John Kenneth Wetton left us too soon, much too soon sadly, he never had the opportunity to grow old disgracefully or to see his grandchildren, leaving us on the 31st of January 2017 in what was a dreadful year for the passing of legends, with legendary musicians like Tom Petty, Gregg Allman and Alan Holdsworth also passing the same year. John, however, did leave us many years of his artistry and songwriting craft with many recordings to treasure and enjoy from his work with bands like Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, U.K., Wishbone Ash, Asia, Wetton/Downes and Icon, in between which he found time to carve out his own lower key solo career, during which period he made the albums this set covers.
This new boxset gathers together all of his six solo Albums from 1979 to 2016, a sixty-four page book and two discs of unreleased tracks or hard to find demo’s. This set concentrates on John’s solo work so, whilst it has a slew of contributors, you won’t find any songs from either his Icon or Asia years. What you do get is a comprehensive trawl through John’s imaginative and artfully crafted music and his strong songwriting and playing. Further sets are a possibility, although quite what form that would take is very much a case of wait and see.
The set begins with ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ from 1980 and is followed by ‘Battle Lines’ from 1994, ‘Arkangel’ from 1997, ‘Sinister’ from 2000, ‘Rock Of Faith’ from 2003 and ‘Raised In Captivity’ from 2011! The set also has 2 discs of unreleased tracks, mainly demos or alternative mixes and takes. So, although there is a lot for your money, as always the music is very mixed in styles and approaches and not everything may be to your tastes. There are progressive parts for sure, but its focus is on John’s compositional skills and how that translates into his songs.
Many folks may feel that his best work was in conjunction with various partners who helped him hit better heights, there is certainly nothing in here that moves in the same orbit of success that Heat Of The Moment or Don’t Cry did, for example. But it definitely must be said that John definitely sprinkled his magic over the recordings he made over the years and this set clearly shows that skill here. I would imagine that most folks know a little of John’s history and hopefully of his music too, making individual reviews of the albums superfluous really, instead, I will concentrate on the more obscure unreleased music in the main. John was certainly prolific in his writing, especially when you consider that he spent a large proportion of his life merely surviving his addictions and keeping his demons at bay.
He scaled the peaks and trawled the depths of addiction but still managed to be incredibly creative in his own right, he was a true professional musician who didn’t let his drinking affect his performance. His life is documented in part in the recent autobiography published after his death, in which his exploits are recounted. I’ve not read it myself but did hear Ken Hensley talk about how important John’s compositional talents were whilst making Uriah Heep’s ‘High And Mighty’ album, lots of his fellow bandmates speak positively about John’s talent and skills.
The two bonus discs contain thirty-nine tracks in total, mostly demos or sketches of ideas that never reached fruition somehow. It’s an eclectic mix of material from the atmospheric instrumental of AD2023 to the more AOR stylings of Raven. The memorable Walking On Air with its accapella opening dissolves into a more traditional form of songwriting, mostly acoustic but with great keyboard support to flesh out the sound convincingly. The ballad Straight From The Heart is a good song that plays to John’s strengths, especially his baritone voice that floats gracefully over the track. This could have been a good Asia song, it certainly fits the mould well enough. A fine take on Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower is a fine interpretation of a classic song, with Wetton’s clear vocal impressing greatly. Deya 1986 is, I believe, an instrumental written about his son Dylan. Again, this moody piece is good listening. Tears Of Rage would have made a good track for Icon, with its striking violin playing making a real mark.
Marianne is another power ballad that Wetton could write in his sleep, all earnest vocals and surges of restrained power chords hitting the mark. As the song builds in its intensity, its pacing is possibly too slow and would be improved with a more strident march or beat. Healer Of Shattered Hearts is another mid-tempo, atmospheric, track with a strong chorus that is most impressive. I’d Give It All For You opens with church organ (an arena that John knew well) and strong vocals, again this is very earnest and emotionally compellingly performed, making another fine track. Wings Of An Angel (Intro) leads into a track of the same name, another strong atmospheric emotional piece. All For One is another Asia style track with excellent vocals and a strong middle section. From a Distant Heart is an emotion laden tearjerker ballad of the sort that John did so many of, and did so well, giving a good vehicle for his spectacular voice. For me, Real World somehow doesn’t really work for me with its sampled voices of John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Far better is The Greatest Show On Earth with its great power chords, guitar solo and keyboard backing, this is an epic track. Adagietto is another quieter song, again very choral in tone, an atmospheric instrumental that’s very religious and the sort of thing you expect to hear in a mass. The Water Is Wide is a somewhat subdued folk type song, again this has definite religious overtones. I’m not sure if John had any religious convictions but he was a choir boy when young and grew up with a church background, so it seems something stuck there.
The second disc is also interesting, nineteen tracks on this one. It opens with Raised In Captivity which is a searching song asking questions of his growing up, it has a very 1980’s sound with a particularly effective drum beat throughout. The Other Guy (Second Best) is another unrequited love song/power ballad and would have been another good Asia track. I Will is another punchy track and, again, very 80’s sounding but a very memorable track. Bad Thing is another AOR type track with a good vocal and catchy chorus. Boys Of The Diamond City follows and is another AOR stomper with 80’s drums, a great vocal from John and a strong chorus. This would have made a great single for John or even Asia. Flesh and Blood is a further AOR number with a very 1980’s rock style production, think of John’s performances on ‘Phenomena II: Dream Runner’ for a comparison. Again, it’s good single material, maybe John should have released this after he left Asia first time around, with Geffen’s involvement he maybe could have had a higher profile solo career. It’s an absolute corker of a song, as is the next track Burn Your Name In My Heart, which would have been another contender for that imaginary unrealised Geffen album. Sex/Power/AndMoney could also be on that album, a very strong track. In fact this second disc of tracks could really be that unfulfilled album, as its all there in the first ten tracks, including a duet with an unnamed female vocalist that sounds really sweet.
So what I’m hearing here is the unrealised and unreleased John Wetton Geffen era album from the mid 1980’s which gives these songs a sense of direction and focus. After this we have several songs from the ‘Over The Top’ soundtrack that John both wrote for and sang on. The remaining tracks are in a similar vein, mid tempo AOR tracks, including Halfway To Heaven, another song for a soundtrack album. There are other gems scattered throughout the set but, for me, Disc 2 of the unreleased stuff really makes the set worthwhile and worthy of purchase.
So in all this is a really interesting set but possibly not for the casual listener, more for the fervent followers.
Released 24th November, 2023.
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