Tracklist:How Did I Get Here? (2:00), Aspire, Achieve (10:06), The Good Earth Behind Me (4:12), The Vacuum That I Fly Through (4:50), This Naked Endeavour (4:35), We Disconnect (5:34), Beautiful Treadmill (4:59), The Man Left In Space (9:36), When The Air Runs Out (9:37)
Cosmograf is the musical project of Robin Armstrong, the multi-talented composer and musician from southern England, who made a significant mark on the prog world in 2011 with the release of his nostalgic, emotionally-charged When Age Has Done Its Duty, his warts and all appraisal of the ageing process.
It was not just his own considerable talents in its writing and delivery, both vocally and instrumentally, which initially caught the ear but also the wonderful supporting cast he enlisted to help him make the music happen.
Not one to rest on his laurels, a year and a half later, he has upped the ante even further with The Man Left In Space. This time, he uses space travel as the allegorical theme for a story which explores the whole concept of fame and the price often paid for it in terms of the sacrifice of those individuals who have sought it or have had it thrust upon them.
Armstrong's clear, melancholic voice provides the perfect vehicle through which to launch this very deep and absorbing collection of songs which, if you have ever wondered what it must be like to be lost and lonely in space, will provide all the answers as the story unfolds.
The opening track, How Did I Get Here? sets the scene, comprising an almost Shakespearean soliloquy along the "To be or not to be" theme as he converses with the on-board computer against a background of sonic soundscapes.
Aspire, Achieve carries on this theme, a gentle lilting acoustic guitar and rhythm adding the accompaniment before it suddenly explodes with a huge thunderous guitar riff which indicates that we do indeed have lift-off. Steve Dunn (ex-Also Eden) provides the meaty bassline, but it is Armstrong playing all the other instruments here on this most haunting of songs.
Not afraid to experiment and diversify, The Good Earth Behind Me features the rich voice of Tom O'Bedlam, also used on When Age Has Done Its Duty, to recite High Flight, the poem written by pilot and poem John Gillespie Magee Jnr, to start another very moving song co-written by Also Eden's Simon Rogers. Simon's soaring guitar solo is another of many highlights here before he duets with Armstrong on keyboards and Dave Ware picks up the bass line.
The Armstrong All-Stars come into their own on The Vacuum That I Fly Through, a Pink Floyd-esque instrumental, with centre stage being taken by Matt Stevens flying through the cosmic waves with a guitar melody line of such silky resonance and almost effortless ease, while Big Big Train’s rhythm section, Nick D'Virgilio on drums and bassist Greg Spawton, provides the anchor to this extraordinary, claustrophobic piece.
Back to the narration with This Naked Ambition, which features the conversation of President Richard Nixon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the successful Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, before Robin Armstrong introduces some orchestral inclined keyboards and piano - along with his daughter Amy on backing vocals - as he meditates on the meaning of this rare breed of success.
We Disconnect is one of the album's pivotal pieces, its whole vibe sounding like Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun until the most breath-taking sequence on the whole album arrives with a spellbinding guitar break from Luke Machin and the accompaniment of D'Virgilio's peerless drums.
Beautiful Treadmill has a repetitive but compulsive rock vibe about it which somehow captures the monotony of being stuck inside a space vessel on a one way mission to oblivion. Again, Armstrong undertakes all the vocal and instrumental duties with D'Virgilio on drums and Lee Abraham on bass.
The title track The Man Left In Space shows Armstrong at his most creative through using some very Bowie-esque influences which he infuses into the song's framework, his inventory of instruments stretching to the stylophone in this instance with D'Virgilio as his only guest here. It is a superbly measured song which ends with a 10ccI'm Not In Love moment, Katharine Thompson taking the part of The Girl He Left Behind.
So to the denouement, When The Air Runs Out, another feat of stunning originality, using Rob Ramsay, Tinyfish's resident narrator as "The Voice On The Radio" who gives a roll call of all those who became victims of their success. It is a sobering conclusion but this track is full of sonic fireworks and metaphysical nuances, as well as having as its guest Spock's Beard's Dave Meros on bass.
