Gong: The Universe Also Collapses (Kscope)

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Album number 2 in the post Daevid Allen era and the press release (plus additional words from frontman Kavus Torabi on the recent BBC Radio 6 session) for ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ makes much of the band seeking to establish its own identity as a unit, away from the ‘guest’ contributions of the last album where Didier Malherbe, Steve Hillage and (posthumously) Daevid Allen all took their bows. In truth that identity had already been marked out definitively on ‘Rejoice I’m Dead!’, as a band with a new effervescent frontman melded trademark Gong angular riffing and spacey glissando with their own complex compositions. Alongside ‘Zero To Infinity’ it was undoubtedly the finest Gong work since the Trilogy era.

More pertinently for me was whether ‘Universe’ could continue this unexpectedly high benchmark. Soundings from those in the know suggested a lot of excitement around this album, which has emerged as a somewhat lopsided 4-track album, which on an old LP would have separated itself into a side 2 of three tracks, with the ‘main’ piece appearing on the whole of side 1. Presumably this is how the shocking pink vinyl version actually materialises.

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‘Forever Reoccuring’, the aforementioned  20 minute excursion appears to follow the devotional template Kavus Torabi was setting out on his recent solo EP ‘Solar Divination’, built on a central theme containing hints of more than one classic track from ‘You’ in the way the ambience slowly builds towards its much anticipated break-outs. There’s also a reference, intended or otherwise, to ‘A PHPs Advice’ in one of the riffs. When I first heard this track, I thought ‘wow’, this is ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ mark 2.  Then I had my doubts the piece merited its full outing.  But then it slowly ate away at me to the extent that when on checking for the twentieth time to see how good it was, I realised that it had me stitched up like a kipper…  Unlike ‘Clouds’ or ‘Master Builder’, it ebbs and flows, successively crescendoing towards various climaxes before dropping away again. Highlights are the superb obtuse guitar solo when the piece first breaks from Kavus (the only such on the album, a shame as it is arguably his finest suit), and even better, at around 12 minutes in a brief rising soprano sax theme as more and more instruments join the fold, either in accompaniment or as counterpoints. This could well be the killer riff that this opus was crying out for, and incidentally comprised the centrepiece of the condensed version on the BBC Live session. Then to some Hillageesque skysaw soloing from Fabio Golfetti before the piece winds back down into more Golfettti glissando with a vocal section very reminiscent of Daevid’s last outtings with the University of Errors. And then it’s gone, surely not 20 minutes of listening already.

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‘If Never I’m And Ever You’ is ‘Forever’’s polar opposite,  a 2 minute piece whose jaunty central riff is about as quantifiably Gongish as it is possible to get, throws in vocal lines from everywhere into the increasing melee and has a rather nice Malherbish fanfare from Ian East to finish. That said, it is relatively benign fayre compared to what is to come next.  For it is clear from the opening few bars of ‘My Sawtooth Wake’ that this could well be the centrepiece of the album. In its 13 or so minutes it rarely deviates from its main premise, a jerky, heavy rhythm which stutters along memorably with all 5 members buying into its magnificence. This is ‘Fohat’ on speed, with disquieting glissando, pounding bass, and screaming solos from guitar and sax. And even when it drops down to moments of vocal reflection, it never quite loses that air of menace before all elements combine in cataclysmic glory. This is marvellous, marvellous stuff with pride of place going to some outstanding drumming from Cheb Nettles recalling Pip Pyle at his frenetic best.

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If ‘Sawtooth’ is, overall, the album’s standout track, then the finest moment is reserved for the concluding part of the final track ‘The Elemental’. A pleasing Sixties sounding ditty, Kavus’ harmonium et al, gets ever more rocky before arriving at the heavy crashing guitar riffs reminiscent of ‘Kapita’ on the last album, but of course, as this is Gong, throws screaming sax into the mix too. “Remember there is only now”, sung in (4-part?) dissonant harmony is the album’s evocative crying call, propelled along by thunderous bass from Dave Sturt. The whoop which signals the end of the first round of this unforgettable chorus is one of sheer exultation at the album’s signal moment. Throughout the album it has been clear that, lyrically, the gnomes are long departed, but Gong’s cosmic identity has endured. Far removed from the sharp characterisation of Daevid Allen’s storytelling, this is a much more detached narrative which ponders the science of life. And it did leave me thinking: is ‘Remember there is only now’ an unfathomable cosmic statement about the universe starting or ending in the same moment in time; an imploring for us all to live in the present; or something unintentionally cheeky about this Gong incarnation being here and here to stay? I’ll leave that for you to ponder…

