James Blood Ulmer
Umbra & the Volcan Siege
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats
Force it (1975, 37.42) ****/TTLet it Roll
Love Lost Love
Out in the Street
Too Much of Nothing
Dance Your Life Away
This Kid's/Between the Walls
No Heavy Petting (1976, 35.23) ****/TNatural Thing
I'm a Loser
Can You Roll Her
On With the Action
A Fool in Love
North London-based UFO started life as a bad space-rock band, releasing a couple of albums which only sold in Germany and Japan, but in 1973 they went through a series of guitarist changes, ending up with 17 year-old German wunderkind Michael Schenker, nicked from support act the Scorpions. I doubt if Schenker was actually responsible for the immediate stylistic change; I suspect the band had been wanting to head in a more mainstream direction anyway, and utilised young Michael's considerable talents to that end.
'74's Phenomenon (***) is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, although it contains future classics Doctor Doctor and the mighty Rock Bottom. By the following year, the band had really got their act together, and Force it has nary a duff track on it, with no less than five songs finding their way onto their superb live double of a few years later, Strangers in the Night (*****). High Flyer is the album's ballad, with some Mellotron strings under Schenker's (melodic, as always) guitar solo. Producer Leo Lyons, from Ten Years After (non-coincidentally also on Chrysalis), brought in TYA's keyboard player Chick Churchill on keys; he adds some particularly effective 'Tron choir onto Between The Walls, a beautiful instrumental piece by the guitarist, presumably referring to the still-extant Berlin wall, segueing in from This Kid's.
The band brought in a full-time keyboard player, Danny Peyronel (from the Heavy Metal Kids) for their follow-up, '76's No Heavy Petting, a move which appeared to be only sporadically successful on stage. The album's pretty much as good as its predecessor, although fewer of the tracks became live favourites; talking of which, is the fantastic live b-side version of On With The Action ever going to be made available on CD? Anyway, I've only just decided that there's definitely Mellotron on the thing, with strings on Belladonna that I'm still not entirely sure about, and a definite (if background) choir part on Peyronel's Martian Landscape.
UFO kept the quality up through their next handful of releases, until Schenker left in 1978, and the band started their irreversible decline. They're still (technically) going today, back with Schenker (note: he's gone again), but their glory days are sadly long behind them. As far as Force it (dreadful pun!) and No Heavy Petting go, if you like UK hard rock, they're two of the five or six essential UFO albums, although 'Tron fans probably need not apply.
Be There (1999, 16.53/40.31) ***/TTBe There
Be There (underdog remix)
The Knock on Effect
[Japanese ed. adds:
Be There (KZA & DJ Kent remix)
Celestial Annihilation (dub version)
The Knock (indopepsychics remix)
Celestial Annihilation (DJ Assault remix)
Celestial Annihilation (the committee remix)]
Never, Never, Land (2003, 59.39) ***/½
|Back and Forth
Eye for an Eye
In a State
Safe in Mind (Please Get This Gun
From Out My Face)
I Need Something Stronger
What Are You to Me?
End Titles... Stories for Film (2008, 73.44) ***/½
|End Titles (Odyssey in Rome)
Cut Me Loose
Ghosts (string reprise)
Kaned and Abel (Odyssey in Rome)
Blade in the Back (Odyssey in Rome)
Synthetic Water (Odyssey in Rome)
Cut Me Loose (string reprise)
Against the Grain
Even Balance (part two) (Odyssey in Rome)
Trouble in Paradise (Variation on a Theme)
In a Broken Dream (Odyssey in Rome)
Open Up Your Eyes (Odyssey in Rome)
Romeo Void (Odyssey in Rome)
Heaven (Odyssey in Rome)
The Piano Echoes (Odyssey in Rome)
UNKLE are a British electronica outfit, shifting about within the dance spectrum from release to release as they see fit. Originally a duo, they now seem to be essentially James Lavelle's solo project plus various collaborators, some of whom stay in the set-up for years, including members of (amongst many others), Radiohead, Metallica (Jason Newstead, of course), Badly Drawn Boy, The Verve, Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality... You get the picture.