And just when you think it is all over, Ramsay comes back to offer some final sobering thoughts on the price of fame.
The cast also features Prof. Brad Birzer and Thomas Konsler as the voices of Mission Control, so here is a dazzling panoply of players supporting Armstrong on this wonderful album which he has produced himself, with Rob Aubrey, Big Big Train's resident sound engineer, assisting with D'Virgilio's drum parts.
Thank goodness Armstrong has returned from this mission with his reputation and standing in the world of prog enhanced as a result. This is one of this year's "must have" albums and ranks right up there alongside his better known contemporaries in terms of both its content and style.
Tracklist:The Pilman Radiant (26:15) (I Visitation, II The Divine Vessel, III Wriggling Magne, IV Mosquito Magne, V Divine Vessel's Reprise), Complex #7 (4:47), Tremors From The Future (11:15)
Guapo formed in 1996 or thereabouts and the only remaining original member is drummer David J Smith, who on this album dabbles in additional keyboards and santoor, an ancient Persian stringed instrument. Here he is joined by Kavus Torabi (Cardiacs, Knifeworld) on guitar and santoor, James Sedwards (Nøght) on bass, and recent addition Emmett Elvin (Chrome Hoof, Knifeworld) on keyboards. In addition there are full brass and string sections, serving to fully flesh out the sound, and together they have crafted a dark soundscape shot through with a progressive sensibility that takes its influences (Crimson, Univers Zero, Magma, Eskaton) to a new and ancient place, all at once.
Dominated by the 26 minute The Pilman Radiant, the album opens with an insistent and eventually justified and crushing mantra that rekindles my love for the dark dark places that bands like this visit on a regular basis. As epic-length constructs go, this is but a walk in the park compared to the 46 minute title track from their 2004 slab of ominous magnificence Five Suns. Although split into four parts on the track listing, the song plays as one cohesive piece, with the parts being easily discernible.
Creeping down the stairs, the shadow of something terrible slithers across the wall to a slow zombie beat that makes itself known by way of a near-subsonic bass pattern. Do not play this on a crappy mp3 player, or while doing something else while sat at the computer; for one thing it is NOT background music and for another you need to hear everything that is going on around the low-end frequencies as the nightmarish tension builds with what sounds like a swarm of angry electronic bees. This then is Visitation.
The Divine Vessel changes tack with a waltz time theme on the Fender Rhodes, and we stagger off down the hallway to where a counter-melody is knowingly wrung out of the guitar, inexorably upping the ante as it goes. Eventually becoming a fast and lyrical torrent of notes in a cyclic fashion, the guitar is joined by slab chords on the organ and the zombie beat returns, defined now, but still looming over us, the main theme repeated insistently, hammering the point home.
The song ends in almost Zeuhl territory, again featuring a rather fine guitar extrapolation. This is another modern epic length song for 2013 that actually works, again without unnecessarily flash noodling or directionless ambience to fill the minutes. Things are looking good this year in the long song department, for sure. Fans of the aforementioned Eskaton and the noughties heavy King Crimson should love this.
The Pilman Radiant is actually a concept explained in the sci-fi novel 'Roadside Picnic' by Arakady and Boris Strugatsky that, as far as I can deduce, as I'll admit I've not read it, is a scatter-gun approach to finding landing points on Earth for visitations by aliens, so the menace I've tried feebly to describe seems entirely appropriate.
As there are only three tracks on this record, let's go for the track-by-track description for once. Next up is the five minute interlude that is Complex #7. Low bass rumblings are the backdrop for the sound of aliens scratching at the outside of the hull of a near-dead spacecraft, becalmed but still showing signs of life as it slowly spins on its axis out at the far edge of the Small Magellanic Cloud.
Concluding this strange trip a keyboard figure strangely reminiscent of something of the Krautrock persuasion is soon joined by the guitar, which together with the direct drum beats makes for the most conventional tune on the album, Tremors From The Future. Of course, it isn't long before things become angular and spiky, but retaining the driving beat. The electric piano and some distorted organ sounds fly over the bridge while the highly structured tune marches on into the distance. Some wonderful choppy organ accompanied by fuzzed up long chords on the guitar presage the end section where an army of Magma minibots race the thing to the end.
