Kevin Ayers, Lady June, Ollie Halsall
The Happening Combo (CD)
An odd one, this. Maybe even, on first glance, a misleading one. But a rewarding one, all the same.
Effectively, The Happening Combo cherrypicks tracks from three separate sessions; the Ayers recordings are demos that he taped with Halsall and keyboard player Zanna Gregmar in New York in 1980; the Halsall cuts are Ollie originals (plus one Ayers co-write) intended for what would become the latter’s Still Life With Guitar album, but recorded four years earlier, and largely abandoned by the time the album sessions began; while Lady June is represented by a couple of out-takes and two posthumously-arranged poems from around the time of1996’s Hit and Myth,and finally, we also get co-writer Marvin Siau’s original demo for what became Ayers’ “Another Rolling Stone.”
So, all other caveats notwithstanding, it’s a grand collection and, if you followed all three artists to the end of their days, it’s a crucial one, a succession of missing links to a sorely overlooked period in each of their careers. And, considering their disparate origins, it hangs together remarkably well - certainly more so than if the contents had simply been attached as bonus tracks at the end of the respective finished albums. In fact, the only criticism is that Ayers’ fast-rocking “Speeding Heart” and Halsall’s gentle “Issue Is or Issue Ain’t” should have switched places at the very beginning of the album. The jolt from one to the other is almost cardiac.
Points of particular interest, A rare stab at a cover version from Ayers, in the form of a loose-limbed “Lay Lady Lay”; a solo Halsall’s first draft of “Ghost Train,” one of the highlights of the Still Life album; and how can you not fall in love with Lady June’s contributions, which themselves sound more like “classic”-era Ayers than anything Kevin himself contributes. “Sea Cake” could seriously have stumbled out of the Banana Follies, leaving a trail of drunken backing musicians in its wake.
Listening to the energy and inventiveness that marks out the Ayers tracks, in particular, it seems astonishing that his eighties would prove as fallow as his seventies had been productive. This single session from the dawn of the decade certainly shows him to be pushing forward with absolute aplomb, and it seems astonishing that CBS (for whom the demos were recorded) passed on him.
Or maybe not. Ayers, like Halsall and Lady June, was never a comfortable cog in the mainstream music industry of the time; as likely to wander off on holiday on the eve of a new LP release as he was to turn out the hit to end all hits. And the fact that none of those hits… actually became a hit only heightened the dichotomy. Just as this, an album that was in no way ever envisioned as an album, stands among the best record all three of them never made.
Age of Falconry (CD)
Something of a veteran in electronic music circles, Richard Bone’s career-to-date has largely been enacted on his own Quirkworks label, with occasional singles and 12-inchers inching out on vinyl.
Emerging now on Mega Dodo, within whose fast-expanding parameters he is both an exquisite fit and a stark surprise, Age of Falcony is (of course) wholly instrumental, and (also of course) utterly captivating, its nine melody-whipped-with-wyrd tracks poised somewhere between an electronic folk opera, and a lost-and-early Anthony Phillips album, if he’d served his apprenticeship in Popol Vuh.
Of course, different ears will discern different points of comparison, and “A Shooting Star Was I” may indeed have a similar feel to something from Eno’s Another Green World. But the album also pursues its own internal logic; though the tracks are clearly delineated, still a marvelous continuity unfolds as you track deeper into the disc, and fresh textures conjure their own sonic landscapes. A taste of Asia here, a hint of medieval there, a cloudless sky somewhere else. And “Urgent Curious” could not have a better title than that.
Lost in the Ghost Light (CD/DVD)
(Inside Out Music)
A little… a lot… late with this one, but it was worth waiting for. Following up the remarkable one-two punch of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean the World back in 2014-15, Lost in the Ghost Light finds Bowness still mining the modern prog vein that so richly nourished his time with No-Man; and, unlike bandmate Steve Wilson’s recent offerings, still finding a great deal to do and say while he’s there. And that despite the opening number warning “no-one to blame, you’ve forgotten your aims… you’re locked in worlds of yesterday.”
There is a yesterday here. With a vocal that reminds just slightly of a ghostly David Bowie, circa his early 2000s output, the song rides a symphonic wall of acoustics and keyboards, while the electric guitar is a yearning backwash that only piles on the atmosphere, and the loveliness of the melody. Plus, there’s a flute solo, and how often do you get to say that about a 2017 rock album?