 

Postscript: the band play this entire album as part of a quite astonishing evening currently on tour around the UK – 2 hours of Gong with support from Ed Wynne playing (with a new band) his superb solo album ‘Shimmer Into Nature’. Remaining tour dates below

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Mick West Memorial Gig, Trades Club Hebden Bridge 3 April 2019

 

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Whilst not a name that would be immediately recognisable to the majority of people regularly reading this blog, the piece about Mick West’s tragically early death around a year ago was read by more people than any other post in 2018. And so it seems appropriate to talk about the memorial gig held for him last night at Hebden Bridge Trades Club.

Mick was a somewhat larger than life figure, and a wonderfully talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter much loved by many in his home town of Hebden Bridge and whose music permeated into the lives of many locally and beyond. This evening of fine music packed out a midweek venue, testament to the memory of a highly respected musician.

 

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Abrasive Pheasants - photo Georgina Filby

Simultaneously broadcast live on Recycle Radio http://recycleradio.co.uk/ (with running commentary from DJ Creedy), the evening consisted of performances from 5 of the many bands Mick had long associations with, and as is often the way of these things, with many musicians appearing more than once. Whilst the performances were not strictly chronological in terms of the origins of the music, things did started off logically enough with the  appearance of Amoeba Pie, originally a duo with Paul Weatherhead, long term collaborationist.  I associate both him and Mick with a somewhat daft, acid-tinged view of the world both lyrically and musically, and this collection of songs, performed by Paul on guitar alongside Steve on bass resurrected a set of Mick’s songs dating back as far as material penned as a 16 year old: a real mix of dope tales, clever plays on words and father/son confrontations, with some folky twists. Some real gems in there.

Abrasive Pheasants came next, a band I never got to see live even though Mick extolled their virtues to me frequently when I saw him latterly. Creedy promised us ‘free jazz improv’, but that does a disservice to a band who laid down some fairly tight funky grooves with some excellent busy drumming to allow some superb lyrical sax to shine through. The only real free departure was in a rather bizarre spoken word piece from bass player Mention also here for Colin Robinson (he of Jumble Hole Clough and frequent Mick collaborator) joining the band on guitar. A very fine band I’ll want to see again.

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Beastfish - photo: Georgina Filby

first saw Beastfish at Kozfest 2017, with Mick on keyboards, and given the circumstances couldn’t bring myself to see them again there in 2018 after Mick’s death. But I’d forgotten quite how stunning they were, even shorn of Mick’s subtle accompaniments. Ostensibly a vehicle for the poetry (both spoken and sung) of Ste, delivered in an urgent, compelling narrative, this band is much much more besides, with tightly arranged music featuring a astonishing performance from guitarist Slim Verhoef, managing to provide both the sonic backdrop and main riffs without breaking breath, whilst Woody on drums and Mike on bass provide slick rhythms. Superb stuff.

A combination of babysitting arrangements, an early start for work next day and the emotion of the evening (the backdrop to all performances was a large screen showing montages and videos of Mick in various stages of his musicial career, and was hugely evocative), meant that we left the Trades before the final two bands: probably the ones Mick is most associated with – the Electric Brains and the Ukranians. Lots of familiar faces and tunes within their ranks without doubt. I’m sure they did him proud.

Look out for the broadcast of this event to pop up here: http://recycleradio.co.uk/

 

https://soundcloud.com/abrasive-pheasants

https://soundcloud.com/slimverhoef (Beastfish)

Tom Ashurst & Mark Robson: Live In Glastonbury (Electric Salad)

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I first came across Tom Ashurst’s name when trying to find out about the unbelievably good bass player performing with Ozric Tentacles’ main man Ed Wynne at Kozfest in 2017. This jammed gig will long endure in my memory, as a crowd emerging sleepily from their tents around midday on the Sunday ambled into an unexpected treat in the festival’s main tent.  I found out subsequently that Tom is also a phenomenally gifted guitarist, and I caught brief snippets of his performance at the same festival in 2018. He is probably best known however as bass player with the Hawklords.

