Category Archives: Music Review

The Birth of Brand X – Part I

virgi ps 24.tifBrand X is a band that originated in the mid 1970’s out of London. While best categorized as jazz-fusion, Brand X incorporated rock and progressive genres into their work.  Their official debut album Unorthodox Behaviour was released in 1976, but the musicians who made up the band were quite busy before that record was released. The founding members on that brilliant album included Robin Lumley (keys), John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), and Phil Collins (drums). Jack Lancaster (winds) also plays on a couple of tracks for that first album and was an important part of their launch. Morris Pert (percussion) joined on their second album and from that point on there were several personnel changes until they disbanded.

Many of us learned of Brand X because of Phil Collins’ involvement. In the same year as their debut, Phil had taken over vocals for Genesis after Peter Gabriel departed, and the band released Trick of the Tail, which also sports some of his most aggressive and creative drumming with that band. For Brand X, Phil took his playing to a new level – arguably at the top of his powers, with bassist Percy Jones as a backing duo foundation for blistering rock-infused jazz-fusion that’s in a class of it’s own. Most progressive rock fans were drawn in and developed an appreciation for the jazz-fusion form, if they had not previously.

But to properly begin the story of this seminal group, we need to step back to the few years before their debut, back to when this gang was busy jamming together whenever possible in the kitchens, pubs and studios of London. Most importantly, before the debut, Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley wrote and released two albums – Peter and the Wolf and Marscape, which included playing by all of the members of what became Brand X, along with other guests.

Both albums were re-mastered by Jack Lancaster last year and are available on Gonzo Multimedia.

I had the opportunity this month to talk with Jack, Percy, and Robin about these works, and the origins of Brand X, and will cover these discussions over several posts. Let’s start by taking a look at these works, starting with the first release for RSO Records, Peter and the Wolf.

lancaster_patwThe original Peter and the Wolf was written by Sergei Prokoviev in 1936 in Stalin’s Soviet Union. It’s been adapted many times over the years since then, utilizing classical, rock and other frames. The “prog-jazz-fusion” and sometimes rocking version of Peter and the Wolf as conceived by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley includes some of the themes from Prokoviev but also a lot of free form jams written and then improvised by the contributing musicians. Vivian Stanshall is the narrator, and the players joining Jack and Robin include Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, Gary Moore, Manfred Mann, Bill Bruford, Stéphane Grappelli, Alvin Lee, Brian Eno, and others.

It’s a successful adaptation straight through – the story is shared intact via our narrator, and the musicians come up with clever ways to interpret the original tunes that represent Peter and his animal friends in the original work. Favorite themes as interpreted here include “Peter’s Theme”, “Cat Dance”, “Grandfather” and “Wolf” each of which shine. The album was considered a favorite by fans and the management of RSO Records, such that Jack and Robin set off to make a second album.

marscape_lp_us_frontMarscape the follow up album was an original work written by Jack and Robin in France and recorded at Trident studios in Britain. Again the future members of Brand X play with them on Marscape including John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), Phil Collins (drums) and Morris Pert (percussion). Also joining for Marscape were Bernie Frost (voices), and Simon Jeffs (koto). It’s by nature a tighter and more focused work than Peter and the Wolf, and should be a key selection in any fine music collection.

Of this album, the authors wrote that the concept: “was a magical journey to the planet Mars… a kind of soundtrack to an imaginary movie, our intention was picture-making through music, so we conceived Marscape as one piece, divided up into audio sketches of the events emotions that might be experienced by voyagers traveling from Earth to the red planet. By the end, we surmise that the visitors realize that they are not visitors at all, but have actually returned home after a very, very long time away.” This perfectly sums up what a listener could imagine from the evocative thematic piece.

Tracks include “Sail on Solar Winds”, “Homelight”, and “Dust Storm” each of which coveys the nature of the lonely and angry red planet. A standout track is “Hopper” which refers to the “machine for negotiating the rough Martian terrain” and which sports Phil’s signature skipping beat to a tune reminiscent of “Baby Elephant Walk.” Also gorgeous then a bit chilling is “With a Great Feeling of Love” that is described in liner notes as two parts – one “an inner warmth and feelings of affinity” and the next an “outer cold and icy silence.”  Themes are developed early on and repeated to excellent effect, drawing the listener into the album and it’s concept. Again, the musicianship is first rate.

