Psych and Prog

Bill Cosby “Badfoot Brown & The Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band” (1970)

Believe it or not, this ultra-obscure 35-minute shot of heady psychedelic jazz-funk came from the mind and soul of Bill Cosby. Yes, THAT Bill Cosby!

A crate-digger’s delight, the album was originally released in 1971 and features two extended tracks (“Martin’s Funeral” and “Hybish Shybish”) the album does a remarkable job of bringing to musical life the tense, tumultuous, but ultimately invigorating era in which it was recorded. Cosby is no slouch on the keys; and though he is galaxies away from the man, the comedian’s bursts of electric piano at times recall Sun Ra. An oddity given its association with Cosby, the album remains an excellent slab of heavy, spaced-out jazz funk and will be of interest to any fan of the style.

Van der Graaf Generator “Pawn Hearts” (1971)

Here’s a band operating on their own plateau, located in the center of a triangle formed by King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and the sacrificial altar of Crom, Pawn Hearts is not so much three distinct tracks as one elongated inner monologue of madness courtesy of Peter Hammill and company. While there’s those who would portray dementia through scatterbrained ramblings, Pawn Hearts is all the more harrowing and impressive in it’s focus and lucidity, it’s makeup of dense keyboards and saxophone sounding both ancient and timeless, with Hammill’s overwrought expression giving the proceedings an air of theatricality without resorting to parody. If at times the journey through these catacombs winds up at a dead end, particularly during moments of the side-long “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” there are too many glorious moments here to ignore, and the lack of reliance on stock prog-isms set this one apart. —Ben

Arthur Brown & Craig Leon “The Complete Tapes of Atoya” (1984)

A high-level head-scratcher in the best of ways, The Complete Tapes of Atoya is one of those records that defies reason by it’s very existence.  As confounding a pair-up as it reads on paper, it’s still somewhat hard to believe that a record featuring these two forces (yes, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown Arthur Brown) would go un-noted to the extent it has.  Although Craig Leon may not signify as a household name, he was a significant figure in the development of the NYC punk and new wave scene of the mid-late ’70’s and beyond, working A&R and producing for Sire Records – bringing the Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell, and Suicide to the label and working on all of the aforementioned classic debuts.

Recorded in ’81 Atoya sat unreleased for three years – not that it made a difference.  It’s doubtful the world was more prepared for this in 1984 than it was three years earlier.  Working a musical program of what would now be termed “minimal synth,” Leon’s stark synth and drum machine backdrops resemble the early output of Cabaret Voltaire or Depeche Mode, even flying close to Human League levels of anthemic pop with the jubilant “Strange Romance”.  On top of it all perches the inimitable Arthur Brown, eccentric and wound up as ever, holding forth with formidable accent on the big issues: dinosaurs, big guns, and the King of England.  Perhaps best of all, and worth the price of admission alone, is what could be the definitive swipe at the Diddley/Holly chestnut “Not Fade Away”.  Many have thrown their ring in the hat with this standard, but no one has ever quite done it this way.  Sounding more than a bit like Suicide, the skeletal, mechanical funk boils all of the swagger out of the song, save for Brown’s straining, leg-caught-in-beartrap howl, rivaling Devo’s wry covers of “Satisfaction” or “Working In A Coalmine” in terms of visionary, bizarre re-animation.  A record who’s time it feels, may have finally come. —Jonathan Treneff

Genesis “A Trick of the Tail” (1976)

If Genesis is, at best, a guilty pleasure (and I’m not necessarily implying they are), what to make of post-Peter-Gabriel-Genesis? And if they’re not a guilty pleasure (and I’m not fully prepared to say they aren’t), but rather, with Gabriel at the helm, the Most Wonderfulest Group on God’s Grey Earth—what happens to the listener who says A Trick of the Tail is probably nearly almost just about as good as Selling England by the Pound? Shall he be drawn and quartered?

With more emphasis on rhythm, due to less cluttered production and willful eccentricity, the group seems to hit their stride as a (relatively) straightforward rock outfit following the departure of resident eccentric Peter Gabriel. The emergence of Phil’s drums are just the refreshing advance that was needed after all that murky “orchestration;” but the orchestration on this album’s predecessor leaves a lot to be desired on this weird crossover, an album that mines territory similar to Lamb’s predecessor, Selling England by the Pound, but lacks the structural inventiveness and the skewed cinematic sense the group had captured on the latter and the aforementioned follow-up, an unwieldy but frequently incredible record.

