STEPPENWOLF – The Epic Years 1974-1976

Epic 1974-1976 / Esoteric 2023

American roadrunners return to put on the glitz and rock into the full-moon night.

The Epic Years

Despite their original garagey sonics, this ensemble steadfastly refused to get walled-in – hence the freedom anthem which came to define the collective for more than five decades: indeed, they were born to be wild – or blend into a pseudo psychedelic scene, for that matter. That’s why, when their Californian contemporaries had to find fresh ways to progress from the late ’60s’ angst to settle comfortably in the ’70s, this group didn’t have to reinvent themselves – although a certain upgrade seemed to be in order. With an Epic deal in place, the reunion between four of former bandmates quickly became the second advent of STEPPENWOLF, who streamlined their erstwhile rhythm-and-blues leanings and sprinkled newly composed pieces with fairy dust left over from fueling the team’s first magic carpet ride – a trip shot down in flames in 1972. Here’s how, two years later, the reformed quintet landed on the in-vogue glam rock and scored a hat-trick of standout platters, panned by the critics at the time yet now neatly packaged in a box set and ready for reassessment.

Of course, sensing the need to signal their creative continuity to the listener and roll down the highway with the same momentum, the ensemble included “Get Into The Wind” on 1974’s “Slow Flux” and followed it with a Keef-patented riff ‘n’ shuffle of “Hard Rock Road” on “Hour Of The Wolf” in 1975, and the boisterous cover of “(I’m A) Road Runner” on 1976’s “Skullduggery” – so there’s a thread, rather than a pattern, as also suggested through ballads glimmering on each of the albums: the haunting “Morning Blue” and uplifting “Just For Tonight” preceding Valdy’s “Rock and Roll Song” – all revealing the band’s soft underbelly. But the times had been a-changin’, nobody denied this, which is why the heavily scintillating “Children Of Night” bemoaned the societal and cultural shift in the harsh lines couplet of “Oh, the dream it was born in the summer of love / And it died with the Woodstock Nation” whereas the brass-spiced “Justice Don’t Be Slow” and “Fishin’ In The Dark” appealed to the powers that be and higher powers quite sympathetically – never near the sarcastic manner “Don’t Step On The Grass, Sam” employed several years earlier. Still, the rambunctious bunch feel in their element on “Gang War Blues” – a belligerent, albeit restrained, opener here, showing how street-conscious collective remained and how effectively John Kay’s roar and the recent recruit Bobby Cochran’s guitar heat the atmosphere before Goldy McJohn’s Hammond and the entire group’s voices elevate the cut’s soulful refrain to spiritual heights.

The ivories play a very prominent part on the Epic triplet, as cosmic synthesizers on the bubbling “Jeraboah” and baroque piano on the punchy funk of “A Fool’s Fantasy” demonstrate in style, especially when spanked by George Biondo’s bass and punctuated by Jerry Edmonton’s drums. Their attack may be reined in to suit the dancefloor allure of the sax-smeared “Caroline (Are You Ready For The Outlaw World)” which kicks off the second of these discs to supplant urban propaganda with pop agenda that Alan O’Day’s catchy “Annie, Annie Over” gives some panache to just like the swaggering “Two For The Love Of One” does thanks to organ wigouts courtesy of newcomer Andy Chapin; however the rhythm section is the engine of “Someone Told A Lie” which sees Kay and Biondo share vocals and of “Mr. Penny Pincher” – the totally unexpected and irresistible prog extravaganza which wraps up the group’s nocturnal hour with an expansive space-rock voyage. And if a single B-side, the mostly instrumental “Angeldrawer” marries it to band’s usual method, the sweetly fierce titular track of the contract-fulfilling, and thus slightly superficial, “Skullduggery” takes their aural assault to the fore to let the number’s writer Cochran shine as a performer, while another keyboardist, Wayne Cook’s boogie splashes accelerate the fun of “Life Is A Gamble” and Biondo’s rumbling strings provide “Sleep” with a proper weight and the wordless fusion of finale “Lip Service” with a seductively jittering anchor.

Perhaps, the last cut’s title proved to be the veterans’ undoing. John Kay quit on the verge of this triad’s closing chapter release, and the collective ceased to be soon after. When the belter was back with a coterie of unknowns and his own name attached to that of the band’s to issue “Wolftracks” in 1982, it could never have the same impact, and the three albums gathered here remain a glittery beacon in the ensemble’s impressible discography.


May 12, 2023

Category(s): Reissues
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