Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
37 Minutes of Group Therapy (1969, 34.08) ***/TT½
|Remember What You Said
River Deep, Mountain High
A Very Happy Day
I Got to Live
Can't Stop Lovin' You Baby
I Must Go
Cheer up Baby
I Can't Believe it
One of several '60s bands of that name, this Group Therapy recorded two albums at the end of the decade, 1968's People Get Ready for... and the following year's 37 Minutes of... (despite actually only being 34 minutes long). Their schtick was Vanilla Fudge-alike heavy psych workouts, including their mentors' propensity for rocked-up covers, notably their take on Ike & Tina Turner/Phil Spector's River Deep, Mountain High, although most of the album's material is in a similar vein. To be brutally honest, it hasn't really dated that well, given that it's essentially a copy of The Fudge, who in turn couldn't really be said to sound particularly contemporary. Best track? Probably the driving hard rock/psych of Willie
Given the time and place of recording, it seems likely that organist Jerry Guida's tape-replay work is Chamberlin, with a clicky brass part on opener Remember What You Said and a minor string part on I Must Go, leaving his coups de grâce for Wait and Can't Stop Lovin' You Baby, with full-on strings parts to rival anything else being done at the time in those (relatively) pre-Mellotron days in the States.
So; you're not going to find this one too easily, unless you go the blogspot route. But is it worth it? If you're going to pay good money, probably not, although the Chamby work is pretty good, probably comparable to Birmingham Sunday, although in a less ubiquitous manner.
White Flag (2005, 45.22) *½/½
|What's Wrong With This World
Heaven Hang on
Bless the Lord
Peace Has Broken Out
I'll tell you all you need to know about Shaun Groves in three words: Modern. Rock. Christianity. White Flag (so to whom are you surrendering, you wuss? OK, don't tell me) combines upbeat stuff like opener What's Wrong With This World or Hummingbird with Coldplay-lite (!) (Amen, Bless The Lord) or gloomy acoustic stuff (Heaven Hang On, Narrow), all to little effect, all smothered in Groves' awful, whiny voice. However, the album's major failing for those of us not in thrall to an imaginary deity is its lyrical content: fuck me, why can't Christians get their heads out of their arses for long enough to write about something REAL? OK, I know perfectly well that to them, their weird fantasy world is real, but the rest of us just find it a scary place where American presidents can use phrases like 'the reality-based world' with not a hint of irony. Fucking terrifying.
Mellotron from Mellotronist To The Christian Community John (Mark) Painter, with some so-so strings on Sad Song, which means I listened to the other eleven tracks on this album for absolutely no reason, which I resent. What a horrid album. You seriously don't need its minor 'Tron use, and you need its anodyne music and tedious lyrical content even less. Avoid.
2001 Keys: Piano Conclave (1974, 35.28) ***½/TFlight 6-2A-A5
They're Coming, They're Coming
Suite for Harold (Dedicated to Harold Rhodes)
The excellently-named George Gruntz appears to have been the leader of a Swiss keyboard jazz conglomerate, Piano Conclave, with no fewer than six different players on their debut, 1974's 2001 Keys (just look at that sleeve...). To run through them quickly, Gruntz, Fritz Pauer, Gordon Beck, Jasper Van't Hof, Joachim Kühn and Martial Solal all play electric piano, with all but Van't Hof on acoustic, too. Gruntz and Pauer play harpsichord and synth, Beck plays organ and Van't Hof Mellotron. It's a rather 'out there' '70s fusion album, basically, heavy on the atonality and bonkers Rhodes work, with, unsurprisingly, several different keyboards playing at once in places. Prog fans may find that they prefer the lengthy Intermission to the rest of the album, although it has its dissonant moments, too.
Vant'Hof's Mellotron strings turn up on two tracks, with a handful of atonal chords on For Dennis, then some of the fastest playing I've ever heard from one on They're Coming, They're Coming. Believe me, you're not going to find this easily, and unless you're a dedicated fusion fan who prefers his jazz on the weird side, you're probably best off not bothering. Given my limited knowledge of the genre, it sounds good at what it does, but there ain't a lot of 'Tron work, so don't go paying a fortune for this. Incidentally, there was one more Piano Conclave album (that I know of), the following year's more straightforwardly jazzy Palais Anthology (***½), but although Van't Hof's on it, there's no 'Tron.
