Harvest 1974 / Esoteric 2020
Remastered and gloriously dusted off, British band’s debut shines a sharp light through decades.
From Cocteau credo – “No longer to consider art as an amusement but as a priesthood” – to acrostic lyrics and, of course, captivating songs, “Axe Victim” was the album which build for this provincial band a reputation as creators of catchy art-rock, but when Bill Nelson began preparing his ideas for moving from personal efforts to ensemble endeavor, there had hardly been a thought given to the cultural layer of it all. The young Yorkshireman simply wanted to play – and be different, conceptually and musically, from other artists, those who sacrificed their individuality in order to go along with a fad and end up in obscurity – the fate the guitarist didn’t envision for the quartet he wanted to bring into the future. “Last night I felt immortal”: here’s a phrase from the record’s title track that best summarized their morale.
Only the next one exposed the downside of such a charming life. “This morning I feel dead” reflected the group’s fatigue in trying to make it in the business, so Bill’s cynicism and sarcasm in picturing a typical concert formed a perverse approach to opening a first album of virtual unknowns, his words flowing into the listener’s ear without as much as an instrumental intro and the exquisite six-string blues shaping sadness. Still, there’s a glimmer of things to come, too, in these glam-rock-styled numbers, to justify Nelson’s decision not to continue the solo career, which started on 1971’s self-published “Northern Dream” and attracted the attention of London record labels, but blend in with a band that could realize the reverie of his debut LP, even though the quartet’s “Teenage Archangel” single, out in 1973 and a bonus on this reissue, showed the limit of their pop-appeal. At the same time, the ’45’s B-side “Jets At Dawn” – a precursor to “Ships In The Night” on "Sunburst Finish" and “Twilight Capers” on "Modern Music" – offers a dewy-eyed glance at the past and the taste of “the wine of the new vine” for the realists. Not for nothing Stephen W. Tayler’s mix, taking up the second disc here, adds two and a half minutes of axe magic to what’s considered the collective’s longest composition released on an LP.
The romantic “Jet Silver & The Dolls Of Venus” may simultaneously parody Bowie’s cosmic alter ego, arrangement-wise and thematically, and keep a straight face, and the tender ballad “Night Creatures” taps into the made-up scene’s mythology, especially in a spoken-stanzas version, but the piano-sprinkled, riff-laden funk of “Third Floor Heaven” – featuring BABE RUTH’s Jenny Haan – paints an equally sad, albeit upbeat, real-life scenario, so typical for Bill’s early cuts. Yet while the acoustically tinctured panorama of “Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape” seems to be strangely nostalgic for the barely out of there band, “Love Is Swift Arrows” – the piece where the first letters of title and each of the verses’ lines spell the name of Nelson’s former sweetheart – is all about fluid licks, literary exercises and groove. It would also reveal the relative weakness of Bill’s friends as accompanists – save, perhaps, for the rather adequate Robert Bryan, whose bass bulges on 2020’s sonic variant and who wrote and voiced “Rocket Cathedrals” which rocks most unashamedly and unpretentiously.
Still, if the trance-inducing epic “No Trains To He*aven” is headed towards progressive rockabilly as well, fresh remix rendering it extremely punchy by emphasizing handclaps, this can’t be said of “Darkness (L’immoraliste)” – an orchestra-elevated paean to nocturnal pleasures, placing the cathedral on earth and finally locating a (possibly corrupted) route to immortality, for the poets – mentioned a few times throughout the album – to find peace of mind. “Last night I saw the future / This morning there’s no hope,” sings Bill Nelson: bidding farewell to this dichotomy, “Axe Victim” showed him the glory of penumbra.