Archive for the ‘ Prog ’ Category

VA “The Rock Machine Turns You On”

The historical importance of this unassuming album can’t be overstated. It was the first rock sampler album I ever saw or heard, and almost certainly the first such ever released here in the UK. It was in fact the first time I saw the actual term “rock” used to describe the music at all; previously the successive labels “underground” and “progressive” had been coined to cover the diverging (from “pop”) stream of album-based, art-for-art’s-sake music that had started with Dylan and Hendrix. It was the new music’s first budget release; at a time when the standard price of an album was 32/6 (about £1.63), this cost 14/6 (about 73p), just within the average teenager’s weekly pocket-money allocation. And it would spawn a whole new sub-genre of record releases peculiar to, and essential to, progressive rock: the cult of the sampler.

What came over then, and still impresses today, is the sheer quality of this dip into the CBS catalogue of 1969. Each track can be seen to have been carefully cherrypicked from its parent album, no sample being so leftfield as to frighten off the listener, though nobody venturing further into any of the represented albums would have been disappointed. Yet the overall diversity of the collection is astonishing, both in terms of styles and artists, in a way befitting progressive music. Practitioners of jazz-rock, country-rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, psychedelia and simple honest weirdness are all represented, whilst the acts featured include established big-hitters (Dylan, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel), contemporary heroes whose days were numbered (the Zombies, Moby Grape, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Tim Rose), newcomers who would fall at the first hurdle (the United States Of America, the Electric Flag, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera) and up-and-coming artists who would go on to found dynasties (Leonard Cohen, Spirit, Blood Sweat & Tears, Roy Harper, Taj Mahal).

Two tracks above all left their mark on me. The Electric Flag’s “Killing Floor” induced me to purchase their album straightaway; this powerful number remains my favourite blues-rock AND jazz-rock performance of all time, with Mike Bloomfield on cloud nine and brass work to die for, the standout track from a solid album. By contrast, despite taking a perverse delight in “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” I somehow didn’t get round to buying the United States Of America’s sole album until 2008, when a book review of it rearoused my interest. This erotically engaging ditty with its homely brassband coda merely hints at the trippy weirdness of its fellow tracks – one to grow into over forty years, obviously.

A steady stream of samplers followed as prog-rock blossomed, including the best of the lot: CBS’s double from 1970, Fill Your Head With Rock. Samplers were considered disposable, and originals are now quite rare and collectable (sadly, I disposed of all mine many years ago when thinning the collection). Whilst retrospectively compiled anthologies covering the whole life of a label are nowadays commonplace, original samplers with their snapshot of a moment in prog-rock’s history are not. The Rock Machine Turns You On is the only sampler ever to be reissued on CD in its original form – and that sadly minus Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, probably due to some momentary petulance on Paul Simon’s part. It came out in 1996 and is now a rarity in its own right, never having been re-released. Judging by the clamour on Amazon, Sony could do a lot worse than reissue The Rock Machine Turns You On and Fill Your Head With Rock in their original forms, although licencing problems mean they probably won’t.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Electric Flag – Killing Floor

:) 1968 | CBS | search ebay ]

The Nice “Ars Longa Vita Brevis”

Ars Long Vita Brevis

Opinions on this, the band’s second album, are so polarised that I did seriously think of suggesting it for a uReview, but I guess it’s not well enough known to make that a starter. Nonetheless, the only thing more polarised than its reviews is the nature of the opus itself. The first three tracks are some of the most wigged-out psychedelic songs ever recorded; these almost universally garner critical praise. By contrast the remainder of the album sees the genesis of Keith Emerson’s bombastic “pomp-rock” style, via cod-classical and bebop jazz; this element of his output has been popularly ridiculed for years. Not that this ever worried him: the Nice always existed on the edge, offering compromises to nobody, even in the band’s name – a “nice” is hippie argot for a person who’s high and happy on marijuana. And, being far and away the most prodigiously talented rock keyboardist ever, arrogance and excess came early and easily to Emerson; the only difference between the Nice and ELP is that the earlier band didn’t sell squillions of albums. The title of this one translates loosely as “life is short but art endures” – perhaps indicative of Keith’s elevated opinion of his own product.