L'Alba di Domani (1972, 36.53) ***/TTT
Una Bambina... Una Donna
Era Bello Insieme a te
|L'Alba di Domani
|7" (1973) **/½
Sardinians Gruppo 2001 released a clutch of singles throughout the '70s, but just the one album, '72's L'Alba di Domani. Like many similar Italian releases, it sounds like a poppy folk-rock group trying to be prog, in keeping with the times, material such as the folky Una Bambina... Una Donna and the overly-commercial Messaggio (a single, unsurprisingly) giving the game away. Best tracks? Opener Maggio and Volo D'Angelo, no contest, although the organ solo on the title track almost elevates it to the same level. Piero Salis plays Mellotron, with heavily reverbed flutes and strings on Maggio, drifting strings on Era Bello Insieme A Te, opening out into a full-on part, lush chordal strings on Volo D'Angelo and Denise and chordal strings and an overdubbed flute melody on Padre Vincenzo.
Speaking of singles, out of fourteen (!) non-album tracks, precisely one has any Mellotronic involvement, with chordal flutes on, L'Anima, the flip of 1973's cheesy Angelo Mio, although the strings are real. So; do you bother with this album? It's certainly a step up from some of the rubbish that gets labelled 'Italian prog', but it's no masterpiece, with a mere handful of reasonably worthwhile tracks, possibly more worth hearing for the Mellotron.
Raindance (1975, 40.53) ****/TDown the Dog
Mother Nature's Son
'Le Cambrioleur est Dans le Mouchoir'
Don't Say Go
(Ein Klein) Heldenleben
Treason (1977, 37.31) ****/TSpring Song
Round & Round
Flash in the Pantry
Snakes and Ladders
Fall of the Leaf
About as Curious as it Can Be (2002, recorded 1974-75, 54.23) ****/TRenaissance Dance Medley
The Last Flash of Gaberdine Tailor
Le Cambrioleur est Dans le Mouchoir
Ein Klein Heldenleben
Gryphon were formed in the early '70s as an attempt to recreate early English musical forms, in which (in my opinion) they were rather more successful than, say, Amazing Blondel or Magna Carta. Their debut, Gryphon (1973, ****) sticks pretty closely to their original manifesto, but by their second outing, Midnight Mushrumps (1974, ****), they'd caught the prog bug, and created a fascinating fusion of the two styles, with medieval instrumentation mixed in with the contemporary. Red Queen to Gryphon Three (****) (you may know it for its fantastic cover art) moved further towards the prog 'mainstream', and by the time they released Raindance they were essentially a progressive band with medieval flourishes.
Raindance opens with a synth and clavinet part that would have been completely out the question three, or even two albums earlier. Krumhorn/recorder/keyboard player Richard Harvey had moved across mainly to keys by this point, proving it with inventive arrangements and excellent playing (Royal College of Music, I believe); I suspect their US support tour with Yes may have had a lot to do with this... The songwriting is excellent, fitting perfectly into the 'very British' school of prog, with common themes cropping up on different tracks; compare the title track to (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, for example. The band's medievalisms show up on the more acoustic material, like Ormolu, or the cover of the Beatles' Mother Nature's Son, complete with recorders and Brian Gulland's bassoon, but they tend to be more the exception than the rule by this point. Harvey's Mellotron only turns up on a couple of tracks, with a short string part toward the end of Fontinental Version and strings dipping in and out of the album's pièce de resistance, the sixteen-minute instrumental (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, harking back slightly towards Red Queen.
Treason turned out to be Gryphon's last album; sunk by punk, no doubt, like so many of their second division contemporaries (which is no slur on the quality of the music). It's about as near the 'mainstream' as the band ever got, which isn't that near, but the song structures are certainly more conventional (read: mostly shorter), but without sacrificing their customary invention in the process. There's some excellent material, including Spring Song and Major Disaster, but once again, very little Mellotron. Rather like Raindance, there's a little strings towards the end of two tracks, but it's extremely spare use for a band who would appear to have owned their own machine.
In 2002, a CD of two BBC In Concert tapes from 1974 and '75 suddenly turned up, titled About as Curious as it Can Be, from the gryphon in Alice (and no, I didn't know that offhand; that's what sleevenotes are for...). Apart from the rather dodgy mixes (only stereo masters have survived), these sound great, with two otherwise unavailable tracks in Renaissance Dance Medley and Jigs (both pretty much as you'd expect). The rest of the material is from Midnight Mushrumps and Raindance, and is all performed excellently; 'with gusto', in fact. Richard Harvey's keyboard rig had obviously expanded exponentially by 1975, and you can hear the Mellotron parts on Ein Klein Heldenleben reproduced faithfully on stage, but that's it on the 'Tron front for this one. To prove the tapes' authenticity (as if you'd need to), you can hear what sounds like a mic falling over on the track at around the four-minute mark. So; well worth the purchase for Gryphon fans, but minimal Mellotron.