1999's Be There single is a remake of Unreal from their debut from the previous year, Psyence Fiction, featuring ex-Stone Rose Ian Brown. To my ears, it typifies the indie/dance crossover, not that I know an awful lot about the scene. Imagine an indie single with a dance backing... Yup, that easy. The 'b'-side, so to speak, The Knock On Effect, does the same trick even better, rocking out in grand style with programmed beats. It can be done, folks... The original single was a three-track affair, expanded to album length in Japan through the addition of another five remixes and other pertinent stuff, although the extra material really is only for the faithful. Guy Sigsworth is credited with Mellotron on both versions of Be There, but it's only audible on the lead track, with ethereal choirs (sorry) all the way through. Sigsworth isn't credited on Psyence Fiction, so I suspect the 'Tron was added as part of the rebuilding procedure.
The wittily-titled Never, Never, Land followed four years later and despite the collective's reputation for keeping ahead of the pack, it doesn't sound a million miles away from some of the material on the expanded Be There. Another impressive list of collaborators this time round, including Graham Gouldman, Eno and Jarvis Cocker, some more obviously than others. Lavelle plays 'Tron on one track, with the most minuscule amount of choir on What Are You To Me?, sung by the very ordinary Joel Cadbury of South.
2008's lengthy End Titles... Stories for Film is usually listed as a compilation, but seems to be largely new work. Lavelle's shifted even further towards the rock/dance area with this release, distorted guitar audible on more than half its tracks, the rest sounding like, unsurprisingly, film music, contributors including Robbie Furze from The Big Pink and several members of Big in Japan/Lake Trout. Although several tracks contain what could be a Mellotron, it's only actually credited on one, with a vague string part on Heaven (Odyssey In Rome) from Lavelle's brother Aidan.
UNKLE are presumably of considerable interest to anyone involved in the dance scene, such as it is these days. They're listenable to a non-fan of the genre, even if the programming gets a bit much occasionally; this is intelligently-constructed music that sounds like it isn't solely designed to dance to. Only one passable 'Tron track across three releases, though, while non-fans aren't going to be impressed anyway.
See: James Lavelle | Garbage | Sasha
Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (2007, 48.48) ***½/½
|Survivors of the Hurricane
Sad Days, Lonely Nights
Let's Talk About Jesus
This Land is Nobody's Land
Commit a Crime
Grinnin' in Your Face
|There is Power in the Blues
Old Slave Master
James "Blood" Ulmer's career didn't kick off properly until his late twenties, when he joined Ornette Coleman's band at the beginning of the '70s, releasing his first solo album in 1977. 2007's New Orleans-recorded Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions is something like his twentieth, an appealing mélange of blues, rock, funk and a smattering of jazz, Ulmer's raw vocals and ripping guitar work driving the whole shebang. Lyrically, at least two tracks deal with the fallout from the then-recent Hurricane Katrina, while covers include Willie Dixon's amusing Dead Presidents and material by John Lee Hooker and Junior Kimbrough.
Leon Gruenbaum plays Mellotron, with distant strings on Let's Talk About Jesus, although that would appear to be it. Blues fans probably already know this album, but if you're looking for a modern title from the oeuvre to enhance your collection, I can heartily recommend this as an example of how to successfully merge tradition and contemporary influences, without heading down the dreaded 'R&B' route.
