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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Armageddon: Armageddon


1) Buzzard; 2) Silver Tightrope; 3) Paths And Planes And Future Gains; 4) Last Stand Before; 5) Basking In The White Of The Midnight Sun.

It is somewhat unfortunate that these guys only lasted together for one album — on the other hand, I suppose that is pretty much what you have to expect if you give that kind of a name to your band. A genuinely true Armageddon can only happen once. Then the chief culprit gets elec­trocuted in the bathroom. (Or, rather, in the basement, as the updated and fact-checked story goes, but bathroom just sounds so cool, the myth will never die.)

Actually, the band came and went before the tragic demise of Keith Relf in 1976. At the heart of Armageddon stand two former members of the mediocre, but not hopeless British art-blues-rock band Steamhammer, guitarist Martin Pugh and bassist Louis Cennamo. Keith Relf was a good friend, a decent vocalist, and an inspiring influence, bringing on artistic baggage from his days in the Yardbirds and in early Renaissance (Cennamo also played bass in the latter). Finally, percus­sionist and occasional keyboardist Bobby Caldwell came from the equally artsy institution of Cap­tain Beyond.

Of course, the band couldn't have chosen a worse moment to pool their forces together: what they wanted to do was complex progressive rock with a gritty edge to it, and by 1975, prog rock's days as a major critical and commercial force were on the wane. And they couldn't even well enough pass themselves off for a «supergroup» — more like a rag-tag band of has-beens, what with nei­ther Steamhammer's, nor Relf's post-Yardbirds career having done all that much of a splash any­where inside the mainstream circles. They were also mismanaged, couldn't get enough tour boo­kings, etc. etc., the usual works.

All that was left was this one album, typical of the times and of the chosen direction: five tunes, four of which go over eight minutes. Funny as it may seem, the atmosphere does remind of the Yardbirds circa Roger The Engineer: the emphasis is on jerky, paranoid, highly nervous hard rock atmosphere, somewhat apocalyptic in nature indeed. Pugh and Relf form a good partnership. Keith has actually gone a long way from his Yardbirds days — there, overshadowed by the giant figures of the guitarists, he was merely there to ensure the band's not turning into a purely instru­mental outfit, and that was that. Now he is louder, huskier, and, overall, making more of a point than he ever used to. As for Pugh, his playing here is more concentrated and ecstatic than on any Steamhammer album — gallantly, he agrees to do his best to be the Clapton/Beck/Page six-string brother to Keith, and, at times, he is almost successful.

'Buzzard' is the one song from this album that everyone needs to hear. The song is built on one of the funkiest riffs of the decade, and with Cennamo's trippy bowed bass guitar playing off that riff and Relf entering the picture at top volume, the song fully justifies its title: if that ugly, evil wah-wah is not a fine embodiment of the ugly bird rearing in the sky in seek of prey, then nothing is. These eight minutes are fully justified, right down to the psychedelic harmonica solo and the high and mighty thirty-second coda, driving in these last nails with cruelly calculated brutality every bit as stunning as on early Jethro Tull records.

Unfortunately, the album never truly lives up to its powerful opener. The next three songs — the pleasant, but never-tear-inducing ballad 'Silver Tightrope'; the relatively simple blues-rock of 'Paths And Planes'; the metronomic hard rock swinging back and forth on 'Last Stand Before' — offer nothing unusual, even if the riffage is occasionally quite good. There just aren't enough musical ideas to justify the song lengths; the tunes are not too complex, not too tricky, not too un­predictable... and at the same time, they do not turn into visionary solo blasts, either — honestly, I'd rather have 'Last Stand Before' turn into a ten-minute long psychedelic Cream-like guitar jour­ney than just witness the band run through a set of so-so hard rock subsections.

The 'Buzzard'-like paranoid style only re­turns in full force on the last track, the 11-minute epic 'Basking In The White Of The Midnight Sun', and by then, the band has already embezzled much of the confidence. Truth be told, though, Armageddon ends just as powerfully as it starts.

I cannot pretend that the band was much more than a footnote in the annals of «rock as art», but they gelled together well, and, compared to the contemporaneous slowly forming hybrid of metal and prog à la Rush and its future offspring, had the distinction of being more colorful and less intensely serious (a nice genetic marker for almost every Sixties veteran). Frankly, I can't think of any other song in the entire prog genre that would try to do the thing of 'Buzzard'. I'm pretty sure that there are no «ifs» in this category, and that the band was doomed from the start, but it's fairly pleasing to have this album as a memento, and it feels right to give it a thumbs up in the hopes that someone will be adventurous enough to want to look for it. If anything, just think of it as the al­bum that drove Keith Relf to the bathroom, har har, uh, sorry about that.

Check "Armageddon" (CD) on Amazon


  1. A 'better' sounding group than this were the Groundhogs, who are interesting as well.

  2. World's Biggest David Pack FanAugust 6, 2011 at 8:25 PM

    What the hell dude? No Ange? No Andy Fairweather Low? No Allen Toussaint? No Älgarnas Trädgård? And no Ambrosia!? Scandalous I say, scandalous.

  3. Two comments and nothing about this actual album. So here I go. It is one of the real lost gems of that period, even if it's just a little gem. Look at the year! What were other guitar based bands doing? Black Sabbath: nothing. Deep Purple: Burn. Led Zep: nothing. UH: Wonderworld. Yes: Topographic Oceans. Budgie: nobody listened to that band anyway (unjustly, but can I help that?).
    So yeah, four not too talented relics from an even earlier past get together and they record this awesome album! It's a miracle, I say.
    What's more, it doesn't sound anything like the bands that made the members more or less famous! It's not 60's R&B, not psychedelia, not blues-rock. It seems like Martin Pugh had a few excellent riffs left in his drawers and wanted to find out if he could compete with the famous riffmeisters of a few years before. Well, he did. What a way to quit the music industry - according to Wikipedia it would last 30 years before he went back to the studio. Cinnamo apparently exactly understood what Pugh wanted, which results in excellent interplay. Caldwell was the right man on drums - never simple and straightforward, never drawing too much attention either. The interplay is one of the two, three important features.
    Relf is another small miracle. The band was his idea, but the record was hardly what he had in mind. Still he had no choice but singing. Guess what? He sounds better and more powerful than on any Yardbirds record. Silver Tightrope, with all its defects, is probably the most heart-warming song he ever recorded.
    The band even manages to take hardrock a step forward by introducing the nervous element. This is most apparent in the opener and the closer, but also to be found in the other three songs. The tight interplay manages to reinforce this element, giving the album a somewhat artsy feel, while avoiding the excesses of Yes and Rush. The clever form of all five songs introduces a progressive element.
    After all the praise there is still one major complaint: all the songs are too long and depend way too heavily on repetition. That's even true for Buzzard.
    My verdict: still a hardrock classic, even if it's a minor classic. Footnote or not, everyone who takes early hard- and progrock seriously should own this. It isn't as good as the classics from the early 70's, but it could have been with some serious trimming.