Reviews in this issue:
- Tangerine Dream – Poland ~ The Warsaw Concert
- Tangerine Dream – Zeit
- Acqua Fragile - Acqua Fragile
- Acqua Fragile - Mass-Media Stars
- Illusion – Out Of The Mist
- Illusion – Illusion
- Pierre Moerlen’s Gong – Leave It Open
- Pierre Moerlen’s Gong – Live
- Out Of Focus – Wake Up!
- Out Of Focus – Out Of Focus
- Out Of Focus – Four Letter Monday Afternoon
- Hawkwind - Distant Horizons
Tangerine Dream - Poland ~ The Warsaw Concert
CD 1: Poland (22:34), Tangent (15:51), Rare Bird (4:01)
CD 2: Barbakane (18:02), Horizon (21:10)
On the 10th December 1983 Messer’s Froese, Schmoelling and Franke played live in Warsaw Poland, (shows that took almost a year to plan and execute), at the insistence of their loyal fans, something that the band hadn’t really considered due to the political state of the country at the time. After long consideration and thought the band decided to play. Poland ~ The Warsaw Concert is a document of that trip, a live recording, recorded at the Torwar Hall in front of 6000 of their adoring fans.
As many will know, Tangerine Dream is a highly influential band especially in the world of Krautrock and experimentation, a band that has a rather large back catalogue of recordings. I would estimate that the band have released over one hundred studio albums alone. To my surprise at the time of writing this the electronic filing cabinets at DPRP houses not one review of any Tangerine Dream recording, which I found staggering.
This is a band that has gone through several transitional phases throughout their existence, musically, with labels and on the personnel front too, yet they have never as a band in my eyes lost their way, whether they have released benchmark experimental albums or commercial electronic soundstages. As a body of work, there really is something to be found for everyone. Poland was to be their first release on the newly formed Jive Electra label (the blue years), an album which caught the essence of the band in full flight, after having ended their Virgin years in ‘84 with the release of Hyperborea.
Disc one houses three stunning pieces that are moody, atmospheric and trance inducing. Poland sees its beginnings being punctuated by some strident percussive work that is layered throughout with electronic effects, which adds depth and emotion. As with Tangerine Dream’s music it is atmospheric in approach, a soundtrack to the mind’s eye which allows you to build your own sculptures. As expected Tangent moves in the similar circles although its soundstage is more experimental with its looping passages and walls of white noise being metered out, towards the completion of the piece the music drops back into a more familiar setting. Rare Bird the shortest piece presented displays that Tangerine Dream can embrace the arena of the short, concise and almost commercial without making it all sound twee, which offers contrast to the two previous pieces.
Disc two’s opening flute sequence gives Barbakane and almost eastern flavour something that Horizon manages once it settles. It is full of really interesting musical punctuations that just bounce round the room. As it builds the piece metamorphoses into Warsaw In The Sun, which was released as a single, making it for me one of the stronger instrumentals presented here. The band interacts perfectly creating impassioned synth solo passages that build, climatically ending, an aural fusion of almost brutal sequencers that are powerful and ageless in approach, bringing the whole set to a perfectly delivered conclusion.
As ever Tangerine Dream constructs their music very cleverly, music that has been developed to touch the varying neural tissues which move you euphorically whatever your cortical thickness is. For me this is the role of their music, compositionally playing with your senses, prodding your thought process, heightening you perceptions of awareness and connectivity. Their music progressively changes dynamically, mood dependant, allowing you to discover new journeys with each listen. This motor function for me makes what they produce that much smarter, a process the band have perfected. I personally have struggled in the past to try and pin down favourite pieces by this stunning band, precisely for those reasons just mentioned. What I will say though is this, never at any stage of listening to their recordings have I ever been bored.
Vicky and Mark Powell have performed a sterling and passionate job here coordinating and re-mastering the original Jive release, presenting it in its full original glory, which I genuinely tip my hat too. Keep up the good work as the world needs labels like this.
In the interest of historical fact and for the tech heads, the trio used the following equipment to create this recording:
- Chris Franke (Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, Sequential Circuits Pro-1, E-MU Emulator, E-MU Custom Programmable Synth, Moog Custom Programmable Modular Synth, MTI Synergy, PE Polyrhythmic Sequencer, Compulab Digital Sequencer, Syntec Custom Digital Drum Computer, Simmons Drum Modules, Quantec Room Simulator, Roland SDE 3000 ,Hill Multi-Mixer).
- Edgar Froese (YAMAHA DX-7, YAMAHA YP-30, Roland Jupiter-8, Roland Jupiter-6, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, PPG Wave 2.2, PE Polyrhythmic Sequencer, Publison DHM 89 B2, Publison KB 2000, KORG SDD 3000 Delay, Roland SDE MIDI/DCB Interfaces, Quantec Room Simulator, Canproduct Mixer).
- Johannes Schmoelling (Roland Jupiter-8, PPG Wave 2.3 Waveterm, EEH CM 4 Digital Sequencer, Bohm Digital Drums, Roland TR-808, Mini Moog, KORG Mono/Poly, Roland SDE 3000 Delay, Canproduct Mixer, MXR 01 Digital Reverb, MXR Digital Delay, BOSS Overdrive/Flanger)
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Tangerine Dream – Zeit
CD 1: First Movement: Birth Of Liquid Plejades (19:55), Second Movement: Nebulous Dawn (17:54), Third Movement: Origin Of Supernatural Probabilities (19:33), Fourth Movement: Zeit (19:33)
CD 2: Klangwald [Part One] (27:23), Klangwald [Part Two] (40:41)
1972 saw Tangerine Dream release their third album Zeit. Tangerine Dream was still a band in its infancy but there was no doubt that they were going to be both genre defining and influential based upon this recording.
