Album Reviews

Issue 2024-020

Alan Draper — On Track... The Divine Comedy

Alan Draper - On Track... The Divine Comedy
Mark Hughes

SonicBond have so far published 122 books in their On Track... series alongside 35 in the Decades series and about 30 other titles, most of which focus on musical subjects, although they have occasionally dipped their toes into film. Some of these books are well researched with the writers approaching the artists and acquiring hands on insights into the production of the music being reviewed, others are more personal opinions offering up obscure analogies, personal bias and running towards the dogmatic. However, from what I have seen of the On Track series they do tend to live up to the subtitle of Every Album, Every Song. As such they provide the interested a good basis for checking out the obscure items from a band's discography, even if the editorial standards can be somewhat less than rigorous.

The Divine Comedy are the subject handled by Draper in his second title for SonicBond. The first, on Stackridge, came with a foreword by a band member and received a favourable review on DPRP. The second does not and will not. But why? I hear you cry. Simply because it is severely lacking. It neither covers every album, nor every song. Yes the studio albums are covered as well as 30 other non-album songs with an additional 28 songs referred to in the text but not reviewed. The live Loose Canon receives a passing mention, which is more than can be said for Live At Somerset House which is not mentioned at all. And it can't be because live albums are considered redundant by the author as there is a whole chapter devoted to A Short Album About Love, but only the seven songs of the album, and not the nine additional tracks that were spread over the singles.

The Divine Comedy were at their most popular at a time when it was de rigueur to release singles in multiple formats and versions which all needed filling up with additional tracks, most of which are not mentioned here. The limited edition bonus albums Swallows And Amazons Original Piano Demos and In May are largely passed over with no real indication if they are worth a collector hunting down; the second CD of rarities from A Secret History is ignored; and there is scant mention of the work that Hannon has recorded, written or co-written with other artists — just seven songs aside from the Duckworth Lewis Method albums — his close associations with Pugwash and Duke Special deserve a lot more consideration, particularly as the latter is not even mentioned. Worst of all, the sumptuous Venus, Folly, Cupid & Time box set is completely overlooked despite the wealth of previously unreleased material and insights that the set contained.

Based on my own collection, and ignoring work with other artists, radio sessions (some of which, e.g. the French Black Sessions, have been released in small quantities) and other "grey" items, I estimate that there are about 330 officially released tracks that are not mentioned in the book. Granted, these are not all unique tracks, but are demos (49 songs), live renditions (38 songs), alternative versions (26 songs), early ideas/versions (21 songs), mixes (8 songs), instrumental versions (7 songs), acoustic versions (6 songs), radio edits (5 songs), contributions to tribute albums (2 songs) and even a couple of odd things (2 songs). But that still leaves an enormous 166 that have been released under the name The Divine Comedy that are not even mentioned in the book, let alone discussed as to how they may differ from album versions or consideration as to why they were not included on an album.

Considering the not in-expensive price of the book this is a rather shoddy and incomplete overview. The SonicBond website states "Beautifully researched books for music fans, Sonicbond Publishing pride ourselves on the quality of its information, especially via our flagship On Track series." On Track... The Divine Comedy belies that statement as it lacks research and is missing quality information.

Scott Meze — On Track... Soft Machine

Scott Meze - On Track... Soft Machine
Jan Buddenberg

Since the start of On Track... there have been quite a few authors from SonicBond's source of writers who have issued more than one volume in this splendid series. Joining them is the self-confessed psychedelic music obsessive Scott Meze, who after his excellent and devotedly informative read on Nektar now presents his second book On Track... Soft Machine.

Prior to the book I literally knew nothing about Soft Machine apart from the general knowledge of the band's Canterbury heritage, their musical relatedness with bands like Caravan and Gong, and what my colleagues wrote in their recent reviews. Meze's highly elaborative and ridiculously well-researched story changed this for the better. Although I probably need to have ten additional goes at his exceptional in-depth read to fully absorb the extensive amount of details, information, analyses and interesting side-stories.