|CDS (1998, 20.27) ***½/TT½
Underwater Love Story
Can't Say No
|CDS (1998, 32.41) ***½/T½
I'll Show You Mine
One Plus One
I'll Show You Mine
|CDS (1999, 10.52) ***½/T
Death of a Drag Racer
Everything Picture (1999, 87.29) ***½/TTT½
|Cross My Heart
Happy Times (Are Coming)
Aire & Calder
My Impossible Dream
Play for Today (2012, 53.04) ***½/TT
Between Two Rivers
Goodbye Baby, Amen
Deus Ex Natura
Long Way Home
Ultrasound's roots lie in wonderfully eclectic Newcastle combo Sleepy People, via the short-lived Pop-a-Cat-a-Petal; vocalist Tiny Wood and guitarist/songwriter Richard Green played in both bands, Green switching from bass for the new outfit. Ultrasound took what they learned and applied it to late-'90s UK indie, creating a crossover I can only describe as indie/prog, for its sins. They released a handful of singles before their sole album, Everything Picture, after which they imploded. Tiny (guess what: he isn't) was last seen guesting with Blue Apple Boy, but the rest of the band's whereabouts are currently unknown.
I haven't heard their debut single, Same Band and there's nothing Mellotronic on their first for Nude, '98's Best Wishes, but the first version of Stay Young from later that year (it was released in two different versions) features strings, flutes and cellos on one of its b-sides, the lengthy Can't Say No. The non-album I'll Show You Mine uses all three tracks on its last listed track, Lovesick, while one of the extra tracks on the first version of Floodlit World, the band's version of The Beatles' Getting Better, features the cellos.
My copy of Everything Picture is a double CD that says 'limited edition' on the cover; I believe the italicised tracks above aren't on the single-disc version (the timing is for the double only). Despite its sometime overt Indieisms, it's actually a pretty good album, although Tiny's vocal stylings can grate after a while; strange, since they didn't with his previous (and subsequent) bands. Oh well. Tracks lengths tend to veer between four and six minutes, with ambient links making them appear longer, apart from the title track, which is about six or seven minutes of song, followed by thirteen or fourteen of freeform noise, ebbing and flowing over its length. It's followed by nearly fifteen minutes of silence, with a short piano-led uncredited track at the end of the disc, à la some versions of Nirvana's Nevermind. I suspect this track is missing from the single-CD version, if it exists; the album length I've put above is minus the gap.
The Mellotron use is actually quite heavy; flute parts on Cross My Heart and Happy Times, and some excellent strings on Sentimental Song. There are more flutes on the song part of Everything Picture itself, then during the improv section, keyboard man Matt Jones utilises the strings superbly, particularly in the quiet section and then to the end. I believe Ultrasound bought an M400 from Streetly at considerable cost; I've no idea what's happened to it since the split, but hopefully it was passed on to a deserving case.
After a decade's silence, during which Tiny temporarily rejoined Sleepy People (a.k.a. Blue Apple Boy), before they quietly folded, Ultrasound reformed, producing 2012's surprisingly good Play for Today. By and large, they've maintained their compositional skills, highlights including superb opener Welfare State, Twins, Between Two Rivers and the sweeping Deus Ex Natura, although I'm less convinced by the punky Goodbye Baby, Amen and bassist Vanessa Best's almost consistently flat lead vocal on Glitter Box. Keys man Bob Birch is credited with Mellotron, although I wouldn't actually put money on them having used a real one this time round. Anyway, we get a chordal flute part on Twins, background choirs on Between Two Rivers, a high string line on Deus Ex Natura and chordal strings on Long Way Home, but it's not something you should bear in mind when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.
I have to recommend Everything Picture, even to die-hard progheads; it's a good album, though 'great' eludes it, mainly due to the sometimes rather indifferent songwriting. Good record, good Mellotron. Don't spend a fortune, but pick it up if you see it at a sensible price (I did), the same going for Play for Today.
Live at Roadburn (2013, 53.08) ***½/T
|Bracelets of Fingers
In the Past
Can You Travel in the Dark Alone?
Soon There'll Be Thunder
|I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)
Impromptu Performance (Dedicated to Can)
For some reason, Norwegians Ulver's increasingly-distant black metal origins hang around them like a bad smell, although they'd largely shucked off the genre's tropes by their second release, as early as 1996. Their appearance at 2012's Roadburn consists almost entirely of tracks from their '60s covers album, Childhood's End, giving not the faintest hint that they'd ever even been considered 'metal' at all, let alone of the 'black' variety. Excellent versions of better-known songs (The Pretty Things' Bracelet Of Fingers, Jefferson Airplane's Today, The Electric Prunes' timeless I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)) rub shoulders with material from the likes of We the People, The Beau Brummels and Gandalf ('60s version), effectively acting as a late '60s primer for the uninitiated, encoring with a Can-inspired jam, faded out on the record.
