Reviews in this issue:
- FM - Black Noise
- FM - Direct To Disc
- FM - Surveillance
- FM - City Of Fear
- The Climax Blues Band - Tightly Knit
- The Climax Blues Band - Rich Man
- The Climax Blues Band - FM/Live
- Pavlov's Dog - Pampered Menial
- Pavlov's Dog - At the Sound of the Bell
FM - Black Noise
FM - Direct to Disc
FM - Surveillance
FM - City of Fear
Tracklist: Krakow (4:38), Power (3:27), Truth or Consequences (4:13), Lost and Found (4:25), City of Fear (5:21), Surface to Air (5:17), Up to You (4:33), Silence (3:25), Riding the Thunder (4:04), Nobody at All (4:10)
I won't lie, the band's title didn't exactly sell me to them; the name FM is quite understandably synonymous with AOR and radio-friendly tunes. Indeed, there exists a British rock band with exactly the same title playing just this sort of music. Despite outward appearances, many websites seemed to promote this Canadian group as 'progressive', including the band's website itself. This only served to worry me further, as I've discovered that many bands that pigeonhole themselves as 'prog' are mere copycats of those bands who are actually progressive; it's far better to let your audience decide if you are progressive or not. Nevertheless, the moral of never judging books by their cover will serve the listener well here, as I've found that this band are, on many occasions, just as progressive as they say they are. Just listen to this cover of King Crimson's Starless, which is sadly not included in the set.
The band's story begins in 1976, when two Torontonian multi-instrumentalists, Nash the Slash and Cameron Hawkins, meet at a jam session and decided to form FM. While his name suggests that he would fare better with a stint in Guns N' Roses, Nash the Slash would perform electric violin and mandolin, drum machine and vocals while Hawkins would take over on bass guitar, synthesizers and lead vocals. The band received credit from the media in Toronto, but it was evident that the drum machine simply didn't give the band the power or the freedom of a real drummer. To this extent, Martin Deller, who had previously worked with Nash, was drafted to take over on percussion.
The band's debut album, Black Noise - which was initially given a very limited run of 500 issues by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, before being released internationally by Passport Records - kicks off with the very upbeat and memorable Phasors on Stun, which is arguably their greatest hit. With a driving rhythm and catchy lyrics, this is a definite grower, and a bit of a guilty pleasure. The follow up piece One O'Clock Tomorrow is a bit iffy, especially in the repetitive second half, but afterwards it's a smooth ride to the end of the album, with some corking tracks along the way. Hours, Dialing for Dharma and Slaughter in Robot Village represent the instrumental side of this album, the violins and tight drumming recalling American rockers Kansas.
Of the non-instrumental tracks, Journey is the speediest, with Deller in particular on top form. At this point, I begin to realise that each track on the album has its own unique appeal; this album is a true grower, just getting better and better with each listen. Even if it is, on occasion, a guilty pleasure, it is a pleasure nonetheless. Aldebaran (there's some discrepancy to the spelling of this track online, so I've simply taken the name of the red giant as my basis) begins with some rhythmic plucking, nearly identical to that heard at the beginning of Phasors on Stun, but launches into a much slower track. Nevertheless, the rich bass sounds from Hawkins and rhythmic dexterity of Deller give the track a sumptuous texture, not to be missed. At ten minutes, some regard the title track Black Noise as the best thing on the album, but I disagree. Certainly one feels that the band were trying to create their own prog rock epic, as the verses are suitably dramatic and foreboding over a pounding riff. Near the midpoint, the band cut out for an ambient instrumental, before building back up to where they were before. All this is done tastefully, yet after the final verse, the song just... ends. It's all a bit of an anticlimax really, one could have expected a bombastic finale, but sadly no such luck.
