Ibis - Sun Supreme. 1974 Italy

Ibis were made up of ex-New Trolls members (and a former drummer from Atomic Rooster - and whose name is not Carl Palmer) and this was their debut album (though technically the first album was under the name Nico, Gianni, Frank, Maurizio). It was far more geared towards symphonic progressive rock, heavily influenced by Yes, especially when compared against their second, more straightforward, hard rock album.

There really aren't any highlight tracks for Sun Supreme. Honestly, I'm amazed this album gets the praise it does, especially since it walks right into the usual "prog is pretentious" argument (an argument that I absolutely disagree with, even here at its most obvious). And yet this album - of all albums - somehow gets a pass from the critics. For starters this has nothing to do with the Italian progressive rock movement (indigenous melodies are missing, English vocals). Not that one should get automatic demerits for that, but it is worth mentioning given the time and place. What we have with Sun Supreme is a huge heaping mess of Yes. And I mean mess as in Tales From Topographic Ocean Yes (disclaimer: I really like Tales From Topographic Ocean  - but not necessarily going to fawn over a copycat attempt that falls short). From the song titles to the "higher key" religious aspects (oh hello Satguru Maharaji and his followers: Did you like this album dedicated to you? How come nothing like this from the home country, anyway?). I should offer minuses too, since 'Divinity Part 2' is nothing but a very long, and very dull, drum solo. That's 7 minutes of boredom right there.

So it seems I'm really down on Sun Supreme then? Well, no, that's not true. I do like it - as I do appreciate a good Yes imitation (heck I even adore Druid's Towards the Sun). It's hardly a style that is easy to emulate, and it's good entertainment taken on its own if you can ignore the influences. I'm loathe to use terms like overrated, since albums like this are barely rated in the first place (it's not like the New York Times was pushing this down everyone's throat as the next big thing). But I have to say that I disagree with those that claim this is a classic work. It's not a classic by my estimation. Unless you want a somewhat tepid response to Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans. It screams New Trolls cash-in. Probably because that is exactly what it is. Buy it only if you can't get enough of that sound. And perhaps I fall into that category. I can't help it.

Personal collection
LP: 1974 Polydor
CD: 2010 Universal (Japan)

Aquarelle - Sous un Arbre. 1978 Canada

* 1. La Magie des Sons 6:40
** 2. Francoise 4:54
3. Bridge 6:22
* 4. Sous un Arbre 4:38
* 5. Aquarelle (Part 1,2,3) 8:22
** 6. Volupte 4:37
7. Esperanto 5:53

Aquarelle's debut is far from a typical jazz fusion album. In the late 1970's, there were literally hundreds of albums that featured musicians showing off their technical chops. They couldn't help but parade their considerable talent on the latest synthesizer, while trading solos back and forth with the next Allan Holdsworth, Al Di Meola or Bill Connors. To many listeners, including yours truly, this was met with a big yawn. Might be great listening to those wanting to learn the trade, or were participants in the scene, but I want something more. Like songs for example. Or compositions. And Aquarelle delivers on both fronts. They are the antithesis to the normal fare of the era. As I review, I begin to think of band leader and primary composer Pierre Lescaut as some sort of genius. It's the blending of the instruments that make the album so special. Violin, flute, sax, female wordless voice, and mostly Pierre's piano that stand out, but in ensemble form. Guitar, bass and drums give it the rock feeling they were striving for, but only that - as an underlying structure.

Despite the profound statements from the last paragraph, I wouldn't say it's all that obvious on a casual listen. Read some reviews online and you'll see terms like "dated fusion", or "nothing out of the ordinary". Indeed, it is just that - out of the ordinary. I didn't recognize it myself for many years. In fact, not until the Gnosis review some 15 years after initial purchase, did I register in my memory banks that this wasn't a garden variety late 70's Quebec fusion band.

It was only for 1) that I recalled anything different. A smoking violin led piece, and what seemed to me to be the most progressive song on the album. Today, I scratch my head on why I would think that. Perhaps it's the most obvious song on the album. But on multiple spins, it's really 4) and 5) that are the truly progressive oriented numbers. 4) takes a bit to get going, but features a wonderful mid-track break with a complex meter and some fine rhythm guitar work. 5) gives off more than a whiff of classical chamber music all within the context of jazz and rock. Splendid really. It's only on 3) and closer 7) that there are any hints of the funky fusion of the day. Even still, these are far from cheap skeletons on which to solo endlessly on. And both are fine tracks, if only less exceptional than the others.

