REVIEWS #11 - 20




Note: Some of the reviewed titles have not been reissued, while others are out of print. The availability stated reflects the status at the time of writing.


(Review #11)

STALK-FORREST GROUP: St Cecilia (CD Rhino Handmade US 2001)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: Highway 1 while tripping on LSD

Info at:


One of the very best yet most frustrating releases of 1999 was a German vinyl bootleg of "St Cecilia", the unreleased 1970 LP cut by a bunch of New York longhairs who would soon transform into Blue Oyster Cult. As stunning as the music was, the sound quality - obviously sourced from a tape several generations down the line - was less than satisfactory, and the sleeve attempted to make up for its total lack of info with a cheesy holographic effect. The few hundred copies that appeared were only a glimpse of the full glory of the lost Stalk-Forrest tapes, which seemingly would remain unheard for another 30 years.

But by Jove, miracles still do happen. Through divine intervention from some bearded archivist at Rhino Handmade a classy master-sourced CD of the whole thing now exists in the corporeal world. The packaging is superb, with detailed information on the band, the recordings, and the complex back & forths with Elektra that caused the LP to be shelved. There are several band pics and even photographs of master tape boxes from various angles for the archeologically inclined. Like all Handmade releases it is a premium-priced limited edition, and at the time of this writing about 3300 of the 5000 copies have been sold.

Despite being one of the best west coast-style psych albums ever made, "St Cecilia" has remained strangely unknown among the drug music intelligentia, leaving most of the legend-building to BÖC fans and Elektra collectors. So while I'm not sure they deserve it, a lot of blasé psych-heads still have one major revelation in front of them, even after throwing their hands up in disgust at the current tsunami of unreleased 1960s-70s crap being washed up from the sewers.

If there is a parallel universe fourth Love LP, recorded by 1968 Grateful Dead and with McGuinn-Hillman on vocals, then that's what "St Cecilia" sounds like. I have a hard time imagining music more perfectly realized than the spellbinding rural folkrock of "Gil Blanco County" or the extended acidrock excursion of the title track. And the lyrics - by college hipsters & future rock critics Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer - are way above average, poetically humorous and unpredictable and owing a whole lot to Arthur Lee. While mid-period Love seems the main influence for Stalk-Forrest, the strong presence of an entire Group as opposed to one genius backed by anonymous hacks gives them the upper hand over their mentor. "St Cecilia" is quite simply the LP Arthur Lee should have done when he made "Four Sail".

In comparison with the bootleg LP there is actually a loss of
presence/atmosphere on this perfect-sounding Rhino issue, which is not uncommon when transferring old masters directly to CD. While the vinyl comes off like a basement psych jam monster, the CD brings forth a distinct countryrock edge, which isn't necessarily an improvement. The ideal version would be a marriage between these two soundscapes. Another objection can be raised against the track sequencing on the Rhino CD, which is clearly inferior to the bootleg LP. This may be the "real" running order intended for the Elektra LP, but the vinyl bootleggers bring more out of the material. The Rhino CD puts a couple of Moby Grape/Kak:ish rockers at the opening, which means the CD doesn't really get going until the brilliant "Gil Blanco County" - on the boot LP this track is first, and sets a more psychedelic tone for the whole album. As much as I like this CD, I'll hang onto the vinyl LP as well.

The bonus tracks on the Rhino CD are earlier recordings of most of the "St Cecilia" LP, pretty similar to the later takes though with inferior drumming and not quite so stunningly realized. The mono mixes for the rare promo-only 45 are included as well. Now go and get this before it sells out.

Update: the recent Radioactive label reissue (CD/vinyl) has a less clinical sound and superior running order (same as the German boot), and basically solves the minor issues I raised above.


(Review #12)

ORACLE: Nataraja Da Nada (Paradise Lost US 1990)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: Really good acid

Info at:

Availability: I got mine at eBay

Please walk with me through the tangled web that surrounds this LP, as the rewards that await on the other side are generous. For instance, how many LPs do you own that are made by a 300 pound redneck biker that calls himself "Rameshwar"?

But let's begin at the beginning. Around 1990, a Texan record dealer and occasional impressario named Darryl Menkin distributed this LP among the psych-head underworld. Information on it was limited, but Menkin himself was listed as "executive producer" on the sleeve, and the recording was stated as having been made in West Virginia. It appeared to be a modern release of a contemporary psych group. Except that this band didn't look like the Blacklight Chameleons - they looked like they had wandered out of the time-space continuum at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in 1975 and hadn't found their way back to earth until 1989. And the record didn't really sound like a modern psych band either - to begin with, it was insane.

