Reviews in this issue:
- Glass Hammer - The Inconsolable Secret [Three Disc Deluxe Edition]
- Trion - Tortoise [10th Anniversary Edition]
- 3RDegree - Human Interest Story [Remastered Edition]
- Steve Hillage - Live in England 1979 [CD/DVD]
- Brand X - (missing period)
- Brand X - Live at The Roxy L.A.
- Brand X - Is There Anything About?
- Percy Jones - Cape Catastrophe
Glass Hammer - The Inconsolable Secret [Three Disc Deluxe Edition]
CD 1 - The Knights: A Maker Of Crowns (15:21), The Knight Of The North (24:39)
CD 2 - The Lady: Long And Long Ago (10:23), The Morning She Woke (5:36), Lirazel (4:30), The High Place (3:33), Morrigan's Song (2:23), Walking Toward Doom (2:06), Mog Ruith (2:03), Through A Glass Darkly (6:55), The Lady Waits (5:46), The Mirror Cracks (2:12), Having Caught A Glimpse (13:23)
CD 3 - Remix: Long And Long Ago (10:23), The Morning She Woke (5:36), A Maker Of Crowns (15:21), The Knight Of The North (24:39), Having Caught A Glimpse (13:23)
When it was originally released in 2005, Glass Hammer's double album The Inconsolable Secret divided opinions within the prog community between those who thought it was the best thing since the classic concept albums of the 1970's and those who felt that it displayed an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. DPRP, for our part, got it just about right with a balanced review by Dave Sissons (published 3 months before I joined the team) who following a detailed and insightful analysis gave the album a positive thumbs up.
The Inconsolable Secret was certainly Glass Hammer's most ambitious undertaking (and remains so) but due to the high costs involved in keeping it in production it has been unavailable for some time. As a result it became highly sought after (and overpriced) with copies exchanging hands on the internet for $300 or more. Never completely happy with the finished product, the core GH duo of keyboardist Fred Schendel and bassist Steve Babb decided to revisit the album as early as 2008 and five years on a 'Three Disc Deluxe Edition' is now available. For purists, discs 1 and 2 present the album in its original form whilst disc 3 contains remixed versions of the key tracks. These include the two epic length pieces from disc 1 (considered by many to be the better of the two discs), the two opening songs from disc 2 and the final song. Although the remixed tracks have been re-sequenced, the playing times for each remain identical to the originals despite Schendel and Babb's sonic embellishments. Also the multimedia extras that originally appeared on disc 1 have been jettisoned so the original does still perhaps retain some degree of collectability.
As far as the original album is concerned my opinion pretty much concurs with that of Dave Sissons so for a full assessment of dics 1 and 2 you can read his review Here. For the record, the shorter songs on disc 2 which were often dismissed by reviewers and have not been included in the remixes all work for me. In the meantime I'll focus my attention on the remixes and how they compare with the originals.
Glass Hammer revisited the songs in two ways. Firstly, beginning with the drums, the individual tracks were remixed to achieve a more modern and denser sound although efforts were limited to some extent by the way certain instruments had originally been recorded. Secondly, additional instrumentation and vocals were added to provide a richer sound.
Although a superb showcase for keyboards, bass and drums (ELP are consistently brought to mind) the original album was always guitar light so to redress the balance Schendel began by embellishing each song with the addition of acoustic guitar. The benefits of all this tinkering are more obvious on some songs than other.
For Long And Long Ago the most obvious change is the original vocals by Walter Moore, Steve Babb and Flo Paris are all replaced by the high tenor of current Yes crooner Jon Davison who joined Glass Hammer in 2009 and has sung on the last three albums. Additional guitar is provided by Johnny Bruhns, toning down the shredding solo that appears around the 7+ minute mark which always sounded out of place to my ears. The mellow, jazzy solo that appears mid-track is also higher in the mix. And whilst the big church organ sound (modelled on Parallels and Awaken from Yes' Going For The One album) is still very much in evidence, the overall effect is sweeter and less bombastic, especially the finale.
Davison also takes over the male lead vocals on The Morning She Woke in addition to providing wordless harmonies but thankfully the beautiful singing of Susie Bogdanowicz which gave the song its romantic appeal remains intact.
The biggest improvement however is the subtle but memorable contributions of current Glass Hammer guitarist Kamran Alan Sikoh, replacing the synth parts in places. Matt Mendians' superb drum fills, which sounded a tad hollow on the original, also have more presence.