That leaves the two brilliant pieces in my estimation. 2) features a stunning flute melody, and is as happy a song as you will ever hear. The Caribbean festival bit on the last third of the track embodies the spirit of the mood, while adding a progressive twist to an already great song. But it's 6) that wins the grand prize. Words cannot describe the stunning beauty of this composition. How could I not hear it 20 years ago? Or even 4 years ago on a deep dive review for Gnosis? It's the kind of mid-album piece one would discover on an Italian progressive rock album. The moment that hits you and you can only utter "it's brilliant!". Ah, the beauty of discovering what you already have.

Personal collection
LP: 1978 Atlantic
CD: 2010 Belle Antique (Japan)

I found a sealed LP in a Kansas City record store back in 1991. Ah, the days when the classic Midwest cities all had cool record stores with import gems like this - all for under $10. KC was one of the great record store towns, with many excellent stores in the Westport district alone. No more of course. I miss those days of traveling to cities for the sole purpose of buying records (and eating the local cuisine and drinking the local swill - fortunately we can still do this!). Oh sure, some of these stores still exist, but are a mere skeleton of what they once were. Until 2010, no other LP or CD presses existed. So I was much surprised when I heard that Belle Antique managed to obtain the licenses for both of the Aquarelle albums. I know there had been some talk of ProgQuebec reissuing these, and they still might. But I decided not to wait and pulled the trigger for the higher priced mini-LP. This isn't the type of album I typically collect in this format (single sleeve, rather boring cover), but I'm not chancing the fact it may never come out legitimately again. Not the kind of title that is likely to sell much anyway. Also, note that this CD is taken from vinyl (licensed from main songwriter and keyboardist Pierre Lescaut).

Agitation Free - Last. 1971-1974; 1976 Germany

While I was originally disappointed with 2nd, I found Last more to my liking, at least originally. Stylistically it ties closer to Malesch due to the experimentation though minus the ethnic influences, sadly enough.

Though not released until 1976, Last is in reality an archival release, more similar to the type of albums that we are seeing coming to light for the first time today. The first two tracks are from a live concert circa March, 1973, while 'Looping IV' is a studio recording from Feb, 1974. The bonus track 'Schwingspule' is a live recording from December of 1971.

'Soundpool' is yet another version of 'Rücksturz' from Malesch, this time hidden behind a raft full of electronics. As if to prove that Agitation Free's two best melodies were 'Rücksturz' and 'Laila' (from 2nd", both make their appearance here and 'Laila II' has the most extended version of the classic piece. And it's brilliant with plenty of references to Malesch blended into the psychedelic jamming. At 17 minutes, there's a little bit of aimless experimentation to endure, but overall still a great variation of the classic tune. 'Looping IV' is yet another new chapter in the Agitation Free book. Just as 2nd finished with two distinct tracks of innovation, thus so does the 1974 version of the band. For those who would like to hear another possible variation on the 1971 Tangerine Dream Alpha Centauri sound, then 'Looping IV' is for you. This track goes way out there, with plenty of echoed organ, bass, drums, electronics, voices, guitars - all, naturally enough, looped over and over for a mesmerizing psychedelic experience. One can only hope there is far more Agitation Free sitting in the vaults (not counting the already excellent At the Cliffs of River Rhine and Fragments archival albums). An Ohr or Kosmische classic that never was released. 'Schwingspule' is a great find and my favorite of the bonus tracks that SPV originally pressed across the three original albums. A fitting followup to the experimental 'Looping IV' but with a closing psychedelic guitar jam that recalls Malesch especially on its bonus track. If only high quality tape versions of this era of the band existed!

