Perfect Sound Forever

STEAMHAMMER


by Ryan Settee
(June 2012)


There are some bands that are permanently pretty much bound to be filed under lost classic rock nostalgia. Labels like Rhino, Edsel and Repertoire do their best to unearth these acts and hidden gems, but the market is pretty much cornered to acid-damaged hippie burnout types, as well as the most open minded and discerning music connoisseur. I'm not quite sure how I stumble upon some of these bands, since there's so many of them and, alas, so little time in which to really delve into a band's catalog properly, at least past a song or two that may or may not represent the band in an accurate way.

I had always grown up with a wide palette of music and diversity in sounds. Steamhammer had got occasional play on the turntable by my parents, and their collection housed not one, but two (!) severely beat up copies of the band's 1968 debut album, Reflection. By "beat up," I'm talking severe forest fire static and many skips. There was no clear winner between the two as to which one was the more salvageable. I'm really surprised that they played at all, but they did, though you had to pick the needle up to bypass parts that had major skips right in the middle of the song in order to get to the other half of the song. Of course, this was the pre-eBay and Internet days, when the releases were long deleted by Epic and were near impossible to find. I'm sure that there were some German imports out there, but at that time, I couldn't find them.

Steamhammer, it should be pointed out, were British and were somewhat popular in North America, but they were huge in Germany. Their best and worst asset was most likely that they diverged wildly in their output; each album was different and could most likely either be liked or disliked because of its own merits or perceived demerits. That's true of a lot of bands in the course of musical history-- they get sick of being shackled into playing the same style and same songs, but the audience just wants the hits, you know? Keep more of the same coming. But I've always really liked the band's name; it implies that you're being hit with a sonic wallop, and that was largely true of their early output.

Imagine my surprise when I’d bought Repertoire's remaster/reissue of Reflection, and found out that the bulk of the record's dirtiness was actually in the original master! The recording is pretty overdriven and in the red; even with a clean digital transfer, there's still tape saturation all over the record. The sonic signature of the record seems to be a fairly dry and up close sounding rhythm section, with guitarist Martin Pugh's leads drenched in reverb and the recording needles driven into the red. It really seems like it's a conscious decision for those sonic choices, and it suits the recording and band, since there's a very live feel to the record where the band sounds like they're right in front of you. Though there's some overdubs here and there, it's pretty much just the basic band at work. It's been one of my gripes with a lot of bands from that era--especially when stereo recordings took over from mono--a lot of recordings sound frail and thin. Reflection has all the grittiness and power of a mono recording, but in stereo form. Steamhammer benefits here, I think, from the additional angst that the tape recorder afforded them (or the producer that overlooked it, Michael Vestey--the Reflection reissue liner notes state that the album was tracked on 3M 8-track 1-inch tape, with Ampex 860 for echo).

The basic sound is pretty much loud blues; it's not quite as metallic as Zeppelin or early Jeff Beck, but it's tougher than most of the era's lighter psych blues bands that dabbled heavily into crossover genres like fantasy folk, bubblegum pop and acid damaged love-in’s. The lightest that the band gets on this record is in the instrumental opener "Water (Part One)." "On Your Road" appears, on the surface, to be calm, but its detuned (drop C) manner suggests hypnotic Delta blues drone, even if it is just on acoustic guitar though later, suitably acid-damaged backwards fuzz lead surfaces about halfway through. As a matter of fact, my initial impression of Reflection probably was mostly in the middle part of the album's consistently menacing, hair-raising and somber tone--starting with "Even The Clock" and "Down The Highway" (and ending with the aforementioned "On Your Road"), Steve Joliffe's breathy flute trills coupled with Pugh's eerie echoed leads combine to create a fairly dark atmosphere at this point midway through the record, but it's one that I think separates the band from most of their contemporaries at the time. Rhythm guitarist Martin Quittenton (who later went on to work with Rod Stewart and co-author “Maggie May”) occasionally writes passages in the songs that are almost classical in their approach, and opts fairly often for minor key passages. Take opening interlude "Water (Part One)," for example, and the middle breakdown part in "Down The Highway" as another instance.