Then, somewhat without warning appeared this CD. Recorded live last year in Glastonbury, this is billed as a duo gig with Mark Robson, the Kangaroo Moon main man and multi-instrumentalist. Not to denigrate Mark’s own considerable talents but this gig (and album) ostensibly appears to be primarily Tom’s show with some sensitive accompaniment on keyboard and occasional star turn from his more well-known companion. And what an impressive performance this is, in terms of composition, arrangement and particularly execution from a very fine guitarist. The general modus operandi appears to be the building of loops of acoustic guitar, sampled then played in increasing numbers of layers, often with the icing on the cake being a blistering solo. Of all of the albums covered in this particular batch of reviews, this has had the most appeal, intrigue and therefore playtime of the lot.

So what do we have here? Let’s start with the ‘covers’, although these are essentially re-interpretations with varying distance from their originals. Beginning with the biggest surprise, the album is launched with ‘Tales of Taliesin’, the ‘Softs’ guitar epic from 1975 – a lovely acoustic version. They continue with ‘Jacques Cousteau Loves Anchovies’, a track I vaguely identified as a Here and Now Eighties piece (the writing credits to Tha Bass and Da Blitz confirm this). Much more memorable is ‘You Shouldn’t Do That’, a Hawkwind cover with Ashhurst (presumably) providing the looped, breathy vocals that invoke a genuinely hypnotic chant. There is also space for ‘Gypsy’s Lullaby’, which I recognise as a Kangaroo Moon staple, and notable for it being the only track with Mark Robson being front of stage (on penny whistle) – an ethereal mix. But all non-originals are universally trumped by ‘Fohat’, a remarkable acoustic version of Gong’s ‘Camembert’ track, slowly built up through guitar motifs which underpin each other, overlap and provide a pulsating backbeat for the eventual ‘takes a little time’ melody etched out initially via guitar, then through wordless vocal before the crashing conclusion. If I was wowed by a recent discovery of Fabio Golfetti reworking this track with Violeta de Outono, then Ashurst’s version is just as stunning and evocative.

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The album is rounded off by three originals, radically different but all impressive in their own way. From the hiphop crash chords of ‘ICRED’, this unfolds into the most unfettered guitar soloing of the album, truly glorious stuff, whilst ‘Dementia Kicking In’ is a bluesy groove a la Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The album concludes with ‘Cumulus Nimbus’, a funky piece which put me in the mind of The Egg who I saw many times at festivals in the Nineties: repetitive funked-out danceability personified, albeit that The Egg never had Ashurst’s blissed-out Hillageesque guitar work.

It would be lovely to see how this all pans out live, to witness first hand who this multilevel process works. I’ll get that chance quite soon as the duo perform a support solo slot to Here and Now in my new home town of Todmorden in early July (see above).

In the meantime copies of this truly excellent album are available via Paypal from Tom direct at Tom_ashurst96@hotmail.com for £8+£1 p+p (UK)

The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet: Surfing the Wave of the Mystery, live at Kozfest 2018 (Dakini Records)

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The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, if my gnomic cosmology holds true, was a term originally coined to describe the ‘otherness’ or trance induced by the dronish passages of Gong’s music, specifically that of glissando guitar and space whisper produced by the band’s founders Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth. It also came to encompass parallel projects in four corners of the globe – Australia, the UK, Brazil and the US, all  of which had Daevid Allen’s patronage and most his involvement (although information about the American branch is somewhat elusive) from the late Eighties onwards.

In fact my first viewing of Daevid Allen, at a memorable gig in April 1988 in an Afro-Caribbean club in Birmingham may well have gone under the umbrella of IOCOT – certainly gigs later in the year with the same musicians did. In the Nineties I got to hear albums by the Australian version (with Russell Hibbs), and the UK band (who I also saw at Gong 25) whilst a tape sent by current Gong guitarist Fabio Golfetti under this name was reviewed in Facelift and became the sleevenotes for its eventual release on Voiceprint. Much much more on that Brazilian connection in a later article.

Meanwhile, the UK version has continued its patronage of the UK festival scene, and are regular attendees at Kozfest, where this particular performance took place last summer. In fact this triumphant gig occurred towards the end of the traditionally Gong-ish Sunday on the festival’s smaller Judge Trev stage where the likes of the Glissando Guitar Orchestra, Yamma, Kangaroo Moon, Microcosmic and Magick Brothers had appeared through the weekend.

