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Blue Öyster Cult – The AOR Years

Music while I work today has been something of a Blue Öyster Cult-a-thon. I’ve been a fan of the band since I heard the live version of “Astronomy” at college many years ago, long before I discovered the likes of Mostly Autumn or Panic Room; indeed it was a chance encounter following a Blue Öyster Cult gig that made me a Mostly Autumn fan. But that’s another story.

Rather than their classic run of albums from the early to mid 70s, which might have been too engrossing and distracting, it’s been their later work; four consecutive albums from their AOR years beginning with 1979′s “Mirrors”. This is music that’s been part of my life for decades, and those familiar songs seeped into my consciousness as I did battle with gnomic XML interface errors and exchanged emails with colleagues over what was causing them.

These were the four.

MirrorsMirrors is one of those albums that still divides fans’ and critics’ opinions decades after it’s release. It was widely hated on its release; there had always been a lighter, poppier side to the bands’ music balancing out the heavy guitars and dark mysticism, but this was the one time they did an entire album in that vein. But taken as its own thing and approached on its own terms, it’s actually very good, and even the most commercial-sounding songs have a hint of darkness about them. The atmospheric epic “The Vigil” remains one of the band’s best songs. The only one that fails is “You’re Not The One I Was Looking For”, a strong candidate for the worst song they ever recorded, not just cheesy, but sounds like old cheese that’s been left out too long in the sun.

Cultaaurus ErectusThose who were underwhelmed by Mirrors hailed Cultosaurus Erectus, produced by Martin Birch of Deep Purple fame, as a return to form. It managed to keep a foot in both camps, with material in a similar vein as its predecessor balanced out with plenty of far heavier songs. One thing I’d never noticed before is the way a section of “Monsters” is a direct lift from “21st Century Schizoid Man”, many years before Kanye West sampled it. It’s probably the strongest of the band’s late-period albums, unless you include “Imaginos” which is best treated as a standalone thing in its own right.

Fire of Unknown OriginFire of Unknown Origin is something of a poor relation. Again produced by Martin Birch, but this time with a lighter, less guitar-heavy sound. With cheesy 80s synth often prominent in the mix, it’s one BÖC album whose production has dated badly. Not that there’s anything much wrong with the songs. The production works on the more pop-orientated material such the title track, and “Burnin’ for You” was a big hit. But you’re left with the feeling that the likes of “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” and “Vengeance (The Pact)” need a bit more oomph.

The Revolution By NightThe Revolution By Night is one of their more underrated disks. By this time original drummer Albert Bouchard had left the band As well as filling the drumstool he’s been one of their more prolific songwriters; and the band had to make greater use of outside writers to come up with enough material to fill an album. The album had a rawer, heavier production with a big guitar sound that brings the songs to life in a way its predecessor didn’t. It’s a little patchy, it has to be said; “Let Go” is down there with YNTOIWLF, but though it’s a “lesser” track I’ve always loved “Dragon Lady”. Buck Dharma’s funk-tinged “Shooting Shark” is an absolute classic, often performed live.

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Now Playing: Also Eden, [REDACTED]. Bits of this record, especially “Chronoligic” remind me of Twelfth Night. Things seem to have gone rather quiet from the Also Eden camp of late.

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#NowPlaying: Chrissie – Carriageworks – An instrumental albim of effects-laden violin and electronica, streaming from the artist’s website.

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#NowPlaying: Jamie Williams & The Roots Collective: Live’n'Kickin’ at the Brasenose Arms.  Blues and Americana recorded at the Cropredy fringe in 2015.

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Giving the excellent Occupying Forces by Halo Blind another spin. One of no fewer than five excellent albums from the York scene so far this year.

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I am liking the new Robert Plant album “Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar” a lot. It’s the best thing he’s done for years, with a fire that’s beem missing from his last few records.

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Now Playing: For All We Shared

For All We SharedNowadays much of my music listening focuses on trying to keep up with all the new music that’s coming out, especially the stuff I’m reviewing. So it’s not often I sit back and listen of a much loved album.  Not nearly often enough, in fact.