The big hit song off Reflection was "Junior's Wailing," later covered by Status Quo; its heavy blues stomp is insistent and convincing, beating out only a cover of B.B. King's "You'll Never Know" in terms of go for the throat riffing. Slower blues number "Lost You Too" traverses the gamut of self-effacing hard luck, in the grand tradition of "loser" type songs/lyrics ("you know that I'm a loser, and I lose at what I do"). "She Is The Fire" starts off fairly unrepresentatively, with horn fanfare and a speedier tempo, before slowing down to a mid-tempo with lots of wah-wah guitar work from Pugh. A cover of "Twenty Four Hours" slows the proceedings down later in the album, and "When All Your Friends Are Gone" returns to the same stomping blues as "Junior's Wailing," although in slightly less effective fashion. A reprise of "Water (Part One)" in "Water (Part Two)" displays a slightly different (and messier) lead guitar, as well as a slightly different chord structures in the second half of the song, effectively capping off the album in an appropriate send off to the album's gentle introduction. The main asset in the album is singer Kieran White though--he sounds, really, like no one else. While he doesn't have a wide vocal range, his vocal timbre is wholly distinct and his own; at times, soulful, and at other times nearly gravel throated in his baritone, working man's croon. His fierce harmonica playing really makes some of those songs what they are as well.

The thing about doing this Steamhammer tribute that you’re ready right now that's so satisfying is that each of their albums was radically different, and that the band really tried to expand their horizons with each outing. By the time that Steamhammer had released the follow-up to Reflection with MKII in 1969, the title proved to be correct: it was definitely a second version of the band. Original drummer Michael Rushton had been replaced by drummer Mick Bradley, and Martin Quittenton had left to focus on his work with Stewart and elsewhere. While Steve Joliffe was a guest on Reflection, here he was a full time member, and his multi-instrumental prowess made him almost a bit like Brian Jones, a jack of all trades for whatever suited the song--flute, saxophone, harpsichord. As a result, the overall sound of the band deviated a fair bit from heavy blues to include some jazz and Eastern tinged music, and Fritz Fryer's production is notably cleaner and a bit more sterile than Reflection. Opener "Supposed To Be Free" probably best epitomizes an album opener as a mission statement, as it's got a bit of everything--Joliffe's increased musical presence; extended jazz influenced breaks, and a more overall melodic approach than the oft-feral attack of the debut. Mick Bradley is far more adept a drummer than Rushton- the later specializing in 4/4 and shuffle beats, whereas Bradley specializes in difficult timing and also has a looser swing to his style. That's not a knock against Rushton; it's clear that 4/4 and shuffle rhythms were all that were required of him for that incarnation of the band.

Even as soon as track two on MKII, "Johnny Carl Morton" (done in an incredibly difficult and obscure time signature with ridiculously complicated snare roll beats), the harpsichords layered all over the song and White's falsetto serve as cues for older fans that this is not the same band from a year before. If anything, the band's diverse approach reveals limitations in White's singing; his forte is clearly the blues, and not as much with more involved melodic phrasing. There's a bit of "reach exceeds grasp" there. That being said, he does an admirable job of balancing out the band in their new stylistic setting, as there is really no set stylistic oeuvre as there was on Reflection. "Sunset Chase" follows, a Middle Eastern acoustic instrumental from Pugh; there's no sitar, but it's implied. "Contemporary Chick Con Song" is a bluesy shuffle that would have sounded at home on Reflection, even if it is a tad less gritty and a bit more proper. "Turn Around" follows with its breezy waltz feel, and probably most signifies Joliffe's influence on the band--he handles the lead vocals, and by the sounds of the instrumentation, overdubbed most of the song himself in the studio (aside from the rhythm section). "6/8 for Amiran" (Amiran being White's daughter, and the "6/8" referring to the timing of the song) follows, and again the Middle Eastern exotica surfaces, and it's a truly interesting combination, since Pugh chips in with some decidedly bluesy lead guitar playing, but it's contrasted against an insistent and hypnotic repetitive bass/flute riff, I suppose Jethro Tull influenced, but via Indian raga.

Meanwhile, "Passing Through" is a more jam based blues tune with an earth-y feel to it, maybe a bit like Canned Heat. "Down Along The Grove" is an instrumental by Kieran White that's on some other type of instrument--it sounds like acoustic guitar, but I'm almost certain that it's not (maybe a mandolin). "Another Travelling Tune" is another jam based tune, starting off with flutes and lasting 16 minutes; spanning the range of blues, jazz, jazzy blues progressions and more jamming, and "Fran And Dee Take a Ride" closes the album off with its instrumentality, unassumingly ebbing out a fairly eclectic range of sounds that started when the first note began on this record.