Great Sage, Equal of Heaven (2001, 41.12) ****½/T½Mountain of the Five Elements
Zero for Conduct
Five Cornered Square
Ten Years of Heisei
Five Suns (2004, 61.48) ****½/TTTFive Suns
Black Oni (2005, 44.34) ****/T½Black Oni
Well, I'm not entirely sure I should be reviewing this at all, due to personal bias; Guapo was my brother Matt's band, and I actually guest on Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, playing MiniMoog for all of thirty seconds on the last track, El Topo. For all that, it's an extremely good album; all instrumental, lots of bass, lots of drums, bits of guitar, keys and sax. They performed live as a two-piece at the time, just bass and drums, but various people helped out in the studio, as did the modern marvel of multitracking...
Bassist Matt Thompson credits himself with 'bass and electronics' on the sleeve, but he actually plays practically all the keys himself, including my Mellotron on Mountain Of The Five Elements (in one take, fact fans). The track slowly builds, including a killer ascending strings part on the 'Tron, rising to a crescendo of multi-overdubbed keyboards. Hard-hitting, but, er, rather wonderful actually! My personal favourite track is the album closer (nothing to do with my involvement, either), but the whole thing's worth hearing, as long as you can handle a bit of serious intensity.
Although recorded in 2002, a sought-after deal with US weird progsters Cuneiform delayed the release of Five Suns until early 2004, adding two shorter tracks to the original album-long effort in the process. The band had expanded to a trio by this point, adding keys/guitar man Daniel O'Sullivan, which must make this something like their fifth different instrumental setup in eight years... Dan adds hugely to the band's sound, and the band have 'progressified' all round, with drummer Dave Smith adding a gong to his kit, extensive use of my vintage gear in the studio, not to mention Dan's new Fender Rhodes. Five Suns itself is 45 minutes long, broken into five sections purely for the CD, and it's more Magma-influenced mayhem, with Smith's drumming (and gurning) having only become wilder since Great Sage. The piece's Main Riff is superb; a grinding, Mellotron-driven, bass-heavy zeuhl-fest to rival the masters themselves. The 'Tron (all strings) dips in and out of the piece, along with occasional bursts of Hammond, MiniMoog and Taurus pedals, although the Rhodes is the album's chief keyboard, heard to even better effect on the two later compositions, along with 'Tron strings and flutes on Mictlan. Superb.
Black Oni, again recorded some time earlier, finally appeared in spring 2005 on ex-Faith No More Mike Patton's Ipecac imprint. Described as 'the second in a trilogy', it shows the band at their best, although it's their first release to sound anything like its predecessor; I imagine a stable lineup helps. It's extremely difficult to assess properly on one listen, but it seems to lack the central riff that made Five Suns such a joy, while otherwise not sounding dissimilar to it, but suffice to say, if you like their sound, you won't be disappointed. Rather less Mellotron this time round, too, with strings and choirs towards the end of the piece.
What was I saying about a stable lineup? After over ten years, my brother's left his own band. C'est la vie. They've produced one album since his departure, 2008's sprawling Elixirs, Mellotron credited, but a) sampled and b) inaudible. Anyway, Great Sage and its worthy predecessor, the sadly-'Tronless Hirohito (****) should still be available from Pandemonium while stocks last, but Five Suns and Black Oni should be easy to find, with (at last!) some sort of worldwide distribution. Anyway, all titles recommended, nepotism notwithstanding. Buy.
p.s. Have a look at the reviews for Matt's new project, Rashomon.
See: Rashomon | Mothlite
Bottle Rocket (1997, 50.30) **/TT
|Are We Feeling Comfortable Yet?
What Does it Take?
Blue Light Special
Break Me Down
|The Water is Fine
My Queen Esther
Hell to Pay
Fear the Auctioneer
Harder Than it Seems
Myrrh? Aren't they a Christian label? Yup... Guardian were that most incongruous of genre-clashes, a Christian metal band, heavily influenced by the entirely ludicrous Stryper, with whom they toured in 1992. All the Christian music I've heard has one thing in common: the message is more important than the medium. As a result, Guardian swung with the wind, incorporating R'n'B elements in the early '90s, sounding more like a several-years-too-late grunge outfit by their last release, 1997's Bottle Rocket. Musically, it veers between the genuine heaviosity of the likes of Blue Light Special and Salvation, and more insipid, 'radio-friendly' material like Revelation and What Does It Take?, none of which is especially appealing if you're not interested in the lyrics.