This all begins by Meze stating Soft Machine to be a beast of a band, especially when reconstruction of their family tree is involved. Where mine can easily be printed on a single sheet of paper, although marrying into a triplet of sisters does complicate matters, this for Soft Machine and their Soft-offspring (Soft Heap, Soft Head, Soft Ware, Soft Works, Soft Mountain, Soft Bounds, ...) indeed results in a labyrinthine print-out so vast and bewildering complex that newbies to the band seem better off at trying to fathom quantum mechanics.

Until now that is, for Meze to great effect reconstructs an intelligible red-line in Soft Machine's infinitely shifting incarnations and goes at length to clarify and capture each project ever undertaken by the institute's members during the band's (so far) 55 years existence. Supporting his conquest is the book's well-chosen paragraph structure which on various occasions first paints the future, after which a step back in time is taken and fitting descriptions of the corresponding albums follow.

This way, Meze is able to slice up the band's overall jigsaw of chaos into smaller puzzles of relative fathomable clearness which proves to be especially handy in the dauntingly complex formative years of the band and the era shortly after there were none of the founding members left. The only drawback to this approach is that Meze now prematurely bids farewell to his readers on page 137 and ends his story fifteen pages (or five albums) later on a somewhat unexpected note.

During these dense and brilliantly information packed paragraphs Meze in sublime OCD mode digs deep into the discography and offers many a tip of interest to boot. As a complete stranger to the band, fully oblivious even that the well-known Alan Holdsworth played an important role on their 1975 album Bundles, I can't fully verify whether all related releases are accounted for. But based on mind-boggling thoroughness I'm fairly convinced Meze mentions them all and after rounding off in 2023 with Soft Machines latest effort Other Doors fully nails the book's subtitle's Every Album, Every Song directive.

Another aspect Meze is very successful at, is creating a precise impression of the music and how this all works out (or not) within the various incarnations of the band. Next to accurate interpretations like "virtuosity defying chaos" and "subtlety be damned" this includes unvarnished opinions that go all over the appraisal spectrum ("awful", "dreadful", "fans like me ache that there isn't more") and contains a plethora of humorous remarks that as the entertaining story unfolds puts many a smile on my face. His words on page 120 — "But wait... things get complicated now" — almost had me in tears. Really? That's when things get complicated?

No Mr. Meze, that's where things start to get pretty straightforward! Supplemented with a photo section and all kinds of memory-refreshing details — this time including a mention of the controversial Dutch TV program Hoepla, a very short-lived show to which Soft Machine was invited in 1967 that through the first ever exposure of female nudity on national television caused quite a political stir — this is simply a must-have for Soft Machine enthusiasts and comes highly recommended for those keen to expand their knowledge on progressive history.

Emma Stott — On Track... The Zombies

Emma Stott - On Track... The Zombies
Jan Buddenberg

This book on The Zombies is not only the latest addition in the infinitely growing On Track... universe I have read. It's also the last volume on my gradually bending alphabetically ordered book shelve. In future only to be surpassed I reckon when a writer will draw his attention to ZZ Top, a band light years away in musical style yet has more in common with The Zombies than one might imagine. More on that later.

Author of the book is Emma Stott, an English teacher who dearly missed out on the 60s/70s. A loss she makes up for by devoting her time writing passionately about literature, education and the greatest decades in rock music. For the On Track series this so far has resulted in her take on Jimi Hendrix, an effort praised highly by my colleague Jerry Van Kooten. Something easy to see as to why, for her use of the English language is most excellent, creative, descriptive and perfectly phrased and overall yields a fast-paced page turning quality that's refreshing to read and at times proves hard to put down as she unfolds her narrative about The Zombies.

This vivid tale starts in 1961 when the first Zombies incarnation of Rod Argent (keys), Colin Blunstone (vocals), Chris White (bass), Hugh Grundy (drums) and Paul Atkinson (guitar) comes to life. Playing the circuit with mostly R&B covers the lives of these youngsters in May 1964 then forever changes when they win a Battle of the Bands contest, sign a subsequent record deal, and after full approval by Atkinson's mother — who had to write a note to allow her son time off from school — recorded and released their first single She's Not There in June.

