22 Feb 2017

Heaven’s Gateway Drugs – Rubber Nun


Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson

The first wave of psychedelia that came to flower back in 1967 – the Summer of Love – was amazing. An explosion of something hopeful, idealistic, experimental yet dangerous, and ultimately short lived. It came on like a hand grenade and like the politics of its time, collapsed under the weight of its own excesses. But like a flower, it was merely a beautiful device for its own replication and continuation. The seeds were cast to the winds of time.

Flash forward 50 years, and we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the third generation of psychedelia. The seeds scattered by the wind those many years ago are still blooming, with new and unique flowers exploding in unexpected places. Picture yourself in a boat on a river, well maybe not a river, but instead the small Midwestern city of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This is the hometown of the exceptional, sometimes sinister, but consistently entertaining Heaven’s Gateway Drugs.

On their third full length record, "Rubber Nun" (Dizzybird Records) Heaven's Gateway Drugs blend Syd Barrett’s dollhouse darkness with equal measures of clever lyricism, catchy melody and just enough weirdness to evoke that morning-after- a-trip feeling of ‘did that really just happen’?

"Thee Heathen Twist" kicks off this new collection, pulsing its eerie little heart out and setting the pace. "Copper Hill" follows with a nearly pinched Warlocks riff, but quickly establishes itself and what the Drugs do best – sing-song melodies swirling around a smoky room, drums bashing about and pulling you forward. “It’s all Fun & Games, until you get hurt”, indeed. And there’s always that thought in the back of your mind. You’re at a party where you don’t really know anyone, you’re not sure how long you’ve been here, or even how you arrived. It’s that exact mood that Heaven’s Gateway Drugs have an amazing knack for creating. It’s at once alienating and inviting, a series of doors, constantly opening themselves to the listener, but perhaps masking something secret. Is it sinister purpose or just a madcap lark – having a bit of fun with a stranger? There’s only one way to find out.

Title track "Rubber Nun" continues it’s double entendre game – "fake plastic gun/ melt in the sun/ I still got mine/ my Rubber Nun/ life on the run/ isn’t it fun?" These dudes are definitely fucking with me. "Dear Charolotte" feels like something Barrett might have written if he didn’t go quite so far off track. "The Horrible Tale of Edwin Crisp" and "Only Child" only solidify the lyricism. "Knowing" marches and stomps then dissolves into a dreamy coda, setting up the rocker "Utah Spirit Baby". By the time we reach the closer "War With June", the sky is starting to lighten and the shadows of the night before have transformed back into familiar figures. Dark figurines return to non-menacing shapes and the fun house doors open to bid you farewell.

Some drugs can cure, some can drive you mad. What you bring to the party is up to you. With "Rubber Nun", Heaven’s Gateway Drugs offer a darkly disorienting experience, but one I would definitely prescribe.

6 Feb 2017

The Driftwood Manor - For The Moon


Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Following the single ‘Fraction of a Wolf’ (reviewed here at The Active Listener alongside an interview with Driftwood main man Eddie Keenan) comes The Driftwood Manor’s fourth album proper ‘For The Moon’, an intense yet nuanced collection of dark folktales and eclectic and rich instrumentation that adds yet another solid jewel to the treasure vault that is this band’s (highly recommended) back catalogue. The Driftwood Manor have never been afraid of creating a coherent yet eclectic approach to their song craft and, pulling on various musical strands that include psychedelia, Americana as well as traditional folk, ‘For The Moon’ proves to be a layered and lasting piece of work with a wealth of jewels and diamonds to discovered therein.

