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Ramases - Glass Top Coffin CD (album) cover

GLASS TOP COFFIN

Ramases

 

Prog Folk

3.71 | 26 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars Martin Raphael aka the reincarnated Pharaoh known as Ramases, seems to have both refined his musical talents and toned down his astral-religious message for this, his second and final album. Well, the message is still pretty out-there, but it’s either more restrained now or the quality of the music just makes it more palatable. Either way, this is a pretty different record than his ‘Space Hymns’ debut, most notably thanks to the absence of the quartet of backing musicians who had gone on to fame and fortune as the band 10cc in the four years since ‘Space Hymns’ released.

But there’s still plenty of name-dropping associated with this record. The late Colin Thurston plays bass here on the eve of his big breaks as studio producer for Iggy Pop (‘Lust for Life’) and David Bowie (‘Heroes’). Sue Glover and Sunny Leslie (Brotherhood of Man) provide backing vocals, and Bob Bertles of the jazz group Nucleus plays saxophone. But most notable is the orchestral accompaniment courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. So instead of Godley and Creme’s pop sensibilities accentuating Ramases’ bizarre post-hippy madness, there is a bevy of strings lending the songs an air of sophistication. For the most part it works.

Some of Ramases' other musical tendencies are still evident here though, including layered guitar chord changes caked with repetitive, pseudo-spiritual chanted backing vocals on tunes like “God Voice”, “Sweet Reason” and “Stepping Stones” that hearken back to so many late sixties communal hippie bands like Comfortable Chair, Sapphire Thinkers or even the Mamas & the Papas. There’s also a persistent perception that these two are actually serious about their odd metaphysical message, which tends to give songs like “Golden Landing” and the title track an air of naivety.

But overall this is mostly another excellent though obscure seventies space/pop record that just happens to have an added dimension to it because of the very odd man who made most of the music here. Raphael was reportedly very upset with the final packaging with its gatefold opening to a space scene showing a bird that seems to be a cross between a pterodactyl and a mythical phoenix. He wanted the cover (which showed a profile of a man falling into a star cluster) die-cut so it would open to reveal the man being one small part of the larger bird. This would have been similar to his first album cover with its Roger Dean cover that showed a space ship launching but opened to a spectacular three-fold liner that revealed the ship being the steeple of cosmic church.

Whatever Martin Raphael aka Barrington Frost aka Ramases believed and whatever his agenda might have been, he did have an undeniably good ear for a catchy musical hook and seemed to also have enough connections in the business to engage talented collaboration on both of his records. He also didn’t seem to mind adopting aspects of popular contemporary music into his own, while still retaining an overall space-rock-meets-the-Moonies vibe. This is the kind of record that will quickly grow on you as long as you don’t take it too seriously and aren’t looking for technical sophistication.

The story behind this record, coming four years after his 10cc-backed and very engaging debut, is that Mr. Raphael and his wife (by now renamed Sel) had finally found a way back home to their place in the cosmos and were putting this record out as a farewell message to the world. I’m just jaded enough, and remember the seventies well enough, to think this whole gig could have just been a hoax that took on a life of its own and was never corrected by the label or musicians themselves because it suited their needs. Sort of like the whole Klaatu/Beatles thing. If so this sort of backfired with Ramases since the album sank like a stone on release and the guy was never heard from again.

But anyway, what’s here is pretty decent and I like to play it. This was a very late discovery for me (as in – this year), because I’d never heard of this guy back in the seventies, and probably wouldn’t have liked his music then even if I had heard it. Playing it today evokes a little bit of a nostalgic feeling as the sound here is very firmly rooted in the seventies.

The album opens with “Golden Landing”, a track that shows Selkat’s vocal dynamics have improved considerably since their first record. The stoned monotone is largely gone, and while she doesn’t have great range, the sound works well with the communal harmonized backing singers and gentle string arrangement. Raphael comes in with a sort of Harry Nilsson thing going on, except without Mr. Nilsson’s range. There are actually hints of a mainstream sound in the spacey composition, and these emerge at times on subsequent tracks as well.

Such as with “Long, Long Time” where Raphael unintentionally nails exactly what the late Roy Orbison would have sounded like with orchestral string backing. Also much in the vein of Orbison, this appears to be a love song of sorts from Ramases to Selkat, but in true Ramases fashion the strings morph at the end to a “Space Oddity”-like arrangement that seems meant to represent the two of them flying off into space for home.

Raphael was a guy who had a different view of the world, and who also knew how to turn a phrase when it came to song lyrics. “Now Mona Lisa” is one of the more unusual examples of both these qualities. Musically the song is pretty simple with acoustic guitar, bass and piano in a fairly innocuous arrangement, and with Raphael and Selkat engaged in call-response vocal interplay. But the subject matter is apparently the Mona Lisa painting and the wants, needs, desires and aspirations she may have had in life. This is one of those tunes whose genesis was clearly formed in a haze of smoke, but it has charming qualities that make for fun listening more than thirty years later.