To my ears there isn't a huge difference between A Maker Of Crowns and the original with keyboards and bass still prominent although the fine electric guitar work, courtesy of Schendel, is more conspicuous. Overall the bombastic but tuneful tone is especially reminiscent of Neal Morse, taking time out for Keith Emerson style organ and piano flights at the midway point. Walter Moore's vocal has bags of presence sounding very like Nik Kershaw at times, especially during the emotional finale where Mendians' articulate drumming really comes into its own.
Glass Hammer will probably not forgive (or agree with) me for saying this but the opening string and acoustic guitar theme to the 25 minute epic The Knight Of The North always reminds me of the fanfare to the original Battlestar Galactica TV series composed by Stu Phillips. The sound is noticeably warmer than the original with the fluid guitar lines of Kamran Alan Sikoh again being a positive bonus. The slow burning bass and Mellotron interlude seems less derivative of Yes' Heart Of The Sunrise although overall it's ELP who are the most obvious role models with Schendel's stunning Hammond and synth playing matched by Babb's upfront bass lines. It's not all U.K. biased however because the mid-section reveals Italian prog influences whilst honky-tonk piano provides a light-hearted respite before the lengthy and operatic finale.
Having Caught A Glimpse is without doubt one of the albums best pieces and provides a fitting climax. The original arrangement was always superb and thankfully this remains mostly intact with the addition of former Glass Hammer guitarist David Wallimann providing subtle counterpoint to some of the keyboard parts. The vocal section around the 7½min mark has also been enriched resulting in greater dynamics. The false ending that comes before the midway point still works a treat as does the ending proper which still packs an emotional punch with strings and choral voices combining to grandiose effect. A great song although for me the version on GH's Live At The Tivoli DVD remains the definitive one.
Whilst Glass Hammer fans, I'm sure, will welcome this release with open arms. In truth if you already have the original album I couldn't necessarily recommend this edition as a replacement. With the exception of Jon Davison's vocals on Long And Long Ago and The Morning She Woke that are more subtle than perhaps you would expect. If however you missed out on The Inconsolable Secret the first time around then you have another chance to acquaint yourself with one of the finest progressive rock albums of the 21st century.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Glass Hammer CD/DVD Reviews:-
|"One of the best albums of the year, highly recommended to enthusiasts of symphonic rock, this CD might well prove to stand the test of time to be included among the favourites in the genre."|
(Mark Sander, 9/10)
|"The music and arrangements come at you fast and furious, no protracted chord sequences to fill in the gaps, just cleverly arranged and written music."|
(Bob Mulvey, 8.5/10)
|"Glass Hammer seem to be really growing in confidence and settling into their own style..."|
(Dave Sissons, 8.5/10)
|Live At NEARfest|
|"I can’t think of any group currently producing symphonic rock of a higher quality than this..."|
(Dave Sissons, 9.5/10)
|Lex Live [DVD]|
|"...a highly enjoyable experience, enhanced by some well thought out extras, and is an essential purchase for GH fans..."|
(Dave Sissons, 9/10)
|The Inconsolable Secret|
|"...this is a stylish and attractive package, which must surely be The symphonic album of the year."|
(Dave Sissons, 9/10)
|Live At Belmont [DVD]|
|"...the concert itself is every bit as good, if not better than the Lex Live show..."|
(Dave Sissons, 8.5/10)
|Culture Of Ascent|
|"This CD has been my constant companion over the past few weeks, at home, in the car and at the computer and I never tire of playing it."|
(Geoff Feakes, 9/10)
|Live At The Tivoli [DVD]|
|"...the no frills approach also extends to the lacklustre camerawork which fails to do the ambitious staging justice."|
(Geoff Feakes, 7.5/10)
|Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted|
|"Gone are the fussy, sometimes cluttered arrangements of before, replaced with a more direct, no frills approach."|
(Geoff Feakes, 7/10)
|"...it has grown and grown and grown on me and I know it’s not finished with me yet, there is still so much to explore and come to know."|
(Jon Bradshaw, 9/10)
|"That, then, is my review. It’s excellent."|
(Brian Watson, 9/10)
|"This is without doubt a great album but my enjoyment of it is slightly tempered unfortunately. That said it is still more than worthy of a hearty recommendation."|
(Jez Rowden, 8.5/10)
|Previous Glass Hammer Interviews:-|
|Steve Babb & Fred Schendel talking to Brian Watson (2010)|
|Steve Babb & Fred Schendel talking to Brian Watson (2011)|
Trion - Tortoise [10th Anniversary Edition]
Tracklist: Tortoise (5:31), The New Moon (8:05), Hindsight (3:38), Radiation Part 1 (1:32), Jemetrion (6:12), Radiation Part 2 (1:23), The Seagulls (6:00), Hurt (1:53), Tribulaton (7:08), Spectrum Of Colours (3:25), Endgame (5:41)
Bonus Tracks - Fast Forward (4:50), Vanha Surullinen (8:12)
Like several acts I've reviewed recently, Trion have made a number of memorable contributions to the Colossus Project recordings with their use of traditional and analogue instruments making them ideally suited for the prog ethics of The Finnish Progressive Music Association. They also have three highly respected albums of their own, Tortoise (2003), Pilgrim (2007) and one that passed DPRP by, Funfair Fantasy (2013).
