Review – Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975 – by JohnWenlock-Smith

I reviewed a live Baker Gurvitz Army release last year and raved about just how good a unit the band were as evidenced on that great live set. So imagine the joy I felt when I heard that a box set of hitherto unreleased recordings and 2 DVD’s of the band live, including an expanded version of their live set for the German TV show Musikladen, a live Old Grey Whistle Test session and a BBC Radio In Concert show was to be released in January 2024.

Sheer musical heaven for me as a long time admirer of the band, a band that I first heard in 1974 or 75, I can’t remember which exactly, I have loved the band ever since. I immediately made contact to secure this for myself and today it arrived and is every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. Parts of this set I already have, including a Video CD (remember those ill fated release’s in the early to mid 1980s?). Well, this is a proper version of that recording. Also here is an updated and expanded version of their ‘Live at Kings Hall, Derby’ CD from the early 2000’s, again with two extra tracks. As always on these sets, there is a degree of repetition but having it all in one tidy little box with great sleeve notes is fabulous

Once again, you can appreciate the strength and sheer power of the band as a unit, a five piece with Ginger Baker on drums, ex-Seventh Wave man Peter Lemer on keyboards, Paul Purvitz on bass and ex-Sharks vocalist Steve Parsons (A.K A Mr Snips) whose vocals allow Adrian Gurvitz room to play some very tasty lead guitar throughout.

For me, it is the opportunity to actually see and experience the band in my own front room that is the treat here and it is great to finally to be able to do this some nearly fifty years on from their short tenure as a band. I was too young to actually go to see these for myself, even though they played at Birmingham Town Hall in 1976. I do wish I had taken that opportunity back in the day, I’m sure I would have been blown away by them live. Instead this live footage is definitely an acceptable alternative and one I can repeat whenever I want to.

Despite several tracks being duplicated across the five discs (3CD’s and 2 DVD’s), there is sufficient variation in the different versions to still be of interest, especially for a fan boy like me! As always, great care has been taken with the sound, remastered to a very high standard by Ben Wiseman at Broadlake Studios in Hertfordshire.

The band are all on very good form on all of the recordings and it is wonderful to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris again introducing the band. Visually their stage setup is pretty standard, drums at the rear with keyboards to the left, bass front left, guitarist stage right and vocalist to the centre and together the five people on stage recreate their albums to perfection and even allow for extended takes of certain songs, all of which adds to the excitement and the atmosphere that the band generate.

For those fortunate enough to have been at any of these shows they certainly were treated to a highly impressive set of music and, remastered it all sounds great with no drop outs at all. Which, for recordings as old as these are, is remarkable and definitely captures a band on the rise, Sadly, as we now know, the death of their manager in a light aeroplane crash over Scotland was a blow from which the group never recovered and so it all fell apart. Baker went back to playing polo again, whilst the Gurvitz brothers teamed up with Moody Blues’ drummer Graeme Edge for his two solo albums and a string of live shows. Steve Parsons released a solo single and got involved with some punk and new wave projects but nothing that made any huge impact, he later revived The Sharks band and continued to make music once more.

Fate has derailed many a promising career, and she certainly did that here, the rifts were never healed and the band split up never to return! With Baker’s death in 2019 that dream died with him. It was a terrible loss to the world of music, however, thanks to the diligence of Esoteric, once again the Baker Gurvitz Army can March forward for a whole new raft of listeners to discover their unique and often different style of heavy rock for themselves.

For those who know of this fine band this set is a treasure trove of delights, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.

Released 26th January, 2024.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975, 3CD/2DVD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Anthony Phillips – Slow Dance 2CD Jewel Case Edition – by John Wenlock-Smith

Anthony Phillips is the forgotten former member of Genesis who was there at the beginning but due to his extreme fear of being on stage, quit the band after the ‘Trespass’ album, leaving the door open for a certain young Steve Hackett, whose story is widely known.

Anthony is not the first musician to quit or to struggle with stage fright as many others, like Eddie Van Halen and Ozzy Osborne have also suffered through its clutches. Andy Partridge of XTC is also a fellow sufferer, although that is more with anxiety though but still, it is similar in nature and has an a debilitating effect. Many others also are affected, more than you would imagine really. Anthony simply wasn’t able to function in this realm and he decided to leave the group he had helped found and devote himself to a more classical direction, he was also a qualified music teacher for a while and he also studied orchestration.

All of which leads me to this newly remastered and extended version of his 1990 album ‘Slow Dance’ which is heavily classically influenced and gives rein to his wonderfully inventive playing and orchestrations. There is more than a hint of 1977’s ‘The Geese And The Ghost’ album which has a similar style.

Whilst I am not a classical buff by any means, other than the basics and well known classics, I find there is much to appreciate in this fine reissue. I think of it more as a tone poem or score and as such, it is definitely a case of repeated listening to get the subtle moments of brilliance that are on display here. The main album is in 2 parts, although the extra tracks on the second CD are also interesting, mainly being edited portions of the entire main album.

I actually prefer Slow Dance Part One for some reason, I especially like the repeated gentle motif that reappears throughout the piece. This music is gentle, delicate and beautifully crafted, when you read in the accompanying booklet of the trials and tribulations that had to be stared down to enable its completion, you will, like me, no doubt be in awe of both the vision and commitment employed whilst making this album come to life. It really is a sumptuous piece of music, uplifting and life affirming in equal measure. It is a triumph of talent, perseverance and, above all, a towering testament to the grace and beauty of the music it contains.