The interaction of Edgar Froese (sound generators, glissando guitar), Peter Baumann (keyboards, vibraphone, VCS3) and Christopher Franke (keyboards, cymbals, VCS3) featuring guest musicians Florian Fricke (Moog synthesizer on Birth Of Liquid Plejades), Steve Schroyder (Organ outro on Birth Of Liquid Plejades), The Cologne Cello Quartet (cello intro on Birth Of Liquid Plejades Christian Vallbracht, Joachim von Grumbcow, Hans Joachim Brüne and Johannes Lücke) created this rather interesting album.
The album is conceptual in approach, an album about time, the literal English translation of Zeit, being based on the philosophy that time is itself motionless and only exists in ones own mind. Deep stuff indeed!
The beauty of this album is that nearly forty years down the road it still sounds fresh and relevant, which is always a good bench mark. Compared to it predecessors 70’s Electronic Meditation and 71’s Alpha Centauri, Zeit was slower in approach. 73 saw the release of Atem, the last release on the Ohr label, (the blue years), before the band switched to Virgin Records.
Again, as with Poland, Esoteric have pushed the boat out making this a must buy for fans both old and new. This package comes as a double disk remastered with disc two devoted to The Klangwald Performance live in Cologne November 1972. For the audiophile enthusiasts out there this has also been released on vinyl.
Zeit has a similar tone to Klaus Schulze’s Irrlicht album, atmospheric in approach, its minimalist musical style that uses sustained and repeating sounds, notes and tone clusters.
First Movement: Birth Of Liquid Plejades is the longest part of the movement with its atmospheric tonal path; its deliverance can sound harsh on the ear first time around almost cacophonic, disharmonic and discordant. This jarring approach which can at times seem irrelevant adds to the whole ambiance of the movement, an approach that has been used throughout to musically contextualise their heady concept that is rather intoxicating.
Second Movement: Nebulous Dawn continues in the same vein as First Movement: Birth Of Liquid Plejades although the structure is somewhat more powerful in its statement with its low end harmonics. Its dark atmospheric and nihilistic soundstage engulfs the listener, succinctly emulating the vague and confused birth of time.
Third Movement: Origin Of Supernatural Probabilities builds on the last two movements with its echoing wraith like approach, musical oscillations that bounce around with systematic importance. You can’t but be in awe of their creations; this is an artistic approach of the highest order. Mentally the whole piece seriously depicts the vastness of space musically such is the power and magnitude of their creation and approach.
Fourth Movement: Zeit complements to perfection the whole concept, a balance of spacial harmonic nuances that interact, meandering, offering a solid soundstage amidst the slow tempo that is prevalent throughout, which drives this influential album and for me their first masterpiece to a fitting and perfect conclusion.
Movements are the theme of the day with this release and Klangwald as with Zeit does not disappoint in any way shape or form either. The band continued to experiment with cosmic music, music that conceptually proved and demonstrated that the band knew no boundaries sonically. Edgar Froese and co just built huge vast soundstages; electronic interjections tonally wandering that at times sounded unnerving and here it is captured perfectly, live.
Back in the early 70’s such heavy use of the then somewhat novel synthesiser must have been eye opening to say the least. One would love to have known what these guys could have created using today’s technology way back then. This is music that requires exploring; the musical approach may sound abstract but this is music not to be scared of.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Acqua Fragile - Acqua Fragile
Tracklist: Morning Comes (7:26), Comic Strips (3:59), Science Fiction Suite (5:57), Song From A Picture (4:12), Education Story (4:15), Going Out (2:59), Three Hands Man (8:09)
Acqua Fragile were an Italian prog band who released two English language LPs in the early 70s. Unlike compatriots PFM, the band didn't try to sing in their native language due to the difficulty of marrying the words to complex music and also the fact that vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti was proficient in English having spent over 18 months living in the US. Formed in 1970, the rest of the quintet comprised Piero Canavera (drums, acoustic guitar and vocals), Gino Campanini (guitars and vocals), Franz Dondi (bass) and Maurizio Mori (keyboards and vocals). PFM not only provided a role model but were early mentors to the young band, helping with demo recordings, financing and publicity particularly by inviting them to tour as their support group. This altruism worked in PFM's favour as Lanzetti took over the role of vocalist in PFM in 1975 staying with them for five years.
Released in 1973, the eponymous debut album, is instantly recognisable as deriving from the Italian school of prog rock, which is not a derogatory comment in any way, just that Italian bands seem to have a distinct sound. Saying that the music contains some recognisable influences. Opener Morning Comes is reminiscent of early Genesis, the heavier aspects of Trespass in particular. Comparisons aside, it is a very powerful song with Lanzetti's natural vibrato giving him a style similar to that of Family's Roger Chapman and Mori's Hammond playing being the most obvious link with the Genesis sound. Lush harmonies and a variety of guitar sounds add to a very strong opening number. Comic Strips also bears passing resemblance to great UK bands coming across as a mixture of Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator, with its odd time signatures and quirky vocal arrangements. Dual acoustic guitars dominate Science Fiction Suite which relies heavily on the layered and interwoven vocals to drive it along. The mix is great with the different guitars easily distinguished across the stereo channels resulting in a very nice song that shows what can be done with minimal instrumentation and a strong vocal melody. The acoustic theme continues with Song From A Picture, where the keyboards have a more prominent role and drummer Canavera (who incidentally wrote the majority of the music on the album) providing a solid backing.
