Into the Woods
(Cherry Red - CD)
Is this a piano concerto before me?
Yes, but only for a few seconds. Because then the guitars kick in, and everything else, and bow down, weakling, to the heaviest Hawkwind album since the days of… well, pick your own poison. The fact is, this follow-up-of-sorts to last year’s The Machine Stops finds the band not only stepping fearlessly forward from that set’s raising of the creative bar, but also suggesting that Hawkwind are now solidly in the center of one of their most creative, cohesive and credible patches ever. Which isn’t bad when you consider it’s at least their thirtieth studio album, and a shelf groaning beneath their entire discography probably weighs as much as you do.
The opening title track (and, later, the mogadon lurch of “Magic Scenes” and the pell-mell thrust of “Magic Mushrooms”) may be deceptive. It doesn’t take long for its wall of sound cacophony to dissipate into earthier, woodsier, strains and themes - patches of spoken word, haunted winds and eerie creaks, drifting melodies, sound effects. One song is called “Vegan Lunch” (“Death Trap” in the Mountain Grill) another is “Wood Nymph,” and “Have You Seen Them?” sounds like a glorious stab at Top Forty stardom, circa 1971.
But that’s all to the good. Hawkwind at their best are never less than evocative, shifting, poetic, thoughtful, and if the last album contemplated those aspects of technology that are going to wind up wiping us out, Into the Woods is the vista that awaits the survivors, a realignment of priorities, a rebirth of hope. The mid-seventies peak of Hall of the Mountain King/Warrior on the Edge of Time are probably the closest the band has come to this in the past; the psychedelic warlords emerging from the smoke into which they disappeared back then, with new lessons, fresh notions, and a short sharp stick to shock us with.
“Space Ship Earth” is another partial blast from the past (“Kings of Speed” with even coyer lyrics), and “Darkland” might have drifted out of the contrarily vivid “Golden Void.” But even the most apparent comparison is little more than a touchstone - Into the Woods is the sound of Hawkwind, again, making music that actually matters, as opposed to doing it out of habit or hubris. The space ritual continues.
Max’s Kansas City - 1976 and Beyond
(Jungle - 2CDs)
Mid-seventies New York is one of those places that has ascended to positive godhead in the realms of modern rock history… at least among those doughty souls who won’t go to their grave complaining that all “punk rock” did was knock Foghat, Frumpy and Frigid Pink off the lips of every serious music lover.
A local scene created in the image of the New York Dolls (who ironically splintered at the precise same time as the seeds they’d sewn started bearing fruit) effectively exploded around two Manhattan clubs - CBGBs, lair of Television, the Ramones and so forth; and Max’s, Warholian hang-out turned post-glitter nightclub, home to the Dolls and now to their children. Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, Cherry Vanilla and her Staten Island Band, the Fast, the Stilettos, Jimi Lalumia and the Psychotic Frogs, Philip Rambow… it wasn;t an exclusive divide by any means. But still, across the years, while CBs had the lion’s share of future critical darlings, Max’s was where the weird kids hung out, just like they always had. And a pair of LPs released at the peak of that period, both beneath the Live at Max’s banner, splashed a little bit of the attendant ooze into ears across the universe.
This generously stuffed two CD set effectively packs everything from that initial pair into one place, together with a bunch of cuts that either didn’t make it at the time, or which have been subsequently unearthed to complete the story. And forty years on from their moment in the sun, it’s astonishing just how fresh the best of them still sound.
County and Vanilla, of course, remain among the potent performers New York ever produced, at least if you like your rock’n’roll to do more than wave pretzels in the air and shout “way to go” at a ten minute guitar solo. It’s a tragedy only that Vanilla cut just the one song for Max’s, because “Shake Your Ashes” has a panache that will split your libido into tiny shreds. County, on the other hand, turns up time and again, and every successive utterance is as genius as the last.