Did I mention that it is totally instrumental? That said there is a wealth of creativity here. Slow Dance Part One is of twenty four minutes duration whilst Slow Dance Part Two is twenty six and a half minutes in length and has more orchestrations, strings and synths than part one does. The synths are all very 1980’s in tone and, whilst good, sound slightly dated in parts. I also feel that part two lacks the same emotional depth as part one, although that may be my perception having heard part one more than part two.

Let’s explore each part in greater depth shall we?

Part One begins with washes of synthesisers laying down a great sound and setting the stage for a delicate acoustic guitar motif that will be repeated at frequent intervals. The synths swell again before a fingerprinted guitar line is played and the opening melody is played on synths. I really like the gentleness of this pastoral sounding section, it is very satisfying to hear such gracious and gentle tones amidst all the synthesised backing. A stronger note then ushers in an almost pizzicato played part along with woodwind and a chopsticks sounding piano section that returns to the main melody played once again. Lush strings return to the chopsticks sounding part and a clarinet leads to orchestrations. There is then a sectionis reminiscent of the main theme of ‘The Geese And The Ghost’ album as it has a similar sound to it, not identical but definitely similar in sound. We then enter a section of syncopated percussion elements which is very effective, after which we return to the main theme once again. The final section of part one is a keyboard along with a drum machine playing and whilst it doesn’t affect the quality, it does date the music to the era in which it was recorded, this piece then ends with a few more syncopated piano notes.

Part Two is decidedly different and more keyboard focused with the major portion being concerned with keyboard orchestrations, there are less guitar parts in this as a result, although this does give the whole piece room to evolve naturally, again the drum machine plays its part in keeping the pace of the piece. As we get further in a sequenced section begins with woodwind playing alongside it most effectively, the theme from part one reappearing in a slightly different form. The vast orchestrations are introduced to the sound interspersed with the sequenced section and a harder section with guitar fills is added but soon gives way to the orchestrations once again. This is where I feel the piece lacks a little focus and is merely using synthesisers to swell the sound without much substance. The sequenced part returns with string flourishes which actually sounds really good, although a bit like 1980’s Tangerine Dream in places. After this section ends we return to the main theme through sweeping strings and synth orchestrations, I’m hearing the open sweeping soundscapes of ‘Stratosfear’ by Tangerine Dream once again but this proceeds at a stately pace. It is all very epic and measured, the final section returns to little piano and keyboard runs to good effect. Part Two ends on gentle notes before fading away in the distance with a final play of the central melody.

In summary a most interesting but, possibly for most, not essential release with a great booklet explains the background to the album. I am very glad to have heard this for myself as I really enjoyed it even it lies outside of my normal listening material.

Released 26th January, 2024.

Order from Cherry red Records here:

Anthony Phillips: Slow Dance, 2CD Jewel Case Edition – Cherry Red Records

Review – John Wetton – An Extraordinary Life – by John Wenlock-Smith

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.

Order from Cherry Red here:

John Wetton: An Extraordinary Life, 8CD 12”x12” Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Gamma: What’s Gone Is Gone, Complete Elektra Recordings 1979-1982 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Last year Cherry Red released a ‘Complete Montrose Recordings’ boxset over 6 CD’s with various single edits and two live studio recordings. After four albums with Montrose between 1973 and 1977, plus a solo album in 1978, Ronnie Montrose formed Gamma with Davey Pattison in 1979. So, in the same tradition, comes this 3 CD boxset of the three Gamma albums made for Elektra before Ronnie Montrose called time on the band, (they did return for a fourth outing in 2000 with ‘Gamma 4’, not included here sadly, nor is there the live album that is currently about from a show in Denver in 1979 when the band were promoting their debut album). 

What is here is good, although the booklet is a little light in background information, somehow it merely reproduces the various album artworks and details the musicians playing. The music is, however, truly sensational, I bought the first few Gamma albums on vinyl and thoroughly loved them, especially the first and third. For some reason. I never really clicked with ‘Gamma 2’ but certainly do within this boxset, the album being a revelation here, sounding crisp and punchy and rocks like a b*****d!

Gamma existed at a time when rock music was undergoing a dramatic remaking. After punk had done its thing, and before the 80’s got into gear, there was a new wave of rock music emerging on American radio rock, with the likes of Bon Jovi poised to change the airwaves considerably. That process was already happening with the likes of Foreigner and Boston taking over the airwaves. 

Gamma were Ronnie Montrose’s own attempt to gain some commercial foothold and offered music that easy on the ear but still had an edge to it. Much of this came about because of his joining up with Glaswegian born Davey Pattison, who had relocated to Los Angeles to further his own career after a sojourn with Robin Trower. He was noticed by Ronnie and invited to join the project that became Gamma

‘Gamma 1’ was released in 1979, Pattison’s muscular vocals giving restrained power to tracks like Thunder And Lightning and the awesome epic Fight To The Finish, alongside the twisted tale of streetlights in Razor King, a song possibly inspired by the Glasgow Pattinson had left behind, and a freak instrumental in Solar Heat. There was also the distinctly poppy I’m Alive that, despite its lightweight nature and it vocoder vocals, pummelled along at a cracking pace. 