As one can imagine, the personality of Nash the Slash was just a bit too 'big' for FM to contain, and shortly before the release of Black Noise - which I feel like calling 'Black Noıse', on account of their refusal to dot the 'i' on the album cover - Nash parted ways with the band to become a solo artist. Shortly after, he would appear on stage with his face completely wrapped in bandages, seeing through a pair of attached goggles, and singing through a small slit in the front. Standard. It can't have been easy to find a replacement violinist/mandolinist whose tendencies leant towards prog, but sure enough Hawkins and Deller managed to find yet another such musician also hailing from Toronto, Ben Mink. What are the odds? Mink had arrived just in time for a very special occasion; Phase One Studios, Toronto had approached FM with the prospect of recording a live studio album in direct-to-disc format. The moniker doesn't sound appealing; in particular it makes one picture the trashiness of a direct-to-DVD movie such as Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus [Great bad film!! - Ed.]. However, I can assure you that while the term 'direct-to-DVD' signals the poorest quality of film, 'direct-to-disc' is a quite different kettle of fish altogether. I shall try to elaborate; one must understand that it is customary in the studio to record songs through the use of master tapes, and editing these before etching the lines into a master disc, from which vinyl versions can be copied. The direct-to-disc technique, on the other hand, is a throwback to the early days of recording, cutting out the middle man, and recording the music straight onto the master disc. There are a few key results of this process:
- You are restricted to just 16 minutes per side.
- The band must perform live in one take. This means that there are no overdubs or edits in the finished product, giving a more authentic experience, although the possibility for mistakes is high.
- Compared to standard recording techniques, this generally gives a higher quality sound output, as there are fewer steps between the recording session and the finished vinyl.
FM leaped at the chance to record in this unusual format, deciding to record just one piece per side. Their reasoning seems understandable; it would be ridiculous, given the opportunity to record in such an unusual manner, to record six or seven ordinary tracks. Instead, the band sought to challenge themselves, and composed two semi-improvisational pieces that lasted a quarter of an hour each. This willingness to embrace the unusual and the challenging prove that FM were a far more progressive band than I might have originally anticipated. The music, while a tad inconsistent, is nonetheless interesting. The first side, Headroom, shifts from rock to ambient to jazz to a drum solo before finally a 14/8 rock and roll song. The rich textures that shone through on the first album are just as present here. Over to Side Two and Border Crossing, subtitled 'A compositon [sic] drawing from Rock, Jazz and Classical influences'. In actuality, this piece is rather similar to Headroom, with a similar drum solo two thirds of the way in. The start of the song is quite neat though, beginning in 17/8, with a subtle shift to the more regular 16/8 around the two minute mark. Overall, it's not the most listenable record I've heard, but certainly a worthwhile experiment.
The same line-up would meet again in the studio to record album number three, Surveillance. This album more than the others deserves a repetition of the phrase 'Don't judge a book - or indeed, album - by its cover'. Things get off to an unceremonious start with Rocket Roll, a dreadful stab at commercial writing, featuring lyrics such as "Imagination is my closest friend / I turn it on and I am free. / Sci-fi rock, Rocket Roll!" Nevertheless, 'sci-fi rock' was what FM had a great propensity for; indeed, Black Noise was supposed to have been a concept album about Star Trek. And you thought Rush - also hailing from Toronto, of course - were nerdy!
Things immediately shape up for the next pair of tracks, which form a mini-suite. The short but sweet instrumental Orion once again shows off the chops of the band, this time in 6/8. This moves directly into Horizons which, for me, possesses the same sonic appeal that Genesis' Afterglow does; I don't think Afterglow is a particularly clever song, but that bass sound is just simply too exciting. In this case, FM show how they can create an indulgent texture in the space of a four-minute pop song, by intelligent use of bass synthesizers. It might be that I'm a drummer, but I can't help feeling that Deller comes out on top once more, peppering the proceedings with beautifully executed fills and other rhythmic eddies, thus adding to the sonic feast.
Unfortunately, this incarnation of the band proves itself to be less useful than the version with Nash in it; the songs on here simply don't reach the standards of Black Noise. Nevertheless, it's not all a waste: Seventh Heaven comes, as you'd expect, in 7/8 and is good for simply rocking out to, if you can remember to move yourself to that last half-note. Elsewhere, the inconspicuously-titled Sofa Back proves itself to be FM's very own YYZ, filled with deliciously breakneck musicianship, with fast riffs and great production.