The band's current fourth member, Daniel O'Sullivan (Guapo, Mothlite), plays Matthijs Herder's borrowed M400 through a Roland Space Echo on a couple of tracks, with background strings on Soon There'll Be Thunder and flutes on Magic Hollow, albeit neither to any great effect, sadly. Is this worth hearing for its Mellotron use? No, frankly, although anyone who enjoyed Childhood's End should get something from hearing its contents played live.
Official record company site
Demolotion (1997, 57.57) ***½/½
|Half Man Half Wrecking Ball
The Middle of Monday
The Walls You Walk Through
Girl Named God
My Weary Eyes
The Umajets are basically ex-Jellyfishers Tim Smith and Roger Manning's next project, and while they've carried some of their alma mater's talent over to the new outfit, the overall impression I get of Demolotion (listed as 'Demolition' everywhere, of course - I had to look twice) is of a band trying desperately to be as good as their previous outfit, and not quite making it. The excellent Half Man Half Wrecking Ball starts things off well, but so-so efforts such as No Mattress or Girl Named God fatally compromise the album. Actually, with a bit of editing, this would've made a far better 40-minute record. It could even have been pressed on LP...
Manning is credited with Mellotron on The Wannabees, but unless those are flutes hidden somewhere in the mix, it's effectively inaudible. However, suspiciously Mellotron-like lines crop up on a few other tracks (notably Daphne's Disease), but aren't mentioned in the exhaustive track-by-track credits, so who knows? Overall, this falls into the 'good not great' category, I'm afraid, so unless you're a powerpop obsessive, I'd only really bother if you see it cheap.
The Beginning of the End (2009, 31.56) ***½/TTTStory Song
The Pretty One
Do Do Do
The End of the Beginning (2011, 41.24) ****/TTT½Dumb Numb
Rains and Pours
The Ups and Downs
Do Do Do Do...
Somedays Coming Soon (2014, 36.20) ***½/TT½
Apple Pickin Tree
Oh Pretty Please
Slip & Slide
Somedays Coming Soon
|The Poodle Song
Chicago psych sextet Umbra & the Volcan Siege are led by Jim Licka ('Mellotron, Guitar'), also of local heroes The Luck of Eden Hall. Their first release, 2009's mostly-instrumental The Beginning of the End EP, is a pretty mixed bag, stylistically speaking, opener Story Song being a straight (albeit instrumental) rhythm'n'blues effort, Lu Lu a three-chord jam, Caboom twisted country... I think you get the picture. Two Mellotron tracks (Licka's M400): The Pretty One kicks off with a beautiful polyphonic flute part, with more flutes, (sometimes outrageously-pitchbent) strings and choirs throughout, while closer Do Do Do features more of those flutes, before it takes a short break, only to return with a string part meandering through the rest of the piece.
The band's debut full-lengther, 2011's The End of the Beginning, covers much psychedelic ground, every track at least subtly stylistically different to every other. Highlights include deranged noise-fest The Ups And Downs, the slow, brooding Dream Lust and lysergic closing jam Do Do Do Do...; strangely, despite no fewer than four 'guitar' credits, no-one's credited with vocals (I suspect Licka), although they're not exactly a major feature of the band's work. Licka and Curtis Evans play Jim's new M4000 on most tracks, with upfront flute and strings on opener Dumb Numb, a huge, polyphonic flute part, followed by strident strings on The March, flutes on Somebody, flutes, strings and muted, pitchbent choir on Chromy, more upfront flutes on Dream Lust and gentle ones on Do Do Do Do...
