ISSUE 2017-040

Reviews in this issue:

Blonde On Blonde - Rebirth
Blonde On Blonde - Rebirth
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 1970/2017
Time: 56:26
Links:
Track List:
Castles In The Sky (3:29), Broken Hours (3:40), Heart Without A Home (5:27), Time Is Passing (2:40), Circles (7:22), November (3:10), Colour Questions (12:07), You'll Never Know Me / Release (7:46) *Bonus Tracks*: Circles (single version) (3:30), Castles In The Sky (alternative version) (3:24), Time Is Passing (alternative version) (3:45)
The name of this, the second album by South Wales band Blonde On Blonde, was nothing if not apposite, as it featured a new version of the band after the commercial failure of their debut album Contrast on Pye Records. With vocalist Ralph Denyer having moved on to form the somewhat heavier Aquila (whose one and only self-titled album is worth investigating) the hunt was on to for the remaining trio, Gareth Johnson (guitars), Leslie Hicks (drums) and Richard John (bass, who neglected to use his surname, Hopkins, on this album) to find a new singer. With Rod Stewart having failed an audition and Sally Oldfield not really suiting the music the band were writing, the costs of London living forced the band back to South Wales. This was a wise and fortunate decision, as once back in their homeland they reconnected with David Thomas, an 18-year-old singer who despite his young age had previously played in one of Johnson's earlier bands The Modern Blues Quartet.

The first thing the new line-up needed to address was their record label. Pye were not that interested in funding new recordings and had done little to promote the debut album, so the band's manager started shopping round for a new deal. CBS and Decca expressed interest, which prompted Pye to offer an improved deal. However the band signed, perhaps unwisely, to Ember Records, an independent label, seemingly based on the fact that their roster included band hero, blues legend BB King.

Another couple of Kings also had a hand in the band's fortunes, as a chance meeting with BBC producer John King got the group onto a BBC1 Saturday Night programme called Whatever Next?, although the price for such exposure seemed to be recording Castles In The Sky a song co-written by King's wife Eve. Perhaps the band agreed to this, as they had one eye looking towards the single market with the other eye focusing on securing King as a manager. It was something that caused some regret later on, as Johnson bluntly attests: "It was a terrible song, we hated it and I wish it had never been on the album". That assessment is rather harsh, as it is not all that bad and could very conceivably have been a hit a year or so earlier, as it a rather harmless pop song wrapped in pseudo-psychedelica. It is far superior to the alternative version included as a bonus track here, which is probably closer to the pure pop song that the writers intended.

The song was trashed by Melody Maker when released as a single, although it was a shame they didn't flip the single over and give the B-side, Circles, a spin, as it was more in keeping with what the band was about. The song is a severely edited version of an album track that has an opening riff akin to a speeded up Paint It Black. The edit has made the song rather more focused, as what has been excised is largely an extended guitar solo of quite frantic intensity.

Circles is one of three lengthier songs included on the album, which in its original vinyl form was over 45 minutes in length, rather unusual for the time. Colour Questions, clocking in at just over 12 minutes, is the longest song and is a taken at full pelt with great performances by the whole group. An interesting arrangement gives all the musicians a spotlight riffing around the central theme. Variations in the effects pedals used with the guitars increases tonal variations. The layering of several guitar parts would certainly have made reproducing the song live a challenge.

You'll Never Know Me / Release is somewhat different as it is based around piano and keyboards, the player of which is uncredited. One assumes that they are played by Johnson, the composer of the song, as guitars are noticeably absent, although bassist Hopkins was a proficient pianist, and Johnson considered himself as nothing more than a rock 'n' roll guitarist. A surprisingly different number from the heavy Colour Questions that precedes it, it is a lovely contrast. These two tracks are great examples of the experimental attitudes of bands at that time which paved the way to full-blown progressive rock.

Of the other tracks, Broken Home and November showcase the vocal attributes of Thomas, maybe not surprisingly as he was the sole composer of both songs! Thomas certainly has a strong and pure voice, although the recording and production on the vocals do sound a tad dated. Nevertheless both are good songs and display aspects of a talented writer. They are in complete contrast to his other musical contribution, Colour Questions.