Personal collection
LP: 1976 Barclay (France)
CD: 2010 Belle Antique (Japan)
LP: 2013 Made in Germany

When I first started collecting progressive rock in earnest around 1985 or so, Last was considered one of the holy grails. In those days, even rare albums cost about $40 or $50 - and Last was a whopping $75! Way beyond my budget (budget = number of skipped meals). Perhaps because it was an afterthought release, not even available in their home country, that the album was thought to be so rare (not to mention original sales were probably weak). The single sleeve original was only released in France, and is now by far the cheapest of the three as an original, but still hardly cheap. Unlike the first two albums, there was no second LP press on IRI nor did Amber Soundroom bother to reissue it. In 2013, Made in Germany finally repressed this one on vinyl. I was able to source one cheap, but it's a straight reissue (with nice liner notes though  - and utilizes the SPV cover. I bought the Spalax CD the minute it came out (1992), and had been satisfied with it. However, a good friend of this site told me that the SPV version is far superior in sound and I had planned to upgrade to that version. However, just like the other two Agitation Free albums, the Belle Antique mini-LP is taken from the SPV remaster, and so I splurged for that instead and sold off the Spalax CD. Only misstep from Marquee (Belle Antique) is the missing of English liner notes as is the case with most of their reissues (which makes sense since they are supposed to be for sale in Japan only).

Updated: 12/31/2014

Agitation Free - 2nd. 1973 Germany

After discovering Malesch, naturally 2nd immediately became my top want back in 1985. When I eventually did land a copy a couple of years later, which was the French IRI reissue, I was mightily disappointed. Mainly because 2nd wasn't Malesch. There are no Middle Eastern themes or even an overt psychedelic feeling to relate to. Over time, I've come to terms with 2nd, and now view the album as a total classic. It's closer to the "US west coast" 1960's sound, and is somewhat of an oddity in Krautrock circles.

'First Communication' defines the new ethos of Agitation Free. One that is considerably looser, more laid back and well, free. Generally this is where the West Coast term is applied. The late 1960's psychedelic scene of the San Francisco Bay Area as defined by The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. A pleasant guitar lead jam, if not exactly a great way to state "we're back!". 'Dialogue and Random' recalls the experimental aspects of 'Pulse' from Malesch and is somewhat of a waste of time. It's the two part 'Laila' where things become interesting, with a fine loud guitar solo among the somewhat peaceful surroundings. 'Laila, Part II' has a killer drum and bass line, followed by a stunning acid guitar melody, certainly Agitation Free's most recognized after 'Rücksturz' from their debut. The return of the swirling organ from the Malesch era is also much welcome. A stone classic of a song. 'In the Silence of the Morning Sunrise' brings us another strong Agitation Free styled melody, in a more laid back setting that typifies 2nd. A sweet, serene song. 'A Quiet Walk' is the odd bird in Agitation Free's catalog, sounding like a lost outtake from an Ohr label recording session. Part one's 'Listening' is an exercise in soundscape and atmosphere. With echoed found sounds, and layers of background organ, the feel is one of meditation and reflection. I think if there wasn't a payoff at the end, this could be seen as somewhat boring in the same way as 'Dialogue and Random'. But at roughly the 5 minute mark I suspect we hit the 'Not of the Same Kind' portion of the track, which provides the climax to the plot set out in part one. Acoustic guitar strumming lay the bed of rice for the main course - some mighty fine electric guitar runs (with studio effects) and percussion. Not an immediately likable song, but one whose hidden qualities come after multiple listens. If 'A Quiet Walk' pulls us out of the creative station, then 'Haunted Island' is off the rails. And it's a stunner. Here we get Agitation Free in hard blues rock territory complete with narrative vocals, some treated with a Leslie ala Brainticket's Cottonwood Hill and some really mean fuzz guitar solos. A closer that is at complete odds with anything else on this album, or even Malesch. A whole album of this style would have been amazing to behold. Bonus track 'Laila 74' takes us back to 2nd's finest melody - here in a live setting (decent quality) where the structure is looser and the jam more intense. An awesome addition to an already great album.

