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Class ?

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: Art Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years



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Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 10

For a by-the-book blues-rock album, this is a tremendously high level.

Best song: SHE IS THE FIRE

Track listing: 1) Water (Part 1); 2) Junior's Wailing; 3) Lost You Too; 4) She Is The Fire; 5) You'll Never Know; 6) Even The Clock; 7) Down The Highway; 8) On Your Road; 9) Twenty Four Hours; 10) When All Your Friends Are Gone; 11) Water (Part 2).

Steamhammer's debut was released at a time when the British blues-rock wave was finally starting to get some steam (hence the name, eh?) - Cream had dissolved, but a new tide of bands were coming in its place, and this time, not just boring purists like the original Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac or something like that, but actually daring, brave guys who weren't afraid to let their hair down, make their sound more aggressive and sharp, on one hand, and somewhat more experimental and adventurous, on the other. Heck, this is when Led Zeppelin made their debut, after all, but there were also gazillions of 'simpler' bluesy outfits, like Ten Years After or Taste, for instance, and Steamhammer's self-titled debut should be regarded in that category, and out of that category, it's definitely one of the better albums of the epoch.

At this point, the band wasn't yet taking too many chances. The nine main tunes on here are all bluesy, ranging from pure blues to mid-tempo blues-rock. But, of course, it's not the exact melodies that count when we're speaking blues, it's the attitude and the atmosphere. And these guys had it wired. All the five members were experienced and well-trained musicians by that point, and the rhythm section rolls along with enough fire to redeem its existence; the main stars of the album, though, are the vocals guy and the main guitar guys. Kieran White is a really wonderful vocalist, with a powerful baritone that blows away nearly all competition, unless you count extreme cases like Rod Stewart... one thing that has always struck me about guys like Alvin Lee and Rory Gallagher was the absolute technical weakness of their vocals - I never had a real problem with that, as both of them had the youthful energy, sincerity, and sheer performing power to compensate for lack of a wide range or ability to always stay on key, but still, occasionally this kind of stuff kinda rubbed me in the wrong way. Kieran White, on the other hand, sings just perfectly, maybe even too perfectly for a blues guy, but then again, he does have the necessary rawness, so that's all right by me.

And the guitarists are good. I'm not sure what parts are played by Martin Quittenton and what is played by Martin Pugh on here, but just about everything about their guitars sends nice vibes up my alley: a serious variety of guitar tones (sometimes a bit too clean, but you get used to that), cool unnerving riffage when it's necessary, and fluent, emotional, soaring solos played with dexterity that might be somewhat below the level of, say, Clapton, but which is definitely high above, say, Tony Iommi (at least the early Seventies Iommi).

So the Achilles' heel, of course, is the songwriting. Basic blues songs and even more basic blues-rockers don't really make my day when there's nothing to dilute them with, and even if only two of the songs are direct covers (a B. B. King and an Eddie Boyd tune), none of the others seem to betray any kind of individuality through the melodies. Thus, the record is essentially only saved by the guys' inventiveness - you'll meet a lot of wonderfully sounding passages on here that weren't all that common on rock records in the late Sixties. For instance, my favourite number, the scorching rocker 'She Is The Fire', prefers to - for no obvious reason - begin with a short brass introduction, then contrasts Kieran's ominous vocals with a creepy wah-wah rhythm in the background and then uses the volume increasing trick to good effect when the main riff of the song almost seems to explode in your ears after the first verse. And then there's the psychedelic guitar duel which seems to be taking place in some mysterious hidden underground caves, particularly when you're in headphones.

'Even The Clock', on the other hand, doesn't just employ the same guitar battle style, but actually complements it with moody flute soloing a la Jethro Tull. And 'Down The Highway' has this weird three-note riff that repeats for several times at the end of each verse, as if saying to you: 'in case you didn't know it, I'm the hook and I wanna be forcefully introduced to you!'. 'On Your Road' is a short folksy acoustic ballad for a change, but even then it features a weird quasi-San Franciscan electri guitar tone when it comes to the solo. And even the lengthy 'blues-de-luxe' style workout (epithet stolen from Jeff Beck's Truth, of course) 'Twenty Four Hours', while it has nothing original or even particularly memorable about it, is just tasty to listen to, what with all the atmospheric guitar/harmonica solos and stuff. Really, that's good stuff out there, with a big "G", although it doesn't even approach great. It's obvious that this album couldn't have hit much popularity in the light of all the Led Zep trickery, but maybe it didn't deserve such oblivion...

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention is 'Water', the little two-part instrumental dirge that opens and closes the album - the second part of it, with the depressive and lamenting guitar, has almost reminded me of Can's 'Deadlock', if that means anything to you: the same broken-hearted end-of-the-world-ish tone that makes an unstable person wanna kill himself. That's really weird, as I don't believe the Can tune was already written by that point, nor do I believe the German band ever heard Steamhammer... but maybe that's just one good indication of how the rock business is so huge that similar ideas keep popping out from different heads all the time. Ah, talk about originality...