Heart Without A Home was undoubtedly the band's own attempt to write a hit single, and may very well have been considered as such if they hadn't agreed to cover Castles In The Sky, (although no doubt the best part of the song, the guitar solo, would have been edited out).

The remaining track, Time Is Passing co-written by Thomas and drummer Hicks, displays another side to the band, with acoustic guitars and, unsurprisingly, some prominent drum fills. An alternative version is provided as a bonus track, and this is quite a delight as it is a totally different and more adventurous, arrangement. It is almost a totally different song. It would have been interesting to know a bit more as to how and when this version was recorded, as the vocals sound very different from the rest of the album, suggesting a different recording location/producer. Whatever, I found this version to be far preferable, the more prominent electric guitar, the greater vocal harmonies and overall feel of the track is more in keeping with a prog vibe. I am sort of reminded of an early Uriah Heep.

Rebirth was certainly an improvement on the debut Blonde On Blonde album and showcased a broad spirit of musical adventure, even if it was contained in a quite awful sleeve!
Conclusions:
Mark Hughes: 6.5 out of 10

Blonde On Blonde - Reflections On A Life
Blonde On Blonde - Reflections On A Life
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 1971/2017
Time: 50:59
Links:
Track List:
Gene Machine (2:12), I Don't Care (2:41), Love Song (6:46), Bar Room Blues (5:30), Sad Song For An Easy Lady (4:15), Ain't It Sad Too (4:26), The Bargain (4:17), The Rut (5:30), Happy Families (3:50), No. 2 Psychological Decontamination Unit (3:04), Chorale (Forever) (4:53) *Bonus Track*: Sad Song For An Easy Lady (single version) (3:35)
Despite a plethora of gigs with notable acts such as The Who, Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash, Genesis and Fleetwood Mac, by 1971 Blonde On Blonde were still not much further advanced in their career, following the release of the promising Rebirth album in 1970. The lack of sales resulted in some internal frictions, leading to the departure of bassist Richard Hopkins just prior to the start of recording for their third album. The remaining members (guitarist Gareth Johnson, drummer Les Hicks and vocalist David Thomas, who also played some acoustic guitar, bass and harmonica on the subsequent recordings) looked towards their home environment of South Wales for a replacement, and promptly recruited Graham Davies. Only one problem, Davies was a guitarist and had to learn the bass in record time, although he did play some acoustic and lead guitar on the album, as well as banjo on one track.

If Rebirth showcased the progressive/psychedelic musical muscle of the band, this third album Reflections Of A Life was a rather more conceptually-adventurous effort. The band's record label, Ember, were disappointed that the group had not made the breakthrough anticipated, and seemed to be reluctant to fund recording of a new album, wanting the band to record a single instead. Determined to record an album, the group offered up two songs for a potential single, one about an axe-wielding psychopath who murders his family, and the other about incest! Needless to say, Ember got the message and left the band to get on with recording an album. The subject matter of the two songs offered up to Ember were not purely to make a stance against the label, but were part of a vague concept that the band were putting together about the life of a somewhat-less-than-ordinary man - hence the album title.

From the off, it is obvious that the new album would be remarkably different from the previous two albums. Gene Machine is an extraordinarily-bizarre opening number with backwards vocals, a throbbing 'heartbeat' (three years before Pink Floyd's more famous similar opening), babies screaming and an ethereal vocal. One certainly wonders what one is in for.

I Don't Care, the aforementioned incest song, is, lyrics aside, a more straight-forward rock number, which segues into the acoustic Love Song, about a rather more conventional relationship. Although this is the longest track on the album, it doesn't hold the same delights as the lengthier numbers on the previous album, despite featuring some changes in time signature. Overall it is a bit flat and lacks variety.

Bar Room Blues must be one of the few blues numbers to feature a banjo! Rather basic, the track seems to be more of a narrative device than anything else. Not that it is a totally defunct endeavour, the arrangement is quite engaging and the harmonica breaks add variety. Given that incest and murder were not deemed suitably topics for a single, it is perhaps surprising that Sad Song For An Easy Lady, a sinister tale about a prostitute, was considered as a better choice! The closing number of the first side of the original vinyl release, it is perhaps the first song on the album to bear a strong resemblance to previous material that that band had recorded. With a frantic guitar and harmonica ending, the first side closes on a high.

