ATOMIC ROOSTER: DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU (1970)
Drummer Paul Hammond has never gotten anywhere near the acclaim of Carl Palmer, but then, let us face it, the music of Atomic Rooster never really needed Carl Palmer as badly as the music of Emerson & Lake. Vince Crane's and new guitarist John Du Cann's songwriting did not rely on lightning-fast tempos or classically-influenced passages that required arch-complex drumming patterns to match the keyboards. Thus, it is quite likely that many people will not even notice the drummer change — especially since Paul Hammond is a fairly good tomtom-hitter in his own right, supplying all the necessary drive and power throughout.
What is noticeable is a dramatic increase in song quality. The self-titled debut album was hardly recorded «in vain», many of the songs were inspired and creative, but it lacked the proper atmosphere — and a band that is called «Atomic Rooster» and is led by a crazy, near-suicidal organist simply cannot be expected to lack atmosphere. With their second LP, Atomic Rooster are finally on the level, matching the fire, brimstone, and general evil grin of Crane's former master, Arthur Brown. Except the actual music is even better.
Death Walks Behind You is already much closer to «progressive rock» the way it became fleshed out in 1970 — music that keeps jumping in between blues-based, folk-based, jazz-based, and classical-based forms without making a single simple preference. That said, the majority of the tracks are still blues-based, putting the band in a second-row position in terms of importance. Only the closing instrumental, 'Gershatzer', tries to take its cue from The Nice rather than Cream, but I would not qualify it as comparable in overall complexity. It's got drive a-plenty, and its anthemic organ riffs are gut-level awesome, but the «complexity» is mainly limited to including a drum solo and a «psychedelic» section on which Crane has some unimaginative fun with his instrument, making it suffer in different ways, most of which had already been patented by Keith Emerson (knives under the keys, etc.).
None of that matters, though, when you have songs like 'Death Walks Behind You' — fairly simple, in that it is based around one looped chorus riff and one descending chord pattern for the verse melody. But oh boy, are those riffs and patterns ever awesome. The song is not scary in a Black Sabbath way (the band has nothing like a Tony Iommi guitar tone to them), nor is it scary in a 'Gimme Shelter' way, because the atmosphere is a bit too theatrical, if not to say carnivalesque. It is not «scary» — it is «epic». The little build-up in the beginning, with the bass piano notes and the isolated guitar screeches — the way it smoothly mutates into the main riff played on the piano — then the full band joins in — then "Death walks behind you!" — then the well-staged descent into hell — it all smells of a show, yes (although staged by a documentally real madman), but a supercool one.
Other devilish highlights include the instrumental 'Vug' (five minutes of organ and guitar madness: nothing too surprising, but tremendously energetic); the minor hit single 'Tomorrow Night', gentle and lyrical text-wise, rough, rocking, and cowbell-driven melody-wise; and two «rock funeral» pieces, 'Sleeping For Years' and 'Nobody Else', which sound like... well, imagine the stately baroque-rock sound of Procol Harum injected with a rebellious hard rock attitude. (Unfortunately, guitarist John Du Cann, while unquestionably a pro in his own right, has a somewhat more generic style of playing than Robin Trower — but this is fully compensated by Crane victimizing his keyboards in a way that would cause Gary Brooker to have a heart attack).
As a bonus, some CD editions also append 'Devil's Answer', the band's highest charting single that is almost openly done in the «glam» paradigm — an anthemic riff-rocker, with 'I Can't Explain'-style power chords and a danceable beat. It is nowhere near as impressive as 'Death Walks Behind You', but it is also seriously different, illustrating the band's versatility and open-mindedness. In the future, unfortunately, that versatility was to lead them into new directions that were too hard to handle. On Death Walks Behind You, it ensures them just the right unforgettable place in rock history. Thumbs up to this «mini-masterpiece».