St. Elmo's Fire
Rebecca St. James
Bridget St. John
Stevie Salas Colorcode
Ron Salisbury & J.C. Power Outlet
Cato Salsa Experience
The Fifth Door (1994, 51.20) ***½/TT
Revolution is at Hand
The Fifth Door
The End of the Day
Sailor Free were an early-'90s hard rock/psych outfit from Italy, who would almost certainly have ended up on the excellent Black Widow label had they hung around any longer. I haven't heard their self-titled debut, but what appears to be their last album, The Fifth Door, is a pretty good effort within its chosen genre, combining riffing guitar with a spacey feel in places, sounding remarkably like an update of that whole Uriah Heep/Stray thing circa '71. Difficult to pick out highlights on one listen, but the atypical Intro II stands out, as does Wild, for totally different reasons. The violin solo from guest Barbara Barbatelli that closes Safe Havens is a nice touch, as is the slightly Van der Graaf-y sax on Fairy Queen both of which add to the album's psych credentials.
Vocalist/keys man David Petrosino plays a Vox rather than a Hammond, dragging the overall sound back into the late '60s in places, though that's not actually a problem. His Mellotron work is to the fore on relaxed opener Intro II, with a melodic flute part, with some background strings on Fairy Queen and more upfront strings and flutes on Tears. The unlisted final track seems to be part of Intro II reversed, with the 'Tron flute part sounding remarkably similar backwards. Now, I have a theory: these three/four tracks are credited as being recorded in a different studio to the rest of the album. Studio 'Tron?
The band would seem to be long gone, but if that early hard rock sound's your thing (and I have to admit that sometimes it's mine), at least some of The Fifth Door is worth a spin. I doubt whether there's any 'Tron on their debut, especially if it's only here for the reason guessed at above, but I'll report back should I ever hear a copy.
Live at the Cleveland Agora [a.k.a. Splitting Ions in the Ether] (1980/1998, 26.30/67.21) ****/TTT
|Searching for Food
Gone to Ground in the Khyber Pass
Parasites and Bureaucrats
The Reluctant Bride
Fantasy Come Reality
The Nuremberg Waltz
[Italicised tracks added to CD]
Artifacts of Passion (2001, 63.25) ****/TTTThe Dead Sea Scrolls
Contortions of the Balrog
The Nemo Syndrome
Erin and the Green Man
The Abduction of the Adolescents
I've always found it strange that although prog was huge in the States in the '70s, such a vast country produced hardly any major acts in the field. St. Elmo's Fire, from Ohio, were one of many hopefuls who managed to get one album out before folding due to public indifference. Unlike many of their contemporaries, however, the band reformed in the late '90s, reissuing their sole album with bonus tracks and recording both previously-unrecorded and new material, while staying true to their original intentions.
Live at the Cleveland Agora was apparently originally meant to be a 10" mini-album, but was mispressed as a 12", and is now impossibly rare in its original form. Reissued as Splitting Ions in the Ether (from an Eno lyric, fact fans), it now begins with a drifting polysynth piece, Searching For Food, before letting rip with 'Tron and Moog Taurus on Gone To Ground In The Khyber Pass. The music is largely instrumental, more Crimson than Yes (they covered Crimson in their early days), with a fusion edge in places; oddly, I'm occasionally reminded of Canadian trio FM, maybe because of the turn-of-the '80s synths the band utilised. Laid-back this isn't, and is all the better for it if you ask me (or even if you don't). Steve J. Stavnicky's Mellotron use is fairly sparse but effective; mostly strings, although there's an unidentified brass (?) sound on the last two tracks, with heavy key-click to the fore, along with more of those ubiquitous strings on The Nuremberg Waltz. You're never going to find an original copy, but this timely reissue is well worth the effort.
