Archive for the ‘ Prog ’ Category

The Third Power “Believe”

The Third Power get straplined nowadays as “Detroit’s answer to Cream” and their sole album from 1970 is touted as “one of the finest psychedelic hard rock albums of its era”. Frankly, the first statement is an exaggeration; okay, there are similarities, particularly to the Brit trio’s live recordings, but find me a guitar-led three-piece of the time that didn’t draw on Cream, and of course on Hendrix, if you will. Like Jack Bruce, bassist Jem Targal utilised the thick, grinding sound of a Gibson EB-3 and sang in a beautifully articulated sub-operatic high tenor that could sound uncannily like Bruce’s, but guitarist Drew Abbott’s style owed little to Eric Clapton other than in his use of the universal pentatonics and bends and his occasional wielding of a clangy, reverbed Firebird. However, like Cream (but unlike many of their contemporaries: take a bow, Grand Funk Railroad), these guys really could play. Targal frequently includes fearsome bass double-stops and whole chords that even Bruce would never have sanctioned, and drummer Jim Craig moves effortlessly from subtle snare rolls to all-out cymbal assaults on his double kit, whilst Abbott’s funky rhythm chops and no-holds-barred mega-fast fretboard excursions contrast with Clapton’s by-then mature, restrained studio technique.

The album, too, is certainly fine but exhibits few real psychedelic moments, though the band had sprung from genuinely psych beginnings as their fine ’68 debut single (both sides included on the Relics CD reissue as bonus tracks) proves. By the time of their signing to Vanguard they’d settled into a straightforward progressive power-trio style based on collaborative musicianship with little studio trickery other than overdubbed lead guitars and occasional well-mixed-back keyboards. The material lacks the quirky artfulness of Bruce’s compositions with lyricist Pete Brown and the reliable blues-based inflections of Clapton’s writing with Martin Sharp; instead of Cream’s prevailing jazzy edge and twelve-bar framework you get melodic riff-rock, rattling funk-rock and stately ballads, nothing startlingly original but masterfully performed, with a crisp production by Vanguard’s legendary roots-music producer Sam Charters  which the reissue gratifyingly reproduces. The galloping “Lost In A Daydream” may owe a debt to Moby Grape, whilst “Comin’ Home” borrows the bombastic drums and pounding bass of many a Led Zep moment, and they get undeniably close to Cream on “Feel So Lonely” whose centre section steals its live feel, rolling rhythm and wailing guitar leads directly from “Crossroads” on the live Wheels Of Fire. “Passed By” is a totally un-Cream-like ballad carried on 12-string acoustic, piano and tambourine, whilst “Crystalline Chandelier” with its windchimes, flowing orchestral basswork and baroque harmonies is about as psychedelic as they get and could, I guess, be compared to some of Jack Bruce’s post-Cream solo work. The opening “Gettin’ Together” and closing “Like Me Love Me” are full-on, distortion-laden generic hard rock with all three players firing on all cylinders. The only real concession to psych is the closing thirty-second untitled fade-out with its backwards snare drum rolls and processed “Little Drummer Boy” vocal.

The Third Power probably thought they’d clinched a good deal getting signed to the illustrious Vanguard imprint, and the quality of Charters’s studio production must have appeared a real bonus, but allegedly the label found their product too heavy for its generally folky tastes and declined to give it any support at all, dropping the band almost immediately after its release. Despite modest sales around Michigan, boosted by appearances at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom supporting local heroes the MC5 and Bob Seger and high-profile visiting acts, it never took off nationally and the trio split soon afterwards. Only Abbott seems to have subsequently prospered, lending his guitar skills to Seger’s Silver Bullet Band. In 2009 the Third Power reformed to open the Grande Ballroom’s 40 Year Reunion concert with Arthur Brown, Big Brother & The Holding Company and Canned Heat.

mp3: Feel so Lonely
mp3: Crystalline Chandelier

:) Original | 1970 | Vanguard | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Relics | buy here ]

Music Emporium “Music Emporium”

This 1969 West Coast Rock curio by a little-known LA combo exudes novelty well beyond its appalling band name and its trashy cod-psych cover art. With three out of four musicians classically-trained and featuring an all-female rhythm section, the outfit’s claimed influences ranged from Iron Butterfly to the Carpenters, with members of both of whom they were on first-name terms.

