Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Hawkwind - Live Seventy Nine

I’ve always held Live Seventy Nine in high regard and listed it consistently as one of my favourite Hawkwind albums, and I think possibly one of the reasons for that is the way that it actually served as my first proper introduction to the band. I could probably even tell you went it was that I first heard it, if only the Jam gigs site actually listed the date of The Jam’s gig at the late, lamented St Austell Cornwall Coliseum but safe to say it was the night in December, 1980 that Weller and co made what appears to have been their only appearance at that venue. I know this, because it was my first proper gig and I got driven up to St Austell by my cousin, Richard Pascoe, who had this album on tape in the car and would play it regularly on the way to gigs. So I heard it that night, heard it again when The Who played and later when Elvis Costello put in an appearance. I’ll note here that he also had the box and inlay for Levitation, but the tape itself never materialised and it was quite a bit later that I picked up the blue vinyl LP of that one.

From there, it became a sort of good-luck tradition that I adopted, to play this album not only as the first tape in the cassette player on the way to gigs, but generally whenever there was a lengthy drive due (and, to be fair, most of those drives were out of the county to see Hawkwind in Bristol, or Plymouth). I got through my own cassette of the album, then later a home-made version with ‘Urban Guerrilla’ restored to the running order, and later again when I had a stab (incorrectly it seems) at which other available tracks might have been culled from the same St. Albans concert. Time has moved on, that faithful old tradition died out somewhere in the 1990s; I’ve only rarely heard this record again since but it still churns up the same nostalgic feelings when I slip it into a CD player, crank up the volume, hear the crowd rousing a cheer for the band and Hawkwind launching into that Steve Swindell’s masterpiece ‘Shot Down in the Night’.

I blog about that at some length, because I believe there’s a distinction between enthusing about an album that you love in the environment of a blog, and reviewing the same in the mainstream music press. In a blog, you can relate something of what a particular album means to you, how it affected your life (let me see, would I now be published writer had I never heard of Hawkwind... I like to think I would, but I have my doubts), whereas the job of the music critic, it seems to me, is to look at a body of work and place it in context to the back catalogue around it. So when I come to review it in conjunction with Quark, Strangeness & Charm then there’s a clear dilemma. I might love them both equally, but conversely I can see the significance of one over the other and am obliged to rank them accordingly.

So here’s my chance to extemporise around the subject of Live Seventy Nine for a few moments. Steve Swindells kindly e-mailed me an MP3 of his own version of ‘Shot Down in the Night’ recently, a great opportunity to compare how the writer saw his song in comparison to the live ‘cover’ by Hawkwind, both have their merits, and whilst I’m inclined to agree with Steve that his own reading is the superior version, there’s just something about Hawkwind shooting their set off ‘with a rush of adrenaline’ that made every time I saw them and they failed to open with this one become just a little bit diminished. This is the classic Hawkwind set-opener, in my humble opinion.

I think when the opening salvo of ‘Shot Down...’ gives way to the contemporary-as-hell rock of ‘Motorway City’, then you realise just how clever Dave Brock has been over the years in that constant replenishment and reinvention of his band. When you listen to Huw Lloyd Langton adding his totally inventive leads across this track and contrast that with what the band had been doing during their time on Charisma (totally valid material, just totally different from the ’79 line-up) then you see the originality in the thinking and the ability that Brock has to hear different sounds and combine them into something that is still definitively Hawkwind. That’s inherent in this line-up’s reinterpretation of ‘Spirit of the Age’ and the way they blast through ‘Master of the Universe’ and ‘Brainstorm’ as if to say, “Okay, here’s our take on these for the 1980s, we’ve not stood still you know.”

And then also a mention, of course, for Tim Blake’s ‘Lighthouse’, the quiet lull in the storm. Hindsight’s a great thing, but it’s a huge shame we don’t have decent sounding recordings of his ‘New Jerusalem’, also played on this tour, and the lovely and touching ‘Waiting For Nati’ that was played (twice?) the following year. But ‘Lighthouse’ also has a charm all of its own, and again was one of the tracks that lingered in the memory after first hearing this album on that December night so many years ago now.

So here are Atomhenge giving this much-loved album some priority in the release schedule, and quite right too; and fantastic to see Brian Tawn, who for so many years kept so many fans up to date with Hawkwind news, contributing to this reissue programme with his sleeve notes. I’m a touch disappointed not to hear ‘Urban Guerruilla’ restored back into the running order (it’s included, along with the single cut of ‘Shot Down...’ as bonus tracks), and it’s a huge shame that the original tapes of the full show are lost to the vagaries of time. But I also think to myself, next time I have a decent drive to undertake, I’ll stick this one on the top of the pile and drive away to it cranked up full.


Monday, 27 April 2009

Space Mirrors - Majestic 12: A Hidden Presence

I must confess that I’ve rather lost track of what my old friend Alisa Coral has been up to since hearing her 2004 Space Mirrors CD, The Darker Side of Art which was released on Andy Garibaldi’s Dead Earnest label. Since then she’s released another, Memories of the Future, through the Greek label Sleazy Rider Records (in 2006) and now she’s back again with this release, her second through Sleazy Rider.