The excellent psych confections “Daddy, Where Did I Come From?”, “Little Arabella” and “Happy Freuds” fall somewhere between Syd Barrett and early Zappa, offering a variety of sophisticated musical backings with ludicrous Alice-in-Wonderland lyrics in which bassist Lee Jackson’s vocal limitations actually contribute to the effect (with the help of a little vari-speed and echo). These lead into what is probably Emerson’s best-ever classical reinterpretation – at nine minutes a little too long to sample here – in which the somber, gorgeous melody of Sibelius’s “Intermezzo” from the Karelia Suite becomes a furious military march overlaid by brilliant Hammond harmonisation and a contrapuntal, partly bowed bass line. The title track, somewhat ingenuously subtitled “Symphony For Group And Orchestra”, actually consists of four very disparate segued pieces, linked only by brief Copland-esque orchestrations in the Prelude, the Coda and between the second and third “movements”; elsewhere, the orchestra is used only sparingly. “Awakening” is the vehicle (this being 1968-) for a somewhat underwhelming Brian Davison drumkit solo, while “Realisation” starts with some pretentious poetry from Jackson before dissolving into a clattering bebop-style piano tour-de-force. The orchestra features more strongly in the lilting “Acceptance” a.k.a. “Brandenburger”, in which J S Bach’s delightful theme from the third Brandenburg Concerto is further enlivened by some gloriously bluesy Hammond soloing; it’d be nice to think that old Johann Sebastian would have appreciated this joyous updating of his work. Finally, “Denial” provides a noisy proto-prog instrumental workout for all three musicians before the orchestra reappears for the short coda. The CD reissue’s bonus tracks include the band’s infamous reworking of Bernstein’s “America”, which the composer reportedly did NOT find amusing.

Note that the whole of this album can be found on The Immediate Anthology200, which is a bargain compilation excellent in most respects but substitutes a mono-only version of “Arabella” (in this case definitely inferior!) and an earlier demo version of “Daddy” (likewise). The pukka item also offers a good retrospective booklet.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Daddy, Where Did I Come From?”

:D The Immediate Collection | 2000 | Castle Music UK | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Immediate | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Quatermass “Quatermass”

Quatermass

When the British Blues movement morphed into the riff-rock wing of progressive music, the focus of most groups remained the heroic lead guitarist. It was a brave outfit that elected to do without the fretboard god altogether. Having been persuaded by the success of Keith Emerson’s guitarless latterday Nice that it could work, a select few elected to structure themselves as a trio comprising a showboating keyboard player, a punchy drummer and a bassist who could handle lead vocals. Emerson recruited Greg Lake and Carl Palmer into his eponymous ensemble; Dave Stewart salvaged Egg from the remains of his school band Uriel, sans Steve Hillage; and three veterans from the British Beat Boom came together as Quatermass. One of these three acts would go forward to worldwide acclaim and the sickly smell of excess, the other two to a brief second-division career and oblivion.

Quatermass could have been as big as ELP; they had the chops, the experience and the contacts. Bassist/vocalist John Gustafson had been in the Big Three, the Liverpool guitar trio that all the other Cavern/Hamburg bands looked up to for their musicianship. Drummer Mick Underwood had served time with Joe Meek’s legendary house band, the Outlaws, alongside Richie Blackmore. Keyboardist Peter Robinson had backed hugely popular R’n’B shouter Chris Farlowe. All three were also in-demand studio sessioneers. They came together in a late lineup of Episode Six, the band that had provided a further two-fifths of Deep Purple, and decided to stay together when the Six finally folded. Taking their name from the classic sci-fi TV show, and rapidly signing to premier UK prog-rock label Harvest, their first album appeared in May 1970 . . . and despite strong reviews, undeniable quality and a splendid gatefold sleeve by Hipgnosis (of Pink Floyd fame), disappeared just as rapidly from the shelves. Its poor sales, an unsuccessful US tour and demand for their services from other nascent bands ensured that there wouldn’t be another. Quatermass broke up in April ’71.

Forty years later the reissued, extended album still exudes quality. Gus was a funky, syncopative Fender bassist with a strong cock-rock voice in the Rodgers/Gillan mould. Robinson combined fruity blues and soul licks with a sly jazzy atonality and just enough classical nous not to become overbearing like the ELP mainman, whilst freely overdubbing Hammond organ, electric and acoustic piano, Mellotron and Moog. Underwood provided the solid, John Bonham-style groove that held the three musicians tightly together. The whole had a no-nonsense rocky edge distinctly uncommon in keyboard-centric prog. The album mixes short, precise three-minute songs like the soulful single “Black Sheep Of The Family” and the gently psychedelic, harpsichord-led “Good Lord Knows” with eight-minute keyboard workouts typical of the live act, notably the ferocious bluesy soloing on the riff-based “Up On The Ground”, the jazzy, fully-orchestrated block chording on “Laughin’ Tackle” and the ring-modulated funk of the instrumental outtake “Punting”. Robinson’s genuinely exciting yet tasteful keyboard skills, especially on the B-3, ensure that none of these outstay their welcome. Keith Emerson might usefully have taken note.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Good Lord Knows”