Education Story brings back the electric guitar where it and the Hammond organ echo each other throughout. Again the arrangement is excellent, and the production even better, with the whole range of instruments being employed without any one overriding another and vocals and associated harmonies popping up all over the place. It also has a very catchy tune! Rather more folkish is Going Out, acoustic guitars and vocals once more, the short piece is ostensibly an interlude before the closing Three Hands Man. The fast tempo of the opening keyboard runs is maintained throughout the 8 minutes of the song with all members of the group adding significant contributions to a very enjoyable and dynamic song that, like all the best prog songs, reveals new elements with each listen.
This debut album from Acqua Fragile deserves to be ranked alongside the best from the Italian bands of the 70s, as it easily stands up alongside the likes of PFM. Thanks to Esoteric for rescuing this album from obscurity, this edition sees the first time the album has been released outside Italy, and it is well worth its recommended rating.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Acqua Fragile - Mass-Media Stars
Tracklist: Cosmic Mind Affair (7:24), Bar Gazing (5:07), Mass-Media Stars (6:52), Opening Act (5:40), Professor (6:49), Coffee Song (5:56)
After the Italian success of the first Acqua Fragile album and numerous tours supporting the likes of Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, PFM and Uriah Heep, the group were snapped up by the Italian subsidiary of RCA Records who had released the early Italian language albums by PFM. The bigger label had more clout and better distribution links than Numero Uno, the independent label that released the band's first album.
The album kicks off with Cosmic Mind Affair which continues the themes of Science Fiction Suite from the debut album. A wonderfuly upbeat number, the glorious vocal harmonies dominate and it is hard to fault the song at all. The musical growth over the space of a year is impressive and whereas the first album had strong hints as to what bands they were influenced by, these have been replaced by a sound that is uniquely their own. Mori uses more keyboards than previously, mixing his Hammond sound with piano, synths and even harpsichord. The electric/acoustic dynamics of the band is still present as Bar Gazing displays, opening with the familiar sound of twin acoustic guitars playing in harmony. Lanzetti sings the song with his characteristic vibrato to the fore, although the lyrics are, to say the least, somewhat obscure! The switch from acoustic to full electric band is achieved through an odd keyboard shuffle which is an ideal link. Add in a lovely electric guitar solo set against waves of organ and a reprise of the opening with added layers of harmonies and you have a very fine song indeed. The title track is a big number that saw the band tackling a new approach including an extended instrumental section incorporating a sound clip from an American radio broadcast the band came across by randomly turning the tuning dial of a transistor radio in the middle of the night. A great number.
Opening Act, a paean to the eternal support band, has an opening vocal arrangement that draws on the spirit of Gentle Giant but it is very brief and before long the band strike out on the acoustics with Dondi laying down a dominant and up-front bass line. Despite the inherent frustrations of playing second fiddle, the lyrics reflect the determination of giving their all in an attempt to impress the crowd and give the headliners a run for their money. This determination and enthusiasm for the limelight is superbly reflected in the playing and enthusiasm with which the song is performed. Professor also resumes a tale started on the previous album with Education Story. Dondi's bass is once again to the fore and its prominent placing in the mix can't help but draw some comparisons to Peter Banks-era Yes, particularly in the harmony vocal sections. Nonetheless, it is generally upbeat number with a somewhat melancholy interlude prior to the big ending. Final number, Coffee Song, takes the template of several other of the group's numbers with dual acoustic guitars setting the scene and the lyrics again hinting at the frustrations and hardships of life on the road and making next to no money. The instrumental ending provides a perfect close to the album and, unfortunately the career of the band.
Things could have been different as Seymour Stein (founder of Sire Records) was desperate to sign them and give the album a proper launch in the US (it was released in several countries outside Italy, including the US, on the back of PFM's international success, although it doesn't appear to have been very well promoted). However his numerous faxes to the Italian Record label were discarded as no one in the office could read English! Instead, Lanzetti quit and the rest of the band disintegrated. Both of the Acqua Fragile albums are worthy additions to a prog collection and of particular interest if you have only previously heard PFM as representatives of 70s Italian prog. Big thumbs up to Esoteric for their sterling work in reissuing these albums for a wider audience and taking such care with the quality and packaging.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Illusion – Out Of The Mist
Illusion – Illusion
Tracklist: Madonna Blue (6:46), Never Be The Same (3:18), Louis Theme (7:41), Wings Across The Sea (4:49), Cruising Nowhere (5:01), Man Of Miracles (3:27), The Revolutionary (6:15)
After forming in 1968 Renaissance underwent a complete change in personnel in just a few short years. The band was launched by vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty following the demise of The Yardbirds and they recorded two albums Renaissance (1969) and Illusion (1971) before going their separate ways. Sales for both releases remained encouraging resulting in a decision to reunite the original line-up in 1976. Renaissance however was still in existence under the leadership of Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam so the use of the name was out of the question. As a compromise the title of the second album Illusion was adopted for the reformed line-up of Jane Relf (vocals), Jim McCarty (vocals, guitar, percussion), John Hawken (keyboards) and Louis Cennamo (bass). Sadly Keith Relf suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1976 necessitating the recruitment of John Knightsbridge (lead guitar) and Eddie Mcneil (drums).