Bill Cosby (no relation) was a five-time all-USA accordion champion, classical organist and UCLA music major whose preferred rock tool was a mega-cheap Italian Galanti GEM organ amplified through two massive Vox Super Beatle rigs. Diminutive Dora Wahl, also originally an accordionist, switched to percussion to join her elementary school band and by ’69 bestraddled a huge double-bass-drum kit in emulation of her hero, Ginger Baker. Carolyn Lee had played orchestral double bass from childhood and sang in choirs and acapella groups before being seduced by pop music and taking up electric bass guitar. Only guitarist Dave Padwin was an unschooled player, but his fluid, instinctive technique and extensive beat group experience won him the audition. Changing their moniker from the rather doomy Cage to the more psych-twee Music Emporium, the four performed around SoCal at weddings, barmitzvahs, high school hops, beach parties and anywhere else they could score a gig, confusing promoters and audiences alike with their unusual combination of clean-cut appearance, classical/folk/acid-rock fusion and unexpectedly high volume. The album was recorded in a couple of clandestine overnight sessions at Sunset Studios and then remixed with new vocals by an ex-Liberty employee just starting his own local label. The money saved on recording went on the tacky but elaborate die-cut cover through whose “windows” the portraits on the inner sleeve photo peeped out.

The defining sounds of the album are undoubtedly Cosby’s organ and the collective vocals. The GEM as recorded has a reedy, piercing power only approached by Frank Rodriguez of the Mysterians, though Cosby’s classical chops take it way beyond the realm of garage R’n’B. All except Wahl take lead vocals, though only Lee is by any means a polished singer; however, when their voices meld, the confident, slightly atonal harmonies are as effective and distinctive as the Airplane’s. Kicking off with “Nam Myo Renge Kyo”, which mutates from a garage-band romp into a Buddhist chant, the material ranges widely from the dreamy folky excursion of “Velvet Sunsets” and the almost country-rock “Times Like This” with its unexpected piano licks through the shamelessly Bach-inflected “Prelude” to “Winds Have Change”, whose soft harmonies and pulsating guitar work suggest early Moody Blues, and the uncompromising riffs, thundering drums and downright punk vocal of “Sun Never Shines”, the album’s most forthright track. Whilst unashamedly forefronting the musicians’ considerable skills, all the songs are rendered collaboratively and concisely with relatively few and short solos, only the proto-prog mini-suite “Cage” breaching the four-minute barrier. The Sundazed CD reissue also includes five of the same tracks in instrumental form, giving the opportunity to hear how deliberately and delicately the backings were constructed.

An initial pressing of just 300 copies and zilch press or radio exposure guaranteed the album’s rarity, because the Draft Board got Cosby’s number soon afterwards; unlike many of his compatriots he eschewed the Toronto option and elected to serve, and the band promptly broke up. Various crappy bootlegs of their sole waxing surfaced before Sundazed got hold of the master tapes for the definitive CD reissue in 2001. On this Bob Irwin’s remastering is excellent and the insert booklet offers a fine account of the band’s genesis and the making of the album, including touching personal updates by all four members: Padwin became a press photographer, Lee returned to orchestral work, Wahl became a teacher and Cosby served 17 years as Instructor of Cadet Music at West Point.

mp3: Prelude
mp3: Winds Have Changed

:) Original | Sentinal | 1969 | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | Sundazed | 2001 | buy ]

Los Jaivas “La Ventana”

To the average Chilean, writing an article about Los Jaivas’ 1972 sophomore record La Ventana may very well read like beating a dead horse. Indeed, there is perhaps no single band here in Chile which has become more representative of Chilean culture and patria than this psychedelic folk-rock ensemble, and no song more universally known than their anthem of popular unity and brotherhood, “Todos Juntos.” Though the band was born from the great social and political revolutions of the early 1970s, they are today accepted even by the more conservatively minded members of the populace as, at the very least, an established symbol of Chile’s national artistic identity.

Los Jaivas were born in the heart of Viña del Mar, a bustling coastal city resting against the northern border of the port of Valparaíso, itself one of Chile’s principal seaports and cultural centers. Though the concept of combining late-1960s rock and roll with traditional Chilean folk music may not seem so novel today, at the time there was a strong gap between the folksingers and the mainstream rock and roll youth crowd. Like everything in Chile, this was a conflict born out of radical politics and social consciousness as the country tried to break the stranglehold countries like the United States and Britain had on its economic and cultural life. Los Jaivas refused to accept this unnecessary barrier between musics, however, recognizing both the radical consciousness and importance of their country’s folkloric movement as well as the raw excitement and appeal of the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene.