Originally released on the U.K. label Cyclops, their debut album receives a deserved 10th anniversary reissue on the Polish OSKAR label enhanced with two bonus tracks.
For the uninitiated, Trion is the appropriately named side project for a trio of Dutch maestros, Edo Spanninga (organ, Mellotron samples), Eddie Mulder (acoustic guitars, electric guitars, basses) and Menno Boomsma (drums). Spanninga is a member of Flamborough Head as was Mulder at one time (he now plays for Leap Day) whilst Boomsma drums for Odyssice, all fine bands in their own right, so the pedigree of this threesome is assured.
Much has been written about the obvious influence on artist Jasper Joppe Geers' cover design (although somehow I don't think Roger Dean will be bothering Trion in the same way he has James Cameron recently) but unfortunately the original artwork has been condensed a little for the new and otherwise stylish digipak sleeve. The artwork reflects Mulder's surreal concept that follows the adventures of a large tortoise (naturally) named Jemetrion (note the connection with the band's own name).
Like Odyssice and a good deal of Flamborough Head's music, this album is all instrumental although the absence of vocals is by no means a handicap with Mulder providing the melodic hooks, Spanninga the lush, symphonic underbelly driven by Boomsma's articulate rhythms. The title track, Tortoise, is surprisingly riffy given the melodic-prog credentials of those involved with a dark, gothic tone for the most part. Definite shades of Steve Hackett, particularly when it morphs into a pastoral acoustic guitar and flute interlude. Belying its 8 minute length, The New Moon zips by at a lively but tuneful rate with Mulder's fluid guitar displaying a richer array of textures than one could reasonably expect in one track.
Acoustic guitar, cello and flute blend beautifully for the serene Hindsight whilst the brief Radiation Part 1 is a tone poem for moody electric guitar. The more expansive Jemetrion has a cinematic, widescreen flavour alternating between soaring electric and baroque classical guitar underpinned by ghostly Mellotron. The band take a jazzy excursion with Radiation Part 2 with Boomsma in explosive form which is cut short to make way for the aptly named The Seagulls which sets guitar, flute and organ adrift on a sea of shimmering strings. Hurt on the other hand is a short but sweet classical guitar solo normally associated with the likes of Gordon Giltrap and Anthony Phillips.
From the majestic opening fanfare, Tribulaton is for me the albums highlight with an emotive guitar theme that would have sat comfortably on Camel's The Snow Goose underscored by a wash of Mellotron strings and choir which in turn hints at Genesis. Although lighter and more spacious in feel, Spectrum Of Colours boasts another memorable guitar melody leaving Endgame with its acoustic guitar, Mellotron and finally a stately electric guitar theme to bring the original album to a stirring conclusion. For some curious reason, Endgame fades abruptly at the 3 minute mark leaving 2+ minutes of silence at the end.
The two bonus tracks have been previously available on the Colossus albums Decameron ~ Ten Days In 100 Novellas - Part 1 and Tuonen Tytär II respectively. The sprightly Fast Forward is conspicuously different in tone with prominent piano and synth (absent from the Tortoise tracks) and Mulder's soling noticeably bluesier in style. Different again is Vanha Surullinen (originally recorded in the 1970's by Finish band Nova) which features the distinctive vocals of Flamborough Head's Margriet Boomsma and Leap Day's Jos Harteveld who combine for a creditable duet although it's the partnership of Mulder's inspirational guitar and Spanninga's celestial organ that retains the interest.