The CD comes with a DVD of the band in action from 2006 and 2007 on their European tour, featuring a "spellbinding performance of Five Suns", as the publicity has it, where they were joined by Daniel O'Sullivan, on a break from his other projects with Ulver and Sun O))). My review copy is the main CD only, but if that is anything to go by, the live footage should be a blast (see the YouTube link above).
History Of The Visitation continues the upward trajectory of development for the band, a process that really kicked off with the aforementioned Five Suns album, progressing through Black Oni (2005) and Elixirs (2008); all of which are more than worthy of your attention.
Be in no doubt, this is a killer of a progressive work, in the true sense of the word. Guapo may well mean 'handsome', but this group mean it in a hypnotically sinister way. Imagine Stravinsky jamming with Robert Fripp and Univers Zero at a hoedown on the edge of the Seventh Ring, Old Nick behind the bar, grinning maniacally. Marvellous stuff!
Tracklist:Guidance Three (1:43), Firewell (6:43), You Against the World (5:11), Aqualand and the 7 Suns (4:07), Dust Nation Bleak (5:10), Golden Divide (5:45), Guidance Four (1:00), Lucky (2:38), While We Slept in Burning Shades (5:17), Despite the Shell (6:42), As Heard on Tape (5:34), The Grand Utopia (6:18)
I believe that Jolly had already recorded The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part Two) before they were struck by hurricane Sandy. If they hadn't then the band turned this misfortune into an incredible inspiration because listening to this album feels like you are sitting in the middle of a hurricane. This album will blow you away.
In my review of The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part One) I described the band as making 'highly intelligent, slightly heavy songs with strong melodies'. Well, you can erase the word slightly out of that sentence as this new record is much heavier than Part One.
Add to that a new ingredient, namely experimentation. And then especially experimenting with incorporating other musical styles into the Jolly mix and thus trying to push the bounderies of Progressive Rock. I will come back to that a little later.
In my review of Part One I explained the concept behind these albums. The music, using binaural tones and frequencies, is supposed to trigger the brain into a state of happiness but as with Part One this concept really escapes me although Part Two, like Part One, did make me feel quite happy! This record of course starts with the sweet talking lady who also featured on the previous record. However this time I was a warned and prepared man so I braced myself for what would come next. That was in vain because nothing could have prepared me for the full-on assault that is album opener Firewell. Heavy guitars, double bass drums and pumping bass open the album. There are grunts and a great chorus. The whole works and it sounds like the band have picked things up from where they ended on Part One. That is not the case however because after a lot of listens it gradually becomes clear that, as I said earlier, the band aims to stretch the boundaries of progressive rock.
One of my reservations with Part One was that after a while the album sounded a bit one dimensional. On this one the songs are still of a "there is devil at my heels" nature but this time with some surprises thrown in. Singer/guitar player Anadale still uses all registers of his voice; he screams, shouts, grunts, croons and whispers. His guitar playing most of the time is monumental with added mad and emotional parts. Anthony Rondinone still likes to play his bass distorted and upfront and Louis Abramson still beats the crap out of his drumkit. And also on this record this rhythm section is incredible tight. Listen for example to the second part of Firewell for proof. Special mention however needs to go to Joe Reilly who has the difficult task to get his keyboards heard throughout all the noise his bandmates produce and I must say that he succeeds admiriably with especially spacious piano sounds and atmospheric keyboards.
The musical influences of the band have not changed much. Porcupine Tree (In Absentia and Deadwing period), Doves (the more atmospheric tracks), Oceansize and Amplifier can still be mentioned as pointers to the category into which Jolly could be placed if you should want to. On this album you might also add the anthemic rock of a band like Biffy Clyro. Now i've hinted at surprises that they've included. You Against the World is a very catchy rock track that halfway through turns into this wonderful reggae track; a surprise that works very well. Aqualand and the 7 Suns is a beautifully atmospheric track with fretless bass and lovely keyboards and then during the break it becomes a dance track, the way that a band like Muse could have done. Great stuff. Besides the enormous switches in dynamics (as on Dust Nation Bleak) they throw in these kinds of surprises throughout the album. Golden Divide is a relaxed pop song including "Papapa" background vocals.
