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Blonde On Blonde Blonde On Blonde
Album: Rebirth/Reflections On A Life
Label: Esoteric
Tracks: 11+12
Website: http://www.esotericrecordings.com

The name of this late-60s/early-70s Welsh progressive-rock (as distinct from “prog”) outfit stems from the time of its first incarnation, playing underground gigs from Middle Earth to the Isle Of Wight festival, but even at that time there was almost nothing directly Dylanesque about their music, which even by the standards of their debut LP Contrasts (recorded for Pye) was wilfully eclectic yet also highly satisfying. By the time they’d switched labels to independent Ember for their second LP, Rebirth, just three of the band’s original members (guitarist Gareth Johnson, drummer Les Hicks and bassist Richard Hopkins, now renamed Richard John) remained in the lineup, having subsequently been joined by vocalist David Thomas. Aside from Gareth’s signature fiery, often fuzz-drenched guitar playing, the group sound was markedly different. Much of this was due to David’s striking vocal, a towering, soaring legato that had the compelling ring of truth (there’s an apocryphal story that Rod Stewart had auditioned for the job but failed!). But the sometimes bewildering contrasts of the first LP now gave way to an outpouring of songwriting creativity within the ranks of the band, and a fairly unified progressive style that allowed for a degree of thoughtful experimentation with time-signatures and textures that invariably surprised and stimulated the listener on repeated playthroughs. The best of the album’s eight tracks – the pounding Heart Without A Home, the seven-minute Circles, the episodic, eastern-influenced Colour Questions – constituted a tangible step forward on so many fronts, and the playing was also top-notch, while good use was made of the possibilities of “compatible” stereo. But the whole of the album stands up well today, and even though at times there’s a certain degree of recall of other bands of the era (Procol Harum on You’ll Never Know Me/Release, perhaps, and Lost-Chord-era Moody Blues on opening track Castles In The Sky) there was always a feeling that Blonde On Blonde were ploughing their own defiant furrow. Castles In The Sky turned out to be untypical of the band – although extracted as a single, it was penned not by the band but by Eve King and Paul Smith, but at least it gave them some key exposure on the strange late-night BBC TV series Whatever Next?… Even so, the album met with poor sales and some undeservedly negative reviews, and really demands fair reappraisal, which it certainly gets via this splendid remastered reissue. The three bonus tracks (two previously unreleased) are of great interest too – Castles In The Sky receives a completely different, less trippy and more anodynely poppish, treatment, while Time Is Passing reveals insights from the final cut and Circles is presented in its single-edit version. Rebirth is a fascinating and very rewarding slice of 1970 progressive-rock that’s an essential for the collection.

Reflections On A Life was Rebirth’s 1971 followup. By the time of its recording, there were problems with the record company, while Richard Hopkins/John left the band, replaced by guitarist Graham Davies (who added bass guitar to his armoury in the process). The result was a slightly curious album that embraced psych trappings in taking on the mantle of concept album – so far, so 70s – but at the time maybe seemed to lack something of the immediate musical impact and consistent sonic signature of Rebirth. Having said that, I note that my own response to the album is now quite a bit more positive that it was back in the 70s when I first came across it minus outer sleeve in a bargain-basement dump-bins. It was recorded at Rockfield Studios, and clearly benefitted from co-engineer Ralph Ward’s “hyper-relaxed approach” despite the obvious complexities of the music and the comparative lack of available studio time. Unusually for a concept album, Reflections On A Life didn’t follow a linear story or chronological progression as such, even while it dwelt on individual episodes from within that life. There’s a melancholy, often quite dark tone to much of the material, and a wider spread of musical influences that would nowadays be termed rootsy. Ain’t It Sad Too has touches of John Martyn with a smoky vocal and seriously bluesy slide guitar; Bar Room Blues sports some chuckling hillbilly banjo; The Bargain recalls acoustic Led Zeppelin; the brooding, moody Rut could be early Sabbath; the caustic fuzz-drenched psychosis of Happy Families could be a late Move track; and closing mantra Chorale features some “fingers on mellotron” courtesy of Kips Brown from the band Spring. Opening track Gene Machine is a weird (even by early-70s standards) yet imaginative collage of tape effects that ushers in a treated “antique” vocal, the whole piece reminiscent of something by The United States Of America. And if ever there were a descriptive track title, then No.2 Psychological Decontamination Unit is one such (back to the freak asylum). In all, Reflections On A Life is every bit as satisfying as Rebirth, though in a different way. And it’s such a shame that this was to be the band’s final album, for hearing it today reveals much of burgeoning promise and real development. Its lack of commercial success was largely due to record company’s lack of enthusiasm for its promotion (by the time of its release they were more interested in accessible pop than intelligent progressiveness) – the band were simply out of sync with the music business, rather than their work being in any way lacking in quality.

A final word of praise for the accompanying booklets, which contain exclusive new interviews with Messrs Thomas and Johnson as well as photos and lyrics and original artwork and sleeve notes. The perspective presented by this pair of fine reissues is IMHO the correct one – that Blonde On Blonde made some highly significant music, and richly deserved better promotion and critical and public acclaim than they received.

David Kidman