:D CD Reissue | 1996 | Repertoire | at amazon ]
:) Vinyl | 1970 | Harvest | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The Moody Blues “In Search Of The Lost Chord”

In Search of the Lost Chord

It took a while for the Moody Blues to catch on in the US, though their retrospective catalogue scored quite well there after 1971. At home in the UK, however, the Moodies were huge during what I think was their best period, 1968-1970, when their highly individual and sophisticated mix of psych and prog was always spinning on the platters of more cerebral music lovers.
After the band’s 1967 reshuffle their yearning to combine pop and classical musics surfaced strongly. The first effort, Days Of Future Passed, interleaved some good early Moodies songs with second-rate orchestral interludes resembling B-movie soundtracks, and was therefore a patchy affair. Then Mike Pinder discovered the Mellotron, and everything clicked into place.
Pinder is probably the most accomplished Mellotron practitioner of the era, and during the period 1968-70, when miking of acoustic pianos was still hit-and-miss, it was the only onstage keyboard he employed. Its sound in his hands is absolutely fundamental to the Moodies’ output of the times. This is not to downplay the musicianship of the other members; especially notable are John Lodge’s bass playing, his picked Fender Jazz lines and arpeggios functioning as a further lead instrument, and Ray Thomas’s flute solos and obligatos, this instrument being rare in rock at the time.
The songs on In Search Of The Lost Chord feature lyrics of the sort that would ultimately make the Moodies a bit of a laughing stock for a while: plenty of hippie mysticism and Oriental metaphysical musing typical of the era. But they are delivered by four fine solo voices, often combining to produce immaculate harmonies. The melodies and accompaniments are top quality and there’s plenty of variation in keys and time signatures. Above all this there’s a spirit of experimentation typical of the times, with band members tackling unfamiliar instruments – Pinder on harpsichord, Justin Hayward on sitar, Lodge on cello, Thomas on oboe, Grahame Edge on a kit of cardboard boxes – and a production which belies the limitations of the recording equipment then available to the band, with segues, fade-ins and fade-outs galore.
“Legend Of A Mind” is part of a short suite, bookended by “House Of Four Doors” Parts One and Two, but stands alone quite capably. Like many other tracks on the album, this tongue-in-cheek paean to LSD guru Timothy Leary and its bracketing tracks feature some breathless sound effects. These achieve their zenith in “The Best Way To Travel”, whose stereo effects were quite startling to a generation unused to the new mode of sound reproduction. Of the other tracks, “Ride My See Saw” is a galloping rocker often reserved for a show closer on stage, while “Om” incorporates an Oriental chant with huge drum sounds and vocals that sound like a revved-up football crowd.
Very much of its time, and subject to ridicule a decade later, today In Search Of The Lost Chord represents what was best in the days when psychedelia was mutating into progressive music. The follow-up, On The Threshold Of A Dream, offered the same high quality and experimental edge, with subsequent works becoming rather safer and more predictable, if even more grandiose.
PS: this is one that doesn’t work in mono!

It took a while for the Moody Blues to catch on in the US, though their retrospective catalogue scored quite well there after 1971. At home in the UK, however, the Moodies were huge during what I think was their best period, 1968-1970, when their highly individual and sophisticated mix of psych and prog was always spinning on the platters of more cerebral music lovers.

After the band’s 1967 reshuffle, their yearning to combine pop and classical musics surfaced strongly. The first effort, Days Of Future Passed, interleaved some good early Moodies songs with second-rate orchestral interludes resembling B-movie soundtracks, and was therefore a patchy affair. Then Mike Pinder discovered the Mellotron, and everything clicked into place.

Pinder is probably the most accomplished Mellotron practitioner of the era, and during the period 1968-70, when miking of acoustic pianos was still hit-and-miss, it was the only onstage keyboard he employed. Its sound in his hands is absolutely fundamental to the Moodies’ output of the times. This is not to downplay the musicianship of the other members; especially notable are John Lodge’s bass playing, his picked Fender Jazz lines and arpeggios functioning as a further lead instrument, and Ray Thomas’s flute solos and obligatos, this instrument being rare in rock at the time.

