Archive for the ‘ Prog ’ Category

Flower Travellin’ Band “Make Up”

In the wake of their rather extraordinary, barnstormer of a classic, Satori, the Flower Traveling Band stepped up to the bar and managed to pull off that all-too-rare of feats, an artistically successful follow-up. While not quite the record that Satori had been, Made In Japan managed to establish the Band as a force to be reckoned with, and hinted at a long and illustrious career to come. Something seems to have gone a little haywire in-between the time that third record hit shelves and the compilation of what would come to be the group’s fourth, and final, release: 1973′s studio/live double-record set, Make Up. The Traveling Band had shed off a good percentage of the psychedelia that had marked their most legendary work, and instead developed themselves into a progressive, hard rock band, in tune with the sound of the era.

So what does all this have to say about Make Up? Well, despite the odds being against it, the record is a solid work, with some memorable material and at least a few gems. Most of it is something of a grab bag, veering back and forth between hard rock bluster and rather sentimental balladry. “All the Days” is one of the record’s heavier, most typical Traveling Band numbers, with a gnarly guitar solo and a rather schizoid bass line. The following “Look  At My Window” is a ten minute cut of acoustic prog that makes it clear that the band wasn’t planning on resting on their laurels, as marked by some great vocal harmonies. “The Shadow of Lost Days” is hundred-proof blues, and a showcase of sorts for Joe Yamanaka’s soulful wail. The more unusual cuts to be found here include a twenty-three minute work-out on Made In Japan‘s “Hiroshima,” half of which is unfortunately taken up by a ridiculously overextended drum solo, and a laughable riff on “Blue Suede Shoes” featuring the band’s manager on lead vocals that never should have happened in the first place, much less have been recorded for all of posterity. If it weren’t for a roaring live take of Satori‘s legendary second movement and the soaring, atmospheric acoustic closing number, “After the Concert,” the second record might be considered pure filler, but as it is these last two tracks almost makes it worth sitting through the preceding half hour of hits-and-misses.

Make Up may not be the place to start with the Flower Traveling Band’s catalog, but if you have already dug the majestic freak-outs of Satori, then you could do a lot worse than picking this collection up as well. The band would not release another record until 2008′s rather dismal reunion album We Are Here, making this the end of the line for one of Japan’s most highly-regarded psychedelic exports. The two-disc set has most recently been reissued by Phoenix Records, and while their set commands a rather high, double-CD price new, you can score a copy second-hand for far less.

mp3: Look At My Window

:D Reissue | 2011 | Phoenix | buy here ]
:) Original | 1973 | Atlantic | search ebay ]

Fred (self-titled)

The band Fred emerged out of a late-sixties, rural Pennsylvania university scene with a unique sound born not only from its laid-back surroundings, but from a rather heady record collection spanning everything from The Band to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Though they were only around for a couple years before dissolving into the Lost Annals of Forgotten Music You’ve Probably Never Head About, they managed to record a series of testaments to their musical development that have stood the test of time. The first of these, the dopily self-titled Fred, is definitely the crown jewel of the lot, and captures the band in a beautiful, early stage of development in which they are still experimenting at blending their eclectic interests under the spell of their mellow surroundings.

Perhaps nowhere is the band’s catholic tastes more in evidence than in the opening number, the cryptically entitled “Four Evenings.” Everything here swirls and meanders, but all around a central point. I have never been one for what is generally known as “progressive rock,” but Fred manages to borrow certain elements from that emerging genre and incorporate them seamlessly into a group sound that is clearly grounded in American country, blues and folk music (it doesn’t take much to identify the influence of ye olde favorites Crosby, Stills and Nash on their vocal harmonies, that’s for sure). The searing violin work never comes across as musically exhibitionist, or as one of those cliched attempts at transforming a collection of simple little rock and roll songs into some more respectable/bourgeoisie form of “high art.” Rather, the instrument serves as an accent where it is needed, and is not afraid to make itself scarce when it is not.