The potential cloud of confusion was made flesh when Darryl Menkin, and others with him, unexpectedly started referring to the LP as a "reissue" of an LP from "1976" - the original of which noone had ever seen. This information made its way into various record lists and eventually into Ron Moore's admirable "Underground Sounds" book, which is where I first spotted it.

Fast forward to Spring 2002. I've just received a tape of Oracle's "Nataraja da nada" and am listening to it in headphones. I hear it based on the assumption that it is a rare private press from 1976, because I don't yet know what is described above. The tape has the album sides reversed, beginning with "The awakening" which is side B. This turns out to be another fortunate mishap, as "The awakening" is the stronger trip of the two.

About 1 minute into the track I'm upright in my chair, having sunk into a couch potato pose after listening to half-ass psych all day. I mean, this sounds like the real thing; the basement fidelity, the acid guitar, the murky drumming. Then when the vocalist opens his mouth I'm practically on my feet. What the hell IS THIS? It sounds like the missing link between Sky Saxon & James Brown, with a thick redneck accent to boot. The lyrics are obscure, but what I pick up spells "L"-"S"-"D". About halfway through the track the trio takes off for the Andromeda Galaxy, a 10-minute space guitar jam with echoes of Manuel Gottsching and Terry Brooks, before Rameshwar the vocalist reappears to send a final transmission back to the Solar system. Whew! No coincidence they called their recording shack "The Sponge" - there must have been liquid acid running down the walls in there.

All must bow before the almighty Rameshwar

Over on the reverse side is "The oracle speaks", another 24-minute trip which I'm pretty certain was recorded in a lysergic state - there's no other way to explain the strange wave-like in/out-of synch drumming. Beginning with ghostly whispers of Sanskrit the piercing Voice appears again to intone the LP title, before setting off on a bizarre imitation of rootsy garage rock interspersed with crude acid guitar leads. Less musically appealing than "The awakening", we are nevertheless treated to some great anti-social lyrics wherein Rameshwar explains, in the way a Hell's Angel might, that noone should even think about changing his way of living, not the Government or even Mr President - Don't hold your breath!

That's about it. A conceptual tribal basement acid space guitar trip that is as good as anything I've heard from a modern - as I believe them to be - psych band. It's not for everyone, but heads who enjoy Ya Ho Wha 13 LPs can find comfort in the fact that there were freaks as flipped out as Yod's guys 15 years later, right in the middle of the Reagan-Bush American heartland.

Update: the band later recorded as Skuldedog, these recordings (which are similar to Oracle) have been released on CD by Shroom.

(Review #13)

J D BLACKFOOT: The Ultimate Prophecy  (Mercury US 1970)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Sounds best on: Speed and a case of Guinness Ale 

Info at:

Availability: reissues aren't hard to find 

"The Ultimate Prophecy" falls into the frustrating category of LPs that sound good, or even great, during the first few plays, and then begins a slow descent in appreciation until you have no idea what you originally saw in it. I had this experience once with the second Trees LP, "On the shore", which I initially thought was one of the best albums I had heard, only to dismiss it as bland and unoriginal a few weeks later. And it may be no coincidence that Ohio band J D Blackfoot's LP, despite some hopeful nods to the US westcoast sound, does have a strong British undercurrent, apart from the immodest title. 

But first there is that California thing that jumps up in your lap like a cat wanting to be pet, a disguise seemingly inspired by the song-oriented school of 1970 Grateful Dead, as well as Neil Young's early solo work; these were two beacons of inspiration for many young US musicians at the time. J D Blackfoot get some of the outward aspects right, the loose "rural" sound built around a skillful drummer and appealing guitar tapestries, and a vocal style that occasionally hits the right unpretentious harmonies. But only occasionally. Most of the time the vocals float around in the music like a rudderless boat, trying this style, then that style, and then another style. The listener quickly senses a lack of direction, or more precisely a lack of center.

As the LP progresses, you discover that underneath the fake Marin County country-rock something very different lurks: Jethro Tull. And Moody Blues. And other commercially oriented UK progsters. During side 1 of "The Ultimate Prophecy", which consists of 5 snappy songs with nice melodies and hooks, this is more of a vague presence you can't put your finger on, but as the sidelong title track takes wings on side 2 you realize the true nature of the beast.

