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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: Rock Drill


1) Rock Drill; 2) The Dolphins; 3) Rock'n'Roll; 4) King Kong; 5) Booids; 6) Who Murdered Sex; 7) Nightmare City; 8) Water Beastie; 9) Mrs. Blackhouse.

After SAHB Stories, Harvey and the Sensational Band temporarily parted ways, for reasons which are not easy to understand in retrospect. All I know is that Harvey needed some time off to tend to his ailing backbone, and he also engaged on a typically Harvey-style weird project: a spoken word album about the Loch Ness monster (!). In his absence, the remaining four recorded and re­leased a record of their own, suitably titled Fourplay, which bombed commercially and got lam­basted critically. I have not heard it; given Cleminson's presence on it, it may not have been all that bad. But apparently the split made everybody feel uncomfortable, and, in a year's time, Harvey and the boys were back together — although with one irreplaceable loss already: key­boar­dist Hugh McKenna, replaced by a weaker choice in Tommy Eyre (previously known as the guy who played the organ on Joe Cocker's 'With A Little Help From My Friends').

Still, none of them seemed happy. Harvey was still ailing (and also depressed about the recent death of his brother). The music scene was changing, making their sounds and styles less and less "relevant" with each passing month. And Cleminson, perhaps, was also thinking about a change of scenery: right after this record, he accepted the proposal to join Nazareth as a second guitarist. Things looked pretty dark, and this is a dark record. The very title, Rock Drill, does not seem to strive to make the listener happy, and its cover — a grim suit of armor against a shadowy back­ground — is the most eerie and depressing sleeve the band ever put out. To say nothing of the first impression once the music actually starts playing — the growling synthesizer tones that wel­come you out of the depths of hell are a far cry from the generally light and cheery intros on most other SAHB albums.

Yet it is not a bad album. It is pretty bad if one approaches it expecting another typical slab of flashy SAHB cabaret, alternating crazy headbanging with good biting humor and just an occasio­nal streak of darkness to make things more serious. Rock Drill thrives on the darkness: it cranks up SAHB's progressive, complex side to the max, with the only light number, an innocent country rocker called 'Mrs. Blackhouse', thrown on at the end in a totally who-the-heck-cares manner. Hence, the possibility of disappointment — unjust. What kind of music would you be writing under the circumstances listed above, anyway?

It may be true that the results downplay Harvey's main strength: theatricality. For instance, 'The Dolphins' is a solid six-minute mini-epic, but it is the kind of material that we'd rather associate with the likes of Rush, or just about any other seriously-minded second- or third-generation prog rock outfit. Its lengthy romantic guitar solos and solemn piano riffs leave Alex with very little to do — he is simply belting out the lyrics, without at all "getting into character". Yet this lack of uniqueness should not discredit the music, which is quite evocative by itself.

Also, Harvey is much more prominently featured on the second side, where it is his presence, after all, that adds the proper bite to the faceless boogie of 'Who Murdered Sex?', the faceful punkish boogie of 'Nightmare City', and the album's generally acknowledged highlight — 'Water Beastie', probably a leftover from Harvey's solo album on Loch Ness, forever memorable upon first listen due to the unbeatable chorus: 'Look at the monster, look at the monster, look at the monster in distress'. If these numbers are generally less flashy and more "dim" than we'd like them to be, this does not mean that they will not, in time, be able to speak to you the same way some of Harvey's more immediately impressive material can. Come to think of it, 'Who Murdered Sex' and 'The Dolphins' are, in a way, more intellectually rewarding than 'Framed', even if the latter is so much more basic fun.

All of this means that Rock Drill is unquestionably a thumbs up for me, particularly for the brain department, although the heart sometimes gets a mighty adrenaline rush as well — especial­ly mid-way through 'Dolphins', when Cleminson's solo breaks through the grayness and mud and soars up to heaven in a last desperate swan song for the original band. No great shakes, the record, but a fittingly, instructively grim (and thought-provoking) terminus.

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