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"Wipe the kettle dry"

Class D

Main Category: Jazz Rock
Also applicable: Art Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Colosseum fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Colosseum fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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In my quest for world tolerance, I have nevertheless more or less tended to avoid jazz-rock outfits so far - not being a particular lover of jazz (because I'm an asshole who doesn't get jazz, hear that, people? I think I'm serious here), I tend to view "jazz-rock" with a lot of scepticism because usually it sounds just like jazz with electric guitars, and since I don't review jazz, it's a rather mean trick to make me review jazz by disguising it as rock, right? But, as usual, to every bad rule there's a good exception, and Colosseum is one of these.

Unfortunately, these guys only lasted for three years or so; during that time, they still managed to release a bunch of really nice'n'odd records that were somewhere on the border between 'wanky jazz-rock' and really angry, really artsy blues-prog mishmash. You probably never heard of them, but maybe you'll get a hint when I tell you that their sax player, Dick Heckstall-Smith, used to be in the Graham Bond Organisation with Bruce and Baker in the mid-Sixties. So Cream and Colosseum are twin brothers, except that by the time Colosseum formed Cream already disbanded. The band's drummer, Jon Hiseman, and Heckstall-Smith actually got together a bit earlier, when they both teamed up with Jack Bruce to play on his second solo album, Things We Like. Judging by that album, you'd never guess that Colosseum as a band would be anything different from your average modern jazz outfit, going wank-wank all over the place and almost always sounding the same (okay, maybe not, but I'm not exactly addressing the seriously jazz-trained public here). But they were. Playing as a real coordinated band, with almost equal emphasis on all the instruments, the guys at Colosseum devised a certain intriguing, if not thoroughly original, sound, fat, energetic, powerful, and to a certain extent, diverse. Beginning as a quirky jazz-pop combo, they then dug straight into serious pretentious (but not overpretentious) art-rock, all the time never straying too far from their roots - even their most complex classically-influenced pieces are still accompanied by simple tatefully done blues numbers to let the listener catch his breath. And, of course, the musicianship is outstanding.

Which makes me really wonder why Colosseum never hit the big time like, say, Blood, Sweat & Tears have. At one point, they were considered pretty hot in the UK and the critics actually wailed enthusiastically over the music - but it all pretty much faded away by the early Seventies. Not being an expert in Colosseum history, I'm not sure if it was the rapid dissolution of the band that earned them oblivion or it was their ultimate lack of success that earned them dissolution. What I do know for sure is that by the end of their tenure, they made a fatal artistic mistake by teaming up with that pathetic loser of a singer, Chris Farlowe; I can't blame them for the new vocalist, of course, seeing as neither of the two singing musicians in the band were solid vocal chord exploiters, but Chris Farlowe was a total disgrace... read the review of Daughter Of Time to find out more about it.

In any case, whatever the circumstances, Colosseum is definitely THE jazz-rock band to check out if you've ever been interested in the genre - mainly because, like I already hinted at and will hint more in the actual reviews, they're the ones who really bring the jazz into rock and really bring the rock into jazz. They could have a wild'n'mean wah-wah hard-rockin' guitar without any fear of being accused of 'selling out' to the rock media, and they could easily bring on a lightweight pop motive in the midst of a deadly serious avantgarde-influenced track, and they could really rip it up on stage inflaming both the jazz and the rock fans. In other words, they aren't afraid to hunt for your negative-tinged emotions like anger and aggression, but they do it subtly, without any extra profanity or bluntness so typical of so many contemporary hard rock bands. And then, right on the spot, they give you out a passage of unparalleled classical beauty. That's kinda nice. Too bad they weren't really great melodists; even their best studio album, Valentyne Suite, has plenty of unmemorable spots. This and the band's lamented brevity of life prevent them from getting a higher rating, but that's but a minor problem - any rock fan of mild eclecticism should hunt down a couple of their records.

Lineup: Jon Hiseman - drums; Dick Heckstall-Smith - saxophone; Dave Greenslade - keyboards, vocals; Tony Reeves - bass; James Litherland - guitars, vocals. Reeves and Litherland quit, 1970, replaced by Clem Clempson, guitar, Mark Clarke, bass; Chris Farlowe joined on vocals (too bad). The band also relied heavily on extra brass musicians during the sessions, like Barbara Thompson on flute; Louis Cennamo of early Renaissance/Illusion fame also contributed some bass parts on the band's third album.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Too many instrumentals, perhaps, but it's so dang nice to see a bunch of obviously jazzy guys who really want to RIP it up.