Now, when Moody Blues introduced the concept of spoken bits of poetry on rock records it almost worked, because they had a trained actor read the lyrics, and they selected words that sounded archaic and potentially poetical, and their whole music was a bit of a half-serious flirt with highbrow culture anyway. When J D Blackfoot tries the same thing, it's not exactly a success. The "rebirth"-theme poetry is vague and banal, it doesn't even sound like acid trip product, more like what you get out of quaaludes, a sixpack of Bud, and the back cover blurb of a Frank Herbert fantasy novel. Blackfoot's reading is worse, sounding at times like what he must have imagined a Shakespeare actor on stage sounded like, at other times like a Midwest teenager reading out of a book he doesn't understand.

The unfortunate spoken segments reappear throughout the "suite", and work as dividers between its different "movements". The music itself isn't terribly different from side 1, some nice hooks and refrains, a bit more ambitious and a bit more hard-rocking perhaps. Apart from a flute-less Tull I'm reminded of Black Sabbath at their most proggish and least heavy, which isn't really a good thing. There is a constant movement forward that keeps you from losing interest altogether, and this could be entered on the plus side of Blackfoot's UK prog balance sheet. The album ends, no intellectual insight whatsoever has been reached, but you did get to hear some nice guitarwork and a drummer who comes out the actual hero.

To single out some highpoints, I thought the "Cycles" section had a nice psychy flow for a spell, as did "Angel" over on side 1 - the latter track is perhaps the one indication that J D Blackfoot could have made a good LP if they'd listened to the music inside themselves rather than the one played on FM Radio. The talent undeniably on display in the melodic structures and guitar arrangements throughout the LP is the reward the listener brings home, but they also make the album's problems the more frustrating.


(Review #14)

ANONYMOUS: Inside The Shadow (A Major Label 1002 US 1976/1981/various reissues)

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sounds best on: it's a natural high

Info at: here's my interview with Ron Matelic

Availability: reissues are in print, more below


1. The music

Every time I listen to this album the same foolish thought appears during "Pick up and run" (or "S2T1" in collector-speak); that maybe this track is a bit weaker than the others, and maybe I found a flaw in here, yay! And no sooner has that notion appeared than the music ascends into the stratosphere like a 747 taking off and you're inside a flowing Bay Area ballroom trip that reeks of perfection; frantic Gary Duncan chords; fat Airplane harmonies intoning "Caalll... on your owwwn... gypsy souulll", pinning you and your supposed "flaw" against the wall.

10 years after cutting a couple of classic Indianapolis garage punk 45s with Sir Winston & the Commons, band leader Ron Matelic rounded up his old drummer John Medvescek, a bass player named Glenn Weaver, and the beautifully-voiced Marsha Rollings to record some new songs in a Milwaukee studio. I have no idea what went into the songs and the performances, but I know that what came out is among the best music recorded by anyone anywhere in the mid-1970s.

I can think of few records with such an enormous heart as "Inside the Shadow". It seems such a pure statement, written and played from the soul, with no intermediaries or filters present. Do you have any idea how rare that is? To some extent this outcome must be sheer luck, or divine intervention - I can't imagine that Ron Matelic knew just how perfectly his voice would blend with Marsha's, both very distinct and oddly similar, as if they were siblings; or that he'd found the magic songwriting formula when crossing Stephen Stills with Roger Mcguinn and the Airplane, and taking the whole brew into the 1970s when albums were constructed as coherent pieces, and extended guitar breaks were just right?

I can't really explain to you how good this is. You're just gonna have to get it. In order to fulfill my duties as a reviewer, I might suggest that the LP sounds a bit like "Bluebird" by the Buffalo Springfield, except better, as performed by Tripsichord Music Box, except better, with the same artistic dedication and realization of ambition as on "Easter Everywhere", and maybe just as good.

The remainder of this review will be taken up by a detailed analysis and comparison of the various pressings of this LP. This may not be of interest to you; if so, all you need to know is that the Akarma vinyl reissue is readily available and as good a reproduction as you're going to find, unless you're willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an original.

2. The pressings

Word on "Inside the Shadow" didn't really get around until the mid-1990s. One of its chief advocates was Indianapolis resident Stan Denski, who supplied me and a few others with original copies, which were then and are still exceedingly rare. Released by the charmingly titled A Major Label outfit from Wisconsin, the original pressing is believed to be only 300 copies, and as far as I know no quantities of it have ever been found. I'm personally not a big fan of the 1976 front cover design, which seems to belong to a very different type of record, and it's a pity there was no photo of the band. The lyric insert is a nice bonus, especially as these are lyrics that deserve to be read.

