Reviews: the Fellowship of Hallucinatory Voyagers, Purple People, Vukovar, Keith Emerson, Garth Sager, A Year in the Country, Hanford Reach, Stray, Philiipe Debarge with the Pretty Things

The Fellowship of Hallucinatory Voyagers 

This Is No Wilderness

sendelica.bandcamp.com

A revelatory solo sideshow from Sendelica’s indefatigable Pete Bingham, plus fellow voyagers Marc Swordfish (Astralasia), Colin Consterdine, Lindsay Smith, Lisa Button, Virginia Tate and Bingham bandmate Lee Relfe; and accompanied by a book of Smith’s accompanying poetry, This Is No Wilderness is five tracks of drifting snow, darkened trees, sepulchral creak, raw power and ancient mystery.

An album that spends as much time in your head as it does in your ears, it’s a succession of concentric musical circles that are far enough from the mothership to justify its solo billing, but which nevertheless reflects on textures and tones that cannot help but share Sendelica’s gravitational pull.  Particularly once the guitars kick in.

The poetic voices with which the music is interspersed are sparse, but their meditative qualities are no less powerful for that; as evocative as the cacophonies that erupt unbidden through “Yr Mor-Forwyn”; as haunted as the melodies that flicker through “Lindsay’s Yellow House”; or the storm that preludes “The Permanent Rower” (and the percussive pulse that conjures machines from the landscape)…. and all leading up to “Taith Yr Afon Teifi,” a sixteen-plus minute trance that undergoes so many changes that you wonder why you weren’t aware of them while they were happening.

It’s an epic album; a wondrous thing; a familiar face that is nothing you would ever recognize.

But, most of all, it’s a dream to deliver in the middle of the night to chase away sleep.

 

various artists

Purple People Volume One

Purple Records/Cherry Red

Purple Records was one of the great vanity projects of the early seventies boom in post-Apple artist-owned labels.  More so than either the Stones or ELP’s concerns, Purple Records positively reveled in music that would make the core constituent… the people who bought Deep Purple’s own records… scratch their heads in bemusement.

For every solo spin-off from the mothership (Jon Lord with Tony Ashton, for example), there was soul singer Yvonne Elliman.  For every Butterfly Ball there was Buddy Bohn.  And for every band that at least matched DP for muscle (Hard Stuff) there was a single by Doctor Who.  And, with the exception of the mighty Silverhead, and outside of that funny little universe where nothing but the unknown is beautiful, none of it attracted much attention.

Which was a shame because a lot of the music really wasn’t that bad.  Especially if you sidelined Purple’s involvement altogether, and just listened to it as music, rather than waiting for Ritchie to walk in and blast out some “Smoke on the Water.”

Curtis Maldoon, Bullet and Rupert Hine all made at least middling-to-good albums for the label, and with Purple Records’ archive now being opened wide by Cherry Red, the first volume of Purple People unearths four especially enjoyable albums – by Elliman, Bohn, Carol Hunter and, because it really does show how far-reaching the label’s interests were, Colditz Breakpoint, a collection of marches, music hall and classical pieces built around the period TV show Colditz, set in the German POW camp of the same name.

Label notwithstanding, this branch of the Purple Records story has vey little to do with Deep Purple themselves, not even a passing production credit.  Elliman, Bohn and Hunter, however, do much to illustrate that peculiar period in British rock where the “old guard” attempted to maintain business as usual, while the kids were all out glam rocking – and, perhaps, show us why they chose to do that.

Again, it’s great music – Elliman’s album effortlessly echoes her contributions to Eric Clapton’s then on-going resurgence, and includes a tremendous version of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”   Bohn and Hunter, on the other hand, slip neatly into that corner of the cocktail party market that would forever worship gently folky singer-songwriters; and Colditz Breakout! is just a hoot, all stirring wartime anthems, singalongs and struts, interspersed with newly recorded fighter plane and tank noises.  It’s sensational.

