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RED JASPER -
A Midsummer's Night Dream /
The Winter's Tale
S.I. 1993 /1994 /
Angel Air 2012

The Bard's classics as a framework for genuine Englishness to create a heavy, if enchanting, dilogy perfectly out of its time.

A few years before weaving folk threads around sharp riffs became a concept metal fashion, Wiltshire's RED JASPER were taking a JETHRO TULL template into the new era which required following their own roots down the years. That's how the band stumbled upon a Shakespearean idea as an axis for not one but two subsequent albums even though, what with the correct chronological order of the Poet's pieces, neither Oberon nor Florizel dwell there, and while there are two gentle, tune-sharing and scene-setting sonnets on "Midsummer" and one on "Winter", these are penned by the ensemble and each record is a well-rounded entity in its own blistering right. And still, it's difficult to separate them.

In stylistic terms, the songs are immaculate, traditional countryside joys of "Shepherd's Revels" and "Invitation To A Dance" seamlessly blending, thanks to the mandolins and whistles, with the infectious Morris and arresting balladry of majestic "Dreamscape" as well as with modern polish of hard rock that's the carcass of "Virtual Reality", present here also in live versions where Davey Dodds's voice demonstrate its full epic might. Robin Harrison's fingerwork is of similar proportions throughout yet there's a great attention to dynamics that run from a delicate caress to a weighty punch, all in the name of melody and the mood. Still, the second album which stretches its elegiac prog from "Overture" to "Underline" fall in the shadow of the first as, for all its beauty, the gloss of "The Shamen's Song" fail to rival the equally somber "Treasure Hunt" with its fantastic guitar solo and sparkling ensemble harmonies. By the same token, the rage "The Night Visitor" lacks a potential depth, whereas "Dark Room" and "The Scent Of Something" flow into the bland heavy domain, Lloyd George's symphonic efforts notwithstanding. But the theatrical "Bread & Circuses", spiked with Jonathan Thornton's bass, manages to unfurl to a wonderfully patinated gobelin.

Perhaps, in the end the concept has worn thin, and one record in this vein would have sufficed. Yet it's impossible not to admire such an undertaking in the shallow climate of '90s. The Bard would have liked it.

***** / ***
DECAMERON -
Mammoth Special
Mooncrest 1974 /
Esoteric 2012

Out of boundaries and farther from folk frontiers, the Boccaccio followers polish their act and change their tack.

One of those bands who married Californian harmonies to English countryside tunes, DECAMERON weren't too homespun-minded to stay in their niche and compete with the likes of MAGNA CARTA. Catalyzed by the appearance in their midst of a future Steve Hackett acolyte Dik Cadbury who anchored the group's sweet sound with his bass and also provided an array of guitars but didn't contribute much in terms of writing, founder members Johnny Coppin and Dave Bell set sails for more charts-oriented shores to come up with a set of memorable songs.

If closer "The Empty Spaces" reveals its wares in a maudlin way, "The Cheetah", arguably the best offering here, comes on smooth and bouncy and arrestingly, but things get mischievous when the band embark on a show-biz bashing rampage with a commercial, brass-splashed sound of "Glimpse Of Me" to sharpen their attack even more in "Breakdown Of The Song", its easy strum masking a manipulated musicians' moan. The title track may open the gates in acoustic vein where blues harp and fiddle circle peacefully, and BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD's "Rock & Roll Woman" stacks its tight a cappella harmonies high on a percussion streak, yet the Arcadian lull, inherited from the ensemble's debut and reinstated in the piano-laden doll-dance "Jan", is little by little penetrated by rocking. As for the mellow seriousness, "Late On Lady Day" breaks its baroque cold into the warm Renaissance grandiosity and orchestral sway of "Just Enough Like Home" plays a host to a bright six-string solo, while ""Parade" and The Stonehouse" is folk rock at its dynamic best. So much for jocularity.

This pleasant yet uneven record didn't bring DECAMERON the success it was intended for but showed the players endless possibilities... which would become the band's undoing.

***4/5
GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS -
20 Year Anniversary Album - 1982
Deb 1982 /
Angel Air 2012

A Liverpudlian hero marks his two decades in the business with a high-spirited covers set that adds nothing to his legend.

When THE BEATLES refused to put out "How Do You Do It" to miss out on a guaranteed chart-topper in favor of their own creation the hit was passed on to their fellow-townsmen headed by Gerry Marsden which speaks volume of THE PACEMAKERS' originality and determination. And even though they set a record with making their first three '45s Number Ones, this band's second-rateness kept them on the ground. Not that it mattered for Marsden who presented his home turf with two anthems, the communal "Ferry 'Cross The Mercy" and the sporting "You'll Never Walk Alone". The latter, a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, opens this collection whose 20 tracks celebrate Gerry's 20 years as a star and, as he's unlikely to record the whopping 50 songs in 2012, it's as good overview of that couple decades as it gets.

