Review Summary: Tony McPhee and co.'s finest album and one of the best psychedelic blues rock albums of the 70’s.
Following the success of their breakthrough album, Thank Christ for the Bomb, The Groundhogs didn’t waste any time in returning to the studio to begin recording their next album. Having seen their previous album reach number nine in the UK charts, the band were enjoying what was at that point the most successful point of their career and they were evidently keen to get to work on its follow up. Emerging in early 1971, Split saw the band build upon the experimental elements that graced some of the material on Thank Christ for the Bomb to create their strongest and most consistent album to date.
While its predecessor had a loose concept running through all nine of its songs, Split is very much an album of two halves. Side one of the original LP is made up of the epic four-part title suite, while side two consists of a series of more straight forward but equally engaging songs. The lyrical themes of this album are a lot more personal than the themes of ‘alienness’ and war that were featured throughout Thank Christ for the Bomb but they are no less intriguing, particularly with regards to the first half of the album. The lengthy title track, which has been split into four separate parts, remains one of Tony McPhee’s finest compositions. Despite at first sounding very much like the type of drug influenced tales typical of lengthy psychedelic rock tracks, the lyrics are actually much more unconventional, telling the tale of a panic attack McPhee experienced in May 1970. This sprawling twenty minute-plus epic describes the singer/guitarist’s feelings of panic, confusion and claustrophobia over a backdrop of heavy, bluesy guitar playing complimented by Peter Cruikshank’s throbbing bass lines and Ken Pustelnik’s impressive drumming. Tony McPhee’s Jack Bruce-esque vocals are as strong here as they’ve ever been and are perfectly in keeping with the twisted tales of paranoia and hallucinations. It’s McPhee’s guitar playing however that really stands out. Raw, powerful and full of emotion, his playing is creative but never over indulgent.
While not quite as enthralling as the first, the second half is by no means disappointing. Cherry Red is rightly hailed as one of the band’s best songs, featuring an impressive vocal performance from McPhee as well as some blistering guitar work. Modern psych band Earthless covered the song for their 2007 album Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky, which goes some way to explaining the song’s iconic status within the psychedelic rock genre. Elsewhere the John Lee Hooker inspired Groundhog is a prime example of raw, dirty blues at its best while A Year in the Life provides a moment of rest bite from the album’s heavier moments.
While McPhee is undoubtedly the driving force behind the band, Pete Cruikshank and Ken Pustelnik, on bass and drums respectively, are much more than mere extras, providing an excellent tight rhythm section, which is essential for a blues rock power trio. There’s a strong chemistry evident on this album and the band show that they have enough creativity and collective talent to be considered a major force in the late 60’s/early 70’s blues rock movement and while the band went on to release some strong material after this album, this remains their finest achievement.