Whilst they arguably give added value for money I'm not entirely sure the bonus tracks work within the context of this album, more is not necessarily better. That said they fail to diminish the quality of Tortoise which in the grand tradition of Focus is melodic Dutch progressive rock at its best, setting the standard for bands like Knight Area and Silhouette who would soon follow in Trion's footsteps.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Trion CD Reviews:-
|"A simple but nice story that is transferred to music that has more complexity. A wonderful combination."|
(Winston Arntz, 8/10)
|"...this is quality music that sounds great and is excellently played and that is all that should really matter."|
(Mark Hughes, 9/10)
3RDegree - Human Interest Story [Remastered Edition]
Although they came under the radar of the majority of prog fans with their 2008 album, Narrow-Caster, and consolidated their status with 2012's highly praised The Long Division, New Jersey outfit 3RDegree have a much longer story behind them. Founded in 1993 by bassist Robert James Pashman and guitarist Patrick Kliesch, they released two albums - The World In Which We Live (1993) and Human Interest Story (1996) - and then disbanded until their unexpected comeback in the mid-2000's. While, in the intervening years, Kliesch had moved to Los Angeles for professional reasons, he continued to collaborate with his bandmates thanks to modern technology, and his songwriting contribution continues to this day.
Joining the line-up of Pashman (bass, keyboards, vocals), Kliesch (guitars, vocals) and Rob Durham (drums, vocals) that had appeared on the band's debut, 3RDegree's sophomore effort, Human Interest Story, also features the considerable vocal talents of George Dobbs, another resident of northern New Jersey with a love for the soulful style of Stevie Wonder and the impeccable songwriting of Donald Fagen and Andy Partridge. Originally about 15 minutes longer, the album included two songs with Pashman on lead vocals, as well as a cover of Todd Rundgren's Fascist Christ, which do not appear on the remastered digital version released in December 2013 on 10T Records. The remaining tracks are also arranged in a slightly different order, with 13, Mistakes and We Must Wake Now joined together to form the 11-minute suite Misfortune on Main Street.
Those who got acquainted with 3RDegree through Narrow-Caster will undoubtedly recognize some similarities between the two albums, as most of the material on the band's third release had been originally written before their break-up. However, Human Interest Story, though focused on tightly composed, relatively short songs like the band's more recent offerings, definitely sounds harder-edged, at times even aggressive. Patrick Kliesch's guitar is pushed well to the forefront in dense, jagged riffs that owe a lot to the pervasive influence of grunge (almost unavoidable in the Nineties), as well as engaged in some tasty soloing with plenty of melodic flair alongside the bite. The sinuous, deceptively laid-back Steely Dan vibe that is such a distinctive feature of 3RDegree's most recent albums is present in an embryonic state, though the band's penchant for catchy, almost hummable hooks and richly layered vocal harmonies is clearly on display - especially on songs such as I, Be There and Stardust.
However, the intensity is always lurking, and frequently bursts to the surface. Sharp, hard-driving riffs, atmospheric keyboards and powerful yet complex drumming patterns complement Pashman's dazzling bass lines, while Dobbs' voice blends perfectly with this instrumental environment - at times subdued, almost soothing, though more often assertive, escalating to an awe-inspiring roar as in the intricate, spiky Ladder and the fierce, in-your-face Top Secret (another live favourite). The combination of breezy vocal harmonies, soulful lead vocals and highly charged riffing with a bit of a funky swagger brings to mind King's X (avowedly one of the biggest influences on the development on the band's sound), while the imprint of Rush circa Roll the Bones and Counterparts is hard to miss in the heavier numbers - such as the choppy, riffy yet oddly infectious title-track (with which the band often close their live shows), the exhilarating, bass-driven Why Me? and the energetic Bloodstream. The above-mentioned Misfortune on Main Street, while inevitably a tad patchy, is full of dramatic twists and turns and infused with a charming early Genesis vibe and hints of Rush and Supertramp, providing a showcase for Pashman's pneumatic bass and Kliesch's gorgeous solos. The classically-flavoured instrumental Black Orchid, on the other hand, reveals the band's more sensitive side, with Kliesch's dreamy acoustic guitar accompanied by cello and keyboards.
