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Strawbs - Hero And Heroine CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.13 | 341 ratings

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5 stars Many parallels exist between "Grave New World" and "Hero and Heroine" in both circumstances and conceptual unity. Both were recorded during a major change in group personnel, with "Hero" being even more dramatic. Gone are Blue Weaver, Richard Hudson and John Ford, replaced by John Hawken, Rod Coombes and Chas Cronk respectively. Both sport an irrepressible flow from one track to the next, which is ultimately seamless even if it does not appear that way on first listen. Both find the group effecting a major alteration in style and substance, although one could argue this was the case for every album from 1971-1976.

What is different with "Hero and Heroine" is the submersion of overt folk tendencies some meters below the typically colourful surface and the greater emphasis on hard rock in the progressive mix. It's still undeniably Strawbs in sensitivity and sense of beauty, but in a package that simply pummels the contemporary competition in intensity and harnessed power. Even if UK fans, expecting more accessible prog and high quality if straightforward rock like on "Bursting at the Seams", were bummed out by the drastic metamorphosis, North American, and particularly Canadian (and even more strikingly, French Canadian) audiences became converts in pretty large numbers for a cultish prog group. In fact, this went gold in Canada.

The album opens with one of the group's defining tracks, the three part "Autumn" suite. Beginning with reflective synths by Hawken and lonely seagull calls, actually approximated on electric guitar, the instrumental first part plunges into a mellotron fest not seen since "Epitaph". The second part is Cousins at his most lyrical, waxing at turns both awed and depressed by the change of seasons, to a gentle tron backing and punctuated by fine interplay between acoustic and lead guitar. The third part is Strawbs at their most melodic and romantic, a simple timeless folk melody starting on piano, joined by Lambert on vocals (with plenty of backing), that builds to its final mellotron choir crescendo. Given its time period, this is what the doctor ordered for those suffering from Moody Blues withdrawal, although Strawbs retained the advantage of the authenticity of their folky DNA.

Rod Coombes entry, "Sad Young Man", is a wholly successful welcome to the group, with its echoey vocals, crisp organ, and icy simple lead guitars. Here, as on the heavenly "Shine on Silver Sun", like an update on "Benedictus", the darkness of the Copenhagen November, where the album was recorded, must have been having an effect on the mood. In between, "Just Love" provides the simple rocking levity that is required, albeit with a mellotron suffused middle break that provides continuity.

The use of echo on almost every vocal track after "Autumn" is striking in this album, no more so than on the title cut's second verse. This track is a whirlwind epic in 3:20, featuring jig like verses, mellotron horns, and breathless vocal rants. It also began Side 2 of the original vinyl, which can lay claim to being the most powerful side in group history. The theme is generally regarded to be an indictment of hard drug use, but I also see an allegory to sex role stereotypes.

While the beautiful mellotron-flute laden "Midnight Sun" and the gentle if graphic "Out in the Cold" draw from the folk well, "Round and Round" and "lay a Little Light on Me" are both flat-out progressive rock with plenty of synthesizers, heavy guitars, and alternating quiet and bombastic sections. Cousins' angst reaches new heights even by his own standards, in parallel with an apparent crisis of faith. The fade out is the old trick of playing a chorus backwards, in this case that of "Shine on Silver Sun".

Of the two bonus tracks, "Still Small Voice" is more valuable. It is a piece that was apparently never completed, evidenced by the presence of only one verse, but the classical guitar, Cousins' Gothic voice (think "Tears" from "Bursting"), and a memorable tune all conspire to make this an essential listen. The other bonus is an early demo version of "Lay a Little Light on me" which lacks the subtle buildups of the original, being pretty much a pure rock track.

"Hero and Heroine" is as far away from Strawbs' first few releases as it is from any of the output by their British folk rock contemporaries FAIRPORT CONVENTION, PENTANGLE and STEELEYE SPAN, occupying a realm much closer to MOODY BLUES. BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST, GENESIS, and KING CRIMSON, but in a style all their own. The bold steps taken to go from A to Z in a mere half decade show a willingness to explore that makes the so-called progress of the above bands (CRIMSON excepted) seem a trifle timid by comparison. For that Strawbs have attracted some criticism from both purist proggers and bearded folkies, which explains both their lack of total acceptance by both but also their ability to highlight festivals in both genres. No other album in their oeuvre is more likely to receive a hero's welcome among PA's prog elite.

kenethlevine | 5/5 |


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