The songs on In Search Of The Lost Chord feature lyrics of the sort that would ultimately make the Moodies a bit of a laughing stock for a while: plenty of hippie mysticism and Oriental metaphysical musing typical of the era. But they are delivered by four fine solo voices, often combining to produce immaculate harmonies. The melodies and accompaniments are top quality and there’s plenty of variation in keys and time signatures. Above all this there’s a spirit of experimentation typical of the times, with band members tackling unfamiliar instruments – Pinder on harpsichord, Justin Hayward on sitar, Lodge on cello, Thomas on oboe, Grahame Edge on a kit of cardboard boxes – and a production which belies the limitations of the recording equipment then available to the band, with segues, fade-ins and fade-outs galore.

“Legend Of A Mind” is part of a short suite, bookended by “House Of Four Doors” Parts One and Two, but stands alone quite capably. Like many other tracks on the album, this tongue-in-cheek paean to LSD guru Timothy Leary and its bracketing tracks feature some breathless sound effects. These achieve their zenith in “The Best Way To Travel”, whose stereo effects were quite startling to a generation unused to the new mode of sound reproduction. Of the other tracks, “Ride My See Saw” is a galloping rocker often reserved for a show closer on stage, while “Om” incorporates an Oriental chant with huge drum sounds and vocals that sound like a revved-up football crowd.

Very much of its time, and subject to ridicule a decade later, today In Search Of The Lost Chord represents what was best in the days when psychedelia was mutating into progressive music. The follow-up, On The Threshold Of A Dream, offered the same high quality and experimental edge, with subsequent works becoming rather safer and more predictable, if even more grandiose.

PS: this is one that doesn’t work in mono!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“The Best Way to Travel”

:D CD Reissue | 2008 | Polydor | at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Deram | at ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

King Crimson “In The Court Of The Crimson King”

I bought In The Court Of The Crimson King straight after seeing Crimson support the Rolling Stones at the Hyde Park free concert in 1969. The then almost unknown Crimson delivered by far the strongest set of the day. I’ve listened to it periodically over the ensuing forty years, first on vinyl and latterly remixed on CD, and it still impresses me.
There are some fine musicians here. Bandleader and composer Robert Fripp can rock out on guitar with the best of the rest, but is happiest on avant-garde improvisations with a cool mellow tone. Drummer Mike Giles has all the jazzy chops. Bassist Greg Lake is also a clear-voiced, expressive singer. Probably the most talented member is Ian McDonald, who covers all keyboards and all wind instruments; a master of the Mellotron, his flute work is also particularly praiseworthy.
The album boasts but five tracks, all of which are basically straightforward songs on simple chord sequences with lyrics, courtesy of lyricist and poet Pete Sinfield, mostly incorporating the usual science-fantasy noodlings of the era, but with each song featuring a contrasting freeform instrumental section. “21st Century Schizoid Man” leads off with a nightmarish, distorted vision of a Michael Moorcock world, giving way to a fractured unison passage with impressive ensemble playing from all four musicians. “I Talk To The Wind” is a mellow, elegiac piece featuring gorgeous muted licks throughout from Fripp. “Epitaph”, my favourite track, invites comparisons with contemporaneous Moody Blues, being a powerful song drenched in Mellotron strings. “Moonchild” is another mellow epic with a long coda in which Fripp’s guitar holds an extended freeform conversation with McDonald’s Fender Rhodes, while Giles politely tries to horn in on the discussion. “The Court Of The Crimson King”, the band’s signature tune, closes proceedings in powerful style, ending with a charming nursery pipe organ recapitulation of the main theme.
There’s a lot of variation in dynamics here; the CD helpfully eliminates the annoyance caused by vinyl surface noise during the quieter passages. If I have any criticisms, they are minor: the use of a similar, slightly plodding 4/4 time signature  throughout, and the long coda of “Moonchild” perhaps rather outstaying its welcome. However, this remains a classic of early prog, and one arguably not bettered by any later lineup of Crimson. For immediately after the ensuing lengthy US tour, McDonald and Giles both quit, and Lake abandoned ship during the recording of the follow-up In The Wake Of Poseidon, leaving Fripp to build again from scratch. He probably didn’t succeed at this level again till the brilliant Belew/Levin/Bruford guitar-based lineup of the eighties.

In The Court of the Crimson King

I bought In The Court Of The Crimson King straight after seeing Crimson support the Rolling Stones at the Hyde Park free concert in 1969. The then almost unknown Crimson delivered by far the strongest set of the day. I’ve listened to it periodically over the ensuing forty years, first on vinyl and latterly remixed on CD, and it still impresses me.

There are some fine musicians here. Bandleader and composer Robert Fripp can rock out on guitar with the best of the rest, but is happiest on avant-garde improvisations with a cool mellow tone. Drummer Mike Giles has all the jazzy chops. Bassist Greg Lake is also a clear-voiced, expressive singer. Probably the most talented member is Ian McDonald, who covers all keyboards and all wind instruments; a master of the Mellotron, his flute work is also particularly praiseworthy.