Pattison reveals himself to be a fine vocalist who has a great tone to his voice. Ronnie Montrose is very active on guitar throughout with punchy rhythm and fills galore. Razor King is a dark tale of violence and some nefarious behaviour, again this song has lot of guitars in it, it is a good track with a great guitar break from Ronnie that powers it along, especially when the guitars compliment Davey’s vocals. Ready For Action is a solid rocker with atmosphere and muscle, the production is busy and bustling with space for great dynamics and muscular bass from Alan Fitzgerald, another ex Montrose member and, once again, Pattison is in fine voice throughout. There is then a bluesy take on Wish I Was by Mackey Newbury and the final track is the brooding, sprawling epic Fight To The Finish which is full of energy and fire along with an epic guitar solo from Ronnie that peaks and the peaks again. It is a marvellous track that was always a favourite of mine back in the day and rounds out what is a varied yet consistent album, as does the second solo that draws the song to a close, a truly great song.

‘Gamma 2’ came out in 1980 and, straight from the off, it is a harder sounding album, still with lots of keyboard embellishments but also with muscular guitar work, Mean Streak being a particularly powerful opener. Again, Pattison is on cracking form, the months spent touring had definitely helped his vocal prowess develop even further. Here he is confident and assertive, with his voice soaring and floating over everything easily and gracefully and commanding respect in the process. The material he is working with is equally assured and the guitar work is fluid and powerful while also melodic and memorable to boot. Overall it makes for a winning combination. 

Dirty City is another gritty number with a strong chorus and excellent keyboard textures that turn into a driving beat amid the lyrics of streetlights tales and the dirt of it all and another blistering solo makes the track fly. Voyager is different again, having, as it does, more of a blues shuffle feel to it. This allows room for lots of blues fills as the song details the loneliness of an astronaut away from earth for a long time. This, of course, was around the time of the initial space shuttle launches when space travel was a distinct possibility once more. The song is hinged on a walking bass line that rumbles throughout in a great manner, it is a great performance that really impresses. I used to have this album on vinyl but never really took to it as well as the debut. Well, the intervening 42 years have now revealed this to be a really strong record, one that has power, muscle, attitude and brawn in spades and makes for a really enjoyable and rewarding listening experience.  

Cat On A Leash is the first sign of a track that promises but somehow fails to deliver, although the closing moments have a spark of life to them. Skin And Bone has beef and brawn to it. Great keyboard textures and more moody bass lines, with Ronnie’s sustained guitar lines, sound very effective indeed. The synth keyboard solo is a bit twee really but it is of its time and doesn’t distract to much. When the power chords charge in the song moves style and impresses greatly. A superb solo closes out the track well leading us into the riffing opening chords of Mayday, an instrumental opening section that Gamma do so well, with fiery guitar before Davey’s strong vocals begin, it closes the album in good form. 

‘Gamma 3’ come out in 1982 and, this time around, there was more emphasis on keyboard textures and sounds. Although the guitar is still present, it plays a less upfront role, with the fireworks largely saved for solo sections. The sound is a lot more radio friendly and focused, although the solo on opener What’s Gone Is Gone is glorious, as is the long sustained note like in Don’t Fear The Reaper, both most impressive indeed.  The album is a lot lighter in tone as a result, although there are undercurrents of power in play. Gamma we’re after a more commercial sound, one that would raise their stature beyond that of a perennial opening act, indeed I saw the band open for Foreigner in Birmingham on the ‘Tooth And Nail’ tour where they were fantastic. Sadly the change of approach failed to deliver any significant benefits with the result that Ronnie Montrose lost interest and split the band up to make more instrumental guitar albums.   

The rest of ‘Gamma 3’ is all fairly lightweight, electronic new age pop music with only occasional moments of merit. It’s a pity that the band went off on a tangent that didn’t really work for them for, while Stranger is a solid instrumental, what we really want are more rocky vocal tracks. Still, you can’t have them all I guess?

The boxset is good but a bit of a missed opportunity really as, without ‘Gamma 4’, it feels incomplete but certainly of interest, if only for ‘Gamma 1’ and ‘Gamma 2’, both of which are excellent.

Released 30th June, 2023.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Gamma: What’s Gone Is Gone, Complete Elektra Recordings 1979-1982, 3CD Boxset – Cherry Red Records

Review – Cairo – Nemesis

Cairo, the genre-defying project founded by the multi-talented Rob Cottingham return with the stylish ‘Nemesis’, and album that taps into contemporary global concerns and demonstrates the band’s impressive, genre-defying approach with menacing, angular riffs, pop rock hooks and electronic soundscapes that all beautifully complement powerful and emotive vocals.

Recorded with John Mitchell at Outhouse Studios, this release ventures into familiar ‘CAIRO rocks’ territory with the dynamic, moving epics. There are also some exciting departures for the band venturing into more melodic rock areas and even a short keys-based orchestral instrumental which doffs a cap to the likes of the sadly, recently departed Vangelis, and acts as a prologue into the title track.