Perhaps a good reference point to give would be the British rock group Mighty Baby, who were in the process of cutting their excellent Jug of Love record. Both recordings manage to fuse a deep sense of popular aesthetics and traditional musical forms with innovative musical virtuosity and daring. Fred does not engage in the same measure of lengthy improvisations, but more than makes up for this by penning a series of beautiful (albeit surreal) ballads, such as “Soft Fisherman” and “Salvation Lady,” the latter of which includes a tasteful example of the aforementioned violin work. The longest piece here, the seven minute space odyssey “Wind Words,” is a pretty odd composition, and is perhaps the closest that Fred comes to jazz-fusion territory, though the gonzo vocal lines and wah-pedal guitar also hint at the Mothers of Invention influence claimed in the record’s liner notes.

One would think that such an unusual little nugget of a record would have managed to draw at least a little popular attention in psychedelic circles, but Fred still remains elusive. In fact, the record remained entirely unreleased until 2001, when the German record label World In Sound reissued this collection on both vinyl and compact disc, drawing together what would have otherwise been the group’s first record with the aid of several of the original members, who also contribute liner notes. Two additional releases have also seen the light of day, a sophomore album and a live set, both from 1974, but these make the full plunge into prog/jazz-fusion, sadly abandoning most of Fred‘s hazy, country roots.

mp3: Four Evenings
mp3: A Love Song

:D Reissue | 2001 | World in Sound | buy from world in soundamazon ]

The Groundhogs “Split”

Here’s one I can’t believe I haven’t heard before. For a record with such a commanding presence, excellent would-be classic tunes, and an ahead of its time Nirvanesque sound it’s a shock I can find too scant mention of it around these parts or elsewhere. In reality, it’s my shame I haven’t run across the Groundhogs before now, as their legendary run through most of the 60s’ British blues scene and subsequent forays in hard jam-rock are not to be overlooked.

Not at all “blues” and too cool for the prog tag, Split is more like a psych-tinged  insanity-fueled classic rock opus. Side A, a continuing amalgam of anthemic classic rock jams, “Split Parts 1-4″ (the lyrics apparently inspired by a panic attack), is the kind of amped-up music it can be dangerous to drive to; “Part 1″ is so juiced it makes me want to join a frantic crime spree. “Part 2″ may be the catchiest song with it’s driving wah-guitar lead and chop chords. Tony McPhee is clearly running the show, his guitar playing so effortless, dynamic, reeking of virtuosity; this is as in the zone as it gets. Not to diminish the efforts of Peter Cruikshank on guitar and bass and Ken Pustelnik wildly beating away, this band can fucking play.

“Cherry Red” may be the sickest, meanest classic I’ve never heard. How this masterpiece has evaded classic rock radio, movie soundtracks, and my ears altogether I’ll never understand. (Instead of the endless barrage of Black Keys and Jack Whites on the airwaves, music supervisors would do well to score something like this, both for the better of their budgets and our sanities.) On the self-titled “Groundhog,” McPhee proves he can swat the devil blues out of his electrified acoustic as fine as Robert Johnson, providing the album’s only real taste of blues.

Grab this mean, mighty bastard as soon as you can find it.

mp3: Split (Part One)
mp3: Cherry Red

:) Original | 1971 | Liberty | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2003 | Caroline | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Ithaca “A Game For All Who Know”

Though only one record was ever released under the name Ithaca, the band actually has a rather lengthy history which encompasses four different LPs. The band’s roots lay in the British folk duo Peter Howell and John Ferdinando, who put out two obscure albums in the late 1960s under their own names before pulling their act together into the band Agincourt. That band’s Fly Away, released in 1970, was a gently magnificent slice of cosmic folk-rock which highlighted the ethereal vocals of Lee Menelaus. A Game For All Who Know is technically the follow-up to that unfortunately unheralded release, marked by a change in name (which probably didn’t help the groups’ momentum, if they had any at all by this point), and a somewhat darker atmosphere.

