Half-century down the line and no sign of slowing down, one of the greatest German groups cast a glance behind and plan their next steps.
Founded in Dortmund in 1969, EPITAPH – who featured local performers and British players – didn’t leave a lasting trace on an international level, but connoisseurs keep them in high esteem and, rather importantly, they still deliver the goods. It wasn’t continuous existence yet, unlike a lot of their legacy-limited contemporaries, this team’s celebration of the past isn’t just a nostalgic look over the shoulder: mapping their history via both regular tracks and rarities, the quintet mold their future – and there’s no doubt “Five Decades Of Classic Rock” won’t become a glorious epilogue in their story.
Compiled by the artists themselves, these three CDs contain the ensemble’s milestones as perceived from within, and a few crowd favorites that sound so exciting live – as documented by the collective’s appearances on the "Rockpalast" TV show – might be missing from here; instead, there are numbers which chart the band’s development in the best way possible. In order to enhance such a view, the 48 tracks on offer appear chronologically, in pre-breakup and post-resurrection brackets, with a generous smattering of bonus material, but for the most part not as original versions, as the group opted for different takes on familiar cuts to make “Five Decades” a valuable entry in the group’s discography.
That’s why “Stop Look And Listen” that preceded the combo’s debut album opens this set in a blistering concert rumble from 2012 and highlights the veterans’ impeccable command of dynamics and intricate instrumental weave – the method brilliantly crystallized on the solos-laden likes of “Crossroads” – yet the same transfixing, if deliberately tribal, primal, primitive even, display is what fuels the guests-festooned on-stage swagger of “Who Do You Love” and allows the collective flex their blues muscle. The band’s handling of the Delta idiom would turn out to be one of EPITAPH’s defining traits – just listen to their fresh take on Rory Gallagher’s “What’s going On” or the hurricane swirl of “Windy City” from their latest studio effort, 2019’s “Long Ago Tomorrow” – although there’s always been a sensual aspect to the ensemble’s oeuvre, too.
Perhaps, not very obvious in electric form, it comes to the surface now on a several acoustic, violin-laced songs, so while the heavy cover of RARE BIRD’s “Sympathy” doesn’t add much to the listener’s perception of the German troupe, their newly recorded reimagining of “All Along The Watchtower” and an unplugged chug through “Outside The Law” as well as the exquisite reading of “Visions” from their first LP construct another dimension for the musicians, and fans, to inhabit. This is where the band’s unique vibe – and the rapport between two six-stringers, founding member Cliff Jackson and his latter-day sparring partner Heinz Glass – will fully unfold, drawing also on progressive influences whose occasional innocence may see the reunion rendition of “Early Morning” cross the bridge of sighs, but are equally impressive on the album cut of “Reflections” with twin guitars reaching for prairie freedom.
Presented now almost in its entirety, yet partly in alternative variants, the “Outside The Law” album introduced the band to American audiences, and the radio-friendly, piano-rippled sleekness of “Big City” can still tickle many an ear, but the throbbing, albeit nuanced, mix of disco and hard rock on 1979’s “Return To Reality” and 1980’s “Bad Feeling” mark the point which found the collective capture zeitgeist with maximum gusto – after four years spent in limbo trying to recuperate in the wake of their US label’s bankruptcy – and proudly carry these smashes into the following decades’ repertoire. Transparent and tight, “Heartless” and its kind, high on vocal harmonies and propelled by Bernd Kolbe’s supple bass, felt like a perfect fit for the ’80s, until “Danger Man” signaled the decade’s early end for the ensemble who bowed out in 1983 and, the short comeback in 1986 notwithstanding, remained inactive for quite a long time.
Inactive – not forgotten, yet aficionados would have to wait for a new millennium to witness their heroes’ return and another seven years before a new record emerged. Given commercial sheen but hefty, artsy and infectious, the a cappella-lined title track, “Hole In My Head” and other anthems off 2007’s “Remember The Daze” didn’t disappoint; these cuts show clear continuity between the two periods in the group’s lifespan. Further on, the slider-caressed, anxious “Dancing With Ghosts” deepened that link to the faux-ancient era, and the equally belligerent “Ride The Storm” entered the concert set for good, so if the drums-driven “Nightmare” projects a bit of a by-numbers image, its melodies are immediately memorable, whereas “Sad Song” is filled with folksy wonder – ever more unusual when picked up by Indonesia’s Paramabira Choir and stripped from all instrumentation for its spiritual core to be exposed and channeled into “Edge Of The Knife” too.
Should one have any doubts as to the ensemble’s dexterity and the morale 50 years on, there’s “Keep Standing Like A Rock” from 2019 – bristling with riffs and carrying a catchy tune – and 2020’s recording of 1969’s wordless “Are You Ready” – to convert a naysayer into a staunch supporter of EPITAPH’s work. After all, loyalty is a concept they’ve been faithful to for five decades.