The Dolls, godfathers of it all, are present via an alternate take on “Bad Girl”; Suicide’s divisive drone shreds glass with a demo of “Ghost Rider”; the Fast are as frantically fevered as their name demands; and the Psychotic Frogs’ “Death to Disco” not only kicked off the whole disco sucks movement of later years, but was the first American punk record ever to be banned by a national record chain. Take a bow, Sam Goody’s.
Philip Rambow, fresh from the wreckage of the Winkies, offers up “Night Out,” the song with which Ellen Foley would subsequently title her debut album, and reminding us that Rambow has never been simply a great songwriter. He’s a fantastic performer, too. So was Elda Gentile, still persevering with the Stilettos after the Blondie contingent split away, and remembering the night when Sylvain Sylvain stole her purple eye shadow. A song (“Pink Stilettos”) which, again, pinpoints Max’s finger on the pulse of the post-glitter glam scene, both in word and delivery.
And all of that is just (part of) the first disc. Move on for a clutch of lesser-fated bands (Von LMO, the Cellmates, Kieran Lisco & the Attitude), recorded for, but never released on, other Max’s vinyl projects. A bunch more old hands resurrect past memories, and generally do so as well as the first time. And a bunch of period live tracks, some from Max’s, others not, but all remembering names that should have been mentioned before - Nico, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Wayne Kramer, Sid Vicious. All, across two solid discs, strung together with all the glamour and guts that a great night at Max’s could drench you with. Darkness and depravity have never sounded so good.
Await the Queen
(Mega Dodo - 2LP/CD/download)
Between her work solo and aboard the Honey Pot, it sometimes feels as though there’s something new by Crystal Jacqueline every time one turns around. Of course she’s not quite that hyper-active, but it would scarcely be an imposition if she was.
Among the handful of independent artists who are truly at the top of their game right now, Jacqueline (and co-conspirator Icarus Peel) are almost singlehandedly flying the flag for a breed of psych-infused underground folk that only passingly reflects the values of its historically-revered forebear; that grew out of, not into, such vintage currents, and has been pushing it boldly forward ever since. And she’s certainly the most prolific, as this packed double album reveals.
Seventeen songs (and not a single second of filler) open out across an astonishingly broad palette. Opening with the rocking locomotion of “Your Bartered Bride,” calming a little for “Crumble”; shifting into the pensive “Yesterlove”; pausing for “Love”… and every one throws open a different window, be it the Animal percussion that punctuates “Akhbar”; the scything atmospheres of “Faerie Tears”; the brittle echo of “Your Dry Ghost.” And, of course, the chilling opening line to “Spanish Horses” - “last night as I prepared to die.”
All of which is patiently building up to “Await the Queen” itself, a twelve minute epic that unfolds like a medieval ballad, Jacqueline’s vocal poised between spoken word and melody, while the accompaniment relays lushly-arranged sonic stories of its own. And still Jacqueline’s performance is so all-enveloping that the guitar solo that cuts in around the nine minute mark really has its work cut out to match her.
It’s a breathtaking piece of work, possibly Jacqueline and co’s most self-defining opus yet, and an impossibly far cry from her (perhaps) better-known guise as a superlative interpreter of sundry folky-psychy covers. Even at the end, your ears are calling for more, and the closing “The Lost Song of Sleep” serves much the same purpose as “Goodnight” did on the Beatles’ White Album, slowly bearing you back to earth from the shattering peaks that preceded it.
Await the Queen is both artist and label’s first-ever double album, and it’s among the most perfect of that ilk you’ve heard in years. No need to await the Queen - it feels like she’s already arrived.
Sad Lovers and Giants
Where The Light Shines Through
(Cherry Red - 5 CD box set)
As well-deserved boxes go, this takes some beating. Sad Lovers were one of those bands that, for a short while in the early 80s, seemed to be everyone’s second favorite… poised for the top just behind a name-your-fave other,utterly beloved by the indy crew, Peel show regulars, and on and on. And while the box itself is no different to the clam shell cardboard cases that seem to have become the norm these days, open it up and you enter a world of unrelenting magnificence.