The album opens with the beautiful, pensive ’Fraction of a Wolf', Keenan's voice heartfelt and soaring over the most melancholy of fiddles; this already feels like an old friend and a classic Manor song. 'Spring' follows, opening acapella style and reminiscent of the most heartrending and affecting of Bonnie Prince Billy songs, before banjo and bass pick out a creeping, processionary melody that raises the hairs on your arms as much it also aches the soul. This is The Driftwood Manor’s gift and subtle magic; they can create something that chills and affects in equal manner, something hugely melodic that still has an uncompromising edge and tension. The growing collection of chanted voices becomes almost hymnal or devotional as the track layers, ever ascending. Next 'When Wisdom Was Lowered from Heaven' finds a more reflective space to share its gentle sing-song melody and delicate fingerpicking, cello flanking Keenan as he recounts so intimately that it feels like he is in the room with you. It’s a heart stopping moment of sheer beauty, one of many on this album. 'Fire And Brimstone’ follows, a country tinged, widescreen treasure, violin weaving in and out of the backdrop of slide guitar and Keenan's plaintive voice. 'For The Moon' keeps hold of the hint of country music for a dark barn dance of a song with a black hearted refrain of 'time took away everything…'

'The Secret People' utilises what sounds not unlike throat singing and banjo to create something that feels both sacred and ancient, sounding as though it is coming out of the earth itself. It is testament to Keenan's mastery of his craft that he can sit such varied approaches together and yet they follow seamlessly, each unmistakingly a Driftwood Manor track. 'The Fox and the Bear' follows, a ghost story of a song, ably and hypnotically recounted by Keenan with a beautifully wrought violin and guitar backing that leaves the listener breathless. The album comes to a close with two of Keenan's finest ballads to date, the affecting, sepia tinted and timeless 'The River Changing' and the apocalyptic 'I Have Become The Waves' in which Keenan sounds truly wracked and weary, a genuinely spellbinding performance and fitting finale to this highly recommended album. A strong contender for one of the albums of the year and another gem in the embarrassment of riches that is the Driftwood Manor's back catalogue

Available now on CD and as a download at Folkwit Record’s Bandcamp and website. However, once you have investigated this release, do delve further into The Driftwood Manor’s other albums, you will not be disappointed.

Bandcamp Daily Feature / Interview


Ned Raggett was kind enough to interview us for a feature on Bandcamp daily.

The full feature can be read here.

Keep your eyes peeled for a few new reviews shortly too, we've got a few surprises up our sleeves still.

12 Jan 2017

The Steppes - Drop of the Creature


Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan

Wow! Someone finally remastered and reissued this monster on vinyl...

It was 30 years ago today…well it was about 30 years ago today that I first heard the then new debut full length LP by The Steppes, “Drop of the Creature” released on Greg Shaw's legendary Voxx Records. In 1986 this record stood pretty much alone as a perfect example of modern psych-rock-folk. Whilst many of the groups of the decade who had hinted at taking the magic swirling ship downed tools, signed to majors and retreated into distinctly un-psychedelic AOR rock land, The Steppes were heading outwards into the purple mist.

The band didn't so much buck the general trend as obliterate it, unleashing one of the great psychedelic rock records of all time (in my humble opinion) with the masterful ‘Drop of the Creature’. This is a record loaded with wonderfully constructed songs supplied by California residing, Irish-American brothers John and David Fallon. It is psychedelic for sure, it is also folky and prog and rock and beat and avant garde - all at once. This was musical. It displays myriad influences - from the 60's and 70's, from Europe, from America and time has shown it was clearly years ahead of its time. This was musical alchemy par excellence and nearly all selections contained therein are underpinned by a mysterious, almost religious, celtic flavour that often adds an epic drama and romance to their strangely strange but oddly accessible sound.

“A Play on Wordsworth” opens proceedings, appearing on the horizon with a slightly ominous and unsettling barrage of slashing power chords and impressionistic utterings counterpointed by several cluster bombs of wah-wah driven guitar breaks. It’s quiet-loud changing up through the (Disraeli) gears and use of light and shade immediately marking this out as a very different beast from their ‘Paisley Underground’ contemporaries. What we have here is no overly stylised slavish retro-trip; this is a musical tour de force, dripping and pulsing with invention and ambition - as an opening gambit you know you are in heavy territory.

