BRAND X: MASQUES (1978)
1) The Poke; 2) Masques; 3) Black Moon; 4) Deadly Nightshade; 5) Earth Dance; 6) Access To Data; 7) The Ghost Of Mayfield Lodge.
Telling «bad fusion» from «good fusion» is a worthless, ungrateful task if you are not a fusion musician yourself. But there is no getting away from gut feelings, either, and mine tell me that somehow, in some way Brand X «lost it» with the loss of Phil Collins, yes indeed. Perhaps this is not really related, but it is a fact, or, rather, two facts, that (a) Masques is the first album not to feature Phil at all, and (b) the first Brand X album about which I genuinely do not feel at all thrilled. Could these facts be related? We'd need to waste a lifetime to find out.
Anyway, this here is a very straightahead, no bull, no deviation, highly formulaic fusion album. No Moroccan influences, vocals, or anything that would distract us from jazzy grooving. Only the first track, ʽThe Pokeʼ, is based on a steady rock beat, but what they do with it is not very interesting — it sounds a bit like Rush in places: gruff hard rock molded into a complex, «progressive» form that has more to do with dry musical geometry than spiritual excitement (not that Rush always sound unexciting or anything, but they do have a lot of filler passages like this one). Once ʽThe Pokeʼ is over, though, it's all about Percy Jones and his trademark «bass zoops» for the rest of the album. Even if he only wrote or co-wrote two tracks here, this album sounds like it belongs to the bass player almost exclusively.
The bad news is that this time, there are no particularly intriguing or moving themes. You'd think, for instance, that an 11-minute long track named ʽDeadly Nightshadeʼ should have a properly deadly sound, deserving of its name — instead, it just moves from slow to fast and back to slow sections without even trying to look like it were going somewhere. A lot of stuff is happening, but essentially it is just a meandering jam. Likewise, ʽThe Ghost Of Mayfield Lodgeʼ has a cool title, too, and is apparently based upon ghost stories about a real lodge in which Percy Jones used to dwell for a while, but apart from a minute-long rhythmless section that could be interpreted as «ghostly interplay» between keyboards, bass, and percussion, there is nothing I would regard as all that «ghostly» about the track — just another groove. In fact, you could transplant parts of ʽNightshadeʼ into ʽMayfield Lodgeʼ and vice versa and no one would probably take notice.
The only more or less memorable theme is discoverable in ʽEarth Danceʼ, but that one, too, once they move away from the theme into soloing, is interchangeable with ʽNightshadeʼ. And even the theme is not that awesome — a rather basic salsa variation. Apparently, there's no place like Cuba if you want to envision something as grandly universalist as an «Earth Dance». Kind of a lightweight atmosphere, I'd say, for such an ambitious venture.
All said, I'm almost tempted to put the thumbs down for this, but two things stop me from being so mean — first, there'd be much worse stuff on the way, and second, well, boring or not, it is clear that they were still working their asses off on these grooves. If I completely clear my mind from that «context» thing, Masques still provides almost fifty minutes of exemplary playing — on autopilot, perhaps, but not without the collective guardian angel from the Fusion Department guiding minds, hands, and plugs. As background music, this is still first-rate; I'm just disappointed that the tunes are so completely association-free this time around. Or maybe we should read the title more literally, and agree that the band is indeed playing with their «masques» on, and then spend the next ten years of our life trying to peek behind them.