The songs on A Game For All Who Know tend to bleed into each other in a rather seamless continuum, giving the record the feel of a concept album. All in all, it’s a relaxing trip. Though “The Journey” opens rather auspiciously with an explosion, the buzzing of insects, and what sounds like a soaring air raid siren, it soon dissolves down into a beautiful wash of gentle cymbal crescendos and finger-picked guitars. Droning vocals are kept relatively low in the mix, making the overall sound a little disorienting but also emphasizing the engaging instrumental textures which underlay the songs. According to the liner-notes on the Acme Lion reissue, the band decided during the recording of this album that their material had gotten too complicated and involved to perform live.

The sound of the record has more to do with chiming 1960s U.K. folk rock than it does with most of Ithaca’s progressive-leaning contemporaries. Jangling acoustic guitars provide the bedrock around which most of these songs are written, and instrumental flourishes tend toward flutes, Gilmour-esque slide guitar runs and organ trills that never escape their place as accents. Even the record’s eight-and-a-half minute centerpiece “Times” floats on a quietly-tumbling Bryter Layter atmosphere before picking up the pace into a bright, country-rock groove. The cosmic “Dreams” is perhaps one of the album’s most unsettling moments, in which traces of jazz piano melt and bleed into clouds of fuzz guitar before light ivory arpeggios bring the proceedings down into a rather sudden fade-out. Cut to the lengthy, record-closing reprise of “The Journey,” introduced by the sound of pages turning and a a burst of flamenco guitar before sampled NASA radio chatter announces that “Houston, we are underway” and Ithaca returns to the spaced-out balladry that by now has clearly been revealed to be their forte. It’s only in the introduction of weird, rudimentary synthesizer harmonies on this cut that the band starts to push into standard prog territory, though they redeem themselves a little later in the piece as it begins to slide out into a super mellow, freestyle improvisation.

The band would release one more record, this one under the name Friends and being more of a Peter Howell project than anything. Howell was also spending more and more time as a composer at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (where he would go on to compose the second Doctor Who theme, released as a single under his own name in the late seventies), and slowly the loose amalgam of musicians that had made up Agincourt, Ithaca and Friends ceased recording formally together. They left an impressive run of musical testaments, however, and A Game For All Who Know is worth checking out. Though it was only released in a limited run of ninety-nine LPs back in 1973, the aforementioned Acme Lion edition is readily available for anyone down to take “the journey.”

mp3: Questions
mp3: Peace of Mind

:D Reissue | 2008 | Lion | buy at amazon ]

Bo Hansson “Ur Trollkarlens Hatt”

Technically speaking, Bo Hansson’s Ur Trollkarlens Hatt (on English editions: Magician’s Hat) comes from the same Swedish music scene as the International Harvester record covered a few weeks back. Around the time that Bo Anders Persson was breaking down artistic and political barriers with said troupe of psychedelic renegades, Hansson was serving as one half of the musical duo Hansson and Karlsson, dropping heavy waves into the European music scene and eventually collaborating with Jimi Hendrix (who would go on to record a version of their song “Tax Free,” released on his posthumous record War Heroes). The two bands carved very different furrows in the realm of underground Swedish rock, however, and this 1973 solo record of Hansson’s definitely works well in highlighting the stunning diversity of the Swedish progg movement.

Where Harvester built its sound on a raw, spontaneous strain of improvised, communal music-making, Hansson was much more methodical in his composition and recording. His first album, the surprisingly well-known Tolkien-driven concept album Sagen Om Ringen, set the stage for most of what was to come later from the pen of this highly talented (and apparently quite reclusive) keyboardist: engaging soundscapes veering back and forth between cosmic space-outs and tight, electric grooves. Hatt takes that formula and throws it through all sorts of subtle little loops, incorporating fragmentary touches of…well, pretty much everything. Progressive keyboard passages melt beautifully into jazz horns, acoustic guitars, spy-theme allusions and blissed-out pedal steel flourishes, creating an eclectic, but somehow complementary, tapestry of music that, while not entirely connecting to the eye-catching album cover, is quite otherworldly.