Track listing: 1) Walking In The Park; 2) Plenty Hard Luck; 3) Mandarin; 4) Debut; 5) Beware The Ides Of March; 6) The Road She Walked Before; 7) Backwater Blues; 8) Those About To Die.

Colosseum's debut doesn't exactly smash your head against the wall, but that's mainly because when Hiseman, Heckstall-Smith, Greenslade, Reeves and Litherland got together, they didn't exactly have a lot to say to the world. I mean, it's not the kind of record that you listen to with your mouth wide open and wondering, 'Wow! Now where exactly did this music come from?', like the Doors, or Family, or Led Zeppelin or something like that. This is a rather messy jazz rock / blues rock compound, with nothing particularly innovative or unheard before. What sets it apart from so many soundalikes is that throughout all the eight tracks, I don't even once get the feeling these guys got together with the sole purpose of proving the world how much ass they could kick.

I mean, they do kick plenty of ass, but that's in a real sense, not in a manneristic or sterile way. There's so much energy here, whether it be Litherland's aggressive wah-wah licks or Heckstall-Smith's fat overflowing sax, or Reeves' fluent funky bass, that I'm really able to forgive the occasional lack of solid melodies because the groove gets to me. And this is the kind of record where the groove has to get to you in order for the album to be appreciated: otherwise, not only will you not be able to remember a single note at the end (you won't be able to do that anyway), you'll scowl and scoff. "Boring!", you'll be saying. "Where dem hooks are? Gimme dem hooks!" Well, there are hooks if you listen closely because almost every groove here is dependent on a certain theme which turns out to be impressive in the end, but more important, this is just an excellent example of an anti-sterile approach to jazz-rock.

I do grieve a bit about the abundance of instrumentals; Litherland and Greenslade sing on but four of the tracks, and the number surely could have been increased. Of course, considering these guys' backgrounds, it might have been the first time they were taking up vocals altogether. And a good job they do, too, particularly on the album's main vocal highlight, the marvelous jazz-rocker 'The Road She Walked Before'. It's the closest to a poppy number on here, actually, but the jazzy sax playing is anything but pop, and Greenslade plays a magnificent relaxing tinkling piano solo, the kind of stuff that really salvages any jazz record for me. It's one of the 'lighter' tracks, though; quite a different matter is 'Backwater Blues', which could probably be christened as a 'generic blues number' by some, but I beg to differ because I haven't heard that many generic blues numbers where the most prominent solo instrument would be a sax. Heckstall-Smith really blows his cool on the number, aptly showing why so many people considered him among the cream of the cream of all sax players at the time. And generally, I must say I really like the way Colosseum do their bluesy stuff - relying on these sharp high notes throughout that give the song a certain atmosphere of tense urgency, yet they never really overdo the trick and stay "within the limits" of standard blues so as not to seem too gimmicky, I guess.

The other two numbers are 'Walking In The Park', an energetic jazz-pop shuffle supported by Reeves' highly-mixed lush bassline and Hiseman's almost martial patterns, and 'Plenty Hard Luck', which is more of a fast blues tune with tricky time signatures, distinguished by very tasteful organ swirls and occasional distortion affecting Heckstall-Smith's blowing instrument. (No, not that blowing instrument). Individually, they're no great shakes, but together, they all join hands in order to give you a general impressive impression.

Not willing to concentrate in details over the other four instrumentals, I'll just say that Colosseum seem to stick to their 'Roman' image pretty fine, dubbing two of the instrumentals 'Beware The Ides Of March' and 'Those About To Die'. The former is a slow romantic sax-based shuffle that hardly has anything in common with its title - nothing ominous or terrifying, actually, just a pretty sax melody that for some strange reason seems to me to be ripping off 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' at certain places. Boy, I hate these dumb cross-references. Somebody phone Greenslade for me and ask him, please, whether I'm right in my suggestion. I'll just shut up about that and say that 'Those About To Die' is really really cool. That 'shooting' organ pattern that serves as the main theme has just gotta be one of the finest types of sound I've ever heard on a jazz-rock, er, record. Let this be a lesson to you: if you sit down and write a five-minute instrumental tune with no particular appeal, try to wreck your brain and think of ONE great idea, then set it as a theme and voila, you can get away with the midsection even if it's more boring than your underwear. That's what I see here - a ton of these tiny ideas that would have certainly worked better in the context of better written songs, but even as such they turn a potential duffer into a potential stunner.