And Lucky is a very short but very catchy track that is still stuck in my brain. It must have surprised the band as well going by the "WOW!" at the end. Despite the Shell has a couple of almost bluesy guitar solos. Joe Reilly shines on the beautiful atmospheric As Heard on Tape which has an added surprise in the form of lovely bagpipes. Album closer The Grand Utopia feels like listening to a radio play with all it's wonderful sounds and voices. An almost psychedelic but at the same time very proggy way to end the album. "You are now happy".
The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part Two) really shows that Jolly has further perfected and improved their sound. Their wall of sound is loaded with surprises which takes away any chance of it becoming one dimensional as was sometimes the case on The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part One). So if you are into modern progressive rock with elements of metal and other surprises thrown into the mix please put on your helmet, buckle up and start the roller coaster that is The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part Two).
Tracklist:Waiting On The World (2:42), Everlasting Colours (5:14), Soulless Soulmates (6:01), Annie's Song (From The Other Side) (4:10), Falling Tears (5:43), Are You Really Sleeping? (5:33), 7Summers7Winters (3:59)
My DPRP colleague Andy Read once described Norwegian singer Trude Eidtang as "The musical love-child of Tori Amos and Kate Bush". That was back in 2006 in his review of the White Willow album Signal To Noise. Although her tenure with the band was restricted to one album, filling in for the temporarily absent Sylvia Erichsen, she certainly made her mark. Now she's back fronting a new project, When Mary, and their debut EP 7Summers7Winters sees Trude credited with the majority of the writing and arrangements.
The first thing that strikes you about this release is the stunning clarity of the production which pushes Trude's heavenly vocal tones to the forefront. I'm not sure about Kate Bush but I did recognise shades of Tori Amos (both vocally and compositionally) whilst from this side of the Atlantic I would cite Heather Findley, Olivia Sparnenn and in particular the wonderful Joanne Hogg (of Iona fame) as comparators. The songs are varied in style but singularly excellent in quality which Trude sings with almost perfect diction and no trace of an accent. The instrumental work is often minimalist, allowing Trude's multi-layered vocals to soar with extraordinary ease.
The opening cut Waiting On The World is a good example with Trude breathlessly counting out the hypnotic rhythm (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) for her own graceful lead vocal and stark guitar backing. Everlasting Colours is more pensive and edgy with a full on bass riff providing an almost dance-like vibe with inspired counterpoint harmonies to play out. The longest track, Soulless Soulmates is underscored by an eerie sustained guitar and synth drone before a truly memorable chorus comes into its own for the mid-section. The song changes tack around the four minute mark to play out with an upbeat extended coda.
John Denver's Annie's Song is a surprise inclusion and whilst I find Trude's hypnotic interpretation enhanced by lovely wordless harmonies far more palpable than the original, for me it's still a soppy tune. The mellow mood continues with Falling Tears featuring dreamy pedal steel guitar (courtesy of the song's composer Rhys Marsh) recalling Floyd's Breathe from Dark Side of the Moon. The infectious vocal hook and stirring keyboard finale is an added bonus. The penultimate track Are You Really Sleeping? is probably my favourite with Trude's ethnic hums and chants providing a rhythmic pulse for her own ridiculously catchy chorus. With its multi-tracked tribal voices, the title song 7Summers7Winters is almost acappella bar the pulsating drum pattern reminding me a little of the superb but now sadly disbanded female folk quartet Waking The Witch.
Whilst the songs on this CD are admittedly prog-lite, rarely has a collection provided such a perfect showcase for a singer. In addition to her pure but still sensuous delivery, Trude Eidtang somehow manages to incorporate the ambiance of Enya and the resigned melancholy of Björk. The aforementioned Rhys Marsh and co-producer Christian Paulsen should also be congratulated on their contributions to what I hope is just the start of a fruitful relationship.