Though the running time of about 56 minutes is quite reasonable, the album's second half occasionally drags a bit, with some of the songs sounding a bit too close for comfort. This, however, does not detract from the overall quality of the album, which displays enough individuality to make it stand out from the crowd. Indeed, even in their earlier incarnation 3RDegree had all the makings of a class act. As a bonus to their fans, the band have also released a brand-new song, titled What Does It Mean to Be Human, which was made available via email (albeit for a limited time) to those who purchased a download of Human Interest Story. The song, rather different from the band's previous material, offers a tantalizing taster of things to come (their new album is scheduled for a 2015 release). In any case, all those who have been won over by Narrow-Caster and The Long Division's effortless charm and thought-provoking lyrical content will enjoy revisiting the roots of the band's sound and its evolution throughout the years - rawer and punchier, but already showing considerable marks of the sophistication that have made 3RDegree one of the foremost standard-bearers of modern art-rock.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous 3RDegree CD Reviews:-
|"Highly and unreservedly recommended!"|
(Ron Faulkner, 9/10)
|The Long Division|
|"Tremendous stuff. I'll never tire of this record."|
(Brian Watson, 9/10)
Steve Hillage - Live in England 1979 [CD/DVD]
CD - Salmon Song (7:36), Unzipping The Zype (8:43), Hurdy Gurdy Man (7:26), 1988 Activator (2:37), Unidentified (Flying Being) (10:07), It's All Too Much (6:28)
Bonus tracks - Hurdy Gurdy Glissando (live 1977) (9:33), Electrick Gypsies (live 1977) (6:23)
DVD - As CD, except Bonus tracks: Radio, Light In The Sky, Interview 2006
Ah...Steve Hillage; forever linked in memory to one of the funniest moments from my 307 year long gig-going history. I'd better spill the beans, then, had I not?
The year before the tour that this album comes from, I was at the Reading Festival where I witnessed a performance, and boy, what a performance, from neo-Dickensian cartoon punks Sham 69, led by notorious motormouth Jimmy Pursey. During their first outpouring of pleb-pleasing punky attitude, their fans, whose average age seemed to be about 13, rampaged back through the crowd from the mosh pit, shoving us "old hands" and telling us to "fuck off". Being shoved by an almost-pubescent skinhead and being told to do one in a voice that was barely beginning to break was highly amusing.
After that number, Pursey delighted in telling the audience "If all you fucking hippies don't like it, you can fuck off". "Listen mate", thought I, "I have roadied for a real punk band, whose agitprop lyrics you are not fit to drool over, you charmless little oik". While Pursey was making a fool of himself my mates and I spotted this long-haired fellow in the wings, wearing what appeared to a tea cosy on his head, and grinning like a loon. During the following number, who should saunter on stage but no less a figure than uber-hippie Steve Hillage to play the simple solo. Oh, the irony. Let's just say we laughed, a lot! Hillage then remained on stage for the duration to play all the "difficult" bits, and strangely Pursey said no more about hippies and their need to go away quickly!
Nostalgia, eh? Doncha just love it? Anyway, this is supposed to be a review of another release from the cheap'n'cheerful Gonzo Multimedia label, this time Live in England 1979 by that fine purveyor of the glid forever, Steve Hillage. While some of this label's releases appear to be little more than assemblages of YouTube clips, this one is a step up. What we have here is a gig from the BBC's Rock Goes To College series, recorded at Kent University, Hillage's alma mater. Again this has long been up on YouTube, uploaded by Hillage's then drummer Andy Anderson no less, so one wonders if that same source has been plundered for this release, especially since the BBC are not credited anywhere on the very info-light two page insert.
Incidentally, the bassist and drummer on this release are John McKenzie (ex Global Village Trucking Co. and a brief stint with Man) and the aforementioned Andy Anderson, not Colin Bass (ex Camel) and Clive Bunker (ex Jethro Tull) as it says on the Gonzo page advertising the album. Come on guys, Hillage even introduces the band on the album, that's just sloppy! Bass and Bunker do appear on the bonus material from 1977, but are not on the main feature.
Between 1977 and 1980 I saw this band quite a few times live, so it is good to be reminded of how entertaining Hillage and his accomplished cohorts were. The audience is boisterously beer-fuelled, probably mostly students spending their grants (remember them?) on awful '70s keg beer, and definitely mostly male. There is much good humour in the air as the crowd nearly manage to drown out compere Pete Drummond while he manfully attempts to introduce the TV program after the first number. "Give the lad a chance" says Hillage; what did they put in Ben Truman's? It certainly wasn't alcohol!