Fronted by guitarist Brian Abbott, whose Gong credentials stretch back to being the GAS custodian in the late Eighties, and partner Jackie Juno, this band’s trademarks are both romping through selected riffy Gong and Daevid Allen standards with a definite whiff of Camembert (notably ‘Stoned Innocent Frankenstein’, ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ and ‘We Circle Around’) alongside some strong originals. Occasionally they stop to take breath, and it is here that Jackie Juno’s alter ego presents itself. On the one hand a hugely charismatic, strong-voiced lead vocalist and stage presence, dropping the ‘F’ bomb at will, she can also morph into a more considered poetical side. Right from the off, the invocation ‘Now’ (whose words include this album’s title) sets the scene, whilst the later ‘Temple Song’, backed by thrashy guitar work from Brian Abbott calls down the wrath of the gods on the Chinese state (the track is dedicated, appropriately,  ‘to Tibet’).

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The highpoint, however,  is Juno’s superb, evocative ‘Great Goddess’ poem, extended from Gilli Smyth’s words, which provides the intro for a killer version of ‘Master Builder’. This is somewhat shorter than the current Gong band’s version, but punchy enough for immediate impact. The guest bass player here is none other than Mike Howlett, who of course pounded out the original line on ‘You’. A trio of originals unfamiliar to me is rounded off by  ‘Wake Up’, which alternates between some lovely harmonised verses (hints of ‘And You Tried So Hard’) between Juno and percussionist Trina McDougall, and a somewhat rousing chorus, before extending out into a glissy wig-out (and I’ll wager those two words have never appeared in tandem in print before). The aforementioned ‘Temple Song’ completes a trio of originals– as with most their material, it’s good rousing stuff for the festival crowd. Hats off to a tight band with keyboards (Julian Veasy), bass (Phil Whitehouse) and drums (Tracey Austin) and strong backing vocals throughout, and the three-strong female presence including the excellent drumming adds a different, somewhat boisterous twist to the Daevid Allen originals.

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Tim Hawthorn

Other guests on stage included Andy Bole, adding an extra guitar, and for an unexpected encore, original Invisible Tim Hawthorn/Hall/Flatus, who forsakes his gentle folky balladeering temporarily for a rousing version of ‘Bad Self’, the punked up number which he wrote and sung on ‘Jewel In The Lotus’. Although two further acts were to follow on this particular stage that evening, it brought down the curtain on our own particular viewing for Kozfest this year as we prepared to head back up north, and the pink clouds we emerged from inside the tent to, captured on the album’s front and inside covers, remain a fitting memory of an excellent gig.

You can order this CD direct at https://www.brianabbott.info

Mother Gong – The Robot Woman Trilogy boxset (Madfish)

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This lavishly illustrated and lovingly curated box set is a wonderful testament to a brief passage in time in the early 1980s when Mother Gong, the project based around Gilli Smyth and partner Harry Williamson, put forward their own unique slant on the Gong vibe in the form of a trilogy of ‘Robot Woman’ albums. I remember picking up all 3 albums in the late Eighties as they seemed to crop up, new, with corners punched out of them in various vinyl bargain bins. In fact this is the first appearance of any of them on CD, released by Madfish, a subsidiary of Snapper, who are responsible for both the Steve Hillage box set and the forthcoming ones by Gong and Caravan. This box set includes all 3 albums, carefully remastered and augmented by a fourth, containing a series of bonus tracks which add musical and historical context to the whole project.

On my first listening to this music back in the day I succumbed to the temptation to carry out a musical  comparison with Gong themselves (that band were dormant at the time, and this appeared to be the nearest thing)  but this isn’t perhaps the most helpful starting point. Harry Williamson, who composed most of the band’s music, is a very much a different kettle of fish to Daevid Allen and whilst their paths (and Gilli’s)  crossed many times over subsequent years, producing memorable reflective work such as ‘Magenta’, ‘Stroking the Tail of the Bird’ and ‘22 Meanings’,  ‘Robot Woman’ was always much more musically abrasive, whilst providing a carefully crafted backdrop for Gilli Smyth’s lyrics in a way that Gong themselves could only do sporadically.