‘Somebody Waits’ is a sublimely beautiful acid-folk ballad that could melt the hardest of hearts, a postcard from home to a distant and ancient traveller who is searching for something that is already there. Its plaintive closing advice of "don’t you dare drown in the spring", remains as profoundly affecting to me now as it did on first listen all that time ago. ‘Holding Up Well’ is muscular and driven by a powerful 70’s prog arrangement and wonderfully dramatic vocal performance. 'Make Us Bleed' is daringly deft - all scrolling guitar runs and alternately biting and lyrical vocals that seem to simultaneously invoke the spirit of Phil Lynott and John Lennon - go figure. ‘Cut in Two’ is detached with an almost diffident delivery, replete with slide guitar buried in the mix of a soft shoe shuffle. It’s jolting endgame is impressive and sounds nothing less than an asylum door being slammed firmly shut. 'The Sky is Falling’ manages to combine that celtic lilt with some truly heavy psych moves and appropriate use of slide as a way of knocking the listener off balance. “See You Around” is as close as The Steppes got to their immediate peers, a slab of straight ahead sunshine pop that seems to fluctuate between The Byrds of ‘I See You’ and The Beatles of ‘Drive My Car’. It’s a beauty and should have been the song that launched them out of the underground and into the daylight. 'Lazy Ol' Son' is a bar room argument between Syd Barrett and Rory Gallagher with no clear winner emerging from the ensuing spat. 'Bigger Than Life' is a total trip. All see-sawing echoed bass stabs, ultra-compressed "Lucy in the Sky..." vocalising, amazing squalling shards of backwards guitar and watery drums. Its a bit like "The Man Who Sold the World" era Bowie and its utterly magnificent.

'Black Forest Friday' is a short piece of sonic grand guignol, its queasy keys, snaking guitars, end of the hallway flutes and mechanical sounds making it one and a half minutes of totally spooked out baroque madness. ‘More Than This’ closes out the album proper with a lingering sigh and some suitably wise words that still resonate as one expects they will forever, “there is no chosen holy land...I wish today was like tomorrow, I’d pack up my bags and all my sorrow..” – all set inside some lovely guitar phrasing and a closing Page-esque guitar solo that arcs upwards towards the sun before fading in its golden light. Add in the beautifully kaleidoscopic 'History Hates No Man' as one of the bonus tracks with its fabulous melange of floating guitars, chimes and mantra-like voices singing hosannas from the highest hilltops and you really are being spoiled here. This is fabulous stuff.

Thirty years later, time remains hugely kind to the ambition, vision and uniqueness of this record. It's ability to startle, unsettle and beguile the active listener with its magick remains undiminished, its stock continues to appreciate. 'Drop of the Creature' is simply a fabulous achievement. Believe.

So, is this the reissue of the year? Yes. Should you buy it? Yes. Should you buy it for your friends? Yes. More than this I cannot say. Amen.

Available from limited stockists and the label direct below.

Also: The Checks "Green Velvet Electric" Review

3 Jan 2017

The Green Pajamas - To The End of The Sea / V/A - Gathered Leaves


Reviews by Nathan Ford

I'm getting too old to keep up with all of Sugarbush Records' wonderful output, but here are a couple of highlights from their last few months of releases,  lovingly pressed in small quantities on vinyl (350 and 200 copies respectively).

A new Green Pajamas album is always cause for celebration, and "To The End Of The Sea" may well be their best for a decade. CD and digital releases happened earlier on in the year, but Sugarbush have done us all a favour by putting it out on lovely blue vinyl (their third Green Pajamas vinyl release).

While recent albums have tried different things and had much to recommend them, "To The End Of The Sea" returns to the tried and true 'classic' Pajamas sound of the late nineties / early noughties with Jeff Kelly's best set of songs for a long time, albeit with a more knowingly psychedelic presentation, which is just fine with me.

"When Juliet Smiles" is another in a string of perfect, wistful psych-pop gems. This and "Ten Million Light Years Away" are the sorts of songs that have GP fans tearing out their hair and shaking their fists at the cruel hand of fate, and it's hard not to agree that this music should be heard by so many more than it is.

And while it's easy to cherrypick specific tracks for praise, for highlights are many, it's as a complete suite that this works best.

Get the vinyl here (digital and CD from the link below).

Also new, and fabulous, is "Gathering Leaves", a carefully curated compilation of material originally featured on Ptolemaic Terrascope's free CDs from the nineties and early noughties.