It's not a peak, though. It still seems as if they're mainly just rehearsing for something really big, playing all those half-baked instrumentals as if their very lives were all depending on it. Grooves are fine when they're done with verve and with a little bunch of hair that's actually let down, but grooves by themselves aren't enough to justify a top rating, which is why the top rating goes to the next record where Colosseum finally and for all proved that they, too, were a force to be reckoned with. Heck, you will be reckoned with when your brass player is able to play two brass instruments at once, that's for sure.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

It's jazzy, and it rocks. In a world where most jazz-rock prefers to, er, "flow", this album's a good exception.

Best song: THE KETTLE

Track listing: 1) The Kettle; 2) Elegy; 3) Butty's Blues; 4) The Machine Demands A Sacrifice; 5) January's Search; 6) February's Valentyne; 7) The Grass Is Always Greener.

Valentyne Suite is by many considered to be Colosseum's masterpiece, and that may well be so (at least, it's their best studio album - but you still gotta scroll down a bit to see what I consider their absolute masterpiece). It's drawn out and bombastic, and yet it ain't very long; all over the place and tastefully arranged, and yet never really disorganized; well-performed, and yet never show-off-ey. As every democratic band at the time, they prefer not to let any single player overshadow the others, although at times I mourn that Litherland's guitar playing is too much subdued in favour of the sax and organ, but heck, that's jazz-rock for you.

In any case, the songs here rule. The first side is occupied by four powerful "artistic statements" which all sound the same and yet are all different. Key word is still 'different' - they tackle four different styles, namely, hard-rock, pure jazz-rock, blues, and psychedelia. Since the instrumentation is more or less the same, and they love giving the songs those grand, multi-tracked arrangements and all, there is a certain sense of sameness, but it really wears off very quickly. Litherland's numbers aren't particularly well-written, but they're written well enough for the band to be able to establish a competent groove over each of these ideas and turn in a sharp, ear-pleasing performance. 'Elegy' could probably be dubbed as a 'fast jazzy ballad'; the shortest track on here, it's mostly a showcase for Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman's brushes, but the string quartet touch in the background is extremely nice, lush even. If you can cope with Litherland's "backthroat vocals" (and hey, when you're dealing with jazz-rock singers, you have to cope with all kinds of off-turning vocals, so you've been warned), it'll be a masterpiece for ya, mister. Likewise, 'Butty's Blues' may essentially be just blues, but it's powerful 'blues-de-luxe', as Jeff Beck would title it, with a grand near-symphonic sound to it, guitars, saxes, and organs all rising in unison to rise the song out of boredom to ecstasy... just get that furious ending coda, with all the trumpets and saxes blaring as if they're going to jump right at ya out of the speakers.

'The Machine Demands A Sacrifice' is even better, for the first part of it, at least. It has more of a 'psychedelic' flavor to it, with occasionally trippy vocal harmonies, exaggerated nonsensic vocals... then the song fades out right after two minutes, and then goes into an, er, 'acid percussion solo' I'd call it. I really don't know if these guys had been doing acid (well, everybody was at the time, except Mr "Just Say No" Ian Anderson, I guess), but this track certainly sounds like they'd been paying tribute to those who did. Nice track anyway.

In any case, the best song on the first side is undoubtedly 'The Kettle', a totally engaging and authentic hard-rocker which was the hardest these guys ever got, which was not THAT hard, which isn't really that important because whoever dubbed Colosseum as hard-rock? Okay, coming full circle: it's a nice little hard rocker with a great wah-wah guitar tone, Hendrixey but cleaner, terrific 'controlled chaos' drumming from Hiseman and - get this - a memorable vocal melody. Funny that the track's billed as a collaboration between Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith when in reality Dick hardly even shows up on it: this is mostly Litherland's moment to shine, and his guitarwork is teasing and suggestive, and really economic. For some reason, he never really lets rip until the very end of the track, where he adds scat singing to accompany his guitar lines, in a rather cute way.