Tracklist:Brides of the Wind (14:18), The Shining Hour (For Helen) (6:18), The Man Who Sold Magic (10:08), Seeds of the Sun (A Lament for the Hedgerow) (7:39), The Disenchanting - i) Willow Hill, ii) Lyonesse, iii) Berceuse (The Rain Curtain), iv) Broceliande, v) The Faeries Funeral (29:45)
It is more than 30 years since Francis Lickerish left The Enid of which he was a founder member, and in the ensuing interregnum, he has travelled far and wide, discovering the world but never really making a serious return to music on which he swore he would turn his back forever.
His return album was To Wake The King in 2009 made under the title of Secret Green, the name of the musical project that he leads. Far and Forgot which is released under his own name builds on this return to his love of music, which is now heavily influenced and informed by travels, as well as by the classical composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Bax.
The Enid motifs are a hallmark of this album which also owes much to Mike Oldfield in creating its dense, orchestral sound with rock flourishes over the lush instrumentation. The result is a cornucopia of absorbing and heady sounds which fuse progressive rock and classical.
To help him achieve his vision, Lickerish has enlisted the help of some friends from the past; Terry Pack, Tony Freer and Neil Kavanagh all appeared with him in the myriad Enid line-ups between 1973 and 1981 when he departed. Kavanagh, who has engineered and produced this album, was also the band's first bass player as well as being a long time school friend of Lickerish's.
In an interview with a Japanese prog rock magazine, Lickerish explains that the story behind the album is about England and all that it has lost and sacrificed in striving for growth and progress against the backdrop of corporate greed.
Against this background, Lickerish has created a truly English-sounding album, the opener, Brides of the Wind, bringing the early Enid sound immediately into play in this 14 minute prayer to Middle Earth. The middle section is based on the English 13th century song, The Cutty Wren, about the 1381 peasants' revolt. Hilary Palmer's distinctive, Celtic-leaning voice gives the song its feminine edge.
The Shining Hour (For Helen) is an intriguing female duo featuring Hilary Palmer and Jenny Russell in a quasi-classical piece with echoes of The Flower Duet (Lakmé) but is utterly charming nonetheless.
So to The Man Who Sold Magic which provides a coming together of both Enid and Oldfield influences tinged with an eastern mysticism, while at the same time being quirky and dramatic, with a heady, almost waltz-like rhythm in parts and Lickerish playing a lovely flourish on his trademark lute.
There are some truly magical moments such as the horn-led introduction to Seeds of the Sun, which has Tony Freer on cor anglais, his lines floating above an eastern rhythm with a violin adding a counter-harmony before returning to the rich brass chords and a stirringly mournful cello played by Fran Newberry.
The Disenchantment, which is all about the death of magic and wonder in England, based on the music for a play called The Quest for the Holy Grail, a piece which transformed into The Enid's Aerie Faerie Nonsense, the album in which he had most involvement, and what he sees as the forlorn hope within the symbol of the grail. This comes as no surprise as its overriding feel is of the esoteric or spiritual.
For the most part, it sounds like a musical meditation evoking some mystical eastern lands while keeping a distinctively English sensibility. It also quotes a phrase from The Enid's Fand, his major work on Aerie Faerie Nonsense, and there is much to suggest here that it is an album which has become a huge part of his psyche. Full of light and shade, horns alternating with strings before Lickerish unleashes some beautifully modulated guitar work. Throughout this song, as indeed the album, he features at key moments the wonderfully named Sir Giles Holybrook on the contrabassoon.
Eclectic and in places brilliant, Lickerish has returned from the musical wilderness, his creativity seemingly undiminished. The only real niggle is the production which in some places does not quite allow the instruments to rise up and shine the way they could. But this is a must for all fans of The Enid who would like to hear how the band's alternative pathway may have evolved.
