Reissues

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THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH –
The Going’s Easy
Harvest 1970 /
Esoteric 2012
The title getting it all wrong as the highfalutin flight gets the band down for ever.

Two albums in a year’s span wasn’t much of a feat in 1970 unlike a successful attempt not to repeat what was done before. From that point of view, this band fell gracefully. Whereas “Horizons” shone brightly, its follow-up feels quite glum, the erstwhile playfulness replaced with shallow melodramatics. There’s vivid effervescence on closer “Tell The Story” which saunters brazenly onto Dr. John terrain and on opener “Borderline” whose stereoscopic panning, plus African percussion and funky scratch under organ frolics a la SANTANA, induce sweet vertigo but boil down to powerful blues. But it’s from there on that Colin Horton-Jennings’ part tends to be more of a declamation than actual singing up to the jarring point on the histrionic “Story Times And Nursery Rhymes”.

Equally awkward “The Leader”, smeared with queasy brass and rocking piano, might serve as a precursor to the fare of THE BLOCKHEADS where bassist Norman Watt-Roy ended up later in the decade. Things look much better on the funereal flow of “Love Magnet” that progresses into a fine jazzy sway, and on “Magic Woman Touch”, a gentle – yet again adorned with a boogie solo – ballad, which THE HOLLIES would chart with two years later, when it’s co-writer, guitarist Garth Watt-Roy moved on to FUZZY DUCK and STEAMHAMMER, and the SHOW were no more, having had left room for AVERAGE WHITE BAND who, unlike them, knew where success lay. If only they followed the path of bonus single “Morning Song” with its woodwind and brass call-and-response…

***
 

KAYAK –
Royal Bed Bouncer
EMI 1975 /
Esoteric 2012
Art rock runs amok, as Dutchmen steer their vessel into lighter waters.

Most proggers take themselves too seriously – it’s always been so – with the notable exception of Rick Wakeman, but KAYAK changed the course of the game. After the tentative grandiosity of "See See The Sun" turned into playfulness on the band’s eponymous LP, its follow-up combined the two approach in a peculiar way where symphonic figures got bent to service the pop agenda. Such a perfect blend nicely reflects the theme of the title track which, in the wake of Wakeman, leads to the court of Henry VIII who had a servant to check his bed for hidden assassins, which, from today’s perspective, seems rather funny and this playfulness kick it off in a catchy manner with Johan Slager’s slide guitar rolling over Ton Scherpenzeel’s piano and harpsichord that easily switches from baroque to boogie and back again.

At the helm for the most part – Pim Koopman composed only the wordless tune of “Patricia Anglaia” and softly sings the richly-textured “Bury The World” here – Scherpenzeel delivers not concept yet stylistically smooth array of songs combining court music with vaudeville as does solemn “Moments Of Joy” and merry “You’re So Bizarre”. But while Max Werner excels in infusing ballads “My Heart Never Changed” and “Life Of Gold” with the well-measured lachrymosity, there’s always a sparkling rock crunch underneath it all: hidden assassins, remember? As such, single “Chance For A Lifetime” is a real killer with a fairground spring in his harmonic bounce, and whereas “Said No Word” unleashes some good swing, “If This Is Your Welcome” is arguably the only genuine prog piece on display. Almost regal, “Royal Bed Bouncer” remains a beacon of KAYAK’s long voyage.

****1/3
 

DAVE KILMINSTER –
Scarlet – The Director’s Cut
Cherry Red 2012
Squire to the stars shines his own sharp blade unsheathing it in quite unexpected light.

It’s been a steady career for this Brit. Having come into view on John Wetton‘s live album, he proceeded to play on Ken Hensley‘s return, then, thanks to his QANGO colleague Carl Palmer’s recommendation, joined Keith Emerson in THE NICE, before shooting high on Roger Waters’ tour. But despite all these associations, the 50-year-old remains somewhat of a secret weapon when it comes to his own music and now, five years on since its original, very limited independent release, refocuses “Scarlet” according to his new, worldwide vision that might surprise even those who knows Dave for his contribution to the guitarists’ summit of "The Alchemists".

There is magic in these ten tracks, most obvious in the translucent grandeur of “Rain… (On Another Planet)”, yet for all Kilminster’s impressive technique, of which he demonstrates many facets here, it’s a showcase of his skills not so much as player, rather as a composer. Adorned with a string quartet, the piano-driven “Angel” and “Brightest Star”, rising from its folk origin and lighted with Anne-Marie Helder’s vocalise, provide a revealing glimpse into Dave’s talent’s scope, and he’s also a competent singer, able to bend the riffs of “Big Blue” into a catchy pop chorus and cut the rug to the rock ‘n’ roll of “Liar, Liar”. Still, the multi-layered twang of opener “Silent Scream” scorches one’s psyche more than funk underneath the voice to draw mellifluous anguish from the contrast and thrust it fiercely into “Static”, where bassist Phil Williams and drummer Pete Riley add grit to the rage. On the other end of emotional spectrum flutters acoustically laced fusion of “Chance”, while ballad “Just Crazy” possesses an alternative edge topped with a harmonically-architected solo, and “Harkness” ties all the strains into a tight but loose stylistic shaft.