For those unfamiliar, Ptolemaic Terrascope was a long running psychedelic fanzine founded in the eighties by Phil McMullen and Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman, the approach of which was very similar to ours here at the Active Listener, but on a much more ambitious scale.

"Gathering Leaves" does a great job of illustrating just how diverse a genre psychedelia can be, embracing everything from folk (Sharron Kraus), psychedelic pop (The Dipsomaniacs & The Green Pajamas again), to more experimental fare like Saint Joan who's lengthy epic "December" is something of a highlight here - particularly as I'd never heard of her before.

And let's not forget that at the time, this was pure outsider music. Psychedelia was yet to be homogenised and reintroduced to the masses by the likes of Tame Impala. This acknowledgement that even in the (musically speaking) darkest times, adventurous and exciting music is being made, if you're willing to look hard enough for it, resonates deeply with me.

I'm amazed that there are copies of this left still - but apparently there are. You can get them here (all prices include international shipping). Get in quick!

2 Jan 2017

Delphine Dora - Le Fruits De Mes Songes / Krotz Struder - 15 Dickinson Songs


Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Two essential releases related to the beautiful and consistently impressive Wild Silence label, one from label owner Delphine Dora who offers an exquisite tableaux of dreamlike chamber folk (and which can be found on the similarily wonderful Bezirk label) and the other from Krotz Struder, the one man project of Julien Grandjean who musically interprets fifteen of the poet Emily Dickinson's works in a melancholic, understated and truly gorgeous manner.

Dora's 'Le Fruits De Mes Songes' begins with the delicate but intense piano of 'Dans La Brume Chuchotante', which is quickly enveloped by the buzz of collected and whispered voices to create a disorientated, dreamlike air. Indeed, some of the text used was taken from books in Dora's own library which she describes as like using'passages of prose used as samples...I like using different random sources in the same song, different fragments to have a disparate meaning, something that is mysterious to the consciousness, something that can question the listening experience. I tried to use my voice as a whisper, or many voices to induce a subliminal effect to the consciousness of the listener." This album certainly evokes just that; it is experiential in nature in that it demands our full attention and takes the listener to the dust filled and haunted corners of our thoughts and memories where the odd creatures of our past reside. 'Oraculum’ is one such piece, on a myriad of harp notes Dora's layered vocals take us to a world of wakened dreams and half remembered pasts. 'Harp-psi-chord' is a baroque, regency styled piece with Dora's vocals flowing and ebbing over the shimmering harpsichord notes whilst 'Alpha Centuri' is a chamber folk gem; gossamer cascades of piano, music box notes and icy slabs of organ come together to conjure a truly otherworldly experience and sound, a cobwebbed fairy tale of a song. This must be the sound that dreams make when they sing...'Hush Lullaby' is a more conventional but no less lovely piano piece that sounds both timeless and haunted, as if being heard through a crack in the present that has allowed the ghosts of sounds from the past to enter. At once both earthy and traditional as well as experimental and unique, Dora's music continually fascinates, evokes and resonates. This is a stunningly fine album, should you wish music to be challenging, beautiful and emotive then do not miss out on this singularly lovely recording.

Moving on to the second of the releases, Krotz Struder approaches Emily Dickinson's words by cloaking them in a shimmering and delicate web of finger picked and chiming guitar, skeletal piano and his own unique style of chanson. Having previously interpreted the works of Blake and Bernhard, Grandjean is clearly at home with such material and his versions are unspeakably lovely; 'The Foreigner' and 'The One, The Other' would not be out of place on This Mortal Coil's classic 'It'll End In Tears', such is the reverberated, sacred mood evoked here. This is not in any sense however a one note performance, indeed Grandjean adds interesting, curious and left field shadows and corners throughout with squalls of ebow sitting alongside icy shimmers of guitar and the songs themselves web and weave in some unforeseen directions, pleasingly quite unlike anything else you may have heard. Grandjean takes Dickinson's romantically morbid visions and creates something entirely new and bewitching with them, adding his own bohemian and poetic ingredients. This is an album of highlights however 'The Thought Before', a Leonard Cohen-esque treasure, and 'Cap Of Lead', in which Grandjean’s guitar sparkles like sequins on a sky of ink, are two noteworthy moments. Seek this album out, it would be a crime for something so accomplished and downright beautiful to not be heard.