Personal Collection
LP: 1973 Vertigo
CD: 2010 Belle Antique (Japan)

Original LPs come in a gatefold cover and have the iconic swirl label. Worth noting there is a 1975 repress that has the spaceship label, and is considerably cheaper in the marketplace than the original. My history of this album goes way back to 1988. As noted above, the first copy I owned was the French IRI LP that comes in a simple single sleeve, with an altered cover (2nd scan). Next, I picked up the Spalax CD and with that moved out the French LP. As is usual with the label, the Spalax CD is bare bones and nothing special. I held onto this version for some 15 years, being the sole representative. That's not going to work. So I set about changing that situation in 2010 by replacing the CD with the Japanese mini-LP on Belle Antique. It is the same mastering as found on the SPV/Revisited CD (3rd scan represents its cover, as well as the Made in Germany LP repress), and to my ears was much better than the Spalax edition. It was also the first version to contain a bonus track. And of course it features the brilliant packaging of the original to the finest detail. Then it was time to find the original LP. I rarely pay top dollar for originals, but this is one where an exception was deemed necessary (and it had to be the swirl variety). So finally in 2015, I paid dearly for one. And it will remain with me until the end of days. Oh, and one side note, I also did recently pick up the Garden of Delights CD for curiosity sake. It's wonderful with a full history of the band. I did decide to sell it though, as it offers little else different.

V.A. - Umsonst und Draussen - Porta Westvlothica 1978. 1978 Germany

1. Munju - I Feel So Blue Without You
2. Out of Focus - Sommer '58
3. Real Ax Band - Never Never Again
4. Good Food - Take It
5. Embryo - Wir sind alle politische Gefangene
6. Aera - Herr Siebert & die sieben Siebe
7. Mathea Wlömsk - Bahama Mama
8. High Crack - Anina
9. Porta Westfalica Allstars - Airto
10. Das Dritte Ohr - Don't Use Your Spray
11. Hammerfest - Wilde Zeit
12. Molle - Bildertraum
13. Checkpoint Charlie - Smogalarm
14. Porta Westfalica Allstars - Keine Macht für Niemand
15. Spacebox - Tape Talk
16. Julius Schittenhelm - Er dreht sich hinein ins Hirn
17. Airbreak - Crossover
18. Missus Beastly - Porta Erotica
19. Brühwarm - Tango
20. Brühwarm - Fummelrock

1) No better way to open than with some electric sax in the Xhol Caravan, "Hot Rats" era Zappa sort of way. Excellent opener. This track came from Munju's "Moon You" album.

2) Out of Focus make their first festival appearance. One of the legendary bands from the early Krautrock era of 1970-1974. Out of Focus proved to have quite a bit of archival material as they have not only one, but two full CDs of studio music plus one live concert. But none of it extends as far as 1978, where the band was about to become Kontrast. And here they prove to be the veterans they are, with a superb piece, complete with a beautiful melody driven by the flute. I want to hear more of Out of Focus from this era!

3) is an unreleased track by the Embryo offshoot group Real Ax Band. This one is a slow burn, with a deep funk groove and wah wah guitar solos. The Barry White vocal attempt was.... not a good idea. Where's Ms. Archer? Vocals aside, I'd love to hear more of this session.

4) Don't know who Good Food is, but this is a really swell primarily instrumental Latin inspired fusion piece driven by some great rhythm work and Rhodes piano leads the solo and melody lines. At 7 minutes, this is also the longest piece on the entire 2 LP set. Definitely a band I'd like to know more about.

5) Schneeball/April heroes Embryo weigh in with a deep funk piece, also a bit of a slow burn similar to the Real Ax Band, with almost scat like vocals. A different sound from Embryo, but one I found highly appealing. Amazing guitar solo from Bunka. Maybe I'd be interested in Garden of Delights releasing this concert first - rather the '77 one!

6) Well, it was about time Aera showed up! Another "name" band, and by 1978, a group who already had a couple of albums under their belt. Oddly, they only featured a primarily percussion piece (excepting a few ensemble seconds at the end). Hardly representative of the band, who are fine progenitors of jazz fusion.

7) Mathea Wlömsk is another new name for me. I suppose it should be no surprise they are yet another fusion band. The driving bass and phased guitar solos recall the excellent obscure group Mosaik. I definitely want to hear more from this band!

8) Yet again, we hear a new group - High Crack. They are a bit more in the typical funky fusion genre that was all the rage in Germany at this time. A bit more generic than their festival peers - at least on this one piece. I'd still like to hear what else they have to offer.