With the reward of repeated listening, “Scarlet” takes some time to get into, but it’s the time spent bloody well and worth waiting for. The stars knew that all along.

****3/4
 

BEGGARS OPERA –
Nimbus:
The Vertigo Years Anthology
Vertigo 1970-1973 /
Esoteric 2012
A neat, if incomplete, round-up of premiere Glasgow proggers output for a swirl label.

The upper reaches of the UK aren’t so well known for their art rock achievements: perhaps, that’s why this band have been lost in the Highlands mist for many years, with only collectors reaching out for a hefty sum. Available on CD now, each of the group’s albums could have given other prog rockers a run for their clever money, if only OPERA went for a more extravagant and less serious approach. But such was their classical bent that the ensemble sounded too European, save for a stray cover like the baroque “MacArthur Park” from 1972’s “Pathfinder”, their third LP and one of three represented here in their entirety alongside the partial “Get Your Dog Off Me!”.

But if these two see the group follow the guitar lead of Ricky Gardiner, who would supply Iggy Pop with a “Passenger” riff later on, anticipated on the “Pathfinder” title track, and who flies the orchestral “Time Machine” to open 1971’s “Waters Of Change”, the OPERA’s first records ride Alan Park’s organ. On 1970’s “Act One”, he suffuses the 12-minute “Raymond’s Road” with an array of symphonic quotes – Bach, Rossini, Grieg – and sets Franz Von Suppe’s most famous pieces in the heart of “Light Cavalry” and “Poet And Peasant”, where the six-string and keyboards engage in a unison dance. And while Martin Griffiths’ dramatic voice lacks a rock edge, he effortlessly glides over “I’ve No Idea” and “Passacaglia” before it turns into another contagious wigout. Improvisations notwithstanding, there’s no playing for the sake of it, though, and heavy single “Sarabande” accumulates it all atomically.

As “The Fox” turns unexpectedly to spicy Spanish lore and a riveting “Madame Doubtfire” shoots into chamber theater, much more organic are Scottish motifs of “From Shark To Haggis” that runs from predatory tiptoe to swing and from drone to dance. And whereas “Turn Your Money Green” rocks in style, on the other side of the spectrum lies a handclaps-helped bombast of “Festival”, to which Virginia Scott’s celestial Mellotron and flute add a watercolor, and tender, ivories-led and funk-sprinkled cover of “Classical Gas”, and a light vaudeville of “Hobo”, while “Silver Peacock” unfurls a more sensitive pompousness before the listener and “The Witch” introduces infectious harmonies to the picture. A tableau to adore, “Nimbus” corrals the OPERA’s finest moments, although there are more vistas up their valley winding into now.

*****
 

WISHBONE ASH –
Live In Geneva 1995
Hengest 1995 /
Angel Air 2012
Doing the Phoenix one more time, the twin-barrel engine gets Americanized but cuts no slack.

A by-product of HD video equipment testing, this album from the veteran band couldn’t be more different from its predecessors. Not only the reunion of the quartet’s classic line-up had run its course but also Andy Powell‘s new recruits were all from the U.S., that didn’t change the already slim and sleek sound much, the same going for the set’s mix of classics and newer pieces. But such a melange makes for a seamless flow of delights, which in spirit the ensemble’s 25 anniversary, includes a medley of their early numbers, impressively compressing epics “The Pilgrim” and “Phoenix”, welcomes back the heaviness of “Runaway” and climaxes with a rarely played vocal extravaganza “Vas Dis”.

The real pleasure, though, arises when the tradition gets renovated, like in opener “The King Will Come”, where the famous riff is being sculpted from a reggae scratch that Roger Filgate smoothes with string passes, while the group’s patented harmonies add texture to “Strange Affair”, streamlined but slowly, on the double guitar wave, revealing its bluesy provenance, as does the lean, slide-sprinkled “In The Skin”. In these surroundings, “Blowin’ Free” sounds very modern, anchored by Tony Kishman’s mighty low-end whose voice covers “Sometime World” with a wistful patina and whose bass flows to the surface in the infectious swing of “Keeper Of the Light” as Mike Sturgis’ drums widen their dynamics. A year later this interesting combination would inform the band’s next album, “Illuminations”, and then the cards would shuffle one more, leaving “Live In Geneva” a precious documents of ASH’s transitional period.

