01 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Hawkwind - Blood of the Earth (2010, Eastworld Records)

Being a Hawkwind fan is sometimes an exercise in patience. It can often be a somewhat extended period of time between releases…and then when they arrive, they often arrive in batches, with multiple versions sometimes further muddying the waters. Further to this, the band has had somewhat of a revolving door when it comes to membership; for ever person who has been a member of, say, King Crimson (which has similarly had more line ups than some bands release albums), Hawkwind’s probably had 3 or 4. This means that until you see who is on a record, often you have no clue what a new Hawkwind release will even sound like.

Blood of the Earth is the band’s 26th studio album; this is a number that seems impressive, and is certainly a mark of a long career. However, when added to their copious list of live and archival releases, this is actually their 59th album in 40 years (we’re not even going to get into the area of compilations and other releases…the numbers would skyrocket). Joining founder Dave Brock on this release are long-time drummer Richard Chadwick (oddly still called the ‘new boy’ even though he has been with the band since 1990!), journeyman keyboardist Tim Blake (splitting his time with Gong), Mr. Dibs on bass (who joined the band just before the 2007 tour, replacing the in again, out again Alan Davey), and true ‘new boy’ Nial Hone on guitar/bass/vocals.

Blood of the Earth comes out in three separate versions, each including material not on the other releases. This review is focusing on the single CD version, which is 10 tracks plus a CD only bonus song, ‘Starshine.’ The album is also coming out on vinyl, which includes ‘Starshine’ and closes with a different bonus track, ‘Sunship.’ Finally, a limited edition 2-CD version is being released, which eschews both bonus tracks above and instead includes a live mini-album with 6 songs (including a cover of Syd Barrett’s ‘Long Gone’) and an interview. I’ll say right here that I am not a fan of the multiple version syndrome that so any bands fall prey to. While there are some situations where it’s perhaps somewhat justified (i.e., the matter with Japanese bonus tracks), basically asking a fan to buy three versions of an album to get all the material is a bit of a stretch.

Of the 11 tracks on the single disc version, two are remakes. ‘Sweet Obsession’ was originally released on Dave Brock’s 1984 album Earthed to the Ground, while ‘You’d Better Believe It’ was a featured track on 1974’s Hall of the Mountain Grill. I have little knowledge of the former track, and it’s a decent enough, sprightly rocker with pulsing bass and a nice, if overly quiet, guitar solo. ‘You’d Better Believe It’ on the other hand is a bit of a Hawkwind classic, and it’s not as if Brock/Hawkwind hasn’t done this kind of thing before (re-recording a past song for a new album). I can’t say the remake adds or subtracts anything of huge substance to the song; it’s very faithful, to my ears, to the original. I’ve heard a lot of supposition as to why these remakes get released, and I’m not sure what drives Brock/Hawkwind to do so when the album is no weaker without the track; I’d be buying the album for the new songs, not reworkings of classic tracks.

Moving past the old material…

The first 9-odd minutes of Blood of the Earth see Hawkwind mining familiar ambient territory. Sampled voices and spacey synth swirls are the recipe of the day on album opener ‘Seahawks,’ which segues nicely into a second instrumental, the title track for the release. ‘Seahawks’ does evolve over the nearly 6 minute length with some interesting mid-tempo rock sections, but the overall effect is more mood setting than anything else. Things really kick into gear on the album’s third track, the heavy rocker ‘Wraith.’ This isn’t Hawkwind re-exploring the 1980’s metal sounds of their RCA albums, even though it perhaps shares some similarities. Keyboards and synths are far more prevalent, and the vocal performances are pretty serviceable. I’m not sure if it’s Dave Brock or Nial Hone letting loose on the solos on this song, but I’d like to think it’s Brock stepping out from behind his synths and screens and showing why he’s been overlooked as a guitarist all these years. ‘Wraith’ is one of the most solid blanga rock songs Hawkwind’s put out for a number of years, and it shows that when the mood hits, they can still cut and rock with the best of them.

Things settle back on ‘Green Machine,’ a synthy workout that gives Tim Blake plenty of chance to layer on loads of analogue and digital synths. I get a vibe similar to the band’s song ‘Pulsing Cavern’ from the Chronicle of the Black Sword era, but with a lot more melody and a bit more of a sad mood/tone to things. ‘Inner Visions,’ which follows, is more electronic and almost industrial in some ways, with low mixed vocals and heavy processing on just about everything that makes sound. ‘Comfey Chair’ proffers some blissed out, lackadaisical vocals and acoustic guitar, a tonal choice that the band simply doesn’t utilise enough. Then again, it must be hard to fit acoustic guitar in a sound that is supposed to be exploring the depths of inner and outer space, where synths and swirling guitars are the raison d’être of the genre. The mix of synth and acoustic guitar is an interesting one, and even if the vocals are not immediately engaging, the experiment is, for me, a mostly successful one.

‘Prometheus’ sees Hawkwind working Indian and Eastern sounds back into their mix, with a slowed down beat and sitars winding in and out of the mix. A tendency to explore similar tones and sounds is somewhat common amongst a pretty wide swath of British bands of similar vintage, and its one Hawkwind has returned to time and time again throughout their career. ‘Sentinel’ is almost Hawkwind ballad territory; slow, layered vocals, simple beats…the only thing it’s missing is chiming guitar tones to make the scene complete. The guitar work here is again very good, with Brock’s solo (this time it’s obvious) particularly enjoyable.

Blood of the Earth, single CD edition, closes out with the bonus track ‘Starshine.’ I often hate the term bonus track…it conjures up images of songs not good enough to make the album proper, but stuck on anyway in an effort to fill things up. They become almost penalty tracks in a lot of cases. I’m not sure that ‘Starshine’ fits this description; while it is somewhat similar in tone and style to some of the other instrumental tracks on the release (particularly the album opener sans the rock bit), it is an enjoyable bit of Hawkwind space ambience. I think I’d have preferred this as a main album track with ‘You’d Better Believe It’ as a bonus track.

Blood of the Earth does a lot well. It is a strong release that showcases a number of the band’s many musical facets. There’s rock, there’s ambience, and there are songs both fast and slow. I am critical of some mixing decisions; I think the guitar could have been mixed much higher, and I think vocals were buried too deeply in the mix. Overall, the album does sound good, with a fairly deep sound field and plenty of room for instruments to breathe; this makes the decision to mix down the guitar and vocals all the more frustrating. The songwriting is solid and consistent throughout, and in the end, Blood of the Earth is an enjoyable Hawkwind release worthy of adding to the band’s lengthy C.V.

01. Seahawks

02. Blood of the Earth

03. Wraith

04. Green Machine

05. Inner Visions

06. Sweet Obsession

07. Comfey Chair

08. Prometheus

09. You'd Better Believe It

10. Sentinel

11. Starshine (bonus track)

Band Members:

Dave Brock – guitar, keyboards, vocals

Mr. Dibs – bass guitar, vocals

Tim Blake – keyboards

Nial Hone – guitar, bass guitar, keyboards

Richard Chadwick – drums, vocals

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Ta for the review - great album! One thing - Green Machine was written, and presumably performed, by Niall Hone according to the double cd notes, not Tim Blake. The bonus cd is well worth the extra £!!