BAKER GURVITZ ARMY: ELYSIAN ENCOUNTER (1975)
1) People; 2) The Key; 3) Time; 4) The Gambler; 5) The Dreamer; 6) Remember; 7) The Artist; 8) The Hustler.
This is probably the best of the three Baker/Gurvitz albums, even though the general movement tendency leaves space for worrying: the vector is strongly biased towards «more Gurvitz, less Baker», which would culminate in the trio's disappointing final album. But for the moment, the major difference is just that there is no equivalent of ʽMad Jackʼ. Elysian Encounter, starting already from the cool-sounding, but overtly pompous title, is bent on taking itself more seriously and rationally — which leaves more space for «layman-accessible» melodic overlays and less space for one of the world's favorite crazy drummers.
Not a lot less space, though; and fortunately, for Elysian Encounter, a sort of concept album built as a «musical portrait gallery», the Gurvitzes come up with a coherent framework, a fine set of riffs, melodic themes, and vocal hooks, and a fine production style that takes the best of all worlds — progressive, R&B, fusion, roots-rock — and leaves me no grounds for complaining. Okay, so the vocals are a bit hicky in places: for some or most of the parts they hire an additional vocalist, hiding behind the suspicious pseudonym of ʽMr. Snipsʼ (real name is Steve Parsons), who is absolutely nothing special — then again, I wonder if hiring Meat Loaf would have really been a better idea. Probably not. In any case, the music of Baker Gurvitz Army is not about great vocals — it's all about setting up a melodic groove and putting as much on top of it as the faithful horsie can stand without burying its hooves in the ground.
Thus, ʽPeopleʼ is exactly the sort of jazz fusion that I like the most — with all the trademarks of the genre (technique, speed, complexity), plus a strong basic riff-based hard rock theme, plus vocals, plus crazy solos that contrast nicely with the vocals. In the end, the energy, precision, and «intelligence» of the whole thing are not squandered, but tightly packed into a four-minute long thunderfest that might well be worth an entire album by the Mahavishnu or late period Soft Machine (not any album, but you probably know what I mean).
ʽThe Keyʼ, on the other hand, is a somber cold shower after the thunderstorm — a tight, swinging groove with a soulful atmosphere and several «devil-or-angel»-type slide guitar overdubs that sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time. Eventually, the whole thing starts inducing trance, as the slide parts pile up and the wailing reaches psychedelic heights, with Ginger's drumming and the "God only knows how I found you" mantra acting as the «lullifier» and the slide guitars acting as the «covert indoctrinator».
This is just two examples, but, really, each and every song on this album joins together disparate, familiar, oftentimes trivial elements and results in a synthesis that is, at worst, curious, and at best, awesome. Look how, on ʽThe Artistʼ, Ginger masterfully wiggles his way around a basic waltz melody, and a set of pretty, pastoral slide lead lines (well fit for a George Harrison solo record) are perfectly integrated with jarring electric blues solos. Wonder at how ʽTimeʼ sounds so much like early 1970s Traffic, and yet packs so much more angst and tension than a typical Traffic track (so is it our problem that Steve Winwood and his pals never whetted their instruments before entering the studio?). Think about whether ʽThe Dreamerʼ would have fit in on the Allman Brothers' Brothers And Sisters — probably wouldn't, since the vocal melody is more Byrds than Allmans — making it an even quirkier combination, since these busy country guitar runs are just so much Dickey Betts in style.
They leave the busiest for last, though: ʽThe Hustlerʼ wraps up things on an even more frenzied, self-choking note than they were opened — here we have nearly seven minutes of groovy phased guitar backing, freight train drumming, and overdriven speed runs (this time, with some of them worthy of an Alvin Lee or even of an Angus Young) that never feel like seven minutes. It's a bit cheesy, yes, but heck, that's just what the progressive genre needed in 1975 — a little novelty and cheesiness, just a little whiff of cheap excitement atop the complexity and the seriousness.
Maybe if it weren't so over-the-top derivative in all respects, Elysian Encounter would not be as forgotten as it is today. People like their masterpieces with at least something that's totally individualistic — a personal chord change, a guitar tone, a unique vocal, anything. This here is a mosaic, consisting of shrink-wrapped, sold, and delivered pieces, in which even Ginger's drumming style is sort of reduced to a slightly inferior imitation of itself. But then there's always the cooking process, and in this particular case, the three chefs are beyond reproach. Thumbs up — for one of the most underrated records of 1975.