Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Art Of Noise Daft (1984)


Review With their combination of production wizardry, experimentalism and ability to make a hummable tune out of just about anything.

The Art Of Noise were as pretentious as their name suggests, but a whole lot more fun. This compilation takes in all the essential early stuff the group did on their original label ZTT – not only the whole of their first proper LP “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” but also the pick of their debut EP “Into Battle” and a couple of (excellent) 12″ mixes of the classic “Moments In Love”.

The Fairlight sampler was the group’s instrument of choice (indeed the Art Of Noise were one of the first groups to bring the sampler to public attention) and their use of “found sounds” is ingenious and often surprisingly danceable, particularly on the breakout hits “Close To The Edit” and “Moments In Love”.

The fact that the latter track has appeared on a million “moods”-type compilation albums is testament to its sheer loveliness, but it is all too easy to forget what a brilliantly-constructed piece of music, and of art, it really is.

Hearing it alongside a selection of The Art Of Noise’s other work gives a whole new perspective on it, and reminds you that there is an underlying sinister-ness to it, all clanking prison chains and insistent “now! now! now!” hectoring.

This combination of beauty and cruelty is a common Art Of Noise trick, employed to good effect on tracks like the atmospheric “Realisation” and military-themed “In The Army Now” and “A Time For Fear”. Even their catchiest moment, “Close To The Edit”, misquotes poet Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts From Abroad” in a distinctly unsettling way.

But lest anyone should think the Art Of Noise were all about darkness, it should be pointed out that there’s a lot of light here too – the joyful “Snapshot” (present in extended form) and the wonderful, endlessly inventive “Beatbox Diversion One” will put a smile on anyone’s face and a tapping in anyone’s feet.

On the down side, this material is nearly 20 years old now, and it shows. The experimental pop noise of yesteryear cannot be expected to still sound state-of-the-Art two decades on. Even so, it’s hard not to marvel at the imagination that went into this music. It may sound a little dated in the 21st century, but the beats still work, and when you hear “Daft” you know that what you’re getting is the true, original article.

Review There has never been another group like the Art of Noise, and all their best work is on this CD.

It includes the whole first album, with the original long versions of “Close To The Edit” and “Beatbox”, as well as the rare EP “Into Battle”, plus the lush remixes of “Moments In Love” that were originally released as a 12″ single. Sadly, the group rapidly went into artistic stagnation from the second album onwards (covering “Peter Gunn” was never going to rock the world), as they merely repeated their unique sound to less effect every time.

Even worse were the techno makeovers of their music in the 90’s, which bore no relation to the original style. Their remarkable and innovative genius is completely showcased in this must-have package.

Review This is an essential for the AoN fans of the older Zang Tumm Tumb days….it is actually a conglomeration of three records: Into Battle, Who’s Afraid, and the Moments In Love maxi-EP containing four versions of the fabled track.

I find it extremely convenient to have all these wonderful and timeless tracks on one CD, but I have one major quibble which prevents me from giving it all five stars: Why the absence of the original Beat Box? Since Into Battle is no longer available in the states, it is quite difficult to find the original version of Beat Box, and are left instead with the silly and long-winded “Diversion One” which is found on damn near every AoN compilation I’ve seen.

Luckily I have Into Battle on vinyl, but it would have been nice to have this one on digital. Overall, a must-have for the conniseur of fine electronic music and art-rock. The Art Of Noise meddle…the Art Of Noise bang and clang….. Between Jest And Earnest….between love and war….between now and then……Hummmmm along with the AoN!

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Art Of Noise Daft | | Leave a comment

Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells (1973)


I may not be breaking new ground in calling this one Mike’s finest hour, but I ain’t betraying the truth, either.

Some of the music on here may be familiar to those who have seen the 1973 creepy blockbuster The Exorcist; but as far as I know, Oldfield did not compose the music specially for the film, and the general impressions from listening to this don’t exactly coincide with the impressions one gets from watching a renown horror flick.

I do remember reading some reviews from a rather paranoid guy who was complaining about the music’s scariness; but as far as I see, the only “scary” moment on here is near the middle of side two, when Mike, apparently bored with the proceedings, suddenly begins to impersonate a werewolf (and does it pretty well, too – I wonder how he managed to do that low-pitched grrrowl?). But even that one’s not really scary – more parodic and childishly silly than anything else.