But Purple Records, like so many of its peers, never shook off the public perception that it was somehow Purplecentric; and was never to push its people over the top.  Purple People – named for a rather fine label sampler that was issued back in the day – is a much-needed second glance in their direction and, perhaps, the start of something beautiful.

 

Vukovar

Puritan

(vukovarbrutalisthouse. bandcamp.com/album/puritan)

Dan Bordello’s other band, but if you’re expecting further lo-fi lunacy from what is, after all, a potent percentage of the modern age’s most virulent pop plague… too bad.  The opening “Übermensch” makes that clear, as a voice not a million hops from the Bunnymen, and a sound not a thousand years from early-eighties post punk, combine like a favorite shroud – before crunching into “Veil,” which is the best unreleased Joy Division demo you’ve never heard.

It’s not all retro-comparison time, either.  “All the Pretty Little Horses,” a folk song that has had already enjoyed “definitive” work-outs from Current 93 and Us and Them in recent decades, gets a defiantly horror-show work-out at the album’s end – a poke in the eye for all those modern  folklorists who insist all traditional music must now feel like the soundtrack to The Wicker Man; and to prove it’s not a fluke, “Down in the Willow Garden” receives a fractured shaking, too.

The two part “A Final Solution,” at the album’s midsection, too, grips the heart, a dystopian opening poem that almost unwillingly releases its grasp to make way for a percussive march, a minimal lyric, and something strange crackling through the airwaves.

Love songs for a loveless world, Puritan is harsh and merciless, cramped and crooked, a discomforting dance that has its ghosts, for sure.  But it also has a firm grip on the momentum of the modern age.  Which is not a happy thought.

 

Keith Emerson

Emerson Plays Emerson

(Emersongs)

Originally released back in 2002, but unavailable for far longer than it was ever on the shelves, Emerson Plays Emerson is exactly what it says on the box, a twenty-two track collection of solo piano performances that range from the hit “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” through a live “Close to Home,” a swinging “Summertime,” a raucous “Hammer It Out,” just oodles and oodles of magnificent music, all reminding us how much we lost when Emerson left us – but how much he left behind.

More so than either of his ELP bandmates, Emerson constantly chafed against his reputation as the madman who stuck daggers into his flying organ – although he certainly enjoyed being that as well.  Throughout ELP’s career, his ambitions to lift both band and music out of anything approaching the “rock” arena was writ large – and, occasionally, too large.  A side long solo piano concerto on “Works was just one of that behemoth’s problems.  As a piece of work in its own right, it bears comparison with any modern classicist you could name.  As the opening track on the long-awaited new album by a stadium-filling supergroup… not so much.

That, however, is the company into which the bulk of this collection falls, and it is a collection, in that the songs were never recorded with a single album-length vision in mind, but rather were hewn from what could have been years-worth of sessions and recordings (the liners are oddly reticent on that point).

Throughout them all, however, Emerson’s genius is as pronounced as it might be on any rockier performance you could call on, and in a season where we’re already celebrating a box-set full of ELP’s catalog, lend an ear to a single disc that – in many ways – is just as valuable.

 

Garth Sager

88 Tuned Dreams

(Freaks)

But talking of piano albums….

Garth Sager is best-known from the Pop Group, then-and-now the closest that modern urban decay has ever come to capturing the approximate sound of music.  88 Tuned Dreams, on the other hand, is the sound of Sager alone at the piano, performing fourteen pieces that are so close to beauty that it’s hard to believe the same hands wrought what you’re hearing.

His own description, opening the album’s Pledge Music campaign, says a lot.  “I entered Studio One, Abbey Road as a piano playing punk, I had the biggest studio in Europe at my disposal with one of the greatest pianos, and a few hours, time was of the essence. I felt the gods had opened the doors to me to be in that studio at that time so I could express the feelings of ghosts, time lost, emotions found. I was given the chance to totally express the inexpressible. This sort of venue encourages that, a brew of Erik Satie & the third Velvet Underground LP!”

