Formation Studio Balkanton (FSB)
Doris Frazier & the Fiddmont Singers
Spark of Light (2004, 59.22) ****/TTTRama
Spark of Light
Keep it Alive
Forever Twelve (great name!) are a new(-ish) US prog outfit who do their level best to ignore the simplification of the genre that has blighted it so heavily over the past couple of decades. They've actually been around in one form or another since the early '90s, releasing their debut, Remembrance Branch, in 2002. Two years on, Spark of Light appears, and while I can't compare it to its predecessor, it stands up pretty well, although I suspect it'll take some listens for the material to sink in. Forever Twelve rarely use one note where several will do, which may drive some of you mad, but this approach avoids the tedium induced by many newer bands, who appear unaware of the existence of key and tempo shifts, not to mention the odd chord change... Cat Ellen's vocals, while good, start sounding samey after a few tracks, but that's probably a criticism you could level at many singers; suffice to say, she does a decent job without particularly standing out.
Keys man Steve Barberic plays a range of instruments, including a (borrowed) MiniMoog and no less than two borrowed Mellotrons. He gets 'em in on all but one track, although most of his use is pretty restrained, concentrating on strings. There are a couple of flute sections (I think he plays alongside Cat's real one at one point), but surprisingly, only one short burst of choir. 'Tron highlight? The one-minute strings solo (no overdubs, apparently) at the end of the last track, Life Changes.
So; while Forever Twelve have yet to release something that will really make them stand out from the pack, Spark of Light is a solid album, with plenty of scope for repeated listening. Nice 'Tron work, too - more of that next time please, Steve...
Non Stop (1977, 33.04) ****/TTT½Dynamic
Power and the Glory
Ten Years After
II (1978, 33.22) ***½/TTDawn
Playing the Gamut
FSB are a bit of a weird one; just about the only Bulgarian prog band I can think of, and they sound like... Santana. Well, a little. I'm actually having trouble tracing their main influences, but there's an awful lot of West Coast fusion in there, along with the Latiny stuff, with maybe a touch of the incomparable Happy the Man or similar. Mind you, they were quite jazzy too; take it as read that if you heavily dislike fusion, you're not going to feel too at home with this lot.
Saying that, on their debut, Non Stop (from the Brian Aldiss novel?), Gentle Giant have a heavy presence on the record, with a straight cover of the non-album Power And The Glory and an instrumental mis-titled Free Hands, along with various other covers, including the excellent Dynamic and Intermezzo, both from Patrick Moraz' i. Suffice to say, this is a fairly major 'Tron album, with a massive choir intro on Dynamic, with extra added strings, while Ten Years After (Le Orme) is string-soaked, as are Green Door and Intermezzo, while My Town features the rarely-heard Mellotron pipe organ at its close. Track this album down.
I believe their later releases are pretty awful, but II's a good, if not great album, with excellent playing and dynamics, and vocals on only a couple of tracks, thankfully. I'm not much of a fusion fan myself, but it sounds to my ears to be as good as plenty of better-known names, with more of a 'prog' feel than many of them. There isn't an awful lot of Roumen Boyadjiev (or possibly Konstantin Tsekov)'s 'Tron, with naught but background choirs on a few tracks, and some more upfront stuff on Playing The Gamut (I think - this is being reviewed from a tape), under a solo female voice, which turns out to be a spectacular, and unique combination. Well worth hearing.
So; two slightly strange records, but worth picking up if you should happen to run into copies. Non Stop's a bit of a Mellotron classic, and although II isn't, it's an unusual album to which you may well find yourself returning. Oh, and thanks to Mike for spotting the other covers on their first album.
Balkanton was (is?) actually Bulgaria's primo studio facility, active since the '60s, so I presume the band were the cream of their session players, using the studio's equipment, so who knows how many other Bulgarian albums may feature the studio 'Tron? For what it's worth, after a recent trip to Bulgaria (not actually for this reason - honest), I can confirm that the rumoured 'Tron on their third (mini-)album, The Globe (**½), is nonexistent, and the music's pretty rotten, too, keeping the band's jazziness, while allying it to some awful soul-inflected pop, with only the occasional interesting chord sequence to pep things up. As for their later live album... I refrained from buying a copy (this was all at an open-air flea market near the main cathedral), as the pictures showed a horrendous early-'80s pop act, with a bevy of dullsville synths, and zero Mellotron. Funny, that. I think there's an early single that features the 'Tron, but its two sides have been compiled onto different volumes of a three-vol compilation; they were only £4.00 each, but apart from a handful of tracks from the above albums, they would've been largely rubbish, so I (stupidly?) passed on them. No sign of CD versions of either Non Stop or II, either - nor did I find them on vinyl.