It’s a sound that sets the tone for the remainder of the album… you don’t want to call it “thoughtful” because, of course, that conjures up all manner of hideous specters; but the fact that Bowness has been working on it off-and-on since 2009 does convey something of the atmosphere that enfolds it. Besides, how many belly-laughs would you really expect to find on a concept album about “a particular type of half-remembered musician in the present day”? Again, Bowie is conjured - his 1999 album Hours… felt as though it was built along the lines of similar ruminations, and if that was one of Bowness’s role models, not only did he choose well, he also did both himself and Bowie great justice.
Lost in the Ghost Light is very much an album to immerse yourself in - particularly if you eschew the regular CD and get lost within the accompanying 5.1 mix. Indeed, as the world continues to dance on the grave of compact discs, and vinyl is established as the fetish du jour, one wonders how long it can be before someone rediscovers quadraphonic sound? Otherwise, for as long as albums can sound this fantastic, there’s always going to be a market for little silver coasters. Plus, Bowness’s Stupid Things album is likewise reprised in surround sound across the remainder of the DVD, so that’s two killer albums for the price of one, and you won’t get that on a slice of black, either.
Some traditions remain untouched. Eight songs devour around forty-four minutes, which is still the perfect length for an album… one side of a C90! Hurrah!… and even the longest track, which bruises nine minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Rather, Lost in the Ghost Light stands as one of those glorious discoveries that arrive so rarely - an album that strikes the listener on so many levels, from melancholic nostalgia to grateful astonishment, that even the most glaring reference points (Genesis, Yes, Van der Graaf and Wilson have all been cited in other reviews) are less than brushstrokes in the overall portrait. Quite simply, the whole thing’s a joy.
Stone of Madness (LP)
(Cosmic Sunshine Records)
In which Striped Bananas continue to demonstrate that the spirits of garage, psych and all-out dream pop remain alive, well and probably cohabiting in Michigan - where some of America’s greatest music has always come from, and 2017 is no exception.
It’s a mellower album than Cosmic Carnival, which was our last visit to the fruit bowl, but no less powerful; a timeless time machine that feels like an evening well-spent with an album you know you should have heard way back when, but could never lay your hands on. “Swirling Colors (In My Mind),” gently lush and flavored with just a soupcon of sitar, would have been a massive hit in olden days, and if “Heaven and Hell” feels ever-so-magically, mystery Beatleish, that was scarcely a bad thing around that point in their career.
You can play games like that throughout the album, but like so many other of the bands that are labelled with the “modern psychedelia” tag, the key to Striped Bananas is how uncomplicatedly original it all is. You’re hearing these songs for the first time because they’ve never been recorded before, and when you turn “Ghost World” up and lose yourself in the layers, the rabbit hole does not exit into 1967, and you probably wouldn’t want it to, either. Look at some of the old film footage. Did half those people even know what a bathtub was?
A tight trio with even tighter harmonies, and period embellishments that flatter the sound without flattening its intent, Striped Bananas are so perfectly poised on the edge of the prettiness that, when they do let their hair down (“Hold On Now”), even the bludgeoning riff feels like sunlight. And if the traditional “Battle of Antietam” strikes a darker-than-expected chord as the album nears its end, it also works exquisitely well in the context… especially as it shifts into the closing “The Trip,” which sings like the end of a holiday and, as such, could not have found a better place to be.
Alien Sex Fiend
Fiendology 1982-2017AD (3CDs)
It’s not the fiend’s fault that you see their name and immediately start singing “Now I’m Feeling Zombiefied”; just as it isn’t the fiend’s fault that you look at their picture and immediately mutter dark things about gothic rock. But both are the fiend’s responsibility and this glorious compilation finally gives them the due that too many years of odd compilations, barely-publicized albums and the mainstream’s refusal to recognize their genius have obscured beneath the cliches.
Always the joker in whichever stylistic pack people tried to slip them into, the early Sex Fiend was a blur of harsh, dancey electronics, overlaid by vocals that were half comic book scream and half demented bluesman; play the earliest tracks here, “RIP,” “EST,” “Dead and Buried” and so forth, and Suicide are a far more obvious reference point than half the rubbish that was pointed at the band - “Gurl at the End of my Gun” even borrows it’s “kill kill” refrain from David Peel!
Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s probably just coincidence, but it also shows how far from Crypt Zero you could take the Fiend if you wanted to, and how far they traveled too. Red Crayola’s “Hurricane Fighter Plane” is psychedelia from the far end of the tunnel; “I Walk the Line” is Johnny Cash in purgatory and, by the late 1980s (“Zombiefied” time), they were trailblazing the industrial dance that would mean so much briefly in the early new decade.
Even today, for they persevere still, Alien Sex Fiend are the most fun you can have with your earplugs in, a deafening dance that refuses to be anything less than what it says on the tin. Very sexy, somewhat alien and utterly, utterly fiendish.
So, all the hits, all the highlights, a bunch of remixes and some alternates, too. It’s good to feel zombiefied.
Dustbin of Sound (CD)
It’s not, if you recall the Cravats only for the breathless string of 45s (and albums) they released in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the most predictable new release of the year. Maybe you caught the reformed band across a couple of singles in 2016, but still the first all-new LP in thirty-five years had a lot of catching up to do. And the Cravats, much as we expected, pull it off.
Always a sizable test of new wave prejudices in their prime, the Cravats retain the jazz rock underpinning that marked them out at the time, but they’re also aware that what was once considered utterly “out there” now feels fairly conventional, and have adjusted their attack accordingly. Think of a really itchy Van Der Graaf Generator, with original vocalist The Shend still coming across like the narrator of a particularly over-excited children’s TV storyteller.
“King of Walking Away” is a well-chosen opener, a loping funk shuffle which matches a keen chorus to the Shend’s declamatory delivery; and it blurs almost seamlessly into the frenetic “Batterhouse,” all sirens, riffs and agitated sax, to prove that age has not reduced the Cravats’ willingness to punch hard and sharp. And so on through a fifteen track disc that echoes that other great revival of recent years, the Pop Group, in its ability to remind us of all the reasons the band was so vital way back when… and how they retain that vitality today.
Coast to Coast - The Anthology (3CD)
Well, it’s an anthology, if not quite the anthology - present and correct are both of Ducks Deluxe’s studio albums, Coast to Coast and Taxi to the Terminal Zone, plus sufficient out-takes, alternates, EP cuts and singles to stuff two CDs to bursting; plus the Box of Shorts mini-album from 2009 and 2013’s Rockin’ At the Moon live album.
Absent, however, are the band’s BBC radio sessions (at which they did some of their finest work of all), and the roughly-recorded-but-essential-nevertheless Last Night of a Pub Rock Band live album, recorded at their final gig in 1975. Which does hamstring the package’s claims towards completeness somewhat, but hey! Let’s not be greedy here. Frontman Sean Tyla might not have wholly excavated the archive, and might even have cheated with the inclusion of the Tyla Gang’s “Amsterdam Dog” debut single. But with close to two albums worth of unreleased - or, at least, uncompiled - material to bolster the original two LPs, Coast to Coast nevertheless stands among the most essential Pub Rock comps in years.
Ah, Pub Rock. It was my own first exposure to live music in a pub/club setting, and sweaty enough to genuinely confirm that bands like Ducks, the Kilburns, the Feelgoods and all would be the very next big thing to happen, and I wasn’t the only one. You can feel punk rock itching at the edges of the best pub bands, and not only because so many of its alumni went on to shape the new wave.
The back-to-basics blurge that was so many bands’ calling card was molded from any number of influences, but a sense of fifties rock’n’rollers playing sixties garage classics was never far away , and the only serious difference between pub and punk was that the former music remained in thrall to American rock ideals, as opposed to carving a truly English identity. You hear that from the outset here: “Coast to Coast” is delivered with a distinct trans-Atlantic bent “Daddy Put the Bomp,”“West Texas Driving Band” and “Rio Grande” have no secrets whatsoever; while the band’s choice in covers (“Who Put the Bomp,” “Teenage Head” and “It’s All Over Now” here; all manner of others in concert) are an even bigger giveaway.
Thankfully, in Sean Tyla and Martin Belmont, Ducks Deluxe also boasted two of the finest, and most prolific songwriters of the era, and the influences that they absorbed from lifetimes spent listening to American imports spin out across some genuinely heart-stopping music - there’s not a duff track on any of the discs, and none among the bonus tracks either.
