Review: Quatermass – Quatermass

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CD/DVD. Esoteric Recordings

Quatermass were one of the great lost bands of late Sixties / early Seventies British prog / heavy rock. While the assorted members of the three piece band would go on to some success in subsequent projects, (like Gillan, Roxy Music and the soundtracks to Wayne’s WorldReturn of the Living Dead Pt. 2 and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare!) this band managed just one album in 1970 (on the Harvest label, natch) before disappearing.

It’s an album that has long fascinated me, with it’s fantastic Hypnosis cover featuring pterodactyls and soaring tower blocks and the promise shown by the sole track I’d heard –Black Sheep of the Family, featured on Harvest sampler Picnic and apparently the final straw, when the band refused to cover it, that made Richie Blackmore leave Deep Purple. So this new edition is most welcome.

I decided to check out the 5.1 surround sound remix DVD version first, and it certainly rocked – great swirling sound that fills the room and was actually making my furniture shake. Impressively brutal stuff, and the band – or more accurately keyboardist Peter Robinson – should be congratulated on this spectacular new mix, which remains faithful to the original sound while adding a new dimension to it.

Purists need not worry though, as the original mix is featured on the CD, albeit with extra tracks. One of these is opener One Blind Mice, and this sets the scene quite nicely – jittering keyboard noodling matched with riffery that places the band somewhere between ELP and Deep Purple in terms of early Seventies rock sounds. The album itself continues with that mix of sounds, often split between numbers. There are atmospheric instrumental pieces like Entropy that are pure prog, while the likes of Black Sheep of the Family are Purple-flavoured heavy rock, hook-laden and commercial. Notably, like ELP, this is a band without a guitarist, so it’s the keyboards that take centre stage.

Post War Saturday Echo is the first epic number of the album, clocking in at almost ten minutes and mixing heavy blues with distorted vocals and organ grinding rock break outs, with a relentless pure prog intro and outro section that is full of keyboard bleeps and bloops. It has a Led Zeppelin like mix of light and shade, minimalism and metallic fury that is impressive. It’s freak out music of the highest order.

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Up on the Ground goes for an organ-driven funky groove mixed with typical prog time changes and vocalist John Gustafson sounding impressively (or worryingly, depending on your opinion) like Ian Gillan. You can certainly picture a room full of Afghan coats shaking to this one.

Make Up Your Mind is a surprisingly short, classic 1970 rocker, but it’s split in two with the instrumental What Was That, probably the proggiest number on the album and one of the few to feature guitar alongside soaring organ and schizoid bass and drum thundering. Midway through, the track settles into an atmospheric, dark groove that wouldn’t be out of place on a horror soundtrack (it’s no surprise that so many prog artists ended up scoring horror movies, given the heightened drama of their work). This might well be the album highlight.

Original album closer Laughin’ Tackle is the longest track here (11.31) and probably the most ambitious. With a bass-driven opening that is a little reminiscent of bits of Mike Oldfield’s later Tubular Bells, this has more of a steadily building sound that the more overtly progressive numbers. Again, this feels soundtrack-like (though possibly in this case, the imaginary film would be a tense crime thriller) and piles on strings to give the track a more orchestral feel. Unfortunately, about 4 and a half minuted in, the track gives way to a drum solo from Mick Underwood. I understand that such things were all the rage at live shows back in the early Seventies but it’s frankly unnecessary here. The only album track that requires a drum solo is In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida. This breakout is under two minutes but it disrupts what had been an excellent track. The second part of the number returns to the groove (after some weird avant-garde orchestralisms) thankfully, getting ever more dramatic as the string section gets to take centre stage.

It’s not all good – Good Lord Knows is as turgid a three minutes as you’ll ever spend while Gemini tries but is a little too all over the place. Here is a track that doesn’t need to slow down once a minute just for the sake of it. Still, two iffy numbers out of an original ten isn’t so bad.

The album closes with three bonus tracks – Punting was a B-side originally, and while a decent enough instrumental piece, it’s easy to see why it was rejected for the album, as there’s little here to excite (and this version plods on for over seven minutes). Afraid Not is a rehearsal recording that sounds like a jam and is closer to the wildest excesses of progressive rock that we all know than anything else here. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing will depend on your personal taste. The live Bluegaloo / Broken Chords / Scales is a bizarre mix of prog pretension, funkadelic grooves and jazz improvisation. It kinda works, though I don’t really know why…

The double disc set comes with a nice booklet featuring rare photos and notes on the recordings by Robinson. A history of the band might have been helpful too, but it would be churlish to complain about that, given the general luxuriousness of this package. Prog rock enthusiasts and anyone looking for something heavy, adventurous and challenging will be well served with this welcome re-release.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

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