Official site (in Bulgarian)
|7" ( 1972) **½/TTT
I Can't Remember When the Sun Went in
The Fortunes, from Birmingham, were one of the beat era's lesser lights, although they notched up five hits singles between 1965 and '72, making them rather less 'lesser' than many others, I suppose. One of their misses was 1972's Secret Love, an overblown string-driven ballad more suited to several years earlier, backed with the unanthologised, mournfully atmospheric I Can't Remember When The Sun Went In.
The track is absolutely smothered in Mellotron strings, presumably from long-term keys man David Carr, making it worth hearing for fans of, well, Mellotron-smothered mournfully atmospheric ballads several years out of time. The single seems to be available pretty cheaply online and someone's thoughtfully put the b-side on YouTube, but until/unless a record company decides to release an album of Fortunes b-sides (why?) this is unlikely to turn up on CD.
Kainourgia Mera (1975, 36.05) **½/TTT½
Ma Pos Fovame
|Oso Ki an Psaxno
Esi Pou Milas
Finding hard and fast information on Stelios Fotiadis was never going to be the easiest of jobs; different alphabets are a major block to Internet searching. Suffice to say that 1975's Kainourgia Mera is, essentially, an album of mid-'70s Greek pop, albeit with a musicianly folk/psych edge in places, although the bulk of the album is the kind of balladry you'd expect from a Mediterranean country at the time.
Someone (Fotiadis himself?) plays Mellotron, with string parts all over every damn' track except the sparse guitar-and-voice To Tabourlo. Does that make this a major Mellotron album? Depends how you look at it, really; loads of very ordinary, pseudo-real strings use should technically give this a very high 'T' rating, but given that it isn't a key component of Fotiadis' sound, I'm marking it down. Why? Because I can.
|7" ( 1974) ***/TT½
You Mean Everything to Me
The Four Tracks were a pretty typical Birmingham, Alabama vocal quartet specialising in the soft, Philly-style soul of the period. Their sole single, 1974's Charade is apparently now a Northern Soul fave (note to US readers: this is a weird, exclusively British scene, in case you were wondering which part of 'the north' it refers to), although I can't say it's especially memorable by the standards of the genre. The b-side, You Mean Everything To Me, really is cheesy, but... it's every bit as good as major hits by The Stylistics, The Chi-lites et al., so why was it stuck on the flip?
And this is here because... David Lynch (not that one) told me both tracks are full of Mellotron. And... he's right! I'd imagine their recording budget didn't stretch to real strings, so the 'Tron makes a reasonably good substitute, although the rising line at the beginning of the b-side is very clearly Mellotronic, in case they thought they were fooling anyone. If you'd like to hear these, they've recently been released on Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels; they're actually unusual examples of the Mellotron used on a small-label soul 45, making them worth hearing for that alone.
Frame of Mind (1972, 36.38) ***/TFrame of Mind
All I Really Want Explain
Penny for an Old Guy
In decades to come, assuming they're not entirely forgotten, it's quite possible that Uriah Heep's lasting legacy won't be seen as their first few albums, which helped to define a very British style of hard rock, but their overwhelming influence on a host of contemporaneous European bands, including Norway's Titanic, Hungary's Omega and more German bands than I care to name. Amongst them are Frame, a one-off outfit whose Frame of Mind is... entirely average. OK, it's not a bad listen, but the songs are pretty ordinary and it's hard to find anything on this album that hasn't been done better by someone else. There's some marvellous broken English amongst the track titles, so I hate to think what the lyrics are like; All I Really Want Explain is a personal favourite on that front, and is actually one of the album's best songs, as well as the longest.
Cherry Hochdörffer plays keys, mainly the ubiquitous Hammond, with only two Mellotron tracks to be heard; Winter has some rather background strings, but extremely brief closer Truebsal consists of nothing but a national anthem-style tune played on queasy 'Tron brass, the wobbly tuning of which is clearly deliberate. So, not what you'd call a classic on any front, really, although Truebsal manages to do something a little bit different, if not wholly essential.