The opening two tracks are firmly in the ‘hard rock meets prog’ arena. Asleep At The Wheel and Tripwire both major on crunching guitar riffs from the talented James Hards and thunderous drumming from the energetic Graham Brown. The dynamic and elegant bass playing of Paul Stocker keeps things on the right course and the flourishes are added by Rob’s excellent keyboards. Add into this the charismatic vocals from Sarah Bayley and you have two songs that will satisfy ardent hard rock and prog metal fans anywhere.

There’s a complete musical u-turn with the beautiful Glow where Sarah’s haunting vocal takes centre stage, this girl certainly has a wide range to her voice and it’s delicate, almost fragile, timbre here is a joy to behold. Everything goes all melodic rock when the guitar chimes in, reminding you of prime 80’s Heart, especially when Rob’s spiralling keyboards fire up. It really is a fantastic piece of music. Rogue has an energetic opening and proves to be an upbeat and uplifting slice of pop/rock and the balladic The Love is an elegant, wistful track that bleeds a melancholic grace, simply divine.

The epic New Beauty is an utterly captivating and involving seven minutes plus of progressive tinged rock pomp and splendour that beguiles and entertains in equal measure and continues to showcase the vocal talents of the wonderful Sarah Bayley who, surrounded by these prodigiously talented musicians, elevates this album to another level. Deja Vu is a winsome three minutes of refined music where Sarah and Rob deliver a wonderful vocal duet, one that lingers long in the mind. The 80’s return on the fantastic Jumping On The Moon, a proper ‘banger’ that flies along at a hectic pace and drags you along happily in its wake.

The orchestral wonder of Save The Earth always has a portentous note of warning in the background, the sophisticated music delivering an enlightened message and is a perfect foil and prologue to the final, title, track Nemesis. The longest track on the album is also my favourite, which is saying a lot with the calibre of songs on offer. A proper Cairo epic and one that stops you in your tracks, the polished, restrained introduction then sees Rob’s calm vocals delivering an important message. This is pop edged hard rock at its best, the delightful music ebbing and flowing with the mood and the vocal harmonies between Rob and Sarah are just superb. Add in a wonderfully uplifting guitar solo from James and you have a fantastic close to a sensational album.

Cairo seem to have found their niche with the elegant, epic pop and prog infused hard rock that they deliver. This is sophisticated, elegant and polished music and ‘Nemesis’ showcases a band at a creative peak. Simply a superb release and one that you really should buy…

Released 5th May, 2023.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Cairo: Nemesis, CD Edition – Cherry Red Records

Review – King’s X – In The New Age – The Atlantic Recordings 1988-1995 – by John Wenlock-Smith

King’s X first came to my attention through an article in Kerrang, of which I was a regular reader, they certainly sounded intriguing. This was proven when I found a promo copy of their debut album ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ in a local record store, well it was actually a tiny shop tucked in a very narrow street, Swordfish in Needless Alley in Birmingham City centre. Neither of these exist there now and have been replaced by another shopping mall. Swordfish relocated, as I discovered last year, and is still an interesting place to visit. 

Back to King’s X , this set is a collection of their first six albums for Atlantic, ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’, ‘Gretchen Goes To Nebraska’, ‘Faith Hope Love’ , ‘King’s X’, ‘Dogman’ and ‘Ear Candy’, along with a whole slew of single versions and live tracks that complete the package. There is also a tasteful and informative booklet that gives more information about the band and the history surrounding these albums. 

The music is, in the main, sensational, although I do feel that the band made a misstep with the overly grungy ‘Dogman’, an album that disappointed me greatly upon its release, time to see how I feel about it twenty-plus years later… 

The debut and sophomore releases albums both sound excellent and prove that this group had value and that they could deliver live on stage, as was proven when I saw them at Nottingham Rock City in the early 1990’s. They were crafting a different sound, one in which melody and harmony were met with real crunch and power to make something special. The distinctly Beatles influence in the harmonies and voices made for a very unusual sound and one that really worked, along with the fiery and often psychedelic guitar of Ty Tabor and the solid whump of Doug Pinnick’s muscular bass driving the music forwards, this was a new style of rock, a very impressive one too! ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ contained some great songs like Goldilox, which has great vocals and great guitar tones and solos. This was 1988, to be fair, but listening again thirty-four years on you can still sense the sheer brilliance and innovation the group offered the casual rock fan. Unsurprisingly the U.K. took them to their hearts and, whilst they may not have become huge, they certainly garnered much acclaim. 

Even better was their sophomore album, ‘Gretchen Goes To Nebraska’, which carried the style further, marrying crunching guitar and multi-part harmonies in a truly exciting amalgam, as displayed on the blistering rocker Over My Head and the gorgeous Summerland, both of which had the magic combination. Also of note is the funky take Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something, which is another fiery performance. Over all of this you hear all sorts of influences, apart from the Beatles you can detect the funkiness of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix like guitar virtuosity and James Brown, to name but a few. There are also delicate acoustic parts like in The Difference (In the Garden of St. Anne’s-On-The- Hill) that allow this band to make one of the outstanding albums of the late 80’s and one that still impresses today. 

