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It Bites

Once Around the World

Review by John Pierpoint

Are It Bites a pop band or a progressive rock band? That's a big question – prompting big debates. Even the band themselves are not sure: their web site has the banner “It Bites – The Progressive Rock Pop Band”! I would argue the case for the latter, so allow me to submit this classic 1988 release as “Exhibit A in the case for defence, m'lud”.

Their first album The Big Lad in the Windmill was a mixed bag, and represented a tentative toe in the water, which at least gave the world the excellent singalong single “Calling All the Heroes.” But this, their second album, is most firmly in prog-rock territory. Even though many tracks clock in at under four minutes, the band's attention to detail ensures that they are all densely-packed with clever arrangements and opportunities for some dazzling musicianship and classic prog technical trickery. The fact that this was going on in the dark days of the late 80s, when prog was well and truly in the pop wilderness, is all the more remarkable. One has to admire their tenacity and vision as much as their technical prowess.

They certainly seem to be taking their cue from Gabriel-era Genesis: using a similar balance of short, snappy, quirky songs and dramatic multi-part epics, the use of classic keyboard sounds like the Hammond organ, and playing fast and loose with every complex time signature they can lay their hands on. Frontman/guitarist Francis Dunnery attempts to populate his vocal interpretations with a Gabriel-like cast of characters, such as the weather-beaten sailor in “Hunting the Whale,” the tripped-out child in “Plastic Dreamer,” or the retired army Major (and other characters) in the title track, although he never quite loses his transatlantic singing accent. The album does indeed boast some seriously catchy pop tunes, which no doubt would have reeled in those fans of the first album and its singles; but more importantly, it has several powerful and more ambitious tracks which bear (nay, demand) repeated listening in order to enjoy them at their fullest. These became staples of the band's live set, showcasing their prodigious musical talent, and sound as fresh today as when the album was first released.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Midnight
Well, having said all that, the opener is a straight pop song. It belts in with the chorus vocals, a capella. Then the full band comes in. Production is radio-friendly, highly-compressed with pounding bass and drums. However, Dunnery's razor-sharp guitar technique and John Beck's organic pulsing keyboards keep things sounding fresh and alive.
Kiss Like Judas

Oh dear, hard on the heels of the opener comes another big, brash pop song. But hang on with me a bit longer. A catchy keyboard arpeggio riff opens the song, then big brassy keyboard chords and guitar steam in. A repeated muted guitar arpeggio behind the verses keeps things ticking along. Confident and accomplished vocal harmonies and exuberant guitar slides punctuate the chorus. There's an intricate bass-driven middle-eight, which features a bouncing guitar melody that can only be described as “jolly.”

