Viscerally stunning debut album by Ham Legion

Ham Legion - Paradise Park

As a rule, I don’t like guitar albums, particularly if they are full of power cords or metally, growly things; but that is just because they don’t make them like ‘Paradise Park’ the debut album by Ham Legion. This album contains all of the above and remains heavy as a brick while avoiding empty shows of testosterone. And crucially, it also simultaneously dares to be light as a butterfly.

The effect is stunning; and I mean that in a literal and visceral way. In order to hear what goes on in the subdued and near-silent parts, you can’t help but turning up the volume knob – then, when the guitars thunder and the screams rip, your mind is blown and your head is physically smashed against the wall if you pull back too fast.

At the beginning of the year, I boldly announced that the Lost Crowns debut album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ was the album of the year. I knew that was a dangerous thing to do, but I couldn’t in my wildest fantasies imagine an album like this coming along. Now, this isn’t a competition and there is no need to announce a winner. Suffice to say is that if you liked that album you will love this. And there is a connection between them in the form of legendary pronk band Cardiacs: ‘Paradise Park’ has been mastered by Mark Cawthra, and William D. Drake plays keyboards on one of the tracks. (Cawthra was the original drummer in Cardiac Arrest, and Drake was in the classic era Cardiacs lineup.)

If anything, this is much more in pronk territory than the Lost Crowns. Come to think of it, this is much more progressive rock than the stuff they write about in Prog Magazine; there is no set evolution for the tracks here. On the contrary, they often seem to be made up of discarded bits and pieces of failed attempts at songwriting that are just haphazardly strung together. On paper that obviously doesn’t work, but somehow Ham Legion turn these impossible collisions of ideas and styles into journeys of discovery. As a listener you feel a strong urge to go a long for the ride to see where it all goes. Invariably, it goes off the chart, and sometimes off a steep cliff into empty space as well. But it certainly is thrilling.

Take for example the track ‘(I Would Like To Have Significantly Larger) Portions (Please)’; the title itself conjures up bits and pieces of leftovers that have been scraped from their plates and left in a big ugly pile. And that sums it up rather well. The track fades in gently with a distorted, sustained guitar tone that is then taken over by a basic heavy rock riff lumbering on until it via a finger picked bass segues into a more energetic metal beat topped by a death growley vocal. However, soon the noise disappears and there is a lone and bedroom singer-songwriter a line about something “so early in the morning”. 

Here is where you start dialling up the volume in order to hear what he is singing about… But just as you lean into the speaker, the frail vocal is replaced with a big Queen-like hard rock chorus, that then exchanges a few passes with the muted vocalist before you are carried away on a stretch of guitar rock into the sunshine. Like I said, it doesn’t work on paper!

If those where the leftovers, then ‘Oooodles’ plays like its diametrical opposite; here we get all the bits and pieces of good ideas that were saved in order to be expanded into full pieces later on. Unfortunately that never happened, and by the way the good ideas were not as plentiful, hence the track is only half as long as ‘Portions’. 

That is not to say that there are moments of exquisite beauty here. Take the first minute of ‘Moths Bugs & Bees’ for example, which is back to the bedroom poet’s frail and contemplative pop. Until the track is taken over by satanic screams, that is…

There are also more traditional song structures, proving that Ham Legion indeed are quite capable of writing catchy pop thingies if they wish, such as on ‘Curse the Weather’. Although the instrumentation is a bit wonky, the tune does have identifiable verse and chorus parts and would be a given hit in an alternative universe where good music means as much as good marketing budgets.

But picking out tracks like this doesn’t do the album justice. It is not only that there isn’t a duff moment here, but also that the tracks taken together become bigger than their sum. Simply brilliant!

Roger Heathers makes acoustic harmony pop album

Roger Heathers - Grim

After having released mini album ‘Next Week In Münster’ back in May, Roger Heathers is back again with another mini album, ‘Grim’. Looking at the cover, my first thought was that this might be a Halloween record, but more than anything it is a set of love songs that don’t seem thematically tied to the grim reaper who has fallen asleep in an armchair on the cover. Maybe the point is that we are free to go on with our lives and loves as long as he is asleep? I am probably missing something obvious…

Whereas the previous album was a heavily arranged and intricate sounding 10CCesque affair, this is a quite stripped down set with acoustic guitar and vocals in the fore, as well as additional voices in the back. In fact, rather than calling this acoustic as Heathers does, I’d go as far as to call this a vocal extravaganza with lots of multi-tracked voices all over the place, both in fore- and background.

Unashamed harmony pop, then, quite beautiful yet thankfully without any cloying sweetness – but grim? No, not at all!

The songwriting remains as creative as on the previous album, although the songs come across as less complex mainly due to the use of fewer instruments. There aren’t even drums here… But despite intricate twists and turns in the melodies, it all seems unforced and the songwriting seems inspired.