Mellotron-player-to-the Christian-community John Mark Painter is credited with Mellotron on the title track, My Queen Esther and Hell To Pay, so what exactly are we hearing on Coffee Can? Mellotron strings, that's what. Anyway, full-on strings on Queen Esther and Hell To Pay, although the strings on the title track are apparently combined with real ones. I'm tempted to think (careful with that temptation, Thompson - there's Christians about) that it's a misprunt, and the credit's actually meant to be for Coffee Can. Incidentally, I don't know what produces the cello on What Does It Take?, either, but without proof, I feel disinclined to highlight it.
So; watered-down Christian metal. Oh joy. This album isn't entirely horrible, but it's pretty bloody dull, with too little Mellotron to really be worth bothering with. Pass.
Isaac Guillory (1974, 31.18) ***/½
Sidewalks of America
The Carbondale Strutt
Ice Cream Phoenix
Isaac Guillory is often mistaken for a Brit, as he based his career here from around 1970 onwards, though he was born at the naval base at the now-infamous Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, and was brought up in the States from the age of eleven. After a spell in The Cryan' Shames, he moved to Europe and began playing acoustically, becoming known as a bit of a 'guitarist's guitarist', releasing albums sporadically up until his untimely death on new year's eve, 2000. Isaac Guillory (sometimes erroneously known as 'Side One', after its rather poor sleeve design) was his first solo album, mixing together the various acoustic styles Guillory had assimilated up to that point. His vocals, while better than, say, his contemporary Gordon Giltrap's, are only slightly above perfunctory, but his playing is excellent, particularly on The Carbondale Strutt and El Jadida. Don't think of this as a guitarist's album, though; it's more about songwriting, with occasional flashes of fiery playing amongst the more ordinary acoustic backdrop of the bulk of the record.
I can't work out if the astounding cheapness of the cover was a deliberate, 'arty' ploy, or exactly what it looks like: an artwork budget somewhere in minus figures. Each side features the same, unsmiling picture of Guillory, surrounded by a large red ring emblazoned with the side number. A narrow blue edging lists production credits, with tracks and musicians' credits being found to either side of Guillory's pic. Very cheap, very nasty. Side two lists Guillory's own credits, managing to misspell his name as 'Gillory' in the process. Aside from vocals, guitar and bass, he's also credited with ARP and Mellotron, although the latter can only be obviously heard as a background flute part on Staying Awhile, with the flutes on Ice Cream Phoenix being real, although I wouldn't swear that the background part isn't 'Tron, too.
Anyway, this is a pleasant enough album, although slightly unengaging, and not really a patch on Giltrap's work of the period. It sounds to me as though he would've liked to let rip a little more, but record company constraints made the album more of a singer-songwriter effort, though I could be barking completely up the wrong tree. It seems that nine of its ten tracks are available on Personal's 1997 compilation, The Atlantic Years, 1973-1974, with only the brief Karma Blues missing, making it all the more odd than they chopped it off. Not bad, not great, your choice.
Revolution on Ice... (1994, 42.05) ***½/T
|Revolution on the Rocks
With a Little Rain
Nights on Fire
Whatcha Gonna Do?
Gone to the Moon
It Ain't Nothin'
|Read the News
The Boat Race
She's as Beautiful as a Foot
Gumball were a pretty raucous bunch, going by their third (and last studio) album, Revolution on Ice.... It fuses hard rock, punk and even powerpop into what was by then known as grunge, I suppose, although they predate the style by a year or two. In retrospect, they weren't really doing anything new, but they did it with such verve that it seems churlish to mark them down for unoriginality. Top tracks include Revolution On The Rocks, Free Grazin' and Breath Away, but the album's pinnacle is its closing track, their note-perfect version of the Blue Öyster Cult's She's As Beautiful As A Foot; these guys know their stuff - how often does anyone cover BÖC and not tackle (Don't Fear) The Reaper, usually badly? (See: the on/off excellent Big Country). And Albert Bouchard sings on it! Result.
Mellotron on one track, from keys man Malcolm Riviera, with strings all over Gone To The Moon, although that seems to be your lot, depending on what produces the repeating keyboard line in Trudge. To be honest, unless you're into the noisier end of things, you probably aren't going to go for this, but it does what it does well, although its highpoint isn't the 'Tron use, but the BÖC cover.
