Sunday, 18 January 2009

Hawkwind - Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music

Though I've summarised the first four reissues from Cherry Red / Atomhenge's acquisition of the Hawkwind back catalogue 76 – 97 for a future edition of Record Collector, I'm going to post more detailed individual reviews here.

Astounding Sounds is my favourite Hawkwind album, unfairly maligned over the years and, as Phil Alexander in Mojo notes this month, ripe for a re-evaluation. Actually, this album was my first exposure to Hawkwind when it was originally released in 1976 – not that I heard as much as a note of it until I got into the band at the end of the 1970s. Their first release for the Charisma label, it was heavily promoted (Yes, even in Redruth, Cornwall) with window posters in local record stores and it's pulp magazine style logo and its fantastical cover art was eye-catching to say the least. So I always entertained a curiosity about the release even though at the time I knew nothing whatsoever about Hawkwind themselves.

What I particularly love about this album, and right here I'll concede that, yes, there are 'better' Hawkwind LPs but I'll argue that's not an inconsistency with having this as my 'favourite', is the way the tracks absorb the personalities and musical directions of the individual band members. Nik Turner always talks about this LP as being the most 'democratic' Hawkwind album in the way that almost all members contributed tracks, and I think that's the particular appeal of this record. 'Chronoglide Skyway' is Simon House's majestic and atmospheric composition of Spacerock that is the work of a consummate musician. (I've always felt this track would work as an 'alternative' theme music for a Doctor Who movie – visualise the Tardis falling through the time vortex to this soundscape). 'Kadu Flyer', the most criminally overlooked of Hawkwind numbers perfectly encapsulates Nik Turner's freewheeling spirit. 'City Of Lagoons' is Allan Powell taking the band (or parts of the band, it's not a full band recording) into Pink Floyd territory. We'll mention the dreaded 'F' word because Paul Rudolph's 'Aubergine That Ate Rangoon' of course elicited Dave Brock and Bob Calvert's horror of a 'funky' direction. Rudolph denies taking the band in this direction but it has to be said that whilst this track has a strong funk groove, it's funky within a Hawkwind context and absolutely works.

I never got to grips with 'Kerb Crawler', I can understand that lyrically it's meant to be ironic but it's a rare instance of Calvert's wordsmith skills failing, with the words coming across in a misogynistic manner whilst the music sounds to me just an attempt to recover some 'Silver Machine' ground. But 'Steppenwolf' is a grand, gothic demonstration of Bob's ability to take literary themes and apply them within Hawkwind both in the studio and, of course, visually on stage.

For those Hawkwind fans who like their 'meat and potatoes' heavy Spacerock, I can see that this rather more delicate flower would be a disappointment, particularly coming after one of the epitomes of the band's original approach, Warrior On The Edge Of Time. But for me, the intricacies and variation of work inherent in Astounding Sounds makes it most definitely a career highlight and in that respect alone it's fantastic to see Atomhenge bestowing such loving care in their remastering of the music and selection of material for the accompanying booklet.


mark said...

'Kadu Flyer', the most criminally overlooked of Hawkwind numbers perfectly encapsulates Nik Turner's freewheeling spirit.
You are absolutely spot on Sir.

But..... a review of Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music that doesn't mention the majesty of Reefer Madness? That could just make this review unique. :)

El Duderino said...

Good review. Of course I would have preferred that you include some reference to Herman Hesse and his "Steppenwolf".
"Aubergine" is a standout track for me. From a musical standpoint it just shows what the band is/was capable of. It should have been enough way to silence the nay-sayers way back when.
But one complaint. "Kerb Crawler" is misogynistic? I don't know about that. It is perhaps more sexual than many other HW songs (other than The Velvet Whip)but it is a rock song, plain and simple. I think from a "driving tune" point of view, you could put this one up against "Motorway City" or "Waimea Canyon Drive" or even, dare I say it "Silver Machine".
All in all I'd say it is fairly innocuous.
Lastly "Chronoglide Skyway" should be one of those songs that gets the benefit of today's technology. As an ambient track it is exceptional and it would translate very nicely into a modernized track with some more clarity in the synths and a bit more extension into the deep bass (LFE) to round out the sound.
Anyway - good on you!! Sorry this was a bit long, I love "Astounding Sounds!!