Tracklist:Part 1 - The Design: The Journey Begins (The Avalon Overture)(7:22), Avalon Pt. 1 (4:04), Merlin (5:19), The Lady of the Lake (5:52), Excalibur (4:02), Avalon Pt. 2 (5:02), Part 2 - The Life: Camelot (7:26), A Love Betrayed (7:03), The Son (4:30), Avalon Pt. 3 (4:35), Le Mort D'Arthur (3:07), The End (2:28)
Bonus track: The Road to Avalon (15:49)
Well, if ever an album should be marked highly for visual presentation, then certainly The Road To Avalon by The Minstrel's Ghost should be right up there. Its lavish cover and accompanying promotional material has been beautifully designed by prog artist extraordinaire Ed Unitsky and wonderfully depicts the story of King Arthur in rich detail. However, on the minus side, both the album cover and material are riddled with spelling errors which slightly takes the gloss off the presentation.
But let's continue. The Minstrel's Ghost is the musical project of American multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Blake Carpenter, a veteran of 25 years performing, composing and producing. The Minstrel's Ghost was the name he came up with nine years ago for his solo projects which began with Dream Things True.
Building on this, he revisited the song Avalon, which he wrote in 2000, that forms the basis of this album. The promotional material accompanying the album adds that this epic concept album will now be added to the list of classics from such greats as Genesis, Yes, The Strawbs and Rick Wakeman. We shall revisit that later.
To help him achieve his goals with Avalon, Carpenter assembled a cast of distinguished musicians, namely drummer Zoltan Csörsz (The Flower Kings/Karmakanic), lead guitarist Colin Tench (Bunchakeze/Corvus Stone), Marco Chiappini (Gandalf's Project) on lead keyboards and Troy James Martin on bass. Carpenter himself can be heard on lead vocals, guitar and keyboards.
To tackle a story as legendary as King Arthur and put a new spin on it was always going to be something of a gamble. Though thoughtfully and painstakingly arranged, there is a lingering thought throughout that it could have been even better.
On the plus side, the songs flow into each other very consistently which keeps both momentum and interest alive. But what they lack is consistency, especially in the vocals department which never quite seem to rise to the occasion alongside some of the excellent instrumentation, especially from Tench who provides some splendid Hackett-esque moments in his playing. Throughout the album, it is Tench's musical "voice" which sounds the strongest and most fluent.
Going back to the vocals, Carpenter's voice occasionally sounds rather thin and flat, especially on the tracks which demand some kind of emotional drama such as A Love Betrayed and Le Mort D'Arthur, both of which deal with significant life events in the Arthurian legend. They just don't ring true here whereas on Avalon Part 3 he does extend himself to sound not unlike Sean Filkins and on Camelot, he veers vocally more towards Nad Sylvan.
Chiappini proves effective throughout with his fluting, lyrical keyboards and Csörsz keeps everything ticking along nicely in the rhythm department. Elsewhere, there are some nice touches such as a very animated sword fight at the end of The Son, several crowd scenes to break up the action and the sound of rippling water at the end of The End.
The other interesting issue is the inclusion of a 15 minute bonus track, The Road To Avalon, on the CD version when surely, this song provides the central tenet within the album itself. It does flow well with several changes of pace and has some great hooks which would have really beefed up the main part of the album.
In conclusion, aligning it alongside Yes, Genesis, The Strawbs and Rick Wakeman may be stretching its musical virtues a little too far as it does not possess the sonic drama and dynamics you would associate with these particular four.
The most perplexing thing about it all is that I do not dislike this album but I so want it to deliver far more than it does because of the way it has been presented overall. With so much high quality prog being made out there currently, everbody is having to raise their game. I hope The Minstrel's Ghost will have a long hard listen to what is available currently, be inspired by what he is hearing and make his third album one which can rank along the greats, both past and present.