The "magnum opus" of the album, of course, is considered to be the title track, a three-part completely instrumental movement that occupies the entire second side. A seventeen-minute instrumental from a jazz-rock band; what could sound more evil? The very idea made my hair stand on end, but fortunately, the more I listen to this stuff the more I feel relaxed and happy in a silly way. It's... it's music, you see. It's not just a cool sax-playing guy soloing around for thirty minutes showing how good he is on his instrument without even expecting any kind of emotional resonance. There are no memorable riffs or themes here at all, but there is some kind of development, with things always changing and drawing you somewhere. Dave Greenslade particularly shines with his keyboards: on the faster parts of the suite he displays terrific organ chops well worthy of an Emerson, reaching breathtaking culminations. Heckstall-Smith and Litherland also get solo spots, the latter with a strangely subdued echoey guitar solo in the background, but like I said, this suite should not be regarded in terms of solo spots - the different solo spots are there just so that you wouldn't get bored.

Perhaps the best thing about this suite is that it really rocks - the faster parts, when the volume is turned up loud, display a near-endless potload of energy, like in the final section of 'The Grass Is Always Greener' where the band gradually speeds up and finally reaches breakneck tempo with Hiseman at his very best... heck, everybody at his very best. In this way, I can forgive the lack of purpose or truly memorable riffs or anything - this stuff is so dang pleasant. I have not the least idea about what this 'suite' has to do with Valentynes and whether these guys really thought of the three parts as representing different stages of something, but even if they didn't, that doesn't mean YOU don't have to make your own interpretations. Music is free, remember? You bought your music, you're the master - the music is now ready to perform YOUR own command. (Granted, I bought this CD for, like, three bucks, so maybe I'm not that much of a master. But at least I give you the hint, right?). Anyway, the album gets a strong eleven, maybe even a weak twelve when I'm in a good mood - it's not the kind of music I'd like to listen to every day of my life, but it's not the kind of music I couldn't bring myself to praise with all honesty, either. Good music, the kind that reinstates my faith in jazz-rock and all.



Year Of Release: 1970

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Why is it so that perfection is never possible to reach - even when it was so close?


Track listing: 1) Three Score And Ten, Amen; 2) Time Lament; 3) Take Me Back To Doomsday; 4) The Daughter Of Time; 5) Theme For An Imaginary Western; 6) Bring Out Your Dead; 7) Downhill And Shadows; 8) The Time Machine.

This band had potential. This band had good players. This band really knew how to merge art-rock with jazz so that it would preserve both the emotionality of the former and the colourfulness of the latter. This band lost James Litherland on guitar/vocals and replaced him with equally nimble guitarist Dave Clempson.

And then this band went ahead and replaced its lead singer. And lo and behold, here we have the 'King Midas In Reverse' principle.

It's a good thing I've never heard any of Chris Farlowe's solo stuff; if he sounds just as shitty on his regular releases, it spared me a couple of really bad dreams, and if it wasn't until his short stint in Colosseum that he began to sound like that, I would have managed to tolerate a severe disappointment. Anyway, Farlowe's vocals on this album are dreadful. They are pretty powerful, yes, he's belting as if he's trying to get out of his skin, but you can never tell, never ever tell if the guy's primary wish is to sing like (a) a pretentious operatic crooner, (b) a passionate soulster, (c) a hoarse grizzly jazzman, or (d) a dumb rip-roaring cock-rocker. He milks all four of these emplois, as it seems to me, at absolute random choice; the song can begin as an art-rock aria and then transform into a metal rocker or a jazz-pop throwaway, all at a single wave of Mr Farlowe's vocal cords. Don't get me wrong, he's got a good pair, but it's been long proved that it's not the vocal capacities that matter, it's your ability to make the best of 'em that does. And this guy is simply horrendous in this respect. Yuck, I've never been so let down by anybody's vocals since I last listened to Mr Coverdale. Minus one point to Mick Jagger who had the nerve to ever promote this guy, much less giving him 'Out Of Time' to cover. Mick, how could you?

There's only one track on the entire album that I can tolerate vocalwise, that would be 'Downhill And Shadows'; not sure if it's Farlowe on vocals there, but if it's him, that's one example of a nicely done, laid-back bluesy work. That's the problem, though: it's the only straightforward blues number on the entire record, and while it's excellently done and features dazzling and highly expressive guitarwork from Clempson, it's still little more than a well-done blues number. With some Really Good Guitar Playing. In the Clapton tradition. Or, maybe a bit sharper than Clapton's usual style. Let's say, "in the Jimmy Page tradition, but without the Jimmy Page gimmickry".