Anyway, if you don’t know it, Tubular Bells is a lengthy, two-side-long composition that is nevertheless not at all a clone of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. It is fully instrumental, apart from the werewolf imitation and a short bit at the end of side one which I’ll get around to in a minute, and it doesn’t really rely on the principles of musical dynamism; most of the themes are looping and repetitive, so that Tubular Bells have often been called one of the first ground breaking New Age releases.

“Proto-New-Age”, I think, would be a better term, not only because it precedes the whole movement by a good six or seven years, but also because there are certain differences. First of all, looping and “staticness” of music are not necessarily an exclusive New Age priority; New Age and “ambient” music are supposed to be nothing more than tasteful ‘aural wallpaper’, while Tubular Bells amount to a full-fledged composition (suite? symphony?), merging together jazz, folk, rock, pop and classical elements. No wonder it has been since redone in an orchestral arrangement – and could you imagine Brian Eno or any “ambient master” reinvent their vintage ambient works with an orchestra?

But enough with the terminology definition. The music on here rules. Not in a grandiose and cathartic way, of course – none of the parts move me to tears or anything – and some parts of this are actually rather self-indulgent (I mean, doesn’t it sometimes seem that Mike was simply so puffed up and proud of having the possibility to demonstrate his mastership over the 28 instruments he plays?), but both overall and in details, this is a pleasant listening experience.

It doesn’t carry you away to fantasy worlds, but it puts you in many different moods, and it’s diverse enough to guarantee a lack of boredom. Along the way, Mike adds some classical acoustic guitar parts; a couple harder-rocking sections with fat distorted guitars that do not at all sound tame; and a couple grotesque pop excursions – his werewolf howlings, for instance, are overdubbed on a catchy, bouncy, poppy melody.

The best parts, for me, are the side endings. Particularly the first side – Mike goes into a strange looping synth rhythm, and then, as he adds instrument over instrument in a grandiose build-up section, one of his assistants loudly announces: ‘grand piano’, ‘glockenspiel’, ‘base guitar’, ‘two slightly distorted guitars’, ‘Spanish guitar’, ‘mandolin’, etc., and ends it with a flourishing ‘Tubular Bells’! Maybe this is self-indulgent, but even without the voiceovers, I love the way the build-up is constructed – and the bells near the end crown it all off.

Oh, this is also the only section to feature some female backing voices, led by Mike’s sister, Sally. And as for the second side, after all the “pretentions” it suddenly ends in a lightweight, cheerful folkish jig – not with a tremendous power chord, or a grandiose orchestral climax, or a glorious panorama of Sounds of Nature: just a funny little jig. So much for pretentions.

If only the album featured a couple “heart breaking” passages or a couple places that would really “rock out”, the album would be enough to upgrade Mike to a higher section of the site; but still, with my expectations a little lowered, this is as perfect a piece of ‘proto-ambient’ music making as it ever gets. No wonder it shot to #1 in the UK, although it also plagued Mike’s further life – so much, in fact, that he even recorded two “sequels” to this album in the Nineties. Vastly inferior, of course, which is only natural.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells | | Leave a comment

The Alan Parsons Project I Robot (1977)


This is another one of those “win-or-lose” moments, but I’ll go ahead and say it: I Robot is a masterpiece, or at least, a near-masterpiece, because Alan Parsons is no Pete Townshend, after all.

But it’s not a masterpiece because of its “deep penetration inside the problem of relations between humanity and artificial intellect”, as some A.P. fans would probably so. It’s a masterpiece because it is – simply put – a great collection of catchy pop songs, interspersed with nice, soothing, clear ambient sonic pictures. It isn’t emotionally powerful a la DSOTM, and it isn’t weird or complex enough to be thrilling like some of the better Yes albums.

It’s just that I find something good, heartwarming, memorable and just plain positive in every track. No meaning, just fun. Somehow, though, in recent times it became trendy to bash this album – apparently, the year 1977 has become so tightly associated with the “punk revolution” that any kind of ‘pop’ album that seemed to ‘miss the boat’, no matter how good it was, like Steely Dan’s Aja, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, are bound to get bashed a lot. But these are all solid records, no matter which year they came out in, and so is I Robot.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take it track by track, then. The title track is a solid, if unspectacular, piece of “electronic funk”, possibly influenced by Kraftwerk, but far less minimalistic than whatever Ralf und Florian were doing at the time, so it might appeal a bit more to those who don’t like monotonous monotony. Then the dizzy poppishness starts. ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’ is funky as well, with Lenny Zakatek on vocals complaining about the, well, the robots, I guess (the title is supposed to mean that good as they are, I… well, whatever, why did I even start to explain that). Unbelievably catchy song, thrilling soft guitar solo, nice shuffling rhythms, expressive voice, what’s not to like? ‘Some Other Time’ follows; ballad mood now, with gentle acoustic rhythms, a haunting flute theme which is later reshaped as a synthesized horns theme – boy, is that time uprising, solemn and mystical.

