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Refugee - Refugee CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.14 | 251 ratings

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5 stars This Is Neither Nice Nor a Strat Copy

(Scene - London 1973) Tony Stratton-Smith chuckled inwardly at being considered the founder of 'Charisma' and nursed tenderly a triple scotch chaser in a nicotine beige hand as he saw his two hirsute visitors appear through swathes of cigar fog from one of the capital's trendiest watering holes. Before appraising the unknown Swiss as a bona fide 'cutie' or allowing either Lee Jackson or Patrick Moraz to open their mouths in the Speakeasy, 'Strat' pre-empted their question:

Yes, if it's what I think you want. Come and see me in the office in the morning...lovely leathers...whose your friend Lee?

So it came to pass that what was planned as an attempt to jump-start the gravity bound 'Jackson Heights' gained sufficient momentum to result in one of the very finest but unjustly neglected Symphonic Prog albums to have been created in the early 70's (and beyond) Such are the unpromising ingredients and conflation of inauspicious circumstances that precipitated it's entry to the world, the status of Refugee is starting to take on the mantle of a miraculous and glorious fluke.

In the aftermath of the breakup of the Nice, fate had bestowed unimaginable riches on Emerson, been charitable to Jackson and positively miserly with poor Brian Davison.The latter's career had stalled in the interim due to a largely uninspired solo vehicle 'Every Which Way' and a drink problem that was spiralling out of control. Short stints with welsh soap-dodgers Man, Et Cetera and Gong provided Blinky with some income but with both a marriage and it's solution 'on the rocks', the drummer was going downhill fast before the salvation afforded by the formation of this trio.

Lee Jackson had garnered positive and encouraging reviews for his band 'Jackson Heights' but sales had proved elusive for a project that had sincerity and craftsmanship in abundance but memorable song-writing conspicuous by it's absence. When Lee and Patrick started to write together they quickly realised the material was going to be much heavier than the 'soft white underbelly of rock' represented by the modest Jackson Heights and considerably more symphonic in it's scope than even the Nice. They needed a drummer capable of handling such ambitious and complex music, step/stagger forward one Brian Davison.

Papillon - A rollicking instrumental so-named on account of the band having recently viewed the Steve McQueen movie of the same name and the rather more tenuous association of the Moog sound effects resembling the beating of the wings of a butterfly (That's 20-20 hearing fellas, capable of fart detection in ants I'd hazard?) The first thing you notice is how brilliant and 'musical' a drummer Davison is when a sympathetic engineer is allowed to capture in crystalline detail all the subtle and powerful embellishments and accents imbued in his playing. We are witness on Refugee to probably the greatest recorded performances of Blinky's life. Moraz provided enough clues with his formative band 'Mainhorse' to suggest he was a keyboard giant just waiting to happen and the assuredness of his technique, the ferocity of the textures employed and the rapid juxtaposition of stylistic references is quite breathtaking to behold. Alternately bombastic baroque, coruscating rock, visceral symphonic, horror movie creepy, jazz fluid, slyly and self depreciatively amusing (Lee clearly can't resist some reciprocal comedic bowed bass dialogue) plus some high tempo unison passages sufficient to have jaws raining from the skies all go to make this 5 minutes of your life that is mercifully available on 'repeat'

Someday - Blinky did not it seems have a monopoly on domestic discord at this point as illustrated by a soul searching song by Jackson ruminating on the breakup of his first marriage. There is no doubting the sincerity of his lyrics here as they run the gamut of conciliatory, bitter, frustrated and affectionate until the track's conclusion.

Someday I'll turn my back, lock the house and give up the pain and I'll go and take my peace Gonna sail away for a life and a day and I know that someday you're gonna feel the pain

The sleepy electric piano and boisterous pitch bend synth interludes provided by Moraz are spine tinglingly superb and the band display a firm grasp of how to build and release tension at all the appropriate places. One of the most polarizing aspects of any music featuring Mr Jackson is his singing (or lack of, as some would venture) I admit he cannot 'sing' in the conventional sense that an Anderson, Wetton or Gabriel can, but most of my favourite vocalists are similarly blighted by this failing (e.g. Robert Smith, John Cale, John Lydon, Mark E. Smith) and it has not impacted on my love for their voices one iota. I can only offer that there is more emotion, candour and vulnerability in Lee's Novocastrian tonsils than there is in some of the entire discographies of more celebrated technicians. At least the results post-Nice are assuaged by him getting to choose the key for this material, which is more than Emerson ever offered (Keith was loathe to transpose any Nice compositions from their original key to fit Jackson's very limited range as he thought rather naively that all singers should be able to sing any song in any key)

Grand Canyon Suite - Just in case you're wondering, yes that is an alpine horn you can hear and it is 'blown' very convincingly by Moraz as if it were orchestral brass added to the mix. A very cinematic and credibly symphonic intro worthy of Richard Strauss prepares us for a piece that was inspired by a documentary about this famous natural landmark viewed by both composer Moraz and lyricist Jackson.

