(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
Phil Miller - Guitar
Alan Gowen - Keyboards
John Greaves - Bass, Vocals
Alain Eckert - Special Guest Villain, er I mean, Guitarist
Pip Pyle - Drums, Liner Notes
Kudos once again to our friends at Cuneiform Records and to the members of National Health themselves for after all these years, allowing us to hear the band in a live setting and a lineup of NH that was never really well documented before.
During a period of uncertainty on many fronts, Dave Stewart left NH in 1979, largely due to disagreements over the band's direction, business matters and more. Nonetheless determined, the remaining three lads decided to carry on, and eventually convinced Allen Gowen to rejoin. Two ex-Henry Cow members (cellist Georgie Born and woodwind maestro Lindsay Cooper) came on board but only temporarily. Setbacks mounted one after another, but finally, the above lineup managed to hit the road in Europe and a few US East Coast dates.
With Allen Gowen back in the fold, the band's sound changed somewhat, and tilted more towards open improvisational flavored material, in addition to the intricately scored music that had been their trademark. This disc is culled from two concerts, one in France and a US performance, and features a fair amount of newer material and pieces from the members other bands (like Gilgamesh and In Cahoots), plus very ferociously snarly renditions of "Squarer For Maude" (one of my very favorite NH pieces, the closest that the band ever got to the RIO genre', but go figure, it was ex-Henry Cow bassist John Greaves that wrote it) and "Dreams Wide Awake" from Of Queues and Cures (which gets played with an intensity rivaling that of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its prime).
The high points are numerous here, not one bad piece, but my personal faves are of course "Squarer For Maude", "Flanagan's People" and the short quirky vocal piece, "Rose Sob".
The recording quality is at times dodgy, but the ferocity and commitment of these performances more than makes up for that flaw. The band is tight and really connected with each other, and the presence of guest guitarist Alain Eckart (from the French avant band Art Zoyd) actually enhances the pieces, helping the band to maintain a very thick full sound. Allen Gowen's unique brand of sonic textures is key here, lots of chiming and clangourous Rhodes piano and unique synth sounds make it a delight to hear. One could surely miss the presence of Dave Stewart's fuzz organ and everything else, but approaching this with an open mind will surmount that obstacle. Guitarist Phil Miller is in fine form, spinning off angular and witty melody lines right and left. John Greaves just roars out at you with his thick fuzzy bass (he might've been a good candidate for Magma) as Pip Pyle just gives it everything he's got from behind the drums. No mistaking these guys for a Holiday Inn lounge band playing sappy Chicago love ballads!
In addition, the liner notes are a great part of the package, chronicling the behind the scenes dramas that the band endured. It must also be noted that this disc was also intended as a tribute to Allen Gowen, who lost a battle with leukemia in 1981. Even though Allen was ill at the time of these recordings (1979), his genius and wit spoke through very loudly!
Should this be an immediate addition to your library? This Owl hoots resoundingly, YES!!