Mighty thunderbird rises up from oblivion: underestimated ensemble’s entire early output enclosed for scrutiny and admiration.
“Come back tomorrow, show the scars on your face”: this line from “Devil’s Answer” – ATOMIC ROOSTER’s signature tune – might be an epitome of their existence. Born from the ashes of THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN once “Fire” died down, and going through constant changes to comply to organist Vincent Crane’s peculiar vision, they are often perceived as purveyors of underworld ideas, yet that’s only a small part of the story spanning five albums and stray tracks presented here on four CDs. Of course, they were masters of nightmare, instilling fright even in a such seemingly innocuous, if irresistible, song as “Tomorrow Night” – let alone the deliciously despondent “Satan’s Wheel” or the politically, and electrically, charged “All In Satan’s Name” – but there was so much more to the band who, in their intermittent trio hypostasis, used to send either guitar or bass beyond sonic boundaries, especially on-stage.
Perhaps, not for nothing the perceived blackness is contrasted from the very start, from “Friday The 13th” that opens the ensemble’s eponymous – except for an extra “o” in the second word – debut, out in 1970, with a cry of “Save me!” which would resurface as a title of the piece’s another, more unhinged version on their last record of the ’70s, Vincent’s ominous, yet solemn, ivories driving it to the verge of jazzed-up desperation. Hymnal in the likes of “Banstead” and feral on “The Price,” the collective moved from proto-prog to riff-laden hard rock, yet they never lost hold of that original fusion intent, what with a quantum leap of a booming vocals return when first singer Nick Graham’s nuanced bombast took on a new lease of life in Chris Farlowe’s acrobatic bellow, while the group’s most prominent front man John Cann and the often overlooked Peter French represented a sharper edge of the band’s sound. Each of them could be lyrical, Graham weaving flute in “Winter” where piano and Carl Palmer’s glockenspiel reveal baroque influence, John lighting the gloom on “Nobody Else” to make it glimmer, Peter elevating reflective “Decision / Indecision” above routine balladry, and Chris filling “Can’t Find A Reason” with honeyed emotionality.
Their moderately wild beginnings would be given a boost with the arrival of Cann, later known as Du Cann, from ANDROMEDA; gearing for an American release of “Roooster” – that never happened – the band revised three of its numbers, cutting new vocals and his guitar instead of piano to add weight to Hammond attack and, in particular, inform the voiceless “Before Tomorrow” with a sense of impending doom. Before Palmer left, the refreshed line-up recorded a demo of instrumental boogie “VUG” and, soon after the drummer’s exit, of “Devil’s Answer” which had to be fine-tuned lyrically and arrangement-wise, with burning brass, for a single, the collective’s greatest hit. The latter would also see the light of day in French’s delivery, on the U.S. variant of 1971’s “In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster” whereas the former would land on 1970’s “Death Walks Behind You” LP whose titular blues is an essence of ROOSTER’s modus operandi: sinister, heavy and ultimately tongue-in-cheek, although the same method applied to the smarmy “Black Snake” – sung by Crane himself – would sound deadly serious as it conveyed the organist’s mental issues which would lead to his suicide in 1989.
Still, it’s “Seven Streets” that provides the ensemble with ample room for interplay and allows every member of the trio to display their rough brilliance, as does “Sleeping For Years” that prototypes heavy metal in its speedy, yet elegant, assault. But if “Gerschatzer” is a showcase for Vincent’s classical leanings, “All Across The Country” and “The Rock” house well-tempered wigouts to measure other wigouts by. French brought back the rock grace to progressive extravaganzas such as the intense “Breakthrough” that, with guitars mixed down after Cann had jumped ship, set the scene for tribal dance of vocals and ivories, and a good portion of that album was passed on to the next line-up which, with Farlowe in the fold alongside young axeman Steve Bolton and seasoned drummer Ric Parnell, acquired (as caught on video) something the ensemble didn’t usually demonstrate: a sense of humor. The smiles transpire from the hoedown “Don’t Know What Went Wrong” and the funky drama “Stand By Me” on 1972’s “Made In England” – a platform for everyone to flex their creative muscle, Parnell writing and singing the spaced-out “Little Bit Of Inner Air” and Bolton stacking up six-string layers on his own “Never To Lose” and also contributing the flamenco-tinctured “Space Cowboy” to the cause.
All those colors couldn’t hide another major part of the band’s fabric: jazz. It might have been slightly concealed on early tracks like “Decline And Fall” but Farlowe, fresh from COLOSSEUM’s "Live" spectacle would expose the genre properly, pushing it to the fore with the orchestral tide of “Time Take My Life” that introduced his new role to the listeners, and polishing the ensemble’s moves on “Nice N’ Greasy” in 1973, when John Goodsall, alias Johnny Mandala, joined the quartet on the way to BRAND X and brought “Goodbye Planet Earth” in for ROOSTER to roar and romp through. Which they did – before upping the ante on “Ear In The Snow” to turn it into a life-affirming dance, but 1974’s theatrical B-side “O.D.” effectively put an end to the group’s halcyon days, and soon after its issue they were consigned to history… only to return in 1980 for a second lifespan, with Crane and Du Cann, and, after sleeping for years, a new one in 2016, with Bolton and French. Yet it’s a different story whose roots are enshrined here for a rediscovery.