****1/2
 

HAWKWIND –
Palace Springs
GWR 1991 /
Atomhenge 2012
Half-life and a new consolidation of the force, the cosmic overlords get back in action.

Back in the ’70s, HAWKWIND were very well endowed in the femme department, yet the idea of having a chanteuse, instead of a dancer like Stacia, at the front might seem quite alien to the band’s fans. Yet Bridget Wishart brought a new atmosphere to the group’s sonic attack, and the first to witness it were those who came to their 1989’s shows whence this album, recorded before "Space Bandits" but released after it, come from. Mostly live, with much of the studio trickery and Simon House’s scorching violin applied, it masks several old chestnuts, the anthem “Time We Left (This World Today)” going back to 1972, under the new guise that provides a context for a fresh start, which is “Back In The Box”. All motorik groove, breathy voice and acid burn in the nicely balanced tension and release controlled by Alan Davey’s bass: the same template lends itself also to “Treadmill” where Dave Brock’s riffage sharpens its edge as the catchy tune gets in the focus to throw an arc to a shiny new cut of “Damnation Alley”, now interpolating a reggae dance, a future feature, under the “The Camera That Could Lie” moniker, of the ensemble’s 1993s opus.

Past overlapping with things to come, the “Acid Test” rave by keyboardist Harvey Bainbridge and “Heads” from “The Xenon Codex” feel as universally ancient as the synthesizer-wrapped vocal harmonies “Assault And Battery” and blissfully spaced-out “The Golden Void”, here renamed, accordingly, “Lives Of Great Men” and “Void Of Golden Light”, for contractual reasons, which only adds a novelty layer to these crowd-pleasers. More of the fans favorites are on the other disc of this lysergic package, a concert recordings from the same era known as “California Brainstorm” that soaks “Back In The Box” in a live swamp but, save for the titular classic with a dub appendage and “Assassins Of Allah”, thrives on such rarities as “Reefer Madness” and “Night Of The Hawks”. While the first disc is expanded with a previously unreleased progressive ska gem “The Damage Of Life” and studio linkup of “Treadmill / Time We Left”, the live cache on the second one reveals recent additions to the set including the sleek “Images” and hypnotic “Out Of The Shadows” and allows Brock to shine the brightest in “Eons (Snake Dance)”.

Marking up a transient, yet inspiring, era in the HAWKWIND saga, this is a definitive document.

****1/3
 

IAN MATTHEWS –
If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes
Vertigo 1971 /
Esoteric 2012
Former Fairporter’s first full-fledged flight – free within a fellow flock.

For all his folksy path, Ian Matthews’ stance on the English roots scene has always been a bit strange thanks to his American slant. Poised between Appalachian austerity and singer-songwriter seriousness but with a jolly streak, by 1971 Ian crystallized the vision he adjusted on “Matthews’ Southern Comfort”, effectively his solo debut, and on a couple LPs by the band of the same name, and decided to strike in his own right again. With acoustic guitarist Andy Roberts as a main foil, Matthews called on a bunch of his friends and came up with this shimmering masterpiece.

This dozen of soft songs speaks volumes of Ian. Matthews seamlessly adds three covers, including Richard Farina’s “Morgan The Pirate” and old FAIRPORTS fave “Reno, Nevada” that get a tremulous kick from, respectively, Tim Renwick and Richard Thompson, to self-written pieces which BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD would be proud of. Yet slowly but surely the glib mellifluousness set by “Desert Inn” turns deep, and “Never Ending”, where Sandy Denny’s harmonium and vocal harmony purr under Keith Tippet’s dewy piano, unfurls into a twilit hymn to life in the way that the closing title plea, a soulful duet with Sandy, does. There’s magnificence revealed once instrumental take on “Hinge”, wrapped in the Del Newman-arranged strings, turns into a spiritual a cappella comedown, and “Southern Wind” looks out to endless vistas with engaging joie de vivre in its romantic swing. And there’s a magic lantern light in the likes of “Little Known” pulsing to the beat of Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway’s taut unit.

Deceptively simple, this album is simply a grower.

****1/2
 

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH –
Horizons
Harvest 1970 /
Esoteric 2012
An ever-expansive heat wave of progressive soul hits the shores of Blighty.

Associated mainly with American acts such as BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS and CHICAGO, much more intrepid brace of brass-brandishing bands came from the UK, and this septet were among the genre’s pioneers in the Old World. Led by Watt-Roy’s brothers, guitarist Garth and bassist Norman, with stentorian voice of Colin Horton-Jennings’ at the front, the band’s debut comes full of vigor yet breaks in two in terms of style, artful and rocking, divided by the old-time waltz “Day Of The Lady”, a beautiful Victorian piece of delicate strum and haunting harmonies. That ultimately helps it to gain momentum because, for all the bombast of “Skylight Man”, here’s an initial reserve which limits the album’s outline.