The other six songs all represent Colosseum's "typical" art-jazz-rock brand, well-aranged and well-played but, unfortunately, spoilt by the vocals. One of the tracks is a Jack Bruce cover ('Theme For An Imaginary Western'), that, for some reason, was a real favourite of every band that was in some way associated with Jack at the time (I already mentioned the Cream-Colosseum connections, and it was also done by Mountain, one of the members of which was Cream's producer). But I must say that I actually find the Colosseum originals more inventive and less monotonous.

Thus, 'Three Score And Ten, Amen' nicely vibrates from funky verses to all-out "epic" choruses pinned upon Greenslade's ominous organ pounding that brings the so much desired medieval notes into focus. Don't be put off by Heisman's drumming, either - he's using his set in a creative way, which means he's bashing all over the place, but he really knows what he's doing. Plus, the rabid wah-wah licks on the tracks can't be disqualified, either. 'Time Lament' is pretty depressing... er, could be pretty depressing. Why didn't they bring out a Peter Hammill to do the vocals on that track? It would be right up the guy's alley; a radical, blistering theatrical delivery would set the scene quite right. The title track slowly rises from humble beginnings to a magnificent climax, just like an art-rock is supposed to (but NEVER like a jazz-rock is supposed to, and yet it is jazzy in its own way). 'Take Me Back To Doomsday' never impressed me that much, but the instrumental 'Bring Out Your Dead' ROOOLES. First, it ain't got no Chris Farlowe. Second, Chris Farlowe doesn't sing on it. Third, Chris Farlowe doesn't do ANYTHING on it. And... oh yeah, it's pretty energetic too. Kinda. Sorta. Nice little instrumental, soon to be forgotten.

Anyway, I'd gladly give the album a high 11, low 12, were it not for the fact that (a) I have just added another person to my - very very short - list of intolerable vocalists, and (b) the last track, called, 'The Time Machine' and recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, is an eight-minute drum solo. These guys were sure taking their Cream legacy a bit too hard. For such a short album, eight minutes of a drum solo is, er, well, you get my drift. The most curious thing is that no review of this album you'll ever find on the Web, so far, at least, won't mention that 'The Time Machine' is just a drum solo. In fact, I may be mistaken, but I think that in one review or short bio of the band, I heard 'Time Machine' being called an 'epic highlight' of the album or something like that. Score for those who insist that reviewers rarely listen to the records they review, especially if nobody's ever heard of these records. Why bother, indeed? It's one chance in a million that somebody will discover their arrogance and set them straight. AND THAT CHANCE HAS ARRIVED!

But wait, did I yet tell you about the cool album cover? Look at it. Ain't that a really cool album cover? And yeah, Colosseum took their Roman name very seriously. Too bad they didn't have the brilliant idea to throw Chris Farlowe to the lions on their first live date. Just imagine the popularity!



Year Of Release: 1971

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

Hard-rock/fusion madness, wild guitar/organ/vocal overdrive for over seventy minutes. Just what I'm looking for, or so it seems.


Track listing: 1) Rope Ladder To The Moon; 2) Walking In The Park; 3) Skelington; 4) I Can't Live Without You; 5) Tanglewood 63; 6) Encore....Stormy Monday Blues; 7) Lost Angeles.

This is something all right. This is the album by which Colosseum should be remembered, once and forever. Expanded on CD release to near-absolute running time, it grips you from the very first notes and rarely lets go - there are some parts in the middle which sag and drag a bit, and I suppose for many seventy minutes of this stuff will be a little cumbersome, but I mostly dig it all.

It's just that, like all self-respecting bands at the time, once Colosseum were on stage, they were loose - totally unchained, aggressive in a way that one could only dream of while contemplating the studio albums. Essentially, it seems to me that all of the band members are simply jumping out of themselves, trying to prove their absolute best. A wildly swinging Jon Lord-ish organ; a schizophrenic blazing wah-wah guitar; an absolutely crazy overdriven sax; and precise, yet totally paranoid drumming; and above all, a Chris Farlowe who doesn't even sound all that obnoxious in that setting with his macho antiques. In fact, he even displays a certain sense of jazzy humour on some of the tracks.

