Monday, September 9, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #88 - Steve Hillage – L

a : of or relating to the cosmos, the extraterrestrial vastness, or the universe in contrast to the earth alone
b : of, relating to, or concerned with abstract spiritual or metaphysical ideas
2: characterized by greatness especially in extent, intensity, or comprehensiveness <a cosmic thinker>

 : imitating, suggestive of, or reproducing effects (as distorted or bizarre images or sounds) resembling those produced by psychedelic drugs <psychedelic color schemes>

When trying to describe Steve Hillage’s mind-bending 1976 album, the words cosmic and psychedelic seem the most apt descriptors, so I thought a Webster’s definition might be enlightening. They actually do provide some adjectival ammunition to help slay this musical beast. Just start with the cover. A soft focus shot of perfect British hippiedom – Steve Hillage in a purple robe with some Egyptian looking jewelry hanging at his throat. Eyes shut, head tilted heavenward, he is backlit so that his head and especially his guitar are haloed - glowing with mystic energy. Whoa! When I first saw it on the rack in 1976 I just bought it as I did so many things in those days: because it looked cool. I had no idea how cool. After looking over the liner notes I realized that I knew a lot of the people involved; Todd Rundgren produced it, and his new band Utopia backed Steve Hillage and synthesizer player/vocalist Miquette Giraudy, both of whom I would later learn more about. Hillage especially would become a favorite trainspotting target as I found him in bands from 60’s psych obscurities Arzachael and Khan to the great Gong and into the present in his groundbreaking ambient electronic music with The Orb, System 7 and others.
But L remains my favorite throughout the years and every time I listen to it I find more and more to like about it. If you are a fan of Rundgren, especially his Wizard/Utopia period, you will adore this record. It is dense with Todd-esque production tricks - lots of clever edits, backwards masking, layered vocals, chiming wall-of-sound electronic madness. Opening with a cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” it is immediately obvious this album is reaching for some big universal truth. A crunching power chord gives way to synth washes and jazz great Don Cherry playing some exotic horn. Hillage starts singing like a lost disciple wandering the desert while the song builds into a triumphant guitar anthem. It builds skyward, faster and faster, Hillage’s guitar leading the way, so intensely that Rundgren can only match the intensity of the music by actually speeding up the tape and bringing the song to a thrilling, almost cartoonish finish, terminating in the toning of a Tibetian bell as if to bring us back to the weighty matters of the cosmos. Immediately, on the first song I’m slain. Everything I’m looking for. Then the second song, “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando” is a 9-minute exploration of outer space with Hillage and Rundgren stacking up eastern drums and whooshes of guitars and synths around Miquette’s Giraudy’s space whisper of a vocal. Thinking the third song “Electrick Gypsies” might be a momentary breather from the overwhelming headiness of the first few tracks, I was again thrown into the vortex with the most blatant hippie lyrics on the album - terms like “cosmic rainbow” and “psychic surf” are tossed about like life is one big acid trip and we have an endless stash. This is some classic hippie shit right here. Hillage’s tasteful vocal and heavenly guitar are the perfect tools for Rundgren’s thick aural stew.
Track 4, “Om Nama Shivaya” takes a further turn eastward with Indian lyrics chanted over Hillage’s impossibly liquid guitar - thanks to some brilliant Todd editing. The penultimate song, “Lunar Musick Suite” is a 12-minute guitar tour-de-force that shows Hillage to be in a class by himself as a lead player. Rundgren creates a pulsing, driving mountain of a song with Hillage standing at the top tossing off lines like rock and roll lightning bolts. It brings to mind the best work of Gong, Yes, King Crimson and even Zappa, Weather Report or Return To Forever. The album closes, perfectly, with another cover, this time one of George Harrison’s best Beatles lyrics; “It’s All Too Much” is an optimistic, cautionary tale with equal parts acid tongue and comforting arm around your shoulder. Hillage’s tender voice lends the lyric just the right note of knowing vulnerability for the song while Rundgren pulls out all the stops in recreating - and even topping - George Martin’s ambitious original production. With another heroic guitar solo, Hillage takes this classic song into the stratosphere. Instead of crashing to the ground like a meteor, L goes into audio orbit like some fantastic day-glow rocket. This amazing album never lets up in intensity, bringing the listener along on peak after peak very much like a profound LSD experience. Good old Webster's - always has just the words I need to describe the indescribable.
- Paul Epstein

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