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THE SWEDISH RADIO SESSIONS

The Nice

Symphonic Prog


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Einsetumadur
PROG REVIEWER
4 stars 10.75/15P. This one's a sure hidden gem. It's heavy, it spawns amazing band interplay and it profits very much from Keith Emerson having an able soloist counterpart in Dave O'List. And it's, as research yields, the first full-length The Nice performance to be issued in public. Essential.

In 1967 The Nice recorded their debut album after having spent some time on the road as the backing band of singer P. P. Arnold. That debut album, albeit being extremely innovative and influential, qualifies as one of the messiest albums of rock history - I see the greatness in the revolutionary feedback madness of Rondo (the song on here which dated least), I occasionally see some stirringly beautiful melodies and instrumental parts (The Cry Of Eugene, above all), but I also see a lot of songs which are mediocre at best, I see minutes and minutes of mindless noodling, graced by a muffled and chaotic production. An epitomised example of a derailed psychedelic experiment - much more so than the other suspects in that category, such as Billy Joel's Attila organ-punk duo, the Canterbury side-project Arzachel or the more popular Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones.

The particular recording which is now sold as Swedish Radio Sessions is a result of a strange situation. It was made in Sweden in late 1967, i.e. shortly after their session on Top Gear in October 1967, quite some time after having recorded the debut album, but some weeks before the album release. Furthermore, Lee Jackson apologizes for some inconveniences which aren't totally understandable in retrospect. It seems as if the band had just come out of the plane, more than just a few minutes behind schedule, in order to perform previously unheard psychedelic/jazz jams to a polite Swedish audience. The atmosphere is in fact as tense as it appears to be - all of Lee Jackson's tentative attempts at breaking the ice and interacting with the audience fail miserably. (Maybe Swedish radio audiences simply weren't allowed to applaud during the song announcements ... I don't know.)

Anyway - keep in mind that this was the first continuous The Nice performance ever to be published to a broad mass of people. Basically, Swedish Radio Sessions does exactly the same thing as the later archive recording Live At The Fillmore East 1969: it shows an insanely talented jam band, improvising and inciting each other to a state of intense catharsis, and it presents this dish on a silver plate in finest sound quality. Add to that the adverse conditions, and there you have a recording as historically important as King Crimson's 1969 famous support slot for the Doobie Brothers in Hyde Park. This particular rendition of Rondo, for instance, is pretty extensive and might be the most leaden version of this track available - much slower than the Hoedown pace of the 1969 live versions, and profiting a lot from Davy O'List's biting lead guitar work. He replaces the messy fuzz guitar work on the studio version with a crunchier and grittier tone here, but mainly sticks to some driving rhythm guitar work. Of course, Keith Emerson totally dominates the recording - and he has the absolute and unrestrained right to do so. As critical as I am about his huge solo work-outs with Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Rondo is his glorious masterpiece of classical-vs.-jazz fusion, performed with an energy which is artsy and punkish at the very same time. This performance is the most energetic one ever recorded, and even the polite audience reveals a certain degree of enthusiasm after this quarter of an hour of relentlessly pumping art rock.

The solo work on the Latin jazz standard Sombrero Sam is - contrary to the Emerson-dominated Rondo - surprisingly symmetric and melodic. This track could easily have replaced the boring R&B riffing of War And Peace or the purposelessly meandering of Dawn and made The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack a much better album. Brian Davisons shuffles and swings effortlessly, Lee Jackson's bass is mainly busy letting the main riff going throughout the track, while Emerson and O'List squeeze every possible tone color out of their instruments. Especially this piece (along with any track off Caravan's debut album) is perfectly able to prove which big advantage the Hammond L-series organs have over the more expensive A/B/C models: the L-series isn't suitable for mighty clerical chords or any fat textures, but the trebly key click on the reedy-sounding tonewheels allows so much more crazy effects when you play that thing through a guitar amp. Inspiring organ work on this track - and, actually, on the others to the same degree as well.