In the late '90s, four fifths of the original band reformed, and having sidestepped the hideous '80s, sensibly realised that a large percentage of the modern prog audience values 'authenticity' over misguided attempts to sound 'contemporary', which isn't to disparage genuine progression, of course. In other words, the Mellotron and Taurus pedals are right at the front of the mix, having obviously been kept safe and sound in the intervening decades. Like so many reformed bands, St. Elmo's had a considerable stock of unrecorded music from first time round (two of the pieces are rewrites of material from Splitting Ions), making their first album a little easier to write, with only three completely new tracks included on the hour-long Artifacts of Passion. It's a good album, recognisably by the same band that produced Splitting Ions, although with a more mellow, quite folky edge in places, particularly on the fiddle piece Esmerelda. The rustic fiddle parts inescapably remind one of Kansas, though there's little real similarity; again, Crimson are an influence in places, but generally, St. Elmo's sound more like themselves than anyone else. The bulk of the album's Mellotron work (this time by bassist Paul M. Kollar) is on the two opening tracks and Lake Effect, with particularly heavy use on The Dead Sea Scrolls, with a fantastic string part running right through the piece, although there's more of those 'what is that sound?' moments in The Abduction Of The Adolescents.
All in all, two very good albums, if US prog with a Crimso influence is yer thang, but be aware that there's quite a bit of country blues-style guitar on Artifacts of Passion. A compilation of demos, Antiquities (***½), appeared in 2004, but is surprisingly 'Tron-free, although the Taurus is used as heavily as ever. Anyway, nice Mellotron work all round on the first two. Buy.
See: Brain Forest
Interlude (2001, 47.51) **½/T
Queen of Polythene
Shoot Out the Lights
|Le Ballade de Saint Etienne
Boy is Crying (Single Mix)
Lose That Girl (Trouser Enthusiast Mix)
Finisterre (2002, 47.43) **½/TT
Soft Like Me
Stop and Think it Over
The Way We Live Now
The More You Know
Saint Etienne are the British trio of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, active since the turn of the '90s. Stylistically, they combined '60s pop with the then-current dance scene, later moving across to other forms of electronica. Fêted by the music press at the time, they're the kind of pop group it's OK for intellectual, arty types to like, it seems (along with the tedious Stereolab), with their samples from '60s British realist cinema and spoken-word interludes.
2001's Interlude not only isn't a 'proper' album; it wasn't even released outside North America, for reasons unknown. It's actually a collection of B-sides from the previous year's Sound of Water, plus four otherwise-unavailable tracks and a couple of remixes on the CD version. It displays a variety of styles, some probably put aside for non-album tracks, as they don't easily fit into the band's house style (pun intended), not least the stark electronica of Bar Conscience. One 'Tron track, from an unknown player (Saint Etienne don't do anything as gauche as crediting musicians), from the small batch of newly-recorded material, with strings on Le Ballade De Saint Etienne. Now, I'm not sure about this, but Duncan Goddard from Radio Massacre International hired his M400 out to the band at least once, so there's a good chance that's what we're hearing here.
The following year's Finisterre (their sixth album 'proper') might be arty, but it's almost as lightweight as it's possible to be, drifting past in a cloud of female vocals, 'lite' beats and analogue (or pseudo-analogue) synths. There's barely any point in my trying to critique the music; suffice to say, if you like what they do, chances are you'll like this. The unknown Mellotron player strikes again, with strings on Amateur, flutes on Soft Like Me and more strings on the closing title track; it might be elsewhere, too, but it's hard to tell. Incidentally, the cover picture is an iconic shot of Ronan Point, a jerry-built British tower block that partially collapsed two months after it was finished, in 1968, killing several (though mercifully few) of its residents.
So; not a particularly edifying listen for anyone who likes at least a little rock in their diet; this is pure pop in a '60s-cum-'90s vein and more the latter than the former. There isn't enough Mellotron on either of these albums to be worth bothering with unless you're already a fan of the band, in which case you'll need Interlude, to mop up various hard-to-find tracks.
God (1996, 48.26) **½/0
You're the Voice
You Then Me
Speak to Me
Me Without You
That's What Matters
Carry Me High
|A Cold Heart Turns
Go and Sin No More
Rebecca "St. James" Smallbone is an Australian Christian artist who moved to the States with her family in her late teens. After an initial album at the age of 14 (!), Refresh My Heart, under the name Rebecca Jean, she released an eponymous record in '94, then God in '96, still not quite 19. Surprisingly, it's nowhere near as offensive as you might expect from a CCM release; musically, it's fairly rocky, with a good helping of Americana thrown into the mix, so if you don't listen to the (horrendously Godlike gloopy) lyrics, it just sounds like a fifth-rate Bonnie Raitt or something. I wouldn't go as far as recommending any tracks or anything, but I've heard an awful lot worse on the CCM front. Like Bebo Norman. He's fucking awful.