The familiar cyclical riff of Salmon Song from Steve's first solo album, 1975's Fish Rising kicks things off in fine fashion, the band straight on the one. This is as close to classic Gong as it gets, and there's nowt wrong with that in my book.
Steve was also one for an eclectic cover version, and he had a few minor hits with these as singles. Two of them, Hurdy Gurdy Man and It's All Too Much are included here, and both are guaranteed crowd pleasers. These two songs were both on his most successful LP, 1976's L, which reached no.10 in the charts.
On the CD the 43 minute concert is fleshed out by two live tracks from 1977, but there is no indication in the inlay as to where these came from, gigwise. They are also slightly louder than the main feature, so if you've cranked up the concert, watch your ears! A modicum of research, something obviously beyond the abilities of the label, seems to indicate that these two tracks may have come from a German concert, televised for the well known Rockpalast series; again, it's up there on YouTube.
The DVD is extended by two live promo videos from 1977's Motivation Radio album, recorded in what looks like a rehearsal room, similar to the Old Grey Whistle Test stage. Miquette Giraudy, Steve's long time partner does some great space pixie warbling, both vocal and synth-wise on Light In The Sky, which harks back again to the pair's Gong era.
Of most interest is a 2006 interview with Steve and Miquette, where the pair, but mainly Steve, talk about the Rock Goes To College gig, the album Live Herald, which the tour was promoting, and much more. At over half an hour, this makes this double disc set worth purchasing on its own.
As Steve goes to some length to explain, he felt at home with the punks and never really considered himself "prog", and this explains why he was drawing fairly large crowds in 1979 Britain, a place where prog was a dirty word. He also elaborates on the Sham 69 Reading appearance, which for this particular listener is most illuminating, particularly given Pursey's anti-hippie tirade. One of the tracks, 1988 Activator (futuristic, eh? :) ) is a fast punk-styled number that while somewhat at odds with what you might expect from Hillage, went down a treat with his audience at the time, as you can see on the video.
Indeed Hillage has always gone his own way, as his and Miquette's later morphing into techno-dance outfit System 7 attests. If you've not heard any of their output, it's worth checking out. Steve became a highly influential figure in alternative dance culture, and this release reminds us that he was also a damn good guitarist and band leader, with an infectious joie-de-vivre that transmits itself easily from the stage to the audience. Unfortunately as Hillage implies in the interview, despite saying "never say never" it seems unlikely that we will ever see a Steve Hillage Band playing live again, which is a shame.
As far as Live In England 1979 goes, if you were there, it's worth a punt, and if you know nothing of Hillage's solo career pre-System 7 (not "System Seven" as Gonzo have it. Dear me!), this is as good a place to start as any, if you're happy with next to no info on the inlay. I would have given this an 8, but the slack way it's been presented by the label, both on their website and on the CD itself has knocked one off.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Steve Hillage CD & DVD Reviews:-
|Live At The Gong Family|
|"..one of the remastered studio albums may be a better place to start."|
(Mark Hughes, 7/10)
|Live At The Gong Family|
|"It seems to me this DVD is the missing piece in the oeuvre of the SHB. Down to the craftsmanship of all musicians and technicians involved this is a valuable addition in the musical library of anyone who’s interested in the SHB, Gong or space rock in general.
(Menno von Brucken Fock, 7.5/10)
Brand X - (missing period)
Brand X - Live at The Roxy L.A.
Brand X - Is There Anything About?
Tracklist: Ipanaemia (4:13), A Longer April (7:23), Modern, Noisy and Effective (5:09), Swan Song (5:37), Is There Anything About? (7:53), TMIU-ATGA (3:58)
Phil Collins, unjustifiably, always seems to get the lion's share of blame attached to him for slowly turning Genesis into a radio-friendly pop band after Brian Pern left. While chasing after the dollar where Genesis was concerned cannot be laid solely at his door, the less said about his solo career, the better.
However, Mr Collins does have one rather large item to his credit in his post-Gabriel era CV, and that is introducing thousands of us awkward Grammar school boys, for that is what most of Genesis' 1976 audience was, to the myriad delights of jazz-fusion via his "serious" side project Brand X. If it wasn't for Unorthodox Behaviour, I would not have delved deeper and got into Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Soft Machine, etc etc, until years later I'm sure.
