In the penultimate instalment of the Ten From ’77 series we have five albums whose only commonality is their position on the edge (or in some cases, way outside) the domain of pop music. At Vinyl Connection, forays into lesser known territories are infrequent, yet it is off the well-trodden path that most of my favourite music-paths wander. Clearly an accusation of self-indulgence would be hard to refute in this instance. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll walk with me as we visit British folk and German symphonic prog, drop in on eccentric neo-non-pop and spend an unsettling night in Belgium with Univers Zero.
5 John Renbourn — A Maid In Bedlam
Guitarist, singer and music scholar John Renbourn was around at the birth of the British folk boom of the 60s, forming much-loved and hugely influential folk-jazz-pop combo Pentangle with mates Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee. Although Bert is absent from this recording, Jacqui’s pure and evocative voice graces a number of the songs. There is also woodwind (Tony Roberts), fiddle and the not-so-traditionally-British tabla of Keshave Sathe. Several instrumentals—some of which dance between folk and Renaissance music—make this a varied feast. The singing and playing are as superb as the cover art, including a fresh arrangement of ‘John Barleycorn’ that owes nothing to Traffic. Friends of Pentangle will relish Maid while for those unfamiliar with British folk it could provide a gentle yet persuasive introduction.
4 Novalis — Konzerte
Novalis are my favourite German symphonic prog band (except Wallenstein, maybe). The aptly named Konzerte delivers a generous one hour plus of live music, drawing from the first three Novalis albums. The sound is rich yet musically articulate while the vocals (in German) are actually more powerful than the studio recordings due to the addition of a new singer. Here’s what you get: melody, swathes of keyboards, progressive rhythms, long multi-part pieces; all performed energetically before enthusiastic audiences. If that sounds appealing, buy a ticket. This is feel-good progressive music.
3 Brian Eno — Before And After Science
Full of variety and surprises, Eno’s fifth album never lets you settle into a comfortable space of knowing what to expect. There are pop touches (‘Backwater’), but they have been twisted into new and not altogether comfortable shapes. The rhythm section of Phil Collins and Percy Jones (see Brand X in the previous post) demands attention through much of side one, particularly on opener ‘No one receiving’, while the punky stomp of ‘King’s lead hat’ features Robert Fripp at his unpredictable best. The second side contrasts markedly, opening with the wistful ‘Here he comes’ and encompassing the limpid beauty of ‘By this river’ (featuring Moebius and Roedelius of Cluster).
Eno had spent much of the year working with other musicians (notably Bowie in Berlin) and found the creation of this album tortuous. The uncertainty is not obvious to the listener, who’ll find—if not the sublime cohesion of Another Green World—an engrossing collection of inventively constructed pieces across two disparate yet satisfying sides.
2 National Health — National Health
Arising out of a motorway reconstruction that dismantled Hatfield and the North, National Health are associated with the ‘Canterbury Scene’. Keyboard player and composer Dave Stewart (see Bill Bruford in the previous post) got together with one of my favourite musicians in the entire UK progressive scene, pianist/composer Alan Gowen (Gilgamesh). It’s a complicated story we needn’t go into here. Also complicated, but in a really good way, is the music. Intelligent yet thoroughly entertaining, National Health’s pieces show compositional flair and a deep suspicion of staying in the one place too long. All you need to know about the band and the era when they tried to promote their new music is Dave Stewart’s observation that punk consisted of ‘some of the most crass, simplistic, brutal, ugly and stupid music imaginable, in an atmosphere where an admitted inability to play one’s instrument was hailed as a sign of genius’. Sour grapes, perhaps, but one can feel sympathy for the creators of this small but marvellous body of music.
1 Univers Zero — Univers Zero (aka 1313)
The Allmusic guide lists Univers Zero in the ‘Pop/Rock’ category. This is seriously misleading, yet I imagine ‘Dark, complex Belgian Chamber avant-prog rock’ may be seen as a little too specific. Or off-putting. Or both. Formed in 1974 but releasing their first recording in ’77, Univers Zero were committed to making a very particular kind of non-rock. Their story is even more complex than the music, so we’ll skip over the history part and introduce the band via their instruments, as per the back cover of the self-titled debut album:
Daniel Denis—drums, percussion
Patrick Hannappier—violin, viola, pocket cello
Emmanuel Nicaise—harmonium, spinet
Being for the most part classically trained, these Euro-dudes could play. As for what they play, imagine dropping acid of uncertain provenance then reading HP Lovecraft stories while listening to Stravinsky in one ear and Red era King Crimson in the other. Univers Zero is not really like that, but it’s compelling composed chamber rock that will surely twist your idea of what (un)popular music can be. The good news is that the second album, Heresie, is much darker.