So I had this plan: I was gonna stack-up all the really lame, weak, not-brilliant Progressive Rock albums I had in the house, listen 2 each 1, & then just CRUCIFY them here in an attempt 2 clear the air, blow away these blues, make Spring finally arrive, & send these old albums off 2 the used record store with the kinda send-off they truly deserved.
The stuff I stacked-up were albums I'd had trouble with B4, or heard enuf of 2 realize I didn't like them much, or that had bad reputations that the little I'd heard did nothing 2 erase. So I figured this'd B fun, easy, a breeze 2 get in2 -- I had myself all psyched-up 4 it.
Just 1 little problem: I didn't Xpect I'd be ENJOYING this stuff as I went along, even while the music was busy being perhaps not the ultimate Xample of Prog At Its Absolute Best ... but good enuf 2 keep around anyway.
I thot this would B shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out it's gonna B more difficult than that. & that's a good thing. It would B a nice suprise 2 learn that these albums I'd stupidly dismissed (in some cases) years ago Actually Aren't That Bad.
I started with The Strawbs' 1972 album GRAVE NEW WORLD, an album I Xpected 2 hate because of its Xtremely solemn church-like overtones, its doomy outlook, its overwrought highly-sensitive approach.... (Robert Christgau gave this album a D+ when it was released, & I hardly ever agree with Christgau -- but on my 1st coupla listenings I was thinking he mighta nailed this 1.)
Strange, because I like these guys. I think summa their songs R GREAT ("Where is This Dream of Your Youth?", "Hero and Heroine," "Down by the Sea," "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus," "Part of the Union," etc). But they can be almost 2 earnest 4 their own good, & leader/main songwriter/singer/guitarist Dave Cousins has always struck me as being pretty highly-strung.
The thing about the Strawbs is you've gotta get past the fact that Cousins' singing often sounds like Stewie from FAMILY GUY. That same petulant, blaming, self-involved tone. Get past that & it's smooth sailing. Then you can focus on the great keyboards by Rick Wakeman, John Hawken, Blue Weaver....
GRAVE NEW WORLD itself is a little dated -- the folk-based Strawbs hadn't gone full-bore prog at this point, so at times the music sounds like prog-meets-Olde-English-madrigals. Which is fine with me.
The opener, "Benedictus," sounds Xactly like it coulda bn a church hymn -- but it doesn't go on 2 long & it's not overbearing. "Queen of Dreams" is phased & fake-psychedelic -- kinda directionless & stupid -- & dated. A lotta gimmicks covering up what mighta bn a decent song.
But bassist John Ford's "Heavy Disguise" is a pretty good, simple, catchy rocker about not believing in appearances. It's also a nice break from Cousins' vocals.
However: By the time you hear the shocking bitterness & disgust in Cousins' voice on the choruses of "New World," the song sounds like some kinda masterpiece. Cousins' voice fits it perfectly.
All thru this 1st side there's Xcellent keyboard work from Blue Weaver, & Richard Hudson's solid drumming. The 2nd side is weaker, but not embarrassing. "Tomorrow" has a big, dramatic, rockin' finish with keyboards, strings & horns. Tony Visconti's production is pretty solid thruout, Xcept 4 that silly phasing effect mentioned earlier.
There R also sevral nice, brief, refreshing acoustic miniatures sprinkled thruout the album, like "On Growing Older." What is being outlined here is a sorta "Pilgrim's Progress," the spiritual growth of a person over a lifetime.
Not sure how it's supposed 2 fit in, but guitarist Tony Hooper's "Ah Me, Ah My" is a jaunty, silly, '20s-style period piece that sounds like it coulda come straight outta some old Broadway musical. The lyrics R funny, & it's over 2 quick. Speaking of dated, "Is it Today, Lord?" adds some sitar at the end & continues the album's spiritual search.
OVERALL: Kinda insubstantial in some places, but not BAD, very pleasant at times -- & it brightened up my Saturday afternoon. I might even keep it.
Over at LA HISTORIA DE LA MUSICA ROCK, I recently commented that since about 1980 my favorite album 2 drive unwanted guests outta the house has been David Sancious & Tone's TRANSFORMATION: THE SPEED OF LOVE (1976). There R some gorgeous pieces of music on that album, but something about the whooping, hiccuping synthesizer & the Hendrixian guitar feedback tends 2 drive nervous people outta the house -- & this is on the GOOD stuff.
