Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Steamhammer
Speech


Released 1972 on Bellaphon
Reviewed by achuma, 29/01/2006ce


It’s true but strange (to me, anyway) that Steamhammer, if people check out their music at all, are generally known solely for their early output, which is miles more ordinary than what’s to be found on their last album, ‘Speech’. There were basically two sides to Steamhammer’s musical history, despite the numerous lineup changes earlier on. The side that gets me excited is the ‘Speech’ side; the other one is everything before that, and while there were some good moments in that first phase, it’s not at all in the same league or style.
Steamhammer came together in Worthing, England at the end of 1968 as a blues band, with a lineup featuring Kieran White (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Martin Quittenton (guitar), Martin Pugh (guitar), Steve Davy (bass) and Michael Rushton (drums) and released their self-titled debut on CBS in 1969 (a.k.a. ‘Reflection’), after playing the role of backing band for Freddy King on his UK tour. Despite being nothing remarkable on record at this point (not discounting some good tracks with hints of psychedelic rock and slight progressive yearnings), they were building up a reputation as a great live band who would go into extended jamming on stage, often playing 2 hour-plus gigs. Over the next year or so they became more popular in Europe than at home, and played festivals in w. Germany, Holland and parts of Scandinavia, as well as later performing on Beat Club. At the end of the year Quittenton and Rushton had been replaced by Mick Bradley (drums) and Steve Joliffe (sax, flute), and with the newcomers came a turn to a slightly more original and ‘progressive’ sound, though without dropping the blues rock roots they’d started with. Still, though, the resulting album ‘Mk II’ [CBS, 1969] was no masterpiece either, but some good tracks were to be found on it. In the interim Joliffe left, and later of course, ended up in Tangerine Dream!
Now down to White, Pugh, Davy and Bradley the band turned out one last record documenting phase one of Steamhammer, ‘Mountains’ [B&C, 1970]. Compilers (such as the ‘Junior’s Wailing’ compilation) generally only go up to this point, probably because at least the tracks are still shorter and more accessible. ‘Mountains’ is regarded by many progressive rock fans as Steamhammer’s best album, and it surely is better than the preceding two, particularly on the live track included, the lengthy jam song ‘Riding on the L&N’. (When they sing that line though, it always sounds like ‘Driving on the Isle of Man’ to me unless I listen more closely, and funnily enough not only does it also have a kind of Man feel to the driving stoned groove jamming, it’s perfect driving music and I listen to it most often on a compilation tape I made for the car.) But, none of this is a patch on the monumental forgotten album that would follow and end the story of Steamhammer.
Having now stripped down to a duo of Pugh and Bradley, and stripped of the controlling influence of the departed Kieran White, they picked up Louis Cennamo (ex-Renaissance) on bass to record their last album in late 1971, though some accounts say he joined the group whilst White was still around, as a replacement for Davy. The occasional vocals were apparently contributed by Garth Watt-Roy (ex-Greatest Show On Earth, Fuzzy Duck), but there’s no mention of this on my copy (the Repertoire CD reissue). This last album would be a radically different experience from anything Steamhammer had done before – or indeed pretty different from what anyone had done before, overall. ‘Riding on the L&N’ hinted at some of it, but really, it’s like a distant echo from bygone times in comparison.
Even the liner-notes for the Repertoire CD reissues refer to this as a “disappointing, partly chaotic album and the negative reception of the record led to the end of Steamhammer”, which is hardly likely to make people want to check it out – except if you like the sound of the “chaotic” bit like me – but whatever jackass wrote that description needs his or her ears and sense of taste checked, because if you ask me and everyone I’ve played this too, this is some pretty cool shit right here. I sure wasn’t disappointed – in fact when I first listened to just a few seconds of the CD in the shop and didn’t have any money on me, I put myself out coming all the way across the other side of town again first thing the very next day just to be sure it was mine as soon as possible. And by the way, it’s not that chaotic, either – but don’t let that put you off. And by the way, before we get off this paragraph, the very same liner notes preceded that statement above by saying that by the time the album was released in 1972 (only in Germany, too, which couldn’t have helped their exposure, but you’d expect the Germans at least to buy this kind of stuff, especially as the band were popular there) the band didn’t exist anymore. So how could poor reception of the album lead to their breakup if they had jumped the gun and broke up before it hit the shops?
The album cover was a painted job but it had the appearance from a slight distance of being one of those great covers of old, where someone would go to the trouble of creating some little 3-dimensional diorama or scene and then photographing it. However a closer look quickly reveals that it’s no such thing, but it’s still an interesting cover, with a blue planet cracked open to reveal simmering volcanos within, and flying saucers, space stations and astrological symbols orbiting without. Following over to the back cover you see that the top of the planet is lifted off by strings attached to an equal-limbed cross being manipulated by a disembodied puppeteer’s blue hand, emerging from a dark murk in the midst of white clouds.