As it is, opener “Sunflower Morning” flows on slow slabs of Mike Deacon’s Hammond to gradually warm up as horns and sax kick in amidst a searing six-string solo and then carry and propel the jazzy buzz of “Angelina” with its Mariachi-kissed middle section and soaring refrain. But resolution descends once “Real Cool World” unleashes the theatrical energy that houses an arresting chorus, and “I Fought For Love” goes into an unhurried hard rock overdrive, even though vocal melody takes in a shade of pale alongside organ’s march. The pinnacle of all strands is a 14-minute title composition, a prog-shaped showcase of the ensemble’s instrumental might bolstered by Ron Prudence’s battery work and, in its symphonic scope, a worthy rival to URIAH HEEP‘s “Salisbury” and DEEP PURPLE’s “April”. Alternately soft and spiky, “Again And Again” may smooth the grandiose aftertaste but, in the end, only adds shine to the album’s timeless uplift.

****3/4
 

CLARK-HUTCHINSON –
A = MH2
Decca 1969 /
Angel Air 2012
Astounding classic of stoner rock – stoned out but of high caliber.

The second reissue of this little band’s stunning start in two years squares it into a different context than the first one did, as it throws a bridge to Andy Clark and Mick Hutchinson’s original intent. As it was, they recorded an LP-worth brace of songs six months before their official debut was laid down, and those make bonus tracks here as a missing link between “A = MH2” and the duo’s stint with SAM GOPALS DREAM which saw them play at “The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream”. Yet it’s also there whence “Improvisation On A Modal Scale” comes: tabla-driven and possessed by Hutchinson’s powerful riffs that are smoothed with Clark’s reeds, the long instrumental piece, together with a six-string web of “Improvisation On An Indian Scale”, entrances and takes tentatively orchestral proportions. So much for the permanently – according to the informative liner notes by their producer Peter Shertser – spaced-out players.

There’s a lot of discipline on display, be it in Andy’s romantic piano on the choir-expanded “Impromptu in E Minor” or Mick’s his amazing baroque-cum-flamenco technique in “Acapulco Gold” that are more obvious but, perhaps, less essential for the overall picture than the latter’s sitar-like lace or the former’s sensitive licks throughout. It’s closer to Satie than Satan that haunts the organ-oiled jazzy heart of “Textures in 3/4 and the tempered boogie of “Put You Down”, one of these eight early cuts which feature soft, if cocky, vocals over perky grooves. They’re quite different from what was to come soon, but “Crow Jane” flies exactly there on its psycho-blues wings, and “Someone’s Been At My Woman” spices John Lee Hooker’s boom with Freddie King’s twang. Not a sign of future greatness, yet a nice perspective. Atomic!

*****
 

TIR NA NOG –
Strong In The Sun
Charisma 1973 /
Esoteric 2012
Electric overturn over, the Irishmen play out the first act of their saga.

It was a losing game for these two Dubliners. Having followed their debut with less impressive "A Tear And A Smile", the band lost a little momentum, and for their third LP in three years made a logical – after sharing the stage with the likes of ELP and
PROCOL HARUM – step of sweeping the folk acoustics under the rug. The change is clearly pronounced in the opener, the glam take on Nick Drake’s “Free Ride”, and in Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly’s vocal blend, rarely heard before, so “Strong In The Sun”, both album and a song, fare true to their title.

With PROCOL’s Matthew Fisher in the producer’s chair, Geoff Emerick engineering and backed by such pros as bassist Brian Odgers, it became the duo’s last studio album but there’s a sparkle in the final salvo. It may sound psychedelically awkward, like in the rather aggressive “Cinema”, yet a sitar-stained tension keeps “Love Lost” on its toes. And if “Teesside” drifts delicately, though anxiously, in the traditional ballad way, as does Arcadian, woodwind and whistle, “The Wind Was High”, Fisher’s Hammond and heavy drums make “Whitestone Bridge” an imposing Gothic edifice. Elsewhere, “Most Magical” combines approaches old and new, its chorus memorable enough to render the piece a hit. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and epic B-side “The Mountain And I”, a bonus here, didn’t catch much attention as well. As a result, TIR NA NOG ceased to exist as a duo until 1985; after that, a string of live recordings has been out, while the band’s classical catalogue remains an untouchable treasure.

****
 

HAPPY THE MAN –
Crafty Hands
Arista 1978 /
Esoteric 2012
The title tells it all but hides the artistry behind the artisan approach.