King’s X continued by making the third excellent album in three years with ‘Faith Hope Love’ in 1990. Opening with the strong, stirring We Are Finding Who We Are to kick things off in style. Doug Pinnick’s bass and vocal really drive this track along, the Beatlesesque It’s Love follows with its blend of vocal harmonies melded to a solid riff. I have to say this album has its moments but is not a strong as the previous two, maybe they were running out of ideas or the touring had taken its toll. Moanjam is still a great workout/jam for the band and things improve with I Can’t Help It, Talk To You. We Were Born To Be Loved and the nine minutes of Faith Hope Love with its spirituality clearly present. Whilst King’s X had christian faith, they wisely didn’t let that define them. These things are individual and personal, they recognised that and acted accordingly.

The next we heard from the band was their self-titled, fourth album which was another strong set of songs, although heavier and moving towards the grungy sound that they would explore more fully on the ‘Dogman’ album. This album brought changes, they split from long-time friend and manager Sam Taylor and opted to employ Brendan O’ Brien’s services as producer. He had previously produced albums for the likes of Pearl Jam and The Black Crowes and he bought a 90’s grunge rock sheen to the band. This the album on which I lost interest in the band as I didn’t feel their sound worked for me any longer. That was 1994, so nearly thirty years ago now, and, in retrospect, that was possibly a misjudgement on my part as upon rediscovering this album, it is far better than I recall. Whilst the sound may be more brutal and harsh, it still rocks strongly. In addition, much of what endeared me to those earlier albums is still present in places. The song Shoes, for example, rocks with a vengeance. In fact, overall, the album is a slow burn that sneaks up and overpowers you making a solid impression and I actually like it now. 

The final album in this set is 1996’s ‘Ear Candy’, an album I completely ignored despite my friend Steve saying it was a good one. Well, surprise, surprise, he was right. Although it disappointed the critics, ‘Ear Candy’ is a great album full of psychedelic touches, strong songs and inspired tracks like opener The Train, that has more than a whiff of Enuff  Z Enuff about it. A Box is anther fine song on offer here but, sadly, this album was to be their last for Atlantic after which they spent most of the next two decades on independent labels, releasing a lot of albums that  sank without a trace until 2005 when they were signed to Inside Out (prior to that becoming part of Sony Music) and released the excellent ‘Ogre Tones’ and ‘XV’ albums and a live set. Recently they have released ‘Three Sides Of One’ which is a definite return to form. 

King’s X continue still and, whilst much older now, they are still making good music that mixes psychedelic rock, some progressive elements and fabulous harmonies. This set is an excellent summation of their days with Atlantic as you will find much strong, vibrant music and is highly recommended, especially for fans of the band.

Released 10th April, 2023

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King’s X: In The New Age – The Atlantic Recordings 1988-1995, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Jade Warrior – Wind Borne – The Island Albums 1974 -1978 – by John Wenlock-Smith

There is a certain irony in that most progressive rock fans have a tendency to, in the words of Jethro Tull, be found Living In The Past. I can often be guilty of this myself,  is it that I hanker after a bygone age where I was young, free and single or is it more that I was growing up in an era where music had meaning and a certain quality? That’s probably a whole different essay, either way, whilst there are very many exciting new bands around that are taking prog forward again once more, there are also more opportunities to delve into the hidden corners and recesses of progressive music and to rediscover the overlooked, unsung artists who helped make the 1970’s such an interesting and innovative age, in the time before punk’s angry young men came along, wiping out much of that innocence and the beauty away.

Whilst it may be argued that it was time for another musical direction to emerge, it was the sheer disdain and hatred for what had been unceremoniously dumped that was such an affront to most serious prog fans who found this new development and style a very bitter pill to swallow and adapt to. Well it seemed that way to me as an 18 year old boy from the Midlands. Which brings us to this great set of albums that Jade Warrior made for Island records between 1974 to 1978, comprising the four albums made in that period, ‘Floating World’ (1974), ‘Waves’ (1975), ‘Kites’ (1976) and finally ‘Way Of The Sun’ (1978). This set, called ‘Wind Borne’ brings all four together in a nifty and attractive set with an always excellent sound and a great and informative booklet outlining the history of the band and how these albums came about.

I was aware of these albums and had often seen them about in the record shops that I was a frequent visitor to in Birmingham, yet I’d never actually listened to them properly. None of my friends were raving about them, they received little or no press that made them figure on my radar, so, like many others, I simply ignored them, considering them unworthy of my attention. There were lots of bands that met a similar response, sadly, I missed out on much fine music in those days.

Jade Warrior’s story is an interesting one, especially when you take into account that the two men who were the core of the band, Jon Field (flute) and Tony Duhig (guitars), were largely self taught. The music they created was different, other worldly and unique, music that was progressive in its style but was also a reflection of their interest in oriental art forms. You could cite this as being almost new-age in style, certainly it was an inspiration for the likes of Brian Eno who’s avant-garde music of the late 70’s can be traced back to Jade Warrior’s music and style.

The music is not an easy listening experience as it requires real attention to get the most out of it but, heard carefully, you can find much to appreciate in its very mellow and subdued tones. This music shimmers and builds in its intensity like layers of sound emerging and evolving, it is all extremely well crafted and put together with real care and respect for the musical form they were creating. This is subtle music, no blaring guitars as such, and probably all the better for the slow build. I suppose you could say it is minimalist new age music really as it is rather subdued. Unsurprisingly, the outfit’s second album ‘Waves’ is well suited to such an approach as waves are constantly building, growing then crashing and receding, only to return again in an endless cycle.

