In the days before punk, there lived this lumbering beast known as ‘the concept album’, and we children of the punk revolution looked upon its form and recoiled in horror at its excesses, little realising that our own beloved LPs were concept albums themselves, even if their themes were of urban decay and the futility of everyday life. And because of this, for many years, the concept album became a hateful creature, disowned and unwanted, reviled for its cumbersome nature – and yet it was a slumbering animal and not an extinct one. For one day there would come a time when it would reawaken, its history celebrated once more and its children raised up and praised where once they would be taken to a cold and barren place and left to die.
As if by magic, here’s one of those children of the 70s concept album, the second CD from Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart, following up their successful and highly praised collaboration Earth Born with this set of 15 songs based on figures from history and characters of legend, all, as Bridget says, “people who fascinated us, who had a good story to tell.”
If you’re at all familiar with the work of Don Falcone’s Spirits Burning ensemble, you’ll understand the form. It’s a gathering of the noted and the less well known faces of the spacerock scene, contributing across the Internet and producing music that covers many of the different strands of what we collectively describe as ‘spacerock’ though it leans one moment towards progressive, another time to jazz or folk, sometimes being avant-garde and other instances being full of melody. Bloodlines, for me, veers mostly towards a progressive tone but with some really engaging hooks and even though I felt it lacking in some of the sheer jest that characterised the best bits of Earth Born, it feels more fully-formed and possessing of more depth than its predecessor overall.
The problem with writing songs about historical figures is that you run the risk of coming across a bit lecturing or, as I noted with Walking Wounded’s ‘Evolution’ track a couple of months back, akin to a Year Six educational sing-along. Don and Bridget have most certainly avoided the later problem by creating a rich and multi-layered collection but the other issue does raise its head occasionally. ‘Cleopatra’, one of the most immediately catchy and enjoyable pieces on the record, in and of itself a really rollicking ride, relates the rise and fall of the Egyptian Queen and her liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. It’s one of those tracks that instantly makes you want to hit the play button and listen to again, and yet its reliance on a literal retelling of Cleopatra’s story makes the lyrics just feel a little more textbook than heartfelt.
On the other hand, one of the most successful tracks on the album, ‘Rocket to the End of the Line’, actually eschews its otherwise encompassing themes, and is noted as being about how ‘the last of the human race need to leave Earth and let nature take over and restore balance’ with Steve Swindells joining Bridget on vocals and lyric-writing – with Bridget returning to a snatch of lyrics that she used on some of her last outings with Hawkwind. This is a smart and sassy seven-minute number that really moves along well, propelled with some nice bass from Toby Marks (of Banco de Gaia) and chug-a-chug guitar from Keith Hill alongside Steve’s piano and synth. The lovely ‘Heavens Hide’, with Bridget’s breathlessly whispering vocals counterpointing a mix of acoustic and bass guitar (the later provided by Van Der Graaf Generator’s Nic Potter – a first appearance coup for Spirits Burning), also resurrects some of her Hawkwind lyrics, this time the words better known as the ‘Seventh Star’ coda to ‘Night of the Hawks’.
‘Lady Jane’ is a thoughtful and pastoral piece that in a similar way to ‘Cleopatra’ is heavy on the historical information, but which really draws you into its quiet dignity whilst delivering a highly satisfying and elegant track. ‘Mother of the Dragon’ is a classic example of what’s great about the range of musicians that Falcone gathers to his projects – here there’s some unexpected and totally absorbing trumpet from Max Wynter juxtaposed with Steve Bemand’s electric guitar in a track that manages to be both minimalist and yet busy at the same time. Then there’s the despair of Alexandra, the last Empress of Russia, ‘Czaritsa’, with Simon House’s violins embellishing, with compellingly evocative Eastern European tones, the well-realised lyrical imagery of Russian soldiers dying on the front line whilst Alexandra herself battles an unwinnable war against her son’s haemophilia.
So the concept album isn’t dead, and on Bloodlines it’s used to great effect and perhaps that’s because the songs aren’t afraid to stray from their initial brief at times, and because the myriad of musicians (I’ve not mentioned them all here, there’s far too many, but many familiar Spirits Burning contributors are on duty again here) who each bring their own unique interpretations to the work. This enables Don and Bridget to capture their chosen concept so that it binds the songs together without the album ever dipping into dull ‘sameness’, since around each corner is another unexpected but sympathetic instrument or effect that gives the work a successful range of aural emotions and in the end delivers a very absorbing whole.
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