Allan Clarke enters with a raunchier and sharper delivery on ‘Breakdown’: getting funky again, but in a different way, far more ‘robotic’ and ‘cold’ than on ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’, which is only natural, because the latter song is supposed to be sung from a “human human”‘s perspective, while ‘Breakdown’ is the complaint of a nearly robotized human being about his fate. I don’t want to say it’s a “rocker” or anything, because as soon as I say ‘it’s a rocker’, somebody is sure to say ‘what kind of a fuckin’ rocker is this if it doesn’t rock at all?’ and spoil all the picture. No, it hardly ‘rocks’, although it does amount to a crescendo, but it’s still impressive.

‘Don’t Let It Show’ is perhaps the album’s tackiest moment – a typical Seventies’ pathetic orchestrated ballad along the lines of Billy Joel, but pathetic orchestrated ballads are crappy when they substitute their pathos and orchestration for melodies, and this one doesn’t. Heck, I’ve heard David Bowie sing far worse ballads than this one (and on some of his better albums, too). The vocal melody can’t be beat: a couple listens and you’ll be humming ‘don’t let it, don’t let it show’ like mad.

‘The Voice’ comes in with gruffer, more dangerous overtones and funky wah-wah guitars again, but essentially it’s more of an atmospheric number, and it really works: put together a fat, ominously throbbing bassline, randomly spruced percussion effects, gloomy synth orchestrations, and isolated guitar runs, and you get an excellent musical landscape that actually could stand on its own against any kind of Floydian atmosphere.

The short proto-trip-hop instrumental ‘Nucleus’ ensues (which should be revered if only for the fact that it is proto-trip-hop – just listen to that beat, will ya?), and then goes into another, this time typically Floydish, ballad, ‘Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)’. Isn’t it funny that one of the songs on The Wall is entitled ‘The Show Must Go On’, and another of the songs begins with ‘day after day…’? And I’m serious about it: I don’t have the least doubt that Mr Waters spent quite a bit of time sucking in I Robot before laying down the basics for The Wall. I can’t prove it, but it’s a deep conviction inside me.

And finally, two more instrumentals end the record – the chaotic, apocalyptic ‘Total Eclipse’ (another DSOTM reference???), and the stately becalming pomposity of ‘Genesis Ch. I V. 32’. Don’t rush out to grab your copies of the Old Testament: Chapter One of Genesis has only 31 verse, so the title supposedly suggests some kind of ‘continuation of creation’, or just simply a hope for a new and better life.

A wonderful album indeed; this and Tales are proof enough that the songwriting duo of Parsons and Woolfson had a lot going for them and don’t deserve such a poor reputation. And as a minimum, my humble opinion is that every serious fan of Pink Floyd should buy a copy of I Robot. Unless, of course, your favourite Floyd member happens to be Dave Gilmour, in which case you should probably just buy a robot.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | The Alan Parsons Project I Robot | | Leave a comment

The Alan Parsons Project Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (1976)

The Alan Parsons Project - Tales Of Mystery And ImaginationFrom

If you ever doubted the crucial importance of Alan Parsons to the whole Dark Side Of The Moon shenanigan – or if you never knew who the guy was in the first place – take a listen to this.

Go ahead and try, it won’t bite you, even if it is a progressive rock album released in the same year with Ramones. All the lush, dreamy, otherworldly atmospheric elements of DSOTM are present, and the crystal clear sound quality – some of the best ever achieved by mankind before computerkind took over completely – is evident.

What Alan Parsons lacked the power to bring along, of course, were the musical talents of the Floydsters: neither the guitar pyrotechnics of Gilmour nor the songwriting skills of Waters. In that respect, the first of the Alan Parsons Projects certainly cannot be held in the same league as DSOTM. But there’s a time for “best” and then there’s a time for “good”, and of the record being “good” there is absolutely no doubt in this reviewer’s mind, especially upon comparing it with Alan Parsons’ late Seventies/early Eighties soft-synth-pop hits. That later epoch may have been spent under the mighty dollar sign, but in 1976, Alan Parsons was most definitely working for art, and he had plenty of vision to go along with it.