Then it occurred 2 me that I hadn't heard the album's 2 most obnoxious trax in quite awhile. So, emboldened by how much better-than-Xpected GRAVE NEW WORLD turned out 2 B, I put on Side 1 of TRANSFORMATION & braced myself 4 a Total Noise Onslaught....
...Memory is a funny thing. The opener, "Piktor's Metamorphosis," starts with a lite-jazz guitar, sparkly keyboards & wordless vocal theme, very avg, then goes in2 something louder & more NRgetic with Sancious's characteristic "slippery" keyboards. It ends with a dreamy, lighter-than-air repeat of the theme. A quick 6 mins.
The Hendrix tribute, the 8-minute "Sky Church Hymn #9," starts like an old acoustic blues with Sancious on guitar. There R no keyboards. It quickly moves in2 a high-speed Hendrixy gtr jam, then fades back in2 the acoustic-blues figure. Not bad, kinda spare in places ... & then suddenly Sancious's fingers R a blur on the guitar ... then back 2 that old blues theme again. There's a big Hendrixy feedback finish ... that doesn't go on long enuf.
Both these trax R actually 2 short. But the good folks at Epic (or somebody) buried the best stuff on the album -- the gorgeous piano&guitar showcase "The Play and Display of the Heart" (which I listened 2 just 2 make sure it's still as pretty as I thot), & the life-altering 18-minute title track, which takes up all of Side 2. Words cannot describe....
VERDICT on "Piktor" & "Sky Church Hymn": NOT unlistenable....
...Shoulda quit while I was ahead. Barclay James Harvest's XII (1978) is a streamlined, mainstream prog-pop album, so deliberately inoffensive you can barely hear it. & so lethargic you wonder why they bothered.
BJH were 1 of the 1st of Britain's mellotron-based bands, following in the footsteps of the Moody Blues & teaming-up with an orchestra early in their career. But they've always been WILDLY inconsistent.
The album before XII, GONE TO EARTH (1977), actually has 3 pretty great songs on it, out of 9 -- & that's about the best rating I can give any BJH album I've heard, including their sevral best-of's. I woulda traded-off XII YEARS ago if a dog hadn't eaten the (rather pretty) album cover. Apparently the cover was the best part....
Anyway, the opener, guitarist John Lees's "Loving is Easy," has a semi-disco beat & some stunningly obvious smutty lyrics. Not a success.
Bassist Les Holroyd's "Berlin" almost gets it right -- it's almost haunting. But it doesn't GO NEwhere.
A stronger singer woulda helped botha these songs, but there R other problems: They're just sorta flat, limp, there's nothing 2 set them off. They're so AVERAGE.
Holroyd writes better choruses, as on "Turning in Circles." But the hooks R still limp. It just sounds like a failed pop single.
Lees' "The Closed Shop" opens with flutes & a march beat -- the 1st mildly suprising moment on the whole side. But I couldn't finish it.
By this point -- 5 songs in -- I'm wondering why I ever liked these guys in the 1st place. They DID do some good stuff -- I recommend the 3 good songs on GONE TO EARTH ("Hymn," "Spirit on the Water" & the crashingly melodramatic "Poor Man's Moody Blues"), their early rocker "Taking Some Time On," the hypnotic "Ring of Changes," "Play to the World," "The Song They Love to Sing"....
1 critic 1nce described BJH as "morose progressive rock." Dave Marsh 1nce called them "numbing." He was right, when they were at their worst. As they R on XII. I'll try 2 get back 2 this again later....
2 B Continued....
Planned 4 future installments: Reviews of more work by BJH, The Strawbs, Renaissance, Jean-Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Mannheim Steamroller, Focus, ELP, Nektar, Utopia, Brand X, Dixie Dregs, Journey, Group 87, Sky, Enya....
NE1 out there who might B able 2 set me up with CHEAP copies of NE of the following 4 this ongoing research effort, please drop me a line:
Jethro Tull: A PASSION PLAY.
Barclay James Harvest: OCTOBERON.
ELP: LOVE BEACH, TARKUS (Rastro has convinced me I'm the problem with this 1, but I need another hearing 2 find out).
Renaissance: NOVELLA & AZURE D'OR.
Yes: TORMATO, TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS, RELAYER (just really angry noise, the last time I heard it).
Gentle Giant: GIANT FOR A DAY!
Fireballet: NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN & TWO TOO.
(Delayed due 2 rotten weather & weak Internet signals, but finally completed, put in2 English & posted on 31 March 11 at 3:30 pm....)