Harvest 1976 / Esoteric 2019
With jet-age life getting worse, British band start to part with glory and move into sunset eternity.
Self-referencing is a neat rock trope that crops up occasionally, yet making a discourse meta is almost unheard of – especially in a real world terms rather than one looked at through the bent-backed tulips. Embarking on their first U.S. tour in 1976, Bill Nelson’s ensemble might have had illusions about how the other half of it lived, but those would be shattered soon enough – revealing how “angels hide on the demon’s shore” – and this album is a bitter, if brilliant, commentary on the quartet’s experiences. By the time the record was released, the group moved on from prog grandeur to the less sophisticated – only on the initial glance, of course – compositions which bristled with immediacy, and even the “Modern Music” suite on the LP’s second side got fractured into simpler, deceptively more palatable pieces.
And gloomier, too, when compared with "Sunburst Finish" – the bright, burnished opus that oozed decadent pleasure and, thus, warranted the contrast with its successor: a songs cycle soiled with sin on a literal level and smeared with guilt sans regret. The distance the team had gone since their debut, "Axe Victim" – hidden inside the leader’s watch on the dimly colored cover of their second longplay in a year – in mere 27 months seemed immense, and fatigue felt justified, but the artists could hardly predict the end of the road after the next chapter, 1978’s “Drastic Plastic” which differed from their previous output anyway, leaving “Modern Music” to stand as a true testament to the collective’s understated greatness.
There’s no build-up to “Orphans Of Babylon” that opens the album by throwing electric harmonies unto acoustic strum – very impressive in Stephen W. Tayler’s new, airier stereo mix, a companion to the record’s 2019 remaster in this reissue – to create a cynical, albeit romantic, panorama of American life. Still, “Twilight Capers” – the finale of a trilogy which started with “Jets At Dawn” and continued with “Ships In The Night” – takes its neon-dappled riff for a solemn drive towards scary, creepy rapture, until reggae licks break the fright and bring on short fusion solo, caught in a crossfire of Nelson’s guitar and Charlie Tumahai’s bobbing bass. Andrew Clark’s keyboards add frivolity to the same Caribbean vibe in “Kiss Of Light” where eroticism and spirituality are wrapped in cosmic effects and spiced up once Simon Fox’s drums come to the fore, so the foursome don’t dwell on a brief piano uplift of “The Bird Charmers Destiny” whose original version, a bonus here, sounds painfully vulnerable on the vocal front. Instead, they dive into “The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow” – a backward-swirling, sparkling pop ballad melding sadness to sweetness – and rush headlong into “Bring Back The Spark” to sprinkle baroque-tinctured confetti over transparent rockabilly jive.
That’s when snippets of the ensemble’s earlier songs signal the advent of the album’s elegant, tightly woven yet breathing, titular cut, launching the arc to its anthemic reprise further down the line – which won’t sign off on its theme, though – and segueing into “Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone)” which gives Bill an opportunity to unfold a sirtaki-esque, arresting perspective that’s given a punchy groove. This aural picture is also joined with a couple of sketch-like numbers to simultaneously flesh it out and sharpen the critique, while “Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids” will say as much in a purely instrumental way, running from serious space funk to comic country and beyond the blues. “Forbidden Lovers” sees artsy and acidic, and slightly raucous, rocking return, but the bells-bitten “Down On Terminal Street” introduces desperate sparsity to the erstwhile fearsome landscape, rendering it alien – and familiar, too – thanks to the glamorous decay Bill’s voice and six strings construct quite painstakingly.
All this sets the stage for “Make The Music Magic” – the gloriously light, exquisite postscript to the record that’s often hard-hitting and sensual at the same time. As illustrated by the lush weave of a nigh-on-new-wave B-side “Shine” – the largely wordless cut with a sci-fi voiceover – the quartet could continue pursuing the well-oiled dream, but their unwillingness to follow routine prevented such development. That’s why this record remains contemporary decades after its release.