Either for the slow-witted or for the illiterate, or just because Alan and Eric Woolfson sort of felt like it, the album sports the subtitle Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed this is essentially an attempt at a musical interpretation for several of the writer’s tales/poems, which include well-known classics like ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ along with lesser things like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether’, and then culminates in a lengthy symphonic representation of ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’.

The idea might seem corny and pretentious, but, come to think of it, not more so than the idea of screening Edgar Poe or, in fact, any other writer. It’s simply that you don’t really mess around with the memory of a great artist unless you can come up with something at least almost as great as said artist could, and that’s not a very high probability, is it? Especially if you’re working within the “commercial prog-rock” formula of the mid-Sixties.

On the other hand, there is at least one obvious advantage to this kind of thing: by taking a great artist’s conceptual ideas and dressing them up in clothes of your own making, you can at least rest assured that, provided you have a clear understanding of these conceptual ideas, nobody will dismiss your work with an exclamation of “what a bunch of assholish nonsense!”. At worst, people will call you boring. Since few will have the gall – or the itch – to dismiss Edgar Poe, even fewer will have both to dismiss Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. So, despite coming out at a rather unhappy time for the art/prog rock genre, the album seems to have a moderately fair reputation with the critics. It also has a moderately fair reputation with me.

Since the Project was never all that stable apart from Parsons and Woolfson (in fact, this wasn’t even a proper band name in the beginning – it really was just an ‘Alan Parsons project’), I won’t be naming any individual players – let’s just mention that the instrumentation is very far from being limited to just Alan Parsons’ keyboards. There’s plenty of orchestration and horns, and quite a bit of acoustic and electric guitars where needed – there’s nothing overtly sickening or monotonous about the performances.

The vocal jobs are handed by Woolfson, John Miles and ex-Hollies member Terry Sylvester (Parsons seems to have a passion for early Sixties’ Britpop vocalists – another Hollies member, Alan Clarke, as well as ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Bluntstone would be frequent guests on his subsequent albums, much to their embellishment), and, apart from Arthur Brown’s screeching vocal parts on ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ which really belong in a separate category, the singing is excellent throughout.

What’s with the melodies, then? You know the style; the actual melodies, then, are not among the most memorable ever written, but when there are actual melodies, they’re definitely not worse than on an average Floyd album. The rendition of ‘The Raven’, today probably the best remembered tune on the album, is lush and energetic at the same time, alternating from quiet New Age-style panoramas to rockin’ outbursts in the chorus. The song never becomes boring – some of the vocals are electronically encoded, some are clear and gentle, and the Westminster City School Boys Choir comes in at times to add extra solemnity. Throw in a rampant guitar solo and a catchy chorus – if you ever wanted to know how you could bring extra catchiness to the “quoth the Raven ‘nevermore'” bit, here’s a good way to do it. Of course, I’m not sure myself whether Mr Poe would be happy with this interpretation, way too twentieth-century-like for his original vision. But so what?..

The other minor hit from the album (and yes, it actually boasted hits – UK audiences took to Parsons at once; then again, who knows, maybe if Dave Gilmour’s tailor took to performing, they’d push him up the charts as well) was ‘Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether’, and it’s pretty catchy. You know, I actually figure the main problem with this album is that too many melodies are set to the exact same loud, mid-tempo, 4/4 beat that you wouldn’t expect of a respectable prog rock band. But then again, it’s not all that different from Pink Floyd, is it? (And don’t you go reminding me about the 7/4 pattern of ‘Money’. It’s a good song, but it just screams ‘look at us! We can play 7/4!’ all over the place. It’s hardly like that elsewhere).

However, honour of best song goes to ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, and not just because of Arthur Brown’s suitably eccentric performance, but rather due to the song’s general eccentricity. It’s all over the place, part boogie, part heavy metal, part dreamy symphony, part orchestral rampage, and unlike ‘Doctor Tarr’, it isn’t just an immaculately glossy mid-tempo hard rock arena-friendly pigeonhole. Too unsettling for generic radio stations.

As for the ‘Fall Of House Of Usher’ symphony, it’s not particularly memorable, but I find it likeable all the same. It has an excellent progression, from the lengthy orchestrated intro (incorporating Tchaikovsky quotations, right?) to the moody organ-dominated ‘Arrival’ and the harpsichord-dominated ‘Pavane’ – see what I meant when I said the record never gets boring. I was kinda disappointed in ‘The Fall’, though: for such a climactic and shattering event, fifty seconds of orchestral crescendo seems a bit feeble for such a master of sound as Mr Parsons.

