Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Steamhammer
Speech


Released 1972 on Brain
Reviewed by gogmagog, 20/08/2007ce


After 35 years of a life full (at least, from 1980 onwards) of listening to rock music I am always doubly surprised and delighted when I land on something as special as this monolithic slab of 1972-ness that is Steamhammer's final goodbye, before certain members would re-group (with players from Captain Beyond) for the astounding Armageddon LP of 1975.

I had heard the name, and seen their Mountains LP knocking around on reissue. But recently, I had the chance of scoring 3 of their 4 LP's (excepting Mountains) pretty cheap, but didn't know much beyond the stereotypical progressive-blues tag. Looking around on the internet, it seemed that this LP for the Brain label didn't go down well with the stalwart Hammer-heads over on ProgArchives.com, which is why i was so surprised to hear a quasi-symphonic, troglodyte-prog, guitar thesis/masterpiece emanating from the stoned "Green Brain" grooves.

The Speech LP kicks of with the full-side, five-movement, guitar odyssey that is "Penumbra". At times ethereal, at others eldritch - in tone, this is a massive work of pared-down guitar rock, displaying its most immediate sytlistic affinity with T2's similarly massive full-side guitar march "Morning," from their stoned-out "It'll All Work Out In Bloomland" (1970) LP released on Decca.

Although two years down the line, Speech has a similarly great cave-man/1970 quality to it - like Andromeda's granite-heavy debut LP from 69' even, or Man's "The Alchemist" - this is a basic guitar approach with similarly minimalist arrangments.

Penumbra's 1st movement "Entrance" (what else? - this is 72! and Introduction, Prelude and Entrance ruled the lands as first-movement titles go), kicks of with the gothic, down-in-the-cellar scrapings of Louis Cenamo's sonorous bowed electric-bass, a Poe-esque atmosphere - plangent, claustrophic - pervades, and we could easily be in the middle of one of Conrad Schnitzler's early Tange cello-masturbations here.

Without warning "Battlements" erupts - an early outing for Martin Pugh's trademark Page-hommage "Buzzard" off the Armageddon LP. A classic seventies riff, here it is less phased, and slightly simpler, but the arrangement has its own particular quality conveyed in its simplicity - the rollicking groove is remiscent of Page's own "Song Remains the Same," with the impressive Feb, 1972 recording date giving pause for thought for Zep fans. Simply, too good to lose, its no surprsie Armageddon re-wrote this - it could well be the most apposite example of the seventies guitar riff there is.

However its over before it began - and "Passage To Remorse" is just that: a remorseful, minor-key mid-paced vocal movement, backing vocals ooohing and aahing like "Argus"-period Wishbone Ash - gradually a circular guitar riff appears and the other instruments join in - picking up the pace as they do so - soon we're into a stoned-immaculate early seventies phase-athon, and early UFO connotations start a-ringing harmoniously all over the shop.

BANG! A struck gong - echoes and reverberates and a funky, bluesy-picked riff seeps in to "Sightless Substance" again VERY wishbone-like, pentatonic's cross-fertilising and breeding new little motifs of their own, as the pace picks up - could be "Flying" by UFO if Mogg, Way & Co. had had a little more energy, and a little less Heineken (well, in Way's case any..er..way). Deep into this guitar extemporisation, and the solo still shows no sign of slowing up - until finally Pugh slows down and in comes an absolutely beautiful (but short) guitar lament - almost medieval in tone; gentle notes are picked and slide into nothingness, its a tranquil pool of chromium sound - arpeggios introduce the last movement of this side.

"Mortal thought" - another vocal appearance and a bit more of an orthodox blues holler (Don't Know How! Don't Know Why!") the backers sing as Garth Watt-Roy goes for a Gillan vocal cresecedno but fails miserably. As if annoyed by this, Cenamo lets rip a huge incongruous bowed-BASS slide out of the mix - knocking the listener temporarily off balance. I have a feeling this is what the LP's dissenters over on ProgArchives.com meant by the strange mix - but its a minor, picky gripe if so.

Ending in a vat of sound, this is another of those early seventies full-siders that just can't fail to please. On the other side are two equally humungous tracks of about 12 minutes each. "Telegram" is a little more together - a song format that reminds me a little of Cockney Rebel for some reason I can't quite put my finger, or ear, on! Still the basic riffs are to the fore, until the riff dies out to be replaced with a greta 8-minute build and refrain, build and refrain, of marching Wishbone Ash guitar and potentuous harmony vocals. Excellent Stuff!

"For Against" is a little more proggy with complex riffoids diving all over the place - a little like Yes' mammoth "Heart of the Sunrise" in places - odd time-signatures, but grooving aswell - in fact, perhaps the nearest comparison for this track is Colloseum and, as if on cue, a typical flanged bass and drum interplay commences - which just adds to the whole Jon Hiseman-and Tony Reeves-like quality. Maybe a little Soft Machine even towards the end, and a nice change of mood.

The whole LP is an absolute stomper - minimal yes, but there is something great about its innocent quality - just like the aformentioned T2. Steamhammer's other Lp "Mk II" is a little more arranged and hasn't got that "basement in Hamburg" (in actual fact, Command Studios in London) quality to it, being very well-produced and, interstingly enough, comprising an early outing for Steve Jollife on flute (who joined tange just in time for their abysmal, beginning-of-the-end-for-me, LP - Cyclone). The "Mk II" LP is quite different in tone - having a very nicely-produced Traffic vibe to it. But still, I can't reccomend "Speech" enough for lovers of the feral prog-psych crossover sounds of Andromeda, early Nektar (esp. "Sounds Like This" and "Journey...") and T2, as well as the cosmic guitar journeys of early UFO, Wishbone Ash and so on. Brilliant. And a comfortable 9/10!


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