11 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
While they're relatively unknown internationally - even to psych collectors - the Avengers were genuine stars here in New Zealand during the latter part of the sixties. Their versions of the Episode Six's "Love Hate Revenge" and David McWilliams "The Days of Pearly Spencer" still crop up regularly on classic hits radio and are regarded by many (myself included) as definitive.
This collection from New Zealand sixties reissue specialists Frenzy & RPM gathers up the the majority of the band's two pricey studio albums along with a few single sides and curios for the band's first international CD release.
Impressively, the band's legacy was all put to tape between 1967 and 1969, with the band's two studio albums and sole live album all released in one calendar year (1968).
Assembled by manager Ken Cooper as houseband for his club, "The Plaice", the Avengers were essentially a manufactured pop group, initially costumed in John Steed style suits and bowlers, with their extremely successful first single ("Everyone's Gonna Wonder") coming from an outside writer - Chris Malcolm. Fear not though, New Zealand Idol this is not; the band gelled quickly and soon proved themselves to be gifted performers, writers, and interpreters.
Not unusually for the time, their first album, "Electric Recording" threw a little bit of everything into the pot mixing pop, mod, beat and psychedelia in fairly equal measure, along similar lines to the first Aphrodite's Child album or early UK Bee Gees albums. As debuts go it's a very strong effort, but the best was yet to come.
"Medallion" may well be the best album to come out of the local sixties psychedelic scene, and is every bit as colourful and lurid as it's sleeve. New Zealand's studios at the time were pretty primitive so local attempts at psychedelia often fell a bit flat. That's certainly not the case here though; while the Avengers were definitely more on the pop-psych end of the spectrum rather than psych-pop, tracks like creepy stand-out "Midnight Visitation" stand up remarkably well production-wise against similar material recorded in more affluent UK based studios. Compare "Midnight Visitation" to the Yardbirds' "Turn to Earth" for a prime example of this.
There's not much missing from the two albums here and the extensive liner notes and top mastering make this a very fine substitute for those who don't have the $300 you'd have to lay down for nice original copies. Now let's do something about reissuing the live album "Dial Triple A, Alive! Avengers in Action", by all accounts a very exciting affair which sounds like it'd provide an intriguing counterpoint to these well tailored studio excursions.
Available here (UK/EU) or here (US).
9 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Kent Whirlow
The long-awaited second Greek Theatre LP has arrived! Lightning has indeed struck twice (thrice, if we're keeping count, as 2016's excellent The Sunniest Day EP, reviewed here, is surely not to be overlooked).
I am always hesitant to throw around terms like "instant classic", but this certainly fits the bill. The album kicks off with the wonderfully titled "Fat Apple (at About Noon)", which also happens to be the longest track on the LP, clocking in at over seven minutes and it really sets the stage for this beautiful record. For the initiated fan, within the first 30 seconds you will recognize that you are in familiar territory and in for a real treat (those unfamiliar with this brilliant Swedish outfit would do well to acquaint one's self with their first masterpiece here). Indeed, this is unmistakably The Greek Theatre that we know and love, a duo who have somehow managed to create a stunningly unique sound that I've not heard any contemporary band match. The guitar work is even better than ever, and that is saying something. As with all of their songs, there is a tremendous amount of depth and texture to the music. There is quite a bit going on, which is evident when you carefully listen to and study each track and start to understand how it somehow all blends together so seamlessly. This is psychedelic music at its very finest. There are some wonderful Folk, Country, and even Progressive Rock ingredients as well. However, dear listener, you may do yourself a favour and dispense with genres, labels, and any preconceived notions, as there is really no way to pigeon-hole the sound of this band. Just close your eyes and allow the music to take you to that special place that only music can do. The pacing of this opening track is brilliant; the introduction lures you in and it gradually starts to build, incorporating all sorts of instruments and arrangements and just takes off in a truly majestic flight. The trademark Greek Theatre vocals are firmly in place, buoyed by some outstanding interwoven guitar work.
"Paper Moon" will be instantly recognizable to those who have already had their ticket punched by way of their aforementioned "The Sunniest Day" EP, though a different version is present here with some new arrangements, resulting in a fuller sound this time around. Lovely swirling sounds in the background, beautiful harmony vocals which ring through clear as a bell, powerful drums, and some pretty mean bass playing are all components here. Again, some searing psychedelic guitar work takes center stage, along with some gentler acoustic guitar blended into the mix. "Still Lost Out At Sea" is the not-so-missing link to the classic first LP, both in terms of sound and, obviously, the title. A gentle, pastoral piece that is filled with reflection has a bit of a country feel to it, particularly in its slow shuffling, though subtle backbeat. It is uniquely punctuated by some sublime woodwinds. There is a terrific calming, contemplative mood woven into this track. The rhetorical question, "So, why am I lost out at sea?" cleverly recalls the lyric "Another year. lost out at sea" from the first album. However, make no mistake, this record is not merely "Lost Out at Sea, Part Two". The wonderful psychedelic journey continues, though what we have here is a brand new endeavor; this record clearly has its very own identity. The repeated lyric, "Love you even more..." somehow serves to reinforce the feeling of the record.