And so it is.  An album of reflective quiet, gentle statement and dark intent, its individual song titles (“Shipwrecked Rusty Birds,” “Black Crow in a Slow Snow,” “Eulogy to Lost Elegance”) cannot help but inform what you hear.  That a couple of the titles (“Slaughtered Science,” “The Bells That Banish the Devil”) could also double as Pop Group songs, of course, is not coincidental – you can take the player out of the mindset, but you can’t take the mindset from the player.  The timeliness of “Chagrin in Madrid,” too, might raise eyebrows – but that, of course, is assuming they haven’t already flown off your face, and are not now roosting some place you dare not want to go.

The pieces are short, rarely topping three minutes, and just one passes four (the closing “The Showgirl is Not Past Her Prime”), but they neither feel truncated nor brief.  Rather, Sager conveys so much in the notes that he offers that it would be futile to demand even more,

 

A Year in the Country

The Quietened Cosmologists

(A Year in the Country)

A Year in the Country’s penultimate release of the year is a rumination on what might have been – the space missions that were promised, that were planned and then abandoned, or that never got off even the figurative ground in the first place.

It’s a fascinating subject – not as a reminder that it will soon be fifty years since man last stepped on the moon; nor even that it’s almost fifteen years since some passing vainglorious millionaire predicted he’d a spaceman within five.

No, these are the missions we read about in our Children’s Book of Space Travel back in sixties and seventies; that fired learned TV documentarians; that haunted the back of bubblegum cards; that were hushed up by news agencies for fear of losing the public’s faith.  And the music here is the soundtrack to every fabulous vista of an alien world that the artistic talents of that same era daubed for us.

Disconnected voices from impossible distances, radio signals, muted melodies, ambitious hope and scientific daydreams; a lone man floating in the void of space, watching the colonists on the barren world below; if it’s Wednesday, it must be Pluto.  Broken promises, lost lives, the true tale of man’s interstellar ambitions reads like one of the greatest exercises in hubris and horror ever told, which is why an empty spacesuit makes a far better Halloween costume than any Universal Pictures monster.  And this is the soundtrack to that, as well.

As always, A Year in the Country eschews names for notions – David Colohan of United Bible Studies is here, with the echoing “Landfall at William Creek.”  But so are Field Lines Cartographer, Grey Creek, Time Attendants, Magpahi and Howlround, and their names may or may not mean a thing.  It’s the sounds they make that keep you in place -the unsettled silences and the noises in between, the lonely footsteps, the hollow voids.  You could even call it space rock.  But that’s real space out there.  And those are real rocks.

 

Hanford Reach

“Caught My Mind”

digital single – hanfordreach.bandcamp.com

Bit by bit, inch by inch, Hanford Reach are piecing together one of the greatest albums of the age.  Only they’re making it on an installment plan.  A single here, an EP there… they’re seven tracks in right now, which means there’s still a way to go.  But anyone who remembers Sky Picnic, from which the duo emerged; or has picked up the past EP or singles, will know that it’s going to be worth the wait.

Not at all dissimilar to the sound of a mid-west garage band at its first post-acid rehearsal,

“Caught My Mind” is a raucous slab of turbulent psych pop, four minutes of guitars that grab you at angles, a vocal that hangs like an insistent cloud, and percussion that doesn’t know when to quit.  A catchy hook, layers of swirl, if this was an LP opener, you’d be in for the night of your life.  For now… well, they’re seven tracks in. Maybe they could make the next one a side-long epic, and bring the wait to an end?

 

Stray 

All in Your Mind – the Transatlantic Years 1970-1974

Eclectic/Cherry Red

It’s not the full story.  Stray’s later albums on Pye, the BBC sessions, and sundry other goodies that have crept out aboard past reissues of the catalog, are not here.   But it is the beginning of the story, five full albums and a disc worth of rarities that more or less encapsulate the band’s entire career with Transatlantic Records, and all remastered beyond anything the band’s CDs have enjoyed in the past.