Both albums are available on physical and download formats, Delphine's being available on cassette and Krotz Struder on CD. As always with the Wild Silence the packaging and sleeve design of '15 Dickinson Songs' is a work of art in itself.


1 Jan 2017

The Luck of Eden Hall – The Acceleration of Time


Reviewed by Timothy Ferguson

I’ve been a long time in putting this review together, as "The Acceleration of Time" was released by The Luck of Eden Hall way back in April. Perhaps it is apropos that a record so obsessed with time should be reviewed only after the reviewer has given this collection of songs the time it so richly deserves.

There should be no need to introduce you to The Luck of Eden Hall. After all, they’ve been around for a long, long time (time again), diligently producing album after album of premium grade psychedelic pop. Popping up again and again on those juicy Fruits de Mer compilations, now appearing on soundtracks and in Record Collector magazines. Always solid, always producing much more than mere perfect songs, but solid and well-crafted works of art. If there’s a dud in the cannon, this reviewer sure hasn’t heard it, and I’ve had my eye (and ear) on these cats since Pumpkins were mere sprouts and the Chicago scene was the last unspoiled hunting ground for a music industry that never had a clue.

However, if this IS your first foray into the work of The Luck of Eden Hall, you’ve certainly joined the party at a high point. On "The Acceleration of Time", the band goes from strength to strength, serving up their unique brand of psychedelia that features flashes of power pop adrenaline, prog virtuosity and plenty of :Lucy in the Sky..." flower power imagery. The instrumentation is confident and pristine, with not a note out of place. Best of all, LoEH write SONGS. This is no echo drone phoned-in formula psych. Instead you get verses, choruses, hooks, clever turns of phrase and actual sonic stories. This is purpose over Prozac; psychedelia for the thinking man.

"The Acceleration of Time" is an ambitious 15 song double album, and it may be the crown jewel in The Luck of Eden Hall's already accomplished recording career. Time is obviously a concern, and a growing one for The Luck of Eden Hall, as the songs on this impressive collection are haunted by the pursuit of the second hand. Throughout the work, clocks tick, bells chime, reminding us again and again that we are being pursued by our own mortality. How many songs do we have left in us? How much time is left on the scoreboard?

Kicking off with "Slow and Blown to Kingdom Come", fans will recognize the touchstone elements that make The Luck of Eden Hall sound so unique. Greg Curvey’s multi-headed hydra of guitars that crunch and bite or soar and attack like a psychedelic cobra, drumming by Carlos Mendoza that could hold it’s own against an artillery barrage, Mark Lofgren’s melodic yet precise bass guitar lines that add rhythmic sinew and bone and that amazing melotron washing color onto everything it touches, courtesy of Jim Licka.

"A Procession of Marshmallow Soldiers Across the Clockwork Pudding" has to win some sort of award for best song title of the year. This instrumental is the first of several, and serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the clockwork precision of the poppy openers. Although Curvey carries the lion’s share of songwriting credits on this release, Lofgren’s title track "The Acceleration of Time" is a gem, and could be a lost Eno track from "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy". His other contributions to this masterwork are equally spectacular, my favorite probably being "Only Robots Can Search the Deep Ocean Floor".

One of the best things about this record is how well it works as a front to back concept record. It also works as a collection of greatest hits (if one can do that on a single collection of songs from the same record). Fans of the Shuffle feature will revel at "The Acceleration of Time", as there is no way to mix this up in a way that doesn’t work. Time may move in a linear direction, but the Luck of Eden Hall have fashioned a 77-minute wormhole of a record. Rockers are paced by haunting lullabies, pop gems give way to lush instrumentals and the whole thing is well paced, hypnotic and dreamlike.

Sometimes a reviewer gets a record that is love at first sight. And like love that is more passion-based, those glowing Spring feelings may wane with the passing of time. I’m glad that I gave this record such a long gestation period before penning this review. Time itself has served as a proving ground for the intelligence, wit and depth of this sterling effort. Some loves are meant to withstand the test of Time.