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 11

Monster jamming on here, plus some pleasant songwriting.

Best song: RIDING ON THE L&N

Track listing: 1) I Wouldn't Have Thought; 2) Riding On The L & N; 3) Hold That Train; 4) Levinia; 5) Henry Lane; 6) Leader Of The Ring; 7) Walking Down The Road; 8) Mountains.

The guys really come into their own on this, their third and one of their most adventurous albums. They still didn't make the big time with this album, unfortunately, because when backed against the contemporary efforts of Led Zeppelin, it seems - at first, at least - pale, shallow, and uninventive. However, there is a certain level of subtlety and skill here that the Zepsters never had, and which couldn't be appreciated by the general public because this album actually has to be listened to - seriously listened to - before it can be appreciated.

Take, for instance, the second track on here, 'Riding On The L&N' (the only cover), which has been expanded from a basic blues number into a whole ten-minute monster jam. "Oh no, not something live Cream-like", you'd say, and you'd be mistaken, because these ten minutes are actually packed with so many things and so many different approaches you'd be pretty surprised. Granted, the guys never really get off the blues train, but in a certain sense, it's more interesting to show how many different things can happen on board that train than just go all over the place interpolating African war marches and Russian folk songs. Starting with a fat powerful Steve Davy bassline, the song first goes into your average blues-rock playing/singing, then has a short Pugh solo, then Davy takes over with his Jack Bruce-inherited chops while either White or Pugh hammer out a strange muffled funky rhythm in the background... keep track of Mike Bradley's polyrhythmic percussion work... keep track of the funky rhythm suddenly changing pitch and starting to sound like a synthesizer... the drums get louder and riskier... the bass and drums start to really play off each other... Pugh steps in again for a couple of minutes of wanking... more funky rhythmics... a power chord explosion that cuts off the main melody... White's harmonica steps in as a solo instrument... now the main melody steps in again, but this time it is far more funk-based than before... finally, a fade-out as the song slowly transforms into the next number ('Hold That Train'). Ten minutes gone, and no time has really been wasted. No, it's not the best jam ever produced, but as far as inventive multi-part ones go, it smokes. And then, just as you're ready to leave, you discover that the jam in question has actually been recorded live, all ten minutes of it! Wow!

As far as pure musical achievements go, the album opener, 'I Wouldn't Have Thought', is also fairly distinguishable, mainly due to an excellent guitar solo, courtesy of Mr Pugh again - the main riff is kinda pedestrian, and White's vocals sound a bit unassured, but it's obvious that the song is little more than just an excuse for some more jamming. If you love guitar solos, though, you will appreciate this one and its clever use of blues cliches and non-cliches alike. If you want some real songs, though, there are at least two here on the second side that are among Steamhammer's best. There's 'Levinia', a pretty folksy ballad with an untrivial time signature and a slightly Ten Years After-like feel to it (and a soothing acoustic solo); and the super-cool title track, which unfortunately suffers from poor vocals again (somehow over the years White's vocals seem to have lost their original power, or, rather, he just starts to find it hard to sing powerfully and on key at the same time - sex & drugs taking their toll? Whatever), but is well-written in general, and more or less succeeds in achieving that mighty, majestic, yet totally calm feel that is usually associated with mountains, unless you're speaking volcano eruptions here. The instrumental mid-section may seem boring to you, but I personally like the subtle crescendo that it is, going from minuscule, inobtrusive, minimalistic guitar lines to a shrill Eastern-influenced guitar tone, as well as the vocal harmonies. It's simply a very good conclusion to the album.

The other three short songs on the album don't impress me that much - neither 'Henry Lane' nor 'Leader Of The Ring' don't boast any particular hooks as far as I know - but you just gotta remember, Steamhammer aren't going to seriously impress you with their vocal melodies anyway. 'Leader Of The Ring' is nice not for having an immaculate structure (it has next to no structure), but rather for the atmospheric echoey acoustic guitar duet, and 'Henry Lane' is only good as far as you get that hot banjo/guitar battle during the break. So, the fact that 'Mountains' has a good melody is rather an exception than a rule.

All the same, this is a pretty good album, and while this is a weak overall 11 as compared to a strong one for some minor groundbreaking album (Mountains hardly breaks any new ground it'd be easy for me to define), it really shows a solid British blues-rock band at the peak of their abilities. Nowhere near as pioneering as Cream (or as good at songwriting), but almost as good in the professional sense and in some respects, better in the "let's try this, this and this instead of sticking only to this" sense, if you get my meaning. Too bad the band still didn't get any appreciation, and this lack of success precipitated its decline - Mountains was the next-to-last Steamhammer album, and the last to feature band forefather Kieran White at all. (Although, if you ask me, despite writing the majority of the material for it, White becomes a pretty weak link here, with his deteriorating vocal capacity and all).



