Esoteric [Release date 01.12.14] CD/DVD
These two reissues give us a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate that fusion of classical and prog that the band Sky purveyed back in 1979. A “supergroup” of sorts bringing together the unlikely presence of classical guitarist John Williams with fellow Aussie Kevin Peek, and one-time Curved Air keyboards man Francis Monkman with ace sessioners Tristan Fry (percussion) and Herbie Flowers (bass).
Flowers and Fry had actually worked with Williams on his 1971 album ‘Changes’ but listeners are directed to his second non-classical album ‘Travelling’ in 1978 and the title track for a taste of what was to come.
On paper, Sky sounded promising and their debut album was well received reaching No.2 in the UK album chart. In particular the original side two was taken up with a superb Monkman composition ‘Where Opposites Meet’. This is a brilliant showcase for the stellar musicianship and ebbs and flows beautifully within its 19 minute timeframe.
The expanded version of this debut includes a bonus live version recorded in November 1979 but to be honest it sounds to me like the recorded version – the band are that good. There are bonuses also of the non-album ‘Dies Irae’ (another fine Monkman composition) and the single ‘March To The Scaffold’ whilst the second disc – a DVD – includes a short interview with Williams, Fry and Flowers in March 1979 and several BBC television performances in the same year.
The band excelled at single-length instrumental pieces that melded rock (Peek), pumping rhythm (Flowers) with a semi-classical (or folk) veneer such as on ‘Westway’, ‘Danza’ and ‘Cannonball’. Monkman’s resonating synth tones are also quite wonderful.
Once again Esoteric have produced a much needed definitive reissue enhanced by remastering and Sid Smith’s liner notes. This release also brought back happy memories of getting my original album signed by the band in HMV, Birmingham in 1979.
Sadly guitarist Kevin Peek – wracked by a protracted legal case over his later business interests – died in February 2013 which makes a full reunion impossible. But, whatever, it was always novel to see John Williams with an electric guitar and this album is a stellar example of where classical meets rock. *****
Sky’s 1980 follow up – Sky 2 – is further enhanced by a bonus DVD which features the band in concert for the BBC in May 1980. The ambitious double album may have lacked the novel impact of their debut but nevertheless yielded the minor hit single ‘Toccata’ and Monkman’s Curved Air-staple ‘Vivaldi’ (always a live favourite). Tunes like the Elizabethan ‘Ballet-Volta’, ‘Gavotte & Variations’ and ‘Andante’ are played quite straight and contrast with the more heavyweight ‘Fifo’.
The serious stuff was tempered by the somewhat throwaway Flowers piece ‘Tuba Smarties’ which again became a staple in their live act and his ‘Dance Of The Little Fairies’ which almost matched Flowers’ chosen attire (a very seventies hooped jumper) in its child-friendly conception. He redeems himself with the long-form ‘Scipio’. The album was more commercially successful than its predecessor reaching No 1 in the album charts and going platinum. ****
Monkman’s departure from the band before the third album – Sky 3 – changed the dynamic somewhat and in spite of a further two albums, by 1984 they were struggling after the departure of John Williams. By 1995 they were history.
Perhaps most significantly Sky bucked the popular trend in the late-1970s/early 1980s, the perfect antidote to the more prevalent punk and then new wave fashion. Clean-cut and non-threatening they received plenty of exposure on mainstream TV as well as radio. The Esoteric reissue campaign is to be welcomed and affording a timely reappraisal. Yes, you may have thought Sky were uncool and somewhat studied at the time (they remain seated for much of their live shows) but – goodness me – the music has aged better than most.
Review by David Randall
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