Gandalf – Journey To An Imaginary Land: Remastered Edition
This week over in my special little corner of Progradar I continue to catch up (and round up) a whole sphere of different releases from the Esoteric label, which is as wide and varied as the name implies, and so we’ll start with their reissues of ‘Journey to an Imaginary Land’ by German electronic pioneer Gandalf.
There is nothing more prog than a Tolkien inspired name and this, remastered and reissued, is his debut solo album. Gandalf (real name Heinz Strobl) had done the hard yards in a variety of bands throughout the 70’s and he took all his experience and ideas and visions andworked on them himself, without a deal at the time.
The result is what is highly regarded as one of the defining instrumental albums where prog meets classical influences then meets new age music.
There are obvious nods to the work of Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream here but, as these are symphonic pioneers, it would be very hard to create this kind of album and not be influenced by them somewhere along the line.
However, Gandalf is no mere copyist or homagist, instead he takes the idea that electronic music can also be symphonic and runs with it. Having previously been a songwriter, he has a strong idea of melody and structure and simply replaces vocals with electronic sounds.
Not only that, Gandalf fully understands structure and flow, and from the opening Departure to the closing Sunset at the Crystal Lake, we are taken on a soothing and entrancing musical journey.
From the joyous moments in The Peaceful Village (with the guitar driven, almost folky, ‘The Dance of Joy’)to the epic and flowing March Across the Endless Plain, the music and, indeed, the titles are incredibly evocative, providing a soundtrack to an imaginary fantasy film.
The blend of flowing synth sounds and compositional structure and, indeed, use of acoustic guitar on here creates some beautiful ambient soundscapes, nothing is rushed. This is the sort of album where the music slowly builds and grows.
After being out of print for a while it is good to hear this influential album getting the treatment it deserves and, if you like anything ambient and electronic, this is the one for you.
Osmosis – Osmosis: Remastered Edition
Moving from German ambience, we head over to America, Boston in fact, for the extraordinary only album released by Jazz Rock fusion band Osmosis.
Originally released in 1970 on RCA, this was the culmination of a few years hard gigging by the band formed around the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. Neither one thing nor t’other, the band featured legendary flautist and saxophonist Charlie Mariano, Bob Knox on vocals, Danny Comfort on bass, Lou Peterson on drums, Bobby Clark on percussion and drums, Andy Steinborn on guitar and backing vocals and Charlie Bechler on keyboards.
Mixing jazz influences and rock power, this was the band’s debut, and only album, making its appearance here on CD for the first time ever. It’s hard to credit that a band with this much power and musical precision behind them could have dropped off the radar for so long, but such is the fickle finger of the music business.
With Mariano up front, his flutes and saxes acting almost like a lead guitar, and then the power that having two drummers brings, this merges some of the great improvisational styles of jazz with the full balls out rock. Tracks like the unusual and insanely paced Of War and Peace (In Part) with it’s unusual time signatures and vocal chanting distils the band essence into one song.
The rock vocals of Knox are powerful and add a soulful edge to tracks like Sunrise.The band, instead of having solos here there and everywhere, pull together to create some truly astonishing musical moments, like the psychedelic wig out that goes on throughout Sunrise.
Whilst the band hated the production and the sleeve notes written by producer Dave Blume, feeling he muffled their sound, the structure and sound on Shadows for instance makes it near perfect.
In fact, this whole album is superb with the unique blend of disciplines and styles that the band bring make this a phenomenal release, even more amazing when you consider RCA only gave them 8 hours to record it! Packed with fantastic sleeve notes from Sid Smith, this is an album that, if you are a fan of the melting pot where rock and jazz meet, you need to hear.
The Flock – Truth – The Columbia Recordings 1969 -1970: “CD Remastered Anthology
Staying over the pond we now turn to The Flock, this time heading over to Chicago where, along with Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, they formed a mighty triumvirate in the late 60’s and, like the other two, were signed to Columbia records. ‘Truth, The Columbia Recordings 1969-1970’ brings together their two albums and disparate singles recorded for the label, 1969’s ‘The Flock’ and 1970’s ‘Dinosaur Swamps’.
With violinist Jerry Goodman to the fore, their blend of classical influences, R ‘n B and origins as a guitar band meant they had a wide musical palette to draw from. The wonderful Introduction, which features Goodman to the fore, sets the scene perfectly for their debut, which had impressive sleeve notes by John Mayall who had seen the band live in 1969 and was blown away.
Their blend of blues/funk and Goodman’s violin makes this sound fantastic. The extended funky work out on the Kinks’ So Tired of Waiting is exemplar of what a good cover version should be, taking the original and melding it into something totally new and funky.
