Classic Rock Review

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Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You (1970)


Well, it’s not as heavy as Black Sabbath, I’ll give you that. But it is pretty heavy and pretty gloomy.

It’s also the best Atomic Rooster album, most consistent and most idiosyncratic before Chris Farlowe came and turned the band into a heavy, but generic funky outfit. Here, though, the band is again a trio, with John Du Cann excepted as a full-time member and finally rising to Crane’s challenge in all his might. In fact, this just might be the most obvious example of a heavy rock album which is based on a direct and full-force competition between the organist and the guitarist – Deep Purple immediately spring to mind, but even that band wasn’t so obstinate about overshadowing each other all the time. Here, it’s just one mind-blowing guitar riff after another desperately trying to push out the organ, and one warp-speed organ solo after another desperately trying to overcome the guitar. All that in an atmosphere of peace and contention, tho’, and without any possible traces of too much show-off-ness.

So anyway, you can think of Death Walks Behind You as a sort of ‘Black Sabbath for the intellectuals’: subtler (the heaviness is not so acutely perceived because ultimately Du Cann’s guitar tone is lighter than Iommi’s), with less cliched lyrics, less straightforward instrumentation, a far more professional rhythm section (well, rhythm player, because there’s no bassist this time, and all the bass parts are played by Crane on his organ, who thus follows the Ray Manzarek pattern), and less emphasis on overtly ‘evil’ vocal intonations.

And the songs? They rule. Riff-based, solid, fat heavy monsters that are unfortunately a bit saddled down with monotonousness. Which is probably why it’s a low 12 for me as opposed to something like Deep Purple’s In Rock. The only ‘half-ballad’ of the album, ‘Nobody Else’, is nice-sounding, but not too memorable, because Crane isn’t particularly good at vocal hooks and when I want a crooner sitting at a piano, I’d better take Elton John. Everything else is the same heavy sludgy R-O-C-K; fortunately, at least Du Cann varies his guitar intonations from time to time and some of the songs are taken at different tempos.

The one acknowledged classic here is the title track. You like slow atmospheric ‘art-metal’ played at maximum loudness and slowly beating you into the ground with every following tact? The song’s for you, and if the opening chorus riff doesn’t do the trick, you may be sure that the gradual alternation of that riff with the speedy descending guitar lines of the verses will. The song doesn’t even seem overlong to me at its eight minutes: it’s one of the earliest and best British examples of Goth rock, doom-metal, whatever, done in an extremely artistically satisfactory way or whatever you’d like me to say. It might be just a tad slow for some, though. You speed it up a bit, then.

Likewise, a song like ‘Tomorrow Night’ is also essentially saved by Du Cann’s riffage, and it’s also maddeningly slow. I swear, a bit more speed and the thing’s an MC5 classic worth of Back In The USA! Sometimes I actually think that the old rough equation of slow = metal, fast = punk actually works. Maybe the best part about the song, though, is its fadeout, when Du Cann plays a series of weird echoey ‘scraping’ licks, some of which he probably learned from Ritchie Blackmore, but others remind me of trhe sounds that would later be copped by Brian May, then Dave Gilmour, then the Edge, then just about anybody. I tell you, there ain’t nothing more delightful than tracing something back to its roots!

Another absolute highlight, with some of the most aggressive guitar playing of the year 1970, is ‘Sleeping For Years’ – pay attention to the opening guitar barrage, which actually anticipates the frantic high-speed guitar posturing of the New Wave of British Metal a decade later. Only where bands like Judas Priest would make those finger-flashing guitar barrages the culmination of the song, Du Cann is probably well aware of how cheesy this stuff would have sounded at the center of the sound, and instead assigns it the function of ‘atmospheric introduction’, playing a far more restrained middle-song solo instead. It still rules. As does ‘I Can’t Take No More’ with its galloping rhythm that sounds tremendously familiar to me but I can’t remember where from (that’s what happens when you had a bit too much to listen to!), and the two instrumentals, particularly ‘Vug’ with one of the most fantastic speedy organ solos I’ve ever heard, maybe only beaten out by some Emerson and Jon Lord stuff on occasion. The second instrumental has a drum solo, so it can’t be perfect, but I guess when you’re dealing with that time period, the drum solo is a necessary evil you just have to learn to live with.

Anyway, the obligatory recommendation is that every respectable metal fan should track down this sucker. Dark, dreary and highly professional, this is the way you combine your artsy inclinations (there’s still a lot of jazz elements here, in particular) with a penchant for heaviness, not the Uriah Heep style crap when a bunch of stoned talentless amateurs decide they have enough guts to serve the High Purpose of Art when all they know is to pound out ‘energetic’ Jon Lord imitations over a two-chord riff. Heh, heh, gotta vent out some frustration.

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You | | Leave a comment