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Class ?

Main Category: Prog Rock
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Avantgarde
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a National Health fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective National Health 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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Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Now there's a true "rock symphony" for you, and I don't mean it in the "London Symphonic Orchestra plays Foreigner" sense, either.


Track listing: 1) Tenemos Roads; 2) Brujo; 3) Borogoves (Excerpt From Part Two); 4) Borogoves (Part One); 5) Elephants.

The timing of National Health's debut was about as perfect as your everyday plane landing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean instead of JFK, NY. In 1978, as far as everybody was concerned, progressive rock was dead, buried, exhumated, and staked through the heart. Former progressive rock bands were learning how to make dance music with a bunch of synthesizers, and newer bands proclaimed themselves followers of the Sex Pistols and the Clash before proceeding to make dance music with a bunch of synthesizers. I shudder to think of how many people bought this record upon release (I never even dared to look), and not too many people are aware of its existence today, either.

Then again, I doubt that the album would have been more successful had it been released five or six years earlier. This is very complex stuff, not at all devoid of "normal" melodic elements destined to trigger "normal" human emotions, but so multi-layered and musically dense that it must take a very strong mind to discover the simple pleasures through the veil of complexity. But take it from me: I am always wary whenever it comes to the "Canterbury scene", trembling at the perspective of discovering yet another meaningless musical conundrum a la Henry Cow's LegEnd, and if my recommendation is worth anything in this world, I'd be more than happy to give it out this time around.

National Health have occasionally been referred to as 'prog rock's last stand' or something around those lines, and in a sense, it's perfectly true; this album summarises almost all of the achievements of the genre and its affiliates that the decade had seen. Large chunks of these compositions can be dubbed 'fusion', and they are, sounding exactly like all that stuff by late period Soft Machine or Brand X or, indeed, Henry Cow. However, fusion and jazzy background in general serves as just that - a background for the band's much broader vision. The worst thing about fusion is that way too often, fusion pieces seem completely directionless, played merely because somebody counted one-two-three and now nobody knows when to stop, jamming ad infinitum until some lucky guy cuts the power or the saxophone starts overflowing with spit. This never happens on National Health, because this stuff isn't jamming: it's cleverly crafted composing.

And emotional composing, too, which is something I could never say about most of Frank Zappa's instrumental work. Emotional content here is borrowed right out of the heart of prog rock. National Health have their optimistic, starry-eyed side - 'Tenemos Roads', 'Brujo' - and their darker, murkier side - 'Borogoves', 'Elephants' - which occasionally swap places but, in general, owe their existence to bands like Yes and Renaissance, on one side, and King Crimson, on the other. All of the pieces are quasi-symphonic in nature, going through several movements, flashing recurrent themes, and almost seeming to tell a story, although it's not exactly clear what story.

Above everything else, the band manage to be clever enough so as to evade accusations of pretentiousness and thus preserving the good name of the Canterbury scene even among prog rock's most ardent haters. The album is almost completely instrumental; the several bits of singing, delivered by Amanda Parsons, feature undecipherable lyrics and are performed in a steady, professional, and unobtrusive manner, so that nobody can be put down for sounding 'self-important' or 'pompous'. There are no grandiose (a.k.a. cornball) symphonic or pseudo-symphonic arrangements; the compositions may be structured as symphonies, but they sure aren't symphonies in the classical sense. And then, of course, there's always the jazz foundation, which is taken with glee by the American school of criticism, since these guys love it so much when Europeans take up American ideas instead of vice versa.

The magnum opus of the album is unquestionably 'Tenemos Roads' ('Elephants' is just as long, but does not use up its time as wisely as its competition). Before launching into the obligatory fusion parts, it does the right thing by establishing an anthemic mood - the main theme is sunny, radiant, optimistic, almost Beethoven-style in terms of spirit. Once you got inspired and elevated, it's time to subjugate yourself to "jamming", but fear not, these guys aren't mere wankers. The two keyboardists, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, rock the house down, kick-ass professionals as they are, with passages that occasionally remind me of John Evan's wild organ onslaught on Thick As A Brick. Nevertheless, they are wise enough not to get carried away, eventually ceding centerstage to Amanda Parsons and her angelic vocals. Amanda Parsons, in her turn, calls to mind Annie Haslam of Renaissance and that kind of fruity beauty, except this here beauty isn't all that fruity. The best moment is when the anthemic theme that opened the composition gets repeated with Amanda's vocals following it - the moment when you realize these guys were actually trying to make a true artistic statement rather than simply write something complex and forever remain in everybody's memory as "those nutcakes doing complex music in the age of the Ramones".