The album opens with what is possibly its most ambitious statement, the epic, eleven minute suite “Storstad.” The piece may not be the highlight of the album, as one might hope by its length, but it is nevertheless a rewarding listen full of memorable moments. It somehow manages to shift back and forth between various complex dynamics without ever dissolving into the sort of pretentious, instrumental indulgences that mar so much similar music of the period. That which might be called the “middle” of the album is composed of a series of short numbers that, while marked as separate tracks, all work together in much the same way as the opening cut’s various movements. The guitar and flute interplay of “Fylke” and the acid-drenched “Findhorns Sång” are two highlights here. The second half of the record sees a shift away from the horns and jazz-flavored lines of the first side, and instead places more emphasis on the organ and electric guitar. These are the cuts I find myself returning to most often. Dig the driving rhythm and spiraling guitars of “Vandringslåt,” or the electric piano and fatback drums that almost help push “Solen” into krautrock territory. The final number even throws on some wah-wah and a heavy, fuzzed out lead guitar…before taking a disorienting detour into happy-go-lucky parlor jazz.

Both EMI and One Way Ticket Records have reissued Ur Trollkarlens Hatt at one point or another, both with extended versions of “Big City,” and the former with the added addition of two bonus tracks. Those wholly turned off by anything bordering on progressive rock may be wary of this album, but it’s distinct enough from such fare that you should be able to shake your preconceptions about the genre and take this record in on its own terms.

mp3: Findhorns Sång
mp3: Vandringslåt

:D CD Reissue | 2004 | EMI | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1973 | Silence Records | search ebay ]

International Harvester “Sov Gott Rose-Marie”

One of the more under-appreciated international underground music scenes to emerge from the 1960s was Sweden’s iconoclastic progg movement, spearheaded by political organizers and avant-garde musicians such as International Harvester founder Bo Anders Persson. These musicians fought to cultivate a new social and artistic consciousness among Swedish youth, playing free shows across the country and recording experimental, minimalist improvisations that pushed back against an elitist, exclusionary musical culture. According to Persson, their principle goal was to bring the community back into the music. Many different bands would emerge from the progg scene, laying down sounds from fuzzed-out trance rock to traditional Swedish folk and more or less everywhere in-between. This record falls in-between.

The history of International Harvester is somewhat convoluted, due to a constantly shifting lineup and unstable name. Originally the group formed under the monicker Pärson Sound, recording two  albums’ worth of material but never releasing a proper record. On scoring a record deal, the band renamed itself International Harvester, a reference to the U.S.-owned tractor manufacturer and a symbolic attack against corporate agriculture. To avoid legal wrangling, however, the band soon had to shorten their name to Harvester, and released one last record with their current lineup before dissolving into Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stone) and finally managing to score popular success.

Sov Gott Rose Marie, the band’s sole release under the International Harvester name, is an unusual patchwork of field recordings, electric krautrock jams and percussive experimentation that bridges the sonic gap between what the Velvet Underground was laying down in New York (the band was actually personally invited by Andy Warhol to play an exposition, but things fell through) and the Amon Düül commune was brewing in Munich circa 1969. Though the music may sound free-form, closer listening reveals the rigorous discipline displayed by the individual musicians. Each member leaves his ego at the door and subsumes himself in the music, a quality perhaps picked up from the band’s time spent studying and performing under the auspices of the aforementioned Riley back in the mid-sixties.

After opening with the deep drone of a Latin death hymn and the chirping of woodland birds, the record wastes no time kicking into gear. “There Is No Other Place” is perhaps Sov Gott Rose Marie‘s heaviest track, combining the band’s obsession with heavy, pounding tribal rhythms with an overdriven guitar line lifted straight out of the Hawkwind bible. Three tracks later and the disarmingly concise “Ho Chi Minh” serves as one of the band’s more unusual political statements, exploding the Harvester’s percussive tendencies into a Viet Minh war chant running on a hypnotic two-note figure by bassist Torbjörn Abelli. It is perhaps the group’s artistic and political spirit (the band was associated with the Swedish Communist Party’s youth league, and performed and recorded regularly at the Kafe Marx in Stockholm) most perfectly distilled: no time wasted, no unnecessary chords – the new electric underground resistance in less than two minutes.