Tracklist:Stellar Perspective (6:07), All Our Dreams (6:28), Damp Day In August (1:52), It's All Lies (5:47), Variation 3 (3:11), Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad (3:42), In The Footsteps Of The Great One (5:07), A Song For A New Age (5:02), We Serve Mankind (4:50), Cities Of Rust (5:25), Instant Predictions (5:51)
It almost invariably seems to be that as groups get older their productivity decreases. Understandable as once the flourish of youth is over, the fire in the belly dampened and the pressing matters of family/career/pension/life as a whole take hold there is inevitably less time or inclination to make music. I say almost as there are some that seem to maintain a high level of output despite having a career that stretches back before many of us were born. Peter Hammill is one such artist as is one Dave Brock, mainstay of the good ship Hawkwind and increasingly frequent solo artist. Hawkwind Light Orchestra are an offshoot of the main band that appears to have come about as three of the band members, Mr Brock (guitars, vocals, synths, Fx), Niall Horne (bass, keyboards, Fx, guitar) and Richard Chadwick (drums, vocals) all live in the West Country some distance from remaining members Mr Dibs, who lives in Derbyshire, and Tim Blake, a resident of France. So with some time on their hands and in the mood following the most recent well-received full Hawkwind album and tour, why not record an album?
The released musical legacy of Hawkwind includes more than their fair share of clunkers, admittedly the poorest examples of which have been foistered upon the world by unscrupulous former labels wanting to cash in on the name. Fortunately, in recent years the band has re-established itself by releasing a number of high quality albums that, although not quite hitting the peaks of the band's heyday, have certainly shown that there is life left in this particular bird. Credit must go to Esoteric Recordings who have done a very credible job of reissuing the bands catalogue of the '80s and '90s and have taken the reins, via their Antenna imprint, for this release as well as the latest Brock solo album. It is fortunate too that this latest addition to the Hawkwind canon is far from a hastily dashed off recording but maintains a threshold of quality that fully justifies a relatively high profile release - it is even being produced in a limited run of vinyl.
As for the contents, well largely as one would expect with Brock being sole composer of four of the tracks and co-composer on five of the others. Plenty of spacey synths, heavy riffs and hypnotic drumming, all done with a degree of panache. Opener Stellar Perspective follows a somewhat traditional blueprint but one that contains a few subtle differences, such as the inclusion of an organ break midway and an almost subliminal keyboard harp line that could almost be an acoustic guitar. These help add a dash or originality to the Hawkwind sound. A lightness of touch is maintained on All Our Dreams which initially has a slight psychedelic feel to it, at least until the guitar is introduced after which the music seems to head off in a sort of '80s direction with an almost funky keyboard horn riff and associated drum pattern. Nice appearance by a funky banjo towards the end though. The instrumental linking jam, Damp Day In August, leads directly into It's All Lies which, somewhat unbelievably, seems to derive it's template from The Knack's My Sherona! Still, a strong song nonetheless, although I'm sure the religious fundamentalists will be upset by the lyrics. Variation 3, a somewhat stronger instrumental piece with a lovely simple yet melodic bass line, follows on immediately leading into the Orwellian titled Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad. To me this is the least enjoyable track with the repetitive incantation of the title over a rather mundane drum pattern.
There is somewhat of a shift with In The Footsteps Of The Great One with its narrated lyrics that themselves are a rather decent poem. Not really a song per se but a memorable, and enjoyable track all the same. In recent years it seems to have become somewhat of a traditional for Hawkwind to include a re-recording of one of their own songs on each release. I don't profess to understand the rationale behind this, some kind of publishing recovery perhaps? Anyway that tradition is, sort of, continued with the inclusion of Tim Blake's A Song For A New Age. Ok, so not exactly an original Hawkwind song having originally appeared on Blake's 1978 solo album A New Jerusalem but the band have performed other tracks from that album and Blake is a current band member, although ironically not on this album! This new version is rather enjoyable shifting the focus to guitars rather than the pure keyboards of the original. The beefier approach works well contrasting with the hippyish lyrics of harmony and love. We Serve Mankind may very well be an alien manifesto along the lines of 'we come in peace' or could be a description of what is on the dinner menu! That thought is provoked by the fact the song reminds me of Meninblack by The Stranglers although quite how my cerebral neurons made that connection is a mystery as the two songs really don't sound at all similar! A somewhat slight and, dare I say, inconsequential number that does have a certain charm. Cities Of Rust is more akin to the 'traditional' rock sound of the parent band with lots of guitars wailing over the spacey synths and is proof, if proof is needed, that Brock et al can still deliver a menacing tempo with loud guitars when required. The album concludes with Instant Predictions which succeeds in bringing things full circle. In many respects this song could have come from any number of previous albums and follows a well-defined traditional blueprint yet manages to avoid the pitfall of becoming a pastiche being suitably original to avoid self-plagiarism. No harm in giving the fans what they want and, in many ways, have come to expect.