Sad Lovers, after all, are so firmly locked into the early eighties database that you might not even be aware of their rebirth, long after. Or the fact that the recordings that fall from recent years stand easily alongside the classic era, to the point where, if you’re not paying attention (or at least reading the accompanying booklet), you’re not going to spot the joins.
The discs are eminently sensible. The first covers the band’s 45s in strict chronological order; the second rounds up the Epic Garden Music and Feeding the Flame albums, to capture the original band at its most familiar. Discs three and four follow the group’s gradual fall from critical grace, and then their full scale resurrection in the mid-2000s; and the fifth and final returns us to the beginning with a couple of radio sessions, and sundry odd tracks from demos and compilations.
In other words, we get the whole story, from start to not-yet-finished, and can get down now to playing favorites with the songs… “Imagination,” “Echoplay,” “Far From The Sea,” “Alice Isn’t Playing” - post-punk pop so far out on a limb that it effectively invented shoegaze, five years before anyone had heard it. And continued reinventing it into the future. Even speaking the band’s name is sufficient to knock thirty-five years off the calendar; and if we all say it loud enough, perhaps we could start that whole span again.
And if you won’t, then there’s no hope for you.
Three of a Kind
Fruits de Mer/Strange Fish (3 CDs)
We’ve been here before, a few months ago, when a Polish multi-instrumentalist haunting the deepest recesses of YouTube sat down to record a large chunk of the debut album by a Canterbury combo best remembered for spawning Hatfield & the North. And we said all that then, so we’ll repeat some more - Songs from the First Album by Egg was, indeed, a faithful cover of a side-and-a-half of Egg, the debut album by the band that had just shed the young Steve Hillage when they got the chance to record it.
Only now it’s joined by two other discs, Tracks from the First Album by Atomic Rooster, and Tracks from the First Album by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown… which are both revealed, in turn, to be the albums in their entirety, plus a bonus b-side on the Brown disc, in the form of the non-LP “Rest Cure.” Egg, too, is rendered complete here, and maybe you wonder why anybody would want to reward Gietkowski’s endeavors by offering more than a cursory shrug to three organ-heavy instrumental reinventions of albums that most of us surely have owned for the best part of the last fifty years?
The question answers itself. Stripped of lyrics, stripped of all the redolence and nostalgia that still draws ears to “Friday the 13th,” “I Will Be Absorbed” and “Spontaneous Apple Creation,” the three discs here stands as tributes not to the music, but to the moods and momentum that made them possible in the first place.
Because they’re not simply straightforward renderings (if they were, Brown’s “Fire Poem” would really be in trouble); you recognize themes and riffs, but the focus shifts to other plains and even planets - less masterpieces of underworld psychedelia, Gietkowski resurrects all three albums as existentialist soundtracks for the bleakest gothic silent movies nobody ever made, operatic phantoms of prog masked and made flesh by the sheer audacity of the concept. Plus, where else are you going to hear “The Hall of the Mountain King” a la Vincent Crane?
The birth of prog is often viewed as something of a hit and miss affair, at least in the months before the seventies dawned to coalesce its disparate strands into something that the mainstream could get its teeth into. Three of a Kind is aptly named, then, in that it isolates a few of those original strands and demonstrates how exquisitely woven they already were.
Don’t let it pass you by.
Hoping Against Hope
(Cuneiform - CD)
For their first new album in five years, and only their eighth in twenty-three, Thinking Plague remain firm advocates of the old maxim, if it ain’t broke…. Still pursuing a direction that looks affectionately back towards the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy axis of earlier times, at the same time as they continue teasing art rock down a pipeline of their own invention, Thinking Plague dedicate six tracks to their latest album, but numbers matter less than the sheer exhilaration packed within.
From the teasing joy of the opening “The Echoes of their Cries” to the convoluted mismannerisms of “Thus Have We Made The World” (contemplate the title as you listen. It makes perfect sense); from the playful, near-nursery chimes and clutter of “Commuting to Murder” to the breathtaking title track, it’s an album that owes much to Thinking Plague’s past, but even more to their sense of adventure.