Out of this set-up comes La Ventana, the band’s second record and the first one to really put the band on the map. Whereas their debut, El Volantín, had read like a highly improvised experiment, this sophomore release sharpened the focus of the band’s attack while retaining the weird, lysergic edge that made their instrumental excursions so engaging. The band’s fight to draw the threads of Chilean music together was strengthened by the participation of Patricio Castillo and Julio Numhauser, former members of the revolutionary Nueva Canción ensemble Quilapayún, then working in their own way to help build Chilean folk-rock as Los Amerindios. The sound here is a beautifully dovetailing blend of heavy, early 1970s psychedelia and northern altiplano folk, featuring searing electric guitars over a bed of charangos and quenas. The album is divided more or less evenly between vocal and instrumental numbers, with Side B built upon a series of percussion-heavy improvisations. The one exception to this divide is “Los Caminos Que Se Abren,” a pounding, nine-and-a-half minute Krautrock stomp with discordant piano and wandering guitars which dominates the first half of the album. Near its droning finale this bizarre number actually goes so far as to bring in an orchestra and sawing violin solo, all of which serve to darken rather than lighten the cut’s surreal intensity. Calmer moments include the preceding track, the popular ballad “Mira Niñita,” which opens with an arpeggio of gently strung-together acoustic guitar and marimba before eventually building to its own high peak of pounding drums and piano. “Ayer Caché” takes coastal Iberian influences and throws in lazy, reverb-drenched surf guitars – an absolutely pitch-perfect slice of coastal, South American daydream, though also a little out-of-place in the context of the rest of the record, especially when it is followed by one of the album’s heaviest rockers.

Following the success of the song “Todos Juntos” La Ventana was reissued under the same name with new album artwork adhering to the progressive rock aesthetics that the band began to take on in the later seventies. The record is widely available in Chile and neighboring countries, but somewhat more difficult to come by north of the equator. Import Chilean copies include several bonus tracks that, while not essential, help to expand the album’s artistic scope and give further testimony to the group’s ground-breaking work during this era.

mp3: Todos Juntos
mp3: Indio Hermano

:) CD Reissue | Ans Records | buy here ]

Groep 1850 “Agemo’s Trip to Mother Earth”

It’s finding rare gems like this that makes trudging through the dross in charity shop CD racks so addictive. I stumbled with fascination upon Agemo’s Trip To Mother Earth with its blurry, greyish cover photo depicting a large group of hippie folk of various ages. At first I thought it was by some retro psych outfit from the 90s, but a little research online revealed Groep 1850 to be a genuine 1960s psychedelic rock band from the Netherlands. Originally founded in 1964 as R’n’B group the Klits – being an abbreviation of “Klitoris”, meaning exactly what you think it means – they changed their name to Groep 1850 – “Groep” for “group”, “1850” not explained – and, following several stylish freakbeat and psychedelic singles, released their debut album on Philips in 1968.

Lyrically based around the hippie-dippy saga of Agemo, son of Dog from the Nirvana-like planet Irotas, who visits Earth to experience the urban paranoia and depravity of modern life, the album’s musical motifs draw shamelessly on Saucerful Of Secrets-era Pink Floyd but also evince a powerful West Coast acid rock influence. There is too a healthy dose of humour not present in either the Floyd’s straightlaced presentation or the similarly unsmiling Californian product, exacerbated by the band’s singing in strongly accented English with occasional Dutch interjections; clearly evident is the combination of instrumental virtuosity and vocal weirdness that would produce commercial success for their compatriots Focus a few years later. Peter Sjardin’s keyboard work is workmanlike and mostly mixed well back, but the lead guitar of Daniël van Bergen is unique and strongly forefronted, with penchants for atonality and sustain. Beer Klasse’s trapwork is also excellent, being simultaneously duck’s-arse-tight and jazzily freeform. The production by Hans van Hemert is splendidly sympathetic to the band’s psychedelic direction, with heavily treated vocals, sound effects, found sounds, phasing, stereo panning and all the tricks of the studio wholeheartedly employed.