‘Speech’ contains just three long tracks, and is progressive rock but very much of the underground variety. It stretches out into dark space and at times hits metal territory in a unique way that blows me away each and every time. Much of it sounds as though played out over some remote, icy Nordic waste under ageless permanent night.
Side 1 consist of just one track, the vast chasm of aching melancholy, pain and cosmic mourning that is ‘Penumbra’ [22:42], broken up into 5 parts – ‘Entrance’, ‘Battlements’, ‘Passage to Remorse’, ‘Sightless Substance’ and ‘Mortal Thought’. It begins with solemn and ominous bowed cello intonations matched melodically by wordless vocals and underscored with a subtle drone from a resonant cello string. Actually, it might just be reverbed guitar scraped with a bow, and bowed bass doing the lower drone. It’s clear from the start that this is going to be a much different journey, and this unsettling gothic mood feels almost like having a tea party in a crypt with several animated corpses. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place in an appropriate Dario Argento flick. The tea party is shattered around the 3:30 mark by a synth-like drone fading in, the cello-substitute drones to a big distorted climax and guitars, bass and drums all kick into an instant galloping groove, rocking mean, lean and technical like a less-heavy Three Man Army stomper, or early Allman Brothers Band crazed on crystal meth and ditching the blues for some agitated progressive hard rock. They’re riding along like the horsemen of the apocalypse, minus one, but made up for with the overdubbed lead guitar that blazes away with embellishments from speaker to speaker, before all crash down on one note that rings out, and it’s all solemn musical pronouncements again. We’re in the hall of the mountain king, as a regal but dark sparse riff reverberates with sombre spaciousness over some of the few vocals on the album. I can understand most of the lyrics but can’t figure out what he’s singing about – regardless, it’s all fairly solemn, fantasy-laden and devoid of future hope. The drums are crashing and resounding almost like gongs in some huge, sacred place of stone. Several minutes of this and another hard, complex riff kicks in, still with drums rolling and punctuating in their inner galaxy of reverb, and the guitar takes on a weird, spacey garbled tone as it claws out its sinister riff, which all sounds like some dark classical work for a small chamber ensemble, but played with rock instruments. A couple of minutes later it slows down, leading to a mind-enveloping gong crash, the wake of which opens out into deep space central, sounds resounding as far as the ear can see. Out of the void comes a mellow, exploratory groove carried by meandering bass and free-flowing, lyrical guitar work, the drums tinkering and rolling beneath holding it all up like a twinkling belt of stars. It all has the feel of some inspired three-piece West Coast acid rock band jamming themselves into the cosmos, somewhat like later Agitation Free. The drums push up the strength of the whole groove now, riding the toms and the cymbals simultaneously and lifting it all up closer to the sun without changing the pace. Hmmm, maybe more like Ash Ra Tempel now, and/or some highlight from the first Hawkwind album... Out of nowhere the guitar starts plucking the form of a very cool riff out of the passing clusters of sound, but it disappears almost immediately before the whole groove vanishes down Shiva’s butt crack and a beautifully cosmic space opens out, created entirely by gorgeously reverbed and subtly echoed dual-tracked guitar, all faded-in strokes of glistening manna, angelically beautiful, and you feel like you’re standing awestruck in some glowingly whiter-than-white room on board a spacecraft just beyond the edge of the known universe. A minute or two and this again fades, and a massive oppressive groove enters, driven by a wicked repeated fuzz bass riff, sliding up and down like a striding dinosaur, and that very cool riff from before re-enters, here perfectly at home riding the bass and drums like they were just waiting for it, but nonetheless weeping and mourning like an already-dead soul that just won’t give up hope. Anguished vocals enter for the last time, crying out for some kind of relief from the confusion and sadness, the groove starts pounding along monstrously, before huge distorted clarion calls of guitar grind out periodically over the top of it all as tormented but defiant sheets of sound, heralding a signal to the gods beyond that these humans will not lie down and die without a fight. It’s all so heavy, but there’s nary a power chord in sight, nor any riffs of great leadenness – it’s all produced by that enormous bass and the overall oppressive vibe and relentless rhythmic drive laid down by the collective, somewhat like Sweet Slag, if you’ve had the pleasure of hearing them. After charging straight up to the battlements at Valhalla, the massive, imposing gates creak open with spaced guitar sounds echoing and scraping through your weary mind before it fades away and you can sleep and gather strength for a few seconds before turning the record over.