Released on Island Records in 1977, Out Of The Mist shares several key aspects with its predecessors (predominately acoustic instrumentation with Hawken’s piano to the fore and the shared male/female vocals) but overall the sound is smoother, more accessible and less experimental. Perhaps the then current success of (the other) Renaissance had an influence. Whilst I’m sure McCarty himself would agree that his voice is not as strong as Keith’s it does have a certain charm particularly when he’s harmonising with Jane (Keith’s sister) who was also sounding more confident and polished. Her singing however retains a folky earthiness bringing to mind traditional singers like Joan Baez and Mary Travers in contrast with the neutral purity of Annie Haslam who was the precursor of vocalists like Christina Booth and Heather Findlay.
To open the song Isadora Hawken creates a rippling piano arpeggio that put me instantly in mind of John Carpenter’s brooding theme to his classic movie Halloween released the following year. There are no shocks here however, this is a beautifully structured and plaintiff ballad with McCarty taking the vocal lead supported by superb instrumental work, not least Knightsbridge’s brief but melodic guitar solo. Overall it’s a surprisingly tranquil but effective introduction to the band and the album. Roads To Freedom ups the tempo a little but thanks to the catchy melody, Jane’s warm delivery and the impressive piano playing it has a prog come pop come folk ambiance that has all the makings of a fine single had it been released in that format.
Beautiful Country lives up to its name being a serene and pastoral ode to mother nature and all its splendour. There is a reversal of the opening song where McCarty’s voice this time underpins Jane’s and as a duet they never sounded lusher. In contrast Solo Flight ventures into Santana territory with its rapid fire rhythm and a particularly gutsy guitar solo that many of the blues greats would be proud of. A change of mood once more for the sunny and uplifting Everywhere You Go which couples a rich, chugging guitar rhythm with piano and Mellotron induced orchestral textures.
The two concluding songs are two of the finest ever written by the band. The bittersweet and memorable Face Of Yesterday is a reworking of McCarty’s song that original appeared on the Renaissance album Illusion. Here it has vague similarities to From A Distance which was a big hit for Bette Midler in 1990. The combination of Hawken’s lilting piano, strings and Jane’s achingly beautiful vocal is pure perfection and as a point of trivia it’s probably the only time that two different versions of the same song have appeared on separate albums with the same title.
With its Moog fanfare, the concluding Candles Are Burning takes the band into hitherto unchartered proggy regions with a strident but melodic tone that echoes both (the other) Renaissance and The Moody Blues. Following some excellent and tricky, spiralling instrumental interplay it pauses for breathe before the final slow build. It culminates in a grandiose choral and orchestral coda providing a fittingly triumphant conclusion to Out Of The Mist.
The second and final album is self titled, sharing the same title as the second Renaissance album from which the band took their name. Confused? (I know I am). Furthermore it was produced by former Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith who was also responsible for producing the debut Renaissance album. Illusion was released in 1978 (when quality prog releases were pretty thin on the ground) and it’s a worthy follow-up to Out Of The Mist. The line-up remains the same and likewise the music retains the band’s same flair for melodic and meticulously arranged compositions.
The catchy opening song Madonna Blue showcases all of the bands strengths, dual vocals from Jane and McCarty, Hawken’s semi-classical piano against a backdrop of strings, Knightsbridge’s soaring guitar and the solid backline of Cennamo and Mcneil. Equally strong is the exquisite Never Be The Same which features rich Crosby, Stills and Nash style harmonies against a stylish acoustic backdrop. The mood remains relaxed for the stunningly beautiful and classically tinged Louis Theme which features a career defining vocal from Jane. Hearing her performance here it’s sad to contemplate that after this she would never again sing lead on an album. Jane also shines in the refined and memorable Wings Across The Sea and it’s interesting to note that her voice has all but lost its folk intonation. Knightsbridge’s brief guitar solo is a masterful exercise in tasteful restraint as is Cennamo’s skilful drumming.
The edgy Cruising Nowhere includes an uncharacteristic pulsating synth line (ala Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby) heralding some aggressive guitar and rhythm playing giving the song a sense of pending menace. The tranquil Man Of Miracles returns to the mood of the earlier songs and its quite evident at this point that Jane’s growing confidence means she is now responsible for virtually all the lead vocal parts.
Just like the first album, Illusion concludes with easily its most proggy track. The Revolutionary is all pomp and drama bringing to mind The Strawbs during the early 70’s particularly in the use of crashing Hammond and Mellotron chords. There are also shades of Iona and with McCarty this time taking care of lead vocals Jane adds an effectively eerie siren like chant midway through.
Despite the release of a single Madonna Blue, the sales for Illusion remained disappointing particularly in comparison with those of Out Of The Mist. Island Records certainly thought so because they relinquished the band’s contract even though they had a third album in the planning. The resulting demos recorded in 1979 can be found on the Enchanted Caress collection released in 1990.
Given the timing of their demise at the wrong end of the 70’s it’s possible to conclude that Illusion like several other acts became victims of the growing interest in punk and new wave. Listening now it’s certainly difficult to imagine that these albums appeared when they did, stylistically they’re a throwback to the late 60’s/early 70’s. But that is not a bad thing and I for one find it comforting that there are labels like Esoteric around to ensure that quality music like this is not lost forever.
Out Of The Mist: 8 out of 10
Illusion: 8 out of 10
Pierre Moerlen’s Gong – Leave It Open
Pierre Moerlen’s Gong – Live
Tracklist: Downwind (6:50), Mandrake (7:19), Golden Dilemma (7:56), Soli (4:43), Drum Solo (4:28), Esnuria (4:53), Crosscurrents (4:44)
In 1977 when Pierre Moerlen became the final remaining member from the classic Gong era the focus of the music changed from Psychedelic Space Rock to instrumental Jazz Fusion and whilst retaining the original name essentially became a new band. By 1980 the core members featured on both of these re-releases were Moerlen (drums), Hansford Rowe (bass), Bon Lozaga (guitar) and Francois Causse (percussion).
