Reviews: Anthony Phillips, Rich Robinson, Black Sabbath, Tangerine Dream and Dust on the Nettles

1various artists

Dust on the Nettles – A Journey Through the British Underground Folk Scene 1967-1972

Grapefruit CRSEGBOX 030 (3CD)

This is not the first collection to delve into whatever we’re calling this music this week… acid-wyrd-psychic-prog-folk-marshmallows…. but it could be the most comprehensive, at least in terms of filling space with Things You’ve Probably Not Heard.  And even Things You’ve Probably Not Heard Of.

For every Spyrogyra and Trader Horne, there’s an Agincourt and Chimera; for every Vashti and Comus there’s a Marie Celeste and Folkal Point.  And while there’s certainly a few omissions that someone, somewhere, will deem unforgivable (let’s say… Michael Raven and Joan Mills, Dave & Toni Arthur), even the biggest box has to end somewhere.

The point is, and this becomes apparent as the three discs unwind, away from the labels with which we habitually describe the music we listen to, there was a distinct mood percolating through the (largely) British underground at the end of the sixties and into the early seventies that does fall into an wholly unplanned, and therefore effectively unnamed schematic.

It’s one that opens up in traditional music without needing to be genuinely traditional; that reaches into prog, without having to become progressive; which captures a mood as much as a musical style; and which soundtracks a series of emotions and ideas that are more familiarly located in myth, legend, ritual and forteana.

Those are certainly the threads that bind this collection together, and anyone familiar with even a few of the contributing artists will understand that from the outset – Pentangle, Spirogyra, Fairport and Steeleye, Bridget St John, Dando Shaft, Principle Edwards and Anne Briggs are musical comrades by chronology alone, and either your ears will detect a common lineage or they won’t.

Add in the lesser-heralded names that float between them, though, the likes of Hunt Lunt and Cunningham, Fresh Maggots, Shagrat (led by former Tyrannosaurus Rex mainstay Steve Took), Paper Bubble and the Occasional Word;  and delve into the delightful booklet whose pictures and prose tell the stories of the all; and while Dust on the Nettles may not be the first compilation to try and piece together this most amorphous of musical scenes, it is probably the furthest reaching, and the most ferociously devoted as well.

There are surprises, some moments of soul bearing passion and pain; some dips into private confession and commentary.  And there are others where you could say it’s all a bit weird-by-numbers, and if they’d played that song on banjo, as opposed to lute and pixephone, it would be on a very different box indeed.

But the high points of the box, and the overall effect, are both such that it’s almost pointless to pick out “favorite” moments, because most listeners will either disagree with them all – or point out that, taken in one mighty sitting, the whole is much greater than the parts.  Plus, with much of its content drawn from impossibly scarce private pressings and the like, it’s highly unlikely that much here will be damned by familiarity.

So listen, love and learn. And don’t look behind you when the lights go out.

 

 

2Anthony Phillips                                                                                                        

Wise After the Event (Deluxe Edition)                                                                        

Esoteric ECLEC 42527 (3CD, 1 DVD)

With Anthony Phillips’ solo debut, The Geese and the Ghost, having effectively birthed what would become new age music, at a time before that term became so redolent of rank, pointless noodling; with his past as a member of the early Genesis the key to unlocking an entire new audience; and with his own musical genius firmly sited within what should have been a rebirth of English Prog (again sans the rank, pointless noodling), there was of course only one direction in which his follow-up could go.

Some place else entirely.

Phillips was, and still is, at his best playing light, slight, gorgeous interludes, melodies and passages that may or may not become “songs”; ideas that retain their grasp on the experimentation that inspired them, rather than pursue themselves to a wrinkle-free perfection.

There was little on The Geese and the Ghost that you would find yourself walking round whistling, and that is what made it such a magnificent offering.  At a time when prog itself was in the deepest, darkest hole of irrelevance that any musical form had ever tumbled into; and Genesis themselves were careening towards the AOR ghastliness of the imminent eighties, Phillips was probably the only man bar Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill towards whom we could turn for some kind of solace.  And, if his label of the time had only realized that….

Disc two of this box set, a collection of the demos, out-takes and extras that were relevant to the creation of Wise after the Event, is the revelation here, for it shows just how close to the goosey blueprint Phillips originally intended to stick.   Not in terms of revisiting it in any shape or form, but in retaining the musical instincts that inspired that album in the first place.

But the label wanted songs.  Proper songs, with proper production.  The Geese and the Ghost was great, but it sounded like what it ultimately was… a guy and a guitar, some friends and a studio, just making music for the sake of it.   Off to a proper studio with you, young man.  With a proper producer.  A proper band.  A proper promotional campaign.  There might even be a picture disc if he played his cards right.  (He did, and there was.)  And the end result was…

…actually, the end result was great, and viewed within the entire Phillips canon, the sonic deviations of his late seventies/early eighties albums can be seen as a vital and vibrant building block within the overall shape of his career.

