BRAND X: UNORTHODOX BEHAVIOUR (1976)
1) Nuclear Burn; 2) Euthanasia Waltz; 3) Born Ugly; 4) Smacks Of Euphoric Hysteria; 5) Unorthodox Behaviour; 6) Running On Three; 7) Touch Wood.
I kind of like that album cover, you know. Oh man, that look, that priceless look in the guy's sole discernible eye peeking out at you from behind the blinds, as if saying: «Yeah, hi everybody, it's me, your old friend Phil from Genesis, but shh, don't tell anybody I'm playing in this fusion band, see, they'll sort of beat me up if they find out, they'll maybe even do bad things to my contract, and then I won't be able to write ʽFollow You Follow Meʼ and change the face of the music business, but you know, they're telling all sorts of bad things about me now, but what I really like to do most of all is just drum like crazy in a fusion band, see, and we got this new fusion team all lined up for you to hear just how cool I can be behind the drumset, because those frickin' buddies of mine out there in Genesis, they're all these folk-and-classical nutsos, they have no idea how to syncopate, and I'm a major Buddy Rich fan and all, and... uh... d'you think I'm letting too much sun inside this place?..»
Okay, fun's over. In reality, the album sleeve was designed by the mighty Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis fame, and the partial face staring at you from behind the blinds most likely has nothing to do with either Phil Collins or any other member of the band. It is just an artistic trick, really, that would make you think that something creepy, weird, and maybe even illegal, or at least perverted, is going on — especially when taken in combo with the album title. So, like any normal person, you rush out to immediately buy it... only to discover that the music behind it is rather standard fare jazz-fusion, without any such deeply questionable connotations. Still, the illusion, once generated, does not go away so quickly. There's a sick mystery tied in to the album cover, so eventually you will still be trying to pick up on it in different corners. Besides, one of the tracks is called ʽEuthanasia Waltzʼ. I mean, how sick is that?..
Not particularly sick. The band, which was really started off almost by accident, through some executive fancy at Island Records, consisted of «core» members John Goodsall on guitar (previously only known from a brief stint in Atomic Rooster), Percy Jones on bass (previously not known at all), and Robin Lumley on keyboards (likewise) — and Phil Collins just happened to be walking by as they began thinking about growing up from a meandering «jam band» into something more serious and equipped with a recording contract. Phil, having just ascertained his future as lead singer in Genesis with the success of A Trick Of The Tail, probably felt himself ready to tackle two completely different projects at the same time — especially since the Genesis project never really allowed him to show off everything that he could do with his kit.
Now, as far as I can tell, «fusion» is generally allowed a rather low quota in public memory — despite the enormous wealth of fusion-style material to come out of the Seventies, most people only remember two or three figures, maybe John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea... some might come up with Weather Report or mention the brief «fusion period» of Jeff Beck, and the rest is really mostly for connoisseurs.The reasons are simple enough — the marriage between jazz and rock was not all that warmly embraced by fans on either side, with jazzmen thinking that it was a sellout and rockers thinking that it was a wankfest. And indeed, even to my ears a lot of fusion sounds like both things at the same time. But there are exceptions, even credited to names that are not as big as Chick Corea, and I think Unorthodox Behaviour is an excellent record that belongs in that category.
First, the album hits a very decent balance between «meaningful composition» and «technical proficiency». These players are all undeniable professionals with impressive technique, but they rarely, if ever, strive to amaze the player with million-notes-per-second, flight-of-the-bumblebee-in-under-one-minute runthroughs and the like — heck, there's not even a single drum solo anywhere in sight. The emphasis is often on groove and sometimes on improvisation, but most often it is on perfectly stating a theme, developing it and carrying it to a logical conclusion: Brand X really compose, they do not merely rely on the Great Sonic Spirit to take them into the stratosphere and drag them through an endless chain of space bars and galactic hangouts.
Second, some of the themes are really quite engaging. ʽNuclear Burnʼ, for instance, takes about a minute and a half for the players to «gather themselves», warm up and tone their muscles around a collected groove, and then to launch into the slightly Spanish-influenced Goodsall guitar theme, aggressive and melancholic at the same time, fast, complex, and yet totally memorable, especially when it is echoed to a tee by Phil's drumming patterns. ʽBorn Uglyʼ starts out as something hot and funky, with a groove not unlike any given James Brown number, but soon makes it known that its main hook will not be the funky guitar, but a series of three-chord sequences played by Lumley that sound as if they'd rather belong in a pop song — and so, what's a nice piano chord like you doing in a funky groove like this? Well, don't ask me, really, but I find the contrast hilarious, and its establishment at the beginning of the tune makes it easier to sit through the entire eight minutes, even if later on it does tend to meander and sometimes degenerate into empty finger-flashing (for very brief periods of time, though).
It is not every day, indeed, that you find good strong riffs in fusion, but Goodsall comes up with a riff that is most certainly good and strong in ʽSmacks Of Euphoric Hysteriaʼ — maybe not the best title for a track that rather resembles the triumphant dance of a belligerent tribe on the eve of their first major military victory, euphoric, perhaps, but not particularly hysterical. It is also not every day that you find fusioneers influenced by Brian Eno, but the title track here is indeed based on Eno's ʽOver Fire Islandʼ, borrowing its rhythmic pattern and bass line and extending the formerly spooky two-minute piece of incidental music into an eight-minute long exploration of «musical jungle», as guitars, keyboards, and chimes engage in dialogs, trialogs, and polylogs like birds and beasts in the trees, while the bass melody ties them all together like The Force. Kudos to Lumley for all the hilarious bells-and-whistles from his keyboards — they make it all sound really, really cool, and Phil provides a suitably convincing tribalistic backing.
Most of all, Unorthodox Behaviour is just fun. All you have to do is to let it through the proper gate in your mind, and a record that might seem dull and generic under different conditions will suddenly appear as sprightly, colorful, and amusing, completely free from both the annoying pedantism and the murky pessimism that often make fusion hard to stand. These gents here are not really trying to show you how great they are (well, perhaps Phil is trying, just a little, but cut the guy some slack — after five years spent sitting in the dark behind some guy in flower costumes and fox masks, you'd probably want to show off, too), nor are they trying to prepare you for the end of the world or even to crack open your overwhelmed and superawed mind. They're just sharing some light, harmless, positive fun with you. I'd say, for one, that that is pretty unorthodox behaviour, wouldn't you agree? Thumbs up, of course.