Tuesday, October 25, 2011
AS THE TIMES BEGAN TO CHANGE IN OLDE ENGLAND TOWN- TITUS GROAN AND THE GODS- TO SAMUEL A SON
The Gods are best remembered by rock historians as the band who became Uriah Heep (Ken Hensley, the leader, would go on to form Heep with Mick Box and David Byron of the band Spice whilst Gods drummer Lee Kerslake became a UH mainstay when he joined them on DEMONS AND WIZARDS all the way up until their 2008 release Wake The Sleeper and 2011's masterful Into The Wild), but traces of that later, heavier group would only appear very sporadically on the two albums The Gods recorded Genesis and the much superior To Samuel A Son. Most dealers/collectors seem to prefer Genesis, but I find the tracks off that album to be tamer, less fully realized, and the album has its high highs and low lows. Having said that, I've yet to own the original.....
In Koobas fashion (A band To Samuel A Son and my second choice Titus Groan resemble to a certain extent) To Samuel A Son was released after The Gods no longer existed. Throughout their career personnel changes had plagued the group with such luminaries as King Crimson/ELP bass man/voice Greg Lake and the Stones Mick Taylor early members who came and went, but after settling on Hensley as the leader (lead vocals/keyboards/guitars) with Joe Konas (Guitar/vocals), the late John Glasscock (bass player SUPREME and vocals), and Lee Kerslake (Drums/vocals) they would make their two albums and then rapidly disappear into the netherworld of collectors groups who didn't sell 5 copies at the time.
To Samuel A Son is a concept side of 9 songs and a non-concept side of "Stage Numbers" on Side Two although more likely the ambitious songwriting and dramatic vocals were a natural to Hensley and he was feeling restricted by The Gods' short song format. The concept of Side One is the birth, life, death, and rebirth through his son of the fictitious Samuel "Sammy" Jay and while that may sound ordinary much of the 9 songs are amazing. The beginning of the album isn't inviting- a plodding organ, sound effects, and then finally after that kicking into the first song the title track which manages to combine Zombies Oddesey And Oracle melodic richness with a deeper, more urgent progressive slant. We can call this majestic track "Progressive Pop-" a transition from the 1967/1968 British pop to the coming progressive sound of the early 70s. The vocals from Hensley are strong and appealing while the harmonies are staggeringly good. The rest of the side moves from childhood to marriage to growing old to the very sophisticated take on rebirth through the Son in "Autumn" which like the opener begins pretty lame and then gets great when the vocals and actual theme come in. You can overlook two poor yet very short intros when the rest of the side and the album are amazing. Highlights of the Conceptual side are the classy very British psychedelia of "Sticking Wings On Flies," the Koobas style rocking psych sound of "He's Growing" and "Lady Lady-" which may be the side's best track. There is a also the Beatles/Badfinger power pop sound which permeates through this entire album. Yes, my mates, Uriah Heep began as the Beatles proteges The Gods. "Penny Dear" and Side Two's brilliant "Mama I Need' are McCartney meets The Koobas while the McCartney and Lennon comparisons can't be avoided when describing some of the band's vocal arrangements which find them somewhere between the two. This isn't to say that To Samuel A Son is derivative, just to point to an influence not just on The Gods but on their Hatfield friends Octopus who'd deliver with Restless Night a one-off masterpiece I wish I'd kept.
Now, you're probably going to ask if To Samuel A Son and The Gods really are great enough to command the 400 and more pound value of the album/their work and whether they were capable of turning out a classic and not just an album that would get overshadowed by the masterful work of Uriah Heep. I can tell you right off that you play To Samuel A Son next to Very 'Eavy Very 'Umble and To Samuel wins hands down. Byron's voice wasn't quite all the way there yet as it would be on Salisbury and same for the songs, many of them ideas nicked from this record. The Gods could churn out song after song of transitional 60s into early 70s greatness far better than most bands were doing at the time as England was in the throes of major musical changes which saw quite a few masterpieces, but just as many duds (Spectrum's The Light Is Dark Enough, Samson's one off nightmare Are You Samson, Fire's laughable The Magic Shoemaker). The Gods no longer were afraid to spice up their arrangements both musical and vocal nor were they held down by pseudo soul moves which led many to call them a British Vanilla Fudge. Now they sound confident, melodic, upfront, strong, and with many highlights which combine superb vocal harmonies with a strong yet very down to earth lead voice. "Lovely Anita," the album's closer, is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard and though it may be from 1969 is full of the vibes of the Summer Of Love. It is a love song to end all love songs and I'm not one that's big on girls' names in song titles (Toto is a guilty pleasure thus so..) or lyrics. The Gods manage to surpass quite a few other bands here, and they also manage to avoid sounding pretentious which isn't easy when one side of your album is a 9 song mini-opera. Yes, you can hear echoes of Queen from time to time in their harmonies and it undoubtedly is the influence of The Beatles and Bee Gees on The Gods which can be pointed to as making them a trio of bands whose music would later take on a very mature shape in the songwriting of Freddie Mercury and cohorts. If you love The Bee Gees, Beatles, Koobas, and you like your Proto-Prog on the less pretentious more juicy song based side start here. To Samuel A Son is a Brilliant album and The Gods themselves are a band worthy of their revered place in the world of late 60s British Bands who didn't have the success they deserved so much at the time.
