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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brand X: Livestock


1) Nightmare Patrol; 2) -Ish; 3) Euthanasia Waltz; 4) Isis Mourning, Pt. 1; 5) Isis Mourning, Pt. 2; 6) Malaga Virgen.

Live albums by fusion artists are somewhat of a puzzle — first, because fusion as such always tends to be associated with the «live-in-the-studio» principle, what with its being the rock-era inheritor to classic jazz and all; second, because jazz-rock musicians are simply not expected to wear different faces for their studio and live avatars. So, unless the live album consists entirely of new material, its only purpose would be to prove that the actual musicians in the band are, indeed, cunning and dexterous, and can keep a tight groove going in real time — and even so, that would be thin proof, since nobody knows to what extent the results could be doctored in the studio. Un­less you want to be real obnoxious about it and compare them with bootlegs. But are there really people in this world who are obsessed with hunting for Brand X bootlegs?

Anyway, Livestock was put together from recordings that cover a period of one whole year and two different drummers: three tracks were culled from London club gigs with Collins and two more — from an August 1977 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon with Kenwood Dennard, re­placing Collins who had only just completed his duties for Genesis' Wind & Wuthering tour. And it does have to be admitted that much of the material is new: ʽEuthanasia Waltzʼ and ʽMalaga Virgenʼ are the only tracks (though they do take up more than a third of the album) to have been previously available. Not that the new material sounds all that difficult from the old one, though — but then, nobody would expect it to.

As it happens, they could have omitted the references to «live» altogether. The tracks either fade in or fade out; the audience response is limited to maybe just a couple seconds of applause every now and then; and there is no stage banter whatsoever (according to the «if you don't sing, you don't speak, either» principle that is also rather typical of the instrumental jazz tradition). The two songs taken over from the studio catalog are almost totally identical to the studio versions (except for muddier production values in the live setting), and so the album's real worth lies in the new material — not because it is live, but because it is new.

From that point of view, the opening ʽNightmare Patrolʼ is one of their best compositions from that period — it does have a slightly ominous, nocturnal atmosphere to it, if not necessarily night­marish, as well as a dreamy-poetic guitar riff and an involving adventurous mid-section in which they show themselves able to build up suspense and then happily release it to everybody's relief and satisfaction. It is also the first track to feature the new drummer who shows himself quite worthy of the crown, although, for my money, his fills and rolls are not nearly as smooth and totally natural-sounding as Phil's.

The central composition on Side B is ʽIsis Mourningʼ, where they bring down the tempo and try to inject a little «soul» — lots of atmospheric synthesizers and weepy bluesy soloing, but the focus is still on group playing, so neither Lumley nor Goodsall get to properly show off just how passionate, loud, and overflowing with salty excretions Isis could be in mourning. So, instead of trying to be moved to tears ourselves, we should probably just enjoy the interplay instead — the way Goodsall and Jones trade licks, arpeggios, scales, and occasional dissonances around each other once the tempo slows down and they get a better chance to impress us with the musical dia­log. Hardly unique, but fun, and they never hang around one repetitive theme or gimmick for too long — Goodsall, in particular, has this knack for frequently changing the tones and effects within a short time, so once you get close to getting tired of hearing him do minimalistic jazz licks, he'll sense that and start spitting out funky wah-wah chords, before going into 12-bar terri­tory and back to jazz guitar again.

Still, the fact remains that as a composition, only ʽNightmare Patrolʼ seems to have stick-around potential — the rest are more like temporary vamps, enjoyable because of the players' professio­nalism and creativity, but hardly pretending to much else. Throwing in the album's slightly in­ferior sound quality (as compared to the studio albums, of course — on the whole, the recording is perfectly acceptable), I would certainly not recommend it as a point of entry. Once you have become a Brand X fan for life by assimilating Unorthodox Behaviour and Moroccan Roll, feel free to proceed. Or, at least, take additional advice from some genuine fusion expert, the kind of person who can actually offer a serious opinion on why one fusion album is «better» than another fusion album — my own opinions here are as innocently amateurish as any thoughts I might have on global warming or the Big Bang.

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