The whole world was changing in the early 1970s and some things would have to die for other new adventures to begin. Flower power was long a thing of the past and had faded into the memories of the lucky few who could remember the Summer Of Love and the classic sounds of that summer.
Disenchantment, foreboding, anarchy, and disorganization partially took the place of the more peaceful ideas about revolution and come 1970 England was in its second full year of war against the Catholic extremist IRA in Northern Ireland. A lot of young people were out of work and this led to lots becoming soldiers or more fortunately gifted ones forming bands to express their feelings of disillusion.
The massive wave of heavy and not so heavy artistically forward moving groups in the United Kingdom, Europe, and America were largely labelled "progressive rock" and/or "hard rock-" heavy metal was just beginning to get some rare usage as a word for the most arch hard hitting of these bands. With the huge amount of music getting recorded came new labels in the UK and a different approach to signing bands for more staid ones. Pye had Dawn, Phillips had Vertigo and a million others, Decca had Deram, and EMI had Harvest Sovereign and Regal Zonophone. This is only a handful as there were about 300 bands and 300 albums coming out every week if you put just two of these countries together with most fading into obscurity as soon as they'd made their one album. A lot of great, brilliant, heartfelt and inventive music came out during the 1970-1973 era. Fantasy, The Parlour Band, Dog That Bit People, Northwind, Renia (who I'll dig into here), Still Life (more on them a bit later also), Quicksand, and Asgard/Stonehouse led the way. With all these exciting bands and records also came disappointments and disasters.
Black Sabbath were a band who had miraculously made it just with their revolutionary first album almost seemingly overnight, but many horrible bands followed that would try to replicate progressive or hard rock with dark lyrical themes. Sabbath were monolithic, amazing, extraordinary and despite their quick rise the band had paid their dues for many years before that first album sent chills up the spine of anyone who heard it. Together with Ozzy and mates the most exciting bands to play progressive rock, the big 3 if you will, would be Yes, Uriah Heep, and early King Crimson with a mention too of Genesis (sometimes they were brilliant, but often sickening). The charts for the first time were also full of exciting music trying to grasp onto a more mature form of flowers and love pop. There was Vanity Fare, White Plains, The Marmalade (who would morph from psychedelic pop in the 60s to a band who could rock hard on their classic 3rd and 4th releases Songs and Our House Is Rocking), Sweet (The Gods of Glam Rock), Slade (The 2nd Gods Of Glam Rock), and all assortment of bands who either gave us pure pop bliss or great listenable harder more thoughtful rock.
The war was taking lives every day. Everyone was scared shitless of what could and might happen if the bomb was dropped or the war escalated. Some unashamedly pompous, sick in the head, and talentless bands rose up to spew filth and fear into the English music scene with this being where the fine line I can discuss is drawn. It is one thing to write about death and destruction tastefully, in an if not subtle than at least intelligent manner, but Warm Dust, Deep Feeling, and the first 3 travesties by Beggars Opera are the most disgusting overblown nonsense ever produced making some British bands look as bad as American chart music of that time. These 3 bands would die their deserved deaths or in the case of Beggar's Opera go on to become a classy rock and roll band, but there was always that question of progressive VS gratuitous. It sometimes was borderline, but usually crystal clear.
This is where Still Life step in. Signed by Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep label Vertigo the young quartet recorded the ultimate heavy melodic showcase for a prime mix of progressive/psychedelic rock and emotive R&B in one of the worst covers of 1971. Look at the front and it's some nice looking flowers, but fold it down to the next panel of the front gatefold you find a disgusting rotted out human skull. You would immediately suspect this to be one of the throwaway records released by the overstretched Vertigo label, but that's hardly the case. Vertigo had many fine bands and on closer look of the great inner gatefold shot of 4 stoned out looking lads Still Life look like they mean business. And they do. This is a very unusual album. Their sound is characterized by a heavy Hammond organ and pounding piano sound with only bass and drums, no guitar. The only tracks to use guitar both use acoustic at the beginning with flute of the opening monster "People In Black" and the first half of Side Two's 1st track "Love Song Number 6 (I'll Never Love You Girl)." Soaring, sometimes strangely phrased Asgard like vocal harmonies and Martin Cure's soulful strong vocals are a pleasant change from the myriad of bands who couldn't sing, but it is the highly thoughtful nature of the music that makes Still Life so incredible. As in my last blog entry sometimes I have the feeling of lying shell shocked in a trench or in this case running for my life down a street in Belfast or Londonderry, but there is something warm here, something even comforting at times. Still Life are a heavy, ominous band and almost a keyboard led hybrid of Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath, but with very strong soul influences. Vocalist Martin Cure whether wistfully singing of lost time and intellectual musings or shouting, roaring out like a lion has a voice that most singers would give their life for. At last there's a white singer who really does have soul, who really can deliver R&B phrasing with the magic of a young Steve Winwood or Gary Brooker. He's amazing. Organist Terry Howells is a fantastic keyboard player who uses bombastic crashing noises to his advantage, but one who also has a keen melodic sense. The rhythm section are also worthy of a mention- they can follow any change in mood, structure, or chord with no problem at all. The harmonies that