Now, Carl Marsh is credited with accordion and Mellotron, but maybe he pissed someone off (hey, even Christians can have off days, right?) during the recording, 'cos none of his contributions seem to be audible. The tracks I've seen mentioned as having some 'Tron input (notably Speak To Me and the title track) only have real strings, so Christ knows where it might be. Literally in this case. Anyway, relatively harmless CCM, which comes as a relief, I can tell you. I was gritting my teeth before playing this, but if it hadn't have been for the final 'hidden' track, Psalm 139 (gak), I might almost have given this three stars. But only almost.
Sort-of official site
|7" (1970) ***/T½
If You've Got Money
Much fêted by the sainted John Peel, Bridget "St. John" Hobbs' popularity peaked around 1974, after which she virtually disappeared for twenty years. Her handful of early '70s albums are almost trade secrets these days, although much of her work has crept out on CD over the last couple of decades. I haven't actually heard 1970's Kevin Ayers collaborative 7", If You've Got Money (apparently released as 'St. John', at least in the UK), but its flip, Yep, is a lovely little singer-songwriter effort, with some interesting key-changes thrown in for good measure.
An unknown musician (Ayers, perhaps?) adds Mellotron flutes to Yep, in very pleasing fashion. This track's general unavailability has triggered some kind soul into uploading it to Soundcloud, where it can be enjoyed until/if some spoilsport removes it.
Archived official site
See: Kevin Ayers
La Casa del Lago (1974, 39.15) ***½/TTristana
Nella Vita, un Pianto
Viaggio Nel Tempo
La Casa del Lago
La Terra della Verita'
Saint Just were yet another of those Italian one- or two-shot bands that emerged in the early '70s, often splintering into other outfits, while making music frequently every bit as good as that emanating from bigger artists. La Casa del Lago was their second and final release, following their folkier self-titled debut. It still has many folk elements about it, with much use made of acoustic guitar, while Jane Sorrenti's clear voice reminds you of British folk-rock stalwarts such as Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span. While perfectly good, it's nowhere near the quality of the likes of Celeste, although it's a perfectly good album. The best track may well be the longest, Nella Vita, Un Pianto, while others, such as the title track, tend to drag a little, although the overall quality is pretty high.
The uncredited Mellotron on Nella Vita, Un Pianto was presumably played by pianist Andrea Faccenda, with a pleasant repeating string line over the last minute or so of the song, although it's not exactly groundbreaking, to be honest. There is a little confusion over the 'Tron use, due to the (also uncredited) violin and cello parts, but I'm pretty certain it's the real deal (oh, the irony) on this track.
So; do you? La Casa del Lago is a perfectly pleasant album, but little of it really stands out from the pack, even though it's more folk-tinged than your standard Italian fare. A whole 'T' on the 'Tron front is probably slightly overstating the case, too, so I shall sit happily on the fence in this instance.
Claustromania (1991, 47.10) ****/TTT½
Venus and Beyond
Before Your Eyes
A New Era
Sweden's St. Mikael (a.k.a. Mikael Sundström) apparently spent the '80s trying to find like-minded musicians, eventually resorting to recording his material on his own, in classic 'one-man band' style. After 1990's Visions of a Trespasser and the following year's cassette-only The Unknown, Claustromania appeared later in 1991, and sounds, quite literally, as if it could've dropped out of 1968. Its contents cover a good chunk of the psychedelic spectrum, mixing slightly Moodies-esque material (Venus And Beyond, Androgyno's Song) with shorter instrumental pieces (Spirits 1 and 2) and other general weirdness in a generally pleasing manner.