Amanda's singing also carries the prettiest moments on 'Brujo'; I love it when the guys sort of dick around with a moody humdrum atmosphere for a couple minutes and then at 2:42 into the piece Amanda steps in and does all the high-pitched la-la-laing, which, furthermore, seems to be able to go from pretty and soothing to dark and ominous within nanoseconds. The second part of the tune cannot hold a candle to the first one, despite more of those classy guitar and organ solos, but the thing has already been saved, and with Parsons returning towards the end, count me happy.

In classic oddball fashion, the next track is 'Borogoves (Excerpt From Part Two)', and the one after it is 'Borogoves (Part One)' - in a perfect world, where Lenny Kravitz earns money driving garbage trucks and Britney Spears spends her time at home with kids and soap operas, I could envision wild crowds of fans hunting down that coveted full version of 'Borogoves (Part Two)' and splicing it the right way with 'Part One' and thus gaining their right to fall out of the karmic circle. In our much-less-than-perfect world, though, I seriously doubt that a full version like this even exists. In any case, I think 'Part Two' is the weakest link on the album. 'Part One' does feature some nifty ideas, though, often sounding like a music-hall playing band suddenly gone crazy and merging those classic rhythms with blues, hard rock, and loony circus muzak. Whatever it is, it's funny.

'Elephants', I think, is the second weakest link. I like how they return back to 'Tenemos Roads' at the end, giving the idea that the entire album might be one big symphonic lump, but then the minimalistic, quasi-ambient coda goes on for way too long, as if they wanted us to never forget that yes, ambient style is something they really care about, too. And then there's some pretty generic fusion stuff at the beginning, not too good. Still, they do imitate elephant trumpeting from time to time (mostly in the very beginning), and thus presage Adrian Belew and his elephant fetish for several years, there's no denying that. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that 80s' King Crimson could have picked up a thing or two from these guys).

The overall record reflects my respect for this record rather than pure cordial enjoyment, but never underestimate one at the expense of the other, I say. This stuff is quite "academic" in nature, so if you think "rock" and "academic" never go hand in hand, don't think of it as rock music. (Well, actually, I'm pretty sure most National Health fans don't think of National Health as rock music). But it's definitely created by guys who have a vision all their own; who have a wild bag of tricks at their disposal and know how to make the best of it; who offer you a fantastic world journey without forcing a single interpretation of that world upon you; and who weren't afraid to follow that course at a time when there wasn't even any nostalgic demand for it yet. All of which means I'm gonna forgive them the ten or twelve minutes of (in my opinion) unquestionable boredom and concentrate on the good, the inspiring, and the everlasting.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Yeah, well... listening to this is probably the correct musical equivalent to calculating integrals.


Track listing: 1) The Byrden 2-Step (For Amphibians) Part 1; 2) The Collapso; 3) Squarer For Maud; 4) Dreams Wide Awake; 5) Binoculars; 6) Phlakaton; 7) The Bryden 2-Step Part 2.

On an album like this, however, I'd be hard pressed, dry cleaned, and vaporised to find anything good, inspiring, and everlasting. To tell you the truth, Of Queues And Cures is pretty much what I expected of this band while bracing myself for the debut - which then magically turned into something way more enjoyable than my expectations. But now, reality has caught up with me, and while strings and figments of "respect" are still hanging down my ears, any traces of "entertainment" (spiritual entertainment, to be precise!) are dead and gone.

Where National Health was a true musical journey, through a set of different atmospheres, emotional states and even, occasionally, masterfully memorable musical themes, Of Queues And Cures is just a Complex Album. It actually seems poorer on ideas to me, and one area where it definitely suffers is the vocals, or, rather, the near-total lack thereof. (The album is, in fact, purely instrumental except for some very brief - and very weak - vocal parts on 'Binoculars', [dis]courtesy of new bassist John Greaves). Now I realize just how important the angelic pitch of Amanda Parsons was for that first album. It was the key link that merged the band's technically immaculate, but soulless fusion chops with the charming idealism of classic progressive, that one little spark that was capable of setting the whole construction on fire. I have no idea why they couldn't get her on record for the second time. Maybe the vocals were thought of as too "commercial" - which they certainly were, but come on now, with music like that, there was hardly any threat of selling more than was enough to cover the recording expenses.

So, Of Queues And Cures is hardcore. It's so hardcore that I have to use hand lotion after handling the CD. A glaring example of just how hardcore this is is the penultimate track, called 'Phlakaton' and consisting of exactly eight seconds of electronically treated vocals spurting out weird consonantal gibberish. The liner notes explain this in the following way: "At last on record, Pip's grudging acknowledgment of the commercial need for a drum solo." Come down again?