An introductory metallic racket gives way to the acid-pop of opener “Steel Sings” as hard guitar chords and flying-saucer electronic bleeps announce Agemo’s arrival on Earth. “Little Fly” is heralded by the groan of an ancient door’s hinges and a female voice intones a brief litany before thudding drums, oriental Hammond licks and coruscating guitar frame the song’s stately harmony vocals. “You Did It Too Hard” is a brief nonsense item with a cheerful riff and honking saxes giving way to a gibberish dialogue by gnomish voices. The closing “Refound” and “Reborn” form a two-piece suite in a soft, hallucinogenic vein reminiscent of the Floyd’s “Cirrus Minor” with acoustic guitars and flutes accompanying the dreamy harmonised voices. The undoubted high spot is the astonishing procession of sounds that makes up the thirteen-minute full-blown musical acid trip “I Put My Hands On Your Shoulder”, including infinitely sustained guitar, crazy, reverbed harmonica, swooping keyboard expeditions and a disembodied, demented bilingual dialogue over a stuttering, heavily flanged drum solo before ending with a clap of thunder – a wigged-out mess that really works.

The album was released in Northern Europe and the UK (anglicised as Group 1850), but it barely sold at home and tanked totally everywhere else. Somehow they managed to cobble together a second studio collection, Paradise Now, more progressive and doomy but quality-wise as good as Agemo, plus a live set, but these sadly went the same way. Sjardin struggled on with different lineups until 1975, releasing a couple more albums in a jazz-rock vein before bowing to the inevitable. There’s not a huge amount of information about Groep 1850 out in cyberspace but a good critical discography can be found here.

Belatedly recognised as a European psych landmark, Agemo has had three CD reissues, the latest a 2002 budget offering on the Rotation imprint which appears to be a legit license. As well as Agemo’s seven songs this offers nine excellent pre-Agemo bonus tracks including the brilliantly absurd “Mother No-Head”, built around the melody of “Frère Jacques” and provided with alternative English and French lyrics. Oh, and that blurry album cover? It was originally offered in 3-D, with a free pair of 3-D specs thrown in. Sadly the reissue doesn’t reproduce that imaginative feature.

mp3: Little Fly
mp3: You Did It Too Hard

:) Original | 1968 | Philips | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2002 | Rotation | buy here ]

NGC-4594 “Skipping Through The Night”

Here’s another genuinely “lost” sixties psych album, laid down in 1967 but not seeing the light of public exposure until forty-three years later.

Coming together in ‘66 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, these six students and alumni must have thought they had a stellar musical career in store, because not only did all the undergrads drop out of their courses but they took as their name the astronomical designation of the Sombrero Galaxy in the constellation of Virgo. This didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but in the trippy atmosphere of the times it conveyed a trendy spaced-out attitude. The auguries were however unpromising; while David Bliss, Steve Starger and Danny Shanok were all experienced pianists, Minty Collins wasn’t even a musician though he was determined to become one, “liberating” a flute from the UConn Music Department and teaching himself the basics. Chas Mirsky contributed rudimentary but suitably whacked-out electric guitar, whilst to fill out the backline Starger switched to Farfisa organ and Shanok took the bass guitar. No-one came forward to be the featured vocalist, but drummer Bob de Vos proved to possess a creditable baritone and was duly pressed into the rôle.

The band assembled an acid-soaked collection of originals, mostly from the pen of pianist Bliss, relocated to Stanford, CT in January ’67 and gigged their set around New England, honing their chops and tightening their act. In April they moved to NYC where they auditioned for Mercury and were invited to rapidly record their whole oeuvre live in the studio as a monophonic demo. From this two sides were selected for a single and re-recorded to professional studio standards. “Going Home” and “Skipping Through The Night” appeared as a 45 on Mercury’s Smash subsidiary, garnered some desultory airplay on Northeast radio stations and disappeared. Despite a few subsequent high-profile concert appearances supporting the likes of the Doors and Country Joe & The Fish, the band’s briefly-flaring star had passed its zenith and by the fall of ’67 they’d split. It wasn’t till the early 90s that Tim Page, a professor at UConn, much taken with hearing the play-worn single on the college’s Campus Restaurant jukebox, would seek out former band members Mirsky and Starger and discover that the original tapes from the Mercury audition still existed. It took a further two decades before the estimable Tune In imprint of psych reissue specialists Cherry Red was able to license the tapes for CD release, along with both sides of the Smash single.