All Marsden's successes are here, recut under the guidance of songwriter and producer David Martin who presented Gerry and his wife (they're still together) with his own sweet confection "Oh My Love" yet chose to add saccharine to other songs that suits the veteran's voice well. That is, until the singer ventures out into bluesy territory of "House Of Rising Sun", entirely devoid of pain here just like "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" gets stripped of its perennial enigma in favor of melodramatic twang, while a Lennon-McCartney giveaway "World Without Love" comes sharp and clear to stand out among the rest. On the other hand, while reggae wrapper strangles "The Story Of My life" a disco glitz works wonders for another Bacharach and David staple, "Magic Moments", but the real magic is conjured on the haut-couture PACEMAKERS ballad "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" which wins, hands down, over the omnipresent "Unchained Melody".

Had Gerry Marsden shaped it all in the mold of the boisterous "I'm The One", given a boogie piano now, his return to these chestnuts would have fared better. As it is, the question in the Liverpudlian's take on "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" could as well be addressed to himself.

**1/2
ROBERT WYATT -
The End Of An Ear
CBS 1970 /
Esoteric 2012

Dedicated to those who were listening - and playing: a shimmering solo foray of the peculiar artist.

Those who count out Robert Wyatt's individual milestones from 1974's "Rock Bottom" are right to some extent but, though the artist might have hit one when he fell out of a window, Wyatt had tried a personal path four years earlier with this album. Recorded with an elite Canterbury posse while still in SOFT MACHINE - the tenure at the brink of its tether as the titular pun suggests - it's not a song-based effort Robert's fans could expect. And his colleagues, too: disillusioned with the band situation where art rock assault of other combatants was murdering his tunes, and even "Moon In June" didn't sit comfortably with them. Cue a foggy, exquisitely English atmosphere of the drummer's solo debut: hazy, jazzy and intimate in its pieces' dedication to such fellow journeymen as Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen.

The only cut to break this mold is a sprawling cover of Gil Evans' "Las Vegas Tango" that bookends "The End" and takes almost a half of it to submerge the listener in Robert's illusory world where processed splinters of wordless vocals, sometimes in percussive guise, float amidst his sparse piano and free-form drum patterns which make a weird, if fascinating, kaleidoscopic whole. It gets intense, brighter and fuller in the closing part as a contrast to the multi-layered gauze of "To Carla, Marsha and Caroline (For Making Everything Beautifuller)" - destined to turn into "Instant Pussy" on Wyatt's next endeavor, MATCHING MOLE's debut - but endlessly more elusive in its original version. As far as women are concerned, "To Saintly Bridget" hosts a whistle over Neville Whitehead's bass sway, while "To Mark Everywhere" chugs in chops providing a canvas for the dual shine of Mark Charig's cornet and Elton Dean's saxello. On the other end of the spectrum, the metronomic beat of "To Caravan and Brother Jim" welcomes David Sinclair's elegiac organ as a springboard for aleatoric improvisations courtesy of Mark Ellidge's keys, and in the anxious mist "To Nick Everyone" shadows lurk of many a bebop giant rendered cool by Wyatt's idiosyncratic touch, quite otherworldly in the phased drops of "To the Old World".

Robert Wyatt would return to this old world of his band for one more album. Then, the new era began which, without a vent of "An Ear", could have been shaped rather differently.

***2/3
ROY YOUNG -
Rock 'Em
1959-1962:
Complete Singles Collection
Angel Air 2012

A forgotten page of British rock 'n' roll is reinstated where its due. Blighty boogie-woogie can't get better than that.

Once, when Roy Young was hammering his piano and hollering with all his might at the Star-Club stage in Hamburg, Little Richard came up to say how much like him the Englishman sounded. As far as accolades go you couldn't beat that one but, while then, in 1962, the great future was predicted for the countrified Cockney, the youngster would go to work with the likes David Bowie and Cliff Bennett, and his 3-year run of impressive 45s had ran out. That's where this collection, accentuating Roy's rise to Angel Air's previous overview, ends.