Wind of Change (1972, 43.23) **½/½
|Fig Tree Bay
Wind of Change
Jumpin' Jack Flash
It's a Plain Shame
Oh for Another Day
All I Want to Be (is By Your Side)
By 1972 and the age of 22, Peter Frampton had already had a couple of careers, fronting late-'60s popsters The Herd (also including Andrew/Andy Bown, later of Judas Jump and, er, Status Quo), then co-founding Humble Pie with ex-Small Face Steve Marriott. He was still four years away from his career-defining moment, '76's inexplicably huge Frampton Comes Alive!, when he released his first solo album, Wind of Change. If you've heard the soporific Comes Alive, you'll have some idea what to expect; Frampton was never really a rocker, largely preferring soft rock balladry. Even his version of The Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash has a naff brass part that neuters the arrangement, while other 'rock' efforts like It's A Plain Shame or Alright just fall flat.
Anyway: Mellotron. The previously-mentioned Andy Bown (they presumably stayed mates post-Herd) plays a muted string part on All I Want To Be (Is By Your Side), not to be confused with the real strings on a couple of tracks. Do they add anything to the song? Not really, no; the song's a typical example of the album's sound and a good two minutes too long, and the 'Tron's mixed too low to have any real effect, anyway. All in all, you really don't need this album unless you're a Frampton fanatic (er...); it's pretty typically bland, mainstream early-'70s rock, with fairly minimal Mellotronic input.
Forty on a Fall Day (2000, 49.10) ***/½
|Set of Dune
Want Ad King
Jet to Norway
Mean as Hell
I Do Too
Francine were formed by Clayton Scoble, who'd played with Aimee Mann in 'Til Tuesday some years earlier. Their second release, Forty on a Fall Day, is an indie/powerpop crossover album, not entirely dissimilar to Mann's work of a few years earlier, featuring plenty of Aimee-esque harmonic twists and turns. Highlights? Trampoline, Pop Warner and the excellent Aw Grace, although chopping a few lesser tracks would probably have improved the album.
Mike Denneen (Gigolo Aunts, Velvet Crush) plays Chamberlin, with occasional strings on closer I Do Too, although the muted FX bells and rhythms at the beginning of Mean As Hell sound like Mellotron samples. Genuine? I think so, given Denneen's various Chamby credits, so this stays here, at least until/if I should find otherwise.
|7" ( 1972?) ***½/TTT
What is Wrong?
Lasidore - Mifamire
Life Circle (2007, recorded 1971-74, 77.37) ****/TTTT
What is Wrong?
Lasidore - Mifamire
Don't Let it Bring You Down
Open Your Heart
|Dies Irae part 1
Dies Irae part 2
Intro for Cosmic Body
End of the Beginning
Franklin were apparently one of Spain's first 'underground' bands, not the easiest of paths when living in a dictatorship; they released two singles in the 1971-2 period, then recorded an album in '74 that was never released. Fast-forward thirty-something years and those nice Guerssen people release the whole lot on a double vinyl/single CD set, Life Circle, making this what has to be one of the best 'lost' albums to appear in years. Given its quality, it comes as no surprise to discover that one of the guitarists from the first lineup, Antonio Garcia de Diego, played on Canarios' classic Ciclos, while bandleader Pablo Weeber moved to Germany later in the decade, joining Hoelderlin for two of their later albums.
The first LP/first six tracks of the CD collate both singles and two live tracks, all in a hard psych style with occasional prog overtones. The first 7" couples their versions of The Stones' satisfaction (barely recognisable) and Elton John's Border Song, to passable effect, while the second (from '72?) backs What Is Wrong? with Lasidore - Mifamire in a proggier style, both tracks swamped with Mariano Díaz' Mellotron strings. The unreleased album is a straight psych/prog mix, with hints of a jazz influence creeping in on Caos-Deconstruction, which brings me to a small problem: there seem to be two different tracklistings for the set; has the vinyl version got one and the CD the other? I can't imagine Soft Landing is actually called Sofa Landing, although I suppose Caos-Deconstruction could easily be Caos-Descompensing. Confusing.
The rather Italian-sounding Pino Scagliarini plays keys on the '74 tracks, including Mellotron almost across the board, with choir and strings on Soft Landing and Renaissance and strings on Dies Irae Parts 1 and 2, Take Off, Intro For Cosmic Body, Caos-Deconstruction and End Of The Beginning, making this not only a worthy release, but a previously-unknown minor Mellotron classic. Although the vinyl edition was strictly limited, I'm sure the CD is easily available. You know what you have to do...