The mellower side of International Harvester makes itself apparent on “The Runcorn Report on Western Progress” and the droning title track, which rides at a glacial tempo that perfectly foreshadows such later record’s as Earth’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. “It’s Only Love” is one of the band’s closest forays into the realm of popular music, but coming in right after “Ho Chi Minh” it’s given its own surreal edge that keeps you on your toes through all of its one minute-forty seconds. All these shorter songs (basically encapsulating Side A of the originally-planned album release) are only a teaser for Sov Gott‘s second half, however, which is composed of three mammoth jams carried over from the group’s Pärson Sound days. “Skördetider (Harvest Times)” runs almost half an hour, a roaring cauldron of blissed-out space rock featuring spiraling violin lines and low, moaning vocals before an intense fuzz guitar improvisation rends the track to pieces. “I Mourn You” is thirteen minutes of a similar brew, while “How To Survive” is an extended Swedish folk chant built around sleepy-eyed percussion and what sounds like a saxophone impersonating an old, croaking hurdy-gurdy.

All of Pärson Sound/International Harvester/Harvester’s records have been recently re-released in one form or another, with Sov Got Rose Marie finding berth with the independent Swedish label Silence Recordings and finally emerging on compact disc in 2006. This is perhaps one of the definitive documents of 1960s Sweden, and an essential record for anyone interested in the more experimental and stimulating strains of acid rock. Hell, even on the most cursory listen it doesn’t take long to realize that International Harvester was truly a band ahead of its time, and one long overdue for popular rediscovery.

mp3: The Runcorn Report on Western Progress
mp3: Sommarlåten (The Summer Song)

:D Reissue | 2006 | Silence Recordings | buy from amazon ]
:) Original | 1969 | Love Records | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Rare Bird “Epic Forest”

Rare Bird formed in London in 1969 and rapidly became one of the standard-bearers for the new neo-classical, keyboard-driven strain of British progressive rock. Whilst eschewing the pompous on-stage approach of ELP and Yes, they exhibited an equally impressive musical pedigree. Unusually, they included no guitarist, the four-man line-up consisting of organ, electric piano, bass guitar and drums. Classically-trained organist Graham Field’s songwriting and bassist Steve Gould’s powerful, soulful voice yielded an immediate UK and pan-European hit single in “Sympathy”, and this line-up subsequently recorded two moderately well-received but sparingly purchased albums. Field then announced his departure and the Bird was forced to re-fledge. Moving from one extreme to the other, it became a twin-lead-guitar outfit, though retaining pianist Dave Kaffinetti, with Gould upgrading from four strings to six and new second guitarist/singer Ced Curtis giving them fine opportunities for harmonies, both instrumental and vocal.

The first album to feature the new roster appeared in 1972, its title a skit on Epping Forest, a sylvan suburb of the capital. It displays two of the dominant threads of mainstream UK rock music of the time: the melodic guitar-driven soft-rock approach of bands in the Wishbone Ash mould and the soaring close-harmony vocals lifted from Californian good-time outfits such as CS&N. With two first-class singers and the extra dimension provided by Kaffinetti’s organ, piano and synth work, it’s probably fair to say that this incarnation of Rare Bird transcends the Wishbone template. Sadly, unlike the latter this didn’t translate into gratifying record sales: possibly their change of direction alienated their original prog-rock supporters, whilst a potential new soft-rock fan base may have wrongly construed them as old, po-faced art-rockers. Such are the vagaries of rock fame! They certainly achieved more penetration in Europe than at home, whilst recognition in America eluded them almost completely. The Bird flew haltingly on for a further four years, suffering several further changes of personnel and releasing two further albums to modest critical acclaim but little commercial success before bowing to the punk-powered inevitable.