The yearning “I Got You,” the pumping “Please Please Please” (a rare outing for bassist Nick Garvey), the looming “Cannons of the Boogie Night,” the taut “It Doesn’t Matter Tonite”… everything here is a song that should have been heard by far more folk than were listening, and if anyone was surprised that the Motors, the Rumour and the Tyla Gang all span out of the Ducks’ demise, then clearly they weren’t listening, either. Coast to Coast gives them the chance to make up for lost time.
The Writing’s On The Wall (CD EP)
But talking of pub rock - no, that’s a cheap shot. Rambow's Winkies may have been one of that movement’s brightest hopes, but it was time and place more than music that dropped them behind the bar; and besides, frontman Rambow was just as active on the Max’s scene of ’76, so let’s talk about New York protopunk instead.
Or not. Four new songs from one of the most indefatigable pens around open with “The Writing’s On the Wall,” and if you fell in love with Plummet Airlines’ “This is the World,” back in the days of yore, this has much the same feeling, but far angrier lyrics. Which doesn’t prepare you in the slightest for “Alligator,” which is a slice of spooky spoken-word Bayou guitar, over which we learn first, some fascinating facts about the titular reptile, before drifting into a more sober examination of the American south and the vitality of its music. And all in just over two minutes.
“Phil Rambow’s 24,000th Dream” is, of course, a Dylanesque talking blues, pumped along by a locomotive guitar while Rambow spins a peculiar tale that doesn’t really go any place but, of course, it’s not meant to. It’s all a long way from “Night Out” and “Chip Shop,” but forty years on, you’d hope it would be. He may not be the most visible pop superstar of the past half-century, but still Rambow writes and plays like the legend he is, rewarding the faithful every time around with music that never goes where you think it might. Except here, maybe, where “My Father’s Place” again follows the narrative tone, but only to push the lyrics even further forward than ever.
It’s an angry collection of songs, questioning and dismissive, as well. But Rambow’s observations are as universal as they are pertinent, as he steps, perhaps, back even further than his own career allows, and remembers when protest was the only way forward. You should listen.
One Way Glass: Dancefloor Prog, Brit Jazz & Funky Folk, 1968-1975 (3CDs)
All of which is a bit of a mouthful, both to say and, in fact, listen to - a fifty-eight anthology whose only overall concept is the sound of the British underground stepping out onto the dancefloor… and dancing. Even the liner notes seem a little unclear exactly what’s going on, and that despite compiler John Reed having been “mulling over” the project for almost twenty tears. But then you cast the booklet aside and delve deep inside three discs and you know what you’ve really got here? A history of British dance music, if R&B, soul and funk had never existed.
And, surprise surprise, it’s actually very rhythmic. Bluesy. Soulful. And funky.
None of the choices are exactly obvious. The liners, again, bemoan the unavailability of Blodwyn Pig’s “Variations on Nainos,” and such obvious suspects as the Eat It era Humble Pie are also eschewed, presumably because they are so obvious. Instead, One Way Glass focuses in on the heart of the (predominantly) UK underground - labels like Vertigo, Dawn and Transatlantic; unrepentant jazz rockers like Colosseum and the Soft Machine; seldom-recalled proggers like Jody Grind and Gravy Train; reformed psychers and brutal pre-metallists, sweet folkies and confessional singer-songwriters. If you ever wanted to pick up an album that finds common ground between Pentangle, Atomic Rooster and Kevin Coyne’s Siren, you’ve got it.
Occasionally the basic concept is forced to stretch a little, but overall One Way Glass unearths some astonishing gems that might have passed you by in their natural surroundings - Paul Brett’s Sage’s “3D Mona Lisa,” for instance, which disguises its natural rhythm beneath an overall twitch; Patrick Campbell-Lyons’ “Out of Nowhere,” which feels like early Elton John jamming with the Mad Dogs and Englishmen; and a previously unreleased effort from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown which is as noodley as everything else on the unreleased Strangelands album, but qualifies via Arthur’s natural channelling of namesake James, and a bass line made out of spaghetti. But at least you can now add gospel to the list of ingredients.
There’s a super slinky take on “I Got My Mojo Working” from Melanie (oops, there goes the all-British angle); and something similarly seductive from Dana Gillespie (“Weren’t Born a Man”). Atomic Rooster’s “The Rock” packs a late night shuffle groove, with ever-so-menacing overtones; and there’s a slab of wired, shriek-laden guitar fuzz’n’funk from the Tremoloes, to prove that even they didn’t really believe that silence was golden.
