Transatlantic 1970-1974 / Esoteric 2017
Inaugural glory of English venerable ensemble who serve up imaginative simplicity with a spear and a smile.
Though "Valhalla" might be STRAY’s final album, they’re still too active to be deemed fallen heroes, yet the quartet entered the halls of eternity way earlier, when metal community embraced them as proponents of heavenly heaviness. Such an image is based mainly on “All In Your Mind” that proved to be influential enough to warrant a cover by IRON MAIDEN and lend its title to this box set whose four discs house the band’s first five albums, assorted singles and a number of rarities fleshing out and, at the same time, undermining the aforementioned impression – for better rather than for worse. It’s an impressive body of work which secured the group’s future, gave them home on Transatlantic – a label famous for a variety of finely textured releases, and sees them on the other side of the millennial line.
Rightfully perceived as a prototypical hard rock cut, the anthology’s lead-in track is, in fact, a delicious slice of moderately hefty and epic, if economic and effusive – and slightly ominous in a single version, thanks to the presence of a violin – psychedelia. There’s also a touch of flamenco, the style woven into the fabric of a few other songs including the acoustic lace on “Our Plea,” the final number of the band’s last Transatlantic album, 1974’s “Move It” – featuring a certain Cliff classic and signaling the ensemble’s readiness for transition. Not for nothing their eponymous debut LP hosts “Move On” where Del Bromham’s wah-wah, Ritchie Cole’s tom-toms and Gary Giles’ bass runs stage a Latinesque festival. The instrumentalists go for the jugular but keep their eyes on detail to create dynamic and vibrant melange of genres, the molten “Taking All The Good Things” formulating their method quite eloquently, albeit Steve Gadd’s voice, brilliant as it is in the rhythm-and-blues wigouts, is most impressive in the literary romanticism of the folk-infused, tempo-shifting “Time Machine” and “Around The World In 80 Days” where piano enriches the piece’s transparency.
With “Yesterday’s Promise” offering a latent orchestral scope, real strings and woodwind make their entrance on the quartet’s sophomore record, “Suicide”: out in 1971, the album’s a cappella call to arms unfolds into dramatic tapestry on “Son Of The Father” and then comes back to the cinematic panorama with “Jericho” which has a pronounced Celtic flavor to its filigree gallop. Yet while the likes of “Do You Miss Me?” demonstrate the underground sort of sparse interplay the ensemble retain up to this day, there’s a timeless agenda, too: the harmonica-harnessed “Move That Wigwam” may exude humor musically, but it’s a politically charged missive, whereas the viscous punch of the platter’s title track holds a fuzzy riff that’s as memorable as its “Black Lives Matter” message, and when the piece picks up the pace there’s really no return from the brink of brimstone madness. Still, the group’s development took a different turn further on down the road.
Given organ and female backing, “Our Song” which opens “Saturday Morning Pictures” finds the initial sharpness removed in favor of cosmic soulfulness, and although “After The Storm” is pursuing speed metal in a breeze, the theatrically dark and tremulous “How Could I Forget You?” is an aural embodiment of the ensemble’s soft underbelly. The abundance of material laid down in 1971 allowed the group leave a great slab of country blues “Georgia” and the raucous “Get Out Right Away” on the shelf and dust them off now in all their raw brilliance, but 1973’s “Mudanzas” would see the foursome venture into several new, popular directions. If the lush blitz of “Come On Over” seemed to steer STRAY towards middle-of-the-road lightness, it was counterbalanced with “Hallelujah” whose swagger contrasts the swell of hope in “I Believe It”; if “Pretty Things” touched on punchy glam, the playful “Gambler” that’s driven with catchy electric piano and fat, greasy guitar, and “Oil Fumes And Sea Air” channeled Southern rock’s relaxed flow.
Strewn with infectious likes of “Like A Dream” which nod to the dancefloor, “Move It” swings the pendulum back to simpler fare, with nary a shade of progressive intent in sight – muscular funk of “Don’t Look Back” saying it all – yet there’s the brisk “Customs Man” written by soulster Jimmy Helms whom the band helped on his solo platter and who’s also blowing the reeds on “Hey Domino” when it has to change gears from lighthearted roll to spiritual rise which is revealed in “Somebody Called You” as well. All of this can hardly hide the delirious, frenetic edge that had been there from the beginning, as a bunch of 1968 demos including “Change Your Mind” suggests, albeit Pye Records passed on the band, the pop confectionery of “In The Night” notwithstanding, to eventually sign them in 1975 for a three-album spurt. But that’s another story, told in another Esoteric release.