Harvest 1976 / Esoteric 2018
Half in anger, half in sadness, English purveyors of secret prophesies serve up their greatest work without selling their souls down the river.
The second half of the ’70s saw, as oxymoronic as it may sound, a slight paradigm shift in Bill Nelson’s approach to composition, with vestiges of prog almost banished from the fold and focus moving to glam songs rather than deliberately elaborate pieces. That was the way forward, away from “Futurama” and in the direction of a nascent new wave, and that was what made “Sunburst Finish” a pinnacle of his band’s career. This album cannot be isolated from the rest of them, though, even without drawing on guitar references in the titles of the group’s first three LPs, and “Ships In The Night” – the foursome’s most memorable hit – picked up where "Jets At Dawn" left off to pass its subject on to “Twilight Capers” further down the line, while the heaven theme had run there for years. Yet the clarity and stylistic variety achieved on the quartet’s third full-length release are impossible to overestimate.
From the relentless pulse and rockabilly moves that give impetus to “Fair Exchange” to the sardonic gleam of “Blazing Apostles” which tapped the period’s vein only to remain relevant four decades later, the collective deploy an intoxicating blend of stinging and lyrical licks resulting in theatrical but informal interplay. Not for nothing, stripping some of the original production trimmings, a new stereo remix by Stephen W. Tayler – stored on one of this reissue’s discs – concentrates on the ensemble performances: they’re simply brilliant. There’s no incongruity in folk military march rubbing shoulders with art-rock synthetic blitz on the opener, and ska always lurking nearby to rear its head on this piece or “Ships” whose Caribbean perkiness was present, if less fleshed out in instrumental sheen, on the tune’s first cut – added here as a bonus, alongside other alternative versions. When Andy Clark’s piano and Charlie Tumahai’s bass reveal the previously unseen depth to the quartet’s oeuvre, “Heavenly Homes” is attaining anthemic uplift – rendered celestial by Nelson’s six-string solo – and “Crystal Gazing” is driving flamenco and Morricone-esque whistle into the glorious orchestral sunset.
Still, it’s this transparent simplicity, not the drama, that takes “Crying To The Sky” beyond regular balladry, into a fragile realm, Simon Fox’s economic drumming enhancing the track’s deceptive stasis – a state to be broken once “Sleep That Burns” is thrown into retro pastiche to let Bill’s vocals and Andy’s ivories shine before “Beauty Secrets” is wrapped into acoustic lace and ruffled with riffs for delicate contrast. In its afterglow, “Life In The Air Age” may seem too solemn or too romantic, yet Latin tinge and half-hidden funk infuse the number with glee, so “Like An Old Blues” has a nice foothold for its harmonica-spiced boisterous boogie. Such a perfect moment would never be captured again, leaving “Sunburst Finish” a fabulous achievement by the musicians who used to try and and create magic but, more often than not, failed in their alchemy – but not here.