The vocal harmonies by Goodman and guitarist Fred Glickstein blend perfectly over a funky bass from Jerry Smith, whilst the bands’ brass section of Rick Canoff on tenor Sax and Frank Posa on trumpet really go mad and bring a real swing vibe to this track.
It’s these musical meetings of minds that make this album sublime, as the guitar work from Glickstein and the violin from Goodman vie for attention throughout. Whilst the 7-piece including funky powerhouse drummer Ron Karpman and Tom Webb on sax, flute, harmonica and maracas brings the sound tightly together.
This album, to put it bluntly, swings and rocks, the combination of brass and violin is one that works sublimely well together as the 6 tracks on the original prove. Nothing outstays its welcome here, and the length of some of the songs gives some real room for improvisation and freewheeling. I know that not everyone appreciates that but the intricacies that the band play, and the stylish solos particularly on expansive original closer Truth, can’t help putting a smile on your face.
This first disc is rounded out by the edited single versions of Store Bought – Store Thought and Tired of Waiting, the non-album tracks What Would you Do if the Sun Died?and Lollipops and Rainbows plus a real curio, the French edit of Clowns, split into two parts for one single.
By 1970’s ‘Dinosaur Swamps‘, the title taken from a trip that band had, Tom Webb was replaced by Jon Gerber, who not only bought flute and sax to the party, but also his banjo, adding a different vibe to the album.
The album is one the band describe as their ‘Sgt Pepper’ and it is an evolution rather than a revolution in their song writing, the familiar is still in place, and the band haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. However, the experience of being on the road, playing some big American gigs, and of recording a debut album, is obvious on tracks like Big Bird which oozes confidence and a real country vibe with the mix of violin and banjo on show.
The band have really gone to town on this album and, again, the mix of brass, rock, violin and banjo create a huge musical sound with mood changes and real up-tempo vibes, particularly on Hornschmeyers Island which, with Goodman’s improv to the fore, sees how he brought his skill to the mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra when The Flock folded.
I love this sound, the mighty mix of jazz, rock and violins, it probably would have passed me by 20 years ago but now I love how the moods change, the bass sneaks in suddenly to underpin a beautiful solo and then the brass kicks in. This is just as progressive as any of the bands from ’69 like Yes, King Crimson or Floyd and, just because it starts with jazz and blues doesn’t make it any less important, innovative or bloody good music.
The guitar work on tracks like Lighthouse are sublime and the way everything just works on this album showcases how tight a band The Flock were, and how they were pioneers of this sound and vibe.
Of interest in this collection are 4 tracks recorded for their never finished album ‘Flock Rock’ that Sony exhumed in the 1990’s for a compilation, and which rightly join their brethren here on this impressive double set. There is a whole lot of music here and, if you love music that has its fingers in many pies and is refreshing, original and bloody cool, then this is for you. An absolute blast from start to finish.
Quintessence – Move Into The Light – The Complete Island Recordings 1969 – 1971: Remastered Edition
Next, we head back to Britain, London to be more specific, and the environs of Ladbrook Grove in the late 1960’s where the multinational band Quintessence were formed out of a variety of talented musicians who had gravitated to London to play in the nascent psychedelic scene. ‘Move into the Light’, a double disc anthology collects their three albums (‘In Blissful Company’ 1969, ‘Quintessence’ 1970 and ‘Dive Deep’ 1971) recorded for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.
Mixing Western rock vibes with Indian mystical ideals had worked for George Harrison and whilst for some bands it was fashionable to have a sitar in one or two songs, Quintessence mixed the whole Indian and Western vibe together over three diverse and interesting albums.
If you have ever heard George Harrison’s ‘Wonderwall Music’ album (and if not, why not??) then take that as the starting point, it’s where Indian and English rock merges for the first time successfully and Quintessence take that vibe and carry it further than George did, as tracks like the debut album’s Gange Mai, with it’s rock background and Indian chanting shows. Flowing straight into the aptly named Chant, with it’s Hare Krishna chants (a refrain that is very popular through rock over the ages, as musicians seek out divinity – of interest is also ‘The Radha Krishna Temple’, produced by George Harrison and released on Apple, that is far more Indian chant based then Quintessence but comes from the same sphere) and the familiar sound of the table and the sitar, with its rhythmic and structured chants and repetition, it’s the Eastern version of Gregorian chanting, and a possible link to the universal chord and the music of the spheres.