For Steamhammer's third album, Mountains, the band had returned to the heavier, blues-based style of the first album. Perhaps either the musical progressions became too complicated to replicate in a live setting, or the band realized that they had lost more of their original core fan base, I'm not sure. There's probably a bit of both of those aspects, but my vote is probably leaning closer to the former, since Joliffe had often played multiple instruments on the songs, and there may have been some stylistic dissention, as well--Joliffe only lasted a short time in the band (as several members did), before he left to join (more appropriately) Tangerine Dream. Regardless, the return to simple, back to basics rock n' roll appears to have reinvigorated the band at this point in their career. "I Wouldn't Have Thought" leads off the album, fairly bluesy with a slow middle breakdown part, "Riding On The L&N" and "Hold That Train" (the latter is sort of in the vein of "La Grange" and "Shake Your Hips") which were both recorded live, and stand as evidence of the band's stripped down live attack. By this time, Kieran White was on official second/rhythm guitarist duties (he played guitar occasionally on the other records). There are a few different touches to this record, too--"Levinia" almost has a bit of a funk feel to it with some slide guitar (which Pugh rarely played), and "Henry Lane" has a banjo on it and evolves almost into a chicken pickin' sort of country song. "Leader Of The Ring" is the album's surprising highlight for me--a gentle folk acoustic sort of song that's about as much of a mellow chill out vibe type of song that you're going to get here. "Walking Down The Road" almost has a bit of a James Brown type of soul riff/feel to it, especially in the rhythm section and the rhythm guitars, and eventually coalesces into a tribal timbale/conga jam in the middle part. Ending the album off is the title track, a relaxed sort of Zeppelin slower rock song (think "Your Time is Gonna Come") with a Middle Eastern breakdown in the middle part, allowing from more guitar-god soloing from Pugh.

As with the band's penchant, this incarnation and style wasn't to last long either. Kieran White had a falling out with Pugh and Mick Bradley, and by that time, bassist Louis Cennamo had replaced original bassist Steve Davy, and Quittenton was also brought back. Singer Bruce Payne was recruited, and the band lasted a short while in this incarnation before Payne and Quittenton weren't working out, so Pugh, Bradley and Cennamo continued on as a trio and went it alone after tryouts for singers yielded nobody of interest to them. Steamhammer's fourth and final album, Speech, is most likely the catalyst for one of the more confusing things concerning the band's output and genre. With Speech, they were definitely a strictly prog-rock band, whereas in the past, on albums like MKII, they were progressive but always were rooted around melody. Here, melodies got shelved in favor of texture and skill (think King Crimson, especially Fripp's most far out instrumental moments), and while it is a good album in the prog-rock genre, Steamhammer simply lost all but the most open minded and diehard fans left that they had remaining. It's almost Spinal Tap in its execution; if you substitute Kieran White for Nigel Tufnel- when they left their respective bands, the outcome is the same as the band loses a long-time mainstay so they indulge in arty, instrumental progressive jamming.Steamhammer carried on for a bit under the name Axis, but the poor reception by old fans to the new sound, coupled with Mick Bradley's death from leukemia shortly after the album was recorded, became the final nail in the coffin of the revolving door that was Steamhammer.

Pugh went on to form Armageddon with former Yardbirds singer Keith Relf not long after Steamhammer/Axis broke up in 1975. Kieran had released a solo album in 1975 called Open Door, and had unfortunately passed away in 1995 from cancer. In the liner notes to MKII, there's a photocopy of a letter White had hand wrote to Repertoire in 1992. In it, he states that he "no longer works in the music business, but as a truck driver"1 and "I am writing to you to ask for a copy of the album - I have not heard Steamhammer for 20 years or more without scratches on a record"2.

I'm sincerely hoping that Repertoire gave him some free CD’s, but you know, there must be something about those old beat up records.




REFERENCES:

- 1, 2: liner notes of Repertoire's MKII reissue in 1992.

- Liner notes of Repertoire's Reflection reissue in 2000.


Also see the Steamhammer website

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