No less than Steve Hackett (his successor in Genesis, which is reason enough for them to so frequently be lumped together by lazy journalists) and the run of records he released around the same time, Phillips was not necessarily a willing participant in the would-be pop stakes. But he was skillful enough to play the part, and Wise After The Event is as unique in its own ways as its predecessor; and, if you scrape away the crowd pleasing veneer, as unexpected as well.

As before, elements of the overall piece reached back into the earliest years of his writing – “Birdsong” and “Squirrel” dated back to immediately after he departed Genesis.  Others, he admits, were written with an eye towards “commercial” sounds, and a few were fashioned as much around what the studio and the band could bring to them, as they were his own  musicality.

But pieced together by Rupert Hine, the album’s so-visionary producer, they became an LP that stands proud today, and is here given the kind of “everything-including-the-kitchen-sink” approach that graced Geese last year – a new stereo mix, a remaster of the original mix, a surround sound recounting and the demos.   And it’s all as glorious as it ought to be.

 

 

3Tangerine Dream                                                                                                        

The Official Bootleg Series Volume Two                                                              

(Esoteric EREACD 41033)

If there is one criticism to be hurled at Tangerine Dream’s bootleg series (and let’s get it out of the way early on), it’s that it’s moving too fast.  Volume two, and we’re already up to 1978, when even half an eye kept on the band’s actual bootlegs would make it clear that there were a dozen more boxes that could have been compiled from before that.

But maybe that’s for the uber-fans and collectors, digging around on the internet, drawing the deepest, darkest meanderings from the bowels of who knows where.  On the shelves, the Tangs deserve the best and – no less than volume one last year – this latest package rounds up two of the finest bootleg recordings of their era.

The first two discs are, if it’s “classic” Tangerine Dream you are chasing, the best; two sets (plus encores) from the Palais des Congrès in Paris in March, 1978, catch the Tangs in the wake of Cyclone, their first album to feature vocals, but those unexpected (and, to be honest, somewhat dubious) pastures were left behind  in the studio.  No less than before, this is Tangerine Dream in improvisational overdrive on a stage that began in total darkness, before exploding with the full power of their laser show.  And as dramatic as that lighting was, the music is even more so.

It feels dark, menacing, growling.  More than any other period TD recording, Paris packs a strange sense of foreboding; one that history might later say predicted the split that would occur immediately after the tour was over.  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.  What it does do is wrap up a particular phase in Tangerine Dream’s development with a mood that takes us almost full circle, back to the desolate spaces of Zeit, more than five years before.  Alone, the Paris show is worth the price of admission.

Discs three and four are dedicated to a gig almost exactly two years later, at the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, in January 1980.  A new line-up for a new decade, playing what Edgar Froese later claimed was the first ever gig by a western rock band on that side of the Berlin Wall.  He also remarked that eighty percent of the tickets went to state officials and dignitaries.

The Tangs played two shows in Berlin; this, the second, was also broadcast live on East German radio, before then being subject to some fascinating revisions.  Cutting it down from ninety minutes to forty-five, the band took the opportunity to replace some passages with newly recorded studio material for release that same year as the Quichotte album.  Before that, though, they remixed the original tapes, and this is what we have here.  Neither fish (the original broadcast) or fowl (the finished album), this sits somewhere in between.  But does it work?

Well, unless you’ve heard tapes of the original broadcast, you’re not going to know either way.  But if you have… yes, it works, not only as a piece of music, improvised around sundry themes from their most recent LP, Tangram, but also because it’s the last show at which Froese’s faithful old Mellotron Mark V would appear.  And the last before the band embraced the digital technology that would completely alter their approach to live performance.   Meaning, though there are plenty of better Tangs live shows to be found, there are few that are quite so significant.

 

 

4Black Sabbath                                                                                                              

Black Sabbath (Deluxe Expanded Edition)                                                                  

Paranoid (Deluxe Expanded Edition)                                                                              

Master of Reality (Deluxe Expanded Edition)                                                                        

Past Lives (Deluxe Edition)                                                                                        

(Warner Bros R2552925-8, 2CDs each)

It was probably inevitable.  So exquisite were those first three Sabbath albums, so precisely poised between perfection and preposterousness that there was no way that the vaults held anything better, and chances were, they didn’t hold much of anything.