Year Of Release: 1972
Overall rating = 8

Not the kind of art-rock I could see these guys growing into.

Best song: PENUMBRA, but only parts of it

Track listing: 1) Penumbra; 2) Telegram; 3) For Against.

Weak, weak, weak, shockingly weak and rightly so. Kieran White is out of the band, and he was one of the two main pillars that held it firm in the first place. The bass player is out too, and replaced by ex-Renaissance bassist Louis Cennamo. And instead of the fiery blues-rock outfit that the band once was, we now have an insecure and unshaven "power trio" that decides to reinvent itself as art-rockers. Granted, they had already shown some progressive ambitions on Mountains, but it was still essentially an adventurous blues-rock record; for their last album, they choose the trendy prog-rock approach (maybe courtesy of Cennamo), and naturally just go overboard with this style.

There are but three compositions on the entire album, thus making it sort of a response to Close To The Edge (well, actually, I think this record came out before CTTE, but a good metaphor like that need not bother with a little stinky anachronism, don't you think?). One of them I am dismissing at once - 'For Against' starts out nice and fresh as a shrill 'n' sharp funky jam with Pugh exercising his jazzy chords and everything, but after just a couple of minutes it transforms into an endless drum solo, and where I have no place for a Jon Bonham or a Ginger Baker solo, I certainly have even less space for a Mick Bradley solo. And that's a whole quarter of the album gone to shit already.

As for the other two compositions, they have moments that go along nicely. But altogether, they just give an impression of a band completely turned to something they don't have the least idea about. It's pretty stupid, like a butcher giving up his work and turning to pottery instead. I can't even get the feeling that the band actively wants to do what it is doing: more likely, it's just a tentative approach, like, "hey guys, all these other progressive dudes get along so well, maybe we can do some of that shit and it works out all right? They prob'ly don't give a damn about it themselves and it comes out all right! So let's just try, okay?" Well - they do try, and the result is a commercial flop, an artistic misguidance and the crash of the band itself.

The side-long 'Penumbra' begins with an 'atmospheric' four-minute intro that consists of a bowed bass guitar against which somebody is vaguely screaming and grunting in the background. That's called 'avantgarde', if I'm not mistaken, and it's uh cool dude. I guess. Only around 4:00 does the track become interesting, when the rhythm finally steps in and Pugh plays an excellent, but much too short, guitar solo. Happiness just isn't there to stay, though, because the guitar solo goes away and we get treated to a minimalistic "Gothic" melody against which some unexpressive dork sings a pretentious "poetic" text (lead vocals here are credited to a certain Garth Watt-Roy... how pathetic that they couldn't even find themselves a regular vocal replacement). Again, they pick up steam around the eight minute with more blistering solos from Pugh (that guy's really underrated - he might be less fluent and technically expert than Steve Howe, but at times his guitar creates exactly the same mood!), but then they lose it again a few minutes later with a stupid rumblin'-bumblin' noise that goes on for a minute or so without achieving anything. Then the guitar comes in again and... well you got me.

The remaining track, 'Telegram', starts out with power, but the bluesy melody is a bit monotonous and I'd say b-o-r-i-n-g, and the lead vocals are a joke - for one, I simply cannot hear them, although the intonations and brief snippets of lyrics I can grasp suggest something "profound" and "prophetic". But at least they could have bothered about the mix a little bit more. And once more in some spots Pugh saves the day, but not the song, I'm afraid.

A roller-coaster disappointment, if I might say so - I did encounter a couple opinions extolling Speech as the "great lost" art-rock album of the era, but there you go: I found it, and I don't have even the least desire to present it as something even vaguely interesting. A weak, feeble 8 is the maximum I can give it, and that only because I'm in a good mood today and plus, have to pay some respect to Martin Pugh's guitar playing. (Then again, if I start paying a lot of respect to, say, Steve Walsh's guitar playing, I might end up giving Kansas records a good rating... Jesus Christ help me!) But you know how it goes - tastes are tastes, and you may find yourself actually digging this album. One objective thing I gotta tell you, though: you will encounter nothing on this album that you can't, in much superior form, encounter on a bunch of real prog classics from the early Seventies. These particular shoes were too big for Steamhammer.

And can we say "punished through divine intervention"? Mick Bradley died the same year of leukemia, and all the other band members more or less vanished into thin air... Except for Cennamo, I guess, who was later seen with Keith Relf in the hard rock band Armageddon, and later still, joined the Renaissance offshoot Illusion, which made MUCH better prog rock than Steamhammer, by the way. Check 'em out!


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