Best record of 2016.

28 Dec 2016

Magic Shoppe - Wonderland


Reviewed By Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop) and Joseph Murphy

After teasing us with a 4-track EP earlier this year, Boston’s Magic Shoppe has unleashed its newest full-length, and it’s a corker. Blending together the modern psych sounds of bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre with the full-on sonic assault of The Warlocks, it’s one of those albums that reveals more and more of itself with each listen.

The album opens with the nasty fuzztone and wah-wah riffing of “Stars Explode”—pure heavy psych a la The Warlocks. But when the arrangement shifts just a little, all sorts of nifty harmonic constructions reveal themselves, reflecting the influence of nothing so much as "Daydream Nation"era Sonic Youth. “Head On the Floor” follows, with the same kind of SY riffing, but here it’s the bassline that drives the song forward. Yeah, the guitars are front-and- center, of course. But when I find myself bobbing my head, it’s to the rhythm of the bass guitar. “Kill” explodes out of the speakers next. It’s a 12-bar blues-based vamp with super-saturated reverb-heavy vocals over a tremolo guitar—Rock, with a capital “R.” The beautifully arranged guitars are stacked on top of one another like the layers of a delicious cake made of fuzztone and rhythm. It’s easy to get lost in this one.

It’s also easy to get lost in the vocal harmonies of “Hearing Voices.” Those vocals, while intriguing, are buried in the mix, so as to beckon the listener closer. As you do get closer, the song sucks you in to its sonic landscape and wraps you up in warm, fuzzy layers of guitars and reverb. Full immersion.

“Blowup” gives a bit of a respite from the fuzz. Some great staccato riffing, punctuated by tambourine reminds me a little but of what The Limiñanas have been doing on their recent albums. “Sister Burden” has some quieter moments, but those moments are more like floating in the sea of sound, before the song kicks back in and, again, you’re swirling in the whirlpool.

I’m supposing you get it, dear reader, that the operative words here are “fuzz”, “layers”, “guitars”, and “reverb.” Magic Shoppe has concocted a glorious wash of sound that envelops the listener; pulling you in, and bringing you into the band’s world. But then, less than 30 minutes later, when the album ends and you’re thrown back to reality, all you want to do is dive back in again. It’s a nifty trick, indeed. And it’s a really, really good record. (TL-W)

Boston’s Magic Shoppe has been around for a while. All that time, they have quietly released subtle, layered – and often noisy – rock albums. Yet this year’s releases – “Interstellar Car Crash EP” (reviewed here) and most recently “Wonderland” – feel like a breakthrough for the experienced group.

Since their first EP, “Reverb,” released way back in 2010, Magic Shoppe has made significant tailoring to their repertoire of sounds. While “Reverb” sampled their many branches of influences and possibilities, their most recent releases are a testament to their honing of their skillsets, which inevitably developed into what has become their singular trademark: tone-perfect rock. But, of course, some things remain the same, seeds of things apparent even on “Reverb”: on “Wonderland,” guitar still reigns, and all guitar sounds are put through a gauntlet of effects, amounting to a sprawling reverb that cavernously shimmers but grinds when necessary too.

Opener, “Stars Explode,” jumpstarts the record, pounding hypnotic rock grounded by tambourine and light-handed vocals. It paves the way for equally propulsive songs such as “Kill,” while still setting up for a few of swaying, spaced-out pop songs that really make the record great.

Standouts “Blow Up” and “Sister Burden” channel West Coast shoegazers such as Brian Jonestown Massacre or Medicine equally. Melodic, upbeat, “Blow Up” plays with standard structure – and our expectations – both in vocal delivery and a searing, dense passage of guitar between verses. While “Sister Burden” saunters across similar ground, it leans toward chilly washes of guitar sound over the warmth of its predecessor. It experiments further with structure and layered landscapes as a means of exploring mood and content; and it works quite well here.

All in all, “Wonderland” is a joy for close listeners, pitch-perfect and finely tuned. This one’s a necessity for those headphone clutchers.  (JM)

“Wonderland” is available digitally or on red vinyl.