Having recorded more material for Epic Forest than required for a conventional single-disc vinyl release and not wishing to shelve any of the completed tracks, Rare Bird adopted the then novel tactic of pressing three of these as a maxi-single included free with the album. The twelve tracks, totalling over sixty minutes of music, exhibit a uniformly high quality in the writing, singing, playing and production. Up-tempo and languid compositions alternate, electric and acoustic guitars predominate, but the support from Kaffinetti’s keyboards and the rhythm section of Paul Karas on bass and Fred Kelly on kit is unerringly solid. The two opening tracks set out the menu; I love the simple, powerful bass riff that drives “Baby Listen” and the ensemble guitars and harmonies on the much softer “Hey Man”. There are some harder touches; on “Turn It All Around”, they even move mildly into riff-rock territory, Zeppelin style, after a deceptively quiet intro. The extended instrumental interludes on the nine-minute title track and on the ten-minute closer “You’re Lost” were clearly as enjoyable for the musicians as they will be to the listener, on the evidence of their final whoops of satisfaction on the latter’s fadeout.

A quality second-division seventies outfit worth investigating in both its principal incarnations, Rare Bird’s complete discography remains gratifyingly in print. Epic Forest is currently available on CD on the estimable Cherry Red imprint’s Él subsidiary. When investigating the Bird’s oeuvre, it’s probably as good a place to begin as any.

mp3: Baby Listen
mp3: Hey Man

:) Original | 1972 | Polydor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2007 | El Records | buy here ]

Waterloo “First Battle”

There’s an old gag particularly prevalent in Britain that goes along the lines of “I bet you can’t name five famous Belgians”. In fact this small bilingual, bicultural European country has produced more celebrities than you’d think: Gérard Mercator, designer of the universal map projection that bears his name; Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone; and Georges Simenon, creator of classic fictional detective Maigret, are just three. Perhaps thinner on the ground are famous Belgian musicians: poetic songwriter Jacques Brel is certainly the best known, and then there’s Jean “Toots” Thielemans who uniquely plays jazz on chromatic harmonica . . . and of course Plastic Bertrand.

Prior to 1980 or thereabouts, home-grown Belgian rock bands were certainly a select species, at least in terms of penetration outside their homeland and France. Waterloo was a fine, sturdy prog-rock outfit in the English mould of the late 1960s, coming together in ’69 with members from two just-folded Belgian pop-psych groups, releasing their sole album the following year and folding themselves about a year later after precious little commercial success. Their musical pedigree was beyond doubt; organist Marc Malyster was a conservatoire-trained keyboard player, whilst lead vocalist/flautist Dirk Bogaert had been an operatic boy soprano and drummer Jacky Mauer was steeped in jazz. With the workmanlike rock chops of guitarist Gus Roan who also doubled on flute, and bass guitarist Jean-Paul Janssens, they covered all the bases.

First Battle was recorded in England with all the lyrics in English; given this plus the band’s propensity for driving three-four rhythms and breathy flute accompaniments, it’s no surprise they frequently recall Mick Abrahams-period Jethro Tull. However Malyster’s organ work marks them out from the Brit combo, favouring a churchy drawbar setting on his Hammond and incorporating plenty of Bach-like touches in the style of his main rock influence, Keith Emerson. The album offers nine tightly-composed, tightly-performed songs, none breaching the four-minute barrier, all with tuneful pop sensibility and lyrical hooks and featuring fine harmony vocals and terse, pithy solos. Only on the ten-minute closing opus “Diary Of An Old Man” is each player is given the chance to feature more extensively, with excellent expositions by Bogaert on simultaneous flute and scat vocal and by Roan who finally gets to really stretch out on guitar. Pick of the other tracks are the Tullish “Why May I Not Know” which sets out the band’s stall for the following numbers; the jazzy, socially aware “Black Born Children” which thematically if not musically recalls the Nice’s “Daddy, Where Did I Come From”; and the splendid classically-harmonised riff of “Life” which also features a vocal dialogue, fruity flute obbligati and muscular bass guitar work. In all honesty there are no weak tracks anywhere on this album. The record was cut at an unidentified Soho eight-track studio under producer David McKay (who also masterminded Belgium’s other high-profile group of the day, Wallace Collection) and the sound quality, at least on the CD reissue, is exemplary, being powerful and clean with each lead instrument deftly forefronted.