Stylistically, 2014's Somedays Coming Soon is probably closer to a weird surf/new wave cross, with Dick Dale-esque guitar work running head-on into vaguely Talking Heads vocal work, shifting from the queasy Tex-Mex of instrumental opener Stick It through to the blues/punk (!) of Distraction, the low-fi jazzy balladry of Oh Pretty Please and the psychedelic blues of the title track. Overall, not all that much of the M4000, relatively speaking, with background choirs and flute on Apple Pickin Tree, rather wobbly choirs on Oh Pretty Please, vibes on Jazzy Hands, background strings on the title track and Things, leaving the untitled 'Bonus Track' as the album's Mellotronic tour de force, a mélange of heavily-echoed Mellotron tracks, not least various string and church organ parts, including pitchbends and tape-delayed stabs.
So, do you bother? Yes, basically, as long as psychedelic exploration's your bag (The End... more so than Somedays...); these are fine albums, both for novices and seasoned psychonauts. Worth the effort.
Blood Lust (2011, 47.36) ***½/TI'll Cut You Down
Over and Over Again
Curse in the Trees
I'm Here to Kill You
Withered Hand of Evil
Cambridge-based trio Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats began as a recording project, releasing the limited-edition Vol. 1 on their own label in 2010, following up with 2011's Blood Lust, also picked up for vinyl release by Rise Above. According to interviews, the album's supposed to be something of a concept effort involving a witchfinder type, his wrongdoings and eventual comeuppance, which is certainly backed up by the lyrics. Musically, the band have one basic influence: Black Sabbath. Unafraid to channel that early '70s boogie feel (or 'the pariah of modern doom'), the album comes across as a straight cross began pastiche and homage, tracks like opener I'll Cut You Down, Over And Over Again (great guitar hook) and the superb Withered Hand Of Evil displaying Uncle Acid's Ozzy-esque vocal style to its best advantage.
Mr Acid himself plays the upfront, real-sounding Mellotron strings on Withered Hand Of Evil and flutes on the untitled bonus track (is this missing from the vinyl version?); where did he source a real machine? Who knows? This knocks your average doom-by-numbers crew into the proverbial cocked hat; a band with a genuine love of an era, with the will and songwriting chops to carry it off, unlike others I could name, but shan't. The vinyl's long sold out, but this is still available on CD. Buy.
What an Experiment His Head Was (1991, 47.48) ***/T½
|I Always Knew You'd Come to Me
I Don't Know (I Just Wish)
I Don't Wanna Know About it
I'm Goin' Down
The Deal of a Lifetime
By the Way (Not Even Then)
I Won't Let it Drop
Don't Fix it if it Works
Book of Bad Thoughts (1992, 46.12) ***½/TT
|I Know All About You
I Don't Wanna Know About it
Wake Up Now
Look Into the Light
She's Storing it Up
You're Getting Into it
In Good Time
|He Woke Up Naked
The Blue Light
A Good Man
I Always Knew You'd Come to Me
Forming in 1980, power-popsters Uncle Green took six years to get an album out, 1991's What an Experiment His Head Was being their fourth release. It combines college rock sensibilities with powerpop (frequent bedfellows anyway), better tracks including the powerpop of I Don't Wanna Know About It, Misfit Mouth and Don't Fix It If It Works. Producer Brendan O'Brien (credited as 'Bud O'Brien & His Dog') plays Mellotron, with raucous cellos on opener I Always Knew You'd Come To Me, skronky strings on I Don't Know (I Just Wish) and great string pitchbends and flutes on Like Today.
The band were clearly on their last legs (at least in that incarnation) by their fifth album, 1992's Book of Bad Thoughts, which turned out to be their swansong. It's actually a pretty good record, far better than efforts I've heard by supposed deities of the genre, although it falls slightly short in places (so how many albums don't?). Best tracks? Possibly I Don't Wanna Know About It, He Woke Up Naked and A Good Man, despite its generic-boogie intro, with nothing actively cringeworthy on board. Band member Bill Decker and producer Brendan O'Brien both play Mellotron, with a strings solo on opener I Know All About You, pitchbends included, with more of the same on You're Getting Into it and massed cellos on closer I Always Knew You'd Come To Me, making for a medium-heavy 'Tron album, definitely worth it if you're a powerpop fan anyway.