Side two, as was, opens with yet another atypical number, Ain't It Sad. Another bluesy song, featuring a steel guitar run through some effects, it is the first composition credited to new guitarist Davies, but is the weaker of the two songs he penned for the album, The Rut being a much better piece, with some delightful bass and lead guitar playing.

Lyrically it leads into the murder song, ironically entitled Happy Families, which musically is quite a blast, displaying more of the psychedelic tendencies of yore. Of course, a man with a history of screwing his sister and murdering his wife and family is most likely in need of some severe therapy, hence the instrumental No. 2 Psychological Decontamination Unit. It is more of a elongated drone with sound effects, than an actual song. The album closes with the acoustic Chorale (Forever), which is an apt ending to the tale and a fine track to book. The reissue is rounded off with the single version of Sad Song For An Easy Lady, which is not dramatically different, just edited for length.

Once again the album wasn't promoted by the label and disillusionment led to the departure of guitarist Johnson. Although an attempt was made to carry on, the band finally crumbled and fell apart in early 1972. Even without label support, it is not all that surprising that the album was not a great success. The change in style was too great for a band that had yet to establish itself, and although laudable, the concept nature was confined to the lyrics, with the songs having no real musical links. I suppose it was another step in the evolution of progressive music and, in that light, remains an integral part of the prog story.
Conclusions:
Mark Hughes: 5.5 out of 10

Bullet Height - No Attonement
Bullet Height - No Attonement
Country of Origin: Germany
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 40:48
Links:
Track List:
Fight Song (3:34), Bastion (4:08), Hold Together (4:08), Wild Worlds (3:51), Intravenous(4:42), Cadence (4:23), No Atonement (3:38), Break Our Hearts Down (4:47), Fever (3:44), Up To The Neck (6:03)
Bullet Height consists of Jon Courtney, formerly of Pure Reason Revolution and Sammi Doll, a US vocalist/guitarist. In the notes for the album, Courtney says that he "wanted to produce something darker and heavier than Id ever created". Mission accomplished, and to cut right to the chase, much of this album plays like a heavier version of his former band. If you were upset by their break up, you should find much to like about Bullet Height.

The unavoidable simularities to PRR are apparant right from the album opener, Fight Song. Heavy guitars and electronic beats are matched with harmonious vocals. These comparisons can be made throughout the album, though it would be unfair to qualify Bullet Height as unoriginal. Parallels aside, they are a very modern sounding and unique musical duo. I would also say that they are less traditionally progressive than PRR were. That said, Courtney's writing and production style is all over this recording, which is a positive.

There is an industrial, electronic edge to much of the music. To my ears, albums of that type can be a bit redundant from track to track. That challenge exists on No Attonement, but overall the album succeeds in being diverse enough. In many ways, the crunching musical aspects, mix well with strong melodies, to create an appealing musical stew. This combination works to strong effect throughout the album, though there are also times where they will go in a significantly different direction.

As an example, Break Our Hearts Down employs somewhat of an 80s synth-pop sound. Along with changing the flow of things a bit, the song's infectious chorus secures its place as a highlight. The overall tone of the music is somewhat consistant, but as previously noted, it rarely feels redundant.

Jon Courtney is a good songwriter, and that is ultimately what makes Bullet Height work. Yes, the instrumentation and production are impressive, but that only goes so far. I am certain that acoustic versions of these songs would be equally as strong. The vocal performances by both Jon and Sammi deserve mention as well. I can't emphasise enough how key their work in this department is, to the overall success of the album.

I seem to recall a lot of debate as to whether PRR was progressive, and those same arguments over Bullet Height wouldn't surprise me. I do however, believe that there is something adventurous about the music contained on No Attonement. Ultimately though, my score below doesn't dabble in such debates. It refelcts only my overall enjoyment factor, while listening to this entertaining album.
Conclusions:
Patrick McAfee: 8 out of 10

Bjørn Riis - Forever Comes to an End
Bjørn Riis - Forever Comes to an End
Country of Origin: Norway
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 48.26
Links:
Track List:
Forever Comes to an End (8.18), Absence (2.42), The Waves (7.24), Getaway (7.53), Calm (3.51), Winter (10.17), Where Are You Now (7.32)
I have not listened to Bjørn's first solo album (Lullabies In A Car Crash) nor the Airbag albums (of which he is the main songwriter) but I chose this release as it intrigued me, partly from what I know about his work, and partly due to the photography on the album cover (as I am a photographer).