Mikael sticks some Mellotron on the album - a real one, as samples weren't really on most players' radar that early. Thankfully. The title track has a brief flute part near the end, while Spirit 1 is basically a 'Tron flute solo, although it sounds like it's been stuck through some kind of distortion, barely sounding like a Mellotron in its upper registers. Strings on Venus And Beyond and Time Caravan, with ghostly-sounding flutes on Polaris and more strings on the final two tracks, particularly on A New Era, making for a reasonably hefty 'Tron album.
This doesn't appear to be on CD, and isn't going to be easy to find, at least as a physical artefact, but is worth hunting down for psych fans and Mellotron nuts alike; no fighting over copies, now... St. Mikael has released several albums since Claustromania, but I don't believe he used a Mellotron again. I shall report back should I be proven wrong.
Drink Me (1995, 47.09) ***/T½
|Motorbike to Heaven
Drink the Elixir
Machine of Menace
|Warmth of the Heart
No 1.'s Cooking
A Man With a Box
Salad appeared towards the end of the largely deservedly-maligned Britpop movement, releasing their debut, Drink Me, in '95. It's fairly generic female-fronted stuff, to be honest, although nowhere near Oasis and their ilk for that all-out irritation factor.
Drummer Rob 'no relation' Wakeman doubled on keys, including Mellotron, with quite upfront choirs at the end of Motorbike To Heaven and flutes and more choirs on Granite Statue, although that would appear to be it. If you're into the style, you'll probably like this, but the converse is also true, while the Mellotron's fairly minimal.
The Electric Pow Wow (1993, 59.08) ***½/T½
Too Many Mountains
I Was Made to Love Her
I Dont Want to Be With Nobody But You
I Dont Want to Waste Your Time
Good to Your Earhole
Trail of Tears
|Too Rolling Stoned
You Cant Judge a Book
Teenage Love Affair
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family
Back From the Living (1995, 50.42) ***/T
|Tell Your Story Walkin'
I Once Was There
Crack Killed Applejack
Born to Mack
The Lying Truth
|God I'm Going Down
Much Ado About Buttin'
Shake This Town
Start Again (live)
The Sometimes Almost Never Was (1998, 40.12) ***/TTT
My Somebody's Coming
Caught in a Moment
Bring it on
A Dedication to You
|You and I
The Turquoise Warrior Spirits
Viva la Noise [as Stevie Salas] (1998, 56.22) ***/TT½
|Cover Me in Noise
Break it Out
Make Me Blank
I'm Missing You
Do Your Own Thang
|Moving Through Sound
May God Bless You
Turquoise Warrior Spirits
Alright is (Part I and Part II)
Believing is Seeing
Stevie Salas burst onto the scene in the late '80s as the latest hotshot guitarist, mixing a heavy dose of funk in with his metal, in then-fashionable style, although you always got the impression that he meant it a little more than many of his contemporaries. An artist's second album is probably a little early to tackle a covers project, but 1993's The Electric Pow Wow is largely that. Apparently, it started off as a full covers album, then Salas began writing material in a similar vein to the tracks he was covering, ending up combining the two lots of material. Generally speaking, it all works pretty well, although some of it's a bit too close to funk/soul for this reviewer's taste, Salas' guitar work saving most of the dodgier tracks. Vow Wow's Rei Atsumi plays Mellotron, with a lovely string part on I Was Made To Love Her, plus flutes at the end, under Salas' feedback, with more of the same on his version of David Bowie's Dodo, plus overly-sustaining choirs at the end. Samples? Studio trickery? No idea.
1995's Back From the Living was his third solo effort, some years after all the fuss over his eponymous debut had died down, and it's... OK. Not bad, not stunning, just OK. Reasonable material, but I'm afraid it's all forgotten as soon as it finishes playing. Atsumi on Mellotron again, with some rather weary sounding flutes and strings on Amelia from a machine that was probably way overdue a service (bad times for Mellotrons, those). It's nowhere near enough to make the committed 'Tronhead want to buy the record, crappy early computer graphic-ridden sleeve and all. Ordinary. '98's The Sometimes Almost Never Was is, well, it's another Salas album, better tracks including Overground and the inventive A Dedication to You. This time round, Patrick Warren adds his Chamberlin to a good few tracks, with strings (and male voices?) all over Overground, very upfront strings on My Somebody's Coming, more of the same on Caught In A Moment, a pseudo-orchestral string part at the end of A Dedication to You and flutes and strings on Morning Song, possibly the album's top Chamby track.
