Striving to derive the most from tuneful storytelling, prog paragons hunt monsters and miss success.
Their was a strange creative partnership, as Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman, two ivories virtuosi, occupy the same niche – not only style-wise, but also instrumentally, a combination never really witnessed since GREENSLADE rocked the earth – yet, against all odds, it happened. Gravitated towards each other thanks to love for music and books, they produced a pair of top-notch albums which, mysteriously, fell though the cracks in time to be fondly remembered by much narrower audience than these works deserve. A chance to remedy the injustice, the “Tales By Gaslight” box set brings together everything the Englishmen accomplished and fleshes out their achievements in terms of context and surprises from the shelves.
The team’s 1999’s debut, “Jabberwocky” might seem the most impressive, if not the most important, prog offering of its decade, the record’s sole flaw – a natural one, of course, given the writers’ genesis and genre – being Rick Wakeman‘s undeniable, understandable, indelible influence on almost all of the compositions’ sound and flow. He’s here too – as a narrator whose voice is heard in a few spots on the platter, reciting the source text that’s presented as a full piece at the very end of the collection’s third disc, forming the fire-crackling-accompanied finale for the recently uncovered "Dark Fables" and completing the tripartite literary circle. Starting each installment in symphonic manner, with an overture, Oliver and Clive’s first attempt of setting the scene feels fantastic, the number’s unrestrained, if finely nuanced, faux-orchestral baroque bombast of intertwined keyboards exuding immediate tastiness in spades even before Bob Catley’s boyish vocals enter the frame and the fray to the delicate weave of piano passages and Peter Banks’ guitar lines.
Still, the grandeur won’t take long to get stripped from the aural landscape as the heftily funky “Coming To Town” emerges and does the infectious dance which Tracy Hitchings’ dulcet tones fail to pacify. And while the histrionic “Dangerous World” has a funny undercurrent, the riff-driven “The Forest” turns the drift serious by introducing Latin adage to the cut’s tapestry that’s punctured with Peter Gee’s bass. Further on, “Shadows” pushes acoustic ivories to the fore, thus embellishing the instrumental drama until the wide moves of electric waltz enhance the sway which should infuse “Enlightenment” with exhilarating dynamics. These surface in a different shape on “Dancing Water” where the story’s three protagonists eventually meet and stage a stellar polyphony, followed by “Burgundy Rose” and its majestic duo performance and topped with “Call To Arms” – the record’s triumphant apotheosis and an incentive to carry on exploring the artists’ space.
But if there was the same intent behind “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” that saw the light in 2002, Clive and Oliver apparently found Conan Doyle’s clearer yarn somewhat limiting – as opposed to Carroll’s poem which allowed them freedom of fantasy. As a result, a sort of rock opera arrived – something Nolan would aim for later on the likes of "Alchemy" – with singers playing roles and Robert Powell’s spoken word propelling the recount and stalling the momentum, up to a couple of tracks resorting to a backdrop for the reading and the allure getting lost as the album progresses towards “Chasing The Hound” and the case’s resolution. The theatrics of its howl-laced and Moog-spiced beginning are markedly reserved from melodic standpoint, although Tony Fernandez’s drums return to target tragedy with the usual flair, and Ashley Holt’s pipes render Dr. Mortimer on “The Curse Of The Baskervilles” with much gravitas, laying the groundwork for Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s epic fretboard rage, yet “Three Broken Threads” will be more enlivened by John Jowitt’s bottom-end notes than the woodwind-delivered, folk-kissed assault.
However, Catley’s Sir Henry in “Shadows Of Fate” is arrestingly imposing, his pompous, impassioned stanzas wrapped in heavy arrangement – a contrast to the slightly superficial pulse of “At Home In The Mire” which makes Paul Allison’s Stapleton not as charismatic figure as he should be, no matter how hard synthesizers try to paint the mystical landscape, succeeding instead on “Run For Your Life” thanks to Hitching whose ire and fire ignite Nolan and Wakeman’s approach and not reaching the emotional peak in “Picture Of A Lady”: the record’s primary ballad. But the characters’ dialogue on “The Argument” and “Waiting” is as inspired as Oliver and Clive’s celestially solemn parts are, and Banks’ soaring tune on the powerful “Seldon” is irresistible as well.
Just as magnetic could be the Brits’ last album, based on Mary Shelley’s novel but left unfinished and let out in the open here. Not willing to deconstruct their previously released salvos and reveal demos – quite the opposite, there are six-string gaps plugged on “Jabberwocky” – Messrs. N. and W. came up with the aforementioned “Dark Fables” disc and filled it with material that highlights their individual methods. Not brought to fruition as a whole, the “Frankenstein” themes are a tad underdeveloped, its jointly penned overture not too substantial, focusing on the concept’s atmosphere rather than imagery and concentrating on romantic strands. Wakeman’s “I’d Give You Everything” and Nolan’s “Time Passes” – both sung by Andy Sears – illustrate the point in delicious detail, yet pale in comparison to the tender “The Mirror” where Clive steps up to the microphone, the organ-oiled “Why Do You Hate Me?” that’s voiced with a lot of swagger by Paul Manzi, and “The Wedding Approaches” which is caressed with Gordon Giltrap’s ethereal touch.
Rounding off the art-rock trifecta are pieces unused on “Baskervilles” for obvious reasons. The barrelhouse jive of “221B” and the urban grace of “The Baker Street Irregulars” wouldn’t suit the “Hound” mood even if their merry mischief fit the narrative, and “The Man Called Sherlock” – also from Oliver – was too expository for its sonic splendor to keep the listeners on their toes and too close to what “The Curse” covered, which is why Clive’s contributions appeared to be a better match for the album. Such was the quality of Nolan and Wakeman’s work that they discarded rich melodies like these.
Under a single lid now – with three booklets and three art prints – the duo’s complete oeuvre is finally prepared for due reevaluation and acclaim.