ATOMIC ROOSTER: ATOMIC ROOSTER (1970)
1) Friday The Thirteenth; 2) And So To Bed; 3) Broken Wings; 4) Before Tomorrow; 5) Banstead; 6) S. L. Y.; 7) Winter; 8) Decline And Fall; 9*) Play The Game.
There must be something about the name «Vincent» that drives its owner in the direction of the schizophrenic and/or the macabre — keep that in mind if you're expecting. In between the well-known Vincent van Gogh and Vincent Price, we have the far lesser-known, but equally spooky Vincent Crane. Formerly the organist and «senior partner» in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Crane showed an early interest in all sorts of things that veered towards the occult, the apocalyptic, the «devilish», and eventually parted ways with Brown because two psychos like that was a bit too much for one band.
Teaming up with young drummer prodigy Carl Palmer and bassist/vocalist Nick Graham, Price formed «Atomic Rooster» — the name itself, accompanied with the image of a bird with tits on the debut album's front sleeve, is fairly telling — a progressive-oriented band that was to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Brown and King Crimson with their fiery breath, rather than the lighter-spirited, clean-shirtier brands of Procol Harum or the Moody Blues.
Unfortunately, that one particular «cherry» that could have kicked the band's reputation high up in the sky — the dark-devilish attitude — was stolen from under their very noses by Black Sabbath, whose debut album came out at exactly the same time as Rooster's (February 1970) and immediately exposed Crane and his buddies for the powerless wimps that they were. The fact that Rooster's lineup was far more professional, the music — far more diverse and technically complex, and the lyrics far less straightforward and clichéd, hardly mattered for the average record buyer. And I can understand the average record buyer: Atomic Rooster has nowhere near the massive and immediate «gut-kick» that Black Sabbath can still deliver, even today.
Nevertheless, it is still one of the most impressive debuts of 1970 (a year that, in itself, was positively exploding in impressive debuts), and a minor classic of the progressive genre. The original recording, which I have only heard in bits, had no guitar on it; the leading instrument was Crane's Hammond organ, and the resulting sound was rather unique for the time, but drastically thin. However, fairly soon after the album's UK release, a decision was taken after all, to boost the sound with some rawk guitar, and master player John Du Cann (formerly of Andromeda) was brought in. At the same time, Nick Graham quit, with Crane taking over the bass parts on his organ, à la Ray Manzarek. Consequently, the band took the original tapes and «fattened» them up by overdubbing Du Cann's guitar parts on some of the tracks; this became the US release, and one that is generally more available today.
The overdubbing was done intelligently, and gave the album extra power. The lead-in track, 'Friday 13th' — the band's direct equivalent of a 'Black Sabbath', with the lyrics also depicting a devilish, haunting presence — now became a solid kick-ass prog-rocker, even though its main riff is based on a somewhat ordinary boogie chord progression (a similar one would soon be put to better effect by the Rolling Stones on 'Bitch'). Other «rawk» tunes on the album also owe way too much to the already well established and, in some ways, rather stale British blues-rock tradition, namely, 'S.L.Y.' and the instrumental 'Before Tomorrow', which, for all they're worth, could just as well be recorded by the likes of Traffic. It is not the actual melodies that count, though, but the sheer pleasure of listening to three terrific musicians locked together in ferocious and dexterous grooving — particularly impressive if one remembers that the third musician only locked himself into this groove on a «post-factum» basis. (Be sure to check Du Cann's soloing on the mid-part of 'Before Tomorrow' — sounds like an inspired brand of «proto-shredding» with all the gut excitement it can deliver and none of the «pretentious» side effects).
Crane asserts himself as the leader of the band on the (superficially) calmer numbers, such as the anthemic proto-power ballads 'Banstead' and 'Broken Wings', dominated by his church-styled organ (and also featuring great soulful vocals from Graham, delivered with just the right mix of power, romanticism, and grittiness; at times I actually wonder what ELP could have sounded like, had Palmer taken Graham along with him instead of Greg Lake — not that Lake isn't Greg, er, I mean, great, but his voice does have that annoying commanding-preacher aspect to it that prevents me from enjoying ELP's vocal compositions as much as I could otherwise). Surprisingly, his piano skills are nowhere near as interesting: the seven-minute long epic 'Winter' chiefly fails because his piano parts, mixed in with Graham's limp flute-playing, are nowhere near as sharp and inflammatory as the Hammond organ numbers. Well — supposedly, the devil only plays the Hammond organ, leaving pianos for angels, so no wonder, after all, that this one misfires.
All in all, Atomic Rooster clearly announces the arrival of a «B» level band, but one that managed to synthesize its own identity nevertheless. Part blues-rock, part early progressive, part «Satanic» — it was certain, and still is certain, to find its own small target hardcore audience, because, on a formal level, no one else really sounded exactly like those guys in 1970. A pleasant thumbs up — or, perhaps, should we «raise the horns» instead, just for the occasion?
Check "Atomic Roooster" (CD) on Amazon