Those great people over at Esoteric Recordings have a great job, they are the equivalent of musical historians, rooting around in the record company archives like audio archaeologists and finding some neglected, hidden and indeed well-known treasures that they tease and bring back to life.
Here’s a round-up of some of their more alternative and eclectic discoveries.
Atlantic Bridge – Atlantic Bridge: Remastered and Expanded Edition
Let’s start with the self-titled album from jazz rock crossover quartet Atlantic Bridge, originally released on the progressive imprint Dawn Records back in 1970. It takes the four-piece’s improvisational jazz tendencies and mixes them up with some stirring and interestingly re-arranged versions of contemporary rock classics.
Heavily influenced by re-interpreting the Beatles, both Something and Dear Prudence get radically rearranged and mixed up by the four-piece. Pianist and arranger Mike McNaught was instrumental in getting bassist Daryl Runswick, Flute/saxophonist Jim Philip and drummer Mike Travis to turn their jazz hands to rock reworking.
Not only was he a Beatles fan but the album also contains three re-workings of classic Jimmy Webb songs, including the inimitable Macarthur Park, jazzed up to the max.
With the self-composed Childhood Room (Exit Waltz) closing the original album, this is one of those innovative and ‘between two stools’ records, where it was too jazz for the rock crowd, too rock for the jazz crowd and now sounds like they were having a blast recording it.
Well worth an investigation if jazz rock is your thing.
Little Free Rock – Little Free Rock: Remastered Edition
This self-titled debut and, ultimately, only album from Preston power trio Little Free Rock was originally released back in 1969 on, of all places, the Transatlantic label, home to folkies like Ralph McTell and the pre-fame Billy Connolly band The Humblebums, which was, as the honest sleeve notes reveal, a bit of a mismatch.
However, what you do have here are 9 tracks recorded by a hugely talented and inventive power trio, led by guitarist, vocalist and song writer Pete Illingworth, co-writer, bassist and vocalist Frank Newbold and drummer Paul Varley.
Unusually from this period, and with bands who had honed their craft on the road, this album is all originals, no random reworking of Beatles songs or that ilk. Instead, you get one of those albums that could only have been made in 1969, where the optimism of ‘anything is possible’ musically filtered through.
You get big choruses on tracks like Making Time (complete with obligatory drum solo) whilst you get some fantastic riffs on songs like Evil Woman and the opening Roma Summer Holiday.
In fact, the skills of the song writing duo of Illingworth and Newbold are on display throughout the album and it belies their youth and inexperience in the studio. Sure, bits of this album sound naïve and, as it was recorded on a budget, that also tells but it never distracts from what is a fantastically exciting album. As snapshots of an era go, this is a perfect encapsulation of all the bands in that era that dreamed big and had the ambition to put their sound on record, and also of the record labels willing to give them a go.
Sky – The Studio Albums 1979-1987 – 8 Disc Clamshell Box Set
Doing exactly as it says on the tin, this impressive clamshell package contains all the studio albums (Sky, Sky 2, Sky 3, Sky 4, Cadmium, The Great Balloon Race & Mozart) recorded by the legendary cross over rock and classical band Sky. This provides a condensed collection of the remastered albums reissued a few years ago on Esoteric containing none of the bonus tracks but, as an extra to the package finally released on DVD after many years of being unavailable, the superb last gasp ‘Live in Nottingham 1990’. Formed in the late 70’s by legendary acoustic guitarist John Williams, session musicians de jour Herbie Flowers and Kevin Peek, Curved Air keyboard player and composer Francis Monkman and orchestral percussionist Tristan Fry, the band successfully fused classical pretensions with progressive and mainstream rock styles and were an absolute phenomenon in the early 1980’s, yet their legacy seems to have been forgotten and it probably didn’t help that these albums were unavailable for many years on CD.
‘Sky’, the debut album originally released in 1979, showcases the bands style, and is a definite statement of intention with the driving power of tracks like Monkman’s Westway, the brilliant Carillion and the powerful closing Where Opposites Meet, again by Monkman.
With the wide range of styles that all 5 members brought to the band, you get Williams’ acoustic classical style mixed with Monkman’s progressive keyboards. Flowers and Fry on bass and drums are one of the most powerful rhythm section you’ll see anywhere, with Fry as powerful a drummer as John Bonham, and with a fantastic touch that adds so much more to the sound, whilst Kevin Peek’s electric guitar complements Williams’ acoustic touch perfectly.
‘Sky 2’ was an ambitious follow-up, a sign of strength and confidence in the band that built on the back of their success and what better way than releasing a massive double album. This shows the full power of the first Sky line up, as Herbie Flowers (bassist on the Lou Reed song Walk on the Wild Side) brings his tuba to the fore on the brilliant Tuba Smarties (which never fails to bring a smile to the face) whilst Tristan’s Magic Garden showcases Fry’s superb percussion skills and sound.
Traditional progressive rock bands from the first wave (Yes, The Nice, Genesis) were always trying to compose and perform in a rock and classical crossover and whilst some were more successful than others, Sky, with its blend of rock musicians, classical musicians and composers, I would argue, managed to blend classical styles and rock techniques in the most successful way possible. This made them one of the more successful second wave progressive rock groups, particularly as they managed to make their albums hit the top ten (‘Sky 2’, for instance, hit the top spot) whilst performing complicated, intricate and intelligent instrumental music. It also included a side long composition (again from Francis Monkman) called FIFO, which is the pinnacle of Monkman’s compositional style in Sky.