The end is just the beginning, though, as the last three cuts including lyrical boogie "I'm In Love" are penned by the artist himself, yet the start comes truly rip-roaring - with atomic live takes of "She Said Yeah" and "I Go Ape" to the accompaniment of the frenzied crowd yells. At the same time Roy's bold enough to bare his romantic underbelly on "Late Last Evening" and "I Hardly Know Me" where his voice reveals all its emotional and diapasonal depth. For all the jive of bonuses such as "Keep A-Knockin'" or the artist's own yelper "Big Fat Mama", the most infectious romps on offer arguably are "You Were Meant For Me" and "Gilee" which make it clear why Brian Epstein thought Young could blend in with his contract-searching moptop charges. Roy Young preferred to plough his individual furrow, and the history unjustly forgot the man who's still at it. Time to put him up there with the best of 'em.

****
JIM CAPALDI -
The Sweet Smell Of... Success
Carrere 1980 /
Esoteric 2012

Back to the skins, Mr. Fantasy adjusts his beat to the march of times.

In 1980, when he returned to the UK after prolonged stay in Brazil, Jim Capaldi found a musical barren land with glacial surface and a disco roll. The change in the landscape might have fascinated the TRAFFIC man and prompted him to inhabit a drum stool again: an early pioneer of world beats, Jim seemed to find a certain pleasure in this new rhythmic simplicity. A full circle feeling finds a vent on a gentle Steve Winwood co-write "Going Home" which rounds off this album but getting into it requires some effort, its opening cuts for all their breeziness are regular dancefloor fodder, and even Mel Collins' sax sounds cheesy on "Hold On To Your Love", never near what his flute conjures on a fantastic remake of Capaldi's old band's "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys". Now an exquisite, almost baroque ballad rather than an erstwhile groover, it serves as a thematic bridge from the acoustically-lined electric jive of the title track to the dramatic, yet soulful, buzz of "Fortune And Fame" that blinds with Pete Bonas' guitar bullets.

Right in the context lies majestic, big-hearted balladry in "Every Man Must March To The Beat Of His Own Drum" that's in equal parts personal and universal, vocal harmonies and Harry Robinson's strings fleshing out Chris Parren's stately piano to state the primacy of individual path over self-indulgence - again. Such way is in the heart of bossa nova "Man With No Country", easy-on-the-ear but heavy in its questing subject, while the excess blows up the funky "Bathroom Jane", an indecently long, muscular B-side, a bonus here alongside a few out-takes including the warm, autumnal "I Was Meant For You", and three gems recorded in Brazil on a Walkman, just Jim and his guitar, among these a tremulous tango "Kiss" stripping Capaldi's soul to its essence. That's where his sweet success, finely encapsulated on this album, belonged.

****
FUZZY DUCK -
Fuzzy Duck
MAM 1971 /
Esoteric 2012

Does he quack? Yes, and there are much more fabulous sounds on a record whose quality matches its rarity.

Being progressive doesn't imply a "start-and-stop" approach but that's how it went for this English band that cut a sole LP that in pre-digital era could set you back a fortune but make you one of those fortunate enough to hear it, not only own it. Formed by experienced musicians who'd graduate later to greater ranks, their joint album is a fine example of organ-dominated heavy rock which could challenge the likes of URIAH HEEP yet hadn't appropriate backing and infectious tunes to compete. Thus, on "Mrs. Prout" their instrumental prowess is in full swing, and it could be a live killer, while as a song per se it fails to register, as does less serious single "Just Look Around You" where keyboardist Roy Sharland's classical bent pops up.

The quartet tried rather hard to sculpt a hit, although everything here sounds effortless, the riffy playfulness smeared all over "More Than I Am" that proudly rolls its panache before delegating the weight to bluesy "Country Boy" that grows into an artsy, lightning-stricken tapestry of grand ambition. Still, "Time Will Be Your Doctor" was brought by drummer Paul Francis from his previous fold, TUCKY BUZZARD, for FUZZY DUCK to upgrade and open the record with: it's a perfect salvo - funky, frisky, demonstrating the relentless fingerwork of ex-ANDROMEDA bassist Mick Hawksworth - if ultimately underground due to simple vocal melody which pales in comparison to Graham White's guitar vignettes. His acoustic strum adds contrast to the monolithic "In Our Time" wherein percussion pitch an impressive drama, yet it's another axeman, Garth Watt-Roy, who colors a brace of bonus '45s of wonderful sway, but even the soulfully rocking "One More Hour" or "Big Brass Band", with its real glorious brass, failed to make a splash. This new direction pointed to a bright future the quackers didn't have. A pity.

****1/3
BILL NELSON -
Practically Wired
All Saints 1995 /
Cocteau Discs 2012

Subtitled, "Or How I Became Guitar Boy ", the BE-BOP DELUXE stringer's mostly instrumental album casts a glance back to play a pocket symphony.

