Gong – You (1974)

Gong_You4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a bit of a Love/Hate relationship with Gong, loving much of the French group’s excursions into Canterbury Prog and Jazz-Rock territory, but hating (or rather, “not fully embracing,” since “hate” is too strong a word) much of the silliness that appears on some of its albums, like the hippy-dippy-trippy Psychedelic ingredients that occasionally seem to go on too long, and the spacier, free-form elements that sometimes seem more “endless, boring noise” than actual “engaging music.”

Yet the one factor that has me continually revisiting this band’s early albums is undeniable—the masterful guitar work of Steve Hillage. I adore the man’s talent and his guitar tones, the way he creates a unique sound for himself and, thus, the band in general. And on You, the band’s sixth studio release, Hillage provides some wonderfully tasty solos and fills, especially on tracks such as “The Isle of Everywhere,” “Master Builder,” and “A Sprinkling of Clouds.” I also savor the group’s use of woodwinds and various percussion instruments, often bringing some of Frank Zappa’s best work to mind.

Therefore, I can usually put up with the aforementioned hippy-dippy-trippy Psych and Space Rock experimentation as long as Hillage’s enjoyable guitar contributions, the creative woodwinds, and the exciting percussion remains at a higher percentage of an album’s overall content such as it does on this particular release, one of my favorites by the band.

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Steve Hillage – L (1976)

SteveHillage_L4.5 out of 5 Stars!

The legendary guitarist Steve Hillage (Gong/Khan/Arzachel) backed by the band Utopia (Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton, and Jon Wilcox)—with Todd Rundgren producing—created this often underappreciated album simply entitled L, which is Hillage’s second solo album overall.

His first solo effort, Fish Rising, is typically rated higher on most music-related websites, and I can easily see why. But for some reason, L is the album that really hit home for me.

I vividly recall hearing Hillage’s cover of Donovon’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” on an “underground” Chicago radio station when the album came out, which introduced me to this exceptional guitarist, and it became the reason I hunted down the album several days later. Therefore, since L was the first music I owned by Hillage, I’ll admit that nostalgic prejudice taints my overall rating.

Nevertheless, with additional tracks such as “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando,” “Electrick Gypsies,” and the lengthy “Lunar Music Suite” all capturing my attention and leaving a lasting impression on me, I slowly collected Hillage’s back catalogue of releases from his days with Gong, Khan, etc. and became a lifelong fan.

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Andy Jackson – 73 Days at Sea (2016)

AndyJackson_73Days3 out of 5 Stars!

Being mostly unfamiliar with guitarist/composer Andy Jackson, either through his previous solo album (2014’s Signal to Noise) or his work with his band The Eden House, I wasn’t sure what to expect before sliding this CD into the computer. But then, after learning that Andy had engineered for Pink Floyd in the past, I finally had a clue as to what this CD might include. The music, I figured, would probably be of a similar nature to Pink Floyd, and to no great surprise, my presumption proved accurate.

Therefore, the collection of songs included on this album—indeed, the entire atmosphere, from beginning to end—is pure Pink Floyd, only with perhaps a more updated production quality. In fact, to my ears, this album is flawlessly produced, with the instruments blending together in a harmonious marriage of sound, with no instrument being too domineering or boisterous, but perfectly in sync with its partners. Both acoustic and electric guitars, synths and Mellotrons, bass and drums appear, providing a full and rich soundscape, quite spacey as expected, with the vocal lines drifting lazily across the top.

The ten individual tracks are a combination of both instrumentals and vocal pieces, with several lengthy numbers included. But in truth, the shorter tracks that dominate the first half of the album seamlessly meld into each other, actually creating one dreamy “experience.” Moreover, Prog-Rock lovers shouldn’t expect anything too jarring here. Like the music of Pink Floyd, there is nothing mind-blowing when it comes to soloing instruments, and no abrupt time changes popping up at unexpected moments. Additionally, there are no shocks when it comes to the vocal melodies either (apart from one enjoyable section in the middle of the seventeen-plus-minute “Drownings,” where a female vocalist provides some welcome differentiation). This, therefore, leads me to one of the problems I had with the album overall…

Certainly all the tracks offered here are pleasant enough, with the musicianship and (as previously mentioned) the production being outstanding. Yet many of the tracks (when it comes to either the general arrangements/orchestrations or even the atmosphere) are way too similar for my tastes. In fact, apart from that brief section in “Drownings” featuring the female vocals, nothing much stands out, or is altogether memorable. After listening to the album on approximately half a dozen occasions over the course of two days, I’m still hard-pressed to pinpoint any other instance that inspired me to pay closer attention, any other instance that provided me with another one of those “Ah-huh, I remember that!” moments. Instead, I’m left with only a general impression of a “mellow, spacey, rather enjoyable” listen when it comes to the album as a whole, but that’s it. And this, I’ve come to determine, is due to one particular element…the lead vocals.