And so it proved, a few years back in Europe (where these reissues are already old hat), and in the last few weeks over here… three albums expanded to fit six discs, and each of them supplanting the familiar grind and roar of the original discs with…

Well, it’s detritus, really.  A few instrumental takes, a few studio alternates, a non-album b-side that most people think was a part of the first album anyway, and just one track that we’d call an unreleased number, the unpromisingly titled “Weevil Woman 71,” and – in this rudimentary, demo-like form, there’s a reason why it didn’t go any further.

Ah, but that’s the easy way out, isn’t it, based on a cursory glance at the track listing, and an even more cursory listen to the bonus discs.  For what you really have here is, the two hours of brain damage that we’ve always known and loved, all but doubled in length and intensity.  And if you crank up the volume and forget about the neighbors, you want… no, you need … to listen to the alternate lyrics to “Paranoid” and “Planet Caravan”; you want to hear “Children of the Grave” as a shattered post-love song; you know you’re going to thrill to an alternate mix of “Rat Salad”; and what are all those instrumentals but your very own karaoke club, Ozzy off on a bender someplace, so they’ve asked you to sit in in his stead.

And suddenly you get it.  This isn’t the scrapings from the studio floor.  This is Sabbath in the raw, barely produced and clawing at the window, the sound of history not merely being made, but being dragged around the floor by four Brummie hooligans, kicked and beaten into the Lovecraftian slobber that we would all come to know and adore.

Away from the full impact of the finished production, Sabbath are almost punky in their delivery, scratchy guitars and untreated vocals, trying things out (piano and slide guitar on “Lord of this World”), inching their way towards the Brobdingagian edifices that would ultimately eat your head.  You’d never select any of the cuts here as being “superior” to the finished thing.  But you’d not despise them either, and you might even find the effects-free take on “Black Sabbath” recapturing the moment you first heard (or, at least, understood) Sabbath in the first place.

The packages aren’t perfect – the European Paranoid was a three disc set, with a surround-sound bonus recapturing the original quad mix of the album.  And that’s a treat that you should never have to live without.  But still, three of the mightiest slabs of noise ever made are back and even noisier and mightier and yes, slabbier, than ever, and while we await a similarly retreated Volume Four, Past Lives serves up two discs worth of Sabbath live, and a version of “Megalomania” that could induce vertigo if you listen loud enough.

Which, when you really get down to basics, is all we wanted from them in the first place.

 

 

5Rich Robinson                                                                                                            

Paper                                                                                                                          

(Eagle Rock ER 203941 – vinyl)

Llama Blues                                                                                                            

(Eagle Rock ER 203951 – vinyl)

It may or may not surprise you to learn that Black Crowe Robinson’s solo debut marks its twelfth birthday this year (the stripling llama is merely five), so one can barely call its vinyl re-emergence precipitous.  But it is welcome, as three unreleased cuts are added to the original running order, and two slabs of colored vinyl chase it to even greater heights than it originally surmounted.

Certainly it reminds us why once the Crowes were considered, at last, fitting claimants to the thrones left vacant by a slew of early seventies rockers, from Free and the Faces to Humble Pie and beyond, while permitting us to mourn the fact they never quite settled into those seats.

Firmly cut within that same territory, Paper suffers from the same ailments as the Crowes themselves (and big brother Chris, as well, as a solo artist); high on attitude, strong on savvy sass, it falls down across the full length of an album because it just doesn’t have enough great material – which means it’s all the more ironic that it’s the newly added “Walking By Myself” that shines (alongside “Yesterday I Saw You”) as the reissue’s finest moment.

Musically, of course, its peerless, with Robinson’s guitar cutting swathes through the competition, and more ghosts dancing on his machine heads than most contemporary players could recruit to a giveaway at the Gibson factory.   Glimpses of Creedence and the Allmans flirt with the Brit pack, while “Know Me” has a barrelhouse bonhomie that chases your imagination halfway down Highway 61, then makes ZZ Top buy its drinks.

But there’s no sense of urgency to the overall album, no sense that Robinson is pushing himself; which means that highlight for highlight, the four track Llama Blues is a far stronger offering.  An EP released to prep the ground for his next solo album, 2012’s Through a Crooked Sun, it is built around the bluesy backdrop that is Robinson’s most rewarding default setting.  It never lets go of that imagery, either, and the entire EP startles.  But it’s the stark “Broken Stick Crown” that truly thrills, the sound of Son House fed through a haunted house full of echo boxes, with Captain Beefheart handling the mix down.

Add the more conventional boogie of “By the Light of the Sunset Moon,” the slippery slash of “Run Run” and the lurching “Look Through My Window” (the Stones’ “Ventilator Blues,” if they’d played it forwards and backwards at the precise same time),  and Llama Blues adds up to one of the best blues releases of the decade-so-far.  One just wishes Robinson would make more records that sound like it.

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