Being a painter as well as musician, Bill Nelson know all the power of an aural picture yet the veteran takes an abstract approach too often. "Practically Wired", though, has a theme to it as these 14 pieces, composed on the fly in a studio, see him go down the memory lane in a sort of radio program that is announced in the sharp riff mash of "Roses And Rocket Ships" to be channeled later on in the energetic rock collage "Royal Ghosts". Scattered among them is a string of bluesy cuts such as the heavy beats-bearing "Big Noise In Twangtown", while the other facet of the guitarist's talent which is highlighted here is his way with fusion in the likes of glimmering "Pink Buddha Blues". The latter is haunted with the same vocal ghost as the tellingly titled, Satie-styled "Piano 45" from where guitar is banned for good. Keyboards also play a prominent role in the light of "Every Moment Infinite" and "Spinning Planet", behind the muscular twang which carries the polyrhythmic groove, whereas from the prog-country well of "Wild Blue Cycle" rainbow harmonies are pulled out to shine in the air. But the album's zenith comes with the bright Oriental painting of "Friends From Heaven" only to stress all the eclecticism of this record - strangely satisfying, though, it is.

***
PETE BARDENS -
Heart To Heart
Arista 1979 /
Esoteric 2012

A dromedary rider resumes his individual trek towards a hazy vision.

Those who, on hearing that Peter Barderns left CAMEL once "Breathless" came out in 1978, hoped the keyboardist would go the grand Rick Wakeman way were - just like those who counted on the maestro's reconnection to his rhythm-and-blues roots - in for a surprise when, following his stint with Van Morrison and having stolen drummer Peter Van Hooke from The Man, Pete went back to solo career with "Heart To Heart". Its impressive, progressive title track aside, Bardens' third album under his own, now shortened, name is rather a continuation of the ivory-operator's fusion-leaning self-titled record than multicolored "The Answer", but such slant chimed in nicely with its era as translucent, laid-back mid-tempo songs like "Slow Motion" or "Julia" were all the rage then. If only there was any rage on this LP...

Working mostly on synthesizers, Bardens' piano manifests his delicate side in the humble optimism of "Raining All Over The World" but his former colleague Mel Collins' saxes pour much more mood into the least tranquil cut, the frivolous boogie "Doing The Crab", and in the jazzy, pace-gaining stroll of "After Dark". It's there that Pete's organ finally stands tall to pick up Gus Isidore's guitar gauntlet, but this kind of tension is in rare supply here. Disappointed with the band he left, the master didn't take his chances with freedom.

***1/4
ARGENT -
All Together Now
Epic 1972 /
Esoteric 2012

Betting on the luck of three, ZOMBIES' ivories driver tightens the reins and wins.

Three years into their existence, Rod Argent's band seemed to be gaining no momentum charts-wise until their third LP changed their status once and for all. The paradox is, their finest hour came not via Russ Ballard's pop nous that would bring the guitarist an envious string of covers later, but thanks to the leader exerting his creative authority. From the get-go it's obvious that this is the keyboard player's record, and if the 13-minute close "Pure Love" dies on the vine when Argent's mighty fugue makes room for Ballard's acid guitar blues, which would have been nice in 1969 not in 1972, the riff of opener "Hold Your Head Up" rendered it a heavy hit. Its single version lacked the considered Bach-chanalia of organ workout in the middle, yet the classical bent created only a dark lining for a fine collections of rockers that includes the smiley piano-driven boogie of "He's A Dynamo" and "Keep On Rollin'".

The ensemble's progressive depth fathomed with the rousing bluesy storm that is "I Am The Dance Of Ages", its chorus alone worth the price of admission to the eye of hurricane, the hardest hitting piece of the puzzle fits in with the punchy funk of "Tragedy" which demonstrates the quartet's soulful underbelly and the tight groove of Jim Rodford and Bob Henrit's rhythm team. Still, it's "Be My Lover, Be My Friend" that houses the perfect marriage of baroque jive and Philly glitz and wraps it all in a finely tuned catchiness, while the bonus "Closer To Heaven" taking the communal message of the album to the pop waters with much panache. A bit loose but pleasant work.

***2/3
TROY DONOCKLEY -
Messages
Gonzo 2011

Celtic pied piper calls his tunes and leads us to reason and realms of heavenly beauty.