It all makes for a very enjoyable listen. I particularly like the autumnal and somewhat brooding intro song ‘Reverie’. Then there is ‘Magic Happens’ which adds a welcome bit of piano, and ‘Untitled #2’ with its propulsive rhythmic drive despite the lack of drums.

As on previous offerings, it is quite difficult not to be charmed by the energy and musical enthusiasm on offer. At the same time, you get a strong feeling that there is still a lot of untapped potential, and that Heathers is still just playing around and trying stuff out, while feeling his way towards something much more substantial. So, although this is a very good little album in its own right, it also raises expectations of what he will do next. With all the talent on display here as well as on the May release, I am expecting big things ahead. 

Psychedelic pop perfection from West Coast wunderkind Curt Boettcher

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There is an easy way to sum up the ‘Looking For the Sun’ compilation featuring acts produced by Curt Boettcher: Perfection.

That perfection is fully expressed already on one of the earliest tracks on this compilation, ‘Milk and Honey’, recorded during two sessions, in December 1965 and January 1966, by one of Curt Boettcher’s own project’s, Summer’s Children, formed together with Victoria Winston. On the track, we are invited into a paradisiacal world where lovers live forever. The tracks starts with these lines:

“In the land of milk and honey; everything is fine there

In the land of milk and honey; water tastes like wine there”

Not only is the perspective in the lyrics one of absolute perfection; vocal and instrumental performances are top notch as well as are the tasteful production and sumptuous melody. The fact that it was recorded in Los Angeles and combines obvious religious references with a psychedelic undertone, makes it difficult not to start thinking about teenage symphonies to God when listening. 

And indeed: Allegedly, in the summer of 1966 while working at a movie soundtrack at Studio Three Western, Brian Wilson overheard Curt Boettcher working on Lee Mallory’s ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ and was incredibly impressed with what he heard. Or maybe impressed is an understatement. This might in fact have been a turning point for Brian Wilson; one where he heard the future of sound.

Listening to this compilation, it is easy to understand why. The groundbreaking work Boettcher did on that classic Lee Mallory track is not included here (although it is available on the Rev-Ola Lee Mallory reissue among other places), but it isn’t even missed. Neither does it feature tracks like ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Hooray For Hazel’ with Tommy Roe or ‘Along Comes Mary’ and ‘Cherish’ by the Association – all Boettcher produced hits from the summer of 1966.

Nevertheless, the more obscure sounds conjured up by Boettcher for various artists that are included here – many of them for the first time on an official release – effortlessly stand their own ground and are seriously cutting edge.

A lot of bands would kill to sound like this today, yet this was recorded back in the 1965 to 1968 timeframe.

Not only do we get backwards sounds and multi-layered vocals, we are also treated to incredible orchestral arrangements, as well as solo instruments that are silhouetted in stark contrast from the crowded production as if they were all alone in the universe.

These recordings may have been made in some of the best LA studios at the time, with the best session musicians and orchestras, but judging from other recordings from the era, musical skills were a dime a dozen at that specific time and place. What really makes the difference here is a person with a singular vision who knew exactly what he wanted; and that is of course Curt Boettcher. 

At the point of his untimely passing at the age of 43, he was all but forgotten, but with a reissue campaign starting with ‘Begin’ by his band the Millenium in 1990, just three years after his death, he has been reinstated as one of the key figures of the West Coast 60s pop scene. And rightly so. It is extremely sad that Boettcher himself never got to know about this.

That bittersweet sadness is also aptly conveyed on the Gordon Alexander track that lends its title to the compilation, ‘Looking For The Sun’. The song starts like this:

“I went looking for the sun, in the darkness of my mind

But I knew right along

It was your touch and gentle smile that made the world seem fine

Come on back where you belong

Beer came splashing into my mouth, I got drunk and I felt alone

I went looking for me

The covers of the night came dimming my eyes, it felt like dry white bone

Without your eyes I can’t see”

With altogether three tracks, Alexander is also the artist most prominently represented here. That makes a lot of sense, given that he is also one of the casualties of the music business: His sole album ‘Gordon’s Buster’ literally busted and sank without trace. It has never been properly reissued until this day, although a bootleg does exist.

But despite its perfection, this compilation is not perfect. As much of an anglophile as I may be, I have to confess that the one track I definitely can live without here is the one with an English singer, namely Jonathan Moore. A comedian who with ‘London Bridge’ tries to update the old nursery rhyme since the bridge at this point in time was actually sinking rather than falling down. However, set in this context, the attempt at being tongue-in-cheek just feels cheap and unnecessary. 

