Review Summary: The evolution of the electrick gypsy...
Those who are fans of the genre of progressive rock music will be familiar with the work of Steve Hillage. Hillage, who has worked with the likes of Gong and Egg, is a canterbury scene musician that has ventured into the realms of psychedelic rock, jazz fusion, and electronic trance music. L is a transitional release in Hillage's discography, since this is his first solo album that does not feature an extensive list of Gong’s band members. The overall sound of the album is rather less spiritual and immersive that Hillage’s previous album, Fish Rising, sporting a sound that is rather more riff driven and grounded than the bubbly new age sound of its predecessor. This is in no way a weakness, in fact one of the strengths of this album is its raw hippy tendencies which comes from the patchiness of the album as a whole.
The album begins with a cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, a rather less aggressive and softer version than the original. It is clear from the very opening of the song that this album does not feature the bubbly new age tendencies of Fish rising. The Hurdy Gurdy is used in this track, adding a nice flavour. “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando” is very different to the previous track, beginning with a mellow guitar solo that is backed with a swirly combination of guitars and bells. It is evident that Hillage chose to imitate the ancient “aum” mantra with his guitar sound, and this is an idea that he explores in his following releases, most notably the 1978 release “Green”. The track soon progresses into a percussion driven vocal section, where the swirling guitars grow ever more intense, further highlighting the choice of the “aum” mantra sound. The track soon moves into a bass-driven jam. This track is reminiscent of some of Gong’s earlier work, particularly in the ethereal guitar backing. “Electrick Gypsies” is a whimsical affair, placed rather insensitively alongside the more spiritual sounding “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando”. This track is driven by silly lyrics and a standard rock riff that is rather uncharacteristic of Hillage’s other work. This is the album’s weakest point, but while this track does fail to reach the heights of Hillage’s other work, this new sound is fun and a pleasant listen.
Side two opens with “Om Namah Shivaya”, an incredible track that is unique among all of Hillage’s songs. Origionally written by Kesar Singh Nariula and Uma Nanda, this song is one of the album’s highlights, simply for its retro sound and unique indian flavour. This track is a blend of swirling sitars, brass, indian chants and some of Hillage’s best guitar work. This track incorporates the sacred Hindu chant “om namah shivaya”, a chant which translates to “adoration to Śiva”. “Lunar Musick Suite” is another unique track, recorded exclusively under the full moon. Jazz trumpet player Don Cherry was taken on board to embellish this track with a spacy improvisatory solo, which paints an exquisite painting across the canvas of synths and swirling guitars. Hillage’s guitar is used rather minimalistically here (with the exception of the manic synth driven opening and the final guitar solo), and once again, he uses his guitar sound to imitate the “aum” mantra, creating a superb musical soundscape that is delivered with both a strong sense of direction and a vague, ethereal subtleness. Hillage closes the track with his charming vocals, concluding the affair with lyrics somewhat reminiscent of those in his previous release. The album is brought to an upbeat and sentimental conclusion with a cover of The Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much”, which would be compatible with the ethereal “Lunar Musick Suite” if the transition was not disrupted by a disconcertingly loud chord from the band. This is one of the weaker tracks on the album, but it’s upbeat and joyous mood make it a fitting and worthy end to the album.
There is no denying the patchiness of this album as a whole, particularly in contrast to the previous release, Fish Rising, which stands as one of psychedelic rock’s greatest albums. Many of the songs do not flow well into each other, which creates a feeling of hurriedness in the production. However, this album was obviously not intended as an exercise of coherence, and there are some incredible compositions to amend any damage done by the lack of unity that exists between some of the songs. L’s highlights are the retro fusion classic “Om Namah Shivaya”, and the ethereal gem “Lunar Musick Suite”.
L is an excellent album and a worthy addition to any psychedelic music collection.