His discography credits abound, Troy Donockley's most merited stripes are for making Uilleann pipes a rock instrument. In Donockley's hands, its melodious drones run from English folk avatar Maddy Prior through Roy Harper and STATUS QUO to Finnish metallers NIGHTWISH, but in between the many sessions the master cut three highly rated solo albums the best moments of which are gathered here. Their span is fantastic in both scope and delivery. If a new, previously unreleased cut "For Him Who Will Never Return" sees his weapons, two sets of pipes actually, sing a heartbreaking traditional dirge largely on their own, "Finlandia", a string quartet-elevated Sibelius piece from 1998 debut "The Unseen Stream", shows Troy's deft skills as arranger. Yet the genuine depth is revealed in Joanne Hogg-led choral of "Fragment", as well as in another freshly sculpted swell, "Dunmail Rising", where the solemn vocalise paves the road for the electronically shimmering dance of pipes and fiddle.

All of the strains combine in immaculate way for "Orkahaugr" off 2009's "The Madness of Crowds" in which Troy weaves a lace with his acoustic guitars and strikes it with whistles before the epic unfurls all its cinematic vistas and welcomes heavy guitar riffs into its ever-expanding fold. And while the trance-like folksy moment jitters in the light of "Tunnels", it's in the title track of 2003's "The Pursuit of Illusion" that Donockley's soft voice joins Hogg's crystalline flight to soar on a transparent orchestral cloud to celestial heights and bring the paradise closer to the crowds.

*****
TANGERINE DREAM -
Le Parc
Jive 1985 /
Reactive 2012

Blue Years blooming, the disintegrating troika go around the world for a set of aural landscape paintings.

Mid-'80s saw a rift in the DREAM ranks: Johannes Schmoelling wasn't too happy with the band's direction in the plastic era, while Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke too often found themselves working separately, as opposed to sharing a studio space. The Kosmische space had also been brought to Earth with a series of soundtracks albums so, soon after their Polish adventure, the trio wrapped their global trot in "Le Parc", a set of short, purely new age pieces, each depicting one of world's most famous recreation zones. Commercially a flop as were similar works by Rick Wakeman, the album's streamline title track encapsulates an LA buzz nicely enough (ever more so in its 12" mix, a bonus here) to have become a theme for American TV series "Street Hawk", but there are plenty a pleasant moment on display.

Naturally, the steepest heights are scaled in the enchanting, almost acoustic panorama of "Yellowstone Park" where Clare Torry sends her voice to the pine tops to eclipse her erstwhile skylarking with PINK FLOYD, yet the urban glimmer of vivacious "Hyde Park" or "Bois de Boulogne" is alluring as well, romantic melodies running under synth riffs and dance beats. "Tiergarten", though, brings on a different kind of lyricism as the place it paints was at the time close to The Wall, the other side of which the band saw with their own eyes. The more diluted a tune gets despite all effects the more superficial flow cuts like "Gaudi Park" that has nothing Catalan in its crunch, unlike the sparse, sensual "Zen Garden" that comes full of Kyoto's scent and Katja Brauneis' spiritual soprano. The result is diverse, a tasty diversion from the band's regular epics - and an ecology-minded precursor to "Green Desert".

***1/3
MERRELL FANKHAUSER -
The Best Of
Gonzo 2011

A riveting celebration of the cult hero's 50-year career. Surprises are abound.

A footnote name in the history of rock 'n' roll, Merrell Fankhauser's been fighting obscurity by delivering quality tunes since the early '60s, and these 32 selections from his catalogue might be a revelation to many who know the veteran only by THE IMPACTS' 1962 surf hit "Wipe Out". Its sad absence from "The Best Of" which takes off in 1963 and lands in 2011 is more than compensated with songs Merrell laid down in his first decade with two other bands, THE EXILES and HMS BOUNTY, the former's innocent "Too Many Heartbreaks" connecting nicely with 2011's "Tiki Lounge", a theme from Fankhauser's TV show, and the latter's "Drivin' Sideways On A One-Way Street" a fizzling slab of an acid-drenched psychedelia. Its echo permeates 1983's "Waterfall" that floats on John Cipollina's magical guitar, but come the '70s, Merrell's partner in crime was Captain Beefheart's erstwhile cohort Jeff Cotton, and the pair's MU project spread their wings on the grittier side of twang.

There, "One More Day" packs pessimism in bright panache and "The Land Of MU" weaves a folk tapestry from electric threads while solo, to the time's dictum, Fankhauser slides into commercial waters. Yet whereas the orchestral splash of the raga-tinctured "Make A Joyful Noise" and the space effects-laden celestial skank of "Calling From A Star" that features Herman Hermit Peter Noone are nice, some of the tracks sound dated now, "Alien Talk" and "Goin' South" dancing the cheapest way. The spiritual disco "Dharmic Connection" and the riffs of "Matthew's Dream" feel irresistible: Fankhauser's patented groove is intact throughout, it borders on prog rock in "Flying To Machu Picchu", rolls a blues into "Tale Of Misty Mountain" driven with SPIRIT's Ed Cassidy's drums and takes a lyrical turn in "Queen MU" colored with Nicky Hopkins' romantic piano. A highly charged instrumental "Surfin' Pismo", one of the previously unreleased cuts here, closes the circle and proves the fire in Merrell still burns wild. A footnote, then? The whole chapter!