The message is a tad cryptic but it centres around a dream Lee had where he saw himself flying using his arms as wings above the Grand Canyon courtesy of erm... astral travel:

When you go home and sleep this night, dream of wings and astral flight Fly with the speed of waking light and we'll go and I'll show you the way to the Grand Canyon

The sung portions have a commanding yet stately humility that would be paradoxical but for those very few souls like Jackson who can reconcile such conflicting elements satisfactorily and with an inconsolable melancholy that is genuinely affecting. It carries a sublime melody that Patrick improvises over and embellishes quite ingeniously during a jazzy piano solo that never fails to impress. Thereafter we are privy to Moraz writing an indelible chapter of Progressive Rock that even if he were to attempt Eval Knievel's leap across the Grand Canyon (minus the jet powered bike) would leave his mourners with some of the best keyboard playing, sounds and compositional rigour to be found in the entire genre to mollify their loss. Rest assured however, this is not a one man band show-boating his incredible skills and roomy equipment truck but a three way dialogue where all the participants contribute their inimitable personalities and abilities in a bartered synergy. (Jackson knows his limitations both vocally and on bass and wisely never overreaches himself throughout) Take note of that wonderful gradual accelerando ramp featuring the indivisible snare and keys of Blinky and Moraz respectively which meld into a dizzying blur before the whole band explode into the glorious central theme of the suite and just bow in supplication (We are not worthy) They even resuscitate fleetingly the 'rumpty tumpty' rhythm calling card of Rondo but the latter never sounded this elegant or noble in Keith's speed reading of same.

Ritt Mickley - Jackson's teasing of Patrick's halting Swiss accent was the source of the title (the keyboard wizard pronounced 'rhythmically' this way much to the bass player and drummer's amusement) After some unaccompanied rubato clavinet funnelled through the whooshiest phaser gizmo that money could buy in 1974, proceedings are momentarily halted by the sound of breaking glass before the main course arrives in the shape of a synth heavy groove that flirts coquettishly with (gulp) 'funky'. Thereafter the muse turns classically inspired with a wantonly buoyant section that shares the same joyous and irreverent abandon as that shown by the Nice towards Intermezzo from Karelia Suite.The guttural and staccato fade on clavinet proves what I've been saying for years (Billy Preston was white)

Credo - The second heavyweight slug fest on the album and it's a veritable belter from start to finish. Listen carefully to how Moraz's piano on the neurotic but eloquent introduction assimilates and quotes themes from the subsequent sung melodies and treats these phrases with the academic discipline of formal symphonic writing. He also punningly alludes to the line 'climb the Spanish stair' with a mock flamenco gravitas take on something that Lalo or Villa Lobos might have written. After the opening verse there ensues a section which is redolent of 'latin' but mercifully doesn't succumb to the oily wiggling hips of Chick Corea or the execrable Santana. A liturgical mood is summoned by church organ over which Lee ladles a passion and urgency on a hymnal melody that leaves a large footprint on the memory ever hence. Yes, he does sound as if he's being asphyxiated from within a spacesuit but for me, it's a very moving performance. I'm not going to pretend I know what the lyrics are about but the gist seems to be Jackson's rejection of the strict dogma of his catholic upbringing being supplanted by his own learned experience of the world at first hand. (A spiritual but secular humanism if you will) Irrespective of what floats yer teleological boat, you can accelerate those forehead wrinkles by pondering the following:

I believe and you believe and we believe that we're free and the air don't cost a thing to a bird with a broken wing The wisest king of all left his wisdom on the wall The queue forms beside me as I sing my credo to a lost cause

Then again, it just might be a veiled disillusion with the hippy idealism he lived through and saw cast asunder by the corporate commodification of aesthetics and greed (Man).

Perhaps the falsetto scat singing interlude was ill advised but if it is Jackson singing, he conspires to hit all the notes accurately and I can only surmise it was after 143 vein bulging takes with his gonads wedged tightly in a vice (Thank you for suffering for your art Mr Jackson)

The ending instrumental music is brilliantly arranged, ever changing and undergoes many detours in tempo, meter, key, texture and dynamics along the exhilarating way. So much of this album has a hard edged and unsentimental muscularity that prevents it from lapsing into some of the clichés inherent in the stylistic sources it borrows so freely from.

The late Brian Davison and Lee Jackson must be the two unluckiest men in rock: not only did they lose the greatest rock keyboard player of all time to ELP in 1970, they also lost perhaps the 2nd greatest rock keyboard player of all time in 1975. (some say that's just careless but Yes don't take 'No' for an answer) Surely a double whammy for two bands neither of which boasted a guitarist?

I think the pressure and scrutiny on Patrick Moraz would have been sufficient to break many a lesser man having been asked to fill the daunting shoes of both Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. That he did so with such aplomb and contributed to both Relayer and Refugee his own unique personality and vision of the music, is testimony to his integrity and strength of will. Kudos are also due to the great and dearly departed Tony Stratton-Smith, without whom so much progressively minded music would never have seen the light of day. It would have been very tempting and lucrative for 'Strat' to market 'Refugee' as 'the Nice Mark II', but he never did this and saw them in the same way we should all see them now: A completely original Progressive Rock band whose sole album is one of the finest of any genre you care to name.

Hunt down and lure this critter out of hiding soon Prog lovers, you won't regret it.

ExittheLemming | 5/5 |


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