Then again, maybe it was specially meant to be that way – after all, remember that the protagonist only witnesses the actual downfall from afar and it doesn’t last all that long. And then we end up everything with a soothing Floyd-style ballad, ‘To One In Paradise’, written in the best traditions of British ‘dream-pop’, if you know what I mean.

In fact, I’m really amazed at how fine this record turned out to be: at the tail end of the ‘prog-rock rule’ years, Mr P actually managed to revitalize the genre by putting it into a ‘literary’ context, on one hand, and into an ‘electronically oriented’ context, on the other, never losing the sense of taste or an overall orientation on true enjoyability. Sure he had to sacrifice “liveliness” in the process, and invent his own brand of skilfully choked, robot-minded music, but these kinds of gruesome considerations really only apply for those who value a good blast of feedback over everything else. Those who like their stuff clean and neat will definitely take Tales Of Mystery And Imagination over Tales From Topographic Oceans any day.

PS. Slight technical fact – there actually exist two different versions of this album, the original one and the 1987 re-mix, which is the standard for today’s CDs and which is the one I have. The remix is said to be slightly different, with the addition of a few extra guitar and synthesizer parts; also, Orson Welles’ spoken introduction to the album isn’t present on the original. I can’t say which one is better, of course, because I haven’t heard the old version, so I’ll just stop here. ‘Fraid, though, that most of you will have to do with the remix.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | The Alan Parsons Project Tales Of Mystery And Imagination | | Leave a comment

Patti Smith Horses (1975)


It is only natural that the critics gushed all over Patti Smith’s debut – after all, weren’t these the same critics that gushed all over Trout Mask Replica six years before?

This is the exact female equivalent, except that the backing band isn’t specially trained to do the most unimaginable things possible. Patti does secure the services of a large and eccentric backing band, led by guitarist Lenny Kaye, the same one that’s responsible for the world being acquainted with Nuggets, however, these guys are more “normal” musicians, and the ‘music’ on Horses is somewhat more disciplined and somewhat more accessible than the mind-boggling dissonance of Captain Beefheart’s ‘masterpiece’.

But hey, is the truth really within these details? The essential thing is that Horses stimulates just as much unexplainable adoration AND just as much vicious hatred as Trout Mask Replica, which puts both in the “greatest mystifications in rock” ballpark, I guess.

No, the truth doesn’t even lie within our decision to count Horses as ‘punk’ or ‘not punk’. Of course, the album can be considered as ‘punk’ or ‘proto-punk’ only if you consider Captain Beefheart ‘punk’, i.e. if you divide all the music into ‘punk’ (= radical and defying tradition) and ‘anti-punk’ (= fake and illusionary, like progressive rock). But too many battles have already been fought over the term; so many, in fact, that it has already lost any possible sense. I’m not really gonna try it here. Yes, Patti Smith did have her beginnings at the CBGB scene, but heck, so did Blondie. Are Blondie punk? Aw fuck it. Lemme alone.

So what do we have here anyway? The truth is as follows. In the metaphorical and figurative sense, Horses have no melodies (like, say, Bruce Springsteen), but they’re kinda supposed to have no melodies (quite unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen). The backing band is competent, though, and the few guitar solos that accompany the beats can even be stunning – guitar wiz Tom Verlaine, later of Television fame, actually adds his own talents on one or two tracks, believe it or not.

Also, there are some deeply hidden vocal melodies on here, too: it’s not true that Patti never sings, or that she always sings offkey. ‘Redondo Beach’ and the climactic howls of ‘Gloria’ and ‘Land’ will prove you wrong, if you dare say that. But still, ‘melody’ is rather an exception on this album: unlike Dylan, Springsteen, or Leonard Cohen, Patti isn’t really pretending to be performing ‘music’. Her real idol is Jim Morrison, and not the poppy Jim Morrison of ‘People Are Strange’ fame, of course, but rather the rambling, prophetical Jim Morrison of ‘The End’ and ‘When The Music’s Over’.

Unfortunately, Patti never had even half of Jim’s talent, or, if you don’t like the word “talent”, say “a knack for converting one’s pretentious mysticism into accessible form” – and on Horses, it’s as evident as can be. First of all, her lyrics simply don’t make sense – any sense, that is. The lyrics sure sound dark and occasionally depressing (although I don’t really know if they’re supposed to be felt that way), but I have not the least idea of what is meant by the lengthy drones ‘Birdland’ and ‘Land’, for instance.