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All of the albums are ultimately performance art, but none more so than ‘Robot Woman 1’ with all of its sharp characterisation, the music providing a busy backdrop to a story which on the surface appears to herald the advent of computerisation and automation, but ultimately is a cleverly interweaved commentary on the perception and objectivisation of women in a male-dominated world. Whilst at times the caricatures are extreme enough to make one wince (for example ‘Customs Man – Rapist’), ultimately these are richly entertaining pastiches of musical styles, with the narrative the most important element. That said, the musically the backdrop is expertly performed, with my favourite moments being Williamson’s slick funk guitar licks, particularly on ‘Disco At The End Of The World’ and ‘Machine Song’, the latter of which has you checking yourself for perspective as Gilli Smyth puts in one of her more erotic vocal performances (whilst describing the tangle of wires inside her robot persona and breathily announcing ‘I need your screwdriver…’)  . Hugh Hopper guests on two tracks here, including the truly strange ‘Stars’, whilst Mike Howlett, Steve Hillage and Steve Broughton all get credits on ‘Machine Song’ as some of the music emanates from ‘Digital Love’, the original B-side to ‘Nuclear Waste’ from Sting and the Radioactors, which I believe was Harry’s first involvement with anyone from the Gong crowd in 1977.

Despite the fact that two of my all-time favourite musicians, Didier Malherbe and Van der Graaf’s Guy Evans form part of the core ‘band’ on ‘Robot Woman 1’ (alongside young Devonian bass player Dayne Cranenburg), their individual voices are subsumed into a seamless overall machine which propels the story along. But by ‘Robot Woman 2’ on which both musicians appear again throughout, the music is starting to find a voice too. I was surprised, hearing this album for the first time in 20 odd years, how familiar it was, testament to some heavy duty listening back then and its strength as an album. The composition is already freeing up with Didier’s interjections much more recognisably his – ‘You Can Touch The Sky’ is almost an outtake from ‘Melodic Destiny’ the lost album with Yan Emeric recorded around this time here, whilst two tracks which were still Mother Gong staples in the Nineties, ‘1999’ and ‘Crazy Town’ take their first bow. Harry Williamson’s songwriting is much more effective, and includes roles for harmonised vocals – with the addition of a female voice or two singing conventionally to augment Gilli Smyth’s patent poetry. This is musically more successful than the first album, although it takes some delving into the liner notes to find the narrative in a way that wasn’t necessary with the first album.

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By album 3 the band were moving towards the formula which would characterise the classic ‘Wild Child’ era: lengthier compositions and individually musically more diverse yet coherent pieces, although one could be forgiven on hearing early parts of the opening track ‘It’s You And Me Baby’ that we have landed directly into some sort of Eighties caricature, with drum machines, stuttering voice samples a la ‘n n Nineteen’ and abrasive keyboard interjections. Highlights for me are the slightly unnerving drone piece ‘Faces of Woman’ very much suited to the Gilli Smyth voice with glissando backdrop (from Daevid Allen) , a further hint to the way forward, whilst ‘Lady’s Song’  is an almost Kevin Ayers-like cod-calypso number, superbly realised and forming the backdrop to the Smyth voice categorising the roles of women in their many guises. I’d also completely forgotten that the first part of ‘Magenta’, the glorious meditative piece also powered by a Daevid Allen glissando drone (which reached its 30 minute realisation in a later Mother Gong release) started here – Gilli’s words here are powerful and evocative.

The bonus fourth CD is something of a delight – a selection of 18 tracks mainly from various stages of the trilogy, but concentrating most particularly on early material. Track 1, ‘Evidance’, is identified as being a tune which the band used as a soundcheck/intro for early Robot Woman gigs, but in fact appears to be taken directly from the aforementioned  ‘Melodic Destinies’, which I bought as a cassette from GAS in the late Eighties, an unfulfilled follow up to ‘Bloom’ from Didier. This superb track was by the far the highlight of that release. There are early versions of ‘Disco at the End of the World’, which actually uses ‘Moving Walkway’ from ‘Robot Woman 2’ as its backdrop, complete with the superb synth solo from Mo Vickerage;  and ‘Machine Song’. Both, in waiting to settle down for their final versions contain some really interesting variations, as do the dub versions (as in its instrumental sense but also as an indication of its reggae feel) of ‘Australia’ and ‘1999’, the latter almost like Here and Now in its ska leanings. There are voiceover tryouts from Harry Williamson, two tracks featuring the vocals of Tasmin Smyth, Gilli’s first daughter, something of a forgotten entity in the whole Gong story; and two outstanding instrumental tracks unrelated to the Robot Woman story but based around the glissando guitar of Harry Williamson, the first a superb duo with Didier Malherbe called ‘Flying Through The Machine’, the second ‘Gliss’ with violinist Matthew Arnold. Elsewhere certain outtakes from ‘Robot Woman 1’ feature more prominent vocal involvement from Gilli’s (and Daevid’s) sons Taliesin and Orlando and Harry’s daughter Bee, which adds a certain anarchic charm. Finally we hear the closing part of the ‘Magenta’ poem, which has been cleverly superimposed over a track I recognised from Harry Williamson’s duo cassette with Robert Calvert (the saxophonist from later Mother Gong) ‘Street Art’ – which is hugely resonant. This section, in which Gilli as narrator reflects on life as a 100 year old, includes a certain amount of resolution in terms of the whole narrative, squaring the circle, solving life’s conundrums etc which gives a rather positive conclusion to the whole Robot Woman story perhaps.