The last FM album that Esoteric have reissued is City of Fear, released in 1980 and housed in the best sleeve of the lot. Once again the book/cover paradigm works, as this is by far the worst album. Ten songs see FM not only losing their signature sci-fi lyrics, but also the complicated rhythms, the rich textures, and anything else that had made them such a joy to listen to in the first place. Even with the acquisition of a Mellotron, gone was the progressive side of the band, and in its place, drab AOR, which is what I had expected from the band in the first place. I don't think I've ever disagreed with liner notes as much as I have with Malcolm Dome's notes in this Esoteric edition of City of Fear. Some choice lines: "But it's perhaps fair to state that 1980's City of Fear album was the culmination of the band's style and rates as perhaps the apogee of their career, or certainly was the high point for this line-up". I don't think it's fair to state that at all, Malcolm. "City of Fear still stands as a striking testimony to the brilliance of FM at this moment". Are we listening to the same album? It's difficult to enjoy reading liner notes when my opinion is completely different to that of the writer. What I see as the painful corporate death of a once amicable group, he sees as an unfair dissolution of a band in its prime. "None more [far-reaching] than City of Fear, a titanic album". If by 'titanic', you mean a commercial vessel that sank like a stone, then I might finally agree!
So that's the albums, how have Esoteric handled them? Given that some of these albums are being released on CD for the first time, Esoteric have, as usual, done a very professional job with each one, and I'm sure FM fans will be happy to see their favourite albums in a digital format. The sound quality is wonderful, which is very important given the rich sonic textures of the band. However, the perfectionist in me is still dissatisfied. There's a distinct lack of bonus tracks with these releases, when demos and live tracks do exist, but I'll give Esoteric the benefit of the doubt. My biggest gripe, as usual, is the artwork reproduction; each of the albums - except Direct to Disc, which ironically contains two versions of the album art - has undergone artwork cropping, especially on the rear covers. The oddest case is the reverse of City of Fear, which has had a third cropped away on the back of the booklet, yet remains mainly intact on the back of the jewel case. You can even see where Esoteric have tried to blur out the original text. Why they can't put the original back cover on the booklet, text and all, is beyond me. Furthermore, the inner gatefold image of a city has been chopped up as background, and we lose at least half the original image by Paul Till.
After City of Fear, FM would take a hiatus, with the original trio reforming for 1985's Con-Test. Two years later FM had lost Deller and gained two new members, with a third guesting on their sixth album, Tonight. Since then, the band have had a few reformations, and their website suggests that there is a new album in the works, although the literature on this subject is limited. I am nonetheless surprised that they managed to find yet another violinist/mandolinist in Aaron Solomon. These reissues have introduced me to a band I was not sure I'd be interested in, but have opened my mind to an all-new listening experience. While not consistently brilliant, they could certainly belt out a few good tunes from time to time. If anything, get Black Noise first, and proceed chronologically if you remain curious.
Black Noise - 8 out of 10
Direct to Disc - 6 out of 10
Surveillance - 6.5 out of 10
City of Fear - 3 out of 10
The Climax Blues Band - Tightly Knit
Tracklist: Hey Mama (3:33), Shoot Her If She Runs (3:33), Towards The Sun (3:20), Come On In My Kitchen (6:34), Who Killed McSwiggin (4:59), Little Link (1:37), St. Michaels Blues (9:55), Bide My Time (3:20), That's All (2:14) Hey Mama (Live) (3:37), Shoot Her If She Runs (Live) (4:47), Spoonful (Live) (6:22)
The Climax Blues Band - Rich Man
The Climax Blues Band - FM/Live
Tracklist: All The Time In The World (5:47), I Am Constant (3:35), Flight (11:14), Seventh Son (4:44), Standing By A River (5:19), So Many Roads (11:05), Mesopopmania (7:03), Country Hat (6:21), You Make Me Sick (3:34), Shake Your Love (3:00), Goin' To New York (10:24), Let's Work Together (6:53)
So, another tranche of Climax Blues Band re-releases have landed on my desk. Not at all progressive, but we'll have a listen anyway. I'll dispense with the normal band history and who does what thing, as it's all in my review of the first three Climax albums (see Here).
