|Progressive Rock CD Reviews|
Review by Bill Knispel
Being a Hawkwind fan these days almost feels like being a Marillion fan at the end of the 1980’s. With two decidedly different factions, one led by founder Dave Brock and maintaining the Hawkwind name, and the other led by founder Nik Turner under the name Space Ritual, fans have the benefit of twice as much music while perhaps bemoaning the fact that the two men simply can no longer get along.
Nik Turner is joined by a large coterie of ex-Hawks on this first Space Ritual studio album. Dave Anderson contributes bass, acoustic and electric guitars, Terry Ollis handles things behind the kit, Del Dettmar plays axe synth, and Mick Slattery layers on still more acoustic and electric guitar. The band is filled out with John Greves on various synths and keyboards and Thomas Crimble on guitars and keyboards. Both have connections to the Hawkwind mothership, with Crimble being a member of the main band from 1970-1971, while Greves played with Robert Calvert on the legendary Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters project.
Many of the traditional Hawkwind elements are on fine display here; short instrumental or ambient passages between songs, spoken word and poetry performances, elements of Middle Eastern and tribal musical influences. Of course, having Nik Turner as front man assures that sax and flute will be displayed prominently on almost every track, and his chops have not been so well used in years.
|Track by Track Review
Mood is important on a space rock album, and mood must be set early in order for it to evolve. Otherworld opens with a melange of sound and effects, with distant vocals that sound as if heard from light years away. Tribal vocal samples and sweeping synth buzzes that pan from channel to channel mix to create an sound that is alien, eerie...and yes, otherworldly.
Gentle flute and ambient bird-like sounds are layered with bubbling synth sounds, slowly giving space to quiet acoustic guitar. Nik Turner’s vocals are a little deeper than remembered, and perhaps a bit more spoken than sung. Add in some honking and deep tenor sax and layered, harmonized guitar, and you have a recipe for a possible future classic space rock track.
This wouldn’t be a Hawkwind related project without spoken word bits. And the fact that the spoken word section is lifted directly from Hawkwind’s Space Ritual album, and written by prominent science fiction author Michael Moorcock, doesn’t hurt things. I believe the earlier live take, from the Space Ritual Alive in London and Liverpool album, is a stronger one, yet the more distant, spacey take here fits the rest of the album very well, and offers a nice respite before the next heavy rock blast.
“Bubbles” is a solid blast of heavier space rock, with crunchy guitars and just right solos. It isn’t blanga heavy like early Hawkwind, but then again, very little is. Heavy without necessarily plodding, with lyrics name checking Pythagoras and the music of the spheres, the track is solidly written, solidly performed, and offers plenty of opportunity for Nik turner to blow on his sax. At over seven minutes in length, the piece compares favourably with Hawkwind’s extended pieces.
Arising from the synth decay from “Bubbles,” chanted Turner vocals sound phoned in beneath a tribal drum loop. The song sounds somewhat like an Anubian Lights outtake in some ways, with a vaguely Egyptian lilt to the delivery. A brief track, it’s perhaps just the right length to act as a spacer number.
|Ritual of Ravaged Earth|
Processed drum sounds and lyrics that quote Michael Moorcock’s “Warriors on the Edge of Time” inform this particular composition, with keening synth lines echoing in from the distance. Nik Turner’s voice is particularly suited for these SF, space-oriented spoken word compositions, as it has a bit of an alien characteristic to it, adding honesty and a touch of verisimilitude to the delivery. A distorted loop of white noise and the words “the edge of time” leads out of the piece.
This comes straight out of the last one and runs into a deep and eerie bass piano riff, played slow and minimalistically. After several iterations, the theme is played several octaves up, sounding eerier still, as sweeping analogue synths pan from channel to channel. As a mood piece, it succeeds wonderfully; as a full-fledged composition, perhaps not so much.