With Mostly Autumn’s 1997 début, it’s so long since I last played it I’ve grown more familiar with the live versions of some of the songs from seeing the band on stage.

Mostly Autumn of 1997 were a very different band to the hard-rocking act of today, with celtic atmospherics a much bigger component of the sound. Bob Faulds’ electric violin is all over this record, as prominent as Bryan Josh’s guitar. It’s also the only album to feature Kev Gibbons on high and low whistles, adding to the celtic flavour, especially on songs like “Boundless Ocean”.

If you’re used to hearing the more recent live versions, “Nowhere to Hide” and “The Last Climb” sound quite different; the former is a lot softer than the guitar-driven hard rocker of their most recent tour. And “The Last Climb”, nowadays a showcase for Anne-Marie Helder’s flute, instead contains a lengthy violin solo. Also, in the light of what the band were later to become, it’s also notable that Heather Findlay only sings lead on a single song, “Steal Away”.

Ah yes, the jigs. There are three of them on the album, and it’s a reminder that in the early days they were almost as much a ceilidh band as a progressive rock one. They’re not the sort of thing the band indulges in nowadays, but numbers like “Out of the Inn” still featured heavily in live sets as late as 2006.

Perhaps the highlight is the album closer “The Night Sky”, one of the best of their “celtic Pink Floyd” numbers centering on Bob Faulds’ magnificent violin solo. It’s a song I’d love to hear them play live again; it made a brief appearance in the live set in early 2007, but they haven’t played it since.

Although they were to exceed it with later albums, this was a very ambitious début, especially when you consider that it came out at the height of Britpop, when the prog scene was at its lowest ebb. Its one flaw perhaps is that it’s too varied for it’s own good, with the folk jigs sitting uncomfortably alongside the Floydian epics. But a lot of the material has stood the test of time, with several numbers remaining live favourites, not least the now-traditional set closer, “Heroes Never Die”.

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Now Playing – September 2013 edition

Some of the records I’ve been listening to over the past couple of days. 2013 has been a great year for new music, but here I’ve revisited some old and sometimes overlooked classics.

Marillion – This Strange Engine

Their live sets in recent years have often drawn heavily from this album, but it’s the first time I’ve given the whole album a listen for a long time. One thing that struck me was how much it resembles their more recent work, despite being a decade and a half old. When it came out it was a bit a departure for them, with more emphasis on atmospherics and textures, and drew mixed reactions. But in retrospect, a lot of their current sound has its roots in this album.

Touchstone – Discordant Dreams

Touchstone’s first full-length album shows just how far they’ve progressed since they started out. I’d forgotten that Rob Cottingham sang most of the lead vocals back in the early days with Kim singing harmonies – It was only from “Wintercoast” onwards that Kim took over as the band’s main lead singer.

Yes – Drama

The announcement that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes from pop duo The Buggles were to replace Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman made heads explode when announced all those years ago. But thirty years on this is an album that stands the test of time far better than its unfocussed and directionless precessor “Tormato”. I think it’s fair to say that without “Drama” there would have been no Yes three decades later.

Black Sabbath – Seventh Star

Tony Iommi and former Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes made this collaboration with a bunch of session players after the ill-fated Ian Gillan-fronted Sabbath fell apart. It was never really intended as a Black Sabbath record, and lacks the doom-laden melodrama associated with the Sabbath name. But taken on its own merits it’s an excellent blues-metal hybrid, with both Iommi and Hughes on top form.

Rush – Roll the Bones

I was never that big a fan of Rush’s “Synthesiser period” and found their late 80s output a little bloodless and sterile. Their first release of the 1990s represented a back-to-basics power trio approach with Alex Lifeson’s guitar in the centre of the mix where it belonged.  All very welcome for me, even if the rather heavier following album “Counterparts” remains my favourite Rush disc of the past two decades.

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