusion to the fact that Brothers was declined by certain record labels for not being folky enough! Ironically, he’s as authentic as it gets, with a wonderfully warm voice and superb, unflustered guitar technique, and this album is a beguiling collection of contemporary folk. There is a beautiful cover of the Phil Ochs track There But for Fortune, whilst the title track, Tell Me, and Now I Know showcase Brothers’ talent. It’s refreshing that his management put their money where their mouth is and released this excellent record on their own label.
Canny Fettle Still Gannin’ Canny Canny Fettle Records
Originally formed during the great folk revival of the seventies, Canny Fettle released their debut album Varry Canny in 1975, followed by their second (Trip to Harrogate) in 1977. After a short break of about forty years, their third album has landed. Instead of taking a radical new approach to their work, Bob Diehl (fiddle), Gerry Murphy (English concertina/Northumbrian small pipes), and Bob Morton (guitar and voice) have picked up exactly where they left off, and the result sounds like a great lost collection from the seventies. This is not a criticism at all, since the back-to-basics approach showcases the beauty, atmosphere and magic in these trad songs and tunes. There is also a deliberate nod to the past in the style of the artwork, and the copious sleeve notes. There are fine reinterpretations of such great trad tunes as Old Miner (which has been in Bob’s repertoire for years) and We’ll Soon Have Work to Dee (with George Unthank and Pete Wood on chorus vocals). Mixing and matching traditional material from the North has always been Canny Fettle’s way, and it’s grand to hear them still Gannin’ Canny on this wonderful album that is full of the heart and soul of traditional music.--James R Turner