Their interest and affinity for things oriental came at a time when most Britons experience of oriental fare was a Vesta curry or a Chinese takeaway. Japanese culture was totally alien, apart from the ‘Made In Japan’ album, and had not yet made much of an impact in the U.K. at the time. Jade Warrior received far more critical  acclaim than commercial success, their  record contract with Island came about through the intervention of Traffic’s Steve Winwood when he recommended them to to the label’s Chris Blackwell. Winwood would later appear on their second album ‘Waves’ providing Piano and moog synthesisers. That album is a very interesting album being, as it is, two tracks of side long length that give much space for themes to emerge, develop and evolve throughout. There are also has some exciting  guitar passages that certainly impress. There are some drums on the album but even so this does not rock out much, if at all, it’s more there to add dynamics. The music is largely instrumental, although there are choral parts to the tracks Clouds and Clouds II on the ‘Floating World’ album.

The third album ‘Kites’ features the Chinese tale of Emperor Kite and the boat man, which is a 9th century story about life. This is a very fine series of tracks that together tell the tale of how the emperor interacts with a boat man at the riverside. The tale is detailed in the booklet which makes everything make sense.

The final album, ‘Way Of The Sun’, had a different feel as it concerned itself with a different set of influences, namely Inca and Mayan ones, which allowed for different musical paths to be taken. This approach seems to be effective and the album received significantly more interest than earlier albums but still did not result in more commercial success. Sadly, as a result, they ended their association with Island Records but, undeterred, continued to make music for different labels. They recorded the album ‘Horizen’ (1984) before drifting apart although they did reform in 1989 releasing ‘At Peace’.

Jon Field returned to London and found new musicians to work with though before they could record with Tony Duhig, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Field and co would record three albums under the Jade Warrior banner, ‘Breathing The Storm’ (1992), ‘Distant Echoes’ (1993) and ‘Fifth Element’ before heir final album ‘Now’ in 2008. Sadly their influence, whilst admirable and widely acknowledged, failed to translate into sales. Even so, these Island albums are definitely of interest and value as they show an extraordinary vision and sound that was of its time for sure but all very impressive still and I certainly enjoyed this collection of ambient progressive minimalism.

Released 31st March, 2023

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Jade Warrior: Wind Borne – The Island Albums 1974-1978, 4CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is a new 7 disc set that chronicles the illustrious career of Preston born drummer Keef Hartley and contains his entire output of seven albums recorded for Decca’s Deram label in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Keef Hartley was a fine drummer, in fact he was closely associated with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and was even a member for the album ‘Crusade’ before leaving to form his own band. Keef had got bored with the whole blues thing and had set his sights on something different, a little less blues and more jazz rock oriented.

Growing up, I saw lots of these albums In my local record shop shop but never actually got around to hearing them for myself. This meant I was unaware of the fine music that he and the group were offering the public. What a tragedy that was, mind you I was very much into heavy metal like Judas Priest at the time and this sort of music was beyond my understanding. Now that I am older, I can now discover these treasures for myself. This fabulous set contains the seven albums made from 1968 to 1973 and what a set it is, all sympathetically remastered for optimum sound with bonus tracks, live tracks and, best of all a truly wonderful booklet that chronicles Keef’s thoughts and recollections of each album, this is how a retrospective should be done.

Hartley recorded his first album, ‘Halfbreed’, in March 1969 and it is now regarded as a classic of the genre. The music itself is also rather special as it fuses rock and blues leanings with horns to make a jazzy tone. Keef kept his work relatively straightforward and, in addition, he chose his group carefully with Gary Thain (bass) a mainstay. He also introduced Miller Anderson as guitarist and vocalist for most of the earlier albums. Thain and Hartley formed a fine rhythm section and the powered the band well, creating a solid bedrock off which the other members could leap off. This approach seemed to work well for the band as it allowed everyone to do their part. The music was pretty free form really, especially for the time it was recorded. There are strong jazzy interludes but the horns really added emphasis and drive to the proceedings. At times they could be fierce whilst at other points they were gently cosseting the sound, you could feel their presence even when they were being subtle.

The second disc, ‘The Battle Of North West Six’, is a prime example of this approach, especially the track Me And My Woman, with its excellent guitar lines and the horn stabs filling out the sound in-between while the ever busy bass of Gary Thain helps anchor the rhythm section, it’s a fabulous track. I actually think this is a better group effort than the debut as it feels more cohesive somehow. It now seems odd beginning to appreciate something that over fifty years old, just shows what was missing with my entrenched thinking. The track Not Foolish, Not Wise is another fine song with a small drum solo from Keef and great horn playing, And there’s more excellent music, the plaintive Waiting Around and the brooding Tadpole, with its slide guitar lines and the organ of Mick Weaver. There are also 4 live tracks from 1969 to enjoy in which you can hear how good this band really were, especially on Spanish Fly and Me And My Woman, which get a bit of a stretch out in a live setting.