1998's Viva la Noise (credited to just Salas) seems to be an odds'n'ends-type release, containing various remixes, previously-unavailable tracks and the like; unsurprisingly, it's a bit of a mixed bag, closing instrumental Believing Is Seeing being about the best thing here. As a result of its varied gestation, I've no idea when any of it was actually recorded, although I suspect the tracks featuring Rei's Mellotron date from the sessions from the two above titles. Anyway, we get quite overt strings and background choirs on Fear, choirs on I'm Missing You, strings on God Bless You, strings and cello on Alter Native and heavy-duty strings on Believing Is Seeing.
So; The Electric Pow Wow's surprisingly good, Back From the Living and The Sometimes Almost Never Was are unsurprisingly average and Viva la Noise is yer typical 'mopping up' release, only the last two worth it for their tape-replay content.
Forgiven... (1974, 33.22) **½/TT
|Peace and Power
Oh My Jesus
I Choose to Follow You
Give Him Your Love
|Don't Let Jesus Pass You By
Open Your Spiritual Eyes
Jesus rock. Yup, you read that right. Jesus rock was big (in a Christian kind of way) in the '70s, before the current CCM scene rode roughshod over just about any other form of musical expression within the faith community. And it sounds like...? Unsurprisingly, generally speaking, a dull, neutered version of the kind of mainstream rock that did the business at the time, with horribly godly lyrics added and any real vestiges of 'rock' removed, probably in case anyone got too excited and started thinking about sex or something.
The determinedly obscure Ron Salisbury and his estimable J.C. Power Outlet (oh, barf) released Forgiven... in 1974 on some local Christian label and would you know, it's not quite as bad as I'd expected? That isn't actually a recommendation, but tracks like gently rocking opener Peace And Power, the almost-hard rock of Too Bad, the funky, Clavinet-driven My Friend and the brass rock of My Sign really aren't too bad, although slushy God-Squad ballads like Oh My Jesus and I Choose To Follow You let the side down badly, being exactly the kind of pious mush that you'd expect from such a project.
The unknown Mellotronist adds strings to all four of the album's ballads: Oh My Jesus, I Choose To Follow You, Goodbye and Open Your Spiritual Eyes, all in a 'we can't afford a string section' kind of way. Y'know, you really aren't going to find the vinyl of this too easily, but downloads are about, should you really wish to hear this. Predictably, the Mellotron's only heard on its worst tracks, neither for the first time nor the last.
A Good Tip for a Good Time (2001, 36.12/40.33) ***½/T
|Listen to Me Daddy'O
So, the Circus is Back in Town
I Can Give You Anything
High Heeled Leather Boots
|Time to Freak Out!
Albert Bones Electric Meal
Got Soul if You Want it
The Cato Salsa Experience are yet another in a long line of Scandinavian garage acts, all holding faithful to the sound of young America, circa 1965. And they all do it well. Startling, isn't it? Cato "Salsa" Thomassen and pals formed the band in the late '90s, their second album, A Good Tip for a Good Time, appearing in different 'territories' (as they say) in 2001/02. Despite a total lack of originality, it would be churlish of me to mark this down on that front, as they do what they do with mucho enthusiasm and vim. It's sort of pointless to try to pick out individual tracks, as they all sound pretty much the same, although Time To Freak Out! is particularly deranged; a one-trick pony, but it's a good trick.
Two of the band are credited with Mellotron: "Salsa" and drummer Jon "R. Lucar" Magne Riise (you may have gathered by now that the band are keen on pseudonyms, at least in the surname department). There isn't really that much to be heard, though, with nothing apparent apart from the flutes on I Can Give You Anything, making you wonder why they needed two people to play it. Anyway, rather average on the (real?) 'Tron front, but a perfectly good, raucous, garage punk album for those who just can't get enough of this stuff.