Bob Bertles (Nucleus) shows up on “Mind Island” with gentle saxophone to accent Raphael’s meandering vocals telling of experiences on a ‘mental island’ he finds himself on. This is one of the tracks that doesn’t work so effectively; or may have in the seventies and simply hasn’t aged well. “Only the Loneliest Feeling” falls into the same category only here Selkat is singing and there’s a preview of the kind of disjointed cello bowing that Efrim Menuck would reintroduce with Godspeed You! Black Emperor twenty years later. I wonder if that makes Ramases ‘proto-post-rock’? I’m actually having a bit of trouble mentally processing that.

Orbison’s muse reappears on “Sweet Reason”, and this is another composition that is more of a gentle pop tune than anything else.

If I had to pick one song as the strongest it would probably be “Saler Man”. The interplay of orchestral strings and piano is quite beautiful from a purely musical standpoint, and Raphael finds his own voice for a change instead of sounding like someone else. The lyrics are all over the place and seem to be a synopsis of Ramases’ whole theology and life-view condensed to five minutes. This is actually a fairly evolved composition for 1975, and plays well even today.

Ramases and Selkat seem to be winding down and preparing for their return trip home to space on “Children of The Green Earth” with talk of children of the earth, sun and stars and urging them all to converge on the “star field” where their destiny awaits. Anyone feel like donning black Nikes and heading for a spin behind Hale-Bopp?

I don’t understand the inclusion of the title track. It comes off as what Elvis would have sounded like if he’d put out a new wave record in the mid eighties: simple and thudding bass, plain rock rhythm from the electric guitar and drums, and not much other accompaniment. The transitions are pure mainstream rock, and even though Raphael’s lyrics describe a space reunion of souls, the whole thing comes across as late seventies schlock-rock. The weakest track on the album as far as I’m concerned.

But the whole thing comes full circle with “Golden Landing (Part II)” and Ramases and Selkat come gliding down toward home amid a very Moody Blues-like string and synth arrangement that includes celestial backing from a couple former Brotherhood of Man vocalists. A very tasteful and pleasant ending.

Martin Raphael and Selkat never released another album after this, and eventually the two of them drifted apart. Selkat is reported to be still around today although she maintains a low profile and there is almost no information on her whereabouts or activities. She does not appear to be doing anything musical. Raphael committed suicide in the early nineties, having never realized his dreams of either musical renown or trips into space back to his astral home. There is some evidence he had been working as a DJ at the time of his death, but I haven’t found anything to confirm that.

Ramases were one of the more unique and unusual musical acts of the seventies. They were either a fabrication of their own or their label’s making; or a couple of really odd individuals who were engaged in their own tripped-out cosmic journey several years after that had ceased to be fashionable. Either way their albums are neither classics nor essential, but both of them are quite good and full of fascinating bits of history and philosophy and theology and musical experimentation and just plain trivia. ‘Space Hymns’ has been reissued numerous times and is quite easy to find today. “Glass Top Coffin” has never been re-released to my knowledge, although the original vinyl is not too difficult to find. There seem to be an unusually high ratio of promo copies to released versions though, and either type of copy can be pricey. I’ve seen used ones in the $25-$40 USD range, while mint copies run up to several hundred dollars. If you’re interested in the band and aren’t put off by the occasional pop or scratch, find a reasonably-priced old promo copy. I don’t think it’s worth buying a $300-$500 mint edition because you won’t get that many dollar’s worth of enjoyment out of it, but I suppose some obsessive and serious collectors probably have done so anyway.

If there were ever a strong candidate for remastering and re-release on CD it is this album; I’m actually quite surprised Repertoire and PL have both put out CD versions of Ramases’ ‘Space Hymns’ albums (in several countries no less), but this one has yet to see the inside of a jewel case. Considering Raphael’s oddities and state of mind and affairs following this release, I wonder if the original tapes may have been lost to time. Still, there are unplayed mint copies of the vinyl floating around and you’d think someone could make that work on a CD. The production quality (except for the slightly muddled “Mind Island”) is excellent, by the way. Que sera, but I hope this one gets noticed by one of the progressive rock reissue labels someday. And maybe they could take the added step of recreating a mini-gatefold that presents the album’s artwork the way Raphael originally intended. That would be a nice touch.

The first time I heard this record I knew I would end up having it, and would end up writing a review rating it in the three-star range. But I’m a sucker for nostalgia, trivia and oddities of humankind, so despite the couple of weaker tracks here (“Mind Island” and the title track mostly), I’m going to go with four stars, probably more like 3.75. A really interesting album from a fascinating couple of individuals who probably would not have been able to make it in today’s world. Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but I’m glad they left this album behind for future generations to ponder.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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