Simply put, this is the BEST - absolutely BEST - jazz-fusion album I've ever heard. Every track improves on the studio original, and there are some new tracks, too, which blow away everything from the studio albums. That said, if I had to choose, I'd say that Dave Clempson and his wah-wah tricks really steal the show on 'Walking In The Park'. One of the album's shortest tracks (still goes over seven minutes), it's essentially a fast jazzy shuffle, but Clempson's hard-rocking solo is simply mind-blowing - the guy picks all the right chords and simply smokes. This is just the kind of music you want blaring out of your window to reassure your position as king of this world. And watch out for that 'scat duel' between Clempson and Farlowe (if it's really Clempson that's singing - he's the only guy besides Chris to be credited for vocals on my track listing).

There's more, of course. Jack Bruce's 'Rope Ladder To The Moon' gets an equally violent treatment, this time going along with a Mr Greenslade organ solo that's not self-indulgent in the least and culminates in a whole series of mini-climaxes the likes of which I've only heard from Jon Lord on some of the better live renditions of 'Highway Star'. The fifteen-minute jam 'Skelington' is worth every second of it; here Clempson unwinds a lengthy slow blues solo which doesn't even smoke, hmm, it just... smoulders? flares? broils? you tell me the right verb, especially around the fifth minute, when the band stops to let Dave display some of these wah-wah chords on his own. Yeah, yeah, it's generic blues and all that, but it's dirty poundin' shakin' aggressive blues the likes of which you'll never encounter from your average barroom blues-dabblin' ensemble.

I'm also quite fond of the entire band showcase 'Tanglewood '63', which is closer to our basic understanding of a 'jam', because it concentrates more on tight band interplay than individual talent demonstrations. Sure, it ain't got much in the way of memorability, but that's not the track's aim. It creates an uplifting mood, now doesn't it? It's a half-improvised mood piece - and a mood piece that rips the chair from under you at that, what with all the shrillness and decisiveness and all. Then there's 'Stormy Monday Blues', which goes from the usual slow-burnin' emotional chant we're all accustomed to through selected Clapton and Allman Brothers versions to a thoroughly accelerated mastodontic jam towards the end. And just for a change, the album ends with 'Lost Angeles', a number that's radically different from everything else - it's also a fast jazz-rocker, but pretty depressive and pessimistic at that. If you axe me, it's a strange way to go out - after all those emotionally uplifting numbers, you get a tune that supposedly pins your spirit down, but maybe that was the original idea: to end the record on a 'sharp social note' so that Live wouldn't give the impression of your typical average wank-jazz record. Whatever, even without 'Lost Angeles' I'd never have mistaken the record for a typical average wank-jazz album.

The record seems to be in print at the time of this review's writing, so go ahead and get it. I mean, yeah, the studio albums are nice and all that, since they show how it is possible to make peace between the interests of a fusion fan and a more straightforward rock lover. But Live really shows how it is possible to do much more than that, dammit. Me, I never thought there'd be a fusion album of all things that would get straight to the top of my brain, but there it is - I'm sitting right now and blasting 'Walking In The Park' at as much volume as I can allow myself (I sure think you can allow yourself more - I'm a pretty shy type!). I sure hope you'll be able to do the same in the nearest future.



Year Of Release: 1998

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

It's crude, but it does bring back memories.

Best song: HIGH TIME

Track listing: 1) Watching Your Every Move; 2) Bread & Circuses; 3) Wherever I Go; 4) High Time; 5) Big Deal; 6) The Playground; 7) No Pleasin'; 8) I Could Tell You Tales; 9) Storms Behind The Breeze; 10) The One That Got Away; 11) The Other Side Of The Sky.

A Colosseum reunion? NOW we're talking business! Isn't this JUST like a dream come true? Sort of?

Okay, that was just a stupid initial reaction. To tell you the truth, I was a little bit hoping that at least if they're gonna come back, they got to be clever enough to leave old Mr Fart-Low overboard. Maybe bring back Litherland or something. No dice - there he is, as overweight and overblown as ever. But apparently old age smoothes out some of the angles, and for some reason it's far easier for me to tolerate Mr Farlowe on this recording than on any given one from the days of his exuberant youth.

It's needless to say that ten times more people probably die in car crashes every day than those who this record is targeted for; even in their prime, Colosseum were a cult band more than anything else, and today, a reunited Colosseum is what, a proto-cult band? Something out of the neck of the woods. Given that the reassembled band couldn't be stupid enough not to realize that, they could have easily ditched any thoughts of 'commerciality' and accessibility and just indulge in pointless retro-jamming. They didn't, though, proving once again, that for them, the idea of "fusion" was never just standing around and blowing their stacks until the sun comes down - that, on the contrary, it meant cleverly integrating jazz elements into rock and pop structures and vice versa. After all, look at the title of the album - isn't it more or less like an intelligent way of expressing the 'give the people what they want' idea?