Whilst most bands from this era had paid lip service to the Eastern vibe, Quintessence were far more serious than that, taking on Indian names, so Aussie keyboard and vocalist Phil Jones (a successful musician in his native land) became Shiva whilst fellow Aussie band leader Ron Rothfield, flautist and songwriter, became Raja Ram, Richard Vaughan on bass became Shambhu Babaji and Dave Codling on rhythm guitar became Maha Dev.
This blend of Eastern mysticism and Western rock led to hypnotic chant and sitar sounds mixed in with more trad rock sounds like on the wonderfully entrancing Notting Hill Gate, about the area in London they were based in. Moonlight Mode with its instrumental twists and turns and Indian drone coda shows the bands musicianship.
The fact that Island Records gave the band complete artistic freedom can be heard here on this incredibly mature and complex debut album, recorded with producer John Barham, who helped facilitate the bands ideas (and who, coincidentally had also worked on ‘Wonderwall Music’), this successful relationship carried on through to the band’s self-titled second album released in 1970.
The bands lavish sensibilities were not just confined to the music, but also their artwork and, again with Barham in the studio, the band expanded the sound with more confidence, after all, the reason they were signed originally was their power as a live act. Opening with the powerful Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Guaranga the second album was more of the first but with a subtler blend of the mystic, the esoteric and the experimental.
Barham as a producer was like their George Martin, helping get more out of the band and push them in the studio. With guitar work from lead guitarist Allan Mostert replicating the scales of the sitar and replacing it on lengthy instrumental work outs, the complex and circling sounds were almost hypnotic and meditative.
The band had decided to write an Opera and the only track left from that concept is High on Mount Kasailash, with its chant and sparse instrumentation, again a subtle blend of minimalism and Indian that works well together. Burning Bush and St Pancreas, both live cuts, show the bands mighty fine live credentials off here on an album that wears its Eastern and Western influences on its sleeves (of a psychedelic musical jacket).
By 1971’s ‘Deep Dive’ Quintessence had moved on from John Barham, with the band musically confident and even more in control of their own musical destiny to realise they can handle it all themselves and this is their most complete album yet, 6 tracks that reflect the bands musical maturity and inner vision. The title track, for instance, has some lovely guitar work from Allan, and an almost transcendental middle passage.
Meanwhile we are introduced to a Hindu belief of the Highest Universal Principle, Brahman, via a slow building percussion driven piece that boils the principle down to everything is Brahman, with a fab chorus, some sublime vocals and a great flute piece. The Seer is a fantastically soulful track, sounding like it could have dropped off any late period Traffic album, with more of that driving percussion and sublime guitar work.
Despite recording a few albums for the Mercury label, these Island albums are the ones where Quintessence made their name, and the ones which showed their passion, their diversity and their musical skill. This is one for fans of that period where psychedelia merged into folk, and of interest to those who wanted bands like The Beatles to take the Indian/Rock sound further.
John McLaughlin, John Surman, Karl Berger, Stu Martin, Dave Holland – Where Fortune Smiles: Remastered Edition
Our journey on this little musical mystery tour ends in New York, where five pioneering jazz musicians met in 1970 and created ‘Where Fortune Smiles’, an absolutely electric combination of some of the finest jazz musicians of the early 70’s, John McLaughlin, the pioneering British jazz guitarist who rewrote the rules with his fluid playing and his influential Mahavishnu Orchestra, John Surman with his incendiary baritone sax, German Karl Berger (whose vibraphone playing led to stints with Don Cherry), Stu Martin (the American born drummer who worked with Duke Ellington and John Surman) and Dave Holland, the British bassist who’d worked with artists like Miles Davies.
At this juncture, when these 5 musicians had either worked together or knew people who knew each other, the jazz scene, like the folk scene, was very incestuous, so they just all happened to be in New York one day in 1970 and recorded these five tracks in that day. Talk about spontaneity, musical compatibility and the sheer verve and energy that these five big names who would each make their mark elsewhere, bring to this session. You only need to listen to the power of Stu Martin on McLaughlin’s Hope whilst McLaughlin gets noises from an electric guitar that you wouldn’t expect.
The power, innovation and originality across these 5 tracks is astonishing and, at just 35 minutes long, this album never outstays it’s welcome, The way that Surman’s sax or Berger’s vibes drift through the music, whilst McLaughlin does what he’s best at, is a joy to hear With Dave Hollands innovative bass adding so much, when rounded off with the powerhouse drumming, this album is an absolute blast, with invention and excitement throughout every track.
This kind of fusion free form improvising is not for everybody and, if you prefer your music more structured or regimented, you really won’t enjoy this. However, if, like me, you’ve recently discovered the joys of this style of music, then this is a welcome addition to any CD collection.