Tensions within the band must have surfaced soon after the recording, because Janssens was gone by July ’70 and Malyster bailed soon after. Replacements were found but the tight, virtuosic sound of the original lineup was never emulated; the band struggled on for another year or so, cutting a couple of singles that strangely reverted to a pop-psych template. These were included as bonus cuts on the first (vinyl) reissue of First Battle by French musicians’ cooperative label Musea, now long out of print, and also appear on the excellent CD reissue by Spanish imprint Guerszen which is still available. Devotees of the Nice, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and other early progressive rockers will find a lot to like on this collection.

mp3: Why May I Not Know
mp3: Life

:) Original | 1970 | Vogue | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Guerssen | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Fire “The Magic Shoemaker”

For me the most depressing thing about today’s rock music is that so much of it exhibits such a lack of creativity or originality. If something sells, clone it, quickly. What a contrast to the late sixties, when for a brief heady spell the artists rather than the bean-counters had the whip hand and the spirit of experimentation soared over everything. Of course this produced as many heroic failures as acknowledged triumphs; Fire’s The Magic Shoemaker bombed on release, and even such retrospective reviews as it has received have frequently been ambivalent. Ah, what have we got here, then? Former psychedelic outfit moves towards progressive rock with a song-cycle that’s too lightweight plot-wise to be a concept album, too naïve and inconsequential to be a rock opera . . . hmmmm. But what is true is that it certainly represents a brave attempt to be different.

London trio Dave Lambert (vcl, gtr, keys), Dick Dufall (bs, vcl) and Bob Voice (drs, vcl) had impressed the Beatles’ Apple label sufficiently to score a deal that resulted in the classic psych A-side “Father’s Name Is Dad”. The marriage was not a happy one, though, and Fire soon found themselves at odds with the music industry at large. Retiring to the suburbs, Lambert spent a year writing and demo-ing the songs for The Magic Shoemaker, based around a whimsical children’s bedtime story in which a shoemaker cobbles together a pair of shoes that unexpectedly allow the wearer to fly. These are loaned to a king whose country is threatened with war by a neighbouring state; when the king confronts his opposite number from the sky the latter’s army are spooked and a peace treaty is forthcoming. Admittedly, it’s a slender peg to hang your creative coat on, but in its own quirky homespun fashion it works.

The premise of the album is that the narrator (Lambert, in a homely Home Counties accent) tells the story to a group of kids on a coach trip (real kids’ voices, overdubbed travel noises). Short pieces of the narrative occur between and within the songs whose lyrics broadly parallel episodes in the tale, some closely, others in more abstract fashion. Musically the songs follow a basic guitar-driven pop-rock template, varying widely in style and tempo – Tommy would undoubtedly have been an influence - with frequent psychedelic studio enhancement, particularly on the opening “Tell You A Story”, “Only A Dream” and the long instrumental coda of “Reason For Everything”. Pick of the bunch for me is “I Can See The Sky” with its raw freakbeat vibe, but they’re all quite engaging. Lambert’s lead vocal, somewhere between Daltrey and Bowie, is sometimes somewhat over-affected, but the musicianship is excellent throughout with the basic guitar trio being complemented by Lambert’s modest keyboards and plenty of top-drawer lead guitar work from himself and Velvet Opera’s Paul Brett. Future Strawbs partner Dave Cousins makes a cameo appearance on banjo on the superfluous jugband ditty “Happy Man Am I”. The production by Pye’s Ray Hammond is unsophisticated but its contemporary favouring of stereo separation and reverb suits the project and the interleaving of songs and narration is seamless.