The title track is a very groovy extended number with Causse’s xylophone and other percussives giving the flavour and bouncy rhythm work from Moerlen and Rowe. The track retains its flavour but progresses through various phases incorporating some great guitar from Lozaga and sax from guest Charlie Mariano and even works in a solo section from Moerlen at the end. This is one of my favourite tracks from Moerlen’s version of Gong and it sounds as fresh now as it did when I first heard it in the ‘80s.
The remaining tracks are much shorter and tighter with the mid-tempo How Much Better It Has Become featuring additional rhythm guitar from Brian Holloway and I Woke Up This Morning, Felt Like Playing Guitar ironically majoring in saxophone! It’s About Time is exactly that with a stop/start rhythm from Moerlen, Rowe’s top class funky bass work and frenetic rhythm from Lozaga, Causse’s percussion again adding the spice. This is another fine track, the feel of which continues on into Stok Stok Stok Sto-Gak, Lozaga’s guitar supplying the theme, Rowe’s bass the heart. Adrien has the rise and fall xylophone of Leave It Open but as a more chilled-out coda to close the album. All of the tracks are written by Moerlen, the exceptions being the bass heavy It’s About Time and Stok Stok Stok Sto-Gak co-written with Rowe.
Live was released prior to Leave It Open in 1980 and features 1979 recordings from Paris and London with Benoit Moerlen adding his presence on vibraphone. Lead-off track, Downwind, the title track from their 1979 album, features some individualistic guitar from Mike Oldfield and the sax of Pierre’s ex-Gong compadre Didier Malherbe. Both funky and melodic, this piece exemplifies the importance of mallet percussion to the group’s sound.
The rest of the material here comes from various sources with Mandrake being a reworking from the 1975 Gong album Shamal, a track which marked the group’s progression from prog to fusion. Causse’s xylophone is to the fore and Lozaga is also impressive. The bright and summery Golden Dilemma and Soli come from Espresso II and feature lots of Hansford Rowe’s bass and plenty of trademark percussion but all the players get to shine within the complex grooves. Moerlen gets to display his skills during an entertaining drum solo – three words that don’t often go together – before Esnuria from Gazeuse! pits heavy guitars and a driving rhythm against bright and twinkling percussion. A second track from probably their best studio album, Downwind, closes the album. Crosscurrents is rhythmically a very complex piece with Pierre to the fore but it retains melody and sends everyone home happy despite the long drawn out slow fade being an odd way to end a live album.
Moerlen proves himself a good leader with a great mastery of time and ear for a nice melody, the band supporting him more than ably. Although a very different band to the original it is just as worthy and these great sounding Esoteric re-masters are a timely reminder of how good this band was, particularly Pierre himself who sadly passed away in 2005, and how enjoyable their music remains. Overall Live is the more enjoyable listen with the group’s energy and enthusiasm driving the music along, but both discs are well worth picking up.
Leave It Open: 8 out of 10
Live: 8.5 out of 10
Out Of Focus – Wake Up!
Tracklist: See How A White Negro Flies (5:48), God Save The Queen Cried Jesus (7:28), Hey John (9:35), No Name (3:06), World’s End (9:55), Dark Darker (11:37)
I would imagine that most readers of this site will now be aware of Esoteric Recordings’ ongoing mission to remaster lost classics from the ‘70s and you are also probably aware of Reactive, a similar venture, from the same stable, whose focus is to revisit the past masters of German prog from the ‘70s. Out Of Focus are one of those artists that have received the grand treatment from the wonderful Mark Powell stables with the reissue and remastering of all three of their releases by Ben Wiseman.
Wake Up! was originally recorded and released in 1970 by a band that seemingly lacked the wherewithal to manage such a thing. A practised and experienced live outfit that had made a name for itself in and around Munich, the members of Out Of Focus hit the studio for the first time having procured label support from Eckart Rahn’s Kuckuck which had established itself the year before. However, the band was usually stoned and their live set featured prolonged jams that could see them playing for 3 hours. The discipline and rigour of the studio presented a challenge to the band who had to be made aware of the need for accuracy, tuning and brevity. “It took them a bit of adjustment,” remembers Rahn.
Nevertheless, there was a genuine desire to allow the band their artistic freedom and capture something of the socially conscious, psychedelic, and slightly surreal live experience that had made them a popular act in the first place. So they had two long weekends to track the album and, on listening to it, it has that cohesive, driven quality that often comes from the exquisite pressure of time.
Opening with See How A White Negro Flies, we get an immediate sense of the musical direction this album is going to take. A heavy, plodding, psychedelic groove supported by a spectacular ‘walking’ bass motif combines tightly with Klaus Spöri’s energetic and busy drumming while Remigius Drechsler pulls off a riff that would turn Ennio Morricone green. Drechsler’s guitar work is a highlight of the album and the band’s overall sound. He combines spastic thrashing rhythm work with electrifying, fuzzed and distorted lead work as well as dealing in clean picked box-riffs and gently strummed atmospherics. You get a real sense of this range in God Save The Queen Cried Jesus which cycles through vivid shades and phases led as much by Moran Neumüller’s wonderfully dynamic flute work as his off-the-wall, impassioned and theatrical vocal delivery. Neumüller’s declamatory squawking is something of an acquired taste however, often sounding too much like a hangover from ‘60s American protest music, although occasionally, he sounds passingly like Jim Morrison.