For Hawkwind fanatics Stellar Variations will come as a welcome bonus release between full band albums. As for the less dedicated? Well I suspect most will be saving their pennies for the long-awaited re-issue of Warrior On The Edge Of Time, a Hawkwind album that is justifiably regarded as a classic.
Tracklist:World of Ferment (0:53), A Lover's Whim (5:28), That Day in December (1:13), Higher Plane (4:13), Lazy Days (7:49), Who Do You Think You Are? (6:07), Sunrise Drive (3:51), We Took The Wrong Step (5:11), The Chief (2:30), It's Never Too Late (4:33), Opaque (3:20), Dreams (6:40), The Kiss (4:16), Ecstasy (2:31), Menace to Society (4:47), Goodnight (0:50)
Hot on the heels of the Hawkwind Light Orchestra album comes a new solo album from Commander Dave Brock. Although Brock has had several releases under his own name, the majority of them have been collections of demos with only 1988's The Agents Of Chaos really classifiable as a genuine solo album. So at the sprightly age of 71 he presents unto the world Looking For Love in The Lost Land Of Dreams, a collection of material recorded over a period of five years from 2007 to 2012. It is mostly a completely solo production with the only additional support coming from long-term Hawkwind drummer Richard Chadwick who plays on just four of the 16 numbers and keyboard player Jason Stuart who appears on just one song. And for the most part this is a collection of songs, with only Sunrise Drive, a dreamy synth tune, and the incessantly driving Ecstasy being instrumental. It's fair to say that Brock is not a lead vocalist, which is okay as mostly the lyrics are generally spoken, laden with effects or quite well pushed back in the mix. The most prominent vocal is on A Lover's Whim which is unfortunate for two reasons: firstly it is the first song (World Of Ferment being one of the spoken lyric numbers) and secondly it is the worst singing performance on the album. Shame as the music is pretty good.
The album does flow very well with individual songs merging fluidly with one another and quite a variety of styles and tempos on offer. Yes there are the signature synthesiser sounds that have been present across Hawkwind albums since the year dot but Brock has ventured out by including acoustic guitars and violin (albeit keyboard derived) on the rather good Lazy Days and not relying too heavily on the space sounds throughout. We Took The Wrong Step (Years Ago) is the same song that appeared on the 1971 In Search Of Space album and is a very similar rendering to the original which would seem to question the validity of including it on this release, although to be truthful it did prompt me to listen to In Search Of Space for the first time in far too long so I guess that is a positive! The Chief is a surprising song based on a ridiculously fast keyboard generated glockenspiel pattern and The Kiss is notable for its rather different type of lyric, at least in Brock terms anyway!
I think the main problem with the album is that there is no stand-out track and it is hard to differentiate one track from another, with the possible exception of We Took The Wrong Step which is undoubtedly down to familiarity. For this reason, Looking For Love in The Lost Land Of Dreams needs to be considered in its entirety; the individual pieces making more sense within the context of an album than as standalone pieces. That in itself is quite an admirable achievement, creating a cohesiveness out of material written over such a disparate length of time. One could not state that Brock has delivered a bad album, just one that I don't quite know where it fits in and seems to lack a great spirit of individuality - it sort of is a bit like Hawkwind and then again it isn't! With other more recent Hawkwind and Hawkwind-related releases vying for our attention and money I think this album is quite likely to be overlooked.