First up, it’s a bit unfair of me not to credit Space Mirrors as a band, because alongside Alisa is her long-time creative partner (another of those long distance collaborations so beloved of Spacerock bands it seems), guitarist Michael Blackman, who also makes music under the Alien Dreams banner and vocalists (perhaps new for this album?) Martyr Lucifer and Amber. In addition, this time around the band have recruited welcome guest appearances from two of the most ubiquitous contributors on the Spacerock scene, the father of the whole scene, Nik Turner, and the exceptionally talented electric violinist Cyndee Lee Rule, complete with her now legendary ‘Viper’ violin. Damn good starting point then.

A quick summation, then, about Space Mirrors: Alisa Coral is a multi-instrumentalist Russian musician who attracted favourable coverage at the start of the decade, when her Neutron Star instrumental album got her noticed in the Spacerock arena. The Darker Side of Art saw Alisa collaborating on-line with Australian Michael Blackman producing something that had a clear line from Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles (whilst being denser in texture than either) whilst on Memories of the Future they took inspiration from the Dune novels of SF writer Frank Herbert.
Their new album leans heavily on those staple ingredients of Spacerock: alien visitations, Roswell, Area 51, and UFO conspiracies. Now, there’s part of me that wants the genre to move away from these concepts. I’m sure there’s plenty who’ll disagree with me, but I’m of the view that we are have reached a point where the general UFO mythos has been largely debunked and, from a Spacerock viewpoint, Hawkwind’s foray into the subject in the mid-90s is arguably the pinnacle of using UFO mythology and touchstones in this context.

Is it, therefore, redundant to write about these subjects? Not if it’s done well of course, and the lyrics here are a cohesive joining-up of associated themes so that aside from the key elements of UFOlogy, we have secret societies, ancient alien civilisations, and conspiracy theories. Plenty then to get our teeth into in this extremely well-realised concept album; it’s dark, mysterious and heavy with a huge sense of atmosphere. The vocals on the opening ‘Tunguska’ (from the credits, I’m not clear whether this is Alisa or Amber) have an unearthly quality that blends perfectly with the overall tone of the music, itself in places a little reminiscent of the Space Ritual opening ‘Born to Go’ but more expansive and varied, whilst Nik’s sax playing adds another dimension to the density of the surrounding guitar and drums. Martyr’s vocals elsewhere are guttural, variously credited as ‘clean, screaming and growling’, giving an abrasive Space Metal feel to his tracks.

Certainly not always an easy to listen to album, this record is challenging and startling, possessing huge presence – Martyr’s vocals are defiant and aggressive whilst the music is heavy and bold in its construction without losing sight of the need to be melodic. There is light and shade, Nik playing some lovely flute at the end of ‘Dreamland II: Area 51’ whilst his dialogue on ‘Krill Report’ is well realised. This is a well thought-out work, definitely residing at the extreme Metal end of Spacerock.

Our Brother The Native - Sacred Psalms

Here’s a veritable cacophony of tribal beats, Native American textures and screeching chants that are vibrant, experimental, and challenging - and produced by a three-piece college band that collaborate principally across the Internet. Josh Bertram (vocals, guitar, saxophone, piano, banjo, organ, synth, drums /percussion, programming/samples/noise) and Chaz Knapp (vocals, guitar, banjo) have been working this project, pushing at their boundaries and building on their successes since 2005, releasing two previous albums and a recent EP with co-founder John Michael Foss, who it seems has now split leaving Bertram and Knapp to carry on with the ad-hoc assistance of violinist Kevin McKay. This release says they’re more than up to the challenge.

Crackling with euphorically released energy, Sacred Psalms externalises pent-up inner emotions, primitive repressed stuff that comes out in the freedom of uninhibited expression. ‘Well Bred’ opens in the echoing space of the wide-open country and then shrieks in a celebratory way that expresses its unconstrained dance, ‘I am your doctor / listen to what I say’ it appears to implore. If I’ve misheard that lyric, and such misunderstanding is forgivable in the way that the vocals are subservient to the percussion patterns that is their raison-d’ĂȘtre, then it certainly should say that anyway because the whole album has that joyous quality that comes with the music’s competing beats. ‘Endless Winter’ with its simple piano and gently competing vocals beguiles and moves with a real heartbeat aura to it. ‘Awaken’ enters with Aboriginal vibes and drifts into Oriental simplicity.

It’s probably a little unfair to labour the Native American tones to OBTN’s sound, they’re certainly embracing World Music as a whole, but (and not withstanding already being tuned in to that element of their work, having just enjoyed the latest issue of Jason Aaron & R M Guera's excellent Scalped, but that’s a worthy side digression) their sheer evocation of clear night air, huge campfires and open plains adds an ethereal, almost mystical element. Discordant, the drums compete for the groove against chiming metal, winding violin, piano and conflicting saxophone sounds.

I think we’re looking now for something that encapsulates something different from the crass commercialism of an increasingly irrelevant mainstream that says nothing to us that could help free us out of our modern social malaise. Our Brother The Native, on the other hand, are producing sounds that liberate us from our mundane, repressed existence and tell us that throwing off these contemporary problems and embracing the more primal part of our nature has great value. This is ambitious and vivid stuff built on widescreen visions and distant horizons.

Our Brother The Native Myspace Page
Our Brother The Native Website
Fat Cat Records