Reviews in this issue:
- Home - The Alchemist
- Fields - Fields
- Trifle - First Meeting
- Ramases - Glass Top Coffin
- The Parlour Band - Is A Friend?
Home - The Alchemist
Tracklist: Schooldays (2:57), The Old Man Dying (3:45), Time Passes By (2:04), The Old Man Calling [Save The People] (3:14), The Disaster (2:35), The Sun's Revenge (4:00), A Secret To Keep (1:17), The Brass Band Played (1:25), Rejoicing (2:48), The Disaster Returns [Devastation] (8:00), The Death Of The Alchemist (4:32), The Alchemist (3:53) Bonus Tracks: Green Eyed Fairy (2:44), Sister Rosalie (2:57), Hayward Town (2:55)
Home are best remembered as being the band that featured future Wishbone Ash guitarist Laurie Wisefield and AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams, although all three of their albums sold in reasonable quantities on their release in the early 1970s. Indeed, vinyl copies of The Alchemist seemed to be in abundance when I started seriously collecting music back in the 1980s and I was embarking on a scientific career I was naturally attracted to the album due to its cover! Ever since first hearing, I have loved the album with its prog credentials to the fore: from the gatefold sleeve to the conceptual tale of the alchemist who prevents disaster befalling the town he lives in but is ultimately killed by the people he originally saved. That Home should come up with a progressive album following the release of their first two albums, Pause For A Hoarse Horse and the eponymous Home, both released in 1972, is somewhat surprising as although both were thoroughly decent albums, neither really suggested that the group was anything other than a very good mainstream rock act. I supposed it is testimony to the record labels at the time (in this case CBS) that they were prepared to invest in groups and let them develop at their own pace over several albums. How many major-label bands get such an opportunity these days?
In addition to Wisefield and Williams, Home also featured Mick Stubbs (guitar, piano, lead vocals) and Mick Cook (drums) with, on this album, David Skillin providing the lyrics and Jimmy Anderson adding synths and Mellotrons. Throughout the album it is the playing of Wiseman that shines through, blending marvellously in the complex arrangements that incorporate numerous shifts in time signatures and arrangements that make best use of the variety of instruments available to the band. There is also plenty of harmony singing, something that features on all three Home albums given that three of the four members (Cook being the exception) were fine singers contributing their vocals throughout. For a progressive album The Alchemist starts somewhat incongruously with a delicate, almost folky, number, Schooldays. Undoubtedly this is deliberate as it is the origins of the story where the two main protagonists first meet at the very beginning of the 20th century. The folkier style is therefore representative of older days and differentiates this element of the tale from the main narrative which is based in the 1950s. It is not appropriate to provide a track-by-track coverage of the album because, as a concept, the music has been arranged to help tell the story and not, necessarily as standalone tracks. However, there are plenty of highlights that are worth noting. For instance, Wisefield's restrained playing on the instrumental Time Passes is in complete contrast to his more direct and angry lead on The Disaster. The sublime vocal melody on The Old Man Calling [Save The People] clearly demonstrates the thought that has gone into matching the lyrics not only to the story but also to the music, with the music itself displaying a breadth of imagination lacking from so many progressive albums - take, for example, the great ending to The Sun's Revenge with its piano and acoustic guitar sections.
The original second side of the LP started with three short numbers, the second of which The Brass Band Played could have eaily provided the inspiration for Camel's The Homecoming on Nude. But it is with The Disaster Returns that everything comes together with the dual guitars of Wisefield and Stubbs providing energetic backing but never dipping into self-indulgence, although the group do bring out the big progressive guns at the end of the song and on the following The Death Of The Alchemist. In classic concept album style, the final song, The Alchemist, reprises elements of the opening Schooldays bringing the music full circle and the album to a fine close. Three rare tracks have been added to this reissue, both sides of a 1974 single Green Eyed Fairy b/w Sister Rosalie which was the final release before the band called it a day. Stylistically the single, particularly the b-side, was more akin to the material on the group's first album and showed less of the progressive influences. Hayward Town is a previously unreleased number which, based on the lyrics, is not an out-take from The Alchemist. The finished nature of the song suggests it was not a demo; possibly recorded at the same time as the last single, it may have been that the band were contemplating a new album that was abandoned when sales of The Alchemist failed to elevate Home to the next level and the group split.