The album boasts but five tracks, all of which are basically straightforward songs on simple chord sequences with lyrics, courtesy of lyricist and poet Pete Sinfield, mostly incorporating the usual science-fantasy noodlings of the era, but with each song featuring a contrasting freeform instrumental section. “21st Century Schizoid Man” leads off with a nightmarish, distorted vision of a Michael Moorcock world, giving way to a fractured unison passage with impressive ensemble playing from all four musicians. “I Talk To The Wind” is a mellow, elegiac piece featuring gorgeous muted licks throughout from Fripp. “Epitaph,” my favourite track, invites comparisons with contemporaneous Moody Blues, being a powerful song drenched in Mellotron strings. “Moonchild” is another mellow epic with a long coda in which Fripp’s guitar holds an extended freeform conversation with McDonald’s Fender Rhodes, while Giles politely tries to horn in on the discussion. “The Court Of The Crimson King”, the band’s signature tune, closes proceedings in powerful style, ending with a charming nursery pipe organ recapitulation of the main theme.

There’s a lot of variation in dynamics here; the CD helpfully eliminates the annoyance caused by vinyl surface noise during the quieter passages. If I have any criticisms, they are minor: the use of a similar, slightly plodding 4/4 time signature  throughout, and the long coda of “Moonchild” perhaps rather outstaying its welcome. However, this remains a classic of early prog, and one arguably not bettered by any later lineup of Crimson. For immediately after the ensuing lengthy US tour, McDonald and Giles both quit, and Lake abandoned ship during the recording of the follow-up In The Wake Of Poseidon, leaving Fripp to build again from scratch. He probably didn’t succeed at this level again till the brilliant Belew/Levin/Bruford guitar-based lineup of the eighties.

:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Atlantic | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2004 | Discipline | amazon ]

Chicago Transit Authority (self-titled)

Opinion on what is surely one of the finest debut albums ever made tends to be somewhat polarised these days. Detractors of what eventually, sadly, unforgivably, metamorphosed into the ultimate slush-rock outfit simply ignore it; admirers of the earlier stuff who nonetheless try to distance themselves from the currently unfashionable genre of jazz-rock describe the band as a mainstream hard-rock quartet accompanied by a more-adventurous-than-average Memphis-style horn trio. In fact Chicago Transit Authority has real jazz in bucketloads, alongside blissed-out rock, blues, funk-soul and some wilful psychedelic oddness, particularly in the lyrics and occasional sound effects. And in this instance the mixture really does work.
The first thing that hits your consciousness is the bullhorn-brash confidence of this nascent outfit. Seven unknown but uncompromising musicians offer as their first recording a double album containing eleven lengthy tracks (and one short prologue). The staple fare is meticulously arranged songs, some of which contain enough modulations and changes of tempo to allow them to qualify as suites. Heaven knows how long they rehearsed to get their sh*t this tight, but they are that good and they know it. What other band had the chutzpah to include on its debut a seven-minute solo guitar piece comprising only electronic feedback, long before Lou Reed or Neil Young did so? No wonder the guitarist can be heard laughing into the amplifier mike half way through the piece. He’s not giving the finger to the record company; he’s saying, “this isn’t gratuitous noise, this is our art: make up your own mind whether it’s valid”.
All the musicians are excellent, but in particular guitarist Terry Kath can give Hendrix a fright in the sustain/widdling stakes (“Poem 58”: reportedly, Jimi rated him as a peer) and can perform a continually-inventive twelve-minute strut on the pentatonic comparable to Frank Zappa at his best (“Liberation”). Yes, the horns can throw in the choreographed stabs, but they show themselves capable of ambitious yet economical improv soloing (“Introduction”). Together, the septet move beyond finely honed jazzy pieces (“Beginnings”) through a bludgeoning riff-blues (“South California Purples”) to a latin-drenched drum solo (the fine cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m A Man”), while the lyrics veer from hippy-dippy mysticism (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”) to abrupt political statement (“Prologue, August 29, 1968” / “Someday”). The latter segues seamlessly and intelligently out of the former, a location recording of a chanting civil rights crowd, to drum the message home.
Chicago’s second release was also a jazzy double album, but the experimental weirdness was gone, leaving only a more sterile virtuosity. After that, it was downhill all the way to “If You Leave Me Now”. Chicago Transit Authority stands as their finest.

