Sunday, 24 October 2021

John Barleycorn Must Die - Traffic


Provenance: I bought a few albums whilst I was on holiday in Canada, and John Barleycorn Must Die was one of them.

But why this, eh? Did I just reach into the secondhand sales bin like a pier arcade mechanical arm game, scooping up anything within my grasp? No! As regular readers will know, my finely honed sensibilities mean that some discernment went into this selection.

The first of the 'pull' factors is that I remember hearing a version of 'John Barleycorn Must Die' years ago; it's on one of my dad's folk-rock vinyls, though unusually for me I cannot recall whether it's the version by Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. I could just pick up the phone and ask him now, but nah.

The second thing drawing me to this was that I have been fortunate to see Steve Winwood live, supporting Steely Dan at Wembley Arena. Although he didn't play anything from this platter, I was (and remain) deeply impressed by his performance. Nobody's voice from that era has weathered the years better than his.

Finally, I do possess a version of 'John Barleycorn...' by Traffic on the fantastic Electric Eden Brit-folk compilation. It's not the cut that appears here, but it's one of the most gorgeous, atmospheric takes I've yet to hear, so if this comes close I'll be a very happy punter indeed. 

Review: Why should I bother when altrockchick has written this excellent overview? Not only does she actually analyse the music, she also provides much more background shading than the Swinetunes "uh, I think my dad has a copy of this somewhere?" brand of context. She's got a great taste in music overall - you should probably ditch this blog and migrate to hers, honestly.

However, if my particular viewpoint happens to float your boat (it's all subjective, yeah?), crack on. I confess, my expectations were subverted somewhat by the opener 'Glad' - I was anticipating gentle pastoral folk, and instead I'm treated to some lightly swinging jazz-rock with kicky piano interpolations thrown in for good measure. Nonetheless, in the best traditions of the late 1960s / early 1970s, its multiple sections and careful orchestration signal ambition and no little ability.

Does this album feature some of that weird, breathy jazz flute playing that has almost entirely vanished? Absolutely. Do I like it? Abso-damn-lutely. Flute is one of those instruments I am adamant should be part of rock's firmament (alongside the much-maligned saxophone), and 'Freedom Rider' would form part of my evidence submitted humbly to the jury and m'lud. Just as the era 1967-72 seemed to be a time when folks simply played the shit out of their bass guitars, circa. 1968-75 is also a primo time to hear some major dude wailing on the flute, be it in prog, fusion or soul. 

I am also fully in favour of the piano work on this album. As a novice ivory-botherer myself, who has only really got a grip on the minor pentatonic, I am cheered by the bloody-minded determination to play rolling New Orleans piano irrespective of the track. In this sense, Traffic are like a harbinger of a future to come where Squeeze's former keysman plays boogie over whatever his guests are serving up; John the Baptist to Jools Holland's Jesus Christ. Still, it does add a pleasing cohesion to proceedings - I dig albums that sound like the songs 'belong' with each other, even if they touch upon different styles and genres.

What of the title track then, eh? Well, it ain't quite as magical as the 'first version' that is on Electric Eden but it's still a fine, fine progressive folk testament. Where the 'first version' opts for sparseness, this one is fleshed out with more guitars, percussion and voices and ups the tempo a smidge. One wonders why the joint that ended up on the album was preferred to the earlier stab. There's a good chance that I'm in the minority here anyway, considering some of my other opinions. Regardless, it's a lovely, evocative track, the best thing on here and quite likely one of the better musical allegories about growing and harvesting barley out there (sez I, whose shelves are bulging with barley-related releases).

Solid stuff, then. Nothing here, 'John Barleycorn...' aside, has completely fried my synapses, but there is certainly a time, place and space for this kind of music. Traffic, at least on John Barleycorn Must Die, are certainly better at invoking mood than they are at writing memorable songs. It's pleasant to hear Winwood and co. 'going to church' on tracks like 'Empty Pages' and 'Every Mother's Son', and as per previous, I'll always go to bat for hyperactive rock flute. Always.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Point Of Entry - Judas Priest


Provenance: As a dyed-in-the-wool Judas Priest fanatic I own every one of their albums (except the pair of Ripper Owens releases - no Halford, no Priest).

Review: Eh, this is a funny one.

It's as if Priest tried to analyse what made British Steel such a roaring success and alighted upon a) more commercial-sounding tunes and b) a stripped back sound as the two key components, when really the answer was always c) damn good heavy metal songwriting.

Consequently, we are presented with a sleek product with, at the time, the poppiest incarnation of Judas Priest on record - but it's all a bit lightweight. And that's coming from a guy who thinks Turbo is absolutely smashing.

There are, admittedly, a few moments where Point Of Entry does take flight. Opener 'Heading Out to the Highway' has a big anthemic feel to the chorus, married to some punchy verses; 'Hot Rockin'' is Priest doing that fascinating metal tautology better than anybody, a hard rockin' track about how hard you rock (other notable entries into this subgenre: 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' by the Scorpions, 'We Rock' by Dio); and best of all is the widescreen road movie 'Desert Plains'. This last example is majestic, expansive and frankly tickles the imagination in a way that nothing else on Point... manages to do.

Them's the three highlights. Ach, it's not as if everything else is rammel, it's just that it feels half-considered or hurriedly executed, and thus a bit frustrating. The chorus to 'Don't Go' is good in a brassy, hooky way, but why is it welded to such a faltering, unsatisfying verse? 'Solar Angels' is quite intriguing and has potential as a weird, spacey number (which, to my mind, is an approach Priest have rarely explored in their career - most of their tracks are dense, closed-fist little nasties) but the rather minimalist production lets it down. I actually like 'Turning Circles', which is almost the inverse to 'Don't Go', sporting a fantastically chunky, descending riff in the verses but an irritating chorus.

There is, alas, some stuff that is just crap. What the fuck was going on when 'Troubleshooter' and 'You Say Yes' were dreamed up? 'Troubleshooter' has a lyric that could be improved simply by ceasing to exist; meanwhile, 'You Say Yes' is simply dogshit, on a par with some of the most miserable Priest material to make it onto vinyl (what is the worst? I reckon 'Rock You All Around the World' on the aforementioned Turbo is about as rancid as it gets).

One element that puzzles me is that, in Rob Halford, you have one of the most unique weapons in metal - by which I mean his ability to sustain screams at such a pitch that it feels like a hot syringe to the ears. I suppose it was used sparingly on British Steel, and here it makes a fleeting appearances, most notably in closer 'On The Run', but c'mon fellas - this is literally one of your band's defining qualities! Fortunately, Priest would get the memo for subsequent releases, but sticking to Halford's mid-range, characterful as it is, only adds to the notion that the handbrake was on during the making of Point Of Entry.

How to sum up? A bit of a stop-gap, really. Almost anything sandwiched between British Steel and the incandescent Screaming For Vengeance is likely to appear a little pastel-coloured, but even out of context it's a bit of a weird, underpowered stab at the charts. Good news - better albums were to come, but to quote Kirstie Alley's tribute to Prof. Stephen Hawking upon his passing, "You had a good go at it...thanks for your input."