Sunday, 15 September 2019

Death Walks Behind You - Atomic Rooster

Provenance: I heard a version of 'The Devil's Answer' on some completely random rock compilation that also featured INXS and Hootie & the Blowfish. I liked it, so when I came across a CD version of this album that included two versions of 'The Devil's Answer' as bonus tracks (as far as I'm aware, it was only ever released as a single in the UK), I thought to myself, what the heck, let's have a bash at some of their other stuff. Also, you can't fault using a William Blake monotype as cover art.

Review: After the gossamer-light ululations of Kate Bush, we're back down on terra-very much-firma with the clunking fist of Atomic Rooster. The band look every bit as typical and anonymous as you expect them too - like three replacement members of Steppenwolf, or indeed, absolutely anyone from Cactus - and don't make any surprise moves on the musical front either. Another early 1970s 'eavy and 'umble outfit with a few proggy pretensions. File next to virtually every other band of the era aside from Black Sabbath, who at least had the good grace not to lard their nascent doom-metal with lashings of organ. Every fucking band of this time thought a big ol' Hammond was the key to sounding portentous, when really the answer was feed your bassist too much cheese before bedtime and then let him write lyrics about the resultant experience.

This is all a bit unfair with regards to Atomic Rooster - or, at the very least, Death Walks Behind You - because I think it's a top quality album. Just because I've heard a gajillion bands crawling their way through the doped-up sludge rock ooze of the early 1970s doesn't mean that there aren't a few good'uns amongst them. It's true that I spent years trying to convince myself that Deep Purple were decent when they actually weren't, but some, like the Groundhogs, or Mountain, or the Edgar Broughton Band, or even Uriah Heep did something neat enough or funny enough to distinguish them from the patchouli-powered peloton. So, what distinguishes Atomic Rooster's sophomore effort from the likes of Leaf Hound, Elias Hulk, et al.?

The answer - songs, dear boys, songs! Whilst many of their peers seemed content so merely pen frameworks for their semi-improvised jamming (yawn), the Atomic Rooster lads had the good grace to actually write some tunes. I'm sure a goddamn Night Sun album sounds great when your whacked off your gourd, but in the mundane environs my front room in 2019, I'm unlikely to take too many journeys to the centre of the mind assisted by sparkling water and Glacier Fruits. And thus, the music has to stand or fall by its own terms.

Death Walks Behind You starts almost like something from King Crimson's Red, albeit not quite so wilfully oblique, a minor-key piano theme jutting against some dissonant ambient noise, but then it crashes into an unexpectedly funky chorus riff, one that manages to be both catchy and heavy at the same time. The verses are good as well; a descending chord sequence that sounds like a demonic inversion of Chicago's '25 or 6 to 4'. It builds tension admirably, with the release coming in a reprise of the chorus. This is cool! The next track isn't so great, seeing as it sounds a bit like a lumpen version of Yes' 'Roundabout', or perhaps a Focus outtake where Thijs van Leer forgot to bring his flute along, but it's okay as far as rock instrumentals of this vintage are concerned, plus it's called 'Vug' so I sense the band didn't think too much of it either. It is certainly 'eavy though!

However, here's a decent joint on the docket - 'Tomorrow Night', which actually gave Atomic Rooster a UK top twenty hit. Thematically it's a slight departure from the rather chesty boasts about sexual conquests made by many of these spectacularly hairy groups, as it introduces notes of doubt and insecurity into the mix. It's still delivered with stridency by guitarist / vocalist John Du Cann (whose rich low tenor delivery is very appealing), but it fits in with an undertow of existential confusion that runs throughout Death Walks Behind You. At this juncture, I feel I should also mention that Du Cann's rhythm work on the album is really fine, abhorring anything too finicky in favour of a sledgehammer attack, often barrelling huge power chords at the listener in ack-ack bursts. If anything, drummer Paul Hammond is the busiest, his combination of heft and jazzy nous a welcome contribution. Somewhere in the middle is the talented, tragic Vincent Crane (organ / piano), who often complements Du Cann but allows himself the odd Keith Emerson-flavoured wallop on the keyzzz.

I guess it's the forward motion, the propulsion behind many of these tracks, that makes Death Walks Behind You such a listenable confection. 'Sleeping For Years' is a proper standout; in other hands this could have devolved into some interminable head number, but here it whacks you around the chops a bit and then lets you go to enjoy the next offering. That offering is 'Can't Take No More', which sounds a helluva lot like the Electric Light Orchestra's 'Don't Bring Me Down'. Songs sound like other songs, I get that, but Jeff Lynne of ELO fame was added as a writer to The Hives' 'Go Right Ahead' after it was recorded, because the band thought it sounded so similar.

'Go Right Ahead' was released in 2012. 'Don't Bring Me Down' was released in 1979. 'Can't Take No More' was released in 1971.

Death Walks Behind You doesn't really falter in quality as an album until right at the end - 'Nobody Else', the penultimate track, is built around a lovely, plaintive piano theme from Crane - and it's only with closing instrumental 'Gershatzer' that it's a bit ragged and disjointed. It's the kind of thing I guess The Nice did fairly well, and I don't like The Nice. Still, if you can stomach the odd indulgent instrumental for the sake of a collection of high quality, slightly foreboding and melodically strong hard rock, Death Walks Behind You should be on the Crimbo list.

Oh, and 'The Devil's Answer' still rocks!

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