This latest tranche of reissues from Gonzo Multimedia includes three Brand X albums and Percy Jones' first solo album, Cape Catastrophe, released some ten years after the band split for the first time. So, in chronological order of original release we have (missing period), Live at The Roxy L.A. and Is There Anything About?.
(missing period) is a collection of recordings made prior to the band's debut album Unorthodox Behaviour, which was released in 1976. It was previously put out on the Blueprint label in 1998. Blueprint were part of the Voiceprint stable that went down the tubes, their catalogue now revived as Gonzo Multimedia.
This album gets some harsh reviews on Prog Archives, but I actually think it contains a lot of high quality musicianship as Phil Collins, John Goodsall (guitar), Percy Jones (bass), Robin Lumley (keyboards), and occasionally Preston Hayman (percussion), play out works in progress, parts of which will reappear in songs released later on official albums.
While Brand X were never in the same league as their obvious fusion heroes Frank Zappa, Return To Forever or The Mahavishnu Orchestra, they certainly had enough chops, and this album opens with Dead Pretty which early on has a cheeky top line melody nicked from a Mahavishnu song if I'm not mistaken. Percy and John try to outdo each other in the "million notes a minute" department, a fault that rears its head more than once when the tunes enter faster phases. However we would do well to remember that this was essentially a band finding their feet in a rehearsal studio, and the recorded results show the promise that later earned them many plaudits from critics and peers alike.
Second song Kugelblitz at eleven minutes long rambles and loses focus too often, but, again, this is a work in progress after all. Back in the Mahavishnu groove, Ancient Mysteries has its foot to the floor and for chunks of the tune they seem to mistake speed for content, but without the gut-wrenching dynamics of John McLaughlin and his charges. When things are slowed down, as happens on the best tune on the record, Why Won't You Lend Me Yours?, the resultant space allows the group to stretch out and the subsequently the music can breathe.
An interesting document of a band working it out, and one for the fans.
The Gonzo Multimedia press release for Live at The Roxy L.A. boasts "This is a previously unreleased soundboard recording", and because of that this was the CD I was most looking forward to hearing in this trio of Brand X releases. I must admit the press release statement had me raising an eyebrow when I note from the CD and a bit of online research that it appears to have been previously released in 1995 on Zok Records via Heritage Records Limited, and with the same artwork. As always with Gonzo, everything may not be quite as it seems.
Keyboard player Robin Lumley tells us in the liner notes that this was "recorded off the PA monitor-mix desk" on to a cassette at the famous Los Angeles venue on Sunday, September 23rd, 1979. Having heard a lot of live bootlegs in my time, varying from the practically unlistenable to the near-professional, I would give this a 6 out 10 for sound quality.
The opening intro sounds more like the kind of symphonic prog Collins was producing with Genesis than it does jazz fusion, and Disco Suicide would not have sounded out of place on Trick Of The Tail as an intro to Los Endos.
Back in the day, after Unorthodox Behaviour I left Brand X well behind and went to investigate the source, as it were, and I never returned. Therefore all the songs on this album are new to me apart from the final track. I conclude that I find a band who having shed their original inspirations didn't quite know where to turn. The second part of the opening double, Algon, while displaying jazz fusion flourishes still ends up sounding more "prog" than anything else. That's not actually a criticism as it is a belter of a number, charging along driven by Phil (or Philip or Phillip, depending on which part of the CD notes you're reading) Collins' instantly recognisable drum rolls.
Brand X's current album at the time of this gig was 1979's Product, and quite reasonably four of these numbers come from it. Dance of the Illegal Aliens is more recognisable as the Brand X I know, and Percy Jones' sinuous bass is to the fore on a spacious and funky tune. The mix has Collins' drums too high and it tends to dominate the sound, but there is little that could have been done about that, given the circumstances of the original recording.
Don't Make Waves is another song from Product and is about as far removed from fusion as you can get, Collins' dulcet tones straining at an FM-friendly rocker. It is quite horrible, and one wonders what Brand X's loyal fans made of it the time. Malaga Virgen (not "Virgin" as printed in the CD track listing) from sophomore album Moroccan Roll is more like it, an all hands to the pumps jazz fusion workout led by Percy's best Rick Laird impression.