Predictably, The Magic Shoemaker tanked well and truly on its release on Pye in 1970, being too late for psych and too lightweight for prog, and subsequently became a much-sought-after rarity until its inevitable reissue on CD. The current Sanctuary edition tailgates the original album with the A’s and B’s of both of Fire’s earlier psych singles including the indispensable “Father’s Name Is Dad” and “Treacle Toffee World”. As an interesting epilogue, after a long and successful association with Cousins in the Strawbs Lambert reformed Fire for a one-off concert in 2007, performing Shoemaker in extended form including the earlier psych sides and other unreleased songs. The gig was recorded for sound and video and subsequently released on CD by Angel Air as The Magic Shoemaker Live, receiving wide acclaim . . . which is more than the original release achieved.

mp3: Reason for Everything
mp3: I Can See the Sky

:D Reissue | 2009 | Esoteric | buy here ]
:) Original | 1970 | Pye |  search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Les Fleur De Lys “Reflections”

As Britain’s “other” major Atlantic seaport, Southampton might have been expected to produce a stream of pop and rock successes to rival Liverpool during the Golden Years, but it didn’t happen. Probably the highest-profile outfit to emerge from the south coast seaport during this period was Les Fleur De Lys, certainly the only such with a grammatically-incorrect French name. Like their near-neighbours, Brighton’s Mike Stuart Span, they enjoyed a chequered history involving half–dozen lineups, dabbling in half-a-dozen genres, sporadically releasing a dozen or so singles and finally fragmenting in frustration after half-a-dozen years (1964-1970). Again like the Span, they never contrived to issue an album in their lifetime, but the present CD is a compendium of all their  singles from their earliest Beat Boom days through their freakbeat, blue-eyed soul, harmony-pop, psychedelic and nascent prog-rock phases. Their legacy remains a handful of classic freakbeat and psych A-sides, and their other main claim to fame is as a launch pad for guitarist Bryn Haworth’s subsequent career; he would morph into perhaps Britain’s finest electric slide player and thence become a doyen of Christian rock music in which field he remains very active.

The Fleurs could in fact boast some pretty substantial musicianship throughout their various incarnations. Drummer Keith Guster, the only ever-present member, could hold down a metronomic funky beat whilst bassist Gordon Haskell, who would move on to King Crimson, had formidable rock and soul chops. Haworth’s predecessor Phil Sawyer was also a fine player in a reckless Jeff Beck style, whilst Haworth himself boasted a fluid bluesy technique and a distinctive, piercing Stratocaster/AC30 sound. They were a top live draw around Swinging London, acting as backing band live and on disc for singer Sharon Tandy and supporting such esteemed and varied visiting headliners as the Beach Boys, Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin. In an attempt to break through chartwise they also recorded under various pseudonyms including Shyster, Waygood Ellis, Rupert’s People and Chocolate Frog (!). Several of the early singles were produced by one Jimmy Page, no less.

The twenty-four tracks of the present compilation include the A’s and B’s of all seven singles issued under their own name, the Tandy sides and all the sides released under the fake monikers. The early Beat-era stuff and the soul-based tracks are pretty disposable; the Fleurs were no Young Rascals, nor despite the presence of a couple of competent organists in the early lineups were they anyone’s Procul Harum. However the Page-produced freakbeat cover of Pete Townshend’s “Circles” and its follow-up “Mud In Your Eye” forefront Sawyer’s fine manic lead guitar licks, whilst “Gong With The Luminous Nose” and “Liar” are fine examples of Brit psychedia and guitar-led prog respectively with Haworth’s exemplary Hendrixoid fretwork to the fore. The two Sharon Tandy sides “Hold On” and “Daughter Of The Sun” are rip-roaring rockers, with the powerful backings complementing Tandy’s steely vocal and Haskell’s bass work on “Hold On” a revelation. On the rock and pop tracks the instrumentation and vocals are more than competent but the songwriting is passable at best and sometimes mediocre. The result is a fascinating 24-track collection of historical interest to Sixties rock completists, but which would have made a really good “best of” if reduced to sixteen cuts.

Originally issued on CD by Blueprint in 1996, the present Gonzo budget reissue has the same track listing but a different cover photo. The typo-strewn track listing and historical perspective in the booklet notes are not exactly academic masterpieces, but better ones can be found.

mp3: Circles (Instant Party)
mp3: Gong with the Luminous Nose

:D Compilation | 2010 | Gonzo | buy here ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]