(SOLID ROCKHOUSE RECORDS; 2014)
All through the 1970s – my formative years as a music lover – my brother managed a trucking terminal a few miles from an MCA Records pressing plant. Naturally, all of their product shipped through that terminal. And, just as naturally, there were instances where some of that product was damaged. This product basically fell to my brother to do with as he saw fit. So, what does that story have to do with Wishbone Ash? Well, Wishbone Ash’s US label was Decca, an imprint of MCA. The first time I heard the Ash was when my brother brought an impressive stack of vinyl for my consumption: The Who, Elton John, Budgie, Neil Diamond, Blues Project, Blue Mink, Mose Jones and… the first three Wishbone Ash albums (just to name a few). Holy Batcrap, Commisioner Gordon! I had slipped into my own blissful state of musical Nirvana! Thanks to my brother, Mike, I eventually owned every Ash record up to THERE’S THE RUB (they jumped ship in the States to Atlantic Records for two albums before returning to MCA) and I loved every one! That kinda makes me a “lifelong fan.”
Like those two Atlantic releases and all but a select few since, this new Ash album is a hit or miss affair for me. It ain’t horrible… in fact, once you tally the points, there are more hits than misses. “Take It Back” opens the proceedings. A track that is very much in the vein of the Laurie Wisefield era, it features the trademark harmony guitar sound, a solid vocal from Andy Powell and fiddle from longtime associate, Pat McManus. Reverting to the band’s blues roots, “Deep Blues” has the aggressive sound of the group’s first album. The song has a great blues riff and some finest-kind soloing from both Andy and Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen. “Strange How Things Come Back Around” is another Laurie-sounding tune with some odd, Frippian guitar synchopations. I’m not too sure about those backing vocal “la-la’s” during the slower bridge sections… they seem to drag the whole thing down. There’s a fade in/fade out right before the instrumental break leading into the solos that completely transform the number into a kind of Tommy Bolin era Deep Purple funk thing. While there is certainly an air of the familiar, this is not your standard Wishbone Ash song and, actually, is rather enjoyable because of it.
One of the few misses, “Being One,” sees the Laurie Wisefield love-fest continuing. Unfortunately, Powell delves into two of the group’s weaker albums (NEW ENGLAND and LOCKED IN) for inspiration. The song has a slow, funky sort of groove which, eventually, morphs into a progressive jazz piece… with all of the trappings that the term connotes. Powell’s silky voice provides a welcome tension to the rough riffs and hard edges. “Way Down South” is a lazy, laconic (as the name implies) Ian Matthews/Fairport Convention style folk number. The tempo picks up during the instrumental section, with Bob Skeat’s deep, emotive bass leading the way into another nice solo. The tune isn’t awful but, at well over six-and-a-half minutes, it’s just too long for it’s own good. Next up is “Tally Ho!” Now, this is more like it! This is the Wishbone Ash I fell I love with way back when, the progressive folk banner flying high. There are moments that recall “Leaf and Stream” from the legendary ARGUS and, the solos in the middle section are quite effective in context. My only complaint is this: Andy’s vocals are a little weak here; this is one instance with the latter-day Ash where the vocals of either Ted or Martin Turner would have worked better. Speaking of vocals, Manninen makes his debut on lead with the dirty blues of “Mary Jane.” His voice is a little rough but, a welcome change from Powell’s (I really am a fan of Andy’s voice… it’s just that over the course of ten tracks… well, you know, variety and spices and such). The tune features some very nice harmony guitar work and a couple of slide solos.
After mentioning the refreshing change of pace from Andy’s vocals on the last track, he delivers what may be his two best vocal performances on BLUE HORIZON. “American Century” features an aggressive “FUBB” like intro before settling into a PHOENIX or ARGUS progressive groove. The drums of Joe Crabtree keeps a mid-tempo rhythm going, while Skeat’s charging bass propels the tune forward at a faster pace, creating a brilliant musical dichotomy. “Blue Horizon” is definitely a “song” in the strictest sense, with powerful lyrics and atmospheric vocals on display over the pure musicianship of the players (the hallmark of Wishbone Ash). That isn’t to say that the musicianship is sub-par; far from it! The guitars seem a little louder and each solo sends the tune into a different place, stylistically. The first has a James Bond/mystery vibe happening while others have a majestic, almost Floydian feel. Eventually, everything kicks into a more Ash sounding instrumental section, with Tom Greenwood adding some nice organ flourishes. The ARGUS song, “The King Will Come,” is evoked with “All There Is To Say.” It’s another pretty, Cletic folk tune, with guitars and lyrics reminiscent of that earlier number. Pat McManus adds some very nice fiddle and bazouki for a more folky feel. If you’re a long time fan, BLUE HORIZON will fit comfortably next to the rest of your Wishbone Ash albums, though it may not get as much play; if you’re new to the band, I think that you’ll find the album a refreshing change from a lot of today’s music and will, ultimately, lead you to seek out those earlier albums.