You will note that ...And so to F... is twelve minutes and twenty three seconds long. It isn't, as the last four minutes consist of the crowd clapping and cheering and demanding an encore, and Phil's interminable chit-chat and band introduction once they reappear. Why could that not have been edited down or out completely? Eventually the band start playing again and we are treated to the storming Nuclear Burn, where Phil gets to knock out that most pointless of live rock music indulgences, the dreaded drum solo. Luckily it is a very short interlude, and overall I must say that this is a good document of a group of top notch players having a ball. Even though for the first time so far in my Gonzo experience there is actually a booklet insert, if you can call two folded pages a booklet, I'm afraid half a mark is lost for the "no expense made" production, and for Gonzo's usual lack of attention to detail.
Is There Anything About?, aka "The Contractual Obligation Album", was cobbled together after the original band split in 1980, owing their label one more long playing record. With no new material, Robin Lumley stretched and padded out the "three or four" unreleased tracks available to make the six that ended up on this record. Unless they were snowblind, their label CBS must have noticed the band were taking the mickey with titles such as A Longer April (see what they did there?), Modern, Noisy and Effective, the title track, and the final track "They make it up as they go along"!
Knowing how the album was compiled, you can easily spot where a riff has been looped in order to extend the track, and I'm sure I've heard the extended fretless bass intro to A Longer April on one of the band's "proper" albums. As elsewhere on the album a basic riff is looped ad infinitum, and this time Robin texturalises on synth with the icing on the cake being an "mmmm, nice" sax solo by Raf Ravenscroft. This is the best track on the record by some distance.
The title track is at least twice as long as it needed to be and now we know why. Pointless noodling going nowhere in particular, apart from up to the next floor, for Is There Anything About? is a collection of bland and lifeless MOR fusion of the kind you might have heard in a hotel lift and makes Level 42 sound cutting edge. At only just over half an hour long, this album is entirely forgettable, but at least it is over quickly.
(missing Period): 7 out of 10
Live at The Roxy L.A.: 6.5 out of 10
Is There Anything About?: 4 out of 10
Percy Jones - Cape Catastrophe
Recorded over a period between 1988 and 1989 in a studio in East Harlem, Percy Jones' previously hard to obtain solo album now makes a welcome reappearance. Welcome that is for lovers of the bass guitar and off the wall avant-techno funk.
Here Percy plays his Wal V five-string fretless bass, designed specially for him by bass guitar designer Ian Waller, and a monstrous beast it is too. One for the techies, listed on the album insert is Percy's array of electronica. In addition to the bass guitar we have; Casio CZ101 synthesizer, Roland sequencer, Yamaha RX 11 drum machine, Korg digital delay, FSK custom sync tone encoder/decoder, and finally a Casio DAT machine. All very cutting edge at the time.
The tunes range from short funk poppin' and slappin' ditties to sinuous ballads, and there's a 23-minute epic, as I'm sure you've noticed. The music is far more avant than anything attempted by Brand X, and although very occasionally sounding dated, this is a pointer for the kind of the dark brooding solo works we hear today from people like Tony Levin and Trey Gunn.
This is not easy listening and not something to put on at a party. The "sinuous ballad" I referred to is Slick, but it morphs in a angular feast of slapping that jars one's synapses out of the early reverie, the musical equivalent of ants down the back of your t-shirt. This is redeemed, oddly enough, by Hex, which, belying its title actually sticks to a melody for the most part.
Of course, what you all want to know about is the "epic", is it not? Around the time this album was made, Percy, having relocated to New York, would perform his "One Man One Bass" show, where no doubt long pieces like this formed the centrepiece. Highly atmospheric, we are ushered into the wobbly soundscape of Barrio, flurries of notes and electronica swirling around in a dusty cloud. Not being a musician I cannot begin to describe the complexities of Percy's playing from a technical perspective, but the overall effect is strangely dislocating as Percy charges up and down the fingerboard to the backing of synthetic rhythmic crashes and bangs, electronica melodies and disembodied radio announcers' voices making sudden appearances. This sounds strange even now, so what impression it made at the time is anyone's guess.
The shorter tracks that follow do not let up on the techno-funk experimental edge, and Thin Line slides in slinkily, in a manner that evokes John Martyn and his Echoplex. The track soon evolves into a lubricated snake charmer's dance, but ends with a more conventional melody.
This album will certainly be of interest to bass players, but beyond that is probably not much more than a curio.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10