With Everything I Feel in Me (1974, 39.30) ***/TWithout Love
Don't Go Breaking My Heart
When You Get Right Down to it
You'll Never Get to Heaven
With Everything I Feel in Me
I Love Every Little Thing About You
Sing it Again - Say it Again
All of These Things
You Move Me
Er, Aretha Franklin? Yup, the Queen Of Soul has finally made the grade: an entry on Planet Mellotron (note for humourless soul nuts: that was a joke). She shouldn't need any introduction to anyone with any interest in the history of post-war music, so I won't bother; suffice to say, she's generally regarded as having one of the great voices of the last several decades and has recorded some immortal soul sides, whether or not you (or, indeed, I) actually like what she does.
1974's With Everything I Feel in Me fell on the cusp between soul and disco, with elements of both appearing on the album, making it surprising that the album was a commercial failure at the time; I'm no expert, but this sounds to me as good as any soul album from the period and better than many, although I'm not fully convinced by her solo scatting at the end of You'll Never Get to Heaven. Maybe it was (and is) considered to be trying to cover too many bases, none of them that successfully? The gospel of All of These Things sits uneasily with the rest of the record, but surely Aretha fans these days would be less interested in such distinctions?
Pat Rebillot (Herbie Mann) plays Mellotron, with flutes on When You Get Right Down To It, including a surprisingly fast run at one point, just to show it can be done, although (unsurprisingly) all string parts are real. With Everything I Feel in Me has never been issued on CD, probably due to its initial failure, showing that there are still noticeable gaps in the market, over twenty years after the beginning of the great reissue boom.
Make Today Count (1978, 30.57) **½/TTTMake Today Count
Where is Your Heart
Only Jesus Can Satisfy
Choose Ye This Day
Hallelujah My Father
Take Time to Check God Out
One Day at a Time
Seasons of Love
There's Just Something About That Name
Doris Frazier? A St Louis gospel singer from the '60s on with her family assemblage, the Fiddmont Singers, led by her brother, the Rev. Charles Fiddmont. They made at least four albums, including I've Been Touched (er, OK) and 1978's live Make Today Count. It's a poorly-recorded document of their particular brand of gospel, five of its nine tracks composed by Doris and her husband, Clifford, only really coming to life on the occasional uptempo tracks, notably the amusingly naïvely-titled Take Time To Check God Out. Watch for the preacher-esque spoken word part in closer There's Just Something About That Name, too. Aside from the crummy recording, the pressing quality is terrible; my supplier (hi, Mark) suspects a severely-budgeted local label.
One of no fewer than three single-instrument keyboard players, Tom Brooks adds Chamberlin strings to every track, in the expected pseudo-orchestral style; as is the way with the Chamby, it almost fools the ear in places, although it's too high in the mix to get away with it for long. Well, do you like the idea of Chamberlin strings-heavy gospel? No, nor me, really, although I can't fault the Fraziers and Fiddmonts for their enthusiasm and musicianship; file under 'just not my bag'.
Fire & Water (1970, 36.05) ***½/½Fire & Water
Oh I Wept
Don't Say You Love Me
All Right Now
Highway (1970, 35.58/58.56) ***/T½ (TT)
On My Way
Be My Friend
Ride on a Pony
Love You So
|Soon I Will Be Gone
My Brother Jake (single)
Only My Soul (b-side)
Ride on a Pony (BBC Session)
Be My Friend (BBC Session)
Rain (alternative version)
Stealer (single version)
|7" (1971) **/T½
My Brother Jake
Only My Soul
Free Live! (1971, 40.36/77.15) ****/T
|All Right Now
I'm a Mover
Be My Friend
Fire and Water
Ride a Pony
Get Where I Belong
Walk in My Shadow
Trouble on Double Time
All Right Now
Get Where I Belong]
Free at Last (1972, 36.57) ***/TCatch a Train
Little Bit of Love
Guardian of the Universe
Free are one of those bands that I feel I should like, but about whom I find it difficult to get excited. Part of the problem is that I don't feel their sound has dated very well, unlike, say, Zeppelin's; their blues/rock hybrid sounds rather laid-back for modern tastes, although I know there's many of you out there who'll disagree violently with this. As a result, these reviews may seem rather unenthusiastic, although I bear the band's 'classic' status in mind.
Fire and Water is rated as their 'classic' by many fans, and while it's a good album, the first thing that strikes you about it is the soporific pace of most of the material, with even the ubiquitous All Right Now being 'sprightly' at best. Apart from 'the hit', Mr Big is probably the album's standout track, which whips up a bit of a storm, admittedly in a laid-back kind of way. Bassist Andy Fraser plays loads of piano on the album, too and there's a couple of MkII Mellotron string (mixed with brass?) notes on Heavy Load, but that seems to be it on the 'Tron front this time round.