The next album is 1970’s ‘The Time Is Near’, sadly not a gatefold CD and one without any bonus tracks. No matter, this is an album that may be more widely known as its cover is very distinctive, featuring an Indian on horseback with his arms open wide and with empty hands as if in supplication. Once again ,the songs are penned in the main by Miller Anderson and are generally a little softer sounding, but still with sufficient space for the horns to be present. A good example of this being the title track, hinged on a busy bass line by Gary, some mariachi style trumpet from Dave Caswell and some jazzy Sax from Lyle Jenkins along with some great guitar lines from Miller. It’s a gentle track overall as is the last track Change, although it does gain both pace and volume as it proceeds. This album is better sounding than its predecessors, which maybe because it was cut by George Peckham, an old friend of Keef, who did a fantastic job in giving the album real clarity and presence.

1971’s ‘Overdog’ is a far looser and more funky album with some blistering performances. The track Theme Song has an amazing drum duel between Keef and John Hiseman of Colosseum. They were friends as well as competitors and both avail themselves with dignity here. There is another somewhat unusual track that features backing vocals from Val Doonican’s backing singers, it’s very different from the norm but highly effective nonetheless. The record is bolstered by six lives tracks, including the epic Roundabout.

Following the release of ‘Overdog’, Hartley formed his own Big Band with a large horn section and performed a series of concerts, including a show at the Marquee Club in London which was released as the album ‘Little Big Band’. At this stage the band had a nine piece brass section, as the BBC had requested this for an in concert recording that was so well received, Keef repeated the idea again on a UK and short European tour. This live recording was done as part of that undertaking, it’s a bit rough and ready but it captured the excitement of the shows and gave airtime to some great tracks.

After this album, Miller left the band for a solo career. It was an amicable parting but meant the next album had a different line up. ‘Seventy Second Brave’ is another album that I used see and ignore regularly, what a fool. It is even funkier than ever, a new line up and a fresh start left Keef to really funk it up big style, which they do, especially on the first two songs Heartbreakin’ Woman and Marin County. The rest of the album has its moments, to be sure, there are even cameos from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, who provide backing vocals. You’ll have to work out which track for yourself. I suspect it to be Hard Pill To Swallow but I could be totally wrong. The album also has four live studio performances, you can hear the fabulous bass playing of Gary Thain who pulls the track along, locking in with Keef’s drums. Sadly Gary left shortly afterwards to join Uriah Heep until his death from a heroin overdose in 1975.

The next adventure for Keef was a solo album, ‘Lancashire Hustler’, which included some great guest vocalists in Robert Palmer, Elkie Brooks and Jess Roden. The album is very interesting as it features orchestrations on several tracks and you can clearly hear the trio of singers covering the Vinegar Joe track Circles. The music is less busy than his Keef Hartley Band output and this really works well. The voices melding well together to make some great tracks like You And Me and Australian Lady (which even includes Keef’s mother adding piano at the end of the track), Jess Roden taking the lead vocals and he does a splendid job of it too. There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work it up on several of the tracks.

There are some lovely performances on offer in this 7 disc box set which is why I can highly recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca. You will find much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be the guide on your discovery, thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too.

Released 8th May, 2022.

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Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973, 7CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work in up on several of the tracks, some lovely performances on offer here which is why I can recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca You willing much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be your guide  on your discovery..

Highly recommended set thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too,

Review – Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976

‘Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976’ is a new 6 CD box set from from the ever impressive Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Recordings label and is a fabulous overview of a legendary band whose sound and style was to make a huge impression in the world of heavy and hard rock in the mid 1970’s and whose influence still makes waves, even today.

Their debut album ‘Montrose’ was issued in 1973 and its 8 tracks were monumentally important and really changed how rock music was perceived around the world. You can trace the evolution of Van Halen back to the first Montrose record, it’s a direct line between the two, certainly sound wise, and you can see the link. That album was to yield such monsters as Rock The Nation, Bad Motor Scooter and Space Station #5, which still sound mighty some 40 years on.

Sadly the resultant albums were a case of diminishing returns amidst a desire from Ronnie Montrose to explore new sounds and approaches. All of which is bold but not always successful, and the sales faltered as a result. ‘Paper Money’, their second album, was the first casualty of this approach as it failed to gain critical appreciation for its bold sounds. For many the album lacked the muscular sound that had enlivened the debut and despite some fine songs, like I Got The Fire and Starliner, many considered the album light-weight, which adversely affected sales.

This led to dissatisfaction between Sammy Hagar and Montrose and Hagar walked out to be replaced by the relatively unknown Bob James who actually had a good voice but not as powerful as Sammy Hagar’s. The new line up released the ‘Warner Bros. Presents Montrose!’ album in 1975 but, again, the critics did not like its light-weight sound, although 40 years on, it does have some gems in the form of Matriarch, Whaler and Dancin’ Feet, all of which have aged pretty well.

The band’s next album was to be a return to form with hotshot producer Jack Douglas recruited to beef the sound up and to add his magic. Unfortunately the resulting record, ‘Jump On It’, was not a great success although it did have some good tracks like Let’s Go and Music Man. It’s a tragedy that the band failed to live up to their original promise but Ronnie Montrose could be a difficult leader and he got bored easily, always wanting something new to explore.

The second CD in this set kicks off with six demo tracks, as well as their excellent debut performance, recorded for KSAN radio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California in 1973. The band would cut a further live set for KSAN that was focused on their recently released ‘Paper Money’ record, although the inclusion of I Got The Fire, Bad Motor Scooter and a storming extended work out of Space Station #5 really work well in a live setting.