It sounds as if she’s just laying down some dream sequences on paper – dream sequences that have not the least importance to anybody. Second, the lyrics aren’t all that interesting in form, either – no clever wordgames, no weird epithets, nothing. And it goes without saying that there’s not even a single touch of humour on here. I’m not even going to give any quotes; there are no rational ways in which I could defend the lyrics. It’s simply a question of faith: if you want to believe in this stuff, please do so, but me, I’m outta here.

The saving grace, however, is that Patti is a true performer – it’s not the lyrics or the voice or the musical backing that matters, it’s the way that these lyrics are delivered to us. I mean, Patti could have been singing la-la-las for all I care; the important thing is the ‘aggressive crescendos’ that characterize most of the long songs on here. Beginning slowly and menacingly (like her take on Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’), they gradually pick up steam, with both the band and Patti launching themselves into all-out furious attack, and you can’t help but get involved until you’re so helpless you find yourself tapping your foot and shouting ‘go Johnny go, and do the watusi, and do the watusi!’ (‘Land’). Again, this is slightly reminiscent of the way Bruce Springsteen sometimes drags you in, but it’s even more fiery and even more uncompromised.

And thus, despite the fact that there are about two or three more or less accomplished songs on here (‘Redondo Beach’ – with unexpected reggae beats; the pretty closing pessimistic ballad ‘Elegie’), the rest of the performances go by without you actually noticing the time. That is, if you know what not to expect from this kind of stuff. After a few listens, the buildup on ‘Gloria’ really started dragging me in, and I don’t really give a damn about whether the song is about lesbian attraction or is just a spontaneous improvisation on the ‘Jesus died for somebody else’s sins but not mine’ line or is just a spontaneous improvisation around the Van Morrison chorus; I do give a damn about the fact that Patti turns this into a ferocious psychological (psychiatric?) drama in a way that no woman has ever dared before.

I’m also a big sucker for ‘Land’, and some of the short stuff on here (‘Free Money’ is a particular kicker, with the ‘we’ll dream it for free, free money, free money, free money…’ “chorus” as one of the bleakest, most desperate, and at the same time sceptically optimistic moments in Patti history); only the slower-moving ‘Birdland’ sounds like a possibility wasted despite the “guitar thunderstorm” played at the climactic moments against the main piano ‘non-riff’.

‘Defying dynamic nonsense’ – this is how I’d like to characterize the record, with equal emphasis on all the three points. As usual, this is the kind of album you’ll either love or hate, and normally I give these records a ‘medium’ rating. This is the case here. Cut out the hype and the historical importance: this is a great vocal-instrumental performance by an obviously inspired artist, no more and no less.
BUT! By no means follow the general critical advice about making this your first (and only?) Patti Smith purchase.

Only a completely snobby, boheme-drenched, pseudo-Artistic with a capital A kind of individual would fall in love (or, rather, pretend to fall in love) with Horses upon first listen without any preliminary preparation. Instead, save this for later – go along with the next three albums, all of which are much more accessible and yet equally true to the Horses spirit, and then come back to this “masterpiece” and tell me what you think.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Patti Smith Horses | | Leave a comment

The Nice The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack (1968)


Ooh yeah. As obscure as the Nice really are, they were a first-rate band – the best, actually, in that short-lived glorious epoch when progressive tendencies were not yet seen as a self-aim, but rather tried to be painlessly incorporated into the usual pop/rock trends.

Thus, this record tries to (and ultimately succeeds in) marrying Beatles-inspired pop to classical music, heavily borrowing from Jimi Hendrix on the way. I must confess that it took me a really long time to get into it, but it was worth the while – now I can’t seem to get the line ‘flower king of flies’ out of my head…

If you don’t know it (or, better still, if you haven’t yet read the intro paragraph), the Nice in 1968 consisted of Keith Emerson on keyboards, David O’List on guitar, Brian Davison on lead guitar and Lee Jackson on bass (if you’re puzzled about the italicized segments, you’d better check out your IQ). Like I said, these guys were keen on revolutionizing rock music, and in a certain way they did so, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this album, of course, if you were to omit the best song… but let’s deal with this in a correct manner.

