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Hawkwind Light Orchestra – Stellar Variations/Dave Brock – Looking for Love in the Lost Land of Dreams

Esoteric Antenna

Hawkwind Light Orchestra - Stellar VariationsA slew of new Hawkwind-related material has appeared of late, as Dave Brock and his ever-changing cast of merry men enter their fifth decade of existence, still flying their pirate freak flags high. The group released a double album, the patchy Onward, last year, a new Brock solo album (see below) has just come out, and to top it all – in every sense – comes this quirky release from three-fifths of the current Hawkwind like-up: Brock himself, long-serving drummer Richard Chadwick, and recent arrival Niall Hone (who, like many latterday Hawkwind alumni, cut his musical teeth in the free festival scene of the 80s, in this case as a member of Tribe Of Cro). The liner notes explain that the three live in close proximity in Devon, while remaining Hawkwind bandmates Tim Blake and Mr Dibs live in France and Derbyshire respectively. Hence these trio sessions, hence this album.

Opening track “Stellar Perspectives” lays out the essential ingredients: burbling electronics, Brock’s crunching rhythm guitar, and a dubby, propulsive rhythm over which new sounds and textures are progressively ladled. It’s an arresting, highly effective update of Hawkwind’s classic trance-rock template, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. This for the most part comprises a collection of hugely enjoyable techno-rock grooves, albeit with a tendency to shift abruptly into twittering electronic haze, demonstrated best by “We Serve Mankind”, which effortlessly marries trance-techno and space rock via a fiendishly simple two-note riff that gives way to a ’60s psych-pop chorus. This track would be a good choice for airing the next time someone wonders aloud in your presence whether Hawkwind are still any good. Crank it up loud and slap them about the face with it, as if it were a large cod. One can only hope that this monster makes its way into the full band’s live set, and gets the proper lysergic stroboscope treatment in concert.

Another standout track is “It’s All Lies”, wherein the state, religion, the media, and all the other forces that be are pithily dismissed in a catchy punky powerpop style, and it would be nice to think that somewhere, somehow, there is a parallel universe where this song is currently a massive global hit. Perhaps the oddest thing here is “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad” which is one of a number of tracks to show the influence of rave and techno, but is rendered strange by the addition of a chanted vocal that reminded me of the atmospheric ’80s indie outfit Shriekback. “Cities of Rust” is pretty weird too, a driving electro workout with a heavily distorted half-spoken, half-spat Brock vocal reciting a catechism of ecological doom.

There are pleasingly strange sounds woven into most of the album, but without the whole affair becoming overloaded with studio trickery as has been the case with some recent Hawkwind releases. It’s the rhythms that hold it all together, whether it’s the woozy space jazz groove of “Variation 3” or the more obvious techno influence elsewhere. This influence isn’t, however, overdone – while the component parts are familiar, the manner in which they are assembled is surprisingly fresh, and this isn’t an attempt at an ambient techno album as per some ’90s Hawkwind releases. In fact a general criticism of this CD might be that, while the grooves are irresistible in places, they don’t always get time to develop – the 15 minute space jams of yore have been eschewed in favour of shorter, punchier tracks here, but some of the trademark hypnotic intensity has been lost as a result, and the meandering quiet bits are frustratingly inconsequential at times.

There are a couple of decidedly weak tracks too: “In the Footsteps of the Great One” is a pointless rehash of some old mid-’80s lyrics, spoken over an uneventful droney synth backing that goes nowhere, while the world could surely have lived without an HLO version, or indeed any version, of Tim Blake’s cloying “Song for a New Age”, even if it is quite nice to see the trio tipping the hat to their absent bandmate by including it. But, griping aside, the important thing to note is that when this album rocks, which it does rather a lot, it does so like the proverbial motherfucker, and it is the most consistently interesting and entertaining collection of new Hawkwind(-ish) material in at least twenty years, and as such is recommended to both devout and lapsed attendees at the Church of Hawkwind.

Dave Brock - Looking for Love in the Lost Land of DreamsIn parallel with his stewardship of Hawkwind these past 40-odd years, Dave Brock has issued a handful of solo albums at variable intervals since the early ’80s- the best being the first, 1984’s Earthed to the Ground, a remarkable lost classic of pre-rave analogue electronic psychedelia. “Analogue” is the operative word here – it’s scarcely recognised outside the hard core of their cult following, but for a period in the first half of the ’80s Brock and his Hawkwind cohorts were conjuring some wild stuff from their synths and sequencers, and could have justifiably claimed to be unschooled but fearless electronic pioneers of some sort. But at some point towards the end of that decade, one can hear the beginnings of the shift to digital, and the homebrewed electronic experimentation of Earthed to the Ground and other releases of the era was, to some extent at least, replaced by smooth presets and generic synthwash ambience.

