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Beggars Opera - Waters Of Change CD (album) cover


Beggars Opera


Symphonic Prog

3.63 | 190 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
3 stars 10.25/15P. Exploring the Celtic roots served as a perfect means to define an original sound. This is one of the rare albums which are kept together by its shortest songs - nonetheless, some generic R&B/soul elements and silly moments belittle the overall impression.

First of all I'd like to say that I don't like Beggars Opera's debut album Act One at all, that album being marred by derivative arrangements, a lack of good compositions and vocals which are powerful, but which don't suit the thinnish sound of the rest of the band. All of the moments which promise at least some atmosphere are (sooner or later) overrun by the omnipresent wish to sound like The Nice, especially the attempts to copy the Davison/Jackson rhythm section and their simultaneously swinging and stoic metre.

The first piece off Waters Of Change which I listened to was the huge symphonic masterpiece Time Machine. 'Same style as Act One, but better songwriting and great Mellotron', I initially thought, but after finally getting hold of an original vinyl pressing of Waters Of Change I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the brief songs which most people don't care a lot about. After all I came to the conclusion that these little pieces give the album a very different and unique style, a style which the band sadly didn't pursue any further on later albums.

The majestic opener Time Machine features gorgeous Mellotron strings, a solemn and catchy vocal melody and a really fat organ background. Interestingly, the guitar and organ solos have a firm place in the structure of the piece and are often separated by verses or reprises of the song's great leitmotif which also begins the track. It's obvious that Beggars Opera listened a lot to King Crimson between recording Act One and Waters Of Change, but Martin Griffiths' operatic vocals and the gruff Scottish hard rock leanings successfully keep my mind from comparing the music to any other band while listening to this record. Okay, Ricky Gardiner sometimes peers at Ritchie Blackmore quite intensely, but overall I daresay that by 1971 the band had really found a sonic niche of their own.

Then, out of nowhere, fades in Lament, which is in fact a kind of Scottish dirge which is not played on the bagpipes, but on a Hammond organ, accompanied by some lonesome snare rolls. It's brief and it's simple, but it's utterly atmospheric as well and touches the Celtic soul which seemingly slumbers somewhere deep inside of me. The instrumental track Nimbus, the last piece on Side A of the album, expands on the atmospheres already set by Lament. It's a slow contemplative two-chord drone which is easily my favorite track on the record, predating the feel of Brian Eno's ambient miniatures on Another Green World by a few years. Lead guitarist Ricky Gardiner employs a volume pedal and manages to create a haunting and massively sustained guitar tone - not quite unlike Steve Hackett's trademark sound - whilst Mellotron, organ, acoustic guitar and some really deep timpani set an amazingly sophisticated background. Other tracks on Waters Of Change might be more exciting or more powerful, but Nimbus really transcends the time in which it was created. It could also be a medieval elegy, a romantic piano piece or a modern post rock track, or it could be a Breton farewell song - in fact, Alan Stivell's Kimiad is the song which reminds me most of the mood conveyed by Nimbus. Impromptu, a moment of quietness which is placed immediately before the last piece of the album, widens the Nimbus sound in yet another direction. This time there are merely one delicately picked acoustic guitar and one mournful cello which intone a quiet lament similar to the instrumental part of Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well. Taken together these three tracks only clock at circa six minutes, but I'd never have thought that Beggars Opera released such a noble and plain set of sad sonic miniatures which do not bear any signs of pomp and exuberance. Great stuff, and probably the reason why I'd call this album a fairly essential addition to a progressive rock music collection.

But this leaves us with a set of other numbers, and some inconsistencies appearing in these force me to downgrade the whole thing a wee bit.

For instance there's Silver Peacock. Musically, it might be compared with Colosseum and early symphonic Deep Purple (ca. Book Of Taliesyn), and there are really a couple of decent melodies in there, but the silly introductory speech about the silver peacock with the medieval fanfares and the pseudo-mysterious 'silver peacock' chant (which seems to be the chorus, actually), are ridiculously pretentious and spoil the pleasure. Either they took this stuff as seriously as, for instance, Eloy, or there is some ironic alienation somewhere which I don't fully get. Either way: the music is both moving and intense and deserves neither a humorous nor a pretentious treatment. Thankfully the verses are less embarrassing so that in the end there's enough to enjoy here if you're able to ignore the subject matter.

Festival is a mixed bag. On the one hand there are moments which sound like a bad syrupy musical. Especially verses like 'music fills the air, calls the people to the fair' or 'time is there for something new, festival is just for you-hoo-hoo' are so dull that I would have expected them to stem from a German band, but not from British musicians. This jolting fast rhythm itself which is played underneath that aforementioned part of the song already is a so-so affair, but as a Celtic/Medieval hint I think it's quite acceptable. In contrast there's another part which is more laid-back and which also spawns one gorgeous vocal melody which sets that beautifully languish and watery mood of Danny Kirwan's Sands Of Time off Fleetwood Mac's 1971 Future Games - surely one of the finest melodies to be found on this album. The rest of the track is mainly instrumental soloing, but the flute in the track - played by guest player Marshall Erskine - is again an interesting detail. Of course, it sounds a lot like Ian Anderson, including the overblowing and the blue notes, but Anderson himself wouldn't use the flute in that Celtic/folk/rock context until Thick As A Brick. That's possibly another (more or less insubstantial) half-rip-off/half-inventive idea on this album which predates the musical approach of later works, but it does reconcile me with the flute parts in this track (and only few things are more atrocious than Ian-Anderson-flute-isms in derivative prog music!).

I've No Idea is a bit of an outsider on this album because of its slightly dated R&B/soul influences, but I love the little pseudo-baroque flourishes which appear directly in front of the verses; and the rhythm is, at least, quite interesting because it's by far more sparse than the casual blues rock drumming. I mean - does Wilson play anything but the cowbell and the snare drum in the verses? If yes, it must be hidden somewhere very low in the mix. The overall effect is quite impressing and safely leads the track out of the waters of mediocrity. Mellotronist Virginia Scott even manages to sneak one cuddly sympho-prog part into this (otherwise up-tempo) track, and thanks to a worthwhile reprise in the very end of the track this romantic addition also works and adds to the song.

The Fox finally shows a last time how damn varied this band was at this time. Some parts of these longer songs might be a bit dull, but they don't stay for too long and are soon replaced by other little melodies. This time it's the brief 6/8 section (and the way how they enter into this part coming from that jolting tricky rhythm of the main riff) at 1:30 which deeply impresses me - and it's this good melody which is also used as the verse melody. Then they revisit the main riff, fiddle it through some different pitch intervals and - woosh -, off they go into a Mellotron-laden march and later into a powerful blues rock part.

Overall it's the huge potpourri of different melodies and ideas which makes this record so thoroughly entertaining while - at least that's how I feel it - the brief instrumental pieces create a kind of atmospheric frame. If you listen to this record, you'll get to hear a lot of prog cliches - which is mainly why I don't give this album 4 of 5 -, but nonetheless this group has a sound of its own, a number of great melodies and certain moments of deep atmospheric ambience.

[If you wish to explore the folk elements appearing on this record any further I thoroughly recommend you to listen to the 1970 On The Shore album by Trees which I have also reviewed on PA. Trees were a British folk rock band with a traditional folk repertoire, but the playing on guitars/bass/drums often enough sounds quite a lot like Beggars Opera.]

Einsetumadur | 3/5 |


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