Brief though it is (a mere four minutes) “The Great Leap Backwards” may be the key note, sequence after sequence, phase after phrase, each moment building upon what went before as the instrumentation swells, louder and louder - long before the crescendo ends, you’re expecting it to pick up again. And when it does, it’s in the guise of the closing cut, the vertiginous landscapes of the stunning “A Dirge for the Unwanted.”
Forever poised on the brink of a precipice with only Elaine di Falco’s vocals to catch you, Hoping Against Hope is a succession of vast musical peaks in which overt melody lags just a few paces behind ambition, but never so far that you have to wait for it to catch up. It takes one listen to recover from the adrenalin rush; a second to remind yourself that you really did just hear what your brain keeps insisting you experienced; and a third to be thoroughly absorbed by the music. A few more after that, and you’ll be hooked forever.
A Year in the Country
The Restless Field
A Year in the Country (CD)
You don’t need a crash course in the lore of English protest and insurrection to understand The Restless Field… but it might help. Inspired by those nexuses in an island’s story which memory and myth might pinpoint as the start of something momentous, it takes as its focus events as far apart as the dawn of the English Civil War in 1642, and the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, the Miners’ Strike of Thatcherite infamy and the land wars of 19th century Ireland.
And it works fantastically.
Largely wordless, endlessly evocative, a series of sonic sketches hang as heavy as history. Field Line Cartographer’s “Ghosts of Blood and Iron” is harsh, unforgiving electronics; Vic Mars’ “Mortimer’s Cross’ is contrarily gentle, an acoustic pattern and the ghost of woodwind. Sproatly Smith’s “Ribbons” is barely audible for its first thirty seconds, but builds around sound and effects to conjure a sense of unfathomable menace; David Colohan’s “Beyond Jack’s Gate” is a mournful organ requiem that closes the disc with heart-stopping finality.
In many ways, however, and like so many of A Year in the Country’s releases, the concept subsumes the actual artists into its own reality. It is not an album that you listen to with one eye on the track listing, not even to determine from whence the next track’s inspiration sprang.
It’s an album that plays in your mind’s eye, with intent sometimes subverting even the music to conjure the dead and the dying, the wounded and the weary, the victors and the losers, - and then, beyond their reach, the sense and senselessness of the conflict that embroiled them. For it is not necessarily the battles themselves that are conjured, but the manner in which the soil recalls them, and maybe recoils as well.
The Sex Clark Five
(Records to Russia - CD)
If you don’t remember the Sex Clark Five, still one of the most gloriously named bands of the past half a century, shame on you. If you do - well, shame on you again. Don’t you have anything else to do with your time?
Ah, but they were so much fun. It was the early eighties when they first crept out of Alabama, sounding for all the world as if the Mamas and the Papas had hijacked the Flaming Groovies (or Jonathan Richman, the Residents) and forced them to devote their lives to weird two minutes fractures that had less in common with the power pop for which they were routinely praised, than it did the sudden relocation of vintage T Rex to a New Seekers Coca-Cola commercial. Sheer brilliance at the time and, seven albums later, sheer brilliance still.
Nothing has changed. Thirty tracks cram onto the CD, ranging in length from the epic three minutes of “River of Chains” to twenty-seconds of “Josephus,” which is exactly as long as it needs to be, and might be the catchiest singalong you’ve heard all year.
Of course you don’t take it seriously, as in po-faced deliberation and stroke-your-beard grimness, because why would you even try to? Repetitive verses with lyrics poised just on the near side of incomprehension are cut with refrains that bring the post-Pepper Beatles to mind for no apparent reason. Not even when you hit “Mussolini and Squirrel,” with its accordion-fed frills and a guitar riff to chase you round the house; or “When John Lennon Died,” which manages to marry “Oliver’s Army” to the story of the Fabs and tell the whole tale in 2.25.