If you hate ELP more than income tax and have made a solemn vow not to touch anything that bears the name of Emerson on it, you’re making a big mistake: this album sounds nothing like ELP. As I said, their biggest influence were still the Beatles, plus their guitarist was really a big fan of Jimi, adding ‘psychedelic’ and heavily distorted, rip-roaring leads everywhere. He hasn’t got the needed skill, of course, but there’s no way you could deny the professionalism, and the main riff of ‘Bonnie K’ is as good as anything Jimi ever penned in person (except for ‘Purple Haze’, of course, which is often correctly denoted as a song with one of the best riffs in rock).

Emerson himself hadn’t yet discovered his synths, chiefly because they still weren’t invented (or at least, went subject to mass production), and mostly sticks to piano and Hammond organ, and his mastery of everything that has got keys on top is already unsurpassed. The only big problem with the band is that they lacked a vocalist – bassist Lee Jackson was probably the closest to a ‘singing talent’ they could get, but he still couldn’t sing worth a damn.

The band, apparently, realized that as well, which is the reason for which his vocals are either drenched in harmonies and drowned in choruses (‘Flower King Of Flies’), or masked by some furious shouting and screaming (‘Bonnie K’), or distorted to the point of total neutralization (‘Tantalising Maggie’), or almost non-existent, being replaced by a chilly, creepy whisper (‘Dawn’), or, well, totally non-existent, like on the lengthy instrumentals ‘Rondo’ and ‘War And Peace’. The only tune, in fact, where he boldly steps up to the microphone, is the pompous title track, and while it’s not bad per se (actually, it’s a first-rate pop anthem), you sure wish they’d bothered to recruit a professional singer. They probably didn’t want to share the royalties that were rather scarce anyway. That’s the way it goes.

Still, this is not ELP, this is the Nice, and you shouldn’t go for vocals when you’re about this band. Instead, concentrate on the impressive songwriting – most of the songs are co-written by two or more members of the band, and they’re usually splendid. ‘Flower King Of Flies’ and the title track deceive you into thinking this is going to be a super-duper soft-pop record with elements of orchestration along the lines of Sgt Pepper, but as the crunchy riffwork of ‘Bonnie K’ steps in you’re left with a strong conviction that the guys can really rock. ‘Dawn’ shows the band as a spooky dark-psycho unit – there’s not much of a melody on here, but the atmosphere is really shuddering, if you only can get adjusted to that ominous, murky whispering.

‘Tantalising Maggie’ is a silly electrified country throwaway, and ‘The Cry Of Eugene’, a song that supposedly inspired Pink Floyd for their most famous song title, is a nice, although pointless and probably meaningless, ballad. That said, the record’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the nine-minute ‘Rondo’: this pseudo-classical piece that was later reworked on their third album under the title ‘Rondo ’69’ (also known as ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’) and stil later became a regular ELP live favourite, is simply breathtaking.

The big superstar of the composition is Keith, of course, who milks his Hammond to the extreme, culminating in a series of flashy riffs that are among his well-known (you know them too, don’t you? That ‘wheeeez – wheeeez – ta-ta-ta-ta-ta – wheeeez – wheeez…’, sorry, I’d give the chords if I knew them. However, O’List also shines here, adding some crisp, tasty leads, and asserting that this track, the longest on the album, never gets boring. Unfortunately, the other instrumental, ‘War And Peace’, is not that good, even if it has some more cool guitarwork, but it’s just not as memorable and next to ‘Rondo’ pales in its shadow.

My edition of the CD adds three bonus tracks culled from contemporary singles, one of which is rather throwaway (‘The Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’), but the other two are essential: ‘Azrael (Angel Of Death)’ is a gloomy, repetitive and slightly pompous march that foreshadows the later Nice, and their version of ‘America’ (nay, not the Simon song, but the adaptation from West Side Story) was also a landmark in prog history, although I confess that I find it more important from this historical point of view than from any other.

Still, it’s just me. I honestly recommend the album in its whole – the American bastard recording companies seem intent on never letting Nice material see the light of day, but search for it in the import bins if you’re rich or in the used bins if you’re poor. That way or the other, you might get lucky someday and have a chance to appreciate the band as well as me.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | The Nice The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack | | Leave a comment

Emerson Lake & Palmer 1st Album (1970)


Their first try, and everything works. And I do mean everything.

There’s not a single track on the album I’d call bad, and the only flaw I can think about is that on the second side the band slowly starts to run out of truly creative melodies; therefore, it tends to drag a little, with next to no lyrics and lots of instrumental noodling, culminating in a stupid Palmer drum solo (‘Tank’) which adds nothing to Baker’s legacy on ‘Toad’ or Nick Mason’s legacy on ‘The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party’.

