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Brian Auger - Closer To It! (as Oblivion Express) CD (album) cover


Brian Auger


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.76 | 29 ratings

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4 stars Looking over his history, one would surmise that Brian Auger was never satisfied, forever searching for the perfect combination of musicians to surround himself with. Therefore, complete band overhauls were not out of the ordinary. After finding a suitable niche in a more contemporary corner of the jazz rock/fusion world with "Second Wind" the previous year, the new Oblivion Express lineup recorded and released the more Latin-tinged (and aptly titled) "Closer to It!" Gone were vocalist Alex Ligertwood, guitarist Jim Mullen and the extremely talented Robbie McIntosh on drums. In their place were Jack Mills on guitar, Lennox Laington on congas and Godfrey MacLean on drums with Brian taking over the microphone once again. Longtime bassist Barry Dean was the only survivor. Auger was still bravely trying to take his music into new territories and the result is one of his most enjoyable albums.

Santana's incredible "Caravanserai" LP had sent serious shock waves reverberating through the fusion world and Brian, no doubt, was captivated by its spell. Therefore, the conga-laden, "traveling" feel of the intro to "Whenever You're Ready" pays unashamed homage to that spectacular group of California musicians while laying the foundation for the rest of the album. After experimenting with R&B screamer Ligertwood on the previous LP (with mixed results) it seems that Auger took a more relaxed attitude towards his own limited singing chops and decided his tone would work just fine if they buried the vocal down in the mix a tad. The approach works and it turns out to not be much of a detriment at all. His Hammond sound on this number is brisk and fresh and it becomes evident that this style of music fits Brian quite well.

The smooth, irresistible dance groove of "Happiness is Just Around the Bend" delineates what is probably Auger's best composition ever. Notwithstanding that Brian had never been one to utilize the electric piano all that much, the instrument makes this song memorable and you'll even detect the sound of a Moog synthesizer flitting about. Brian was most definitely expanding his keyboard horizons here and the infectious energy he injects into his piano ride makes this cut a real treat to hear. "Light on the Path" exudes more of the obvious Santana influence on the band's approach as they create a moody, hypnotic drive on this instrumental. Auger is his usual masterful self on the Hammond organ but it's quite evident that Mills is no Carlos Santana on guitar.

Several years earlier a friend of mine had introduced me to the many charms of the sublime "Swiss Movement," a 1969 jazz album recorded live at Montreux featuring Eddie Harris and Les McCann. The entire recording's spontaneous energy is amazing but the tune that makes the biggest impression is the sarcastic "Compared to What." One of Brian's greatest contributions to the prog music world is that he introduced millions of rock & rollers to the contributions of modern jazz writers like Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin and here he does the same with McCann's great tongue-in-cheek number. The real attraction of this song lies in its unorthodox, ascending chord progression and Oblivion Express does it justice from beginning to end. Jack's meek guitar ride is passable but Brian's Hammond streaks across the track like a blazing comet. Don't miss this one.

You gotta have big ones to take on Marvin Gaye's monumental "Inner City Blues" but they do achieve a tight, rhythmic groove to flow underneath even if Auger's "Anglo-Saxon" vocal performance is a little too white bread if you know what I mean and I think you do. But his cool organ solo layered over some tasteful Mellotron scores points in the song's favor. They end with the rather nondescript "Voices of Other Times" that, while it rambles a bit, stays true to the percussion-oriented vibe that characterizes the whole album. I've always wondered why Brian never recruited a true guitar virtuoso into any of his band incarnations but perhaps it's because he didn't want to sound like 95% of the guitar-heavy groups out there. Here Mills does his hardest to emulate Carlos Santana but they keep him so far down in the mix that it's impossible to tell if he succeeds. Probably not.

All in all, this version of Oblivion Express may be my favorite. Though Auger shows signs of mellowing and his most explosive organ solos show up on his earlier LPs, I've always enjoyed the excitement that percussion adds to jazz rock/fusion and it certainly sets this album apart from his others. In terms of consistency, "Closer to It" and the band's self-titled debut are arguably the highest quality recordings Brian ever made. 4.2 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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