There is no bad track on this album, and the way it ebbs, and flows is magnificent. I also must admit to having a massive personal connection to these albums, my Dad used to play the Sky albums regularly when I was a child and, as I drifted off to sleep, I could hear the bass of Herbie Flowers or the percussion of Fry sneak through the wall. This is music that I have grown up with all my life, so I think it’s wonderful to hear it remastered in such clarity.
‘Sky 3’ saw a change in the band as Francis Monkman moved on to be replaced by another session musician, Steve Gray, who brought a different compositional style and focus to the group. Losing a member could end some bands, particularly one with the composing skills of Monkman, but Gray steps in perfectly and adds his own song writing style to the group.
‘Sky 3’ isn’t quite the sound of a band in transition as it could have been, in fact, of the three albums so far, I think it is probably my favourite with some amazing group work on tracks like Westwind, Connecting Rooms, and the band classic Meheeco. Gray fits perfectly into the band, and the work on here is again a logical progression from the previous two albums, with every member giving their all.
It is so difficult for instrumental bands to ensure that they don’t keep making the same album repeatedly or for the music to get lost in the background. The members of Sky have enough musical skill, song writing expertise and the comfort of working together, to ensure that each album is different, fresh and musically exciting.
‘Sky 4; Forthcoming’ was a slight change of direction for the band, as they were classically influenced, they decided to record an album of interpretations of classical pieces (a bit like the almost traditional cover album that contemporary artists still do) and each piece was rearranged and reimagined by the members of the band.
Highlights include the wonderful reinterpretation of Ride of the Valkyries (by Steve Gray), John Williams showcases his trademark dextrous sound on Bach’s Fantasy and there is a fantastic version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, whilst Kevin Peek’s My Giselle is the only original track on the album.
The diversions into classical pieces are excellent and deconstructing the original and rebuilding it into a Sky sound pretty much shows the blueprint as to what the band were trying to achieve originally. With musicians as good as these 5, it is exciting to hear where they are going to take well known pieces.
‘Cadmium’, the first album of new material from the band since 1981’s ‘Sky 3’, and the last to feature founder member John Williams, was released in 1983 and, with the opening Troika (better known to millions as the basis of Greg Lake’s I believe In Father Christmas) adding festive cheer to the album, it does seem business as usual. Overshadowed as it was by Williams’ departure after recording, it has a lot of charm and plenty of Sky classics to endear it to the audience. It includes wonderful track from Herbie Flowers, the excellent Telex From Peru, whilst Steve Gray’s Son of Hotta does exactly what it says on the tin. Bonus tracks include an extended work out of Troika plus a blinding version of The Fool on the Hill.
Without a replacement for Williams, Sky continued as the core four piece with additional help from extra musicians to fill out the sound, this is obvious on 1985’s wonderful release ‘The Great Balloon Race’, probably one of the most misunderstood albums in the bands catalogue and, now 20 years on, the time is right to reappraise its status.
Having lost the big name from the band, as Williams was a massive draw (not to mention a key member of the song writing team), Sky could have collapsed and folded, instead they carried on with one of the most striking and original songs that have ever opened up an album, The Land sounds like nothing they had ever written before. With vocals from composer Tony Hymas (English composer best known for his work with Jeff Beck) and Clare Torry (best known for her work with Pink Floyd) this atmospheric and powerful song sets out Sky’s stall, influenced strongly by their time spent touring Australia.
The Land is inspired by the Aboriginal struggle whilst the title track is one of Herbie Flowers’ most memorable compositions, touring musicians Ron Asperey (on sax and flutes) & Lee Fothergill (guitar) help flesh out the sound and with the addition of pan pipes on some of the tracks, the additional instrumentation enhanced the key Sky sound. ‘The Great Balloon Race’ takes their sound and pushes it into a widescreen format, and is the sound of a band moving forward.
The final Sky studio album saw them head right back to their roots, a re-interpretation of classical music with rock orchestration and sees them joined by the Academy of St Martin’s in the Field to record the album, ‘Mozart’, released in 1987. Fry’s work with the academy was long standing (he played on the soundtrack to the film Amadeus) and, in conjunction with conductor Sir Neville Marriner, they planned and adapted a broad collection of Mozart material and interpreted it in the unique Sky way, with the key four-piece band embellished and enhanced by the orchestra.
Works like The Marriage of Figaro, Symphony No 34: last movement and Alla Turka: Rondo are all reworked and performed to perfection. Remastered here, the clarity of the interplay between the band and the orchestra is sublime.
The last gasp of a band who had been so peerless and innovative throughout the late 70’s and 1980’s, ‘Live at Nottingham’ captures the line up of Flowers, Fry, Gray, Hart and Peek on fine form, as they run through an almost ‘best of’ set, with the usual musical dexterity and power that they are well known for. With old favourites like Son of Hotta, Meheeco, Tuba Smarties and Toccata (previously unreleased on DVD – available here for the first time), this album rounds off a well packaged and excellent value set.
The only omission here is the live double ‘Sky 5’ which is still available on CD if you want to complete your set.