Perhaps Palmer did bring the ‘technical’ side of drumming to its peak, but amazingly enough, you can’t really tell it from his solo which hardly sounds any different from the above-mentioned ones. Which, by the way, only emphasizes the point that a real good drummer can only be told by the way he holds up the rhythm, not by the way he showcases his soloing prowess – and my favourite drum solos are those that are actually rhythmic, like Bushy’s on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. Okay, enough digressing; a fact is a fact – ‘Tank’ is a clone of ‘Toad’, and not a very good one.

Another big space-holder on the second side is Emerson’s three-part suite ‘The Three Fates’; these can be slightly boring, too, especially if you’re not a great fan of church organ which is so prominent on that track. On the other hand, it’s at least cleverly and engagingly constructed: ‘Clotho’ corresponds to the church organ passage, ‘Lachesis’ is a solo piano part, and ‘Atropos’ is where the band finally joins in and “jams” for a bit. Fact is, I’ve heard much worse from these guys than this seven-minute mock-classical workout, and I’m not particularly offended.

Otherwise, though, they make the wise decision of relying entirely on Lake’s songwriting, and it’s a full blast. Having just contributed to King Crimson’s first and best album, Greg was obviously on a high note, because memorable, solid tunes, highlighted by his distinctive and super-powerful singing, abound. Er, well, there’s only three of them, to be more exact, but they’re so good that they certainly ‘abound’. ‘Take A Pebble’, my personal favourite from the album, might be bombastic, but you have to overcome yourself if you’re ever gonna stick to Lake – that’s his favourite cup of tea, you know.

His singing is simply terrific, with the final line of every verse building on the legacy of King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph’ and actually sounding even better; a grandiose theatrical number that’s certainly “fake” according to Old Man Rock’n’Rollah standards, but quite in the European opera/romance vein which said Old Man would probably despise in its entirety. Plus, the song’s twelve minute length is fully justified: they throw in a silly clap-along countryish acoustic guitar sequence, and Keith does a few nice piano solos which fit in perfectly with the mood before reverting to the grand melody that closes off the number.

Then there’s ‘Knife Edge’ – a creepy, scary little tune with Greg adopting an unusually ‘evil’ tune and Keith playing up to him. This one was always a live highlight and deservedly so, as it’s a great showcase for all the three band members and has something of an “arena-rock feel” to it, only more serious and gloomy than most arena-rock tunes. The basslines are killer. And finally, ‘Lucky Man’ is often regarded as the finest song they ever did (and it’s played on the radio quite often as well): acoustic guitar, beautiful singing, and a great synth solo towards the end. ‘Ooooooooh, what a lucky man he waaaaas’…

The medievalistic lyrics sound somewhat silly and primitive, but one has to keep in mind that (a) this was the first song ever written by Lake when he was still a young teenager and (b) it’s still miles better than contemporary Uriah Heep lyrics. At least these guys don’t sound like they’re taking the dungeons & dragons subject too seriously. And if there ever was a defining moment of ELP’s arrival on the rock scene on this record, it might as well be the ominous, mind-boggling swoop-swoops of the synthesizer in the ‘Lucky Man’ coda; while the Moog synth had already been explored by some performers, this is perhaps the most early “grandiose” use of the instrument as a true force in producing powerful keyboard solos.

In all, if you throw out the boring ‘Three Fates/Tank’ suite (or learn to appreciate it – whichever comes first), you’ll be probably left with some of the finest prog rock tunes ever written. See, they are pretentious, and if you’re desperately despising all that artsy, puffed-up stuff, you’ll probably be better off staying at a long distance from it. However, I really advise you to follow my example and try to like this album. I’ve always been thinking that overblown music might be forgiven on exactly one condition – the ambitions must be dutifully compensated with competent musicianship and song writing, and if they are, one might pardon even the uttermost insincerity and artificial character of the compositions.

This might be the best example of such an album: beautiful, moody keyboards, fluent and memorable guitar lines, immaculate drumming and above all Lake’s soaring vocals. Not that the vocals are necessary: ‘The Three Fates’ are indeed boring, but have I mentioned ‘Barbarian’? It’s a great album opener! The bass lines in the beginning sound as if they’re going to scare the very life out of you, and Keith is almost jumping out of his skin so as to interest you in his playing. Gimmicks? For certain. But they’re nice gimmicks, and they’re only punctuating the actual value of the songs. You know – the skeleton. The essence. The pith. The core. The heart, darn it!

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Emerson Lake & Palmer 1st Album | | Leave a comment