Chicago Transit Authority

Opinion on what is surely one of the finest debut albums ever made tends to be somewhat polarised these days. Detractors of what eventually, sadly, unforgivably, metamorphosed into the ultimate slush-rock outfit simply ignore it; admirers of the earlier stuff who nonetheless try to distance themselves from the currently unfashionable genre of jazz-rock describe the band as a mainstream hard-rock quartet accompanied by a more-adventurous-than-average Memphis-style horn trio. In fact Chicago Transit Authority has real jazz in bucketloads, alongside blissed-out rock, blues, funk-soul and some wilful psychedelic oddness, particularly in the lyrics and occasional sound effects. And in this instance the mixture really does work.

The first thing that hits your consciousness is the bullhorn-brash confidence of this nascent outfit. Seven unknown but uncompromising musicians offer as their first recording a double album containing eleven lengthy tracks (and one short prologue). The staple fare is meticulously arranged songs, some of which contain enough modulations and changes of tempo to allow them to qualify as suites. Heaven knows how long they rehearsed to get their sh*t this tight, but they are that good and they know it. What other band had the chutzpah to include on its debut a seven-minute solo guitar piece comprising only electronic feedback, long before Lou Reed or Neil Young did so? No wonder the guitarist can be heard laughing into the amplifier mic half way through the piece. He’s not giving the finger to the record company; he’s saying, “this isn’t gratuitous noise, this is our art: make up your own mind whether it’s valid.”

All the musicians are excellent, but in particular guitarist Terry Kath can give Hendrix a fright in the sustain/widdling stakes (“Poem 58”: reportedly, Jimi rated him as a peer) and can perform a continually-inventive twelve-minute strut on the pentatonic comparable to Frank Zappa at his best (“Liberation”). Yes, the horns can throw in the choreographed stabs, but they show themselves capable of ambitious yet economical improv soloing (“Introduction”). Together, the septet move beyond finely honed jazzy pieces (“Beginnings”) through a bludgeoning riff-blues (“South California Purples”) to a latin-drenched drum solo (the fine cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m A Man”), while the lyrics veer from hippy-dippy mysticism (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”) to abrupt political statement (“Prologue, August 29, 1968” / “Someday”). The latter segues seamlessly and intelligently out of the former, a location recording of a chanting civil rights crowd, to drum the message home.

Chicago’s second release was also a jazzy double album, but the experimental weirdness was gone, leaving only a more sterile virtuosity. After that, it was downhill all the way to “If You Leave Me Now.” Chicago Transit Authority stands as their finest.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Prologue, August 29, 1968”

:D CD Reissue | 2002 | Rhino | amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Columbia | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Procol Harum “A Salty Dog”

A Salty Dog

Agruably Procol Harum’s finest hour, A Salty Dog (A&M, 1969) was the last album with keyboard/organ player Matthew Fisher.  Fisher’s keyboards dominate typical Procol Harum numbers like “Pilgrim’s Progress,” “All This and More,” and the excellent progressive rocker “Wreck of the Hesperus.”  These songs (all very good) are what you’d expect to find on a late 60’s Procol Harum record, a slow paced, keyboard driven sound.  It’s the remaining tracks that push the group’s resources to the limit, seeing them branch out into new musical territory that is often exciting and original.

The album opened with the title track, “A Salty Dog.”  One of Procol Harum’s most ambitious statements, this composition features beautiful string arrangements and Gary Brooker’s tremendous vocals (he never sounded better).  Also of note are B.J. Wilson’s powerhouse drum work and the brilliant lyrics of Keith Reid, which accurately describe the paranoia ocean explorers encounter at sea.  For these reasons, the music and lyricism work well together, creating a peculiar sense of impending doom or fear of the unknown.  “A Salty Dog” is still regarded as one of the finest pieces of early progressive rock, and with good reason, it’s a superb song that conjures up eerie feelings – a must own.  Other standouts are the dreamy folk of “Too Much Between Us,”  intelligent roots rock in “The Hand of Human Kindness” and the pre World War II style blues of “Juicy John Pink.”  The latter sounds lo-fi and may be the rawest, most basic track Procol Harum has ever cut; it really is an authentic blues piece too, highlighted by Trower’s fantastic guitar leads and Brooker’s boozy late nite vocals.  “Boredom,” another unique number, is a pretty accoustic campfire jam with distinct Caribbean rhythms.  This is an LP full of variety and style. 

