As their name suggests Esoteric Recordings are masters of remastering and reissuing long lost classic albums that are ripe for reappraisal, as well as having their own imprint Esoteric Antenna that is home to some of the most exciting new prog bands around. Today I am focusing on some treasures from their latest reissues campaign, including one that many of you Marillion fans out there might want to check out.
David McWilliams Lord Offaly
Irish singer/songwriter David McWilliams is a name that lingers at the back of the mind, famous for the 1967 single The Days of Pearly Spencer (later covered with much greater success by Marc Almond in 1992) there was always more to McWilliams work than posterity has accorded him.
This reissue of 1972’s Lord Offaly originally released on the Dawn label is a fantastic example of the folk rock singer songwriter genre that was prevalent in that period, with artists like John Martyn, Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny amongst others rooted in the folk scene branching out and spreading their wings.
This album is firmly rooted in the Celtic tradition, with McWilliams as the storyteller, the weaver of words and music, a haunting beauty to songs like I would be Confessed with its moving lyrics and it’s wonderfully organic accompaniment, where the piano and the guitar play countermelodies that blend and create a great sound.
Folk music, of course from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan right through to the Levellers, Billy Bragg et al has always been the music of the people, and the music of protest and telling the true stories of history that sometimes get glossed over, and being a Belfast boy McWilliams is steeped in Irish history, no mose so than on the title track, the telling of the story of the Earl of Kildare Thomas Fitzgerald who led a rebellion in the 16th century and was executed. Performed like all the best master story tellers, this builds and works so well in its almost epic length. Whilst Blinds Mens Stepping Stones is an angry lament for the damage done to Ireland by Cromwell and his men.
A lot of the songs on here are character studies, and taking on those roles allows McWilliams to live the stories, and his superb approach brings these tales to life.
If you want to try something different that is based on storytelling, and a versatile full musical sound, then this is a fantastic place to start. This album should be lauded with other greats of the genre like The Albion bands Rise up Like the Sun, Fairport Conventions Full House, John Martyns Solid Air. This reissue should ensure it receives that status.
Gandalf: To Another Horizon
Austrian musician Gandalf, has two of his 1980’s albums remastered and reissued through Esoteric recently. For those, like myself unfamiliar with his work, it provides an interesting introduction to his ideas and musical philosophy, operating very much in the Mike Oldfield/Tangerine Dream field of instrumental music, his albums are very much in the new age genre, with hints from classical music, folk, prog and everywhere else incorporated to create sonic soundscapes and electronic symphonies.
The first album here 1983’s To Another Horizon, is a concept of an Earth slowly killing itself and the environment with imminent disaster on the way, (sound familiar folks, written over 30 years ago, the themes and imagery is sadly all too familiar) rescued by Aliens in crystal ships.
The concept itself is a very 80’s hippy ideal, where we are rescued by enlightened beings who show us the way, and the music itself is a blend of early 70’s Tangerine Dream/Vangelis and Oldfieldesque instrumental passages, using a broad sonic palette Gandalf weaves in some wonderful sitar work on To Another Horizon: A Change of conciousness, whilst the opening duo March of No reason and Natural forces getting out of control build up slowly like a classical symphony. Gandalfs musical skill shows up in force on Cosmic Balance with some wonderful piano work and the fact that this album was devised and created to his unique vision is testament to his skill, however on the downside some of the musical pieces are a touch insipid and lean too much towards the candles and incense side of new age music, which unfortunately renders them a bit unforgettable. As an album it is full of highs and lows, when it is good it is very good indeed, unfortunately there’s not quite the consistency there throughout.
It was followed up quite quickly by Magic Theatre inspired by Hermann Hesses 1927 book Steppenwolf, where the protagonist is taken through the corridors of his own subconscious until he is freed from his suffering.
Not a book for the light hearted then, and as with the previous album Gandalf shows no lack of ambition in his subject matter, and it’s his confidence in his ability to craft the music round the story that brings the works to life.