But that one missed opportunity can be forgiven in light of the supreme tastefulness that shines through everything else here. And luckily, even the flipside of Moore’s 1965 single, also included here, ‘I Didn’t Ever Know’ is much more passable.

If there is one track that stands out as much in the other direction, then that would have to be ‘Shadows and Reflexions’. Included on Fading Yellow volume 3, it appears here for the first time ever as an official reissue.: a complete miniature pop symphony that contains the kind of adventurous, genuinely American pop that Brian Wilson tried to position as an alternative to what the Beatles were doing. It would have been a highlight even on ‘SMiLE’ had it appeared back in 1967. This track alone is easily worth the price of this absolutely must have collection.

Oh, and the collection aptly ends with the Gary Usher-penned and raga-styled instrumental mini-extravaganza ‘Pisces’, a track that has only seen previous physical reissue on the Japanese CD version of the Sagittarius album ‘Present Tense’.

Mighty Baby reissue is… mighty

Mighty Baby

I vividly remember being at the Oakland Auditorium outside San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1979, seeing the Grateful Dead. The cloyingly sweet smell of marijuana was thick in the air and I had a strange hallucinogenic experience at one point during the show; it literally blew my mind.

Given that we jointly entered a new decade that night, the feeling of being in that moment was quite tangible; and the music became a ritualistic celebration of time itself.

Still, no Grateful Dead studio album has given me that same vivid felling of the here and now. For that experience in recorded form, I would instead pick the eponymous debut from a band sometimes referred to as the Grateful Dead of the old world, namely Mighty Baby.

‘Mighty Baby’ really does sound like a captured moment in time. In fact, it sounds like right here and right now even today: light-footed and genre hopping, as inclusive in its warts-and-all sound as it is insular in intent, and presciently detached.

The Beatles spoke for a whole generation and so did punk. Today, musicians tend to speak only for themselves. So did Might Baby; and in this they were fundamentally different from the Grateful Dead.

Then again, if you were to ask me what the music of the future sounds like, I would actually pick Mighty Baby’s sophomore effort, ‘Jug of Love’. On this album, they develop a sound that is as organic as it is fluid. While they obviously followed the Byrds’ lead into the country, Might Baby added a deeper jam band level that, while maybe technically comparable to what the Grateful Dead were doing, took a much more introspective musical direction.

After spending the 80s and much of the 90s with synths and machines, as we entered the new millennium, music increasingly seems to have no other way forward than to turn away from artifice and back to humans. What does it sound like when musicians understand each other? Listen to “Jug of Love” and you will know. Here is the sound of something very handmade and spontaneous, yet excitingly interdependent and complex.

Having said that, as an experiment, the album stumbles at times, in particular on the bluesy and slightly pedestrian ‘Keep on Juggin’’. Here, Mighty Baby really do become something of the Grateful Dead of the old world. (Indeed, as documented on the concert recordings, ‘Keep on Juggin’’ was a live favourite….)

In any case, after having produced the ultimate buried treasure of the 1960s as the Action with ‘Rolled Gold’, Mighty Baby rose out of the ashes and made what might be one of the most forward looking bodies of work of the 1970s. Now on ‘At A Point Between Fate And Destiny ~ The Complete Recordings’ released by Grapefruit, you get to explore their two groundbreaking albums with a massive set of contextual recordings.

If you want to know how reissues should be done, you need to get this regardless of your musical taste; firstly because it contains unreleased material than what was previously available, and secondly because it tells a unique band story.

Let us start with the music. You get not one unreleased album here, but two. First up is the original acetate version of what was to become the debut, consisting of not only previously unreleased mixes and versions of tracks but also a pair of highly worthwhile additional songs, namely ‘Ancient Traveller’ and ‘Messages’. 

The second album was advertised as *The Day of the Soup’ in June 1970 and intended for release in November that year but never appeared. Now we get to hear the recordings; they turn out to be sketches of what was to come rather than fully completed tracks, but nevertheless highly interesting.

There are also a number of live sets of varying sonic quality. And while the live band does come across as a bit meandering in places, their determination not to compromise in their focus to let the music itself take them on a journey shines like a firebrand throughout, making the time spent listening worthwhile.

Then we have the story of the band. It starts with a recap of their time in the Action and continues with how their new identity was formed when their one-time roadie John Curd – who made a career out of van rentals and then started the record label Head – signed them in order to recover money they owed him for van hire. Simply put, Curd wanted to make money out of them and christened them Mighty Baby since he thought bands should have names with contrasting associations like the Grateful Dead or the Soft Machine in order to be remembered.

But what follows is not a story of a mighty money maker but of a band that increasingly found themselves at odds with their rather drugged-out audiences as they gradually converted to Islam – with the title of their second album even being a Sufi metaphor for divine love – and started observing strict abstinence from both drugs and alcohol.