23 Dec 2016

The Final Active Listener Sampler


As we limp towards our retirement here at the Active Listener we have one final sampler for you (for now - who knows what the future holds?) - this one has a $1 download charge (to try and cover our bandcamp costs), but as always you're very welcome to stream for free.

I've loved putting these together over the years, and it's gratifying to know that these are enjoyed by so many.

Time is pressing so I'll just say thanks to Paul Thomas for the splendid sleeve art and all of the featured artists (and all involved with previous samplers).

We've still got a few reviews up our sleeves but after that things will go quiet for a wee while.

In the meantime live well, be kind and curious, and have a fabulous Christmas and New Year from the Active Listener xx

21 Dec 2016

Gravy Train - Staircase to the Day / Quiet World - The Road / 9.30 Fly - S/T


Reviewed by Nathan Ford

These pages often feature reissues from Cherry Red Records' Esoteric Recordings imprint, but I don't think I've ever specifically given them a pat on the back. This simply will not do, as the label are providing an amazing service to collectors of lesser known progressive rock, and to the artists that created these albums originally.

They've been systematically rescuing gem after gem from shady quasi-bootleg reissue labels, remastering from the original master tapes whenever possible, and ensuring that the artists and copyright holders are paid royalties for their troubles - something that a lot of fairly well known genre reissue labels that you'd assume were legitimate have chosen not to do in the past.

Their latest batch of releases are a typically intriguing bunch:

First off the blocks (and following on from last month's "Second Birth") is Gravy Train's fourth and final LP, "Staircase to the Day". "Staircase" is probably the band's least progressive outting but in terms of songcraft it's still got some chops. "Starlight Starbright" is a big, bombastic opener, while the earnest "Bring My Life On Back To Me" sounds like it could have become an FM staple if it had been attached to a more widely recognised name (or a label with a greater promotional budget than Dawn Records could muster).

The female backing vocalists (including PP Arnold) give much of what's on offer here a proto glam twist which is very much of its time, something that they'd investigate at even greater length on their final single (appended here as a bonus track) which sounds a little like Cockney Rebel.

The flute and fuzz guitars are mostly toned back a little more than I'd like but there's no arguing that the title track is one of their best tunes - almost as if Metallica's "Call of Cthulhu" had been written by the Alan Parsons Project.

And that Roger Dean sleeve is exquisite.

Quiet World's debut "The Road" is one for all of the Genesis fans out there, featuring the guitar work of Steve Hackett although those expecting the complexities of his work with Genesis may be surprised by how direct he is here (his first time in a studio).

"The Road" is a heavily orchestrated proggy concept album spearheaded by brothers John, Lea and Neil Heather. The Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" seems to be a major influence, but this is much less gentile sounding.

The religious slant of the concept is likely to get on the tits of some, but there are some effective songs contained within this suite.

Last in this batch, and pick of the bunch in my humble opinion is the sole self-titled album from the puzzlingly monikered 9.30 Fly. Chiefly a vehicle for husband / wife duo Michael and Barbara Wainwright, this is usually referred to as a progressive folk album, but it's folky tendencies seem minimal to me, the only real qualifier being the extensive use of acoustic guitars and Barbara's vocal phrasing.

It's got that great UK early seventies vibe that makes me think of musty books and rain in a similar way to Ginhouse's excellent sole LP, and a surprisingly progressive vibe given its reputation. This isn't any of that busy Yes style prog though, think slow, majestic builds with effective instrumental passages that make the most of clever arrangements to cover up a minimal recording budget.

Both Wainwrights sing, with Barbara stealing the show more often than not. Her simplistic keys offer some effective shading here and there too, with extensive mellotron usage on "Brooklyn Thoughts".

Highlights though come in the shape of "Unhinged", a brooding menace with lovely lyrical guitar leads ala David Gilmour shrouded in Barbara's wraithlike harmony vocals. Very striking. And the much more upbeat "Summer Days" isn't too far off the pace, especially when it stretches out into its luxurious instrumental passages.

This one was a bit of a surprise and a real grower - I find myself subconsciously reaching for it which has to be a good sign.

What will Esoteric have in store for us next I wonder?