Hey John is an extended jam on a rising and descending chord pattern held dramatically and melodically in tow by Neumüller’s flute. Again Spöri’s athletic drumming is powerfully supported at every turn with fluid and intuitive bass runs while Hennes Hering (organs, piano) and Neumüller interject lengthy improvisational solos over the shifting weight and changing light of the band’s delicately calculated soft/loud dynamic. No Name has a similar feel in its brief, shouty moment and is perhaps remarkable in that it predates by some 7 or 8 years the raucous, New Wave aggro of early Ian Dury And The Blockheads.
Out Of Focus’ strength lies firmly in their instrumental endeavours. With the two closing tracks being longer than ten minutes each, there’s plenty of scope for the improvisatory excursions that have served them well throughout the album. There’s little development of the formula, just energetic, occasionally frenetic shaping of the dynamics. It’s raw and vivid, but I’m not getting much out of it by the end, just roach burn.
This is a fairly convincing debut that mashes several strands of the underground scene from the late ‘60s into a blend of Traffic, The Doors, early (Saucerful Of Secrets) Floyd with the hard rock of The Edgar Broughton Band and Atomic Rooster. Having said that, Out Of Focus are resolutely their own band with their own sound and their own take on the underground music scene of their day. It has an immediate appeal, made all the more attractive by Ben Wiseman’s excellent remaster, but once you start to delve beyond the surface, there’s not much to sustain interest. God Save The Queen Cried Jesus and Hey John are excellent tracks, but the rest leave me a little underwhelmed.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Out Of Focus – Out Of Focus
Tracklist: What Can A Poor Boy Do [But To Be A Street Fighting Man] (5:52), It’s Your Life (4:31), Whispering (13:34), Blue Sunday Morning (8:20), Fly Bird Fly (5:09), Television Program (11:45)
As Mario Rossi’s excellent liner notes make clear, by the summer of 1971 and the release of their sophomore album, the self-titled Out Of Focus, the band have quite dramatically eschewed the loose, amateurish rawness that characterised Wake Up! in favour of a more structured, professional approach.
In it’s place, Out Of Focus have adopted a more jazz-rock oriented style in the songwriting. Neumüller has jettisoned the lead role for the flute on this album and he now shares his woodwind duties between flute and saxophone. I’ll come straight out and say it, however. I find the sax work on this album incredibly unsophisticated and grating. Neumüller demonstrates little mastery of the instrument but uses it extensively as a tonal layer in the arrangements, often in tandem with Hennes Hering’s organ lines and sometimes in unison with Drechsler’s guitar lines. Musically, I find it repetitive and unimaginative. Of course, I say this with the benefit of hindsight and the use across the decades of a sax by many rock and prog acts in thrilling ways. Let’s just say Theo Travis he is not. I suppose it stands as a legitimate experiment with a brassy, hard-bop sound that would come to ultimate fruition a year later on Four Letter Monday Afternoon. Nevertheless, what I’m hearing here is, to me, an annoying intrusion in some interesting compositions.
To speak in broad strokes, Out Of Focus have slowed down a lot. The tracks on this album possess a much more open sound, allowing their musical ideas more space in which to breathe. There’s a subtlety to the playing beyond the soft/loud dynamics of their debut. Many of the melodic sensibilities of Wake Up! have been retained but developed to offer a broader harmonic palette. Fly Bird Fly is a wonderfully tuneful example of the way in which they have reconsidered their songwriting. Everything is so much more controlled and restrained. This is particularly notable in Klaus Spöri’s much more delicate drumming and even more so in Neumüller’s vocal delivery. On this album he comes over as a heavy-lidded performance poet channelling Mick Jagger to vent his anti-establishment spleen; but he is distant, detached, almost astral in his sonic position and it’s a whole lot more palatable. What he is saying does now sound a tad juvenile, but back then, this was real and avowedly counter-cultural.
What Can A Poor Boy Do [But To Be A Street Fighting Man] offers a hint in its title. That we ought to expect something reactionary but it doesn’t actually manifest itself in this track. With its high-tempo, infectious and repetitive rhythm, this could just have easily have been on a Blue Note Recordings release a decade earlier. Or perhaps Out Of Focus were inspired by the De Patie/Freleng cartoons of The Pink Panther with Henry Mancini’s iconic theme tune because there are clear echoes of that too. I imagine that this must have been an audience favourite at the time, just because it’s fun. It’s Your Life also has its tongue in its cheek as it gently see-saws its way along like a children’s nursery rhyme, but with a lyric like “No more whipping your bottom/When you’re gasping, longing for it”, I don’t suppose it was in any way intended as children’s entertainment.
Things start to get serious with Whispering, which is primitive and barely listenable unless you’re under the influence of psychoactive drugs. Essentially the same four notes again and again for its 14 minute duration; it’s as underground and dingy and seedy as I imagine 1971 Munich ever got. It still has its counterpart today in the kind of minimalist, downtempo techno you’ll hear in the chill-out rooms of dance clubs all over Europe. For me to get the desired effect required four HobNob biscuits eaten quickly and dry one after the other, no liquid to cleanse the palate, then lie back and let the sugar do its work. What a trip, man. Genuinely. This is what was great about the underground psychedelia of its day; played by heads for heads. It is shamanic and intoxicating if you can find the time and the mood to go with it.