***1/3
JIM CAPALDI -
Whale Meat Again
Island 1974 /
Esoteric 2012

The subject matter getting heavier, the music getting thinner as the TRAFFIC warden embarks on a personal crusade.

1974 saw the end of the band that Jim Capaldi steered to the crest of the wave but, sad as it was, the drummer felt ready to strike on his own terms. Following the template of his debut, "Oh How We Danced", Capaldi engaged the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and some of his friends for another set of sessions in Alabama, yet this time the erstwhile sense of wonder evaporated and the autumnal kind of feeling set in. Thus, the psychedelic spin in the heart of "Summer Is Fading", colored with Steve Winwood's organ and acoustic groove, celebrates the Indian sort of love season, and the 7-minute soulful ballad "Yellow Sun" is far removed in its tired country flow from the wide-eyed innocence of "Paper Sun": rapture seems to be changing into rupture now.

The album closes with Jim's tongue-in-cheek take on Vera Lynn's perennial "We'll Meet Again" that, at the start, he, a master of oxymoron, seriously parodies in the bespoke titular brass-beaten blues to bemoan the worsening ecology to Pete Carr's six-string lament. Strangely, unlike on the politically charged, ebullient "Tricky Dicky Rides Again", a bonus single bearing the sting of Paul Kossoff's guitar, Capaldi does so in John Lennon's riotous manner here and in the Philly glitter of "My Brother". But when he inhabits his own rebellious terrain in the tellingly titled "Low Rider", there's no adventure in the rather leveled funky tale that only Jean Roussel's clavinet and Harry Robinson's string arrangement save from testing the listener's patience, and even the handclappin'-footstompin' "I've Got So Much Lovin'" slightly overstays its warm welcome. Still, the record packs a pull in a peculiar Capaldi way and is impossible not to cherish.

***1/2
MATCHING MOLE -
Matching Mole's Little Red Record -
Expanded Edition
CBS 1972 /
Esoteric 2012

The second, and last, effort from the Canterbury supergroup that still feels contemporary in its loose array of ideas.

For all his desire to be creative in a band situation, MATCHING MOLE's self-titled debut comprised primarily Robert Wyatt's songs so, when the time came ro follow it up some months later, he not only engaged Robert Fripp as a producer but also gave freer reins to the rest of the players - while remaining the main force to which their second album's Mao-derived title refers. Wyatt's imaginative drums are more prominent now and the overall ensemble's work is smoother, its downside being lesser originality and greater quotient of fusion: this change is heard on the second track, the intensive "Marchides", that, together with sparse closer, "Smoke Signal", had been well tasted on the road, as the live concert here and on the expanded "Matching Mole" demonstrates.

This time synthesizers manned by Dave MacRae who replaced David Sinclair full-time challenge Phil Miller's guitar for freeform twine where melodies play hide-and-seek with ever-mutating groove closer to the RETURN TO FOREVER than Kentish sonic mold. Brian Eno adds shimmer to ease "Gloria Gloom" in and out of focus, in which Wyatt gets back to childish songs, and Robert excels in elevating the delicate, acoustic "God Song" to heavens. Yet - save for these and the faux nursery rhymes of "Righteous Rhumba" that allow Bill MacCormick bomp his bass before unleashing it to the electric funk of "Brandy As In Benji" - whatever vocal lines are there, in "Nan True's Hole" or "Starting In The Middle Of The Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away", they take an idiosyncratic back seat behind the relentless, if always pellucid, soloing. The release comes with the light "Flora Fidgit" that lacks a six-string which embellished its earlier takes as one of the bonus cuts suggests.

But it would prove to be the final work of this wonderful quartet, as Wyatt decided he wasn't cut for leading role and went solo. Later, the others, eager to deliver, convinced him to take MOLE to the light again but, set to try, Robert took his fateful freefall and the band took their place in history.

***4/5
DECAMERON -
Say Hello To The Band
Mercury 1973 /
Esoteric 2012

Honeyed wonders out Gloucestershire plague the folk rock scene for good and plough it in style.