The two Smash tracks are carefully-produced, commercially-viable soft-psych numbers. The twelve “lost” album tracks, by comparison, are a revelation; given the uncompromisingly basic circumstances of their creation they shouldn’t work but somehow they do, revealing a band on the cusp of garage R’n’B and psychedelia, given a fizzing veneer of excitement by the live-in-the-studio performance and unvarnished production values. Even the crude, play-in-a-day lead guitar, flute and harmonica figures contribute to the ambience rather than detracting, whilst Bob de Vos’s Scott Walker-ish vocal is an unexpected asset. The leadoff “Colors” is definitive garage-into-psych with clichéd lysergic lyrics, ringing Wurlitzer piano arpeggios, hyperactive bass and fuzzed-up boxing-glove guitar. “Negative Zone” is Brit R’n’B straight out of the Pretty Things with wailing harp, cheesy Farfisa and rattling maracas framing its cod-protest lyrics. “Imagination Dead Imagine” offers a soporific, trippy mantra with spacey Floyd-style organ, jazzy piano fills and druggy flute and guitar leads, while “Forever Gone” is a doomy blues, heavy with eleventh chords on the Wurlitzer, reverbed vocals and a dragging surf guitar solo. The closing “So Bright” is a pulsating piano-driven rocker that strays into Moody Blues territory with stacked harmonies and flute colouration. All the other tracks provide energetic, freewheeling variations on these themes with plenty of tempo and instrument changes.

The In Tune reissue CD from 2010 is an excellent remaster and includes a comprehensive illustrated history of the band with input from Page and various former members.

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“Colors”

:D Reissue | 2010 | Tune In | buy ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Freeborne “Peak Impressions”

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The Freeborne were a youthful Boston-based psych outfit whose five members, despite their tender years, all had considerable experience of playing a wide range of styles in earlier combos. Adapting their name from the movie Born Free and discovering the freewheeling creative delights of LSD, they signed to Monitor in early ’67 and concocted a set of highly psychedelic originals which were laid down at A&R Studios in NYC. Peak Impressions sold only modestly, probably because of a dilatory campaign of live appearances to support it. After the lukewarm reception afforded it the original Freeborne folded, though later incarnations with fewer or no original members did tramp the second-division concert circuit for a few years afterwards. Inexplicably, given their obvious talent, only guitarist Bob Margolin seems to have had an appreciable later career, playing in Muddy Waters’s backing band through most of the 70s and subsequently with blues-based outfits under his own name. There’s precious little documentation on the band anywhere, but the excellent It’s Psychedelic Baby website features an informative career interview with Margolin which includes insights into the Freeborne.

I was expecting this one to be good, having read complimentary accounts of it in both Fuzz Acid And Flowers and The Acid Archives. I was even more impressed when it arrived and the CD remaster proved to have been archived by Smithsonian Folkways whose estimable moniker now adorns the Digipak. And this is indeed an impressive collection. It’s notable for the virtuosity of the musicians whose ages ranged from just 17 to 19 and yet three of whom were precociously-talented multi-instrumentalists: and we’re talking orchestral hardware here – pianos, harpsichords, cellos, trumpets, flutes and recorders – not just standard rock frontline. It’s also remarkable for the variety and creativity of the material; one reviewer commented that there seemed to be too many ideas to fit into a single album, and I can see his point. Youthful enthusiasm ensured that nothing was left out and nothing left understated, and most tracks move through bewildering sequences of keys, metres, instrumentation and vocal stylings that give their definitively psych outlines a distinctly progressive edge. This is one to listen to right through several times to get the whole effect.

The lyrics are mostly generic trippy psych nonsense, but the music is invigoratingly original. Leading off with a soulful piano riff, the opening “Images” offers Byrdsy harmonies, pulsating bass and rippling guitar scales before switching into a baroque piano and trumpet waltz. “Land Of Diana” prefigures 70s prog, starting as a jazzy 5/4 and shifting into a bluesy shuffle after distinctly proggy organ and guitar episodes. “Visions Of My Own” sets a homely acoustic guitar and trilling flute against what sounds like a chorus of PDQ Bach’s infamous Dill Piccolos before mutating without warning into a military snare-drum march. “Peak Impressions And Thoughts” is all Piper-era Floyd with swirling Farfisa, spiky Syd-style guitar, fluid bass and crashing cymbals building to a furious final crescendo. “Yellow Sky” is definitive Britsike with wah-ed guitars, churchy keyboards and lots of tempo changes. The most conventional track, “Hurtin’ Kind Of Woman”, is a soft blues shuffle with jazzy guitar and energetic Hammond work comparable with the best of Brian Auger. Despite the multifarious musical landscapes visited here, only on the last two tracks does the band outstretch itself, with the ridiculously sombre harpsichord and cello, sub-Beach Boys harmonies and cod-poetic spoken voice outro of “A New Song For Orestes” and the unnecessarily lengthy and self-indulgent cod-classical piano/trumpet cadenzas and duet of the closing “But I Must Return To Frenzy”.