This timeless 2:23 minute length composition put them firmly on the map in Europe and the You Really Got Me-hypnotised UK. This was followed by a massive appreciative response from the USA where The Zombies instantly became part of the so-called "British Invasion": a mid-60s cultural phenomenon when rock/pop stars like The Beatles, Tom Jones, The Who, The Animals and The Rolling Stones (to name but a few) ruled, influenced and controlled the American music scene and charts.

In light of the song's historic value and mammoth global success, which amongst other things led to "Zombie-mania" in the Philippines, it is therefore fully understandable Stott sanctifies a seven-page elaborate love declaration on this immortal song. A composition this writer first encountered as the iconic 1977 Santana cover version by the way, probably like many people born in or after the 1970s.

Seeing albums not yet belonged to the order of the day (see also Geoff Feakes' take on The Who) Stott makes the right decision to recreate the Zombies timeline based on singles. Using well-chosen words of praise, elegant criticism and an analytical "everything but the kitchen sink" approach which for instance includes magazine quotes (Record Collector, Goldmine), interview segments with Argent/Blunstone, and a diversity of musical enlightenment, she thus crafts a delightfully entertaining read with high informative insightful depth.

Stott has clearly done her homework in capturing the books subtitle of including every song recorded by The Zombies, although it does cause some confusion when she addresses the 1966 Bunny Lake Is Missing film. Twice acknowledging this soundtrack holds three Zombie tracks, she only describes two and wholesomely neglects to mention Nothing's Changed here. It surfaces much later on the posthumous 2002 released R.I.P. album, where it is duly noted by Stott, but inclusion within these film highlighting pages seems more fitting and logical to me. Especially when the admittedly rare Philippine single is taken into account that pops up after a relative easy google search.

Passing the album Begin Here and The Zombies' masterly misspelled 1967 masterpiece Odessey And Oracle, which includes their second timeless classic Time Of The Season, Stott, with the same thoroughly entertaining writing panache, then unfortunately causes chronological confusion when she takes on the "counterfeit" Zombies subject.

Failing to attract attention with Odessey And Oracle, an album nowadays widely regarded as a masterpiece, it is namely in December 1967 the real Zombies were laid to rest for the very first time. Their song Time Of The Season however would go on to become a major hit in the USA and lead to the birth of several counterfeit Zombie groups like The Original Zombies, a band of not so sharp dressed man featuring Frank Beard and Dusty Hill of future ZZ Top fame. In answer to this, The Zombies temporarily reformed and to no avail released two additional singles in 1969, after which they remained dead and buried for the duration of three decades.

Stott's description of the singles right before the After The First Break chapter, a comprehensively written segment that takes a closer look at Blunstone and Argent's 70s projects in which Stott mistakenly credits the "greatest organ solo ever" in Hold Your Head Up to the commenting praiser Rick Wakeman, is therefore technically unjust. This minor flaw is easily overcome but unfortunately Stott picks up on the counterfeit story in the first part of the subsequently described 1991 album New World, finally naming the aforementioned beardless imposters whom she better could have exposed before the two 1969 singles to avoid timeline issues.

Getting firmly back in the chronology saddle Stott thereafter continues to perfectly interpret the posthumous releases Zombie Heaven and R.I.P., albums filled with leftover musical treasures from the 60s, and pays attention to the reunion of Argent and Blunstone (Out Of The Shadows) which ultimately resulted in the resurrection of The Zombies. Managing to bring a smile of prog-normal surprise to my face by casually mentioning that at least three compositions that pushed the five-minute mark overstayed their welcome on As Far As I Can See, Stott successfully evaluates two more studio albums. And after The Zombies' latest 2023 release Different Game rounds up with a selection of live and compilation albums worth pursuing for collectors and other Zombie haunters.

Despite temporal timeline fluctuations On Track... The Zombies on a whole offers a delightful insight into the artistry of the Zombies and perfectly explains the obviousness as to why they were finally inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. The individual careers of Blunstone and Argent, especially the latter's band effort Argent in my case, will probably have a livelier appeal to prog enthusiasts. Yet for anyone who enjoys a vivacious story told captivatingly well this is a fine addition of substantial informative weight worthy of testing the carrying strength of your book shelve.

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