Esoteric [Release date: 01.12.17]
Now that pretty much every noteworthy heritage release has been reissued individually on CD, labels have turned to a secondary repackaging concept: the box set (or clamshell), that conventionally takes in a selection of albums from a specific period or label residence.
Each typically homes a beating heart in a specific record that was to game-change the artist’s career trajectory. In this quality 4-CD set, that album is 1970′s Death Walks Behind You.
The second to be released by Atomic Rooster, its timing was perfect, coming as labels rushed with abandon to meet demand for the embryonic progressive rock genre and its many hybrids. While succeeding albums from the band would play on the graphic possibilities of its improbable moniker, ‘Death…’ is of serious intent from first inspection.
On its cover, William Blake’s mordant monotype Nebuchadnezzar emerges from darkness. Inside the gatefold, a huge monochrome depicts the power trio line-up of Vincent Crane (keyboards), John du Cann (guitars) and Paul Hammond (drums).
Crouched amidst Victorian gravestones in a London cemetery, the three are staring at the ground. The music is a melange of churning Hammond organ battling for needle time against stridently hard lead guitar work driven along by impressively propulsive percussion.
The album yields a catchy hit single in ‘Tomorrow Night’ while speed kings ‘Sleeping For Years’ and ‘I Can’t Take No More’ leave you breathless. It’s a fantastic, charting record and the band is on its way, recording a further hit single in ‘Devils Answer’. It’s also to be their pinnacle release.
Crane formed Rooster with drummer Carl Palmer after the two left Arthur Brown’s Crazy World the previous year. Bassist Nick Graham came on board and a self-titled debut (with standouts in rocking ‘Friday The 13th’ and the melancholic ‘Winter’) was released in February of the following year. Du Cann is added to the line-up; Palmer leaves to co-form ELP; Hammond is drafted in.
1971′s In Hearing of… is similarly gutsy albeit Crane is alone from the debut, an all-new line-up now including Pete (Leafhound) French on vocals.
Nice ‘n’ Greasy brings the following year yet more line-up changes and another vocalist in Chris (‘Out of Time’) Farlowe, his distinctive voice well-tempered to Crane’s questionable re-booting the band’s direction toward funk and soul The album ushered the band’s decline and the Rooster’s nest emptied.
Strong though these albums are, they are not ‘Death…’ and there are no hit singles. All five albums appear on this repackage along with the singles, unreleased tracks and six rare alternate versions and demos recorded between 1970 and ‘74.
An illustrated booklet includes interviews with Nick Graham, Pete French, Steve Bolton and Chris Farlowe, all of whom do a good, balanced job of telling – as much as anything – the bipolar Crane’s story; his wandering soul lost, taking his life in 1989 and rendering that image from the defining ‘Death Walks Behind You’ prescient, Hammond and Du Cann also now deceased.
Esoteric have endeavoured to make theirs’ the ‘last word’ in back catalogue mining. With quality re-mastering and packaging, plus plenty of contemporaneous material that’s hard to find in one place, ‘Sleeping For Years’ pays good service to the errant but visionary Vince Crane, whom death walked behind. ****
Review by Peter Muir
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