Classic Rock Review

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Wishbone Ash Argus (1972)


While the self-titled debut and Pilgrimage each contained some excellent songs and especially outstanding musicianship, they also suggested that the band could do even better if they turned their strengths into advantage and didn’t rely as much on the mid-tempo boogies many of their contemporaries focused on as well.

On Argus, they finally manage to fulfil the promise, leaving out the less interesting material almost altogether and doing what they were best at: combining lush English folk with melodic, guitar-dominated hard rock. Well, maybe ‘hard rock’ is a bit of an exaggeration, as they rarely turned in dirty or heavy performances like Led Zeppelin, but they had a twin guitar attack that must’ve influenced dozens and dozens of hard rock bands. Now that I mentioned Led Zeppelin… the people in that band were arguably even better musicians and (if they wanted) songwriters than those of Wishbone Ash. On top of that, they were also more eclectic, incorporating folk, hard rock, blues, pop, eastern-tinged stuff and funk in their music.

Yet, I do enjoy Argus as much as any Led Zeppelin album. It doesn’t contain a track as superbly well-crafted as “Stairway to Heaven,” one as hard-rocking as “Heartbreaker,” or as intense as “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” but it’s more consistent and smarter. Led Zeppelin was absolutely one of the best bands of its era – they had enough talent for three bands – but with that came also a talent for messiness and self-indulgence. Though it’s hard to make a case for the statement that any of their first three or four albums contains a truly bad song, there were always songs that didn’t manage to live up to the incredible high standard of the winners. Wishbone Ash didn’t have these extremes, and on Argus, you basically get one successful track after another, and while they’re not all stellar (“Blowin’ Free” employs that thumping mid-tempo boogie – but to fine results), they’re still quite amazing 32 years later.

With its peculiar cover (I’ve rarely seen one that fits the music it conceals this good) and lyrical stress on themes such as war and love and the place of mankind throughout the ages, it’s often regarded as progressive rock (a seven-song conceptual album! YEAH!), and while that’s not far-fetched, the band basically follows the course that was already hinted at before. The key elements – the folk-influence and the melodic nature of the songs and the playing – are intact and even highlighted. More than anything, this is an album for guitar aficionados (or basically, musicians) who’ll drool over the immaculately produced instrumental passages (and the liner notes tell you who’s playing which solo – nifty!) and interplay.

The album opens with delicate, acoustic finger-picking and harmonies that would’ve fit on, say, Led Zeppelin III, but after three minutes (yes, this song takes up nearly ten minutes of your precious time) develops into a swift rocker that’s lighter than anything Led Zeppelin ever did, and that’s also the biggest difference with most of their contemporaries. Even though they – like all hard rock bands – dug in the blues history for inspiration, they turned as much to folk. While most guitarists out there seemed to deliver variations on Clapton’s work with Cream, Turner and Powell – like Richard Thompson, for instance – nearly boasted as much virtuosity, but this was devoid of the overpowering dominance of the blues. Instead of the gut-targeting misery of the black music, they managed to infuse many of their songs with a more lyrical, ethereal style that almost seems the lush, direct opposite of raw and dirty emotion. “Leaf and Stream,” written by bass player Martin Turner is also an enchantingly gentle folk number, with lovely guitar parts and suitably fragile vocals.

These guys weren’t the greatest of vocalists, but their harmonies fit perfectly in the folk tradition and, come to think of it, these songs really wouldn’t have been any better if they’d been sung by a more powerful, “soulful” voice. These enigmatic slices evoke the moist dreariness of a desolate English landscape, and that’s why these wimpy voices are perfect. Anyway, there’s more great stuff to be found: “The King Will Come” with its rumbling rhythm, does a great job at creating the musical equivalent of its lyrical content (just like the ruffling drums rolls of “Throw Down the Sword”), the extended guitar solo of course being the icing on the cake, just like in “Warrior,” which contains some spectacular guitar playing during its first minute before growing into something more folk-oriented.

The album’s unquestionable highlight, however, is “Sometime World,” a simply beautiful song that contains some of the nicest melodies and guitar solos in ‘70s rock. Again, it starts of on a calm note, with a fluent key motif, before reaching a climax after two and a half minutes and then launching into a fantastic section containing a melodic bass solo, vocal harmonies and some of the most majestic solos Turner and Powell (or anyone else, for that matter) ever laid down, several minutes of sheer brilliance. Had the entire album been like this, it would’ve been one of the best albums I’d ever heard, now it’s “merely” the cherry on a delicious cake, an album that lives up to a promise and does so with style and grace, because if there’s one word that’s applied to this album at my place, it must be class.

Note: As a bonus, the remastered edition of Argus also includes the rare promotional EP Live from Memphis, which was recorded around the release date of the album, and contains three tracks that lengthen the album to 77 minutes: the boogie “Jail Bait” and “The Pilgrim” from their second album, as well as a mind-baffling, 17-minute version of the grandiose “Phoenix,” from their debut. Pretty essential.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Wishbone Ash Argus | | Leave a comment