Gun Sight (1969, 37.34) ***½/½
|Head in the Clouds
Drown Yourself in the River
Dreams and Screams
Lady Link part one
Oh Lady You
|Lady Link part two
Long Hair Wildman
(The) Gun coalesced from The Knack (obviously not that one) in 1967, featuring the Curtis/Gurvitz brothers, Paul and Adrian, their eponymous proto-hard rock debut being released the following year, gifting the world the immortal Race With The Devil (as covered by everyone). Their second (and last) album, Gun Sight (or Gunsight) appeared in '69, its contents as much a mixture of styles as you might expect for the time, running from their default setting, jammed-out psychedelic hard rock (opener Head In The Clouds, Situation Vacant), through the blues of Drown Yourself In The River and Hobo to the rather slushy, string-driven Angeline. Highlights? Head In The Clouds, the driving Dreams And Screams and the jammed-out Situation Vacant, although little here offends.
The album's only Mellotron use (player unknown) is a few-second burst as the outro to Dreams And Screams, with skronky MkII string chords splattered over random left-hand manual rhythms. While not a top album of its time, Gun Sight is good enough to make me want to hear their debut, although its Mellotron input is seriously minimal. After the split, the Gurvitzes went on to The Baker-Gurvitz Army, with everyone's favourite misanthrope on the kit and, more relevantly to this site, Three Man Army.
See: Three Man Army
Parachute (1995, 43.36) **½/T
|Fall in Two
Love for Me
Scars & Stitches
Keep it Together (2003, 48.16) **½/T
Jesus on the Radio
Keep it Together
|Come Downstairs & Say Hello
Red Oyster Cult
Long Way Down
I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today
Two at a Time
In many ways, Guster typify US wet'n'windy indie (ha!), with their 'two acoustics and harmonies' approach. Of course, that can work brilliantly, but in Guster's case it all falls a bit flat, largely due to their insipid approach to the style and shoddy rhythm work, although it's better than many UK indie bands, to be fair. 1995's Parachute was their debut and fails to hold my interest, I'm afraid. It's not all bad, but whiny vocals and limp musicianship do not a great album make. A certain Mike D. (Diamond) plays Chamberlin, with solo cellos on Dissolve, flutes (and mandolin?) on Cocoon and more cellos on Parachute, but nothing outstanding, to be honest.
Eight years and three albums later, 2003's Keep it Together has more of a band feel, but isn't honestly any better than Parachute. The title of Red Oyster Cult made me smile, but has no obvious references to the band in question, either musically or lyrically. Ron Aniello plays Mellotron this time round, with near-inaudible flutes but perfectly audible strings on the title track and string and flute parts on the bonus track, Two At A Time, complete with 'tape choke' at the end. Nice, but inessential. The albums themselves are pretty inessential, too, unless bland US indie happens to be your thang. Not much tape-replay work, either, so nothing to get excited about here. Move along.
See: Samples etc.
Wassaic Way (2013, 41.04) ***/TT
Circle of Souls
Sleep on it
Not Feeling it
Wherever She is it's Spring
9 Outta 10 Times
Arlo Guthrie's youngest daughter, Sarah Lee and her husband, Johnny Irion (himself a great-nephew of John Steinbeck) formed their musical partnership in the early 2000s, 2013's Wassaic Way being their fourth duo release. Much of it falls into the 'rather lightweight singer-songwriter pop' category, unfortunately, although Guthrie's country influence comes through more strongly on a handful of tracks, while the ripping, Neil Young-esque guitar solo in Probably Gone represents the album at its rockiest.
Wilco's Patrick Sansone co-produced and played several instruments, not least (Wilco's?) Mellotron, with flutes on Sleep On It and closer Lowest Ebb, background strings on Not Feeling It and the title track and flute, cello and strings on Still Dreaming. It may turn up elsewhere, but the strings on a couple of other tracks sound real.
Soy (2001, 37.09) **½/T
Volveré a Amar
Soy Tu Lluvia
Labios de Fuego
I don't really feel qualified to review anything by Alejandra Guzmán; she plays a kind of Latin pop/rock that sits way outside my normal listening parameters, not even bearing that much reference to the mainstream stuff the US spews up on a daily basis. She's apparently known as 'The Queen of Rock' in Latin America and, indeed, her ninth album, Soy, recorded in Miami, has a level of rock input, not least Tyler and Perry from Aerosmith on Vagabundo Corazón and a ripping Joe Satriani solo on closer Labios De Fuego, which isn't to say that the album rocks per se; it's still a pop record at heart.
Anyway, audible Mellotron from Randy Cantor on just one track, with some fairly obvious strings on Caramelo; perfectly nice, but do they really enhance the track, or the album? Well, they don't make it sound any worse, but when did a Mellotron ever do that? So; perfectly competent if uninspiring Latin pop/rock, one 'Tron track. Next...