A fine nine-out-of-ten psych artefact that will reward repeated listening.

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“Visions of My Own”

:) Original | 1968 | Monitor | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2011 | Smithsonian Folkways | buy ]

Comus “First Utterance”

Quite reasonably described in recent reviews as “acoustic death metal” and “too weird for folkies, too folky for weirdos”, it would be hard to identify any album from the sixties/seventies cusp that was more wilfully intended to alienate the mainstream record-buying public than this totally unique progressive folk effort by Comus. First Utterance was, and still is, “difficult”. Fortunately today an appreciative audience exists for “difficult” stuff like this.

Kent-based art students Roger Wootton and Glenn Goring had played acoustic covers of Velvet Underground numbers in London folk clubs, thereby alienating the contemporary folk audience as early as 1968. Enlisting several classically-trained players, they became Comus, after the seventeenth-century masque (musical drama) by John Milton, and debuted at the Beckenham Arts Lab, the southeast London pub session hosted by a young David Bowie. The stage act now centred round Wootton’s lyrically-disturbing songs which drew from the themes of the original Comus – sorcery and attempted rape – and other similarly cheerful topics: murder, mutilation and mental illness. The accompaniment was fully acoustic apart from Andy Hellaby’s Fender bass, with Wootton on 6-string, Goring on 12-string and slide, Colin Pearson on violin and viola, Rob Young on flute and oboe and Bobbie Watson’s homespun vocals. There was no drummer but various band members contributed enthusiastic hand percussion when not soloing. Indeed, apart from Wootton’s lyrics the band’s other distinctive feature was the intensity and variety of sounds they conjured from their acoustic toolkit, matched by Wootton’s astonishing vocal variations which ranged from a demented Bolan warble via a Roger Chapman bleat to a John Lydon shriek.

A support slot with Bowie at London’s prestigious Festival Hall led to Comus’s signing with Pye’s adventurous progressive arm, Dawn, and a tortuous series of recording sessions. On its 1970 release the album received reasonable support, including a pre-release maxi-single comprising leadoff track “Diana” and two non-album songs plus a slot on the fondly-remembered Dawn Penny Concerts college tour. Despite this the album never appealed to other than a few wigged-out diehards, and it died an appropriate slow death, the band folding. In 1974, at the request of the nascent Virgin Records, Wootton, Watson and Hellaby reconvened as Comus with guest musicians to produce a more conventional folk-prog album To Keep From Crying, but this also stiffed and marked the end of the band until, thirty-four years later, the entire original outfit sans Young was enticed back together by a Swedish cult following for a live appearance at a Stockholm festival.

“Diana” conjures up the darkest of Dionysian images, operating around a disconcerting riff set off by cacophonous goblin voices and sweet atonal strings. “The Herald” is a serenely beautiful twelve-minute suite in three sections with allegorical day/night lyrics, lush woodwinds and a shimmering acoustic guitar centre section. By contrast the eleven-minute “Drip Drip” with its chilling references to nudity, bloody death and forest burial builds to a thunderous jam with howling strings and rattling percussion. “The Bite” chronicles the tortured nightmares of a condemned man’s final night of sleep to an inappropriately cheery guitar and flute backing reminiscent of Jethro Tull. The closing “The Prisoner” is a desperate cry for help from an inmate of a lunatic asylum which starts innocuously enough but progresses to a fractured, crazed finale. Subject matter notwithstanding, the quality of the music itself throughout makes it possible to appreciate the album without delving too deeply into the words, which suits me just fine.

First Utterance was reissued as a single CD by Phantom Sound & Vision in 2004, and is currently available as part of a comprehensive 2CD set Song To Comus on Castle that includes the whole of both albums and the maxi-single, both sides of a late Wootton solo single and an unreleased outtake plus an excellent historical booklet. All the Comus you could conceivably want, frankly. If you really need to digest the lyrics, visit Comus’s website.