I mention all this because generic synthwash ambience is what you hear at the start of Looking for Love in the Lost Land of Dreams, and pleasant-but-bland spacey synth sounds dominate some of the quieter passages that follow, and this should probably be acknowledged upfront. Yet there’s a great deal to enjoy here – in fact this latest Brock solo effort, an album from which I had expected very little, turns out to be something of a treasure trove. Opener “World of Ferment” consists of little more than the aforementioned synth wafts and burbles, but soon enough Brock’s guitar cranks into action and we’re into “Lover’s Whim”, seemingly a song of lost love, with rocky guitar verses that fall away into a glitchy haze of chirps, chirrups and beats. This is followed by the brief “That Day in December”, the lyric to which seems to refer to some deep regret over something that happened on said Day. The apparently personal nature of these songs comes as quite a surprise – Brock rarely discloses much about himself in lyrics or interviews, and the patented Hawkwind mix of psychotronic sci-fi and dystopian paranoia is, frankly, quite a long way from tortured-poet singer-songwriter territory. But at times this album, in its own peculiar way, gets close to that territory, although maybe not so much the songwriter bit – most of these tracks feel more like collages than actual songs.

The overall sound is a bubbling hi-tech stew that has clearly taken considerable preparation and cooking time. Some of it’s really quite sunny – probably not a word often associated with Brock – “Higher Plain” sounds like the soundtrack to a film of clouds scudding by in a summer sky, sort of opening-sequence-of-a travel-show type of thing, while the lyrics of “It’s Never Too Late” are atypically upbeat, although the track itself is generic and lightweight compared to much of the other material here.

Many of Brock’s solo albums contain reworked versions of Hawkwind tracks, but it’s a surprise to find three of them on one CD: “Lazy Days” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” are alternate takes of “Comfy Chair” and “Seahawks” respectively (both from Hawkwind’s 2010 Blood of the Earth album) while “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago” is a golden oldie, a lament at humanity that originally appeared on 1971’s In Search of Space, where it comes off as the missing link between Brock’s busking roots and the potent spacey psychedelia in which his band were now majoring. “Lazy Days” is longer and more meandering than in its previous guise, and rather weaker for it, whereas “Who Do You think You Are?” is preferable to the Blood of the Earth version, boosted here by a pulsing bassline and generally done with more verve and life. I braced myself for a travesty when “We Took The Wrong Step..” began, but the song survives its digital makeover miraculously intact, and this is in fact a rather nice version, even if the original will always be the definitive take.

Halfway through (there are 16 tracks on this thing), and so far this isn’t bad, but it’s the second half that impresses more. “The Chief” is a strangely compelling little curiosity, a slice of off-kilter rock’n’roll that sounds roughly like The Cramps jamming with Cardiacs. “Dreams” may be saddled with an uninspired title, but achieves proper depth-trance hypnosis through a repeating spidery jazz guitar figure that nobody would ever associate with Dave Brock. It’s more the sort of thing Pat Metheny might turn out – if he was a freak rather than a muso, that is. Then there’s “The Kiss”, which is the nearest this album comes to classic rock rifferama, although the song doesn’t quite live up to the soaring chord progression that opens it.

All of which acts as a fine build-up for the final track (bar a brief comedy outro), the fantastic “Menace to Society”. Hawkwind fans will be familiar with the stories of Brock’s tape experiments in the band’s early days, where he would record a brief snippet of blues guitar and then loop the tape to create something between blues and drone. Some modern equivalent of this process has been used to create the richly atmospheric backing here, and the thing has then been overlaid with a weirdly processed vocal in which Brock appears to be casting an ambivalent eye over his own eternal outsider status. Or something. I could be over-analysing. But it’s an eerie, tingling affair, and one of the best things he’s done for years.

A few forgettable tracks notwithstanding, this is the best Brock solo release since Earthed to the Ground nearly 30 years ago. The hard core of long-term Hawkwind devotees may be the only people to take note of its existence, which would be a shame, as this intriguing album deserves a wider audience than that.

-Haunted Shoreline-

 

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