I'm sorry, but I can't help but find Highway rather... dull. It's relentlessly mid-paced, consisting mostly of ballads, and completely belies Free's reputation as a band of any great intensity. The playing is, of course, excellent, although there's very little of Kossoff's famed guitar work in evidence (I believe the band were heading towards burnout at the time). Mellotron on a surprising three tracks, with a few background string notes on Be My Friend and Love You So, but a rather more upfront part (if still quite subtle) on closer and probable best track, Soon I Will Be Gone. My Brother Jake's added to the remastered CD, but none of the other bonus tracks is relevant here.
Speaking of which, the uncharacteristic (and not very good) My Brother Jake, a good-time singalong sort of thing from '71, has some 'Tron strings from Fraser; a brief part comes in during the second verse, with another few notes at the end of the song and that's it. Really not worth the effort.
While Free Live! still isn't going to convert me unreservedly to their cause, it's a good live album with some great performances, not least the kicking All Right Now that opens proceedings. Not so sure about Be My Friend or Ride A Pony, to be honest and the whole thing sounds a little dated, but The Hunter makes up for any earlier deficiencies. Now, I can't work out what's going on here, but Get Where I Belong features a piano part, along with Fraser's bass, when suddenly a handful of Mellotron chords pop up from nowhere then disappear again. There's a little more towards the end of the song, but it's not exactly overwhelming. So, who plays it? And how come they bothered to haul one along for just one song? Given that Paul Rodgers is a perfectly respectable pianist, it seems he's the prime suspect; more info should I ever find out. Incidentally, no keys of any sort on the bonus version of the same song; it doesn't even actually sound live to me.
Free's fifth studio album, and the first after their much-publicised reformation, Free at Last, carries on in pretty much the same vein as their earlier work, being a straight blues/rock crossover. Having never been the band's biggest fan, I find it difficult to pick out highlights, although the album's chief Mellotron track, Magic Ship is probably about the best. There's a few notes of very background 'Tron on the album's hit, Little Bit Of Love, apparently played by Rodgers this time round, but that's it.
So; if you like Free you probably own these already. For the Mellotron fan, pickings are slim indeed, although Soon I Will Be Gone, My Brother Jake and Magic Ship have some passable strings. Oh, and check out the Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit review to see what some of Free did in their gap year.
See: Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit
Free System Projekt/Brendan Pollard/
|7" (1968, 6.40) ***½/TTT
Where Will You Be Tonight
Trying to Get a Glimpse of You
Freedom at Last (1969, 46.51) **½/T
Deep Down in the Bottom
Have Love Will Travel
Cry Baby Cry
Time of the Season
Hoo Doo Man
Built for Comfort
|Never Loved a Girl
Can't Stay With Me
The Freedom were formed around 1968 by two ex-members of Procol Harum, guitarist Ray Royer and drummer Bobby Harrison, soundtracking a dodgy Italian film soon after, not even being informed that the resulting album, Nero Su Bianco (Black on White), had even been released. Their first single, Where Will You Be Tonight, is a Procol-alike, albeit with occasional Mellotron strings, but its flip, Trying To Get A Glimpse Of You, is a great little slice of classic psych, about which I feel forced to use that appalling cliché, 'Mellotron-drenched'. There, I've said it. Anyway, chordal strings (from Mike Lease - thanks, Mike) overlaid with a flute melody make for a worthwhile 'Tron experience; why wasn't it the A-side?
By the time they released their first album 'proper', 1970's Freedom at Last, they'd become a typical lower-division hard rock act, proving it throughout the album's rather excessive twelve tracks, not least with a perfunctory run-through of The Zombies' immortal Time Of The Season, directly followed by the tepid blues of Hoo Doo Man and Built For Comfort. The impression it gives is of musicians who'd grown up with the blues, gleefully reverting to type after a couple of years of 'straitjacketing' psychedelia. The effect, particularly with the benefit of hindsight? Boredom, frankly. One of the best things here is (guess what) a minor reversion to their psych past, My Life, although this dull album's highpoint has to be Walter Monaghan's Mellotron flutes on Cry Baby Cry, possibly from a studio MkII.
I've been led to believe that there's some 'Tron input on their second album, 1971's Through the Years (***), but having given it a close listen, I can quite assure you that there isn't. The sobriquet 'lower-division' that I used above was spot-on, too; very ordinary. So; both sides of their first single are worth hearing, Particularly for their Mellotron input, but At Last is mostly disappointing, albeit with one great 'Tron track.