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“The Prisoner”

:) Original |  1970 | Dawn | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2005 | Castle | buy here ]

Quill “Quill”

This one came as a total surprise package to this reviewer. On reading their unexpectedly extensive Wikipedia entry I found that they’d played at Woodstock despite being an unrecorded act; that they were a popular regional attraction around Boston and the northeast; and that virtually all of them were multi-instrumentalists with a penchant for swapping the instruments around onstage: guitarists and keyboardists switching to horns, woodwind or cellos at the drop of a setlist.

The Woodstock slot came courtesy of a well-received appearance in NYC, and on hearing of their impending festival appearance with its film and live album potential, Ahmet Ertegun signed Quill to Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary in the summer of ’69. The non-appearance of the band’s set in the Woodstock movie contributed to the label losing interest and the band’s insistence on producing the debut album themselves didn’t particularly help their cause with Ertegun either. Although it was released the following year it received next to no corporate support and quickly stiffed. Like many another unsuccessful opus of the period it lay doggo for decades until resuscitated for CD reissue by the excellent Wounded Bird imprint in 2010.

The music itself is also surprising, distinctively and wilfully strange, somewhere between the Doors and early British prog-rock. The band members are all credited under wigged-out pseudonyms, Beefheart-style, and the compositions themselves have similarly wacky titles. Sonically, it’s sparsely realised despite the multifarious talents of the musicians, populated by barely-audible organs and pianos and mixed-back guitars and drums – the most prominent instrument is often the bass guitar. The arrangements are of the apparently loose, adlibbed type that can only result from the most meticulous orchestration and rehearsal. The lyrics are far from the usual hippie abandon of the day, laden with social commentary, and the backings are full of irregular chord sequences and modulations. There’s no telling where it’s going from one track to the next, or sometimes within any given track.

After an unpromising raggedy-ass intro, the opening “Thumbnail Screwdriver” builds around a catchy Hendrixoid guitar riff and features a chiming solo by harmonised guitars. The nine-minute “They Live The Life” is a minimalist shuffle with warped Moody Blues harmonies and a sparse drum solo which builds into a collapsing cacophony of chanting and percussion, apparently a favourite concert closer. “BBY” showcases the alternative horn skills of the players and comes over like Zappa bowdlerising Chicago, while “Yellow Butterfly” uses only flanged, wah-ed guitar and sparse bass and has ghostly vocals redolent of Syd Barrett. The closing “Shrieking Finally” opens with a droll mock Gregorian chant which leads into a fragmented prog workout with distinctive piano trimmings. Although all the musicianship is excellent, it’s probably Roger North’s inventive and technically adroit drumming that stays longest in the memory.

It’s all wacky and it all works. You won’t whistle the melodies as you walk down the street, but without doubt this is another rarity that deserves its rediscovery.

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“Thumbnail Screwdriver”

:) Original | 1970 | Cotillion | search ebay ]
:D Reissue | 2010 | Wounded Bird | buy here ]

Mike Stuart Span “Children of Tomorrow”

The cosmopolitan seaside resort of Brighton, Sussex – my own birthplace, as it happens – has been a Mecca for the more unbuttoned forms of the performing arts ever since the louche patronage of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Strangely, especially given its nearness to “Swinging” London, it produced only a sparse crop of memorable artists and groups in the halcyon years of pop and rock music. During their brief sojourn as a recording act, the Mike Stuart Span were the only such from Brighton – and that at the height of the sixties beat/psych era when groups were being signed nationwide in hundreds.