The image that the cover conjured up for me was 'soundscape', 'cinematic' and from what I have read, Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd.

Was this accurate? Absolutely!

The opening track and title track, Forever Comes to an End, is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree's In Absentia era and anything from Anathema, but with a unique slant that will draw you into the music. There is the heavy riff coming and going throughout, and the melodic piano and keyboards, which are a theme throughout the entire album. Absence and Calm are both moody, thoughtful tracks, that are as cinematic as they are beautiful.

The album is full of outstanding guitar work from Bjørn Riss and he delivers some of the most engaging solos I have heard in a long time (that will doubtless be likened to David Gilmour). However I will remember this album for the superb compositions that will keep you listening to this album over and over.

For me the three standout tracks are Forever Comes to an End, Winter and Where Are You Now, which shows off the guitar skills of Bjørn Riis and the scope of his music writing ability. While the influences are clearly there, this album is his own, and something he should be proud of.

This album delivers. And I am hard to please.
Conclusions:
Ian Smith: 8 out of 10

Weserbergland - Sehr Kosmisch, Ganz Progisch
Weserbergland - Sehr Kosmisch, Ganz Progisch
Country of Origin: Norway
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 46:42
Links:
Track List:
Tanzen und Springen (9:44), Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (16:08), Kunst Der Fuge (12:02), Tristrant (8:48)
Roughly translated as 'Very Cosmic' 'All Prog', Weserbergland's debut album "Sehr Kosmisch" "Ganz Progisch" gives you pretty much what the title suggests.

Led by Norwegian flautist and multi-instrumentalist Ketil Vestrum Einarsen. Weserbergland is the first group where he is the band leader. He has been a long-standing member of White Willow, as well as Jaga Jazzist, so this release is as you would expect from such a pedigree; an assured debut.

Inspired by his long-standing love of Krautrock and 70s prog, "Sehr Kosmisch" "Ganz Progisch" stirs in Tangerine Dream, Can, Cluster, and Harmonia, whilst retaining an identity of its own. Helped by Gaute Storsve and Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow) on basses and guitars, and using the drumming skills of Änglagård's Mattias Olsson, along with guests from Jaga Jazzist, Wobbler, The Opium Cartel and others.

Consisting of four expansive, all instrumental tracks, Weserbergland takes the listener on quite a cosmic journey. The opener, Tanzen und Springen, has a rolling drum pattern, underpinning layered keyboards and guitars, as it makes its mid-paced way through the universe. However I feel it loses focus in in its last third.

Things get right back on track with Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. It has a three-part, slow-fast-slow structure and it moves from a cosmic swirl though to a great Force Majeure-era Tangerine Dream section that displays terrific control. They then layer in a lightly distorted guitar solo, a super synth solo and then Weserbergland adds acoustic colour with a flute solo. It is a track full of delights.

Swathes of organ, Mellotron, hiccupping drums and a Mike Oldfield-like guitar makes the first half of Kunst Der Fuge a joy. It loses momentum though, in the bass-led, more experimental second half, where the disconcerting harmonies and broken melodic lines bring to mind the more out-there aspects of Can or Faust.

The final track, Tristrant, has a motorik pulse and dominant bass playing. It mixes late 70s and early 80s art-rock (Berlin-era Bowie, Wire) with Kraftwerk-style layered keyboards, and they add a floating guitar line. Weserbergland uses this to get a space-rock groove going, before stumbling into a jazzy interlude of horns, they then start it up again. The musicianship here is superb but without showboating, as indeed it is throughout the album.

So with "Sehr Kosmisch" "Ganz Progisch", Weserbergland have produced a melodic instrumental album that defies expectations in mainly successful ways. Its adventurousness and melodicism, means it easily lives up to its title.
Conclusions:
Martin Burns: 7 out of 10

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Published Thursday 25 May 2017

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