For those who entirely discount post-Gabriel Genesis, much of this (and its successor, for that matter) are pretty solid. Arguably not up to the standard of anything that came before, but, trading in some of the “drama” for a stronger attack and a little much-needed directness, this stuff is pretty, and mostly pretty compelling. Phil Collins haters be damned! –Will

Kaleidoscope “Side Trips” (1967)

Wildly eclectic mixture of Psychedelia, Mid Eastern music, Appalachian Folk, jug band, hokey jump blues and undefinable weirdness that could only have come from the 60’s California music scene. The original 10 song album is only 26 minutes long, yet it goes through such a wide variety of styles that it really does feel like a full listening experience. Best tracks are the Mid Eastern opening track “Egyptian Gardens”, the very psychedelic antiwar song “Keep Your Mind Open” and that cheery little Appalachian folk ditty “Oh Death” (lately best known from the more traditional, dirge-like rendition on the hit soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou). There’s also an oddly faithful cover of “Minnie The Moocher”. —Flaregun

Flower Travellin’ Band “Satori” (1971)

Mindblowing Japanese rock classic, heavier than a thousand planets: meaty, doomy power chords on top of driving basslines and tribal drums with a sinewy, molten, eastern-tinged lead guitar soaring above it all like hookah smoke — the bastard love child of Black Sabbath and Godzilla emerging from the sea not to destroy Tokyo but just to ROCK!!!! Intense and partially unintelligible English vocals plus a smoking harmonica solo on Satori IV round out the incredible sound. Each track is a masterpiece. One of the finest albums to come out in the early 70s, which of course makes it one of the finest albums ever and possibly the best album you’ve never heard. This is one heavy album that might go into heavy rotation for the rest of your life, or at the very least for the rest of the year. —Ben

Stackridge “Stackridge” (1971)

Among the most legendary names of the British folk rock movement, this Bristol-based band were formed in 1969 by Andy Creswell-Davis and James Warren as Stackridge Lemon, soon to be named simply Stackridge. 1970 finds the band having an intense live activity, playing at the first Glastonbury Festival and, a year later, supporting Wishbone Ash on their UK tour and signing with the MCA Records.

“Stackridge” is actually a mixed bag of short Beatles-esque pop tunes and longer arrangements played in some sort of symphonic/folk style. Even the short accesible tunes are well-played with rich instrumentation and good multi-vocals, blended nicely with folsky violins, tracks which even The Beatles would be proud of creating. But it is these long arrangements which make this album so special like the great “The Three Legged Table”, starting off like Phillips-era Genesis, pastoral acoustic-driven musicianship later to become a catchy brass/violin-rock heaven with perfect vocal lines. “Essence of Porphyry” is another instrumental highlight with complex instrumentation featuring violin and cello in a medieval style and excellent acoustic passages with fantastic flute work, always under a classical nature, like a cross between Genesis and Gentle Giant…or the 14-minute long “Slark”, which closes the album, a beautiful composition split between folk ballad, medieval music and symphonic rock with again some superb vocals. A real treasure.

Stackridge’s debut is more than simply a great album. Even the easy-listening side of the band contains unbelievable professionalism and unmet personality, marking this effort as one of the most significant and impressive debut’s in UK’s prog history. —Apps79

Scorpions “Lonesome Crow” (1972)

Fans of the MTV Scorpions from the 80’s are in for a shock; Lonesome Crow has no pop hooks, no rocking us like a hurricane, and no cheesy love ballads. The lyrics and melodies are Avant Garde and the instruments are mostly in odd time. Generic hair metal fans of the “Love At First Sting” era will have their heads explode.

The album is a mix of psychedelic sounds, fusion, free-form jazz progressive rock and Krautrock influences. Also the bass playing is almost at Jaco Pastorius-like levels, melodically running up and down the jazz minor scales and popping out hundreds of incredible bass fills. “In Search of the Peace of Mind” has these beautiful haunting acoustic guitars in it that I’ve never heard anywhere else. Or how about those haunting wind sounds in “Leave Me”, where Meine cries out “Womaaaaaan…leave my mind!” Also this is the only record where Mikey is a full time band member and he is already a God, having hundreds of solos spread all over this album. Rudolf is more of less in the background with little Michael stealing the show with his jazz/proto metal solos. The title track is a 13 minute headphone trip, sounding like a soundtrack to a underground art film. Lonesome Crow is a musical masterpiece! —Ultra Magnus

Love “Four Sail” (1969)

When people talk about Arthur Lee and Love, it’s generally not Four Sail they’re talking about. A pity – because this album is just as crucial as the first three “classic-lineup” records – albeit for slightly different reasons. Some would argue that Love lost much of the magic that initially drew listeners in after the career-defining Forever Changes – that Lee had nothing left to say and nowhere to go. An understandable stance, in light of his already significant achievements, but simply not true.

Four Sail features a completely re-tooled lineup – with a more muscular power trio augmenting Lee’s still ornate songwriting sensibilities. While the new band works squarely in the zone of the changing times (post-Hendrix acid-blues virtuosity), there are more than enough of Lee’s trademark flamenco guitar lines and intuitive songwriting twists and turns to mark this as something that could only be a Love album. Frankly, it’s exciting to hear his singular instincts applied to a new model, and to their credit, the band run with it, sounding vital and electric, re-animating some of the scrappy garage-band energy that made “Seven And Seven Is” so invigorating. Incredibly, Lee’s fragile humanism still manages to cut through the din, scaling new emotional heights in songs like “Robert Montgomery” and “Always See Your Face.” One of the things that set Love apart, and that remains undissipated here, was Lee’s fearlessness in laying his heart and soul out for the crushing, conveying the joy and terror of the human experience in ways that few dared, or would have had the eloquence to articulate. Things would go downhill pretty quickly for Lee after this, but Four Sail remains the defiant last stand of a formidable creative mind, still capable of flipping the script and brokering triumph out of dissolution. —Jon Treneff