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And so to the packaging – which is, in addition to the bonus tracks and the release of all 3 albums on CD for the first time, the primary reason you might buy this box set. An LP-sized 48-page book blends together numerous things: all of the original artwork, including for the first time coloured versions of the first album’s cartoons by Christine Sawyer; a full set of track listings and musicians; a comprehensive publishing of all the lyrics; plus a biography and thoughts by Harry Williamson on the origins of the band plus a personal chronology of its development up until the end of the trilogy period. This includes the fascinating story of the original spark for the project at the Bananamoon Observatory on Es Clot in Deia, through to communal living in the Devonian outback which spawned a number of related projects (The Long Hello and the aforementioned ‘Melodic Destiny’) and eventually to emigration to Australia. There is a eulogy from Rick Chafen, personal friend and architect of the US gigging network which gave a platform for the band in the Nineties; and artefacts including  gig posters and ticket; and a rather moving and erudite poem written by Gilli Smyth following the death of Harry Williamson’s father Henry (author of Tarka the Otter, a book which son Harry would later set to music). This is all in all, a wonderfully presented artefact for a somewhat forgotten piece of history and a lovely tribute from Harry Williamson to Gilli Smyth and the music they created together.

Buy the Mother Gong trilogy box set from http://www.planetgong.co.uk

 

Ed Wynne – Shimmer Into Nature (Kscoper 827)

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Facelift fanzine was renowned for trying to sneak in Ozric Tentacles reviews at every opportunity, regardless of their tangential links to the ‘scene’ (there are links both musically and personnel-wise if you’re prepared to look hard enough) and I’ve followed the progress of this seminal space-rock band assiduously over the last thirty years. As their leader Ed Wynne re-located back to the UK following a number of changes in circumstances, I was lucky enough to catch him at Kozfest in 2017 firstly as a guest with the Ullulators, then memorably with his own pop-up band as most of the initial Ozrics line-up were re-united for a superb hour long jam.

But any assumption based on these good vibes that this would naturally morph into Ozrics mark z appears to have been misplaced. Instead Ed has been working for a while on his first solo album, whose appearance was initially slated for September but eventually appeared in January. What’s perhaps surprising, given the extraordinary diversity in the early Ozrics tapes both in terms of Ed’s choice of stringed instruments and a heady mix of styles, is that ‘Shimmer Into Nature’ seems to continue the homogenous path of recent band albums, most notably the admittedly excellent double ‘Technicians of the Sacred’. The music is incredibly dense, a blend of busy programmed drums, undulating bass parts and layers of keyboards, with an initial impression that there may not be sufficient space to showcase trademark guitar work.

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Despite myself living so remotely in the nether regions of West Yorkshire that running water is considered to be something of a luxury, I happen to live 3 doors down from a fellow Ozrics aficionado, and when I mentioned to him that I was finding it difficult to find a hook in to ‘Shimmer’ he sagely advised me to ‘stick with it’. And he was right: it’s a slow burner, and beyond the density are all the hallmarks of an Ozrics archetype: titles such as ‘Oddplonk’ and ‘Wherble’ and ‘Shim’ suggest the band’s legacy of slightly absurdist track names is safe – and indeed these final three tracks, each clocking in at around 10 minutes, are the album’s best. Whilst ‘Shim’ is the most instantly recognisable classic based on a superb keyboard theme, ‘Oddplonk’ is probably the best, with, eventually, all the trademark elements: the rolling bass theme, the initial guitar riffing, the swirling, bubbling keyboards, the joyful guitar solo which eventually morphs into the distorted, reedy lead line doubled by further rhythm lines. There are even the ‘Jurassic Shift’ type harmonics in there, and it almost takes me back to the semi-jammed delights of ‘Tantric Obstacles’.