These Lancaster/Lumley albums are wonderful and compelling preludes to the work of Brand X and classics in their own right. Highly recommended for fans of that band, or of acoustic and electric jazz-fusion. In the coming posts I’ll share recollections from Jack, Robin, and Percy on these times as well as the initial early work of Brand X.

Marscape’s Dreamy Landscape

marscape_lp_us_frontThe beautiful, haunting 1976 album Marscape, by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley, is available again from Gonzo Multimedia.  Except for Jack Lancaster (winds), Bernie Frost (voices), and Simon Jeffs (koto), the musicians on the work are also the founding members of the jazz fusion band Brand X who would release their stellar debut Unorthodox Behavior that same year.  Members that play on Marscape who went on to Brand X include Robin Lumley (keys), John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), Phil Collins (drums) and starting with their second release, Morris Pert (percussion).  Jack guests briefly on that debut album.  The fact alone that Marscape was written and performed by these musicians in that same year warrants a listen, which is well rewarded.

Marscape, Jack and Robin wrote: “was a magical journey to the planet Mars… a kind of soundtrack to an imaginary movie, our intention was picture-making through music, so we conceived Marscape as one piece, divided up into audio sketches of the events emotions that might be experienced by voyagers traveling from Earth to the red planet.  By the end, we surmise that the visitors realize that they are not visitors at all, but have actually returned home after a very, very long time away.”  This perfectly sums up what a listener could imagine from the evocative thematic piece.  Tracks include “Sail on Solar Winds”, “Homelight”, and “Dust Storm” each of which cbrandxoveys the nature of the lonely and angry red planet.  A standout track is “Hopper” which refers to the “machine for negotiating the rough Martian terrain” and which sports Phil’s signature skipping beat to a tune reminiscent of “Baby Elephant Walk.”  Also gorgeous then a bit chilling is “With a Great Feeling of Love” that is described in liner notes as two parts – one “an inner warmth and feelings of affinity” and the next an “outer cold and icy silence.”

Themes are developed early on and repeated to excellent effect, drawing the listener into the album and it’s concept.  And the musicianship is first rate – highlights:

  • John Goodsall establishes his searing guitar leads that later took Brand X to such amazing heights
  • Percy Jones lays down the groundwork for an amazing career playing his fret-less bass runs – always inventive and melodic
  • Phil Collins delivers a tour de force on his expertly tuned kit that will remind any listener of his best work – including with Genesis on Trick of the Tail recorded the same year
  • Robin Lumley had to be one of the most underrated keyboard players around – you can compare his synth leads to anyone hot from that era and his work on grand piano is beautiful
  • Jack Lancaster’s writing and performance on winds will make you look for more from this artist, including as a start his work with Blodwyn Pig

It’s a wonderful and compelling prelude to the work of Brand X and highly recommended for any fans of that band, or of acoustic and electric jazz fusion.

A PFM Classic

mozart2The progressive rock band Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) is considered rightly to be the premier band of it’s kind from Italy.  They’ve released more than 15 studio albums and almost as many live recordings since 1972, and maintain their place as one of the finest and most prolific artists in the genre.

Last year they recorded a double album which some fans of the prog rock form many have missed – the wonderful PFM In Classic – Da Mozart A Celebration.  The main CD is a collection of seven works by Mozart re-imagined with symphony and rock instrumentation combined.  Patrick Djivas (bass) explained their approach to linking the two forms in a recent interview – “We wanted to do something totally different [with this recording] –  we thought, what if Mozart had guitar, bass, and drums – what would he have added to his compositions?”

The result is a compelling mix of rock and classical motifs played side by side – at times alternating and at others intertwined – ending up being bolder and more rewarding than the typical rock+symphony excursion.  Any fan of Mozart’s work, or the prog rock form will find much to enjoy in this release.  Highlights include the grand overture to “Il Flauto Magico,” with Patrick’s opening bass lines dancing about the main theme  – the expressive, precise guitar solo played by Franco Mussida that drives “Danza Slava No 1” – or their playful take on the theme to Romeo and Juliet which ends in a crescendo of drums from Franz Di Cioccio.

The second CD contains some of PFM’s own compositions performed in the same manner – some with extended symphonic interpretations within the original work.  Of these, “La Luna Nuova” and “Impressioni Di Settembre” are the most interesting in this format, whereas a couple of the early tracks were so representative of symphonic rock as to be just as good in their original format.  For a stunning finish the band rip through versions of “Celebration” along with a bit of Mendelssohn for good measure, followed by a live recording of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”  A perfect way to end this set, as both tracks are played assertively, precisely, and joyfully – a loveable trait of this seminal band.
Highly recommended.