“New York Cosmic Disaster 2014,” “Murderous George,” “Is This England,” delight after delight trips over itself in its haste to get out and, by the time you hit track thirty and the possibly-autobiographical farewell of “The End of Strum and Drum,” the last thing you’re expecting is the silence that falls once the CD ends.
So you just get up and put it on again. Because this isn’t a band you simply need to remember. It’s one you should probably get a tattoo of.
The Mortlake Bookclub
Mysteriorum Libri Quinque
(Reverb Worship, CD)
In discographical terms, this is the Bookclub’s second album. But somehow, such terminology seems utterly unsuitable. Perhaps it is their second report, or even their second prolusion. They call it an utterance, so we could stick with that. Or maybe chronology falls away altogether, and every fresh exploration simply exists in its own time and place, regardless of the constraints of calendar. For that is certainly how their music feels. Assuming that, too, is an applicable term.
Four chapters devour the book club’s latest perambulation, an “Obsidian Eye” that creaks ominously around the sound of a music box, tinkering “Swan Lake,” or perhaps Pil”s “Death Disco”; and a rumble that conjures Van Der Graaf’s “Pioneers Over ‘C”” - but only a conjuring, for nothing here meets your expectations, and that includes the title. There are “Ornaments in Jade”; we are “Bound by Human Flesh”; and, by the way, have you met “The Kollector”? You will.
The “original” Mysteriorum Libri Quinque (“Five Books of Mystical Exercises”) was the work of Doctor John Dee, magician and alchemist to the age of the Virgin Queen, and subtitled “An Angelic Revelation of Kabbalistic Magic and other Mysteries Occult and Divine.” A perfect work, then, for any bookclub to explore, and maybe these are the noises they hear as they do so. Lengthy soundscapes wrapped in darkness, electronics growling from the far side of the sky, or lonely pianos locked into loops as choirs rise and fall around them, and the machines rise up to march towards the apocalypse.
Or something like that. Different ears will see different visions, which was roughly what Dee and his companion, Edward Kelly, intended when they wrote the book in the first place. And the music here is broad enough for everyone.
Bully For You
(Cherry Red - CD)
There was a moment, fleeting but effective, when BA Robertson seemed poised to become enormous. A wry and wiry songwriter, he exploded out of seemingly nowhere in 1979 with a string of delightful witty, and quaint, quick quirk, not only under his own name, but also for Cliff Richard - “Carrie,” “Wired for Sound” and “Hot Shot” all bore Robertson’s name in the writing credits, while “Kool in the Kaftan,” “Knocked It Off,” “To Be Or Not To Be” and, best of all, “Bang Bang” established the boy himself as a UK chart regular straight out of the box. No wonder his debut album was called Initial Success… because that’s what he was.
And then he wasn’t. One minute, Robertson was everywhere… hosting television’s Top of the Pops, having “Bang Bang” covered by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, touring the country. And the next. where’d you go?… Two Top Ten hits, two Top Twenty, a duet with Maggie Bell gave him his fifth chart entry in 1981, and then zippity.
Two further albums - those included here - vanished. It’s almost as if, completely overnight, his entire audience lost their taste for beautifully crafted, sharply observant and piquantly lyrical pop songs. And maybe they did. The New Romantic boom was coming, and you know how hard it is to smile when you’ve spent all day doing your make-up.
The three albums reissued here still bristle with every reason why Robertson deserved to succeed. Maybe by the time of the third, there is a tendency more towards purposeful novelty, as opposed to genuine wit. But still the writing is knife-edge, the melodies catchy, and if you step beyond the original albums and into the realms of the bonus tracks, Robertson’s brilliance comes even closer into focus - throwaway b-sides that can still be cherished today; live cuts dating from both his period of pomp and a 2004 appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, a handful of demos, TV themes and failed forty-fives, “Bang Bang” in German and, yes, even the aforementioned Sinfonia’s slaughter of the same song.
Can you get too much BA Robertson? Maybe. That might even be why his initial success was not followed through. But in CD-sized doses, taken one at a time, he’s a lot of fun, and across the course of Initial Success, he’s even better than that.