Of many an English homespun group bitten by a West Coast bug, only a few didn't succumb to their native rain-mindedness but glorified the sunshine that makes a foggy day in Blighty a miracle. One of those rare ensembles were DECAMERON, a collective whose force lay in their four-part vocal harmonies wrapped in silky acoustics yet, fortunately, lacking the CSNY's laid-back sound. Birthed in an art college, the quartet produced four albums, this being their first and, arguably, most interesting for its songs of innocence and experience.

Thus, the title track circles the main writers Dave Bell and Johnny Coppin's voices in a country way and poises the drift between BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD and early FAIRPORT CONVENTION, the rhythm section being Sandy Denny's sidemen Pat McDonald and Timi Donald, while the dryer "Byard's Leap" paints the witch-haunted picture on a 7-minute medieval canvas wherein the golden thread is Al Fenn's guitar and mandolin, with Geoff March's cello for a silver lining. After that, a deluge of delights where the plaintive Gothic "The Moon In 'A'" rides its harmonica-paved road into the hazy sunset and single "Stoat's Grope" gallops joyfully to a village fair. Elsewhere, the celestial, transparent, almost chamber "Innocent Sylvester Prime" rubs its fringed shoulders with the playful "Judith" which gets spiced with violin and BJ Cole's dobro, and "Ride A Lame Pony" spins the band's own tale into a glimmering Sunday cloth.

DECAMERON deserved their place in the Pantheon of British folk-rockers - the band's B-side "Friday Night At The Regal", a bonus here, is a bridge between "Meet On The Ledge" and "Fog On The Tyne" - and, recently, the band's legend started to rise anew, the process to which this reissue contributes immensely. Long overdue!

****
TANGERINE DREAM -
Pergamon
Amiga 1980 /
Reactive 2012

Also known as "Quichotte", a historical document of the most influential band from West Germany's stint behind the Wall. Some glory!

It's easy to imagine the East Berliners' excitement at the prospect of having the first Western band play in their communist-ruled country: with majority of tickets given to the party suits, two concerts performed by the DREAM on January 31st, 1980 at Palast der Republik were sold out in five minutes. Because it was all about feeling a rock freedom, the electronic savants veered away from their regular computer-minded framework onto the more human pastures with this two-part suite originally issued only in GDR. Titled "Quichotte" after the Don Quixote movie which was screened at the nearby cinema, it might as well be an aural version of the Cervantes classic as the trio, exchanging experimentalism for new age, fill the space with romanticism, desolation and (treadmill) revolution here.

Johannes Schmoelling who joined shortly before the gig needn't have to worry about his readiness to work on such a large scale, as his reverberating piano lines set the melancholy scene in a classical, Rachmaninoff-inspired way before the synthesizers provide a scintillating background to the melody and gradually bring their own slant to it. A transparent kind of progressive rock which emerges once Edgar Froese's keyboards step in is infused with folk motifs that conjure up a troubled Arcadia, its electro-lining as light as Jean Michel Jarre's opuses. Christopher Franke's percussion adds drama to the flow and quicken its pace, yet the vibrant cosmic domain the ensemble enter toward the end of "Part One" to touch on white noise and celestial organ opens the door into more traditional DREAM territory, until Froese's fantastic guitar introduces a genuine, so rare for this group, rock 'n' roll element - and another dimension - to the ever-expanding piece that gets sharper and sharper. When the ivories are pushed again, the result is a state of emotional equilibrium which makes "Pergamon" one of the German ensemble's most rewarding works.

****1/2
TODD RUNDGREN'S UTOPIA -
Disco Jets
Crown 2001 /
Esoteric 2012

The Hermit of Mink Hollow's humorous anabasis from 1976 gets a proper release it's always deserved. But it's a mind's dance rather than a footy one.

Back in the mid-'70s, Todd had so many ideas that even two parallel careers - as a solo artist and a leader of UTOPIA - failed to provide an outlet big enough to channel them all. 1976's "Faithful", credited to Rundgren, was a strange creation, the artist reproducing his fave hits on one side and stuffing the other with his own songs, but when it came to following up his band's self-titled debut album such an approach would kill their initial intent to deliver a highbrow progressive rock. A decade later, going pop became a viable option yet "Disco Jets" saw the light of day, in limited run, much later, having spent 25 years in archives. Remarkably, the record didn't lose its allure even now, even though the events it was inspired by - a new dance groove, USA's 200th anniversary, obsession with space programs - aren't actual no more. The music still is.