10) Das Dritte Ohr have a few albums, of which I know nothing about. Here they provide an old time got-the-blues-real-bad-oh-yea-I-do complete with amplified harmonica. It's awful... next!

11) Hammerfest, as mentioned before, are one of the sponsors of the festival - so they of course get their space. They're a bit eclectic, and here they offer yet another got-the-blues-real-bad track - though at a faster pace than Das Dritte Ohr. OK, so they're a mover and shaker of the scene, what are you going to do? Next...

12) And here we have Molle, who started the 1977 album off inauspiciously. Contrary to that piece, the music here is quite good, dominated by a nice flute line and an excellent guitar solo. There's quite a bit of German vocals, which I suspect is politically motivated, but not sure.

13) And now for Germany's most prolific polit-rocker Checkpoint Charlie. Apparently an hilarious song about ecological destruction. And what says funny like left wing political Germans? OK, no fair, I'm not German (well, I am actually - but 3rd generation American...), so let's move on... next!

9) & 14) The Porta All-Stars is obviously a collective gathered for the concert. On the first track they present a sort of acoustic blues, with some nice flute, acoustic guitar and wordless voice. No Power for Nobody is what the second title translates to. IIRC, Ton Steine Scherben also had an album by that name. Yea, baby, ANARCHY RULES! Apparently we're in the midst of the hardcore polit-rock section of the LP. Next!

15) Uli Trepte's Spacebox is a big fave with my more avant minded music friends. For me, they leave a lot be desired. 'Tape Talk' is a track from their self-titled 1979 album. Pretty much mindless drivel as far as I'm concerned. OK, NEXT!!!

16) Producer and folk busker Schittenhelm pushed through another irrelevant track. NEXT!!

17) OK, back on solid ground with Airbreak, a funky fusion band with wah wah rhythm guitar driving the sax & guitar leads. A typical tropical and sunny sound dominates here. Probably not a group that would be overly special on LP, though I'd be interested in hearing more anyway. Not that much different than the High Crack group earlier in the album.

18) UMR's favorite Missus Beastly contributes an unreleased track, that if we were to go by name only would appear to be background music for a, ahem, "blue" film. In reality it's pretty much in the genre of all of MB's work, with a solid groove and great instrumentals provided by electric piano, guitar and flute. Definitely one of the highlight of the entire set.

19) The less said about Brühwarm the better.

Despite a great opening, the festival has clearly taken a turn for the political, at least on vinyl. My least favorite set of the 1975-1978 festivals.

Unfortunately this was the end of the classic era of the Umsonst and Draussen festivals on vinyl. The festival itself continues on to this day. There was one more album released in 1983, but it's a huge drop off in quality. Not only musically, at least for fans of the classic Kraut fusion sound like myself, but primarily the sound quality is awful. Which seems inexcusable, given the date - but alas it is what it is.

V.A. - Umsonst und Draussen - Vlotho '77. 1977 Germany

1. Molle - The Joker 4:30
2. Hammerfest - Jung Siegfried 5:35
3. ES - Today 5:15
4. Checkpoint Charlie - Ausschnitt aus der Geschichte von Herrn Müller 3:55
5. Julius Schittenhelm - Drei Orchideen 3:30
6. Munju - Patscha Menga Underground 8:48
7. Moira - Improvisationen 6:15
8. Funky Bone & The Gang - Higher 7:30
9. Embryo - Getalongwithasong 6:40
10. Real Ax Band - Move Your Ass in Time 5:40
11. Skyline - The Journey 7:49
12. Sadja - Daka Dhin 2:30
13. Einhorn - Einhorn Thema 5:55
14. ES - Fee Forever 1:30
15. Missus Beastly - For Flü 7:28
16. Release Music Orchestra - Sonntag 6:25
17. Ihr - Give Peace a Chance 1:27

1) Gets things off on the wrong foot with an awful cover of the Steve Miller Band classic complete with harmonica leads. Don't know Molle and don't need to. OK, looks like they managed an album called "Kotten". Next...

2) Hammerfest are obviously a core band of the festival, and the April/Schneeball kollektiv. This group has proven hit and miss so far, and I'm ignorant of their actual albums, so what do we get this time? We get the good Hammerfest, where music comes first. Here they show their hand at a more sophisticated progressive blues rock style, with some nice organ and guitar work. Even the vocals are soft focused and not offensive as would normally be the case. Hey, the crowd liked it too!