Now I'm gonna get a bit technical. The original pressing I had, and two other 1976 originals that I know of, were pressed slightly off-centre on side 2. This is not uncommon for local pressings, and may not constitute a problem depending on the degree of the flaw. On Anonymous it didn't seem like a big deal at first but I noticed the pick-up jazzing back and forth quite a bit during repeated plays, and if it's really visible it's usually audible too. Years and numerous run-throughs later I can only really claim to hear this during the very last guitar-lick on "Baby come rising", which closes side 2. So I don't believe this screws up the LP to any extent, but it's worth taking note of for reasons which shall soon become clear.

Despite failing to take over the world, or securing a major label contract beyond A Major Label, those involved obviously realized the value of what they had, prompting a second AML run of "Inside the Shadow" in 1981. Apart from using red labels instead of black the sleeve had wisely been altered, putting a b/w version of the 1976 back cover drawing on the front, and losing the ballet dancer altogether. Unfortunately no lyric insert was included for this round. The press size is unknown, but the rarity of the 2nd pressing suggests it may have been 300 copies again. Now, apart from the improved cover, I have a feeling that this 1981 run is a slightly better pressing than the 1976 first run, which was about average quality for a local press. I'm going by aural memory here, but there appears to be a slight edge in terms of clarity, even though the same stampers were used (the matrix no is "AMLS 1002-I/II" on both). As for the off-centre problem, my 1981 is slightly off-centre too, but not as pronounced as the 1976 variety.

The 1981 pressing

After 1981 "Inside the Shadow" seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth for the next 10 years or so, a well-kept secret among a few fortunate record collectors in possession of copies. The 1990s revival was slow and hardly set the world on fire, but did finally lead to an authorized vinyl reissue in 1997, years after most of the great lost masterpieces from the 1960s-1970s had already been recycled. Stan Denski's OR label pressed 375 numbered copies with a paste-on sleeve reproduction of the 1976 cover, lyric sheet, and an additional insert with comments from Ron Matelic. The sound quality is good, especially in terms of presence and warmth, but does seem to lose a bit of clarity at the high end. As it turns out, the 1976 master tapes are now lost, and the reissue had to be mastered from a vinyl source with less than perfect results. It also means the audible off-centre effect at the end of side 2 is carried into a new vinyl generation.

A few years later in 2001 there was a new round of Anonymous, following the LP's growing reputation among psych aficionados. OR/Aether repackaged their reissue in CD format, adding the great 1977 J Rider recordings as a bonus. While the musical value of this CD is as great as anything on the market, the lack of sound processing and cleaning for the Anonymous half of the CD leaves the listener with an aural experience with groove noise and occasional pops more mercilessly revealed than on the vinyl pressing. It appears that an unfinished master was accidentally used for this CD, which explains the substandard sound quality. The CD includes the original 1976 artwork, plus the Ron Matelic commentary from the earlier OR albums. The J Rider material is from master tapes and sounds perfect, but there is a strange mishap of a track being unexpectedly repeated, non-indexed, at the end of another track on the CD.

The Italian Akarma label came out with a vinyl reissue shortly after the OR CD. This was sourced from the master tape originally intended for the OR CD reissue, and a fair amount of digital cleaning must have been applied as the sound is clearly superior to the earlier reissues; in fact it's only with a very close comparison that a slight loss of clarity is noticable visavi the 1981 second run. An impressive effort for sure, even despite the ever-present off-centre effect at the tail end of side 2. The Akarma packaging loses the lyric insert, unfortunately, and the colors for the front and back cover are dark blue and almost purple, whereas the original and OR reissues were ocean blue.

Conclusion: those wanting an Anonymous original shouldn't automatically assume the 1976 pressing to be the ultimate ticket, as the 1981 second run may in fact have a slight edge on it, apart from being a bit cheaper. For those wanting reissues, the Akarma vinyl inside the OR packaging would be the best solution. Under no circumstances should one settle for the OR/Aether CD and nothing else.



(Review #15)

JULY: same (Major Minor 29 UK 1968/reissues)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: Banana peels

Info at:

Availability: Afterglow CD may still be available

July's rare 1968 outing on the Major Minor label is a funny, puzzling album; a true Kaleidoscope, but not necessarily in a good way. For one thing it could well have been a quickie cash-in project, judging by the crude arrangements and sometimes clearly unfinished songs. Musician's mistakes are left as is but maybe the young, inexperienced band just couldn't do any better.