begin "People In Black" are painfully out of tune, but thankfully Still Life get going and get way professional after that. "People In Black" is a mystifying song. It is definitely a put down, but very opaque. The song has apocalyptic lines and some violent imagery, but mainly a lot of anger at these protesting "People In Black." It runs for over 8 minutes and is an intense piece of music that has your attention fixed on it for the entire duration of the song. "Don't Go" which follows it and the closing track "Time" are both very melodic progressive rock songs with the former a ballad, the latter heavier with great vocals and a very warm atmosphere conjured up. Both are mournful and it seems that Still Life are a band mourning something beautiful that has passed by, maybe unnoticed by most people. It could be the 60s or it could be disillusion with England as it entered an illadvised pointless war, but more likely it's both. "October Witches" and "Dreams" are heavy epic tracks which concoct an aural stew of everything from Procol Harum to the early Nice to The Small Faces and David Bowie. Strong, powerful, and engaging music. "I'll Never Love You Girl" is another track to bring back 60s influences although it turns into a furious shouting vocal halfway through with Martin Cure sounding like Paul Rodgers gone mad. "Dreams" is the most complex track beginning with a freaky spoken section then a hard rocking 1st section and slow contemplative trippy ending. Much, much, much better than Egg or any other Canterbury pseudo artsy nonsense! Still Life may be the only successful prog/soul hybrid in existence along with Procol and some of Uriah Heep's more soulful musings and here everything is so high quality you can overlook that stupid front cover. A must-have for any discerning collector! NOTE: You can more easily afford, but not more easily find a Canadian Swirl pressing that sounds really good and duplicates the British press.
A few quick spins here:
Power Of Zeus: America's answer to the Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath? Progressive rock or heavy psych? A bit of both and a lot more. Power Of Zeus are a rough and ready Detroit quartet whose music is far removed from the garage punk ineptitude of most of who had come before them with their sound decidedly very British/European. This is probably the best and most legitimate hard heavy prog/psych album from the States beating the heads in of every other keyboard/guitar heavy American group. The vocals are occasionally a bit too tough for their own good, but for the most part excellent. The harmonies and some whole songs flash back to the 60s Mod wave and the only problem is the really stupid lyrics to some of their songs ("You Can't see what's happened to me/Cos the rain beats down on your big beef daddy" or "You should see my woman/fine as can be my woman"). That said I would compare this album to Canada's Warpig and the heavy German and British monsters of the time (Power Of Zeus released The Gospel According To Zeus on Rare Earth in 1970)- menacing, freaky, thought-provoking hard brute force stuff with a lot of taste. There's even really melodic sections for variety- always a good thing. One of the best.
Renia- First Offenders: Renia were anything BUT underground on their 1973 record for Transatlantic instead in the vein of Fable, Dog That Bit People, or The Parlour Band a very melodic rock group with progressive leanings, melody, and muscle. Every song could be expounded upon for its perfect melding of melodic R&B/Free like rock and progressive inclinations in the superb keyboard/guitar/bass nexus that drives it along, but the fact that this whole record blends into one big perfect song is its magic. There is not one weak link here and the songs are amazing. Every track sticks to strong melodies over bombast and the vibe for the whole record is very cheerful. As said, not underground. Fable is one of the best examples of melodic British rock with ambitions, but Renia is every bit as good as that very similar record. If you were to have seen the two bands on the same bill you would have experienced the concert of your life probably, but both bands sank without trace after just one record. You can't lose with this one, but it's very hard to find it as Transatlantic only promoted their folk artists leaving rock bands like Renia or Stray for dead. Stray never made it because of the label they were on and the same could be said for Renia. The band's lead singer, Kenny Stewart, would go onto the ill-fated hard rock band Dirty Tricks, but be warned he was never this good again except for the very first album by his next venture. By the time Dirty Tricks released their second album Night Man they were a laughable parody of themselves and about the worst Free/Zeppelin wannabes in the world. Things would hit an all-time low on Hit And Run where Stewart screams his tonsils out and doesn't even try to sing. For some there is but one moment of sheer brilliance in their life and it seems for Stewart he had one and a half. That the talented vocalist didn't resurrect his earlier promise and Stevie Winwood like delivery for a second try is a real shame. Renia's First Offenders is a masterpiece of strong, solid, durable melodic British rock.
England always seems to be the country to start a wave of excitement going and other countries pick up on it. This is true going back to the early Beat days of the Beatles and the Mods, but in the 1970s England seemed to be both a major power and a pale shadow of what the 60s had promised. There was both the best and the worst music with the same true of the life conditions people would face during those days. You either had it made or you went off to fight and got taken for one long horrible traumatic ride of trying to solve a problem you didn't create. Most bands would not make it very far either regardless of their talent, but that everyone who tried tried is what matters- England wasn't gonna fall into misery and die. It would keep itself alive until punk, but then rock would win in the end with all the great bands of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Take this blog entry as the two sides- despair and happiness- they exist in the lives of everyone.