"Stray Dog Blues" marks the second appearance of a track first heard on "The Sunniest Day" EP, and as with "Paper Moon", it fits in perfectly with the album. A delicate masterpiece, we are treated to new mix of this track which differs from the EP version. Still present are the lovely female backing vocals in what appears to be a melancholic, though ultimately optimistic song offering up hope. In what I believe is the first instrumental piece from our beloved Greek Theatre, "1920" arguably serves as a short interlude that ties together the first and second parts of the record. Here we have some exquisite classical guitar work, with both a Spanish and Blues flavour sprinkled in. There is a careful dialog taking place between the various guitar parts here, a sort of unspoken story. It is, to me, unlike anything else in the Greek Theatre canon and one of the countless reasons to love this band so much - they are filled with so many surprises and cannot be nailed down in any singular way. The album's title track, "Broken Circle" fires up the aural cauldron for a delectable ambrosial psychedelic stew. There's a terrific driving organ that reminds this active listener just how important Rick Wright really was to Pink Floyd. I, for one, am waiting for the hour long out-take of this truly spellbinding jam, though I fear that particular dream may go unfulfilled. Things start to wind down into a calming, plaintive bridge with a lovely flute passage and the journey continues with a chorus of the song's title. A timeless, epic track, this is surely one of The Greek Theatre's finest moments. This piece is a testament to the power of music; there's an embarrassment of sonic riches somehow crammed into less than six minutes. The musicianship is truly stellar here, every little nuance is expertly crafted and fits together perfectly.
"Ruby-Khon" features some graceful layers of intertwined acoustic guitars and gentle, ethereal voices. Imagine yourself floating on a cloud and this is the perfect soundtrack to accompany you. And that may serve to exemplify what The Greek Theatre does so eloquently. They effortlessly take you to places where time and space cease to exist, they unlock that secret combination to one's imagination and allow you to be transported to a magical world. "Kings Of Old" begins with an almost unassuming introduction, but soon launches into a full-throttle psychedelic adventure, anchored by the record's most intense drumming. The album closes with "Now is the Time", which slowly winds things down and offers the lyric, "I saw you smile", which is outlined with cautious optimism and endless possibility. Soaring harmony vocals are joined by a splendid brass arrangement culminating in a grandiose farewell to a truly special record. If this is not the finest release from 2017, I'll gladly eat my hat.
Lastly, it must be noted that the production of this record is truly excellent, so if you're Bandcamping, don't short-change yourself with an mp3. Buy and download a lossless version and you'll be treated to a glorious 24-bit recording.
Vinyl available direct from the label here, digital through the Bandcamp link below:
3 Mar 2017
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
The Mike Stuart Span may have a pretty formidable reputation in hindsight, but during their heyday they were somewhat down on their luck (as evidenced by the "A Year in The Life" documentary which is sporadically available on youtube). No surprise then that the boys leaped at the chance to record for the legendary Elektra label, something only one previous UK band (Eclection) had done at this point. Elektra head honcho Jac Holzman had a couple of conditions though; first and foremost a name change to a more monolithic moniker -Leviathan in this case - and while you're at it lads, how about a few heavy blues numbers ala Led Zeppelin?
With that in mind they set to work on a rather splendid album that was pulled at the last minute by Holzman and not released officially until 1990, and then only on vinyl. This release from Grapefruit Records represents its first release on CD and is very welcome indeed - particularly as it includes several previously unreleased recordings as extras.
Ironically the weakest cuts on offer here are the heavy blues numbers which come off as leaden and cumbersome, but they're a very small minority here with the bulk being made up of material from the Mike Stuart Span days, as well as newer material that aligns more closely to the Span's more convincing psychedelic tendencies.
The Span were unusual for the time in that they didn't have a psych-pop period in the wake of "Sgt Pepper's..." like the majority of their peers. Instead, there's was a gradual evolution from freakbeat to heavy psych, and as a result here, the guitars are pretty wild at times with barely restrained feedback and plenty of tasty tremolo bar abuse. The incendiary lead guitar riff that kickstarts Flames could even be mistaken for a vintage Iron Maiden song - perhaps a subliminal influence on "Aces High"?
Elsewhere, numbers like the moody epic "Time" show admirable restraint and depth that hints there could have been a lot more of interest in store had things panned out well for the band.
Holzman unceremoniously pulled the plug on the album at the last minute though and the rest, as they say, is history. History lessons are rarely this captivating though and Grapefruit Records are to be thanked for blowing the dust off of this tome. Recommended.
Available here (UK/EU), or here (US).