Blue Sunday Morning continues the lysergic theme with Jesus being bored in heaven and desperate to come down to Earth and partake of some weed, but by the time Television Program loops its repetitive, though likeable, motif round and round my head, I feel a little browbeaten. The biscuits have obviously worn off, and without those sugar-laden receptors in my brain firing off, it’s really quite difficult to keep focussed on the music.
Like Wake Up!, this is undoubtedly a product of its times but it’s also something that can transcend those temporal boundaries and have some relevance for our modern anodised and commoditised ears. This album reminds us how great analogue can sound and once again, Ben Wiseman’s remaster superbly and faithfully recaptures the thrumming warmth of valves and the simple chemistry between five musicians. The fin de siècle doom-mongery of the debut has been replaced with a certain joie de vivre. Or maybe they were just on better drugs? They certainly seem to be having fun and enjoying what they are doing a bit more. As psychedelic albums go, this is one of the better ones I’ve heard. It also compares with some of The Doors early recordings. Just as Jim Morrison is ‘retiring’ to Paris after the recording of L.A. Woman, and four years after The Doors were asked to change the word ‘higher’ to the word ‘better’ in their rendition of Light My Fire on The Ed Sullivan Show, Out Of Focus are stoned out of their brains and carrying Morrison’s ‘scrambled-egg mind’ torch to a logical apotheosis. The Germans are more hardcore than I think the Doors could ever have dreamt of, even with Morrison in their midst, but they are also quite an influence on the Germans.
I’d approach this with caution unless you are a fan of late ‘60s and early’70s psychedelia. If you are, then I reckon you’ll lap this up. The alumni of that particular alma mater don’t actually get much better than this. Just go easy on the biscuits, kids, ok?
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Out Of Focus – Four Letter Monday Afternoon
CD 1: L.S.B (17:37), When I’m Sleeping (4:04), Tsajama (9:23), Black Cards (9:38), Where Have You Been (5:35)
CD 2: Huchen 55A (9:19), Huchen 55 B (14:32), Huchen 55 C (24:18)
L.S.B. opens 1972’s Four Letter Monday Afternoon on a fanfare before a characteristic two-note Out Of Focus groove ensues with trumpet and sax stabbing solos through the mix. This is a different animal. A complete brass section adds a new dimension that elevates the compositions into an altogether different musical realm. Jimmy Polivka (trumpet), Hermann Breuer (trombone) and Ingo Schmid-Neuhaus (alto and baritone sax) create a dramatic and punchy brass ensemble that lend the whole sound an intently and intensely jazz oriented feel not a million miles from Soft Machine. By now, Drechsler has also ‘learned’ how to play tenor sax, but he is as bad as Neumüller was on the previous album.
After the concussion wave of this opening salvo we return to some more familiar Out Of Focus territory: Neumüller’s lovely flute work juxtaposed with his awful tenor sax honking like a distressed goose. As it happens, Schmid-Neuhaus is no better on this track, as the pair embark upon an extended parping duel consisting of little more than atonal trilling that sounds like a duck fight.
Some of this disk sounds like it could almost have been commercial. Neumüller’s vocals are much more tuneful and Peter Dechant and Drechsler back him to create a level of vocal harmony that simply isn’t present on their other two albums. Elsewhere, thick, dark chords and rhythms swell beneath Drechsler’s serpentine guitar and, ever-present to great effect, are Neumüller’s sinuous flute solos. The dense, impenetrable sound on this album is a real treat in places especially in Tsajama where Michael Thatcher joins Hennes Hering as a guest organist.
Huchen 55 A, B & C is a 48-minute long suite and the title refers to the Munich address where the band rehearsed. Opening on a flute fugue, it fades into a laid-back jazz groove with Hering’s organ leading proceedings against a hard-jazz backdrop from the winds and brasses. Again, Out Of Focus demonstrate how a two chord motif can be embellished, expanded and jammed around; juxtaposing the simple with the complex to good effect. Spöri and Stephan Wisheu get to demonstrate what a tight unit they’ve become with some persistently itchy drumming from Spöri underscored by Wisheu’s ambulatory bass lines. Resolving to the same flute fugue at the end of part A, part B continues in a similar and distinctly hard-bop framework as the group showcase their knack for juxtaposing riffs and instrumental interplay in big, rhythmic waves. Sometimes meandering and sometimes crashing into the unexpected nooks and caves of a jagged coast, the melodies are often abstract and emotional. I really enjoy this aspect of their evolution: the soft loud dynamic and the anti-establishment angst of their early work has developed into a much more artful and arresting product. Neumüller and Drechsler combine their principal instruments with a technically involving touch and the whole thing manoeuvres with the character of an intensifying psychedelic dream.
Unfortunately, part C falls prey, perhaps inevitably for a band like Out Of Focus, to the temptation of Musique Concrète, presumably to remain in opposition somehow; to value the experimental to the point of obtuseness. 25 minutes of letting the monkeys loose with the studio is more than I can bear. However, it does possess some strong passages as each instrument rips a solo spot. Texturally, it’s really ambitious, but it’s as if they reached their creative zenith in part B and had no imagination left for much more than entropy as the harmonic themes steadily implode under their own gravity.
To sum up then, I have spent a long time with these four disks and I have to confess, am rather pleased to have finally finished constructing this review. Esoteric’s release of these three albums represents the development of a bunch of hoary (and hairy), talented musical ne’er do wells that ultimately couldn’t keep their shit together beyond 1974. Internal divides, ennui and plain disinterest seem to have brought Out Of Focus to it’s bleary-eyed knees. One or two did go on to other projects and there are a couple of posthumous releases showcasing their final, unreleased recordings together.