That, perhaps, is the most important aspect of this package.  Yes, it’s easy to complain that, in the haste to squeeze five LPs onto three CDs, a couple of awkward breaks were made – most notably the placement of Suicide’s final (title) track on a separate disc to the rest of the album.  But for those folk who refuse to simply dig out the vinyl and play the record as it was originally released, what’s your alternative?

Well, you can listen to it sounding great here, and suffer the inconvenience of standing up before the end; or you can go back to the Castle Records reissue from a decade or so back and play the whole thing through a vat of aural mud.  As much as any modern label specializing in early seventies rock reissues, Eclectic has established a standard of excellence that… quite honestly, if you’re going to moan about things like that, then you don’t deserve to have them.  So there.

The albums are the albums.  In commercial terms, Stray were the perennial great support band – they turned up on so many bills, and so many events, that it was impossible to believe they weren’t going to take the next step forward and become positively massive.  Audiences adored them, and their T-shirts were everywhere in the day.

But Transatlantic were never able to lever them into the big time; and when Stray signed to Pye for what might be their definitive album, 1975’s Stand Up and Be Counted, one wonders whether the title was an unsubtle dig at their new label?  Not that it helped; they fell down on the job as well, and a year or so later, it was all over.

Trace back to the beginning with this box, though, and Stray’s failure to break through where so many lesser bands made it simply beggars belief.  Stray, Suicide, Saturday Morning Pictures, Mudanzas and Move It could (almost) all be ranked among the most thrilling albums of their respective years, and Stray remain a fond memory for everyone who saw or heard them.

 

Philippe Debarge with the Pretty Things

Rock St Trop

(Madfish)

If there’s one eternal truth that sustains every record collector, it’s that even the best trodden paths are still paved with occasional gold.  Doors freaks might never run out of newly exhumed live performances to drool over, Jimi Hendrix collectors know there’ll always be another unheard tune-up to add to the thousands they’ve already hoarded.  And Syd Barrett fans can expect to be regaled with one more hitherto-barely-rumored doodle every time there’s a new “best of” compilation to be sold.

Pretty Things fans are accustomed to all this.  In fact, Pretty Things fans are probably accustomed to all of the iniquities that come with a catalog which now stretches back over fifty years.  Even before the band launched their own much praised archive project in the late 1990s, both overground and underground CD shelves were creaking beneath the accumulated weight of the Pretties’ alternative history.

Lost BBC sessions, forgotten out-takes, incidental film music, live shows and demos – all musical human life is out there some place, and the enterprising collector now needs a small room just to store the band’s own releases in.  Add in all the odds and sods that prove how vital the Pretties were to the development of British rock through the 1960s and 1970s (not to mention the present century), and you’ll be needing an entire housing estate.

Less than visible through all this, however, are the handful of projects that the band undertook during the late 1960s, which even their Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky box set only flirted with.  The Electric Banana library recordings, for example.  And this, an album recorded with a wealthy young Frenchman who awoke one morning and decided it would be fun to make an album.  So he did.

It was early 1968 when Pretty Things vocalist Phil May and drummer Wally Allen were first contacted by Philippe DeBarge, to ask if they’d be interested in bringing his dream to fruition.  According to May, “basically, he was a French millionaire who we met, and a wannabe pop star, a friend of the more slightly alternative French rock musicians which is kinda weird – I mean, all French rock musicians are very showbiz.  They wear black leather and Elvis haircuts, but really, they’re entertainers with a big E.  Anyway, he was a lovely guy, we got on very well with him, so we agreed to do it.”

As ambitious as he was wealthy, DeBarge flew the duo to the family home in the south of France, for a few days of pre-production.  May continued, “it was a lovely place, we traveled round in vintage Rolls Royces, and we had a nice few days hanging out with him.”  Then DeBarge shipped the whole party back to Britain to make the record at Abbey Road.  Well, if it was good enough for SF Sorrow, it was good enough for him.

Aside from his co-production duties, May was also hired on as a vocal coach.  “I would work with Philippe on vocals, which were in French, coach him how to phrase lyrics and the timing of his delivery – I had to translate it myself in my head, see what the important words were, then we put the record together.  He’d go home with a tape recorder of my treatments of the verses, sleep with it under his pillow, then come back and record it.  It was very strange.”