America’s not the best for prog rock to dwell: just ask PAVLOVS DOG. Like that band, HTM fizzled out with their third album ready to go and the second one a pinnacle of their career. Perhaps, less diverse and more polished than its predecessor, “Crafty Hands” also panders less to the label demands, as there’s only one song per se, the dramatic, almost theatrical “Wind Up Doll Day Wind”, constantly growing in tempo and tension, so the title of nervous, handclaps-helped “I Forgot To Push It” can be a nice explanation for the reciprocating lack of support and renewing the group’s contract. It was both a blessing and a curse.

As a result, the quintet didn’t become irrelevant in the prog-lambasting era, yet they could have turned into a sleek new wave unit, as suggested by succinct, if taut, opener “Service With A Smile”, which new drummer Ron Riddle co-wrote with Greg Hawkes during his short stint in the would-be THE CARS, or even embrace new age all the symptoms of which fill “Morning Sun”. The same folksy drift that Stanley Whitaker’s guitars weave into orchestral scope Kit Watkins and Frank Wyatt’s keyboard create is even more pronounced in “Open Book”, while the fusion rays of “Steaming Pipes” and “Ibby It Is” flow into an abstract, mood-moving pleasuredome. But “The Moon, I Sing (Nossuri)” hits the romantic zenith of the album to end it bitter-sweetly. There’s uncertainty in the progress so, quite possibly, HTM did the right thing when they stopped at this point of no return.

****
 

CRESSIDA –
Trapped In Time:
The Lost Tapes
Rare Record Club 2011
Esoteric 2012
A compact disc debut of a footnote band’s first firm footing – a spoke in the reformation wheel.

2011 marked the 40th anniversary of CRESSIDA’s sad departure and the group’s coming back to life on the wave of renewed interest to their criminally limited output. So, in order to give their fans additional value, the veterans delved into personal archives to discover more than a worn acetate of the ensemble’s early cuts: there’s a whole treasure trove of songs, a good portion of which made it to their eponymous debut, plus an epic that ended on the second album, now joining the first on “The Vertigo Years Anthology”. While those recordings rely heavily – in all senses – on Peter Jennings’ Hammond, the majority of these demos feature the band’s original keyboard player Lol Coker whose dynamic range is less impressive, more basic on the dirge-like “Winter Is Coming Again” with its soft percussion, yet his enthusiasm in unison with John Heyworth’s guitar gives “Cressida” the spin its ultimate take is lacking. Quite often, though, the difference feels perfunctory.

Sometimes, less elaborate approach of the group’s initial incarnation works fine for a song’s catchiness or absence thereof, and on these grounds “Depression” differs from its later version, yet that would be an underestimation to say the same about “Let Them Come When They Will” that grew from the light, if gloomy, 3-minute romp into a blistering tapestry of many colors. Whereas “Only Earthman In Town” would be slightly improved for inclusion on the album, a clearer change in the sound between CRESSIDA’s line-ups is exemplified by the brilliant “Mental State” and “Situation” – an unissued single by the 1969 ensemble and a track by the 1970 collective with Jennings on the ivories and John Cullen’s axe. As of the previously unreleased songs, “Sad Eyed Fairy” is too rooted in the ’60s psychedelia to stand out despite the six-string acoustic lace, but “Silent Night”, a bonus making its premiere here, smells of the ’70s sulfur. This collection captures the group in a transient state and, thus, is for collectors, yet there’s a wider appeal to it.

***
 

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION –
Triad
Harvest 1972 /
Esoteric 2012
The second, and last, album from a band who lived and died according to their name with echo reverberating through the years.

It hardly was a plan from the off, to put out a couple of LPs within a year and fizzle out, yet it turned out that way and turned quite bitter: lack of progress – a paradox for a progressive rock ensemble – made the Margetts brothers quit music, with only drummer Tony Brock remaining a fixture on the scene, from THE BABYS on. Not that COMBUSTION’s sophomore effort showed any weakness. Vice versa, as signaled by a two-part single cover of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”, a bonus here, after their self-titled debut the trio streamlined their act and produced the record themselves but the music stylistic variety, although diminished this time, contributed to the “Triad” commercial failure and has played into collectors’ hands for 40 years.

Still, the buzz remains here from the lightweight, if percussion-heavy, riff of “Spaceship” that splices “Hey Bulldog” with “Devil’s Answer” for maximal threat, to the mighty cosmic opera of “Monolith” and covers all the stellar odyssey between. Betraying the jammy nature of it all and alluding to some other hits of the day, “Brainstorm” rides a polyrhythmic rollercoaster where a solid hard rock potential gets dissolved by a fuzzy jive as guitar solo combines sharp attack with nebulous funk and vocal chant adds a trance-like layer to the mix. Yet while “Pan” is a post-psychedelic, synthesizer-adorned masterpiece which puts vocals too frontal, “Love And Laughter” comes on translucent to underline, together with another single, “Gay Time Night”, the band’s radio-friendly facet that, despite a handful of tempo changes, could have actually brought them success. Sadly, it wasn’t to be: when too many roads are roamed, the direction is lost.