Like many of their contemporaries, they launched as a beat group, became a mod-soul outfit, then floated off into psychedelia before gravitating towards progressive rock. Starting around 1963 as the Mighty Atoms, they underwent numerous personnel changes and name-changes, first to the Extremes and then to the Mike Stuart Span – after their vocalist, Stuart Michael Hobday – before landing a contract with EMI Columbia in 1966 under which they released a couple of Stax-ish singles. These both bombed and EMI let the band go. Dumping their keyboards and horn section, the remaining four-piece – Hobday, guitarist Brian Bennett,  bassist Roger McCabe and drummer Gary Murphy – recorded an acid-tinged cover of “Rescue Me” and a couple of similarly lysergic originals for Decca, who branded these insufficiently commercial and declined to release them at all. Taking what appeared to be the only remaining path, the band cut, at their own expense, two unashamedly psychedelic originals “Children Of Tomorrow” and “Concerto Of Thoughts” and issued these in 1967 in a run of 500 singles on a small independent label, Jewel. The record received sufficient exposure and critical acclaim to gain them local support slots to Cream and Hendrix, a couple of John Peel sessions, a BBC TV documentary (on struggling rock bands!), a misguided pure-pop single on Fontana and, eventually, an offer to sign to the UK branch of Elektra, under condition that they change their name; this they did yet again, to Leviathan. Two fine guitar-led prog-rock singles on the new label came and went unnoticed in 1969, and sessions for an LP were completed but Elektra head honcho Jak Holzman was dissatisfied with the product. With the prospect of the album’s release fading, the band called it a day and split late in ’69, all but Bennett leaving the music industry. “Children Of Tomorrow” resurfaced as an uber-rarity during the 1980s psych revival. Interest slowly grew and a compilation (officially-sanctioned) of most of the band’s psych/prog-era studio work finally appeared in 1996.

This new collection, Children Of Tomorrow, represents the entire studio output of the band in all its incarnations on all labels apart from about half of the aborted Elektra album, and gives a fascinating insight into a band exploring every avenue to try to make the big-time, with talent to spare but luck totally lacking. The whole story is laid out in the splendid accompanying booklet. Of the music, the early soul-based tracks are solid and energetic if unoriginal, while the Decca efforts are worthy generic acid-pop. From here things improve markedly; both sides of the Jewel single are splendidly druggy stuff, fully deserving of their high rating. But best of all IMHO are the demos the band cut before the Elektra signing and the sides subsequently released as Leviathan singles; the tight arrangements, imperious vocals and wallpaper-stripping guitar work of “World In My Head”, “Second Production”, “Flames”, “Blue Day” and “Remember The Times” suggest that the cancelled album would have been a fine prog-guitar artefact. Allegedly the master tapes still languish in Elektra’s vaults, and Warner has hinted in the past about finally releasing the album in original form. If it ever appears, it will almost certainly have been worth the wait.

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“Children of Tomorrow”

:D Compilation | 2011 | Grapefruit | buy here ]

Tages “Contrast”

I first heard of the Swedish band Tages through this very site, from a great post on their memorable 1967 album Studio.  Tages actually released two albums that year, and I find the earlier release Contrast to be an interesting foil to Studio (which it preceded by seven months). Both albums are filled with their signature brew of incredibly creative psychedelic rock, but I find myself more attracted to the songs on “Contrast” (with all but four being originals).

What sets Tages apart from many other ‘foreign’ psych bands of the era is their high production standards, which could be credited at least partly to producer Anders Henriksson. The arrangements and unique sounds of Tages’ records elevate them above mere copy-cat status and have helped make both their 1967 albums an interesting listen to this day.

The track “You’re Too Incomprehensible” alone is enough to convert any skeptic to a Tages devotee. Multiple movements, lush yet avant-garde strings, and a myriad of sound effects all bubble around a really lovely tune- progressive psychedelia at it’s finest. “Fuzzy Patterns” would be fairly straight forward, if not for the orchestral freakout placed right in the middle. “Prisoner 763” is an incredibly dark tune- played on a harpsichord heavily treated with delay. The line “I am condemned” hits hard, with the melody owing  much to to the Swedish folk the group was reared on.

Some tracks fall slightly short of the mark, like “Sister’s Got a Boyfriend” and “Why Do You Hide It?”, the latter of which carries the creepy lyric “I think you are the prettiest child a woman ever has born”. Both of these songs contain great production; their shortcomings are simply that they are strange songs (which may in fact be due to their troubles with English).

Opener “I’m Going Out” is an upbeat jaunt in the vein of The Zombies “This Will Be Our Year”, except with the ironic lyrics “I want to cry; I want to die”. It’s this slightly off kilter tendency that has kept “Contrast” fresh; the nuances reveal themselves on repeat listens.

Contrast stands on it’s own as an interesting record, and it was met with deserved success in Tages’ homeland.  It’s yet to be released in it’s entirety on CD, but many of the songs can be found on various “Greatest Hits” collections as well as their retrospective “1964-1968” disc.

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“You’re Too Incomprehensible”

:) Original | 1967 | Parlophone | search ebay ]
:D Anthology |  2010 | EMI | buy here ]