On the other hand, there are several elements on the album that are right on the money for fans of the UK 1967-68 beatpsych genre, suggesting that even if this was a budget product, it was made with brains and sound judgment. The mixing and use of various studio effects are effective throughout, the vocal filtering and phasing in particular. While the contemporary influence of Barrett-era Pink Floyd has since been overstated, July is a band that shows clear traces of "Piper at the Gates of Dawn", as well as Tomorrow. The end result is a mosaic of "hip" sounds that come off a bit clichéd and derivative, almost like a neo-psych record.

The track sequencing is clever, and another indication of the resourceful shrewdness behind the album. Opening with what turns out to be the album's two strongest tracks, the undeniably great "My clown" and "Dandelion Seeds", both reeking of perfection for the Chocolate Soup crowd, it is easy for a casual listener to place the album on a high rung and let it rest there longer than it deserves. But repeated plays soon turns the ladder into a snake down which July slides, beginning at track 3 and descending badly, temporary foothold gained with the sitar-laden "The Way" and the fine "Friendly man" toward the end. The remaining tracks can be described as unfinished snips of pop tunes, or sound collages in search of a melody, throwing everything but the kitchen sink on top. The wishful thinking was probably that this would appear as a bit of "happening" creativity, but 35 years later the impression is nervous, as though the constant shifts of melodic focus should cover up the fact that there are no real songs in there. Unless your favorite Syd tune is "Jugband Blues" this isn't very enjoyable, or impressive.

July is usually rated among the top albums in the genre, a ranking it hardly deserves. It is a fun piece of zeitgeist, but it has no depth and no lasting musical value apart from the three or four tracks mentioned. These are strong enough to save the album, and we should be thankful someone's good judgment at least saved us from the awful 45-only "Hello, who's there".




(Review #16)

ITHACA: A Game For All Who Know  (Merlin UK 1973)

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sounds best on: Opium, hashish

Info at:

Availability: CD and vinyl reissues are currently in print

I'm going to begin at the end of this 1973 rarity, originally released as a demo LP on the Merlin label. After a long, sweeping instrumental section the sound of someone tearing out pages of a book has been superimposed upon the music, and as one page is torn out and audibly thrown into a waste paper basket, the music in one channel disappears. Then another page is torn out and discarded, and the other channel goes quiet too. The music rises again, from within the waste basket, until someone slams the lid down, and the album ends. This inspired pothead idea seems a fitting end to an LP full of inspired pothead ideas.

The sound of Ithaca is not what you may have read, which is that it sounds like the Moody Blues. Sure there are some superficial similarities; a dreamy mood, extensive use of mellotron, arrangements with classical flourishes – but behind the facade it is not really like Moody Blues at all. "A Game for All Who Know" strikes me as a personal statement with depth and integrity, whose atmosphere reminds me more of early Pink Floyd – not Syd Barrett's early Floyd mind you, but Rick Wright's early Floyd. Wright's brilliant early tracks like "Paint box", "Julia Dream" and "Remember a day" seem to echo in Ithaca, coincidence or not. Furthermore – and this is 100% coincidence – the Ithaca LP comes off quite a bit like Third Estate's "Years Before the Wine", which as you may recall is a strongly European-influenced affair, creating a dreamlike state from baroque song structures, male/female vocals, acoustic guitar arrangements and above-average lyrics... just like Ithaca.

The Ithaca album ostensibly consists of 6 tracks, but each track in turn consists of two or three subsections which seamlessly shift into one another, and it's more like 12 tracks than 6. All 12 tracks displays a remarkable songwriting skill, originating in a moody folk tradition not unlike the early Donovan of something like "Jersey Thursday"; memorable, minor chord melodies shifting between just the right chords to maintain a state of melancholy. The closing track – the one of the torn out pages – is an extended instrumental passage with chamber music influences, and there are elaborate arrangements and instrumentation throughout the LP, including use of autoharp, mandolin, recorder and timpani. Admittedly not all flourishes are appropriate, but in total it is an impressive tapestry, the key word being a gentle flow.

British folk-inspired rock music is, at its best, capable of an intimacy unavailable within any other style. It will put you alone in a room with a guy telling you about his life, baring his heart for you to see – be it Syd Barrett or Nick Drake or Ian Curtis – and if he works hard enough to keep you interested it will be a remarkable experience. The mood on Ithaca is something like this, except that this room doesn't spell suicide or madness, but rather has a door, and the guy is about to leave somewhere. But first he wants you to lie down and smoke some opium with him, and he'll tell you what he knows. This is a "Game for all who know", remember, and you have to pay attention to find out what the game is. To be perfectly honest I still haven't quite figured it out, but the unexpected Americanism of a sampled astronaut broadcasting a message to Houston towards the end of the album seems to be a clue, and maybe the sole keyboard note imitating a sonar scanner at the beginning is too.