Opening with a Chicago-style blues belter Hey Mama, Tightly Knit lets you know from the off that this is a good time record, and the band have let go of a good deal of the earnestness that was indelibly stamped on their first and third albums. If you read my review of the first three you'll recall that the second album seemed to be a tad stoned and was atypical of their early output.
Mixing traditional blues structures with bar room bonhomie, the album is a highly polished and enjoyable affair. Shoot Her If She Runs (...ahem) is in the vein of the Allmans, and Towards The Sun almost pre-guesses Dr.Feelgood, but without the punky malevolence.
All the tracks on this album are self-penned with the exception of Robert Johnson's Come On In My Kitchen which shows a marked similarity in structure to the Stones' You Gotta Move from Sticky Fingers, released in the same year as Tightly Knit. The Stones song is credited to Fred McDowell, like Johnson another blues original. I can't work out which came first, but it seems even then there were only so many blues riffs to go round.
We are treated to a fast-paced Latino funk workout on Who Killed McSwiggin, a trad blues stomper on St. Michaels Blues where the spectre of Peter Green looms large, and a tongue-in-cheek lyric kicks off with the dreaded "I woke up this morning", but you know he's having a laugh, when he later refers to his "Marks & Spencer's socks" (geddit?). The ten minute workout is really a vehicle for guitarist Pete Haycock to show his chops. They do not disappoint.
That's All concludes the album proper with a Mungo Jerry-like knees-up, then we get three bonus tracks from The Blow Up club in London, from Autumn 1970, including a version of Spoonful, more faithful to the Willie Dixon original than the well known Cream interpretation.
While we're on the subject of bonus tracks, it seems that the extra track described as Spoonful on A Lot Of Bottle is either a very loose interpretation or something else entirely, and about two thirds of the way in to its six and a half minutes abruptly changes tack into what sounds like another song. Yes, I'll admit all that escaped me when I reviewed A Lot Of Bottle, and it was only on seeing the same song listed here that I thought I'd better compare the two.
Also, the liner notes for ALOB claim that the bonus tracks for that 1970 album from The Blow Up club come from 1971, whereas the live tracks from the same venue on the following year's Tightly Knit came from "Autumn 1970". Doesn't ring true to me!
The final glitch I discovered about ALOB was that on putting it into the computer I found that the mp3 tagging is completely out of whack, so don't trust the tracklisting if you rip it and listen to it on your phone or other device. I haven't dared check Tightly Knit!
And so we move on to 1972 and the album Rich Man where we find the band still ensconced rather incongruously on prog label Harvest. The blues groove is still embedded but is more in the background. With the opening title track and the following Mole On The Dole, new directions are taken in the form of a blues/funk workout on the former and a sort of Kevin Ayres meets CSN vibe on the latter, with a couple of nice tenor sax breaks to lend it individuality away from the prevalent West Coast groove.
Not that they stray too far from their blues roots, as the following bar room shuffle You Make Me Sick proves. More funky grooves run through Standing By A River which sounds like it could well have been an influence on Chaz Jankel to me; jazz-funk of a kind made famous by Jankel's Blockheads featuring a clever turnaround in the lyric. Nice!
This change in style is down in no small part to a change of producer. Having steered their first four LPs, Chris Thomas was replaced by Richard Gotteher for this one, and it gave the band a fresh impetus. Gotteher has a co-writing credit with the band on Shake Your Love, but quite how they got away with not crediting Bo Diddley is moot.
The album was made with the intention of breaking the band in the States, and right down to its slick cover art it was an altogether more polished affair than anything they had produced up to this point. The album was toured over the pond and gave the band their biggest chart success to date over there, starting a process that would later end with a top 30 album and a top 3 single.
