Fans of the Bursting at the Seams-era Strawbs would have been overjoyed last year when songwriters Richard Hudson and John Ford’s first three albums as a duo were finally released on CD, remastered for the first time and packaged in a wonderful clamshell box. Remembered for writing the Strawbs hits Part of the Union, Burn Baby Burn and Pick Up the Pieces, the duo’s final album, Daylight, was originally put out in 1977 on CBS Records. With a striking cover and plenty of their trademark harmony vocals, it’s astonishing that this record has only now been released on CD —delving into it is a real musical treat. Hudson and Ford have always had a way with a melody and a striking lyric, and here they excel themselves. Even though the songs are over forty years old, they are timeless in spirit and style. The production by Robin Cable allows them room to breathe, and there are some neat musical tricks on here, with the song Poor Boy apparently finishing on side one and then rolling over onto side two. Tracks such as Daylight and 95 Degrees in the Shade (produced by Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lessor) are natural successors to their earlier hits, whilst the use of an orchestra enhances rather than swamps the sound. The package is wrapped up by their associated singles and B-sides, and thereby constitutes the complete CBS collection for Hudson-Ford. The duo have long been underrated, probably because their albums have been out of print for so long. This release should rectify that and open eyes to an intriguing legacy of the Strawbs story.
Greenslade Esoteric Recordings PECLEC22645
Finally, here is a two-disc definitive edition of one of the seventies’ most inventive prog bands, Greenslade. Formed by keyboard player Dave Greenslade after Colosseum finished, it also included original Colosseum bassist Tony Reeve, keyboard player Dave Lawson, and drummer Andrew McCulloch. Dave Greenslade comments in the sleeve notes to this comprehensive release that he was dead set against having a guitarist in the band, and the resulting unique, dual keyboard sound was a real departure for the progressive era, mixing traditional rock with Colosseum’s free-form jazz. The keyboard styles of Lawson and Greenslade are complementary but distinctive, and their interaction is a fundamental part of the sound, whilst Reeve and McCulloch form the perfect rhythm section, providing the bedrock for the songs. Tracks such as An English Western, Sundance and Temple Song showcase the band’s seamless teamwork, and the lack of a lead guitar isn’t felt at all —these are intelligent and exciting tracks that still have power and impact over forty-five years on.
The second disc here contains two different sessions recorded in 1973 for the BBC, and show how formidable Greenslade were live. (I had the pleasure of seeing their later reincarnation in the 1990s, and they had lost none of their power and ability.) Real energy and spark is added to these songs in this performance, transcending the genre’s limitations. Although this release has one of those ubiquitous Roger Dean covers, its content is far beyond what bands like Yes were doing at the time; it is one of the most startlingly original debut albums since King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. This is an excellently curated package. Esoteric put real care and love into their remasters, and music like this deserves that level of attention.
This is the third Renaissance album, released in 1972. The band’s fans regard it as the first album proper following the departure of founder members Jane Relf and John Hawken. Founder member Michael Dunsford had decided to stop performing but was more than happy to stay on as a songwriter, and built a new band around the vocals of Annie Haslam, with Terry Sullivan on drums, Jon Camp on bass, Rob Hendry on guitar and John Tout on keyboards. Like Sonja Kristina, Haslam is highly regarded as one of the first ladies of prog, and her distinctive vocals were integral to the Renaissance sound. However, although getting the right vocalist is always key, there’s no point if the band can’t keep up. Luckily this line-up of Renaissance gelled musically, and with some strong performances, the album really does flow.
The release contains six highly impressive tracks, including the majestic Kiev and the epic closer Rajah Khan, which features keyboard player Francis Monkman (Curved Air/Sky) adding his unique textures to a mystic blend of traditional rock and folk. This album marked the arrival of Renaissance as a powerful musical force, and it is still as striking and original now as it was then.
Gryphon Raindances The Transatlantic Recordings 1973-1975 Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22639
Out of print for a very long time, the entire Transatlantic back catalogue of pioneering folk troubadour ensemble Gryphon is brought together on this magnificently-curated double disc set. It is a welcome release for those of us who were missing some of their albums (the original Sanctuary two-for-one CDs have long since disappeared).
Compiling all four albums (1973’s Gryphon, 1974’s Midnight Mushrumps, 1974’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three and 1975’s Raindance) recorded during this highly inventive and exciting period, this collection demonstrates that Gryphon were without peer, featuring such highly regarded musicians as David Oberlé, Graeme Taylor (later to join the Albion Band and form Home Service), Brian Gulland and Richard Harvey. The band took their name from the mythical beast in Alice in Wonderland, and mixed contemporary musical ideas with mediaeval sounds, crossing all sorts of musical boundaries. On their debut they programmed traditional folk such as Kemp’s Jig and The Unquiet Grave alongside self-penned pieces Touch and Go and Taylor’s Crossing the Styles. Then there is the madness of musical creativity that is The Juniper Suite, which they could not play live until the 2000s due to all the overdubs involved. The list of instruments used, including crumhorn, recorder, mandolin, and harmonium (and that was just Richard Harvey!) demonstrates that Gryphon were not like anybody else. Their blend of advanced musical ability and preference for early English music made them stand out from their contemporaries, and whilst they were on the unique Transatlantic label (alongside bands like Pentangle and Mr Fox), they were doing very different things to the more mainstream folk-rock boom driven by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.