As expected from Esoteric releases the sound of this reissue is exemplary. I have a prior reissue of the CD which pails into complete insignificance compared with this version. Add to that the comprehensive booklet and the three rare tracks (even as a fan of the band I was unaware of the final single!) and you have an excellent reissue of an excellent album that deserves rediscovery by a large audience. Let's hope so as the band performed the whole album for a BBC In Concert performance that was issued a while back on a double CD but is now practically impossible to find. Hopefully, if this new release attracts a large enough following there will be the incentive for Esoteric to reissue the BBC sessions once more.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Fields - Fields
Tracklist: A Friend Of Mine (4:30), While The Sun Still Shines (3:16), Not So Good (3:10), Three Minstrels (4:29), Slow Susan (3:44), Over And Over Again (5:56), Feeling Free (3:15), Fair-Haired Lady (3:05), A Place To Lay My Head (3:39), The Eagle (5:28) Bonus Tracks: Slow Susan [alternative version] (3:45), A Place To Lay My Head [alternative version] (4:27)
Following the release of the first two Rare Bird albums, the band split in 1970, not because of any musical differences but because of a restrictive contract that saw the whole band sharing less than 1% of all earnings between them. Given the group had had a worldwide hit with Sympathy which boosted album sales, the band were still massively in debt and simply could not afford to carry on. Following the unwanted split, keyboard player and principal songwriter Graham Field started looking for a new label, soon landing a three album deal with CBS Records. With a deal behind him, Field needed to get together a new band and, through Robert Fripp, was introduced to Andrew McCulloch, session drummer on Crimson's Lizard album who subsequently brought along his friend and guitarist Alan Barry. As Field had tried with Rare Bird to go against guitar dominated music by including two keyboard players, he persuaded Barry to focus largely on bass, even having a Gibson double-necked guitar/bass custom made for him to use in concert. The three musicians instantly gelled, perfectly fulfilling Field's musical vision. Barry, due to his lead guitar heritage, was naturally a 'busy' bass player, and McCulloch was tuned into this, giving the other musicians space and not overcomplicating the drumming (lessons learnt from his brief tenure with Crimson).
With a line-up consisting of a keyboard wizard who focuses on organ playing, a singing guitarist/bassist and a drummer, immediate comparisons with ELP are likely to be drawn. This is fair enough and it has to be said that, sound wise, there are similarities due to the instrumentation. However, compositionally, Fields are a different kettle of fish. Field's playing is not so reliant on influences from classical music (somewhat ironic as he ultimately left rock music to focus on classical composition) and there is more lead electric guitar work intertwined with the organ, as for example on While The Sun Still Shines. The melodic qualities that imbued Sympathy were also evident throughout the album and several numbers, in particular Feeling Free, had plenty of commercial potential. On the flip side, a more experimental approach was developed in the likes of Three Minstrels. Fields tended to keep their numbers short but that doesn't mean they were purely interested in pop songs. Over And Over Again is the equal of many ELP numbers and album opener A Friend Of Mine is worthy of inclusion any collection of classically-inspired keyboard rock songs.
Although Field was the dominant composer, Barry also contributes two numbers and although the writing credits are not given in the booklet, it would be a pretty sure bet that the acoustic love song, Fair-Haired Lady, is one of the guitarist's songs. The original album ended on a real high with The Eagle. A possible indication that this song was considered to be the pinnacle of the album is given that the titular bird was chosen to be featured on the album cover, although personally I can't help feeling sympathetic to the rather cute rabbit (but I suppose The Eagle is a better song title than 'Poor Dead Bunny'!)
Two alternative versions of album cuts are included as bonuses; neither are dramatically different, although A Place To Lay My Head does contain an additional 30 seconds or so of music. Unfortunately, Slow Susan, a rather simplistic instrumental, is one of the less impressive numbers on the album. The group, despite having gathered quite a following in Europe (90% of the bands gigs were in mainland Europe), were dropped when CBS fired all of its UK staff replacing them with Americans who had no concept of progressive or European rock and were more eager to promote the countrified Byrds than any band signed by the previous staff. At that point the band was part-way through recording their second album and it is a shame that the completed tracks were not available to round out the reissue. (Presumably these tracks are either lost or permission to release them was refused). None-the-less, Fields is a fine album and well worthy of consideration for those with an interest in 70s music.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Trifle - First Meeting
Tracklist: Alibi Annie (4:58), Home Again (4:08), One Way Glass (4:31), But I Might Die Tonight (3:51), Is It Loud? (8:11), Old Fashioned Prayer Meeting (4:42), New Religion (6:43), Devil Comin' (7:41), Candle Light (1:51) Bonus Tracks: Dirty Old Town (3:51), Old Fashioned Prayer Meeting [single version] (4:42)
At the conclusion to my review of the great Cave Of Clear Light collection I stated that I would keep my eyes open for future rarities originally issued on the Pye and Dawn labels being reissued by Esoteric. Sure enough, the sole album by one of the band's featured on that compilation, Trifle, is now available featuring Esoteric's trademark superlative remastering, packed and informative booklet and bonus tracks! The group formed in early 1969 and released a sole single on United Artists before a change of personnel and label saw them enter the studio in September 1970 to record their only album, First Meeting. Band members on this recording were: George Bean (vocals and tambourine), Dick Cuthell (flugel horn, trumpet and cowbell), Barrie Martin (tenor and alto saxes, vocals and bongos), Alan Fealdman (organ, piano and clavinet), John Hitchen (guitars, vocals and jawbone), Patrick King (bass and vocals) and Chico Greenwood (drums, congas and maracas).