In an increasingly curatorial milieu that is effectively ‘saving’ many, many recordings by bands that briefly flourished and died in the early Seventies, the efforts to do so are to be roundly applauded. These three albums are, if nothing else, an interesting social document. What Out Of Focus additionally represent is a particular zeitgeist, and their music has a profound historical relevance in this regard. It’s been an education for me too, piquing my interest in other German artists recording at the same time – it’s not a branch of the prog tree that I have ever explored before and my knowledge is limited, to say the least.
Tellingly perhaps, I don’t think I’ll return to these three albums again but they provide an anchor point around which I can tie any further investigation - a yardstick, if you like. Ironically, Out Of Focus now represent a lens to me through which to view other musical excursions by their countrymen and their contemporaries. I also think that these three albums represent some of the best and some of the worst of the risk-taking, libertarian movements of their time. Superbly remastered and unfussily packaged with informative liner notes, Esoteric have provided us with another fascinating window into the early formation of European progressive music.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Hawkwind - Distant Horizons
With the new millennium looming and rapidly approaching 30 years as a band, Hawkwind saw 1997 as a time to make some changes in their musical direction. Two years after Alien 4 the group reconvened to start recording Distant Horizons. Inevitably for a band that has always had a somewhat fluid approach to membership, there was a change in line-up, with bassist Alan Davey leaving the fold for personal reasons. Rather than draft in a new bass player, vocalist Ron Tree took over on the four string. Instead, helmsman Dave Brock decided to bring in a full-time second guitarist, Jerry Richards who, along with drummer Richard Chadwick completed the quartet's line-up. It is somewhat ironic that for the first time since 1988 the band had a second guitarist given how Distant Horizons turned out.
Although Hawkwind had never shied away from experimentation or dipping their toes into musical pools that deviated from their traditional space rock approach, the new material saw, at times, a relatively deep immersion into ambient, trance rock, relying heavily on synthesisers to provide the bulk of the musical backing. Title track and opener must have confused a lot of long-term fans when they first played the album and I bet more than a few had to check the label to make sure they hadn't been given the wrong album. A synthesised beat and some Rastafarian toasting by Captain Rizz is not the most promising of beginnings but at least it is only a relatively brief delay before the characteristic Brock guitar breaks through. Various sounds of animals and trippy synths provide an interlude before some real drums start up a dominant beat that introduces Phetamine Street. Although the vocal delivery and lyrics are not great, there is a certain similarity with the Hawklords era live performances and at least it is a rockier number, although by far from the best thing that the group has come up with. Waimea Canyon Drive (in case you wondered, it is in Hawaii!) is relatively unfocused with Brock's vocals curiously deep in the mix and, despite being somewhat lightweight, has its charms. Better is instrumental Alchemy which is more reminiscent of the 80s material of the band showing the advantages of having two guitarists in the band and is actually rather good. Things take a bit of a dip with Clouded Vision, with its slower tempo and rather ominous repeating synthesiser beat that a couple of decades earlier would most probably have been played on church bells. Odd passages flit in and out before the song sort of gives up on itself altogether. Reptoid Vision is the second track on the original album that takes on the heavier mantle of previous years with once again a strong Hawklords flavour and also worthy of a listen. In this context the more ambient middle section does work well, varying the tempo and allowing the more experimental aspects of the band to be temporarily explored before the biting rock of the core song resumes.
However, with the exception of another decent (largely) instrumental, the remaining tracks from the album are not that brilliant. Guitars are mostly used as sound effects and there is a very programmed feel to the music, largely generated by synths. It is hard to know what to say about these pieces as they are outside my usual frame of reference, a problem obviously also encountered by sleeve note writer Malcolm Dome who apart from mentioning the "dreamscape qualities" of Population Overload brushes past the other tracks without even mentioning them. I found the aforementioned Population Overload to be far too long and ultimately very boring. Wheels, the aforementioned 'instrumental' (there is a spoken word section to break up the song), is also pretty decent, maybe even being the pick of the bunch, and emphasises that Hawkwind are at their peak when performing as a group. Kauai is a rather dreamy instrumental that uses the sound of waves as a backing, but is rather isolated and seems out of context whilst Taxi For Max (laughingly included amongst the album's 'excellent material' in the press release) is 43 seconds of noises and pointlessness. Final piece from the original album is Love In Space which is not the same as the single released by the band a few years earlier, unless it has been remixed to hell with all original traces of the song having been eliminated. Not a strong end to the album as it is in the same category as Population Overload.
Three bonus tracks are included, all recorded after the album had been completed. The first, Archaic is very similar to Alchemy and Reptoid Vision and would have been a better choice for the album if it had been available - although it could be countered that if it had been included the album might have not been diverse enough. Whatever, I think it might have made the album a better proposition for fans. The alternative take on Kauai is radically different featuring frantic drums in the intro abruptly brushed aside by the dreamier element of the original before rapidly fading out. The overall impression is of someone messing about on a keyboard. Last of the bonus tracks, Morpheus is little better than a demo and is hardly a fully fledged song.
With 4 1/2 to 5 relatively decent songs, the album is rather hit and miss and so far removed from the heyday of the band that it is not surprising that many loyal fans began becoming rather indifferent to new Hawkwind studio albums. I suppose anyone for whom Distant Horizons was the first Hawkwind album they had heard might have been more responsive and open to the mixture of styles but, on the whole, for me it's an album that will mostly be left on the shelf.
Conclusion: 4.5 out of 10