Jan Dukes de GreyMice and Rats in the Loft
Released 1971 on Transatlantic
Reviewed by achuma, 29/12/2005ce
Jan Dukes de Grey were a real bunch of weirdos. This English group started out as a duo playing strange folk music, releasing a debut [which is much more ordinary, but still good if you like folk rock] on Decca in 1969 ['Sorcerers']. The cover artwork is deliciously psychedelic and looks like it was done by the same guy who did the cover for the first Galliard album.
This, like its successor, has become a rare collector's item. Unfortunately, the recent Decca/Deram 3cd anthology of 'underground' and progressive rock, 'Legend Of A Mind', didn't include any tracks from this album, although the liner notes did refer to the guitarists desire to record from within a tent he'd set up in the studio...
Presumably sales of the Decca album were far from impressive, as the next album was released on another label, Transatlantic [in 1971]. By this time the duo had expanded their musical range and added a drummer. Where the first album had 18 short songs, this featured 3 lengthy compositions, none of which had a chance commercially, all of which [in my opinion] encompass sheer brilliance and originality. This new [and final] line-up featured Derek Noy [guitar, trumpet, trombone, zelda chord (!?)], Michael Bairstow [flute, clarinet, saxophone] and Denis Conlan [drums]. Poor Denis, he looks the most normal of the lot judging by the photos - the other two guys look like borderline psychotics, and not only are they dressed in some weird kung-fu dayglo hippie garb, one of the nuts is brandishing a friggin' rifle!
'Sun Symphonica' takes up all of side 1, going through many twists and turns. The beginning of the song hardly hints at the madness to come - mellowish flute, acoustic guitar and lyrics about sunshine all seem fairly innocent. Then the sax riffing enters and the whole piece takes on a more sinister streak. It would be ridiculous to try to describe this track blow-by-blow; suffice to say it doesn't stay in one place for too long. Every now and then the band revert to something a bit more 'normal', but not for long. Inspired and unpredictable guitar breaks come out of nowhere, linking to further unpredictable segments of 'proggish' stuff in many guises. The mellower bits [sometimes with strings] are beautiful but kinda creepy at the same time. These weird prog-folk bits remind me a lot of the moods invoked on the first album by English folk-rock legends Comus ['First Utterance'], who operated at a similar level of genius. Again akin to Comus, much of the lyrical focus is dark and disturbing, but with a mythical and romantic sensibility. Apart from that, I find it really quite difficult to think of any other groups with which Jan Dukes de Grey are comparable in style. Although they are, in some ways, like Comus, they are in many other ways totally different. Some people have detected some Van der Graaf Generator influence, which can perhaps be seen in some of the more repetitive riff trance-outs utilising sax and plenty of unresolved tension, but on the whole it's a misleading comparison.
'Call of the Wild' opens side 2 - and the nice folk-rock moves at the beginning could almost pass for something by Forest or Trees. It's not long, of course, until the group begin to slide off the rails again, spinning into unexpected diversion after unexpected diversion. Still, the predominant music on the first portion of this track features only vocals, acoustic guitar, a bit of flute, and the occasional drums. In the more interesting moments, the guitar is really quite exploratory, and although its player obviously isn't quite as technically proficient as he would like, he sure makes a damn good go of it! This is complex and demanding unconventional playing, so the occasional bit of stiffness in a tricky run of notes is perfectly excusable. This illustrates one of the things I love about these guys as musicians - they aren't afraid to experiment up to and a little beyond their actual abilities, in order to try to achieve something really unique. 'Call of the Wild' resolves with a smooth transition back into the weird proggy territory I failed to adequately describe above, then back again into an acoustic finale.
The final track, 'Mice and Rats in the Loft', is the rockiest piece on the album, with plenty of raw distorted guitar riffing, and the most morbid lyrical obsessions yet. Here's an example - "The blade descended like lightning, tore him open from chest to gut, and the priest thrust his hand inside, and ripped out the still-beating heeaaaarrt!!!" Charming, innit? And there's plenty more where that came from. Musically, a bit past the half-way mark someone lets rip with something really weird, but it's hard to describe - I just can't tell what it is! Someone playing a freeform solo on a freshly oiled amplified buzzsaw in an echo chamber? Something like that. This song is just nuts, just the thing to play to your mum to make her wonder if you're really the same nice child she gave birth to all those years ago.
Although the LP is very difficult to find, and unless you're lucky if you do find it you'll be required to part with a month's pay, it has seen some degree of re-issuing. US bootleggers Shroom Productions did a version a few years back, obviously from necessity taken from vinyl. This is where I first heard the album. They did a pretty good [but not perfect] job of cleaning it up, so the sound quality isn't too bad, although there are one or two jumps from the record. Be wary though, although Shroom Productions claim their bootlegs are not CD-Rs [and maybe they aren't] they do seem to be, with labels stuck on the discs of some titles, others printed on. At the very least they are CDs of dubious manufacture. Some CD players won't play them, or will make lots of horrible noise in doing so. Still, a good computer CD drive should be able to read them to make useable copies. Also, there has been a recent [mid-2003] reissue of this album on vinyl [by Italian label Earmark] - I'm under the impression it's an official [ie. properly licensed] reissue, but knowing how some of those European reissue companies operate, I wouldn't bet on it! It's also out on a proper CD through Breathless, with liner notes by Current 93's David Tibet. The title track of the album is also included on the 2CD compilation 'Children of the Sun: the story of the Transatlantic underground 1968-1973', which includes many excellent tracks.