Incidentally, after their mid-'90s split, the band regrouped as the awkwardly-named 3 Lb. Thrill, although I don't believe they used a Mellotron again.
MySpace fan page
War in the Night Before (1971, 37.14) ***½/TT½
|War in the Night Before
Hard to Group
For many years, the mysterious Underground Set were so anonymous that one usually well-informed expert listed them as being British. It seems they actually consisted of members of Nuova Idea, their material being composed by Le Orme's producer, Gian Piero Reverberi. 1971's instrumental War in the Night Before (their second and last release) has more than a whiff of soundtrack about it - in fact, tracks by the band were used in films - highlights including the dirty, heavy psych of the opening title track, the lethargic Cool Paradise and Oblivion, while the slothful Una Lettera is a dead ringer for Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
It seems likely that the uncredited keyboard player was Nuova's Giorgio Usai; whoever he is, he adds Mellotron to several tracks, with MkII brass on the title track, a clicky, pitchbent flute solo on Cronic Illness [sic], more lead flute on the cinematic Car Driving and the gentle Oblivion and a final blast of unruly brass on closer Hopeless Train. I have no idea why an album like this, ripe for progressive collectors' circles, has never been released on CD, so here's hoping for a swift resolution to the issue.
See: Nuova Idea
Cosmic Truth (1975, 41.18) ***½/TEarthquake Shake
Down By the River
Lil' Red Ridin' Hood
Squeeze Me, Tease Me
Got to Get My Hands on Some Lovin'
(I Know) I'm Losing You
Motown master writer/producer Norman Whitfield, responsible for The Temptations' success, amongst others, formed The Undisputed Truth in the early '70s to further his psychedelic soul vision. Cosmic Truth was their fifth album (of six), and is certainly true to Whitfield's ideal; it opens with an outrageous slice of psych/funk/rock, Earthquake Shake, before 'souling-up' Neil Young's Down By The River, which responds surprisingly well to the treatment. UFO's is a ludicrous song about alien invasion paranoia, fuelled by acid-fried vocals and fuzz guitar, while Squeeze Me, Tease Me is a bonkers hard rock/funk crossover. I think you get the picture...
Mellotron (from Mark Davis) on one track only; the last two minutes of Earthquake Shake are a 'Tron strings'n'flutes extravaganza, over the earthquake rumble that runs through the track, though sadly, that's it on the 'Tron front. This is the kind of soul album, not entirely unlike the Chairmen of the Board's Skin I'm in from the previous year, or anything by Funkadelic, that it's acceptable for rock fans to listen to, with plenty of ripping leads and experimental production tricks. There ain't a lot of 'Tron, but it's worth buying to hear the one relevant track.
Unified Theory (2000, 48.15) **½/½
Instead of Running
The Sun Will Come
Unified Theory (named for Einstein's final, unfinished work) grew out of an attempt to reform the ill-fated Blind Melon, after vocalist Shannon Hoon's senseless, drug-fuelled demise. Bassist Brad Smith and guitarist Christopher Thorn took on ex-Pearl Jam drummer Dave Krusen and an unknown frontman, Chris Shinn. Ex-Blind Melon and Pearl Jam? Whadd'ya reckon they sounded like, then? Pick an answer from the drop-down menu below:
Well, what did you pick? Either choice is correct. OK, maybe I'm being a tad unfair, but Unified Theory is a pretty bland record, with no obviously memorable material and a very generic sound. The band split up the year after its release, so it looks like they agreed with me. Mellotron? Thorn plays it, waiting until the album's dying seconds to put down a string line on Keep On, but it's hardly something you couldn't do without. So; Unified Theory: been and gone. No loss. Next.
See: Blind Melon | Pearl Jam