The lyrics are beautiful, consistent and full of world-weariness; the frequent use of generic imagery such as dreams, skies and seasons is what keeps them from reaching Nick Drakean levels. The basic theme is that of a travel to a faraway place in order to escape the hopelessness of everyday life, a journey preferrably undertaken by two lovers. And what makes it all worthwhile is that the message first and last seems to be a positive one... an invitation to join.

This is a very good, memorable album. I have always liked it, but listening to it now, with close attention, revealed a greater potential. Some may think it too uniform in mood, or that mood being too wistful, but as far as I am concerned this is one of maybe a dozen UK private press LPs to rank with the best US counterparts.


(Review #17)

LAZY SMOKE: Corridor Of Faces (Onyx 6903 US 1969/various reissues)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: Weed, I've been told

Info at:

Availability: reissue is still around, for now

I bought the Heyoka reissue of this LP some 15 years ago because it was supposed to be some trippy shit, and Heyoka had a very good batting average on their bootlegging program. Played it many times, scratched my head a lot, and sold the reissue after concluding that it may well be someone's cup of tea, but not mine. When the official reissues appeared in the mid-1990s it was like deja vu all over again with the massive hype, so I caved in and bought the legal CD. More playtime, more headscratching, and since I was older and more sure on what I liked and not, this CD ended up in the "outgoing" bin in the Lama hifi room... permanently.

One thing many listeners remark on "Corridor Of Faces" is that it's pretty derivative, and that it builds upon the most famous rock band of all time (hint: not the Remains). The commonly cited Beatles echoes aren't entirely accurate, because Lazy Smoke don't sound that much like the Fab Four. They sound like John Lennon. Just him, removed of the dense 1966-68 George Martin production. For me this is a problem, as I have a hard time with guys who don't sing using their "actual" voices, but seem to fake it some way or other. And I must say that I can only think of John Lennon when I hear the guy sing -- it's such a distinct vocal style, and in combination with the familiar songwriting mood and chord sequences it gets very close in my ears. The brief spoken fake-Liverpudlian bit before "How Did You Die" removes any question on the depth of the influence. I'm sure this Lennon imitation was intended as a little joke, but it appears just at a point when some listeners may be asking themselves "isn't the John Lennon vibe a little too heavy on this LP?". This is unfortunate.

The other problem with the shadow of Lennon is that it partly obscures whatever original talent Lazy Smoke had. For just a quick "pop" LP it wouldn't be a problem if done right, but for a local/private press album there is always the hope and delight of seeing the artist, warts and all, in an honest and pure expression. That is made difficult on "Corridor of faces", and I was in fact unable to see it, despite it being an "intimate" LP at first glance. What I hoped to find during all those repeat plays of "Corridor of faces" was another level of expression and talent, underneath the fake Sgt Pepper moustache... in short, that it was a "grower". But it failed to grow, and I'm still at a loss to explain the popularity of this LP among psych aficionados. My bottom-line objection is that I think the songwriting (in a Lennon-McCartney sense) is only OK, it's not stunning like the best tracks on Fredric, as an example. I am aware that plenty of sensible people think highly of "Corridor of Faces", most commonly citing the atmosphere and mood, which undeniably have some charm. To my ears it's not bad, but a frustrating experience.



(Review #18)

DARK: Round The Edges (SIS 0102 UK 1972/Swank reissue US 1990/Kissing Spell reissue UK 1992)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Sounds best on: DMT, then 5 rounds of lager

Info at:

Availability: reissued several times

It must have been 1990. I was paying a visit to a heavily connected record dealer who had just received some tapes from overseas. He put one on with the words "This is what Paul [Major] and Gregg [Breth] are going to reissue, it's an English album called DARK". I had never heard of it before. "Dark, huh?". The music comes on, a very intro-like thing which nevertheless suggested a nice drum and guitar sound quite unlike the usual 1972 bombast. "Hmm...". Then the actual song begins, a confident, lyrical west coast jam sound like 1968 Quicksilver on a strong night. "This sounds good...", I say. Light, unpretentious vocals enter and the final great fear – that of an Operatic Macho Vocalist – disappears. "This sounds, uh... very good". The record dealer nods in agreement. Shortly after this the Swank label US vinyl reissue did appear, but for reasons not yet made clear it cost not less than $150 in retail, so I passed and settled for a tape dupe.