As can be guessed from the brass-laden credits, the group slotted neatly amongst groups that were seeking to merge jazz influences with the bludgeoning progressive rock scene. With a dominant organ throughout, comparisons can be drawn between with Manfred Mann's Chapter Three, the association being made clearer by the fact that Trifle recorded an excellent cover of Mann's One Way Glass featuring lovely vocals by Bean and a great closing sax solo by Martin. The album opens with the somewhat funky Alibi Annie and a more laid back Home Again, both of which have plenty of fine organ work to the fore with the latter track also containing excellent contributions from the brass players. But I Might Die Tonight sees Fealdman taking a seat at the piano to lead the band through an excellent cover of the Cat Stevens classic.
The progressive influences in the music are largely heard in the three longer numbers. The instrumental Is It Loud? has splashes of Colosseum throughout while, for me, the standout song of the album, New Religion, reminds me of early Atomic Rooster. Not only is it a nicely paced number but has a great vocal arrangement and gives the various members of the band equal opportunity to solo, Cuthell and Hitchen in particular step up to the mark. In contrast Devil Comin' is more rhythmic and brings to mind Paladin, another band whose two excellent albums have benefited from the Esoteric remastering treatment. The album closes with the acoustic ballad Candle Light. With just Hitchen on guitar, Bean on vocal and a barely heard Fealdman on piano, it is a soothing and plaintive end to the album.
The bonus tracks are both sides of a single that was released prior to the album. Dirty Old Town is not all that representative of the album, possibly a reason why it was not included, largely due to the keyboard sound (somewhat akin to vibes). Although not a bad song it seems less accomplished that the rest of the material but is nice to have as an extra and satisfies the completist in me. The single A side was Old Fashioned Prayer Meeting a song that was included on the album, albeit as a different version (and not just a remix). An insistent groove insinuates the song in the brain and it is certainly a 'grower' worthy of a higher chart placing than it achieved at the time. Sadly the death of George Bean shortly after the album's release resulted in the band disbanding and unable to capitalise on the critical success of First Meeting. As for the rest of the group, well the most notable musical career fell to Dick Cuthell who became a highly respected session musician working with a diverse range of artists including John Martyn, Elvis Costello, The Eurythmics and The Specials.
First Meeting is another fine album rescued from obscurity by the Esoteric label. It's place in the annals of progressive rock is probably marginal at best but it stems from the time when bands were truly progressive in outlook and is a great reminder of the diversity of the music that contributed to the formation of the musical genre that we call prog rock today.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Ramases - Glass Top Coffin
Tracklist: Golden Landing (6:06), Long Long Time (5:14), Now Mona Lisa (2:56), God Voice (3:18), Mind Island (4:41), Only The Loneliest Feeling (2:56), Sweet Reason (5:45), Stepping Stones (4:28), Saler Man (5:02), Children Of The Green Earth (3:28), Glass Top Coffin (3:58), Golden Landing [Part II] (2:22)
Ramases and Selket, who prior to their recording career were more commonly known as Mr and Mrs Martin Raphael, turned to music in the late 1960s after Mr Raphael claimed to have been visited by the spirit of an Egyptian king and instructed to spread the truth about the universe to the masses. The Raphael's took the charge seriously, changed their names and started wearing Egyptian clothes. At any other time strong sedatives and a natty straight jacket would be called for, but this was 1968 and CBS records saw nothing untoward and signed the pair up, subsequently realising a single by the duo. The single flopped, as did a second, released on the Major Minor label, and the couple appeared to have given up on their quest. However, surprisingly, in early 1970 'Ram and Sel' were back in the studio recording an album for none other than the Vertigo label. And not just any studio, but Strawberry studios in Stockport where the owners, four chaps who went on to become 10cc, provided the bulk of the musical backing. Given the title Space Hymns, encased in a gatefold, fold-out sleeve featuring Roger Dean artwork and splendidly displaying the Vertigo swirl label in the middle of side one, the release was certainly visually in keeping with the many other progressive albums issued by the label. However, it didn't sound like any of them, blending psychedelic sounds left over from the 60s with folky, hippy elements.