Yellow Christian
Now we're talking prog! It's almost as though the band were trying to gradually wean the casual listener off the pop and onto the hard stuff, by softening them up with the first two crowd-pleasing songs. This tune opens with a bombastic guitar piece, followed by the first verse, all fairly normal so far. But the second verse introduces some compound time in the backing instruments, playing across the rhythm of the verse. Jubilant guitar fills abound in the chorus. After the relentless pop production values of the first two songs, it's good to note that this song has more dynamics, as exemplified by the sweet bass interlude that is offered up partway through. There are “turn on a sixpence” changes throughout, such as the stop-start staircase of chords in the “Thieves and fools and long-traveled soldiers” section. Even with all the prog-gymnastics, this is no cold, soulless, purely technical number. There's a warm, happy, upbeat feeling to the song, which leaves a rosy glow as it ends.
Rose Marie
It’s back to basics, momentarily, with this tight and lively rocker, featuring a pedaled guitar riff behind the verses, and a fluid tapped guitar solo near the end.
Black December
Here is a lush, laid-back, almost Beach Boys feel (courtesy of the backing vocals), with straight 4/4 drums and low, prowling bass riff holding the rhythm. Wailing synths emulate female backing singers (or maybe they are meant as a nod towards the Theremin in “Good Vibrations”). It's a pleasant enough tune, but does seem like treading water before the next grandiose prog piece comes around.
Old Man and the Angel
This starts with a repeated busy guitar tapping riff, then the rest of the band comes in. A guitar pumps away on a single chord to give a stop-start cross-rhythm behind the verses, lending a Genesis “Lamb Lies Down. . .” feel to the song. There are medieval-sounding Latin choral vocals in the middle section, before emerging into a dreamy stripped-back sequence with vocal harmonies, guitar harmonics and vibes over a pounding bass root. Delicate clean, vibratoed guitar fills build up to a short guitar solo. A burst of gothic Hammond chords sow confusion, introducing a Tony Banks-esque short keyboard solo. It returns to the first compound time signature for the final playout, but there's a surprise key change just when you thought it was all over: multi-tracked guitar tapping, with a hint of harp. This delicate construction peters out to end on a last few keyboard spasms.
Hunting the Whale
This song begins with a sound FX prelude: snatches of merriment in a tavern or below-decks on a ship. We can hear sailors sitting around enjoying their grog, accompanied by a merry yet somehow mournful squeezebox ditty. This fades to the sounds of whale-song. The song itself now starts. Dunnery's vocals initially take the role of a whaler, then switch to the role of the whale (at least, I think that's the idea, going off the lyrics and the change in delivery). A quiet interlude in the middle features more sound FX, including backward vocals from Dunnery and Beck, which then reverse into real-time. Then it's back into sea-shanty mode, as a nautical chorus joins Dunnery on the “twisting and turning, the ropes are still burning” lines. The final chorus has a brief Peter Gabriel moment from Dunnery on the “oil, soap and bone” line.
Plastic Dreamer
A Christmassy icy keyboard sound opens this song about toys coming to life after hours in a department store. This is an excuse (and why not?) for throwing in all manner of noises, vocal inflections and instrumental punctuation, as the various antics of the toys are described. Most memorable is a delicious detuned bass stab at the”Darth Vader” line. The pace and intensity builds behind the vocals as they rise to fever pitch.  As an antidote, there's a lovely medieval effect to the vocals in the “I can see you” middle eight. A joyous guitar solo follows, augmented by keyboard fanfare flourishes. Following a key change on the last chorus, Dunnery now adopts a frightened-child persona, backed by the sounds of a child in distress and some clockwork creation creaking to a stop.
Once Around the World
The album closer is a fourteen minute epic, which would alone seal their prog credentials. The band clearly had “Supper's Ready” in their cross-hairs when the crafted this number. Like that other song, this is a huge conglomeration of many short sections, possibly representing the different articles appearing in the morning paper that is being read in the opening sequence. “We're waking up”, intones Dunnery. Bass harmonics over a lush keyboard carpet, electric-acoustic guitar. The feeling is relaxed and easy. The pace picks up, with Hammond organ and flanged backing vocals. Dunnery adopts different guises as he describes the characters he meets walking through the town (or reads about – maybe it's a local paper). It's a gallery of Mervyn Peake grotesques, which Dunnery ridicules. Now it enters a rock sequence, with guitar chopping behind busy keyboards before blending into the “Out of my head/ Motorway” part. This drops into an angry, brooding guitar riff, which briefly quotes the “Star Wars” theme, before going into a jazz interlude for a few bars. A jubilant keyboard racks up the emotions, while layers of backing vocals build up chords. Then all change again for “Crack the champagne:” Dunnery's “retired major” voice for the “1924” section, with a faux-trumpet solo over trad-jazz backing. Before complacency sets in, we're smack into a fantastic guitar hammer-on riff. A pumping organ riff pounds over the top for the “horse race” section. This is followed by a rambling guitar solo over compound-time backing from drums, bass and keys, trading solos with lead synth. Then it’s back to the original theme for the finale, which becomes the basis for a beautiful, delicate waltz-time music-box melody from Beck, which builds up with a magnificent guitar sound to create a stunning finale. The tune ends on some elegant flourishes from guitar and keyboard chords.
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