Hard rock enthusiasts may want to pick this up for the great, sludgey rocker titled “The Devil Came From Kansas.”  This one has pounding drums and pile driving guitar riffs, probably their heaviest song – essential music for the classic rock fan.  In fact, all throughout the album Robin Trower’s guitar work is a joy, reaching highs with his own epic composition “Crucifixion Lane” and the cool, stuttering fuzztones heard on aforementioned “The Hand of Human Kindness.”  The band tries all kinds of different experiments out on A Salty Dog, so in a sense it may sound overwhelming at first.  Patience and mutiple listens pay off and reveal A Salty Dog to be one of the best classic rock albums of 1969.

Originals are easy to find in good shape (vinyl).  There have been several good cd reissues by Salvo (2009) and Westside as well.  These reissues feature excellent bonus material and copious liner notes.  By the way, A Salty Dog is slang for an experienced sailor or a libidinous man.  It’s also the name of an acoholic beverage which is made with vodka or gin and grapefruit juice.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Milk Of Human Kindness”

:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | A&M | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2009 | Salvo | amazon ]

Harvey Mandel “Cristo Redentor”

Cristo Redentor

This gently psychedelic album is another of my vinyl bargain bin discoveries from the early ‘70s, which I picked up only because I knew Harvey Mandel had played with my favourites Canned Heat and John Mayall. Best known as a sideman – he later auditioned for the Rolling Stones on Mick Taylor’s departure – this was Harvey’s first solo work, dating from 1968, and an impossibly young-looking Mandel is pictured on the back artwork, a diminutive figure dwarfed by his big Gibson 355. The grooves within demonstrate not only his virtuosity on guitar, but also why his tenure with Heat and Mayall was so brief and why the Stones declined to hire him. Mayall described his technique as “Harvey’s wall of sound”, which aptly encompasses his early mastery of controlled feedback through his customised Bogan amplifier, and his later featuring of two-handed tapping, well before EVH got hold of that particular trick.

This album is completely instrumental, a rarity in pop-psych terms; the only voice to be heard is that of a wordless soprano singer on the title track. However, the stylistic diversity of the tunes and the variety of the backing tracks means that it is by no means repetitive. It was mostly recorded in LA and Nashville, using the top rhythm section sessioneers of both camps: Art Stavro and Eddie Hoh from the Wrecking Crew, stalwarts of the early Monkees sessions, and Bob Moore and Kenny Buttrey, soon to anchor Dylan’s Nashville Skykine. The LA tracks also feature tight string and brass arrangements, while the Nashville ones benefit from Pete Drake’s sympathetic pedal steel accompaniment.

The album as a whole is the best late-night-listening record I know of, beautifully laid-back funky arrangements fronted by a bewildering array of restrained guitar tricks from Mandel, dazzling but never flashy or tasteless. The titles give the idea: “Lights Out”, “Nashville 1AM”, “Before Six”. “Cristo Redentor” is Portuguese for Christ The Redeemer, and this title track is the exception to the rule of funk, being a solemn, operatic piece.

“Before Six” features some of Harvey’s most mind-boggling sustain work, the sound looping wildly between the stereo speakers, plus a mouth-watering cameo on Hammond by longtime LA collaborator Barry Goldberg and tasty brass stabs throughout. “You Can’t Tell Me” is funkier than your average Nashville session, with Harvey wringing out the best Memphis scale licks I’ve ever heard, intertwining with Pete Drake’s slippery steel chords.

The CD reissue, on the estimable Raven label from Australia, dates from 2003 and includes bonus tracks from Harvey’s Canned Heat days and from his own short-lived instrumental band, Pure Food & Drug Act. None of these quite live up to the quality of the solo album tracks, though Heat’s “Let’s Work Together” – the nearest Harvey ever got to being a pop star – has a certain boozy charm.

On this CD release the two sides of the original vinyl have been reversed, probably to make the best-known track, “Wade In The Water”, the leadoff track. The original running order works better, so if you get hold of this CD, play tracks 6-10 followed by tracks 1-5 for the most satisfying programme.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“You Can’t Tell Me”

:D CD Reissue | 2003 | Raven | buy ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Phillips | search ]

Spirit “Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus”

12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus

Perhaps Spirit’s finest album although some fans champion the psych pop of 68’s The Family That Plays Together.  Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus was released by Epic in 1970. Sessions for the album came to a grinding halt when Randy California fell off a horse and suffered a fractured skull. He spent one month in the hospital and because of this it took the group nearly 6 months to complete Sardonicus. On top of this, tensions within the group were mounting. Randy California (guitarist) and Jay Ferguson (vocals) could not agree on the future direction of Spirit; Ferguson wanted to play commerical rock n roll while California favored a loose, experimental approach. This would be the last lp from the original lineup as internal friction would lead to Spirit’s demise. The band split up after the recording of this album, which was subsequently pieced together by producer David Briggs.