These 2 sets make a big impression and show that Montrose really could deliver the goods, sadly public perception was not on their side and the band broke up, Ronnie to more experimentation sound wise, Hagar to a succesfull solo career before joining Van Halen as a replacement for David Lee Roth. Ronnie Montrose then formed Gamma and put out several albums of fine AOR.

This box set shows the potential they had and also how they failed to capitalise on it and sadly translate that into sales. It definitely has it moments but can be patchy in parts,  the live shows are excellent though. I’m glad to have heard it but feel, in reality, a decent best of and the magnificent debut are really all you need.

Released 29th July, 2022.

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Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Babe Ruth – Darker Than Blue, The Harvest Years 1972-1975 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Babe Ruth were a hot ticket in the early 1970s with their intelligent and sophisticated sound, the use of horns and the earthy yet powerful vocals of Janita “Jenny” Haan trading her lines against the impressive Alan Shacklock’s skilled guitar and arrangement. Their music was in part influenced by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, which made for an early ethnicity to their sound.

Their debut album, ‘First Base’, featured a striking cover designed by Roger Dean that enabled it to stand out in the racks. What a statement of intent it was from opening bars of Wells Fargo, that sound just hits you like a tank but it is not all bombast, it is is an album full of intricacies, especially with the wonderful arrangements from the classically trained Alan Shacklock, this is a different type of progressive rock and one that certainly makes an impression.

There are a lot of keyboards within the sound, all backed by the solid beat of Dick Powell. This is best displayed on the lengthy instrumental King Kong which is a fabulous jazzy rock number that would not feel out of place on an early Santana album. It is actually a cover of the Frank Zappa song from his 1968 ‘Uncle Meat’ album. Black Dog is a different type of song being soft and gentle with a delicate vocal from Jenny. Originally by Jesse Winchester, this has a fabulous piano solo from Dave Punshon. The Mexican is next and is the longest song on the album thus far and opens with Spanish guitar and a steady straightforward beat which was done in one take. It is really impressive for its time, well before drum loops and such. The song is about the Alamo but is told from the Mexican perspective, it also includes part of Ennio Morricone’s Western themes, which are neatly worked into the track. There’s great syncopation throughout the entire track and some great bass lines. The final song is Joker which has a brutal riff to it and more impassioned vocals from Jenny Haan. It rounds the album out in style although there are two bonus tracks plus a single edit of Wells Fargo and the theme from A Few Dollars More.

This concluded a fine album and gets you set up for their second album ‘Amar Caballero’ which carries with on the strong vibe of ‘First Base’, although this time the cover (a gatefold) is by Hypgnosis and features a group of horses that were supposed to charge but refused to move. In addition the line up has changed too, with Ed Spevock on drums, Dave Hewitt on bass and Chris Holmes replacing Dave Pushon on keys.

The sound and style of the album is different from the debut in that there are a slew of songs from Jenny, delicate guitar from Alan and an effective use of orchestrations throughout the album. However, there is still plenty of rocking going on, especially on the epic three parts of Amar Caballero with its Latin sounds. There are also elements of funk on the drums along with a suitably fiery guitar and horns wailing away. Much of this material was originally penned  with other artists in mind but, when that failed to work out, this album arose from those efforts, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag but the 3-part Amar Caballero is definitely worth a listen.

The final album ‘Babe Ruth’ was their last for Harvest, although they spent a while on the Capitol label where they released the ‘Stealing Home’ and ‘Kid’s Stuff’ albums, albeit with a vastly different line up as all the original members had quit by this stage.

The album opens with the hard rocking track Dancer with great guitar by Alan Shacklock, this is followed by another rocker, Somebody’s Nobody, with more great guitar and synth sounds, again Jenny sings very powerfully, as she does throughout the whole album. An interesting version of A Fistful Of Dollars comes next, where Alan gets to play his own tribute to those spaghetti westerns of which he is so fond.

We then get a cover of a Curtis Mayfield song, We People Darker Than Blue, an unusual choice but it gets the proper Babe Ruth treatment with lots of energy and great synths. As a social protest song, it is overseen sympathetically and treated with respect, with a fine vocal from Jenny. Jack O’Lantern has very Rock and Roll feel with lots of honky tonk piano runs. The song is about a voyeur and, while it may not be welcome today, for its time, it was musically at least, a good track.

Another cover follows, this time of Booker T Jones‘ and William BellsPrivate Number, which is a great song with lots of good synth work in amongst some fine guitar playing. Turquoise is driven by Spanish guitar runs and fills, a very flamenco style track with excellent guitar lines from Alan. The last track on the album is The Duchess Of Orleans and, again, this has a great vocal from Jenny Haan, it is also the second longest track on the album after Dancer. The song is about a relationship across the classes, opening with organ and Alan’s Cockney accent before Jenny takes the vocal over. It’s an interesting track and closes the album out well in what has been an excellent overview of the band and, indeed, their Harvest years, in which we find much skill and talent that was sadly unappreciated at the time. Upon re-examination some 50 years on we can see just how good this band really were and how they deserved so much more than they achieved.

This is a really good box set as usual from Esoteric and includes an informative booklet from the great Steve Pilkington, no less, I highly recommend it!

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Babe Ruth: Darker Than Blue – The Harvest Years 1972-1975, 3CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records