Working with more of an ensemble than on the previous album, the sound is more like that of a full band, and with sympathetic collaborators on hand like Egon Groeger on drums, Robert Julian Horky on flute and Peter Aschenbrenner on saxophone and piano, there is a lot more musical meat on the bones, giving this album the intensity and power that’s its predecessor lacked in certain places.
With the work of Peter Aschenbrenner on grand piano to the fore on 2nd Door/castles of Sand, it brings in elements of jazz improvisation, whilst Gandalfs guitar work on Entrance/The Corridor of Seven doors is absolutely sublime. Meanwhile the powerful 3rd Door/Loss of identity in the labyrinth of delusions is a great percussion driven piece of electro rock, whilst the closing duo of 7th Door/The Fountain of Real Joy and Exit pull the album to a close with some fantastic classical guitar work reminiscent of Sky.
Working with a band like set up seems to have fired up Gandalf, and the sound here is harder, meatier and more focused on the previous record, working with like minded collaborators really makes this record stand out from To Another Horizon, and is my favourite of the two records.
How We Live: Dry Land
For those Marillion fans out there, the song Dry Land is something that you’re familiar with, being one of the songs that Steve Hogarth brought to the band when he replaced Fish.
This reissue is the sole release from the band How We Live, which is Steve Hogarth and Colin Woore, and is what they did next after previous band the Europeans has collapsed.
Down to a duo and with a crack team of session musicians, this in a parallel universe could have been the making of the duo, instead despite some high profile European tours lack of record company investment (that old story) meant that whilst this album with its distinctive cover and collection of superbly crafted songs disappeared without a trace on its release back in 1986. Interest was only piqued when Marillion covered Dry Land on 1991’s Holidays in Eden.
I would hazard a guess that this album is what drew Marillions attention to Steve Hogarth, with his songwriting on here foreshadowing the first phase of his career with the band, and the direction the post Fish line up would take, particularly on the brilliant Games in Germany telling the story of Hogarths army friend.
The original version of Dry Land has a slightly different sound to the Marillion version stands out, Hogarths distinctive vocals and delivery haven’t changed between the versions, however this, the original is more lushly orchestrated with strings and a contemporary mid 80’s production.
In fact the whole album is definitely a product of it’s era, with the work of bands like XTC, Talk Talk and Tears for Fears being its closest contemporaries.
Meanwhile tracks like Working Town reflect Hogarths experience growing up in Doncaster, an autobiographical theme he would later elaborate on in the title track to This Strange Engine.
His lyrics also reflect other experiences that he had in tracks like In the City reflecting on love, and the opening song the striking Working Girl, with Hogarths voice to the fore about the oldest profession, treated sympathetically and with typical Hogarthian observations.
In fact throughout the album it’s Hogarths lyrics that draw you in to the songs, and when you look at this and the body of work he’s amassed with Marillion you realise what a damn fine lyricist and songwriter he is.
Working with the stunning guitar of Colin Woore, who has to be one of the lost guitar greats the two are adept at putting stunning musical accompaniement to the vocals, and the sterling production really allows the record to shine.
Yes the production could only be from the mid 80’s but that adds to the charm of the record, and it isn’t over produced, it allows the songs to breath and grow, and is as much about the space between the music as the music itself, and again its this minimalism that Hogarth brought to the Marillion table, particularly when you compare the sound of this album to his solo piece Ice Cream genius, you can tell they are cut from the same cloth.
With two bonus 12 inch mixes of English Summer, and All the Time in the World rounding out the complete recorded history of How We Live, you get a sense of beginning rather than ending,and it’s a shame listening to this that the band didn’t get to continue their musical journey.
Instead Steve Hogarth took his musical vision to Marillion and helped them develop into the band they are today, and echoes of How We Live can be heard throughout his work with them.
If you are a Marillion fan then you really need this album in your life, it is not just a musical curiosity or a mere footnote in their history, it is a living breathing musical signpost indicating the road they would go down with Steve Hogarth at the mic.
An indispensable listen for anyone who likes their mid 80’s pop rock with lots more going on.
All albums are available from http://www.esotericrecordings.com