DeBarge’s initial plan was for May and Allen to act as producers, with the actual musical grunt work farmed out to a supergroup of personally handpicked sessionmen.  “The idea was, we’d see what the material was like, then get other musicians involved on a session basis.  But when push came to shove, it was so much easier for us to work with the Pretty Things doing the stuff, rather than working with brand new musicians.”

The remainder of the Pretty Things were rounded up accordingly and, if the sharp-eared listener can detect echoes of sundry future Pretty Things masterpieces rattling around inside Rock le Trop, that’s because the band themselves put them there.

“The whole experience was quite beneficial for us because there we were in the studio doing stuff together,” May explained.  “That kind of work is not wasted when we come to do our own next record, because you develop all the time.  It’s like whenever you’re in the studio, it’s a learning thing anyway, so we were constantly trying new things out.  You develop a lot of stuff in those side sessions, and any musician will tell you, it’s better to be working than not.  Playing in a pub is better than sitting at home in a mansion, and that’s why so many ‘popular’ bands have a problem.  They can only work every three or four years and, inbetween times, they go fucking mad.”

May acknowledged, “we tried things on Philippe’s album which evolved into things on ours’ – it was a way for us to again use the studio situation, songs we weren’t using, developing different things, it was the writing thing going on parallel.”

But Rock leTrop’s value goes way beyond the random insertion of future elements of Parachute… beyond its sonic (and spiritual) similarities to S.F. Sorrow.  Having traveled from the acoustic and tabla led opener, “Hello, How Do You Do,” through the soaring guitar solo underpinning “Eagle’s Son,” and onto the punchy lament of “All Gone Now,” DeBarge returned to France clutching what ranks today as the unsung classic of the psychedelic era.  And it never even got released.

Actually, that’s not strictly true.  According to Phil May, ‘he had a deal, his father knew the head of Pathe Marconi, so it came out on that label in France.  In fact, Wally then went down and helped him put a band together with journeyman musicians, French musicians, a very druggy bunch.  He had a wonderful year in Bierritz, fell in love, and the band just rehearsed.  They did one or two gigs with Johnny Halliday or someone.  I stayed out of all that, although I did go down to see them in one of those places where the guy had the whole penthouse suite on the top of a hotel.  All the band members lived in this hotel, things being brought in and out, it was terribly decadent.”

Phil May has never sounded convinced by claims of the music’s immortality.  He has heard all the accolades, the comparisons with The Who Sell Out, Forever Changes, Sgt Pepper and SF Sorrow itself.  But with the benefit of an insider’s hindsight, he refuses to buy into any of them.

“The album itself has a lot of faults on it.  There’s a certain point where, if someone isn’t an actual singer, you can only go so far.  You can’t get blood out of a stone.”

But he also acknowledged, “it wasn’t a completely wasted exercise.  It has its moments.  I’ve been involved with other things where people want to pay you to produce something, and you look at it and… well, it’s just fucking not worth it.  Phillippe, on the other hand, genuinely wanted to make music, he worked very very hard in the studio, he worked his bollocks off with very limited experience, he tried very hard.

“And I know he was absolutely chuffed with the whole thing, it was probably one of the highlights of his entire life.  Because, even though he was a millionaire, the feeling he got from physically making that record was something which all his money could never buy.”

It’s true, too.  The album did little even in France, and swiftly disappeared from even the most eagle-eyed Pretties’ fan’s radar.  Originally it languished in obscurity, an onscure backwater to the band’s main story.  But, as the 1990s progressed and the Pretty Things’ own revival/reunion gathered speed, so a legend began to build.  By the time Wally Waller announvced his intentions to finally bring the album to official CD, it ranked among the most unquestionably important albums to be lurking, in its entirety, in the CD-R domain alone, bootleg scratches, pop and clicks included.  And if it sounded this good with the acetate’s fuzzy flaws on-board, imagine what the master tapes are like!

They’re fantastic.

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