In general, I found the vocal passages to be quite bland. In fact, the vocals are delivered in a low and extremely limited range, lacking any true diversity regarding melodies, and sometimes sound more than a tad “iffy” when it comes to accuracy. I’m also not a huge fan of the “talk-singing” style used throughout, which is why the appearance of the female vocalist popping up in that single song made the only lasting impression on me. I can’t help but feel that were Mr. Jackson to hire a singer with a wider range, a more emotional style of delivery and a flair for “the dramatics,” the music would benefit greatly. Unfortunately, when the lead vocals are “off,” it’s usually that single musical flaw that will ultimately make or break any album, regardless of the other performances contained throughout. And I’m sorry to say, this album does indeed suffer from this particular aspect, and for that, I couldn’t bring myself to rate it higher.

So to summarize, for Prog-Rock fans who are excited by music related in any fashion to Pink Floyd, there is certainly much here for you to savor. The problems I had with this album—the lack of variety when it comes to the “feel” of the tracks, or the uninspiring vocal performances—may not mean much to you, and I wholeheartedly respect that. Therefore, if you’re seeking a journey into some tranquil territory, a chance to drift on a sea of lush chord patterns, breezy rhythms, and soothing sound effects, then this just might be the album for you. It’s certainly worth a spin.

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Samuel Hällkvist – Variety Of Live (2015)

SamuelHallkvist_Variety3 out of 5 Stars!

This is the only album I own thus far from this (mostly) instrumental band (or solo artist project with numerous musicians included). Here, a mixture of styles can be found, but mainly (in my opinion) are “Canterbury Scene Prog-Rock” influences such as Caravan, Gong, Hatfield And The North, National Health, but all wrapped up in a majestic, dreamy and hypnotic Ozric Tentacles-like atmospheric/jazzy blanket.

A perfect example of this merging of styles and influences can be located on the track “Chord, Horror Cacui.” The track begins with a slow and swirling trip down the Canterbury road, building up to a wailing and spacey jazz-rock frenzy. “Kiopotec” is another adventurous trek into jazz-land where the ultra-punchy rhythm section slams its way into almost otherworldly territory.

“Heru Ra-Ha Road” delivers even more instrumental strangeness, while a female singer adds her vocal gymnastics over various parts of the track, which immediately brings to mind some of the spaciest albums I own from acts such as Gong, Steve Hillage, or Khan. And when, during the track “Music For The Maraca Triplet,” vibes and light trumpet appear during the intro, along with more unusual percussion instruments, I get the sense of venturing into the realm of Avant-Prog.

Although many of the tracks are rather interesting and engaging, they are, unfortunately, hardly memorable. There are no “hooks,” per se, no catchy melody lines even when it comes to the sparse vocal bits, just a lot of free-form music to create specific moods. This is why I rated this collection with only an “average/pleasant” 3 Stars overall.

I’m not familiar with the band’s previous three releases, so I can’t declare whether they offer the same sort of adventurous material, but this latest one is definitely that. So for those fans of the “Canterbury Scene,” or perhaps the spacier Prog-Rock scene who like a ton of jazz tossed into their instrumental music, this might be a band/artist you’ll want to investigate to see if it’s to your liking.

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Ash Ra Tempel – Ash Ra Tempel (1971)

AshRaTempel_12 out of 5 Stars!

Although this album is rather highly rated at various music websites, and has received worldwide praise, I find it difficult to see why. Sure, there are some decent moments of pleasantness, but it seems barely more than some jamming background music, nothing that truly grabs me and convinces me to seek out more music by this band. The two long tracks are passable free-form Psychedelic Rock/Space Rock/Krautrock music, but definitely nothing to get me overly excited. I’ve heard bands tooling around in their garages that sounded much better and tighter and…interesting.

Sorry, but I had hoped for something more considering the high ratings this album typically receives…