Sunday, 15 January 2017

Motivation Radio - Steve Hillage

Provenance: This is a very new album for me, as I received it for Christmas 2016. However, the reason I had wanted it stretches back a few years. I had been to see Gong play in Exeter, for whom Hillage served as both guitarist and support act. I was rather taken with his solo work I heard that night, especially 'Salmon Song'.

Gong were fantastic that night. The late Daevid Allan dressed in a gnome costume augmented with compact discs and regaled the audience with a story about collecting psilocybin mushrooms from "the wooded glades of the city." May he and Gilli Smyth enjoy the long and cosmic trip back to Planet Gong.

Review: Ugh. After wrasslin' with Ted Nugent's brutish and nasty Craveman it's a delight to lift one's gaze beyond the horizon and peer into the depths of a universe filled with a pure and positive energy. Okay, perhaps Steve Hillage hasn't exactly awoken the New Ager within, but the attitudes of discovery and wonder that pervade this album are certainly infectious. Hell, it's even there in the album cover; a wide-eyed, blissed-out Hillage, dressed like an initiate into a vaguely sinister cult, superimposed upon an image of 'The Dish' at Parkes Observatory. The inference is clear; keep your eyes on the skies and your ears tuned into the music of the spheres.

So what was Hillage concocting back on Earth to aid our ascent to a higher plane? The short answer: something endearingly eccentric.

Within the first track you're already tasting some really cool flavours - strange synthesizer sounds, Hillage's oddly attractive vocals (with no attempt made to hide his English accent) and some questing guitar work. Somewhat unexpected is the definite funk sound that is perceptible early on, and becomes more marked on songs like 'Motivation' and 'Saucer Surfing''. Reading around, I learnt that Hillage had, at this time, become quite enamoured with US funk acts such as Earth, Wind and Fire, and had consciously tried to capture some of that groove. Not that you'll ever confuse this with Mothership Connection.

With his adoption of funk, Hillage has also sloughed off a fair amount of the trappings of prog. That's not to say that this collection is any less weird as a consequence. So the seemingly straightforward heavy riff-rock of 'Light in the Sky' is undermined by Miquette Giraudy's breathy, panicked (and somewhat unexpected first time around) contributions. 'Radio' is the most singular song about radio since Helen Reddy's disturbing 'Angie Baby' (go on, have a listen and try explaining to me what's going on). In a final flourish, Hillage flips the sweaty priapism of Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away' into a song about universal love and personal inspiration. Come on, that's adorable!

At a remove of some forty years some of the sentiments can seem twee or naive to the average punter, and the synth tones are decidedly retro (so much so that they are possibly in vogue again). Was it a queer duck in 1977 too? Received wisdom suggests that such sensibilities couldn't survive in the midst of the punk crucible, but on the that punk score received wisdom is utterly wrong. (As an aside - I've lost count of the number of BBC music documentaries that show Rick Wakeman in a cape or Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower and there's a keyboard playing an interminable solo the whole time, and it's interrupted by a narrator going "But then..." and suddenly it's the intro to 'Pretty Vacant' and the Sex Pistols have destroyed everything that came before them. Everything. I mean, it's just pathetic. You can't even call it revisionism, it's just stupidity.)

However, in real time - the time you take to tune in to Motivation Radio - it is genuinely difficult to resist. If music can be escapist, then what better than an album that gives your inner consciousness a road map of the Milky Way and blasts you off with all best wishes in the world? Some music is aimed at the body, some towards the groin, some towards the head. Motivation Radio aims for the galaxy, and is all the more better for doing so.

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