According to Stephen Smith who produced a more affordable Dark reissue two years later, there will never be another private press British LP of the same stature as Dark "Round the edges". This may be true, and it certainly is one of the rarest, but then rarity doesn't account for anything, and in terms of quality there's nothing exceptional about it. It is a good LP, but also with a number of flaws of varying degrees. As it turns out, my first encounter with it turned out to be a bit of a deception.

After getting the Kissing Spell reissue CD my one-line review of the Dark LP used to be that it "gets weaker for each track". This is not entirely true, but the track sequencing is one of the problems. The opening "Darkside" track, as hinted above, is perhaps the best underground guitarpsych track ever to come out of England, a piece of pure perfection; jammy, loose, beckoning, un-hardrocky, anything. The rest of side 1 is in the same vein, just slightly less "there", and I always choke on the lyrics on "Maypole" which strike me as simple gibberish. 

Side 2 opens with the album's weakest track which I can only describe as mediocre, an uninspired melody unfortunately accentuated by a lead guitar playing tandem with the vocals; tracks 5 and 6 are better, but the lack of a "Darkside" makes the second half of the LP a rather pedestrian experience, with insufficient time devoted to songwriting, and nothing added to the fullfleshed statement of the opener – losing the "R C 8" track altogether and shuffling the others around a bit would undoubtedly improved the LP a couple of points. 

On a more fundamental level, the vibe I get from Dark is that of a bunch of unknown guys who have been rehearsing in a basement for a long time, building an extensive understanding of each others musical ideas, and each honing their craft – the playing is superb, perhaps the drummer most of all – and it isn't really hardrock, or bluesrock, but a classic jam outfit bred out of the late 1960s US westcoast style, almost jazzy in the playing, but never pretentious or showoffy. That's the positive side of the coin,  the negative is that any desire to make a personal statement; perhaps even the ability to do so, went missing in the basement about 500 hours of rehearsal ago. Dark are very sure of what they can play, and they can even afford to be cool about it, but the coolness by definition also means a lack of passion, or fire – again, it's only the initial "Darkside" track that resembles something born out of experience and emotion, rather than an exploration of scales and time signatures.




(Review #19)

ARCADIUM: Breathe A While + 2 bonus tracks   (Middle Earth 102 UK 1969/Green Tree CD reissue)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Speed

Info at:

Availability: Repertoire CD currently in print. Originals are big £££. 

The late 1960s transition from psychedelia into hardrock was difficult, painful and produced a whole bunch of bad LPs. You may see them described as "killer heavy fuzz guitarpsych" next to a $300 price tag in record dealer lists, but most of the time they're dull, elephantine, pompous affairs – losing the mystique and creativity of psych, while not yet having found the directness and attitude of hard rock. Hendrix and "Disraeli Gears" had pointed out a proper path through the forest, but then the Yankees stole the ball and atypically started running in the wrong direction, with players like Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf. While these bands had some inventiveness and originality, you can't say that about the pretenders that followed in their footsteps on both sides of the Atlantic. Hence: a whole bunch of overpriced, suck-ass albums from the 1968-69 timeframe, many from the L A area and many from England, proudly displaying macho vocalists, "bluesy" moods, bombastic organ and gonzo "biker" fuzz guitars.

Which is why it is a pleasure to come across an album like "Breathe a while" by Arcadium. If one just described its elements one by one it may seem like just one of the bad albums implied above, but the actual listening experience is a lot more rewarding. The reason for this is that Arcadium – by design or accident – managed to bring one of the genre's key missing elements, which is a club, or even garage, live atmosphere onto the vinyl. The LP sounds like it may have been recorded live in the studio, with a great compressed soundscape, musicians and vocals fighting for the front position, and even some less than perfect performances left intact. Rather than going for the throat like other successful transition bands like Morgen or Savage Resurrection, the British band chooses to work with long intros and outros as taught by Iron Butterfly, and letting the songs revolve around the particular riffs and structures for as long as it takes to get through.

But these are generally very good riffs, and good explorations too, the strength lies primarily with Alan Ellwood's fat organ permeating every cube inch of the raw soundscape while lead guitarist Robert Ellwood delivers hard acid runs whenever he gets the chance. The interplay between the brothers is as good as the organ/guitar interplay on Hunger, and Arcadium has the upper hand here as the rest of the band is a whole lot edgier than the Oregon longhairs. Songwriter Miguel Sergides' vocals are good; appropriate for the style, emotional without being operatic – however I'm not sure his rhythm guitar playing had been fully rehearsed as there is a bit of sloppiness there, especially when clashing with the good, hardworking and perhaps just a little bit too crank-happy drummer.