But just in case you’re still not convinced,“He’s Gonna Step On You” slips out of our memories of the second summer of love, and the Happy Mondays’ acid-drenched rave-up remake - and it really doesn’t sound any less frenetic in writer John Kongos’s hands. Appreciate that, and all your doubts will fall away. This may not be the best dance album you’ll hear this year, but it’s certainly the most astonishing.
The Insektlife Cycle
Vivid Dreams Parade
(Mega Dodo - CD, LP)
Filipino all-instrumentalists Insektlife Cycle have been buzzing around for almost five years now, largely in the confines of the Internet, and an occasional appearance on Fruits de Mer - sufficient activity to build up a buzz, and maybe a sense of vague foreboding.
With a reputation that won’t let go of the fact that they emerged from some of Manilla’s most menacing death/doom metal bands, and an eye for riffs that don’t so much nail things to the table as wordlessly splatter them, it’s easy to assume that it would take some very special ears to appreciate a full album’s worth of skullcrushery.
Ears that will be enamored instead to encounter eleven pieces that lean more towards a psychedelic jam. Of course it’s still propelled by behemothic percussion, and riffs that are as subtle as a highway pile-up, but that is leavened by some spectacular interplay, Zappa-esque surprises and even the odd glance towards proggy-jazzier realms.
It’s still one of the most belligerent-sounding albums to fall into your lap if Mega Dodo’s past output is what you’re accustomed to - imagine a Blue Cheer tribute to Focus, and you’re in the ballpark. But it’s an invigorating roar regardless, and all you need to do is pluck up the nerve to play it.
Let the Electric Children Play (3CDs)
It’s getting on for twenty years since the Transatlantic label was last given a serious reappraisal, via a four CD box set, the Transatlantic Story, that ranged across the catalog’s entire width and breadth, and wound up puzzling as many people as it pleased. Label founder Nat Joseph may have had a good ear for music, but he had an eclectic one as well, which is how the Portsmouth Sinfonia, Mick Farren and Ralph McTell wound up as label mates, and why David Bowie looked to one of the label’s final releases, Metro’s 1977 debut, for the best song on his Let’s Dance album.
Of course, it doesn’t explain why Wild Willy Barrett’s Krazy Kong album never escaped the archive, beyond a solitary forgotten single, but the appearance of a track on the original box set proved what a mistake that was. A rare mistake, given Transatlantic’s overall output, but a mistake all the same. And one that’s repeated here, with its absence, once again.
Let the Electric Children Play does not even attempt to duplicate the contents of the last box. Gone is the painstaking examination of the label’s folk output (that has, in any case, since been re-examined by the simply titled Transatlantic Folk Box); gone, too, is the disc of comedy and novelty highlights by the likes of Billy Connolly, Richard Digance and Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias).
Rather, three CDs focus almost entirely on the company’s rock output… Stray, Mick Farren (a cataclysmic version of “Mona”) and his former band, the Deviants (ditto “Billy the Monster”), Marsupilami, Peter Bardens, Skin Alley, Jody Grind… with occasional dips into lighter pastures offered by Pentangle, Alan Hull, Gerry Rafferty and Gryphon. We glimpse the pre-tubular Mike Oldfield alongside sister Sally in the Sallyangie; the pre-David Gilmour Unicorn, with a cut from their scarce-as-sky dragons debut album; the pre-Lindisfarne Alan Hull, with his one 45 for the label; and the pre-fame Billy Connolly, playing straightfaced alongside Gerry Rafferty in the Humblebums.
All of which might give the impression that Transatlantic’s greatest gift to the world was its ability to spot tomorrow’s stars today, and to an extent it was. Gordon Giltrap was just eighteen when he recorded his solitary Transatlantic outing, then moved on to EMI. Metro released just one album, too, before the band split in half and Peter Godwin hit with “America in my Head.”
“Early works,” however, by no means suggest inferior, and while Transatlantic is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those other giants of the early seventies acid-prog-folk scene, Dandelion, Vertigo, Charisma and Dawn, Let the Electric Children Play places it, and its output, firmly within the same catchment area, and demands the same attention, too. So give it some.