If you were to round up all the essential LA/California rock albums from the late 60’s/early 70’s this would be amongst the very best on that list. The songs on Sardonicus are more structured than before, only “Space Child,” a trippy progressive instrumental, has a slight jazz/fusion element that was featured so prominently on earlier albums.  “Animal Zoo” (a psych pop gem), “Mr. Skin” (quirky hard rock with horns), and the gorgeous “Nature’s Way” were all released as singles in 1970.  “Nature’s Way” is one of Spirit’s most popular tracks and a definite highlight on Sardonicus. The vocals and electric/acoustic guitars on this number are positively sublime and create a very intimate mood; it’s the kind of song that’ll stick in your head for years to come. Other great tracks were the moody piano ballad “Soldier” and the psychedelic folk-rocker “Life Has Just Begun,” which features a beautiful chorus.

While the Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus contained some of Spirit’s most radio friendly material, the group was still experimenting aplenty.  “When I Touch You,” one of their best hard rock tracks, featured a strong psych influence and a fine vocal performance from Jay Ferguson. Another track, “Love Has Found A Way” is a morass of backwards effects, strange lead vocals, and pristine harmonies. Two other hard rockers, “Prelude – Nothin’ To Hide” and “Street Worm” are full of great guitar work, clever fuzz effects, and killer solos: these tracks cleary explain why Randy California is so highly esteemed by his peers. Despite its clean, commercial production and the fact that it was loved by musicians and critics alike, Sardonicus did not sell.

The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus was as good as any record coming out in 1970, certainly up there with the era’s very best.  And although Sardonicus is progressive and  foward thinking, it never sounds dated or self indulgent, the LP is a true masterpiece. It’s been reissued many, many times and originals on vinyl are easy to find. The best reissues have been put out by Sundazed (vinyl), Epic/Sony (cd) and Repertoire Records (cd). Spirit would soldier on with drummer Ed Cassidy and guitarist Randy California, releasing some fine albums and playing many memorable live shows. Ferguson went on to form Jo Jo Gunne, a commercial hard rock/boogie band that saw success in the 1970s.

In 1997 Randy California tragically died in Hawaii while saving his son from a dangerous ocean wave. It was a sad end to one of rock’s great groups.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Why Can’t I Be Free”

:) Vinyl Reissue | Sundazed | buy from sundazed ]
:D CD Reissue | Sony | buy from amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | Epic | 1970 | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

R. Stevie Moore “Phonography”

Phonography

R. Stevie Moore, with hundreds of albums under his belt – most of them home-recordings released on hissy cassette tape and hand-marked CD-R – is an unrecognized genius. Born in Nashville, son to session man and Elvis’s bass player Bob Moore, Robert Steven Moore grew up in the music business. Opting to make it on his own with the reel-to-reel instead of working sessions, his dedication to independent recording has yielded troves of unaffected, wildly original music. He recently told Vanity Fair: “I’ve worked harder than anybody to become rich and famous, but I remain poor and anonymous!”

Phonography was Stevie’s first official long player, recorded from 1973 to 1976 and originally released in 100 copies on the artist’s private Vital Records. Comes with lo-fi, direct input, overloaded electric guitar, a classical approach to warbly analog synth arrangements, hi-pitched erratic vocals, oddball skits that are genuinely funny, and an exceptionally fine gift for pop songcraft. Within a few listens you’ll hear traces of Brian Wilson, The Mothers, Gary Wilson, Daniel Johnston (especially on goofball cuts like “Goodbye Piano”), and Ariel Pink, a big fan who had R. Stevie open up his recent tour.

The opener, “Melbourne,” sets an unexpected stage: an anthemic introduction on an Elka synthesizer. Then Stevie shares a few words about his background whilst taking a piss!  The album is schizophrenic, but wonderfully listenable, even through a thick wall of magnetic tape. The beauty is in the fidelity, Moore recognizes what’s special about home recordings, and the record’s flow is engaging rather than plain weird.

Phonography record is finally available on vinyl again, remastered by Sundazed from R. Stevie’s original reels with the restored Vital artwork and insert. Earlier this year a CD version was reissued by Recommended Records in the UK and it’s available on iTunes as well.

Phonography is a record like no other, and merely an introduction to the incredible world of R. Stevie Moore. Find more than you could ever handle at rsteviemoore.com.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“I Want You In My Life”

:D CD Reissue | 1998 | Flamingo | rsteviemoore.com ]
;) MP3 Album | download at amzn ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Read the rest of this entry »