The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Four): Paul Brett

Considering his reputation as one of the greatest living twelve-string guitar players, Paul Brett is probably not among the more obscure names I have included in this series thus far. Having performed with the likes of Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, and the Strawbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brett was by no means a stranger to the prog scene by the time he ventured forth on his own. He released several solo albums in the 1970s, Interlife being perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch. Although Brett’s acoustic and electric guitars are the stars of the show, the album also features the talents of ex-Strawbs drummer Rod Coombes and the ubiquitous Mel Collins on saxophone, who helps give the album a jazzier feel. Here are a few highlights from this hidden gem:

The opening number “Interlife” is both the longest and strongest track on the album. Although it begins as a soft folk tune with the rich sound of layered acoustic guitars, it transitions quickly and seamlessly to a unique blend of folk and jazz rock. Each member of Brett’s supporting cast is able to show off their chops, be it Coombes on drums, Collins on Sax, Derek Austin on synthesizer, or Delisle Harper on bass. Fans of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog masterpiece Tubular Bells – which also features several acoustic and electric guitars – will appreciate this track.

The remaining tracks, beginning with “Celebration,” are much shorter and equally enjoyable. Brett again opens with the gentle sound of acoustic guitar on “Celebration” before he’s joined by his mates. The electric guitar soars on this piece before the track finishes in a sort of jig.

“Segregation” also begins gently, but transitions suddenly to a jazzy guitar riff and a thumping bass line courtesy of Harper, who does a superb job on this piece. “Isolation,” another acoustically-driven work, follows “Segregation” before we arrive…

“Into Life,” the heaviest piece on the album. Unlike the other tracks, the closer opens with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Perhaps this is meant to represent the (somewhat) chaotic transition into life itself, but it does feel somewhat out of place on what is otherwise a rather subdued album.

Fans of the Strawbs, Mike Oldfield, and Roy Harper will not want to miss Interlife. For those less inclined toward the prog folk scene, I would still recommend this as an excellent album for a rainy or slow-paced day. Brett’s work on both acoustic and electric guitar (but especially the former) is simply superb and would be appreciated by any prog enthusiast.

Stay tuned for number twenty-five!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Fourteen): Circus

This Circus closed after a brief tour in 1969 – our loss, in my humble opinion. Formed by Mel Collins (of King Crimson fame) in the late ’60s, Circus produced only one eponymous album in their brief existence, but it’s a gem. Collins takes centerstage here on sax and flute, but fellow bandmates Ian Jelfs (vocals and guitar), Kirk Riddle (bass), and Chris Burrows (drums) more than hold their own.

The majority of the songs (five out of eight, to be exact) are covers – but dull and uninspired they are not. And the three original songs (all penned by Collins) would be worthy additions to an early Soft Machine or Giles, Giles, and Fripp album. Here are (more than) a few highlights:

Circus opens up with a cover of the Beatles’ classic “Norwegian Wood,” and it is one of the better interpretations of any Beatles song I have ever heard. Rather than relying on melodic vocals (although Jelfs does sound somewhat Beatle-esque in his singing), the band members allow their instruments to do most of the work for them. Collins is absolutely superb on the sax, and the middle of this lengthy cover includes some fun interplay between the drums and guitar.

“Pleasures of a Lifetime” – Collins’s first contribution to the album – opens with a gentle acoustic melody, but picks up the pace about halfway through thanks to Burrows’s deft handling of the sticks.

The cover of Henry Rollins’s “St. Thomas” is a great upbeat tune, featuring top notch work from Jelfs on guitar and Collins on flute.

“Goodnight John Morgan” is another original tune and, alas, an all too brief one. I suggest listening to this one as you sit at a smoky bar late at night with a scotch in your hand while the rain pelts the roof above you. Collins’s sax will put you into that kind of mood.

“II B. S.” (a cover of a Charlie Mingus classic) opens with a funky bass riff that doesn’t let up. Percussion anchors this tune, but Collins once again shines through on the saxophone.

The last two songs – a cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ “Monday Monday” and a cover of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises” – feature masterful work on the flute courtesy of Collins.

Sadly, Circus couldn’t deliver the same quality of material for a second album, and they split up, Collins going on to replace Ian McDonald in King Crimson. But at least we can enjoy this hidden gem, which sounds as fresh and as lively as it did when it was released over fifty years ago. For those who enjoy jazz fusion mixed with a healthy dose of psychedelic rock, you will not want to miss this under-appreciated effort.

Stay tuned for number fifteen!

A Fish Out of Water That Swims On

chris-squire-fish-out-of-water

I have been meaning to write in praise of Chris Squire’s solo album Fish Out of Water for some time now. In fact, I wanted to publish a review after his sudden passing last June, but I feared I would not do his album justice (or something to that effect). I suppose now would be as good a time as any to call attention to this somewhat obscure gem of an album. As I write this, I am listening to “Silently Falling”, a hauntingly beautiful, eleven minute masterpiece featuring dramatic and complex keyboards, a driving bass guitar, and the melodic vocals of Mr. Squire, whose voice lies somewhere between Jon Anderson’s and Peter Gabriel’s. The album also features the talents of Yes alums Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz, King Crimson‘s Mel Collins, and a small orchestra conducted by Squire’s friend Andrew Jackman.

If you are not already familiar with this album, I suggest you give it a listen. Here are brief notes on each song:

“Hold Out Your Hand” – The album opener is driven by Moraz’s organ and Squire’s melodic Rickenbacker bass. It’s a relatively fast-paced tune, but it transitions smoothly to the softer…

“You by My Side” –  A well-orchestrated piece that features a beautiful flute solo. The next song,

“Silently Falling” – I have already discussed, but I’ll mention the name again in case you forgot it! Squire then switches gears to the jazzier…

“Lucky Seven” – A tune which features the talented Mel Collins on alto sax. Squire shifts gears one more time before the grand finale…

“Safe (Canon Song)” – A majestic fifteen minute piece that deserves a spot among some of prog’s better epics.

Fish Out of Water is without question the finest solo album by a Yes member, and I would go so far to say it is one of the best prog albums of the early 1970s. Unlike the solo albums of other Yes members (Anderson and Howe, in particular), Fish Out of Water has a distinctive sound, and it has aged well. If you do not yet believe me, watch the promo video below: