Hawkwind – scaling rock’s greatest family tree

hawkwind_spacehawks_cover 72dpiReviewing what was then Hawkwind’s latest single, back in the late 1970s, the English New Musical Express responded to its title “25 Years” by asking “have they really been going that long?”  They hadn’t.  But today, the intrepid spacemen have almost forty-five years under their belt, and it’s an indication of just how loved Hawkwind are that they are still making headlines on a worldwide basis.

Not all of the news from the mothership has been good, of course, with the squabble over naming rights (covered here) often developing into a quite unseemly mud-slinging exercise.  But even that shows just how adored the band and its multitudinous offshoots and spin-offs are, and how fiercely partisan their supporters can be.

Still, it’s refreshing to know that in and around all the controversy, the music can still take center stage, as not one, not two, not three but four branches of the Hawkwind family tree celebrate the last months of 2013 with new albums. All of which might well be the best they’ve all released in a long time.

Founding saxophonist and vocalist Nik Turner’s Space Gypsy was reviewed here a while back.  Since then, however, we’ve been treated to new albums by Motorhead (the band formed by early 70s bassist Lemmy); the Hawklords, featuring no less than four former 80s-and beyond stalwarts; and, topping it all off, the current incarnation of Hawkwind itself, still led by formative frontman Dave Brock, but also featuring Tim Blake, a member of the band in the very-late 70s (post “25 Years”), and also remembered, of course, for his years with Gong.

And the one thing you have to say about all four is… if they could all stand in a room together, what a festival they could put on.

10118bThe Hawklords’ Dream is probably the most surprising of the three.  Their last (debut) album, We Are One, was solidly enjoyable without ever really raising itself to excellence.   Dream makes that effort, and then surpasses all expectations.

Lining up as former Hawks Harvey Bainbridge (synths and vocals), Jerry Richards (guitar and vocals), Adrian Shaw (bass and vocals) and Ron Tree (vocals), plus Dave Pearce (drums) from the Bevis Frond, the Hawklords inevitably take their musical lead from the mothership.  The closing “Psychic Eyes,” recorded live and supremely steaming, has “Hawkwind” graffiti’d all over it.

But with the various players’ own membership of the band having spanned so many eras, there’s no direct point of stylistic contact, and a lot of times when things skew off in a totally unique direction.  Is that a hint of country guitar percolating through “Nowhere Everywhere”?  Does “White Rag” really wonder what might happen if you put jazz, punk and prog in a sack and shook it violently?  And is “Dead Air” even serious?  It’s brilliant, but is it serious?

A magnificently mixed bag, then, riding in on synths and electronics (the opening “Dream A Dream” is as stately as you could ask for), spreading itself across elaborate symphonic landscapes, but never losing sight of the sheer propulsive energy that is the band members’ heritage.  “DNA” with its leviathan percussion; “Elemental Mind”’s call to prayer; “Nowhere Everywhere,” all lost acoustics and lonely synths; “ID Man” with the ghost of old Kinks hanging over Rom Tree’s delivery… so many twists and turns, but still there’s a cohesion here whose seething majesty is as intriguing as it is exhilarating.

There’s a majesty to Motorhead, too, a blaring, biting, savage majesty that recalls the days when Kings led armies and rolled across the land, getting medieval on th ass of whoever crossed their path.  In other words, business as Motorhead usual, and if rumors and reports of Lemmy’s state of health are a genuine cause for concern, Aftershock still has more life in it than 90% of everything else you’ve heard this year.

motorhead-afterschockFourteen tracks, no surprises, no missteps, no moments of uncertainty.  Motorhead are Motorhead, churning savagery when you first listen in, but possessed of moments of magnificent calm in the midst of it.  “Lost Woman Blues” is indeed a blues, Lemmy’s voice even more of a growl than usual, while the band sets up a lurch that leans back to the days of On Parole.

Motorhead mystify.  It’s so easy to write them off as a metal band and, at times, they might agree.  But it’s a metal of their own making, a sound that is less concerned with riffola and flash than it is with the roar of engines, the clatter of hooves, the clash of beer bottles and the clanging of swords… even “Dust and Glass,” as near to a ballad as the band ever get, is a foreboding moment of menace, a calm before the storm of “Going to Mexico,” and if moments remind you of past Motorhead mayhem, that’s not a bad thing.  A lot of bands get boring if they don’t step away from their type every once in a while.  Motorhead just grow more exhilarating.

And so do Hawkwind.  Despite their last couple of albums both being as enjoyable as you’d hope, there’ve been mumblings that the band was heading towards spent-force territory – a consequence of much of their recent activity revolving around a bumper reissue of 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time LP.

Spacehawks kicks those contentions out of the window.

A remix of Onward’s “Seasons” opens on tolling bell and spectral footsteps, before developing into the kind of impassioned anthem that hallmarked the aforementioned Warrior on the Edge of Time – a useful touchstone for an album that ranges back and forth across the Hawkwind catalog in search of oldies to revitalize, and which slips immediately into remakes of two songs from that same album’s era, “The Golden Void” and “Assault and Battery.”

Later, “We Took The Wrong Step Year Ago” (presented here as a solo Dave Brock recording), “Master of the Universe,” “Demented Man” and “Sonic Attack” come in for similar treatment, but it is a mark of Hawkwind’s incandescence that only occasionally do their revivals severely pale against past renderings.

Unfortunately, “Assault and Battery” is one of those that do, but “The Golden Void” more than compensates, as Tim Blake unleashes every last ounce of vision and vivacity across the soundtrack, and Brock’s vocal adopts an almost desperate sheen in the face of awful infinity.  Later, a new version of “Master of the Universe,” recorded with the late Huw Lloyd Langton, might not top the song in its Space Ritual-era pomp, but it does remind us all why it remains one of the defining Hawkwind monsters.

“Where Are They Now,” too, blazes,  and if long time listeners do feel a little cheated by the constant references to the past (“It’s All Lies” is lifted straight from Stellar Variations, “Sentinel” and “Sunship” merely remix tracks from Blood of the Earth), five new recordings serve up a mouth-watering glimpse into the band’s present, while the near seamless sequencing of sixteen tracks sets up what amounts to a live show in your living room.

Which might be the whole point of the exercise.

Reviews of Spacehawks across various Internet forums have tended towards disappointment that so much of the album retreads old territory, an indication of just how lofty are the standards to which their audience holds them.  And, of course, how fickle fandom can be.

But like Motorhead, who themselves have released more than a few albums that essentially stand still; and Nik Turner, who went down the “rerecorded oldies” route with his 1994 Prophets of Time album, sometimes it’s good for a band to try running on the spot.  Particularly when there’s almost half a century of music for new listeners to catch up with.

No band can survive by preaching only to the choir, and Spacehawks is the the Church of Hawkwind flinging open the doors to everyone, saying “this is what we sound like, this is what you can expect.”   And this is what forty-five years of fearless time and space travel feel like.

With their just-cancelled US tour dates being rescheduled for the spring, they could scarcely have picked a better time to do it.

Twenty five, forty-five, 105 years… who cares?  It still feels like yesterday to me.

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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