Sunday, May 20, 2012

HAWKWIND - Onward (Plastic Head 2012)

Hawkwind seem to be going through a renaissance of late (no doubt due to namedropping from the right places) and given that so much of the band’s recent history has involved as many lawyers as guitar strings, it’s heartening to see a more functional machine and not the petty squabbles of 150 million or so ex-members. Hawkwind and my ears have had a long and happy relationship and it’s strange to think that Dave Brock is now in his 70’s, because let’s be honest here, Hawkwind were always old. They looked like a bunch of ancients in the early 70’s – just look at Del Detmar’s photo on the rear of IN SEARCH OF SPACE. He’s at least 102. What is of particular personal interest at this point in the band’s history is the inclusion of Tim Blake as a steady member (he returned to the ranks in December 2007). There were a small number of key musicians who brought something unique from outside to benefit the Hawkwind sound; Simon House, Lemmy and Tim Blake were all of equal importance in this regard; and his presence brings with it an optimism that Hawkwind can still be a credible force.

SEASONS makes for a fine opener to this sprawling 1 hour and 21 minute album. This is the sort of choppy psychedelic metal that they’ve been honing to varying degrees of success since Alien 4. On this occasion it works and is not only worthy of brand Hawkwind, but with Dave Brock’s meandering lead guitars, is instantly recognisable. THE HILLS HAVE EYES kicks in, all pile-driving guitars and swirls of Tim Blake’s deliciously devious electronics: His rekindled position on the Hawkwind mothership is a strategic coup. MIND CUT is an old school acoustic number and Brock’s first vocal on the album, which draws on the spirit of many ages of Hawkwind and could easily be mistaken for something from the late 70’s. Brock has always been the most distinctive Hawkwind vocalist, and while Mr. Dibbs just about manages his position, he seems to follow a lineage; Ron Tree, Captain Rizz, Matthew Wright, Bridget Wishart (and er... Samantha Fox); vocalists associated with the band that question necessity. SYSTEM CHECK is a short skit of sci-fi space-soap that leads into DEATH TRAP. For the last couple of decades, Hawkwind albums have been liberal with archeology. Some of this has been pointless or ill advised, but In the case of DEATH TRAP, its rudimentary brilliance has rendered it a survivor of such grave digging. While Ron Tree’s ALIEN 4 rendition was the high point of his contribution to the band, Calvert’s punked up Roxy Music original is still the jewel and the ONWARD version maintains it’s own sense of urgency. It’s also good to see one of many great tracks on the shockingly underrated PXR5 being reassessed rather than more SONIC ATTACK or SILVER MACHINE. SOUTHERN CROSS is where Tim Blake’s highly individual sonic footprint really rises to the front of the mix in something that is similar in tone to his CRYSTAL MACHINE and BLAKE’S NEW JERUSALEM albums from the late 70’s (between Gong and first Hawkwind stint). THE PROPHECY is another timeless Brock lead vocal, although the track itself would be unremarkable without it. ELECTRIC TEARS is the sort of hippy drippy title only Hawkwind can get away with and this serves as another brief melancholic interlude leading into the bass heavy and hypnotic THE DRIVE BY. Alternating between rock and percussive electronics, this builds on polyphonic experiments first blueprinted on 1994’s IT IS THE BUSINESS OF THE FUTURE TO BE DANGEROUS, although (at 4:39 minutes) it seems quite truncated by those standards!! COMPUTER COWARDS opened with some manic typing and judging by the lyrical matter I’m guessing it’s an assault on the bedroom terrorist balaclava of the Internet and the “hiding, sniping, sarcastic little creeps” that wear it so readily. This is a chunky and abrasive slice of Hawkwind building that blockade of noise and turmoil they concocted over 40 years ago. HOWLING MOON is another brief trip of eerie bass chords, creepy synths and arpeggiated flutters, briefly breaking down into something on the jazzy side towards the end. We first saw RIGHT TO DECIDE in 1992, a time when Hawkwind were hell-bent on being down with the ravers by releasing it as a 12” with horrible dance remixes by Eat Static types. The song itself is a verifiable Hawkwind classic although I don’t hear any remarkable changes and I’m pretty sure this is a live recording, as is AERO SPACE AGE. This first appeared (also in live form) as AEROSPACE-AGE INFERNO on the IN YOUR AREA album in 1999 and is no match for the incredible energy of that earlier version. THE FLOWERING OF THE ROSE is an elongated and unremarkable live jam, which does little besides add 8 minutes to the playing time. These things may work on stage but that’s where they need to stay. TRANS AIR TRUCKING is another all-too-brief Tim Blake driven electronic excursion and DEEP VENTS is a daunting intro to GREEN FINNED DEMON, another track with a long and conspicuous history splayed across the matrix of Hawkwind related product. Notably, this was included on Dave Brock’s solo album EARTHED TO THE GROUND from 1984, which is slightly confusing, as several Hawkwind albums could be considered Dave Brock solo (if you really want to nitpick!). Nevertheless it’s another classic and serves to balance the tail end of the album. Finally, the curiously titled “.” is a huge wall of grinding Hawkwind with interludes of demented poetic paranoia. This winds the journey down through several layers of effects and ambient noise. It seems that some form of gradual tail-off is needed to avoid decompression sickness!

Certainly a better representation of the Hawkwind model than several releases over the past decade and a half, ONWARD’s strengths undoubtedly lie in the fusion of old and new. Hawkwind have such a wealth of lesser-heard material from times beyond their classic era that it makes sense for them to structure their albums in this manner, so long as they’re not butchering their past. The very fact of there being a Hawkwind in 2012 is a considerable achievement, and while there’s no hope of ever matching the monumental groundbreaking of 1970-1975 with similar strides, this album represents the name in a dignified manner. - BOZ

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