Is it Real? It is The Musical Box

It is Real

It is Rael

So ends the double album epic by the band Genesis, titled “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” This 1974 release was the last record Genesis created with lead vocalist Peter Gabriel who wrote the story and most of the lyrics to tell the tale of Rael, a street punk who is mysteriously plucked from the streets of New York city to unwillingly inhabit and then transcend an underworld filled with personal challenges, freaks, creatures, and his own alter-ego, brother John. The Lamb was a true concept album, and the tour to support it was conceived as “rock theater” complete with bits of narration, a three screen slide show with over 1,000 images, costumes, props, and lighting effects. It was staged only 102 times, seen by few of the bands eventual followers, and was utterly unique in the world of rock ‘n roll.

Several “classic rock” artists between 1967-1979 wrote concept albums, meant to be taken as “rock opera” or at least as something approaching theater. The BeatlesSgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” was taken as a concept album, and though in reality a loose collection of individual tracks, set the tone for the form as it would be attempted within the rock framework. The Who‘s famous double album epic “Tommy” established the potential of rock theater even though it was not staged as such at the time. Seek out the Isle of Wight show by the Who from that era and while you will find their lead singer’s delivery forceful, there are no literal theatrical elements. At the time many rock bands, from the Who to Queen, Yes, and others, incorporated some elements of storytelling and some physical or projected imagery into their shows, but generally did not have sets and a cohesive presentation approaching Broadway theater. The lead vocalists from these bands were revered for emotive presentation of the individual songs, and were lauded for as expressive a presentation as possible.  Theatrical yes, theater no.

Enter Genesis, with Gabriel as lead vocalist, who had been donning costumes and acting out bit parts during their concerts since 1971. The Lamb was the logical extension of this approach, painstakingly assembled by Gabriel while secluded from the band, who wrote the music and worked to patch everything together with added lyrics and transitions. The end result is an oblique tale of Rael’s experiences in a “parallel universe”, which might be akin to “purgatory” or a waiting room between this life and the next. In order to escape from or transcend this realm, Rael survives a series of vignettes echoing the human experiences of imprisonment, helplessness, sexuality, disease, betrayal and despair. However one interprets the story and lyrics in the first two acts, the last is slightly more clear – Rael sacrifices his own interests to save his brother John, who then morphs into and merges with Rael himself. The union then frees Rael to become part of “it” which is here, now, and everywhere, ending the story on a spiritual plane. Did Rael die and finally make his way out of “hell?” Did he become a supreme being himself? Or, was the tale just Rael’s dream depicting the battle of good vs. evil raging in his own soul. This became the grist for many debates among fans of early Genesis, most of whom consider it to be the band’s masterwork, despite it’s acknowledged flaws.

The production was staged in as grand a way as possible at the time, yet within the confines of a rock quintet presenting the material on stage. A slide show unfolds across three screens, allowing for over a thousand images to tumble by – some with artists renderings but most via photographs, presented as a running storyboard for the play. Gabriel was the only member of the band to “act out” the story, spending much of his time dressed as Rael, and hitting a high water mark after climbing into a bulbous rubber suit to depict the diseased “Slipperman” character. The show was presented 102 times, and besides a few short 8mm clips, it was never filmed. The specter of Gabriel being considered to be “the band” itself and probably the realization that this Lamb was as far as their brand of rock theater could go, led to Gabriel’s subsequent departure.

Other progressive and classic rock bands at the time penned concept albums, but this Broadway melody was unlike any other – surreal, strange, and reaching high for meaning and impact. It’s not easy listening -later work written after Phil Collins took over vocal duties in addition to his role as drummer were much more accessible, and include top ten hits approaching “easy listening.” Any remnants of Gabriel or Collins acting out characters were gone by the 1980’s. Over the last dozen or so years, several tribute bands have attempted to recreate the experience of seeing Genesis live with Peter Gabriel. One such tribute band, “The Musical Box” officially obtained the 24 track master tapes from the Lamb recordings, along with the slides from the actual show. They worked for almost a year to rebuild the staging elements, costumes, and even instruments from the time, many of which were no longer available. Their production of TLLDOB has been staged before, and is now back, with dates planned around the world. If you have any affinity for the challenging music of early Genesis, and want to take a journey back in time to experience this bit of rock theater, it’s highly recommended. You will get a bit of the real, and the Rael.