BE-BOP DELUXE: AXE VICTIM (1974)
1) Axe Victim; 2) Love Is Swift Arrows; 3) Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus; 4) Third Floor Heaven; 5) Night Creatures; 6) Rocket Cathedrals; 7) Adventures In Yorkshire Landscape; 8) Jets At Down; 9) No Trains To Heaven; 10) Darkness (L'Immoraliste).
Take any random opinion on Axe Victim today, about forty years away from its original synthesis, and it is very likely that the opinion will be judging the album from a Ziggy Stardust perspective: «Oh, it's such a wannabe David Bowie project!» This is not altogether unfounded, but, for some reason, most of these opinions miss another connection, in my view, perhaps even better justified — Peter Hammill. Naturally, many more people are familiar with classic Bowie than with classic Van Der Graaf Generator or Peter's solo career, but still, I believe that a description of the early Be-Bop Deluxe sound as a meticulously engineered «cross» between Bowie and Hammill would be much more accurate than simply branding Bill Nelson and his associates as a bunch of «Bowie copycats», for better or worse.
«Be-Bop Deluxe» was just a posh name for Bill Nelson, who wrote all the songs, sang all the lead vocals, and played all the guitar leads — well, okay, his backers on Axe Victim include Ian Parkin on rhythm guitar, Robert Bryan on bass, and Nicholas Chatterton-Dew on drums, but no one is supposed to memorize this info, since already by the time of the second album Nelson had dissolved the band and recruited a completely different line-up, and also because Nelson is, fair and square, the only instrumentalist on the album to deserve serious attention: an «axe victim» indeed, stuffing all possible and impossible bits of space with his trills, drills, fills, and thrills. If it didn't work so well, it would be suffocating. Strangely, it does work.
Despite the name, «Be-Bop Deluxe» never played any be-bop, deluxe or not. Instead, Nelson had a thing for sprawling, glammy, anthemic art-rock with a futuristic twist — hence the Bowie connection, particularly well visible in his vocal style (he likes to combine starry-eyed idealism and snub-nosed sarcasm within a single line) and his guitar playing, which, of all possible comparisons, indeed, seems closest to Mick Ronson's classic style — shrill, grand, frenetic playing, thick on high pitch, speedy arpeggios, crescendos, echo effects, and everything else necessary to throw the listener in overdrive, whatever it takes. But he does have plenty of real technique, so it is not just a cheap show-off manoeuvre — nor do the songs ever turn into interminable boring jams, caressing the player's ego until his fingers start hurting.
On second thought, it's not that often that the «songs» ever really turn into actual songs, either, and this is where the Hammill comparison falls in place. Keeping up with the rock theater spirit, Nelson does not hold much respect for verse/chorus structures — his creations are spirited rhythmic rants, prone to unexpected tonality and tempo changes whenever they feel like it, and to short or long lead guitar intrusions whenever the lead guitar feels it. The title track introduces the formula — the vocals enter on the first second, the first lead line enters on the fourth, and from then on the two seem to be locked in a death-fight. Will the singer outbawl the guitar player? Will the guitar player bring the singer down in a lightning barrage? Oh wait, they're the same guy. Well then, it's sort of obvious that they can't waste too much time on silly things like choruses, hooks, riffs, and any of that «pop» drivel.
Consequently, it might take a bit of time to get into the spirit of things — imagine, if you wish, a Ziggy Stardust with all of the obvious attention-grabbing twists removed, and the operatic nature of it enhanced fiftyfold. What do you get? Peter Hammill — a little more rock'n'roll-oriented, a little less gifted as a singer, but a little more skilled at guitar fireworks. The question is: are you ready to buy this, or is it all just one big, hollow, insubstantial put-on? Does this guy have a heart of gold or is he made of straw and sawdust on the inside? (I couldn't put this any other way, so excuse me the clichés).
Personally, I like this stuff. The way Nelson gets right down to business, jumping into the spotlight with his big voice and bigger guitar from the very first second, displays a stunning lack of fear at being branded «pretentious» — and as his lyrics spin strange tales of vain stage glories, sci-fi escapism, and ruined English countrysides, and his guitar throws out semi-improvised passages that seem inspired by pop, rock, blues, jazz, and classical alike, depending on the artist's mood, Axe Victim has every chance of eventually placing you under an odd spell.
For those who really cannot imagine their life without a catchy hook, it may be advisable to start out with ʽJet Silver And The Dolls Of Venusʼ, which is probably the closest they got to a «glam-pop» sound here (the song was actually released as a single) — it's a glorious mess that is equal parts Cream's ʽAnyone For Tennisʼ, Kinks' ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ, Bowie's ʽStarmanʼ, and probably several other influences / quotations / inspirations I missed, but fused into something completely different anyway — a spaceship joyride that is actually believable, mainly due to Nelson's personal charisma. Cool guitar, nice voice, right pitch, proper mood.
Other highlights would be ʽJets At Downʼ, a seven-minute epic ballad with another bunch of lilting solos; the honestly amazing, mostly instrumental rocker ʽNo Trains To Heavenʼ, all of it holding together exclusively through Nelson's energy, sweat and blood on the axe; and... well, just about everything else. Take it from me — normally, I would be the first to condemn this sort of record, but sometimes all it takes is an intelligent vocal style and a little demon hiding in one's fingers to turn potential boredom into overall excitement. Axe Victim may not be particularly deep, and it may not show a lot of compositional genius, and it certainly does not break a lot of new ground, but it takes good care of the old one, and it kicks serious ass — something that «rock theater» à la early 1970s does fairly rarely. Thumbs up.
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