All The Time In The World, another bluesy shuffle, and the sort of thing Medicine Head had hits with at the time, has some nice slide work from Pete Haycock, and shows that given the right encouragement the band may well have had more chart success over here than they did. If You Wanna Know is a fairly nondescript '70s rock'n'roller, the sort of thing done far better by The Faces.
Pete Haycock also stars on the album closer, this time on slide acoustic guitar with a cover of Son House's Don't You Mind People Grinning in Your Face. The only bonus track is the single version of Mole On The Dole.
Rich Man shows the group determined to succeed and softening the harder blues edge of previous albums. A pleasant album, although firmly rooted in its time.
Any band of this nature could never hope to recapture the energy of a live performance on a studio album, and the only surprise about the Climax Blues Band releasing a live album is that it took them until this, their sixth LP to do so. Bolstered by the toehold in the States Rich Man had given them, this was recorded in New York on a subsequent American tour. The opening bars of that album's All The Time In The World take the thing to another level. This is dirty blues rock with a power unsuspected, Derek Holt's nasty fuzz bass exemplifying the sleaze.
Stripped down to a four piece and egged on by a noisy crowd obviously enjoying themselves, the band turn in a powerful set covering their studio career and including a few strategically placed covers. Again produced by Richard Gotteher this gig was also aired on the radio, hence the title. It got to number 107 in the U.S. charts, which might not sound too impressive, but if a band nowadays sold as many copies of an album as this did, you'd probably be talking top 40.
A highlight for me is a much more down-home funky take on Standing By A River, which highlights some tight ensemble playing, with the rhythm section, led by drummer John Cuffley, interlocked and on the one. Colin Cooper gets to show his good vocal range, having developed beyond all recognition from the reedy Clapton sound-alike of the early albums. Not forgetting guitarist Pete Haycock, who turns in another short but very sweet solo. Next up is a cover of So Many Roads, made famous by John Mayall, which lets the audience know that they can still do a slow twelve bar blues with panache, and these two songs encapsulate the wide range of this often underrated band.
FM/Live continued the group's upward trajectory in the States, and the one song that at the time was previously unreleased, I Am Constant, would appear on the next album, Stamp, the album that provided the Climax Blues Band with their real breakthrough in America. All in all then, FM/Live is a rabble-rousing live album that was both a commercial and artistic success.
Conclusions (All marks from a musical rather than a "prog" perspective):
Tightly Knit - 6.5 out of 10
Rich Man - 6.5 out of 10
FM/Live - 7 out of 10
Pavlov's Dog - Pampered Menial
Pavlov's Dog - At the Sound of the Bell
Tracklist: She Came Shining (4:21), Standing Here with You (3:52), Mersey (3:06), Valkerie (5:22), Try to Hang On (2:11), Gold Nuggets (3:29), She Breaks Like a Morning Sky (2:28), Early Morning On (3:12), Did You See Him Cry (5:40)
To those of you reading this who are already familiar with Pavlov's Dog, I can almost certainly fit you into one of two groups: the group who are vehemently shaking their heads at the band's inclusion on this site, and the group that not only applaud this review, but, given half a chance, would leave a comment in full caps about how they'd rather get punctured in the intestines than part with their pristine vinyl copy of Pampered Menial. The first group I can further subdivide into people who, rather superficially, can't stand singer David Surkamp on account of his 'sounding like Geddy Lee strangling a cat,' and people who simply don't see that the band are progressive enough to warrant the interest of our readers.
Indeed, the question of how 'progressive' this band are is one that has puzzled me for quite a while. More Supertramp than Supersister, Pavlov's Dog, for whatever reasons, decided that they wanted to go down the commercial route, more at home playing arty pop tracks than symphonic rock numbers. However, if there was ever a band to convince me that sumptuous ballads and lush arrangements was preferable to angular time signatures and sidelong tracks, Pavlov's Dog could certainly be it.