The crystal-clear sound quality, however, also demasks Lee Jackson as the 'professional' lead singer with the worst sense of intonation I have ever heard - but also enobles him as the least annoying badly-singing singer I have ever heard. As long as he barks and shouts everything's as usual, but when it comes to singing defined melodies things plainly sound cross. By now I've come to the conclusion that tracks like She Belongs To Me need this deranged vocal styling - even Dylan's original version feels too smooth to me today. But Jackson's Mark-Stein-ish soft singing on You Keep Me Hangin' On just shows how very much these vocals would crash the overall band impression if Jackson couldn't sell them as the 'desperately weeping' component of a highly cathartic band package. Maybe I've simply become accustomed to his singing, but surprisingly I just don't feel the urge to hate it anymore. I hear that the vocals are totally off-key, but his weird whining and ad-lib-vocalizing around 4:00-5:00 with the crazy guitar arpeggios underneath give the song a certain 'attitude' which the famous Vanilla Fudge version didn't have. Nonetheless it is one of the few derivative recordings in the Nice repertoire, sticking pretty closely to the Vanilla Fudge version which appeared mere two or three months earlier (raising the question if Emerson elaborated his progressive ideas before or because of Vanilla Fudge's debut album).

The opener She Belongs To Be is the greatest surprise on the album since it sounds quite different to the versions by The Nice and Refugee which I knew before - well, it sounds as different as it can in the case of a band with a pretty 'defined' sound concept. Anyway, the schizophrenic dynamic contrasts of the later versions don't appear here, making this performance a more fluent listen. I've already mentioned my sympathies for Jackson's singing on this track, but the big star on this track is Dave O'List who sounds closer to Robin Trower than to Jimi Hendrix on this song. All of those wild finger vibrato parts, wicked string bends and blistering solos qualify this recording as the one which highlights O'List's guitar qualities best. I don't know his post-Nice discography (it's pretty sparse, if I remember things correctly), but apart from The Cry Of Eugene I remember him being quite lost in the sonic debris of these weird arrangements.

This leaves us with the two pop tracks in the set. The single, The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, begins with a pretty startling announcement ('Now I'd like to come to the comedy point, since it features everybody singing' - oh well...) which too fails to elicit any reaction on the part of the audience; notably Lee Jackson's little speaking cesura is quite embarassing, but Lee Jackson's not to blame in the company of such an audience. This track, which was the only properly-produced song on the studio album, is also the only song which doesn't appear in its definite version in this radio show. Davy O'List slurs the vocals deliberately, the falsetto four-part harmony fanfares are reproduced exactly (Keith Emerson is a surprisingly unerring singer) - a true novelty song which also sounds great when played live, especially in the baroque interludes and verses, but which sounds even better with the harpsichords and thick drum fill-ins of the studio version.

Flower King Of Flies is worthwhile alone for the quintessentially psychedelic vocals in the chorus, featuring O'List singing manicly in the upper registers with Lee Jackson providing a totally stoned lower backing vocal. The rest of the song sticks pretty much to the studio version, but adds some cool guitar licks and a slightly dronier organ part. Associations to the early Soft Machine line-up (the low low low Ayers-like bass plucking and the contrasting lead vocals) definitely aren't far-fetched, suggesting that the concept of a British Underground scene still proves valid today.

All in all I thoroughly recommend this CD to anybody interested in the history of (early) progressive rock. This material is of the same historic interest as the Emerlist Davjack album, but a lot more enjoyable due to the interesting jam parts and the great sound. Thus, I decided to give Swedish Radio Sessions the couple of rating points which I'll take away from Emerlist Davjack due to its bad production. I hope this rating is going to do justice to the doubtless relevance and talent of this band, and I also hope this will convince some readers to buy this album - I promise you that it's much more than just another archive release for die-hard fans. The booklet is filled with fotos and interesting liner notes, but is awkwardly sloppy in its formatting: some parts of the text are interrupted inbetween, just to be continued by some text parts which already appeared before. I don't know how this came up, but it prompts me to dump the overall rating to a 'weak' 4-star rating - which nonetheless shouldn't prevent you from getting this important recording.

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Posted Saturday, June 15, 2013 | Review Permalink

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