Its pull is rooted in both the humor and a brilliant delivery which align this album with Zappa's instrumental oeuvre, never more obvious than on the cover of Rick Derringer's "Time Warp" that Todd's axe cuts in unison with Roger Powell's keyboards in a fusion fashion. Save for the quartet's groovy interpretation of the "Star Trek" theme, there's no pure example of the titular style from the FX-laden synthetic glide and tentative vocals of the title track on to the guitar singing "Star-Spangled Banner" on "Spirit Of '76". Whereas "Ra" that would come out in 1977 rests on grand concepts, here the flow is light but tight be it in the jazzy "Space War", the most memorable piece on offer, with John Siegler's adventurous bass holding fort alongside melodic top-liners, or "Space Convoy", a dialogue-sprinkled soundtrack to the imaginary animated film.

Free of the erstwhile misconceptions about what a Rundgren album should be like (if rules are applicable to his work at all), "Disco Jets" could have been a chart contender but then, it wouldn't be as fresh today, many journeys later.

****1/3
RED JASPER -
Sting In The Tale
HTD 1990 /
Angel Air 2012

Back in the action after 13 years in limbo, and with a new album in the can, the Wiltshire bunch track their past with a reissue programme, starting at square one.

There's only one common letter in "punk" and "prog" yet it also opens the word "push" as in "push the envelope". And that was exactly what this English band did through the '90s or at least on their debut that's permeated with rebellious spirit and combines scornful attack with a reverence to Celtic tradition. The grand opener "Faceless People" might be too theatrical to fully register, what with Davey Dodds' stentorian yelp, but it sets the vibrant sonic canvas whereon Dave Clifford's drums provide the thunder for Robin Harrison's guitar lightning to strike, and puts all the band's strains to the fore. On the base of sneery common denominator, from there beam "I Can Hew" and "Magpie", in which an a cappella harmonic prayer rides the bass line into the battle march that keeps an eye on JETHRO TULL, as well as reckless "Guy Fawkes" that bears a RAMONES' stamp on its pulsing palm.

In places, FAIRPORTS' Ric Sanders gives the results an air an authenticity with his fiddle's diddle, yet elsewhere, the sax-oiled "Company Director" posits its critique much seriously, revealing all the depth of JASPER's psyche, as does the funereal march of "Second Coming", sprinkled with mandolin and whistles. Still, it's the EP track "Englandís Green And Pleasant Land", one of the bonuses here, that provides the ensemble with an epic, while "Flagpole" is a "Sting In The Tale" in miniature. The bigger they get the better, though, and that's a blistering start of a rise.

****
DAVID BEDFORD -
Star's End
Virgin 1974 /
Esoteric 2012

An academician companion to the stars takes a stellar trip of his own making - commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic and joined by Mike Oldfield.

From CAMEL to MADNESS, David Bedford wrote orchestrations for the best British rockers and played in Kevin Ayers' band but, in his eyes, it was symphonic serving pop, and the composer strove to turn the tide. His chance came in 1974 when, having elevated Mike Oldfield's "Hergest Ridge" to the skies, Bedford switched from John Peel's Dandelion to Virgin and asked the "Tubular Bells" master to help him cut through the atmosphere to deliver a piece for the orchestra, an Asimov-inspired "Star's End", packed in two parts to fit an LP. The grand concept turned out rather strange as the music takes palpable shape only when the electric guitar leads the cosmic way, while the string's fare feels too nebulous. Still, the journey's enjoyable.

In its core, David Bedford placed a symphonic fantasy laid out in the vein of musical avant-garde typical for the 20th century's second half. Here, he's taking further Xenakis' experiments with sonorous orchestral sound closer to the electronic realm which, in its turn, enters traditional polyphonic texture. As the piece progresses, classical instruments mimic synthetic creations, so the aleatoric with its ostinato rhythms smoothly gives way to almost hard rock riffs and then to more conventional tonal flow colored by prominent melody. The second half is starker and sparser than the first, yet somehow warmer, as the woodwind dominates the drift, whereas the start of "Star's End" nicely illustrates the chaos that entropy brings. Still, the brass-led dramatic dynamics little by little unfurl into broader strokes of strings and guitar and bass chords that engage in a short but alluring dialogue: it keeps on intensifying until the thunder strikes and more pastoral grace pacifies the solar wind. That's where the abstract forms a clear picture, Oldfield steering a blissed-out course trough space and time to pick his way along the stormy strings after the break, but once HENRY COW's Chris Cutler's percussion spices the flight an alchemical marriage of all the elements gets the nearest - and remains elusive even when the electric wave swells up and falls leaving only stardust in its wake.

Not a classic by any means, "Star's End" is an interesting curio with a stronger pull for the prog fans rather than symphonic circles. Sadly, David Bedford passed away a few months prior to his opus reissue.

***
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