No surprise, then, that the album opens with... right, a monstruous guitar riff from Clempson, who's still using that trusty fat old tone of the good old days of '69. I've often spotted this tendency - if an album has something really really attractive going for it from the very first second, there's hardly any way it can be bad or boring (although it surely doesn't guarantee that the whole thing is gonna be knocking your shoes off, either). And Bread & Circuses doesn't let me down with that suspicion. It's got its lows and its highs, but the bottom line is, these guys still got it. And they had a pretty good sense of time, too; I can only shudder thinking of how would, say, a 1986 reunion of Colosseum sound like. In the late Nineties, though, with the technology boom and the mid-age crises long past, such a reunion could work wonders. Well, it doesn't exactly work wonders, but... they still got it. They really have.

Jazz and blues-rock dominate the record, like they always have, with exactly one song that rummies my tummy in an indigestive way: 'Wherever I Go' is a generic "I-got-more-than-soul-than-you" kind of ballad, rendered particularly excruciating by Farlowe. It's not the only ballad on the album, but it's the only primitive one, the only one that's got it all written on the surface with nothing to hide or to postpone - a bad way to let down me expectations, especially after already re-establishing them with the first two songs. The most curious thing is, they never did these kinds of songs earlier - neither with Farlowe nor without him; you couldn't accuse Colosseum of being completely deprived of "emotionality", but saccharine-addicted they certainly never were. If this was indeed a meak attempt at commercializing the sound, it's all the more laughable.

Sure enough, quite a bit of time here is given away to slow, moody compositions, but most of them are free of cheap sentimentality and get by quite fine; particularly when they get in "lounge mode", like on the superbly lazy 'Big Deal' - now that's the kind of material that Farlow should always stick to, if you ask me. No "progressive" ambitions, no direct mock-communication with the supernatural forces, just a relaxed, slightly sceptical bit of rumble and grumble a la Louis Armstrong. (And no, I'm not making a comparison here. If I wanted to make one, I wouldn't be resorting to French). Likewise, 'Storms Behind The Breeze' also sounds like it's been directly lifted off some long-forgotten 50's R'n'B record - although perhaps it would have been even more effective had it been sung by the likes of Tom Waits. Whom, by the way, Farlowe almost seems to be trying to replicate here. (And provided that's really a goatee on the photo inside the liner notes and not just a case of poor lighting, is also trying to look like. Respectable ambition, sir, but fruitless! Fruitless it is!).

Still, let's not forget this is a subjective review, and since the subject in question is more rocker than jazzman at heart, it's only natural that I'd be singling out the more aggressive material as highlights. Thus, returning to 'Watching Your Every Move', as far as writing goes, it can't really boast anything other than its bulky (but not particularly stunning) riff, but more important is that the band truly locks on target and every individual member gives it his best shot, with Heckstall-Smith's sax solos particularly enlightening. The title track, meanwhile, introduces a tricky time signature and has Heckstall-Smith and Greenslade playing quirky Eastern-sounding passages. Pompous, but clever.

Although, if you truly wish to hear them at their best, like in the old days, you have to wait until 'High Time', which establishes a speedy funky groove, really hot 'n' captivating and all. The slow shuffle in the middle doesn't necessarily belong, and I wish Clempson were given more room to flash, but that's nitpicking. Nobody really plays like that in 1998, except for maybe a few other old guys like Robin Trower, all ancient graduates of the British school of white-boy-R'n'B. Out of fashion for sure, but who cares if it's all hung on a couple top-notch riffs? Even when it's not, though, tracks like "No Pleasin'" openly denigrate themselves with their titles because they're quite pleasing, in reality. They aren't memorable. They're just fast fusion shuffles. But they're pleasing, all right.

Listening to all this really makes me a little sad because it's obvious that even now, almost thirty years since the band's arisal, Colosseum are still in a unique class of their own. Most record buyers probably never even noticed the album when it came out, and those few who have were either old-time fans or jazz-rock collectors who would never really want to separate it from the miriads of sax-tooting combos worshipping at the altar of Miles Davis. When, in reality, this band's vision has always been far broader and far more inclusive than that of the average "fusion orchestra". But in 1998, who the hell could tell? I probably couldn't either, were I not taking this thing in perspective.


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