The septet's first album, titled Pampered Menial - incidentally my Dad's go-to example when judging albums based on how pretentious their titles are - hit record stores in 1975, although due to puzzling circumstances, it was released simultaneously by rival record companies ABC and Columbia. At just 33 minutes, this very meagre set surprisingly delivers quite a powerful punch. The opening 3-minute ballad Julia introduces us to a band who make writing concise yet breathtaking radio-friendly tunes look easy. Surkamp's very distinctive voice certainly has the ability to polarise, yet also delivers emotion to a powerful degree. Some bands only create a Julia once in their lifetime, yet with nearly each piece on this album, the band deliver something just as fresh and engaging. Their writing ability is utterly astounding, which may be why they secured the monumental $650,000 and $600,000 funding from ABC and Columbia respectively.
Still, the question of how progressive they are remains unanswered. In the band's defence is a three-pronged argument. Firstly, in the liner notes, Doug Rayburn, fingerer of the Mellotron and flute for Pavlov's Dog, states that more than half of the group were 'big listeners of British stuff: Soft Machine, Family, Gentle Giant, Genesis, King Crimson'. Secondly, as previously mentioned, the band did contain a genuine Mellotron, a relatively obscure device in the realms of American commercial rock, but one which gives this band a familiar feel to any prog fan. Thirdly, it would be a fallacy to say that the band didn't produce a single track that could be deemed 'progressive'; both the album closers on these two albums, the mini-suite Preludin/Of Once and Future Kings and the virtuoso Did You See Him Cry are undeniably proggy in their execution, embracing complex instrumentals with odd time signatures and interesting keyboard use. While it may not be quite enough prog to satiate our reader's thirst, this nevertheless justifies their inclusion here.
Oddly enough, the band's story is even more compelling than the music itself. Despite their generous start-up fund, record label bureaucracy meant that the band hardly saw any of it. Columbia had stipulated their parameters of what the band should sound like, and whose material they should use. In particular, drummer Mike Safron was very unhappy with the band's treatment, and was subsequently dismissed as he could (rightfully) not get on with the Columbia executives. In a rather bittersweet move, Columbia brought in none other than Mr. William Bruford on percussives as a session musician, a prospect that seemed too good to be true. However the dictatorial decisions did not end there; 'we could not use [violinist] Siegfried Carver's or [keyboardist] David Hamilton's material, causing them to depart from the band,' explains guitarist Steve Scorfina. Honestly, this sounds more like Nazi Germany than an American record label; I'm not sure I've ever seen someone's head inserted more firmly into their rear.
However, you'd never have been able to tell any of this tragedy from the group's second album, At the Sound of the Bell. If anything, this album has arguably even better tracks than Pampered Menial. The opening triptych of She Came Shining, Standing Here with You and Mersey is a beautiful introduction to the album, once again displaying the band's inimitable capacity for engaging yet concise tunes. She Came Shining in particular is a forceful piece, with immaculately arranged chords and pacing, while Standing Here with You is so melancholy yet beautiful that I'll admit it brought a tear to my eye in the first listen. Later, Try to Hang On shows Bruford keeping the beat with style, and Did You See Him Cry shows off what is easily the proggiest side of the band.
So while it would appear that Pampered Menial is the more 'classic' of these two albums, as well as being the one with the least bureaucracy applied to the recording, At the Sound of the Bell surprisingly comes out on top. Maybe the record label knew what they were doing after all! At any rate, the band were left broken and dejected by the label's autocratic decisions and would split up after producing a third album, unimaginatively titled Third, to very little success. Popular interest provided the catalyst for several revivals of the band, including one as recently as 2010, although the respective deaths of Carver and Rayburn, in 2009 and 2012 respectively, have made it unlikely that any more revivals will occur.
These Esoteric editions are well presented, with adequate artwork reproduction and extensive liner notes telling the convoluted and rather tragic tale of this one-of-a-kind group. Disappointingly, there are no bonus tracks to garnish the meagre half-hour portions that constitute the band's albums, which puts Esoteric at a disadvantage, considering that versions of Pampered Menial with bonus tracks do exist. Nevertheless, the albums stand up well by themselves, and I for one will be singing along to She Came Shining whenever I need a good pick-me-up from now on.
Pampered Menial: 6 out of 10
At the Sound of the Bell: 7 out of 10