This is mainly a sound & attitude LP – it's not terribly smart, the lyrics sound like they were written on the way to the studio, and the songwriting takes the back seat to the riffs and instrumental hooks. Yet when Arcadium get going, as they do for most of the LP, they "rock"... which is good enough. I suspect some people may be irritated with the extended build-ups and teardowns, but just as many will love the perfect guitarleads during these build-ups and teardowns, as well as the loud garagepsych production. All in all, a highly enjoyable LP in a difficult genre, and in case my references haven't already said so, with a strong American influence.

There's a further twist to the Arcadium saga, as my Green Tree reissue CD (vinyl-sourced, but with great presence) has two bonus tracks from the band's non-LP 45, and damn me if they aren't among the best thing on the entire disc. Any questions of the songwriting ability are fully answered in these atmospheric, impressive creations.


(Review #20)

BILLY NICHOLLS: Would You Believe  (Immediate 009 UK 1968)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sounds best on: Uppers

Info at:

Availability: CD reissue is in print

You are not likely to have missed the loud, excited buzz swarming around this LP at the time of the 1999 reissue, after 30 years of hush-hush silence among hardcore UK 1960s collectors. Heralded, or at least promoted, as a "lost Pet Sounds from England", the hype wave had enough momentum to make a splash onto various "square" rock publications where it was given favorable, but perhaps somewhat disappointed, reviews. Well, hype and promo sheets and professional pundit reviews have a lot less longevity than actual music, and with the Nicholls sea all calm and serene again it could be time to try and examine the record in an unbiased manner.

Nicholls was supposedly a musical wunderkind, a teenager swept right into the middle of the musical explosion of London 1967 by benefactors like George Harrison, the Small Faces and most of all Andrew Loog Oldham. Unfortunately this meant that he ended up on the Immediate Records label at a time when it was already running on fumes and soon would reach a screeching halt. Fortunately, however, there was still enough money left to pursue the grandiose vision of Nicholls and/or Oldham, as the resulting recordings indicate no lack of financial resources.

Let me first of all replace the notion of "Would You Believe" as England's Pet Sounds with another tag-line, less demanding and more realistic. While it's highly likely that Brian Wilson's masterpiece was played constantly during teabreaks in the studio, the end product bears a much closer resemblance to another Wilson admirer, Curt Boettcher of Millennium/Sagittarius fame. Judging by timeline realities the similarity is a coincidence, which makes it all the more interesting as both artists chose to focus on the same segments of Wilson's gigantic palette of creativity; an upbeat, vocal-harmony and keyboard-oriented sound that is sometimes referred to as California Sunshine Pop. Just like Boettcher and his cohort Gary Usher, Nicholls uses an incessant cembalo-like keyboard sound on many songs, drums with a big orchestral sound, strings and organ for backdrop, and layers of elaborate multi-harmony vocals on top of the waterfall-like soundscape.

The really good news is that it works, and it works simply because Nicholls' talent was vast enough to pull off the Wilson-cum-Boettcher rope trick. His songwriting ranges from good to very good, the arrangements and production are consistent and elaborate, and I may even be inclined to give him the upper hand on the Boettcher albums, as "Would You Believe" presents a more coherent picture than the sometimes too sprawling array of ideas on Millennium and Sagittarius. Those who think that vocal harmonies are "it" in Sunshine Pop-land may still be inclined to choose the Los Angeles productions, as they are admittedly somewhat stronger in that department. But as far as 1968 producer pop goes, the Billy Nicholls album must rank among the very best.

Some may wonder where the hell Swinging London and the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream and all that can be found in the grooves. Well, it's there – most obviously in lyrics like the cleverly titled "London Social Degree", and in a couple of tracks that touch upon the familiar UK beatpsych landscape of Kaleidoscope or the Hollies, such as "Portobello Road". These two are perhaps my favorite tracks, but this is an album that plays through beautifully, moving along a clearly visible axis of happy, upbeat sounds and atmospheres, from a very different era than 2002. It is difficult to find an unexpected depth or a sense of personal statement on this album, but that is par for the genre – the perfectly crafted pop music IS the personal statement, as on any vintage Brian Wilson record.




© Patrick The Lama 2002

The Lama Reviews