By the time Titus Groan made their one self-titled album in 1970 Uriah Heep were up and running, Jethro Tull were astonishing friend and foe alike, Genesis were panhandling us some of the most boring music ever save for "The Knife," Traffic were branching out, Yes and King Crimson were reinventing British music, and progressive rock had indeed come into its own. Sounding a bit like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, Titus Groan belong to the category of bands like Czar, Raw Material, Bulldog Breed, and Aardvark all of whom differ, but all of which were playing heavy early prog with traces of British popsike. The 4 man band Titus Groan here offer us 5 long tracks and one of them a multipart suite, but passionate interplay between guitar and woodwinds, rich harmonies, and a raspy yet friendly lead voice render them a band who don't even come close to sounding pretentious. I remember when this album was common and not highly thought of, that is the US press (and typically my mint minus copy is a US press) and I still run into a lot of very skeptical reviews of Titus Groan's one record, but for the life of me I don't understand it. This is one of THE BEST and one of THE MOST IMPRESSIVE progressive albums ever made. I would say that it may top some of the huge monsters and is one in its own right. I can point to several reasons for this collection's spotless, magical vibe. First off the playing may be exuberant and virtuosic, but it does not interfere with the songs and the excellent melodies present in each track. Secondly there is a lot of room for pop melodic know how even in the heaviest tracks. Third and final to make this a classic Titus Groan doesn't sound like a band who take themselves way too seriously. There is a real feeling of fun and creativity on here that I would compare to the sense of joyfulness present on Aardvark's best songs and the peak moments of Czar where the music is exciting and at that same time not just a lot of pseudo philosophical nonsense. Progressive without pretentious is the way it should be and for proof of this listen to the track "Hall Of Bright Carvings." What is a long suite is actually melodic, soaring, harmonies surrounded by a jam of intense joy and excitement. The saxes, guitars, bass, and drums all get a chance to really shine without an excess of overlong solos. The jam here is a structured one with a few free form/free flowing sections. I am reminded of the vast creativity prevalent in the best of the heavy leaning British Psych/European psych which has no equal in Amerika or very few equals in the States. I would put this album up there with the amazing 1st Mighty Baby album as one of the best ever, but like Mighty Baby who would go on to a dreadful 2nd album (the financially huge price tag'd musically worthless Jug Of Love) the other tracks recorded by Titus Groan which only made it to singles were unimpressive. Also, I can bring in Czar at this point as a band who made their album when times were changing fast and there weren't any really concrete trends that were prevalent for a band to be sucked into, thus when you either were progressive or more middle of the road that middle ground was unwisely taken both by Czar and Titus Groan. A British pressing of Titus Groan commands a huge sum now, but it would be good to point out that you get a gatefold with the UK release and its' on the Dawn label who gave us the also brilliant Pluto and Quicksand. Thankfully, the US press is on the Janus label and the sound quality is fantastic- better than any of the reissues. In the annals of heavy progressive rock with some of that popsike/Mod magic still left in there Titus Groan are one of the best. They deliver and they aren't music that will depress or bring you down. They avoid free jazz squealing, prog rock navel-gazing, and the delirious nothing of boogie band nowhere land. Both these albums by The Gods and Titus Groan reflect the era when British rock was nearing a peak of excitement and the heavy sounds of Europe were coming in full blast. You can't go wrong with these two. Do yourself a favor and find them. It may be a long search, but it will be a rewarding one at the end.