4 Cadavres Exquis (2002, 51.53) ***½/TTTCadavre No 2 (Samarkande)
Cadavre No 3 (Koninkrijk der Dode Zielen)
Cadavre No 5 (Surmenage et Désordres Mentaux)
Cadavre No 4 (L'Avènement)
Rude Awakening (2004, 69.25) ***/TÉpisodes
Douglas' Basement (2006, 59.14) ***½/TTCatharsis
Pray Hard But Pray With Care...
Cadavre Exquis No 8 (1<1)
Cadavre Exquis No 7 (L'Arrache-Cœur)
3 Synapses (2008, 52.02) ***½/TSynapse No.1
Samarkande are, generally speaking, the French-Canadian electronic duo of Sylvain Lamirande and Éric Fillion, although their second album is credited to Lamirande plus guest musicians, including Fillion. Their brand of EM seems to be the 'quiet but menacing' variety, with little rhythm but plenty of unsettling sounds and an ominous feel to the proceedings. They're actually an improvisational outfit, avoiding the usual EM clichés by refusing to use step sequencers and/or Froese-ish guitar lines, preferring to take inspiration from the ancient city for which they're named, once the most cosmopolitan in the world, by utilising influences from anywhere and everywhere.
Their debut, 4 Cadavres Exquis, sits firmly in the above category, with only the last track, Cadavre No 4 (L'Avènement), featuring any sort of rhythm, and then not exactly in a Berlin School kind of way. Fillion uses his M400 subtly, frequently fading a chord in and back out almost before you've noticed, or adding no more than an echoed flute line that far from overwhelms the piece. Cadavre No 2 (Samarkande) is typical, with a few string chords early on preceding a 'perpetual motion'-style descending choir line that rolls round and round before eventually fading from view.
Lamirande's near-solo effort, Rude Awakening, is well-titled; when people talk about 'industrial' music, they usually mean the posturings of the likes of Marilyn Manson (whatever happened to?) or Nine Inch Nails. This is real industrial music. It sounds like heavy machinery running amuck, full of the clanks, groans and whistles of an aging and ill-maintained factory grinding to a halt. Whether or not it's even music has to be a matter of opinion; there's next to nothing on the album resembling a tune, or even anything tuned, with the possible exception of Karoline Leblanc's harpsichord and Fillion's Mellotron on the near-20 minute Présences. Fillion adds the odd flute note here and there, and some dissonant choirs, well in keeping with the piece (and the album), but don't get your hopes up for any sort of 'Tron-fest here.
Back to business as usual for 2006's Douglas' Basement, another full Lamirande/Fillion collaboration, although a rather more rhythmic one this time. Not as in Tangerine Dream rhythm, mind, more a less discordant version of Rude Awakening's industrial clattering. Actually, thinking of this as a cross between the duo's two previous albums is probably a fairly good approach; it's certainly more listener-friendly than its predecessor, but more upfront than their debut. Fillion gets a bit of Mellotron in everywhere except the uncharacteristically short title track, with a flute harmony suddenly appearing from nowhere on Catharsis, with a similar string part cropping up a minute or two later, and brief string and/or flute parts on the last three tracks, not least the flutes at the end of Cadavre Exquis No 7.
After the by-now requisite two-year gap, mid-2008 brings 3 Synapses, consisting of, er, Synapses 1-3. No change on the style front, with all three parts falling into the 'challenging' category, although I'm sure I heard a brief step-sequencer line in No.1. Careful now, chaps... Lamirande's mad sax overdubs at the end of No.2 are a minor deviation, but fit in with the album's overall vibe, while the rest of the sonic maelstrom is exactly what we've come to expect from the duo. Little Mellotron, as usual, with a repeated background choir part in No.1, even fainter choirs (and possibly strings) in No.2, and nothing apparent in the last track.
Samarkande are for the EM fan who feels he (they're invariably 'he') will go insane if he hears another bad Tangs rip-off; they actually have something new to say in the genre, largely by approaching it from a new angle, and refusing to follow well-worn paths to electronic righteousness. The newcomer to their work might be best off starting with 4 Cadavres Exquis, moving on to Douglas' Basement and 3 Synapses, then approaching Rude Awakening if he's feeling brave. There isn't that much Mellotron on any of them, but 4 Cadavres should probably be your first port of call for that, too.