Upon its release Ramases and wife moved to the South coast of the UK and did little to promote the release, virtually disappearing until three years later when they resurfaced ready to record their second album, Glass Top Coffin, widely regarded as the superior of the two releases and, in some circles, considered a cult classic. Both albums by Ramases have been featured on our Forgotten Sons pages where my colleague Nigel Camilleri provides in-depth reviews for your edification. This first ever CD release by Esoteric provides an informative booklet and the characteristically high standard of remastering. Much of the history of Ramases is unknown and is likely to remain so since Ramases himself committed suicide in the 1990s and his wife is quoted as trying to forget everything about the period when the pair wrote and recorded the albums. Hardly an essential album but certainly interesting enough and the extensive contributions by members of the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras provide added depth and dimension to the music.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
The Parlour Band - Is A Friend?
Tracklist: Forgotten Dreams (2:42), Pretty Haired Girl (2:51), Spring's Sweet Comfort (5:05), Early Morning Eyes (3:52), Follow Me (4:56), Evening (4:58), Don't Be Sad (3:19), Little Goldie (3:20), To Happiness (2:59), Home [a] Once More Loneliness [b] Fortress [c] Home (7:38) Bonus Track: Runaround (4:26)
The Parlour Band have the dubious honour of being the first band from the small English Channel island of Jersey to be signed by a major UK label (Decca) and put into a studio to record an album. This was in late 1971 after Decca had been impressed by some very basic demos submitted the previous year by Peter Filleul, the band's song writer, lead vocalist and keyboard player. At the time, the band was based in Leicester as the group's drummer (Jerry Robins) and one of the guitarists (Jon 'Pix' Pickford) were studying at the local polytechnic (also the venue for the group's first mainland concert). The other two group members were brothers Craig and Mark Anders (guitar and bass, respectively), and the five of them shared two low-rent houses typical of the squalor fit only for habitation by mice and students! However, the accommodation did give the band space to practice and Leicester was a fairly convenient location to travel from to get to gigs, although after signing a deal the band relocated to London to be nearer the hub of the English music industry.
From the opening Hammond riff of Forgotten Dreams with its accompanying layered vocals there is no mistaking that Is A Friend? is a product of the 70s. A fantastic opening which surprisingly leads into the more mellow Pretty Haired Girl. The harmony vocals are spot on and the twin lead guitars provide a gloriously melodic interlude. What is essentially a superior pop song breaks with conformity with a guitar solo which stridently leads the listener directly into Spring's Sweet Comfort. And so it goes on, song after song of melodic glory that effortlessly combines prog stylings, pop overtones and west Coast US harmonies. Although identifiable as being from the 1970s, it is not surprising that the album failed to capture the imagination of the masses. Sure the players are technically very proficient and the song writing is first class, but the album lacks the bombast of an out-and-out progressive album of the era and is crushed in comparison to the glam rock that occupied the singles charts. Filleul's writing was not entirely unaffected by the contemporary influences as evidenced by tracks such as Evening and the closing suite, Home which provides a light prog finale to the album, and also the rather enigmatic album title (the lyrics include the line: Home is a friend).
I am sure a lot of people would dismiss this album as lightweight and somewhat inconsequential. However, I have to state that I seriously love all of the songs; from the uplifting Little Goldie, through the melancholy of Don't Be Sad to the harder Early Morning Eyes. The killer vocals get to me, the playing is concise and precise, the tunes are memorable and the production (by Nick Tauber) is crystal clear. With Esoteric's precision remastering the sound of the album is perfect and at last there is an informative booklet, written by band member Craig Anders, with information on the band and what they are up to these days. As we have come to expect, the album also features a bonus rarity, Runaround, a horn embellished rocker, the number shows a different side to the band that is not so evident from the 10 core album tracks.
The Parlour Band only released the one album under that moniker but didn't split when the album failed to sell. Instead they changed their name, first to A Band Named O and then simply The O Band, and released four more albums, albeit on a different label. The style of music also changed, taking on a harder edge with Filleul's songwriting dominance usurped. Being a long-time fan of Is A Friend?, this remasterered version is a treat to behold and will no doubt provide me many hours of late night enjoyment. This is an album I would unfailingly recommend to anyone based purely on my own love of the music. However, being somewhat more objective, the progressive elements of the album are rather thin on the ground and, as such, may not find much appeal with our readership. Of course, that doesn't mean that it is not a worthwhile album to possess...
Conclusion: Not Rated (just enjoyed)