I’ve blogged before on how the reissue programme for the Hawkwind back catalogue has provided a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate the band’s historical output, particularly in light of, generally, not having heard many of these records since Sonic Assassins was written back in 2002/2003. It’s a little like the classic Doctor Who DVD releases, having ditched or sold-on the videos years ago, each new release is an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the original stories (and to delight in the quality of the restorations, another thing in common with Atomhenge’s Hawkwind discs) and to revisit earlier assessments, for good or for bad. In the latter respect then, much disappointment in the recent release of ‘Battlefield’, which I’d previously considered much maligned for little reason, in the former, the quite stunning 3-disc set of ‘The War Games’, once considered a ten episode plod-fest and now seen as a totally engaging epic. I guess as we move through life our tastes and outlooks change and that reflects in the things we’ve loved and cared about over the years in a creative sense.
So, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, for which I’ve already had a few people taking me, nicely, to task for rating this studio version of Hawkwind’s Elric adaptations in contrast to the popular convention of its live counterpart, Live Chronicles being the better realisation of Mike Moorcock’s stories. And, you know, there is a valid point in the general consensus to be honest, even though I’m not going to revise my previous opinions, because there is something a little over-produced, a little too studio about this record. It has a sheen to it that wasn’t previously present in 1980s Hawkwind, something of a shiny surface to the sound quality or the mix that, compared to the live recording, leaves it a touch too clinical in a way.
That said, I still hold this album to be at the pinnacle of 80s Hawkwind. They might have been drifting a bit in the previous couple or three years (really from the point at which Choose Your Masques didn’t come up to the standard set by Sonic Attack and they’d released the rather pointless ‘Silver Machine’ reworking as a single in preference to Langton’s LP highlight ‘Solitary Mind Games’) but this, along with Sonic Attack, is as close to a top-drawer album as they’d come up with for the whole of the 1980s. The entire first side is of uniformly high standard, the band mainstays all getting a crack of the whip on contributing to the writing of the album, Langton’s lead guitar complementing rather than dominating and Bainbridge’s keyboards really setting the atmosphere very nicely. ‘Song of the Swords’ opens up the LP at a good pace, a real strong opener, ‘The Pulsing Cavern’ has a lovely ambience to it, and I love the opening part of ‘Elric The Enchanter’ with its ‘frozen in a time trap’ imagery.
Side two is where it starts to unfold, however. I’ve always liked ‘Needle Gun’ in and of itself, it’s sharp and pokey and you can see why it’s there, it’s ideal 7” fodder and perhaps with a different label that could have promoted it a bit more sharply it could have been a contributor to a full-blown renaissance for the band in a chart sense. But it’s out of place in the run of the album and the, excuse me, chronicling of the Elric saga is rather compromised by its inclusion even though it’s thematically part of the ‘Eternal Champion’ mythology in general (why not have stuck it on the end as a ‘bonus’ track to tie-in with the single release, perhaps?). ‘Zarozinia’ misses the mark despite being a lovely song with well-chosen and constructed lyrics simply because it’s that type of slow, moody, song that Dave Brock doesn’t deliver terribly well vocally, to my ears, though its equally difficult to see who else in that line-up would have been suited to it either. Then we’re into ‘The Demise’ and ‘Chaos Army’, which really are nothing tracks and ‘Sleep of a Thousand Tears’ which starts strongly but goes nowhere, before things coalesce back into side one standard with the closing ‘Horn of Destiny’.
Perhaps where this LP also misses out is in its budgetary constraints and the restrictions of the single LP format. We know that Langton had two more cracking songs available, ‘Moonglum’ and ‘The Dreaming City’ (this release leaves me curious as to whether they were never laid down in the studio at all, given that not even demo versions surface here as extras) and of course what’s also lost to the vagaries of the Hawkwind line-up is what Nik Turner, who has previously noted that he’d been writing material for the concept at the time of his sacking from the band, would have contributed had his membership continued. It’s still a classic Hawkwind album, pretty cohesive and largely well thought-out, but one that just drifts off the boil mid-way through.
Additional material included here: ‘Arioch’, an instrumental previously available as the b-side to the ‘Needle Gun’ single, and pre-dating the Chronicles line-up, what’s often (mainly by me, I guess) been described as the last throw of the dice for the previous incarnation of the band, the ‘Earth Ritual Preview’ EP. Those are tracks that I’m fairly ambivalent about, honestly. Discounting ‘Dream Dancers’ which, again, is one of those something of nothing FX Hawkwind tracks, there’s three very good numbers here: ‘Night of the Hawks’, ‘Green Finned Demon’ and ‘Dragons and Fables’. What’s disappointing, in hindsight, about all three is that the original versions have been absolutely superseded by subsequent outings. Perhaps that’s natural as songs develop through being reworked and played live, but you’d absolutely hope that Lemmy guesting on a 1980s Hawkwind track would turn up something definitive. It’s difficult, though, not to feel that his presence on ‘Night of the Hawks’ was somewhat wasted in the final mix, where even the ensuing Radio One session version was superior, not to mention how good this song became played on the ‘Bedrock’ TV show and even by the stripped-down three-piece band in 1991. ‘Green Finned Demon’, a rather nice, understated number, was completely improved on by the ‘trio’, whilst ‘Dragons and Fables’, which to be fair hung around the Hawkwind set rather too long, improved soon after the release of ‘Earth Ritual Preview’ when Huw ever so slightly quickened the pace of the song at concerts, turning it into something of fan-favourite.
Again though, another cracking release from Atomhenge, roll on the recently announced 3-disc version of Levitation.