In fact, from what appears initially as a predominantly synth and programmed led album, guitar reveals itself more and more, with further fine riffs on ‘Wherble’. One month on, this album still continues to give, and I’m fairly sure I’ve not finished with it yet. With the news that the spring Gong tour will be backed by support from the Ed Wynne band, this seems like a nice way to finish this particular batch of reviews. Given that the only misgivings I have about this album is a tendency to build a multitude of layers to the detriment of the ‘space’ which allows Ed Wynne’s guitar to shine at its brightest, perhaps the adding of ‘real’ bass and drums will complete a comfortably heady mix to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ultramarine: Signals Into Space (Les Disques du Crepuscule TWI 1236) Ultramarine: Meditations (Les Disques du Crepuscule TWI 1243)

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Ultramarine were Facelift darlings in the mid-Nineties as their clear love for the Canterbury scene (as witnessed by samplings of ‘Lullabye Letter’ and ‘Flute Salad’ on their seminal 1991 album ‘Every Man And Woman Is A Star’) was expanded into their memorable ‘United Kingdoms’ album. This, for the uninitated, featured original contributions from Robert Wyatt and Jimmy Hastings as well as a version of Matching Mole’s ‘Instant Kitten’. Their take on dancey electronica was subtly questioning where that of the Orb was manically subverting, and they continued to record some fine albums after the Canterbury spotlight had passed.

After a very long hiatus, the duo (Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond) reformed in 2011 and released a rather low-key album ‘This Time Last Year’ two years later which received relatively little airplay here. But any suggestion that the outfit had lost their mojo in the years since the mid-Nineties has been rather kyboshed by the appearance of ‘Signals Into Space’ a 12 track album backed by an additional 40 minute ‘meditation’ CD which can be purchased as a bonus artefact for an additional £5 at https://www.lesdisquesducrepuscule.com/signals_into_space_twi1236.html

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Whilst it was always unlikely that ‘Signals’ would ever surpass the diverse excellence of ‘Every Man’, the jazzy ‘Bel Air’ or the minimalist ‘A User’s Guide’, it manages to combine elements of all 3 into a refreshing, coherent mix. Stripped down electronica is represented in the opening track, Kraftwerkish in its top-end percussive noises, and whilst there’s little of ‘Bel Air’s funk, its gentle rave is propelled on by the excellent ‘Arithmetic’ and the vibes (as in the tuned percussive instrument) are maintained by guest player Ric Elsworth at various points on the album. That nod to the Nineties is also present in the gentle rhythms of ‘Framework’ whilst the atmospherics underpinned by the chattering beats of ‘Cross Reference’ eventually stretches out into what could be a quote from the rhythms of ‘Lights In Your Brain’.

The Ultramarine aficionado will remember that on their third and fourth albums the duo added vocals to the whirring beats, firstly through Robert Wyatt, and secondly from a quite bizarre duo from Wigan called Pooka. Several tracks on ‘Signals’, mostly notably the evocative ‘Spark From Flint To Clay’ add the voice of American singer Anna Domino, which whilst not quite as kooky as Pooka, creates a slightly unsettling ambience. The other main guest here is none other than saxophonist Iain Ballamy, a coincidence of real resonance for me as he was an integral part of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, the first band I ever saw (in 1986?) with any sort of connection to music I would subsequently write about. Ballamy’s contributions include his lyrical stage centre on ‘Breathing’ as well as an even more understated presence on the beatless ‘Sleight of Hand’.

What’s great about Ultramarine is the fact that whilst largely uncategorisable (is this dance music or experimental electronica, or both?) they have their own unique calling cards: gentle, minimalist rhythms, simple slightly unnerving atmospherics and a penchant for overlaying this with very human voices and acoustic instrumentation. Their magic remains.

As for ‘Meditation’, well it very much does what it says on the tin. Beatless, slightly eerie and rather relaxing, these are impressionistic soundscapes, etched out by marimba-esque sounds, plinking and plonking against swathes of keyboard backdrop, and backed by the sound of distant conversations or bird song. Occasionally settling into almost recognisable themes before meandering off somewhere else, this is serene stuff and pleasant without being anodyne. Certainly a departure but none the less impressive for all that.

https://ultramarine.uk.com/