‘Telegram’ [12:00], opening side 2, fades in with an unsettling rising tone over a humming drone like some mundane machinery on space deck 8, before a big ‘whoooooshhh!’ sweeps out and whacks you between the eyes with a strange, malevolent prog-metal riff matrix, guitar grinding away like a meshwork of intersecting blades, bass sliding up and down scarred ravines like a lupine predator. A fiddly change comes with notes flying and locking together before that gong from space hits again, dissolving all into blissful dreams of starry night, as a gentle guitar melody is plucked, floating sweetly before being interrupted by great reverbing gong strokes and segments of the soul-eating riffage from earlier. Then the beauty is banished altogether as guitars, bass and drums kick back in with a vengeance, slicing out a savage grind of a riff that digs tunnels through mountainsides, and indeed the king who hangs out in that mountain hall is back and pissed, stomping portentously between bars like the giant motherfucker he is, before a voice plaintively moans “it’s under control...” and the riff exits stage left, with only the funereal ceremonial beat of the king’s kettle drum and wordless vocals chanting like Gregorian monks at a way-serious ceremonial do. No laughing in here, chum. As they finish their thing, guitar and bass emerge with a quiet, complex mediaeval riff, soon joined by clattering military drums, all tight as a fish’s rectum. This gives way to a spacey segment of knob-fading-in heavenly guitar strokes, bass and percussion meandering in their now regained consciousness, before all coalesce and build to a jittery peak, then BAM, re-enter the serious riffage, now heavier and more furious than before, and more limber from the brief rest, loping along like a 6-limbed, well-lubricated robotic predator after its prey, but keeping just enough behind to make it tense and thrilling, before leaping on the fleeing being and tearing it asunder as everything rolls to a close.
‘For Against’ [10:58] begins with a complex flurry of notes, bass and guitar matching each other at each step, with a second guitar intermeshing but not copying the others. After building to nearly mind-boggling levels of inter-coordination they flow into a kind of funky sub-Santana groove of the sort that seems destined to lead shortly into a drum solo, which of course it does after a bit of jazzy noodling. It’s good as drum solos go, and Mick Bradley here definitely shows his worth as a talented jazz-worthy drummer, but yes, it is just a drum solo for nearly 8 minutes, book-ended by instrumental segments of jazzy riffing and closing in a spacey swirl. Regardless, the album remains a classic for the previous two tracks alone, which fortunately make up over 3/4 of the whole record.

In early ’72 Bradley had passed on from leukaemia, when the album was still being mixed. Although the remaining members tried to keep going shortly after with John Lingwood as a replacement, though their hearts weren’t really in it after their friend’s sudden departure, and after gigging briefly as Axis, they called it a day for that particular musical avenue. Pugh and Cennamo went on to join up with Keith Relf (ex-Yardbirds) and Bobby Caldwell (ex-Captain Beyond, Johnny & Edgar Winter bands) to form Armageddon, who had nothing to do with the earlier obscure US hard psych band nor the German band Armaggedon (note the difference in spelling). This Armageddon made a self-titled album for A&M in 1975, which is under-rated and contains much wicked heavy rock with pummelling grooves, bearing echoes of both the rhythmic sensibilities of late Steamhammer and early Captain Beyond, but sounding overall more like Captain Beyond-meets-Three Man Army. This has also been reissued on Repertoire, and ‘Speech’ has more recently been reissued again by Akarma.


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