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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gravy Train - Gravy Train (1970 uk, fantastic progressive rock, 2005 remaster)

A minor classic hopelessly lost among all the innumerable "biggies" of the year 1970, it's also absolutely different from everything Gravy Train would do later, and too bad about it: no matter how much the group's limited following gushes over (A Ballad Of) A Peaceful Man or Staircase To The Day, I can easily see how Gravy Train couldn't make it to fame's top based on those albums. Their debut shows Gravy Train as a brave and daring underground band, heavily influenced by and derivative of other prog/hard acts of the time, yet actually trying to push the boundaries forward. Unfortunately, since the album bombed, the guys preferred to dump all the experimentation of these songs in favour of a smoother, more commercial sound later on, which totally destroyed their idiosyncrasy and forever nailed them as second-rate good-for-nothings.

So anyway, Gravy Train is, in many respects, a marvelous album, and the one not to be afraid to blow your cash on if you can trace it anywhere. It does take some getting used to, of course, because at first, my reaction was "what the...?", and it doesn't happen all that often, I tell ya. Regular rule number one says that if you don't get the main point of the record on first listen, you don't get it ever. And, well, that kinda bothered me, but then I realized that yes, Gravy Train actually completely lacks a main point, and maybe so much for the better. This helps the guys avoid the pretentiousness and overblown character of later releases. What this album is is a bunch of stoned British guys with a good sense of melody and rhythm trying to have some fun with their influences. That's all. But isn't that enough when you actually have talent? The world won't be saved by this band anyway.

So, what are the influences? If I may be allowed to generalize (and who needs a review with no generalizations?), the main 'style' of this record can be reviewed as a mixture of Barrett's Pink Floyd and Canterbury bands like the Soft Machine. It's almost creepily evident even from the details: Norman Barrett is the name of the band leader, and the band themselves look eerily like the Soft Machine on the inlay photo. There's plenty of weirdass avantgarde jamming on the record, and a lot of bizarre and pseudo-psychedelic attitude as well, and one of the tracks is actually bluntly named 'Dedication To Syd', no less.

On the OTHER hand, while there are few thoroughly original ideas on the record, Gravy Train get by sticking to the immortal principle - "hey guys, let's take this thing from this band and that thing from that band and see what happens". So the main instruments on the record are Norman Barrett's guitar and J. D. Hughes' flute. The former has an unbelievably cool - if always the same - tone throughout, the thoroughly distorted analogy of Clapton's 'woman tone', rather favoured by British guitarists of the epoch, such as Alvin Lee and some others, but 'dried out' even more, so that without actually being as brutally heavy as Tony Iommi's tone, it produces almost the same effect. That said, on a few tracks, like 'Think Of Life', Norman does get almost brutally heavy, so Black Sabbath probably were an influence. As for the flute, well you know the flute can be used in two ways and two ways only - you either go the Moody Blues route and make it all gentle and smooth and loving or you go the Jethro Tull route and make it all sizzly and rough and rocking. Hughes goes the second way, so that some of the flute riffs actually are undistinguishable from prime Tull. Apart from that, he occasionally plays a nice sax part.

Now, what about the songs themselves? Much of this stuff rules. Barrett really has a knack for solid riffage; tunes like 'Think Of Life' will linger in your head for a long time - that flute/guitar interplay in the song's first part is unbeatable, truly as if Tony Iommi were meeting Ian Anderson (come to think of it, Tony Iommi did meet Ian Anderson, as any Tull expert will tell you, but at that time neither Tony nor Ian were playing in that way as of yet). The second, faster part of the song is pretty captivating as well, although the repetitiveness gets a bit stale.

On another lengthy track, 'Coast Road', the guys apply their playing techniques to a piece of generic blues improvisation, which is as marvelous as generic blues improvisations get; Barrett shines in all his might, with perfectly fluent, inflammatory guitar solos and a beautiful mastery of feedback techniques - he's cleaner and more restrained than Hendrix, but dammit if I don't enjoy his soloing on here just as much as Jimi's soloing on a random blues cover. The sax and flute work is also masterful and add further punch to the jam.

If there's anything to really get mad about on this record (and the following ones), it's the vocals. Barrett doesn't have a bad voice per se, but it's absolutely unfit for screaming your head off - it's raspy and whiny at the same time, and you have to be pretty vocally tolerant to enjoy that 'vocal feedback' pitch of his. I know I am pretty tolerant in that department, but even I had to stuff myself with tranquilizers and Alka Seltzer in order to adjust to the fella. And worse, he seems to revel in ugly vocal effects - the perfectly funny and well-written 'Dedication To Syd', for instance, is utterly spoiled by having the vocals double-tracked and one track played at high speed, so that you have Barrett's raspy vocal feedback in one channel and a stupid 'baby squeal' in the other one. All to that marvelous bassline that surely could have been used differently. And when they go 'I need you, so wonderfu-u-u-u-ul' on 'Enterprise', it nearly makes me throw up. At some points they simply get out of tune. And why the stupid whisper? Dammit.

So the saving grace of the record, I'd say, is that most of it is actually instrumental. Including the lengthy 'Earl Of Pocket Nook' composition, sixteen minutes of proggish jamming with only a little bit of vocals in the beginning. Of course, it's pretty overlong - and also displays the band's Cream influences, because the jazzy tempo changes and the way they explore the different themes almost miraculously reminds me of stuff like Cream's live version of 'Spoonful'. But some parts actually rule, and it doesn't really bother me as such.

Oh! The album was produced by Jonathan Peel, if the name of the guy tells you anything. This happens to be the band's main link to the "rockin' community" of the epoch - unlike other minor prog/rotts-rock bands of the time, Gravy Train were never really a revolving door act and stood pretty much isolated of the community. Which is of course weird considering all the influences of the album. Which I would really recommend you to track down if possible.
George Starostin

1. The New One - 5:15
2. Dedication To Sid - 7:17
3. Coast Road - 6:46
4. Enterprise - 6:20
5. Think Of Life - 5:10
6. Earl Of Pocket Nook - 16:11

Gravy Train

*Les Williams - Bass, Vocals
* Barry Davenport - Drums
* J.D. Hughes - Flute (Alto, Simultaneous Alto And Tenor), Vocals
* Norman Barrett - Vocals, Guitar

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