***
 

NINE BELOW ZERO –
Live At The Marquee
A&M 1972 /
Universal 2012
A killer debut by the stalwarts of the British blues scene, expanded and restored to a full, blistering glory.

Today, a mention of this band results in reverential hush but, as their latest album, "Its Never Too Late", shows, there’s no stopping to their raucous rumpus. Well, there was a stop-gap in the ’80s, after more than a promising start when the quartet secured a steady following from all strains of the music spectrum, thanks to atomic energy of their performances, one of which is documented here, on the group’s first LP. A third of it chopped due to vinyl restrictions, now the record’s deluxe reissue comprises all 21 songs played on that night, originals – “Stop You Naggin’”, “Straighten Her Out” and instrumental “Swing Job” with its unison jive – aptly joining the club of nuggets such as Muddy Water’s “Got My Mojo Working” or Otis Rush’s “Homework”, where the crowd who call for their heroes before they begin takes up the infectious refrain. Charging off the bat with combustious “Tore Down”, Mark Feltham’s harmonica and Dennis Greaves’ guitar rarely take the opportunity to loosen their grasp, and when things get slow, like on the whitewashed “Stormy Monday” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, the charge gets no less hot.

The ensemble don’t stick strictly to the blues, though, and shine as bright on Motown perennials “Can I Get A Witness” and “I Can’t Help Myself”, which lose innocence to the playful gravitas of sharp riffs and lascivious harp that swirls a jig for “Ridin’ On The L&N”. And while the electric blitz of “Wooly Bully” shoulders aside the glitterball of the day, much more unexpected is an incendiary rendition of “Twenty Yards Behind” by the Londoners’ kindred spirits DR. FEELGOOD. Hardly a moment to breathe throughout, “Keep On Knocking” wobbles a tad but with “(Just A) Little Bit”, NBZ can give SLADE’s version a run for their jolly money. It’s that mighty. Long may they run, then.

****4/5
 

TRACTOR –
The Road From Townhead Mill, Rochdale
Ozit Dandelion
Celebrating four decades since their first furrow was ploughed, John Peel’s favorites wheel back on the flaming red vinyl with cuts both long familiar and freshly reaped.

Those of us who didn’t grow up in the UK may find it difficult to grasp the most famous British DJ’s influence on music but, his radio sessions aside, John Peel made a palpable contribution to English sonic landscape when he established a studio in the mill town of Rochdale. Later a home to the likes of JOY DIVISION and known as Cargo, originally it was outfitted for TRACTOR, a duo of Jim Milne and Steve Clayton who started out as THE WAY WE LIVE yet changed their sound enough in the early ’70s to prompt a name change – on the same broadcaster’s suggestion. Having laid down the backing tracks for their Dandelion label mate Beau’s "Creation", the band delivered their own eponymous classic whose legend keeps growing as the years go by. Cue a smattering of archive releases of which this is a crown jewel, ruby-red and red-hot.

A mix of cuts from “Tractor” and its precursor, TWWL’s “A Candle For Judith”, all making just a half of these two LPs, “The Road From Townhead Mill” puts things in perspective to show’s the band’s short-time progress from Zeppelin-esque riff-fest of “Storm” and “King Dick”, that show Milne’s mastery of blues guitar and soulful vocals, to the sharp, arresting drama of “Hope In Favour” and, on larger scale, of “Lost On The Ocean”. But while the newly found instrumental “Abode Of The Dead” complements equally eerie “Shubunkin”, the duo’s soft underbelly, highlighted in “Everytime It Happens” and much rarer “Argument For One” (present here in a more sterile form and in a delicate radio rendition) is revealed in full with the recently uncovered ballad “In The Shadow Of Mills”, its wordless acoustic treble tugging the toughest heartstrings before the gentle fuzz goes blitz. And if the epics such as this or “Little Girl In Yellow”, combining electric thunder with nervous folk where Clayton’s drums serve as a force of nature, sound raw and dirty, that only adds to the tempestuous impression and throws a bridge from TRACTOR to THE WHITE STRIPES and their ilk, especially clear in the dry, countrified “Flames”, so one can draw a straight line between the glitzy “No More Rock ‘n’ Roll” and THE BLACK KEYS. Talk about hidden influences, then.

Grit on the mill, this collection makes a fodder for mind and soul. A glorious celebration.

****2/3
 

HAPPY THE MAN –
Happy The Man
Arista 1977 /
Esoteric 2012
Across the Atlantic: American art-aficionados’ arching album anchors its Anglo debut.

Latecomers on the prog scene, this band, as well as their co-runners STARCASTLE, were perfectly poised to embrace the genre’s complexity to give it a polished end. But HTM played their game without frontiers, never more so than on their debut, recorded when Peter Gabriel abandoned the idea of using the quintet as his backing ensemble and MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA associate Ken Scott came onboard as producer to rein complexity in. Close to fusion but not at the expense of melody, as virtuously demonstrate “Knee Bitten Nymphs In Limbo” and “Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest” which hosts a good-time rocking, the group’s eponymous record is a shiny, if see-through, mostly instrumental monolith.

It melts to wrap itself mellifluously around the ears in the opener “Starborne” with a loose, relaxed interplay of Stanley Whitaker’ guitar and Kit Watkins’ keyboards, and in “Hidden Moods” weaving an acoustic lace around a delicate tune, yet solidifies when the crystalline piano of “Mr. Mirror’s Reflections On Dreams” swells into shiny blues. In the vocals department it’s pure art rock, though: “Upon The Rainbow (Befrost)” places Whitaker’s voice in the flute-smeared folk meadow yet Frank Wyatt’s sax leads it leftfield, while “On Time As A Helix Of Precious Laughs” surges quite pathetically for its own heavy, KANSAS-like sake. Yet “New York Dream’s Suite”, elegiac and sporadically intense, binds all the diverse drifts together just like the city the piece quietly glorifies, and signs off on an inspired note. Amazing grace!

*****
 

TIR NA NOG –
A Tear And A Smile
Charisma 1972 /
Esoteric 2012
Bolder in motion and broader in scope, the Dublin duo’s bid for a Transatlantic appeal.

Setting their folk tent in the urban landscape with their first album, for the second one Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly did the Dylan trick and quietly plugged in, even though their refusal to cover the bard’s “Maggie’s Farm” cost them the debut’s American release. Yet “A Tear And A Smile” was too good to not cross over, even though the merry “Bluebottle Stew” runs too close to saloon burlesque to be taken seriously. On the other end of romantic spectrum, “So Freely” emerges as one of the most touching ballad this side of “Fotheringay”, its tune embracing blue-eyed soul as well as rustic feel, but immediacy isn’t the most prominent feature of the band’s sophomore effort.

Songs like “The Same Thing Happening” and faux traditional “Goodbye My Love” sound chamber-like, if light, in their acoustic solemnity, while the swaying “Lady Ocean” adds spark to the proceedings. Still, the pull of “Down Day” takes some time to surrender to and, once the strings are revealed, it’s over. But opener “Come And See The Show” gains tension and welcome momentum as it rolls softly, aided by sensitive Barry De Souza’s drums, towards the memorable chorus and a glossy violin-and-piano solo, and a bonus single “The Lady I Love” flutters gracefully around the hidden smile to balance the scales of the album’s title, yet it remains the saddest of the duo’s original hat-trick.

***4/5
 

CRESSIDA –
The Vertigo Years Anthology
1969-1971
Vertigo 1970-1971 /
Esoteric 2012
One of the most famous of the most obscured groups reassess their assets and make their trip round and definitive.

In the pre-CD era, this British band’s legend was secure thanks mostly to the memorable cover of their second, and last, album, and to some extent to their link, via the drummer, to URIAH HEEP. Their records’ rarity contributed to it, too, meaning also CRESSIDA’s output didn’t sell well during the quintet’s existence and hadn’t been heard as wide as it deserves, yet it’s only this double-disc set that, after all previous digital attempts, does justice to the music in both aural and perspective terms. Corralling two LPs, eponymous debut and the aforementioned “Asylum”, fleshed out with extra material here, the anthology may ruin the originals integrity by shuffling the tracks sequence, but as the reformed collective’s decisions go, there’s a certain logic to it.

“One Of A Group” is a perfect starting point: flowing in on Peter Jennings’ classically informed organ, its haunting melody ushers in Angus Cullen’s honeyed voice, while Iain Clark’s cymbals underpin John Heyworth’s strum which bristles fuzzy for an acid-fuelled solo before the piano takes it all jazzwards – if the band’s MO’s could be expressed in one piece, that would be it. Contrast could be the name of the game, because for all their serious soulfulness, “The Only Earthman In Town” and “Home Is Where I Long To Be” combine transparent elegance with pop-minded fun the group used to have, especially on-stage as suggests a couple of live cuts taped for BBC, where “Depression” sheds off the vinyl shades of grief. And if tracks like cosmic “Cressida” might be characteristic of their era and give priority to interplay rather than melody, its vibe and the acoustic virtuosity of folky “Time To Bed” betray much more depth to the ensemble than meets the eye.