Their sense of invention and fun and an increased confidence are much in evidence on their second album, with only one reworking of a trad track (The Ploughboy’s Dream), the rest being originals such as Taylor’s The Last Flash of Gaberdine Tailor and Gulland’s self-titled Gulland Rock, where he integrates some ominous mediaeval-sounding keyboard tones that build and insinuate themselves into your consciousness. Taylor on guitar adds plenty of colour throughout the albums and Oberlé is a fantastically creative percussionist. During this period, not only did Gryphon become the first band to play the Old Vic, but also —in a move that reflected the diversity of their audience and appeal— they supported Yes in the States (Gryphon shared Yes’s manager Brian Lane, whom they had met through Rick Wakeman, a classmate of Taylor and Harvey’s at the Royal College of Music).
By Red Queen to Gryphon Three their songs were longer and more intricately composed, closer in spirit to progressive music in terms of length, if not sound. The four tracks on here are peak Gryphon, with a line-up (now with Philip Nestor on bass) that had settled in and broadened its musical ambitions. Again, this album reflects the Alice in Wonderland influences, with Taylor readily admitting in the fascinating sleeve notes that he was the band’s biggest Lewis Carroll fan. From the amazing Opening Move through to the closing power of Checkmate, which blends synth with crumhorn, the reliance on overdubs and a multitude of instruments has been pared down, with Harvey focussed on keyboard, recorder and crumhorn, Gulland on bassoon and crumhorn, Taylor shining on guitar (he really is one of the unsung heroes of English guitar, a formidable talent), Oberlé on drums, percussion and timpani, and Nestor on bass. The quintet are far tighter here, and each piece is given space to develop into a complex musical odyssey. The result is a weird amalgam of the band’s previous work, with elements of symphonic rock and Elizabethan themes, and it rollocks along at a grand old pace, showing just what ambition, creativity and raw talent can do. There are very few albums out there that sound like Red Queen to Gryphon Three, and it stakes its claim as one of the best albums of 1974.
By 1975’s Raindance, the title track of which is also borrowed for this anthology, the band had lost Philip Nestor and recruited Malcolm Bennett, who played flute as well as bass, and the long shopping list of instruments used had also returned. In contrast to Red Queen, Raindance featured shorter, sharper songs. A cover of the Beatles’ Mother Nature’s Son translated nicely into the sound that Gryphon were developing. However, although the record also harkens back to earlier albums, it doesn’t have the presence of Red Queen, despite a couple of stand-out tracks. Shortly after this release Taylor and Bennett left Gryphon, whilst the band released one more album, Treason on EMI’s Harvest label, before going into hibernation for a few years.
This is a fantastic compilation, highlighting an adventuresome band who were always more than the sum of their parts. If you like your music inventive and original, then this is the perfect point of departure for discovering Gryphon.
Gryphon Reinvention GRIFCD01
I don’t recall any new album release sparking this much excitement on social media, and it was excellent timing that the nicely packaged and remastered collection of Gryphon’s first four albums (reviewed above) hit the shops at about the same time as this fresh collection by a revitalised version of the band. Including a trio of original members (Brian Gulland, Graeme Taylor and Dave Oberlé), the new line-up is rounded out by Graeme’s Home Service colleague Andy Findon on flute, saxophone and clarinet, bassist Rory McFarlane, and violinist, mandolinist and keyboardist Graham Preskett. Recorded in 2017 and produced by Taylor, this is no retread of past glories. All members (bar Oberlé and Findon) were on composition duty, and the six pieces were toured and developed extensively. The result is a Gryphon reinvented for the twenty-first century, while staying firmly rooted in the thirteenth.
Brian Gulland’s inimitable song writing and innate Englishness come through on the wonderful opening statement of intent PipeUp Downsland DerryDellDanko, an evocation of the Pilgrim’s Way and the North Downs of Kent. Meanwhile new boy Preskett has fun with terrible puns and brilliant music on Rhubarb Crumhorn, Hampton Court and Sailor V. The connection with the band’s roots is strong on Taylor’s Haddocks’ Eyes, a full-on epic from Alice Through the Looking Glass that sets Carroll’s words to a quintessentially Gryphon piece of music. It rocks in at over ten minutes, but never outstays its welcome and is a real joy to listen to. Taylor also contributes Ashes, a fantastically English paean to cricket, delivered in the band’s distinctive fashion. From sublime guitar work to amazing sounds from a variety of brass instruments, and a mastery of all the genres through which the band sees fit to wander, this release demonstrates that there is still nobody quite like Gryphon, combining eccentricity with beautiful performances in order to create something unique. This album shows them just as anarchic and entertaining as ever. If Raindances reflects their past, Reinvention lays out their future programme. It is fantastic to have them back again, making such joyous music. --James R. Turner