Staccato sax blasts, synth lines, a slow, shuffling drum beat, and choppy guitar lead into the next vocal piece, featuring actual sung vocal lines. The winding synth lines are sufficiently twisted, the layered vocals reminiscent of Hawkwind efforts past, and the song in general sounds like a mid-1970’s Hawkwind effort filtered through 21st century production values and with a modern sensibility. These are not bad things at all; with the current Hawkwind perhaps a bit more concerned with heavier doses of electronics, the slightly more organic sound Space Ritual goes for is refreshing. Nik Turner’s extended sax solo about 3 minutes in is a definite highlight.
Hawkwind could have made a career of writing songs about love across the centuries, or love between humans and aliens, or love between humans and androids. Thus, it is only fitting that at least one song on Otherworld evokes this theme. A slow, bluesy space track, with gentle synth laying the foundation for Turner’s passionate sax playing, one could almost hear this piece being used in a science fiction themed bit of...uh...softer adult entertainment as aired on late night cable television. One might almost find this piece out of place on an album such as this, but it is that very diversity that makes the composition so enjoyable.
The bass line that opens “Time Crime” is hummable in itself. Add in the launch-like synthesizers, and a sudden blast of summery sax driven rock, and one’s breath may very well be taken away. Drums almost take on blast beat like rhythms, with some intense double bass drumming. Turner’s sax playing is bright and cheerful. Vocals are layered again, with odd effects adding a touch of alien-ness to the piece. Considering how dark much of Hawkwind’s material is (and, admittedly, how dark a lot of the preceding album has been), “Time Crime” is like a sudden burst of sunshine in a dreary, Matrix-style world.
|Arrival In Utopia|
The alternating sequence between lengthier, song-type compositions and instrumental or spoken word bits continues with a remake of the Calvert piece “Utopia.” Turner intones the vocals over pleasant piano accompaniment, run through a touch of echo or reverb to add space and a dreamy feel. Admittedly, it might have been nice to see new spoken word pieces worked up, but “Utopia” is a classic, and as such merits inclusion here as much as anything else.
Multiple tracks of acoustic guitar are layered, almost haphazardly but not quite, in a sort of busking feel or arrangement. Anderson’s bass playing is warm and pulsing, while synths wind and soar through the mix. Short stabs of mellotron add to the mix, while the acoustic guitar solo approximately 2:30 in suits the piece wonderfully; an electric guitar solo here, no matter how restrained, would have detracted from the mood, arrangement and song. A synth solo follows on from the guitar piece, mixed back just enough to not overpower the mix. The piece as a whole feels like an experiment in acoustics and restraint, and showcases something a little newer for the band.
Full on electronics take the stage as “The Riddle” begins, with thick distorted synth and a beat that has an almost skanking, punky feel to it. Not quite as energetic as Turner’s work with the 1980’s punk/space band Inner City Unit, the song is still energetic, with slicing guitar and a decent bit of momentum driving it forward. Any quicker and it may have fallen apart. Guitar solos again take on a slightly blusier tone than one might expect from a space rock band, but the tension between swirling synth and bent note blues guitar is enjoyable.
The next brief musical interlude is built around deep synth lines and a few interspersed bell-like chimes. The poetic lyrics evoke a vast frozen wasteland, the result of perhaps a massive scientific project...or more likely, a horrible accident. Forests found frozen, perfectly preserved 200 feet below the permafrost...the remnants of a billion funeral pyres...the track is subdued, spoken with a dead chill, sans emotion, speaking cold immutable fact to a backing of robotic, electronic music that is at once entirely fitting and oddly discomforting.
Otherworld closes out with “Walking Backwards,” a fairly pacey rocker with honking sax, echoed guitar and vocals, and a four on the floor beat that leaves nothing to chance. Vocals shift forward and backward, while Terry Ollis’ drum fills add nicely here and there. This is perhaps one of the most heavily effected track, with no single musical component (save, perhaps, for drums) safe from echo or reverb or phasing. The end result is a psychedelic soup of space rock perfection, with enough punk and funk seasoning to mix things up.
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