Vanilla Fudge “Renaissance” (1968)

Renaissance has a dense, intense sound that permeates every track. It is an emotional whirlpool – the introspection of “Thoughts”, the triumph of “Thats What Makes A Man”, the bliss of “Paradise”, the desperation of “The Sky Cried When I Was A Boy”, to the utter horror of “The Spell That Comes After”. Played a high volume, the overwhelming climax on “The Spell That Comes After” will plaster you to the back wall whilst the poem in the middle of “Season of the Witch” will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The album has a consistency of style throughout from the opening crash to the spooky whistled signature of “the beat goes on” at the end, always intense and often at the point of mental and physical breakdown. Blistering guitar drenched in Hammond organ pumped through a wall of Leslie speakers backed by one of the best rhythm sections ever, not to mention Mark Stein’s powerful emotional vocal.

No other record sounds like this record, it is truely unique. —Tony

Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship “Blows Against the Empire” (1970)

If you’re an Airplane fan, you want to give this one a try. Yes, this is the earliest album to use the “Jefferson Starship” name, but it’s not the first official Starship album, this is simply a Paul Kantner solo project in between Airplane albums (Volunteers, Bark) with an all-star cast of musicians helping out with the name Jefferson Starship (including several Airplane members like Grace Slick, Jack Casady, Joey Covington as well as three Dead members, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, plus David Crosby and Graham Nash, and ex-Quicksilver Messenger member and future Airplane/Jefferson Starship member David Freiberg, plus Peter Kaukonen, Jorma’s brother). The Airplane at this point was in flux having just lost Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden, so this gave Kantner the idea for a solo project. Luckily the music has much more in common with the Airplane sound circa Volunteers, so if you’re fearing a precursor to the Red Octopus sound, don’t worry, Pete Sears and Craig Chaquico ain’t here! Not to mention no Papa John Creach. To me, Blows Against the Empire is one of the last great West Coast psych albums. 1970 was obviously difficult times for the counterculture, as it was pretty much on decline, no doubt helped by the Kent State shootings, so this album was basically about a bunch of hippies who hijack a starship to sail off to the stars because they no longer feel welcomed on Earth. The album was nominated for a sci-fi Hugo Award, but didn’t win. Strange that an album of recorded music would be nominated by such an award.

“The Baby Tree” is a silly little folk-number about babies growing on trees while “Let’s Go Together” sounds like a missing number from Volunteers. “A Child is Coming” is a nice pleasant acoustic number, which seemed to coincide to Grace Slick having a child that was to be born (China Kantner). “Hijack” is a totally wonderful epic number, where the band almost enters prog rock territory near the end with some wonderful use of piano. There’s a couple of short pieces that simulate the sounds of a starship taking off, oddly they remind me of such Krautrock groups of the time like Ash Ra Tempel or early Tangerine Dream. “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight” is the group exploring space rock with spacy psychedelic effects. It reminds me a tad of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but then Crosby and Nash do appear on this album. “Starship” sounds like how the Dead and Airplane might sound like if they teamed together as you hear a strong Dead/Airplane sound to this piece (not to mention Jerry Garcia giving his trademark lead guitars).

A totally wonderful, if often underrated album of West Coast psychedelia which I highly recommend. —Ben

The Electric Prunes “Mass in F Minor” (1968)

The album works almost as one long song filled with dynamic psychedelic jams with Gregorian chants, searing guitar leads, string and horn sections, and a pounding rhythm section. [The album’s producer] David Axelrod’s “Song of Innocence” comes to mind with the fusion of psychedelic guitar and orchestral arrangements and one could consider this to be Axelrod’s first album because this music is clearly his vision and influence. However, “Mass in F Minor” is far more rock influenced as each song rises and falls emotionally with horn and string sections embellishing the guitar chords rather than vice versa (which, I believe to be the case on “Song of Innocence). The buildup of the entire album climaxes with the final guitar chords of “Agnus Dei” and mark the closing ceremony of a truly unforgettable and holy music experience.

As a fan of out-there, experimental psychedelic rock from the late 60’s, “Mass in F Minor” strikes a chord with me in ways that other Electric Prunes albums can’t. Sure, those garage psych songs from their previous albums are great, but it’s hard for them to really stand out above the rest of all the other garage psych albums of the time as it was such a common sound. There isn’t a category for psychedelic concept albums simulating a church experience. For those who enjoy the more experimental parts of the Chocolate Watchband, H.P. Lovecraft, Ultimate Spinach, David Axelrod, USA, Beacon Street Union or Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies (just a few off the top of my head), do yourselves a favor and brush aside the mainstream reviews of the more “level-headed” rock fan and check this out. —Coldchisel/RYM