Review Summary: Grave New World is a perfect mix of Strawbs' folk-based heritage with their growing interest in the progressive rock world.
Strawbs initially had a sound that was pretty well-established in the British folk rock scene, and were one of the few bands to ride successfully from folk onto the coat tails of progressive rock. While their lineup has constantly changed, their sound has been in a constant evolution, thanks to mastermind Dave Cousins, who is the driving force, the main songwriter and the only constant member since their formation. The group’s two first efforts were acoustic, folk-based albums that already contained signs of things to come in both the lengthy epics The Battle
and The Vision of the Lady of the Lake
, the latter which featured a contribution on keyboards from a certain young session player named Rick Wakeman.
While the band were still very much in search of their identity, Cousins recruited Wakeman full-time. The keyboardist only appeared on both their famous live recording at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Just a Collection of Antique and Curios
, and From the Witchwood
, the former showing Wakeman ‘the wizard’ literally taking the floor in one of the band’s most highlighted performances. Cousins’ lead vocals and lyrics were, as per usual deeply moving, soothing, and often dark and haunting. Bassist John Ford shined with his unusual percussive style of playing. Wakeman however outshone his co-players, and the prodigious wizard's skills on the piano were immediately and unanimously recognized by critics: Rick Wakeman was tomorrow’s superstar. From the Witchwood
represents the transitional phase and search for Strawbs’ definitive sound and style.
Despite his short tenure within Strawbs, the addition of Wakeman brought a change that was to have a profound effect on the development of the band, that was about to shift towards the prog rock scene, causing the first major and logical change in the personnel. In effect, Grave New World
was the last release to feature former guitarist Tony Hooper, drummer Richard Hudson and bassist John Ford, who weren't interested in abandoning their folk roots, developing more and more opposite interests with Cousins. Leaving Strawbs to join Yes, Rick Wakeman was replaced by Blue Weaver (future Bee Gees) who joined the fold prior to the release of their masterwork. This album is an innovative concept, describing a journey of a man's life from birth to death, and the hardships in between. The record really proposes an unbroken song sequence, in which no part can be omitted without devaluing the overall work. It contains plenty of heartfelt acoustic parts and lush keyboards, passionate and reflective lyrics, quality vocal harmonies between Cousins and Hooper, and a fiery rhythm section. It was the band’s first symphonic progressive album, and marked the beginning of their golden era, which includes its three followers Bursting at the Seams
, Hero & Heroine
The new keyboardist had just stepped into Wakeman's shoes and was being asked to play keyboards like his life depended on it, which he did. The album is filled with great songwriting, reflective lyrics, symphonic arrangements and superb performances throughout. The overall sound of is dark, and features plenty of brooding mellotron parts and a few delicate folk-flavoured acoustic pieces. From the opening chords, you know you’re in for something tremendous. A demonstration of their progressive rock orientation over their folk rock roots are comes straight away with the hymnal opener Benedictus
, which sets the tone for the whole thing, with its devoted and contemplative sound.
Queen of Dreams
is rather a compromise between prog and folk, with its sweet melody and vocal harmonies. It has an experimental nature, with a backward taped intro, an interesting psychedelical touch, and once again, fantastic mellotron runs. Heavy Disguise
is another classic progressive piece, a la Jethro Tull. Sung by bassist John Ford, it's filled with great acoustic guitar and a lush orchestral interlude filled with brass. The centrepiece of the album, New World
, is a powerful, mellotron-driven song that is an overwhelming musical experience, and is, like Benedictus
, a classic of their new orientation. The Flower and the Young Man
is a symphonic ballad, a delicate piece of vocal harmony and organ contrasted with a robust rhythm section. Next to it stands one of the heaviest Strawbs tracks, Tomorrow
. It has harsh and bitter lyrics and was allegedly written about Wakeman’s departure (a reference for this is also found in Benedictus’ lyrics). It has a much more progressive structure, complete with a long instrumental closing section, and the organ sound is close to that of more conventional bands of the era, such as Deep Purple and Uriah Heep.
Grave New World
is a mix of fragile beauty and powerful pomposity. It demonstrates that the blend of the band’s folk roots with the instrumentation of progressive rock actually could be moulded together with great results. The album marked the beginning of an amazing run of four fantastic prog folk album for Strawbs, still containing elements of both, but always with an uncanny melodic sense, and an awareness and appreciation for darkness and light, the tragic and the celebratory being merely alternate and necessary components of the whole.