The powerful lightness of the group’s arrangements is best sampled, though, when the album’s version of “Lights In My Mind” is compared with its heavier demo featuring CRESSIDA’s first line-up (more of the full-blown sketches can be found on this compilation companion release, “Trapped In Time”), yet the first album outtake “Mental State” and “Situation” demonstrate a magic marriage of sharp riffing and infectious choral singing which would be the focus of the band’s second outing. With their vocalist in the main writer’s role, “Reprieved” floats in the wordless fusion, whereas humorous “Goodbye Post Office Tower Goodbye” can give PROCOL HARUM run for their surrealistic money. New guitarist John Cullen, who shines on the Beeb version of “Winter Is Coming Again”, comes forth as an adventurous foil for Jennings’ expanded palette to render the Spain-flavored title track of “Asylum” just slightly short of a masterpiece, while the 11-minute spectacle of “Let Them Come When They Will” and “Survivor” add orchestra to the harmonic sweep to build a high-tension, if groovy, drama, progressive tendencies taking over simpler rock joie de vivre.

The closing epic “Munich” is as far removed from “Spring ’69” as it gets for a two-year journey into grand nowhere, a change that would have cost lesser artists a whole decade. Only a few listened, though: in February of 1971 when CRESSIDA’s sophomore album came out, the band were no more. A legend was.

****3/4
 

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION –
Spontaneous Combustion
Harvest 1972 /
Esoteric 2012
Bursting out in unexpected places, a Greg Lake-produced collector’s item gets the treatment it deserves but remains a puzzle in the “file under” department.

Ambition in spades and bucketful of talent, what this British trio lacked was a wider line-up to flesh out their ideas and a decision as to how to focus those ideas. Falling between hard rock charge of the ’70s and singalong psychedelia of the ’60s, the Margetts brothers, guitarist Gary and bassist Tristan, and drummer Tony Brock, leave a lot of space in their arrangements, but if their debut may sound dated, repeated spins bring a rewarding revelation that the band were actually ahead of their time – most of the time – with FX pedals frequent dismissal an effect in itself.

So while opener “Speed Of Light” tries to steal the thunder from “Speed King” with its rarefied riff and a mighty piano chord, all bathed in echo, it’s grand finale “Reminder” that goes for the jugular in its jittering array of various styles, including a Renaissance dance and a country fair bit and underlying the players’ immense prowess. It also fills “Listen To The Wind” which, bouncing off the blues figure, softly builds a medieval atmosphere from the stack of voices and the rustle of cymbals and dissolves it into the tight but loose soulful wigout that hangs between prog and fusion, a combination yet to be established on the art scene. Another interesting contrast comes in the shift from raga drift of delicate “Leaving” to a “Down With The Moon” improvisatory rumble, a showcase for each of the musicians, the problem being an overall juxtaposition of the vocals’ pop gravitas and heavy instrumental air.

Weird, arresting – unreleased bonus “Lonely Singer” is a hook-laden delight – and deserving its myth, especially with their next record being the band’s last.

***1/4
 

TIR NA NOG –
Tir Na Nog
Charisma 1971 /
Esoteric 2012
Irish broad-minded folk explorers embark on the path to eternity – slowly but surely.

In 1970, when Dubliners Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell arrived in London, they already stood apart from the folk crowd. Traditionalists at the first glance, the duo dug deep into the Celtic soil, yet kept their sights on rock audience rather than homespun circles and always balanced on the verge of going electric without going the FAIRPORTS-measured distance. Still, their eponymous debut doesn’t bear the pop imprint that, say, TYRANNOSAURUS REX, wore, and its most haunting moment is the titular ballad, for all its whistling, wistful rootsiness the band’s original, just like the rest of these songs save for the cover of Ray Dolan’s warm “Hey Friend”.

Their hearty draw is invoked right from the start, once the soft roll of “Time Is Like A Promise” sets a romantic anxiety which resolves in the quiet of “Our Love Will Not Decay”, but it’s less bright, though plugged-in tunes, like “Mariner Blues” or eerily urban “Piccadilly”, that are brimful with timeless desolation. Acoustic guitars stricken with harmonica for a serious fare, the humorous ditty “Aberdeen Angus” with its Scottish accent and dulcimer is the richest piece in the instrumental department, while sitar makes “Looking Up” a hypnotic focus of it all and “Dance Of Years” the dry spot of light. This reissue pours even more sunshine in adding the duo’s inaugural single “I’m Happy To Be” to the almost immaculate piece of work.

****1/2
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