Honest to goodness, I hate these liner notes with a passion. Okay, okay, you're making complex music for people with demanding tastes, so we figured - there's no need to rub it in. You can have your time signatures shift every three seconds for all I want, but why all the snubbery? Especially when the entire record - okay, ninety percent of the record, I give - is emotionally deader than a latter day Star Wars script? And the comparison is more than appropriate, because without emotional content, the whole thing is reduced to a special effects fiesta: dazzling, at times, but predictable and boring, at others, and at least the movies entertain me (fuck, they're commercial!), which cannot be said about this meaningless pinnacle of elitism.

And you know, I'm a-guessin' I know exactly the reason why things have turned out so differently. On the first album, the music was split more or less evenly between Dave Stewart's and Alan Gowen's compositions, with both gentlemen being mighty fine note-weavers in their own rights. With Queues, however, Gowen is no longer a band member, and the songwriting is far more democratic, with Stewart contributing two extended pieces, and the bassist, guitarist, and drummer coming up with one each. Now guess what - the only two compositions that I'd rate as "above mediocre" are the Stewart ones. Any formal motives, reviewer scum, before you walk the plank? Aye, sir!

'The Bryden 2-Step' and 'The Collapso' are structured according to the classic jazz principle: a strict, formal theme is announced and played, after which the band goes into free-form mode, upon which we return back to the theme. And the actual themes, both guitar-based, are exciting, melodic, and quite reminiscent of similar constructions on 'Tenemos Roads': same warm, optimistic tones, same angelic optimism. On the 'Bryden' thing, at least; 'Collapso' is notably more aggressive and doesn't exactly induce visions of paradise, but it's got this wierdly patriotic vibe to it, you know, one which makes you want to swish the blood-stained banner from the hands of your fallen comrade and furiously charge forward with... uh, sorry, got a little carried away there. But maybe you can now tell that I really really appreciate that theme. I do.

Now I'm not always happy with what is going on in between the themes and their re-appearance. (The 'Bryden' theme actually doesn't reappear until the second part at the very end of the album). Some sections have good drive, others don't; some seem to belong, others seem to have been thrown in because something else had to be thrown in, no matter what. But the cool guitar themes provide basis for redemption, plus some of the minor touches, like the birdies chirping at the beginning of the record or the silly pseudo-Emerson organ passage in the middle of 'Collapso', work relatively well. Besides, 'The Collapso' is quite short - there's, like, two and a half minutes of instrumental schizophrenia in between the intro and outro.

And these are the compositions that have to stand ground against the yawn-inducing piddlefests of the other three musicians. (I have no idea what a word like "piddlefest" might mean, so I'm using it here in order to avoid lawsuits. I have a feeling this won't save me from flames, though). I wouldn't even know where to begin with those ones. Okay, how about this: 'Squarer For Maud' ends with one minute of dissonant Schnitke/Varese-style classical, the kind of music that I always thought of as reserved for those lovers of academic classical who'd agree to treat it as their equivalent of "dirty" music, closing their eyes and ears on "pop" music because it does not uphold symphonic values - in other words, sounds that are even less guaranteed to please your humble servant's ears than generic arena-rock. So it's only one minute, but it's diagnostic. It's a friggin' diagnosis, consarnit.

It also doesn't please me much that both 'Squarer' and Pip Pyle's 'Binoculars' are, for the most part, trudging along at a lazy, nonchalant pace that gives the band very little space to demonstrate their amazing (elsewhere) tightness, even if it also gives them extended opportunities to juggle melodic lines ten per minute. Nor does it please me how monotonous it all sounds despite of the constant signature skipping, or maybe because of it? In this respect, Miller's 'Dreams Wide Awake' is probably the best bet of the three, being so aggressive and brutal in nature that Stewart even felt obliged to specially mention how he was "ripping out valves, wires, and strings of components from the Hammond's interior" during the recording process - a pack of hilarious, ridiculously hyperbolic lies, of course, but certainly, in some way, reflecting the tune's increased level of "posterior-nudging".

But don't get me wrong: what I'm doing here is trying to find some arguments to make this record look at least more self-respectable than the type of crap that's equally boring but also happens to be commercially-oriented at the same time. Naturally I won't ever be relistening to 'Dreams Wide Awake' just because it's got that cool, wild organ solo - I couldn't care less about the mid-section, for instance. So I can't help the fact that these guys can't write a decent tune to save their life. Or won't write. Nah, probably can't. Bring back Amanda Parsons. Take John Greaves and put him back in Henry Cow where he truly belongs. More power to Dave Stewart, and not just over the valves and wires of his Hammond. Then we can negotiate. Until then, I warily give this a nine and will continue to insist that there is a crucial, historically significant abyss between the band's two albums, and that in this particular case I'd rather jump down than cross to the other side.


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