3) Well, lookee here. I've got a copy of ES' "Wham Bang" album, which is actually not bad at all. ES is made up of members of Tomorrow's Gift and their follow-on group Release Music Orchestra (who are also at this festival). With the funky fusion sounds and female vocals, it appears ES are heavily influenced by Embryo's "Bad Heads and Bad Cats" album as well as The Real Ax Band. 14) is a short thrown in, a harmless female vocal lead piece. Not sure why they felt obligated to toss this in.

4) Checkpoint Charlie are the very definition of politrock. I've had a couple of their albums in the past and they mix complex aggressive punk rock with virulent lyrics. Similar to fellow Germans Oktober. Almost like the Cardiacs but even more angry. Here we pretty much have a spoken word (in German) entry with some nice fusion moves underneath. It would be interesting to hear Checkpoint Charlie with an instrumental album. But that's not what they're about...

5) Features the former Ohr record producer. Even before Dieter Dirks was doing the insane knob twiddling in Berlin, Schittenhelm was phasing bands like Annexus Quam through the hazy fields of madness. As an artist, Schittenhelm is a folk singer - hey, gotta throw a bone to the masters once in awhile and keep them happy.

6) Second year in a row for one of Schneeball's most stalwart bands. As with the '76 concert, Munju covers another track from their debut "High Speed Kindergarten". Here they add an extended percussion sequence as a prequel. Munju were near the top tier of Kraut fusion bands of the era, perhaps slightly behind only Embryo, Missus Beastly and Moira.

7) And speaking of Moira, here's their first appearance on one of these compilations. No points for figuring out this is a loose jam. A quite good one with freaky guitar, flute solos and a driving rhythm. Both of their albums are well worth seeking out. Hopefully one of the great German labels will see fit to reissue them in the near future.

8) Funky Bone & the Gang. I wonder what style of music they'll play? This is their only appearance and not sure if they're related to 1975's The Jack Bone Group. Well they don't sound like they are anyway. Despite the funky disposition, this is pretty tight, with some good sax charts and a little wailing as well. Plenty of guitar soloing thrown in for good measure. Another band I'd like to hear more of.

9) Is the requisite Embryo appearance. They are certainly the "name" band in these festivals and they let absolutely no one down. This is a track that would show up on "Apo Calypso" but in an extended 14 minutes form at that point. Garden of Delights has announced their intention to release Embryo's entire Umsonst concert on CD.

10) Is the title track to Real Ax Band's sole album. They catch a groove early and run with it. If you're unfamiliar with this band, I highly recommend the CD that came out about a decade ago. Definitely recommended to fans of Embryo's "Bad Heads and Bad Cats" and both feature Maria Archer, a superb female vocalist from Ghana.

11) Skyline is back for their second appearance in a row. Again, their live material is far superior to their rather static studio LP. Like the '76 song, this track was also added by GoD on the CD release of "Louise For One Night". I would love hearing these concerts in full, rather than these two snippets.

12) Sadja are an Indian acoustic offshoot of Embryo, and foreshadows their later world fusion efforts that they would pursue more steadfastly in the 1980 and beyond.

13) For me, Einhorn was the big revelation of the 1976 concert. Here, they get a bit more fast and loose with the structure, and there's plenty of unhinged free blow. Though I was a bit unimpressed with this piece, I'd still be most curious if the group has any tapes in storage waiting to be reissued.

15) The other big hitter in the Schneeball lineup along with Embryo, is of course my pet fave group Missus Beastly. This is a track that would show up on their superb "Spaceguerilla",and is a fine representation of their infectious and complex progressive fusion sound.

16) Release Music Orchestra is a relative big name, and this is their first appearance for the free concerts. Only Kraan is missing at this point! Here, they offer a slow and atmospheric jazz piece.

17) is a crowd chant to close the album out.

This set features more released material than prior ones, but overall is still quite good!

Skywhale - The World at Mind's End. 1977 England

Skywhale's sole album is one of the rare non-Canterbury UK fusion albums that sound more in line with what was happening over the Chan...