In that sense, this is the previously untold and quite tragic story of a band that eventually played themselves out of existence.

To sum up, a mighty reissue that delivers on every front. It works as well for first-comers as for longtime fans of the band. I wish all reissues were like this!

15 best albums Q3, 2019

Led Bib

Another quarter and as always I am trying desperately to catch my breath. 

The idea this time was to go for some safe cards, such as ‘Anima’ by Thom Yorke, the new Metronomy record, or even the bilingual outing by Opeth. But although those albums might be good, I have to admit that I have basically ignored them and sneaked off to secretly listen to a lot of other sounds instead. So much in fact that I gave up on the idea to limit myself to a top 10. 

Hence, my best albums of this dramatic third quarter of the year 2019 are again selfishly personal, totally disorganised and not at all reflecting a responsible person’s selection of music.

But hey, the whole point with writing this is that I decide what stays and what goes!

Charlie Cawood – Blurring Into Motion

Melodically complex, lush and progressive neo-classical head spin. Makes me realise why Genesis liked Benjamin Britten.

The Cold Spells – Interstitial

Forlorn and experimentally pastoral post-punk pop. Not only is this album wonderfully restrained and autumnal, but it also gives me yet another opportunity to mention a clear influence from Robert Wyatt.

Diagonal – Arc

Van der Graaf Generator makes love to Talk Talk and gives birth to ambient prog. This is where post-rock should have gone in the first place.

Emmett Elvin – The End of Music

21st century King Crimson meets schizoid electronica. A difficult listen at first, but then you discover the beauty of this beast.

Föhn – Ballpark Music

Joss Cope teams up with Napo Camassa III and Ian Button, and invents a new genre, improvised pop. A strange trip, but one you need to take!

Led Bib – It’s Morning

A free-jazzier take on the North Sea Radio Orchestra. “Spine tingling” wrote NSRO collaborator James Larcombe and I can only agree! One of my top picks this year.

Francis Lung – A Dream Is U

Solipsistic pop of the highest order. A bedroom recording done in a big studio and nothing new under the sun – but somehow that sun is in a different galaxy.

Magma – Zëss (Le Jour Du Néant)

Orchestral rendition of the literally final piece of celestial music originally conceived in the 70s but not recorded in a studio until now. Not as unrelentingly mind-blowing as Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh but still a masterpiece.

The Melamine Division Plates – Novosibirsk

I am too young for the Spotnicks, but I bet they never sounded this good. Retro-futuristic imaginary soundtrack rubber band surf music from Alan Jenkins, of Deep Freeze Mice fame.

Modern Nature – How To Live

Modern Nature seem intent on updating 70s jam rock band Mighty Baby. The babies were in fact mighty far ahead of anyone else, and hence the updated result is nothing less than rootsy futurism. Amazing.

The Monochrome Set – Fabula Mendax

The progression here since The Jet Set Junta from 1982 may be difficult to pinpoint. But what does it matter when it is as great as this? As silly as it is sincere, and pure genius if you ask me!

Gruff Rhys – Pang!

Mixed by the South African electronic artist Muzi and with some verses in Zulu, this is nevertheless very much a Welsh pop album. Never been to Wales, but it seems that the pop Einstein per capita ratio must be highest in the world there. And Gruff is one of them, of course.

School of Language – 45

A concept album about the ruler of the Untidy State of America. Must have. Next quarter sees the release of a new Field Music album. Will it be as bold as this? One can only hope!

Alexander Tucker – Guild of the Asbestos Weaver

Electronica a la Brian Eno meets pop music a la Brian Eno in a modern studio playground. It may all have been precogged before, but Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 which is the thematic reference here is of relevance again.

Utopia Strong – Utopia Strong

Suggestive improvised electronica with a “non-musician” snooker champion Steve Davis and musical voyager Kavus Torabi. Haven’t wrapped my brain all around this one yet but you don’t need to with tracks like Brainsurgeons 3.

EP

The Martial Arts – I Used To Be

Master popsmith Paul Kelly combine Abba and Elton John on smashing new EP. Timeless!

Single

Officer! – Brexit means Toxic

Finally somebody says it like it is. And with a wyattesque pop-feel to boot!

Reissue

The Beatles – Abbey Road [50th Anniversary Edition]

Who else but the Beatles could agree to do a final masterpiece before splitting up, and then go ahead and do that. After half a century, no other band even comes close. And this one is worth the price of admission already for the studio demo of Macca ditty Come And Get It. But you also get the best sounding Beatles album ever as a bonus!

Archival release

The Regime – The End of Something

Home made album that sums up the dreams and the themes of the tail-end 60s gets posthumous release. Warts and all pop with some great moments.

Coincidentally, not only the end of something like an era – but also the end of this post.