The Black Rock

antarctic ice

March came in with an icy blast here in the UK. We had 10 – 20 cm of snow, much of the country’s transport system ground to a halt and some unfortunate motorists got stuck on a Scottish motorway for eight hours. It was all due to “the beast from the east” – a weather pattern that drew extremely cold air from Siberia across mainland Europe and over the North Sea to chill the bones of the British people. The beast didn’t stay long but this weekend he wagged his tail again and some parts of the country have had freezing temperatures and more snow showers. So I thought it was time to feature a track by the Scottish group, The Cauld Blast Orchestra, in these pages.

You won’t find the Cauld Blast on streaming sites. There are a few videos on YouTube, all uploaded by a member of the band, Steve Kettley. Those videos are live recordings with less than perfect sound quality and intrusive text captions added by the video recorder. They serve as an archive of the band’s performances but they don’t do full justice to the 8-piece orchestra. So Crotchety Man has had a go at making a YouTube video from his copy of an album the band released in 1994. Here’s The Black Rock from Durga’s Feast.

I think I must have picked up the CD at the end of a concert but, frankly, I don’t remember the occasion at all now. Certainly, I was not familiar with the band before buying the shiny round disc in the standard jewel case. Steve Kettley’s website describes Cauld Blast‘s music as a “heady mix of jazz, folk, classical and rock, not to mention the odd tango or march for good measure”. That sounds like an event for the local arts centre and that’s probably where this seeker of all things weird (wonderful or not) stumbled upon them.

Between them the eight members of the band play nearly all the instruments in a modern orchestra: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, tenor horn, tuba and piano all feature on Durga’s Feast. Whistle, concertina, accordion and mandolin add folk music sounds to the mix. Then there are saxophones, bass guitar, drums and assorted percussion to spice up the tunes with a little jazz. Notable by their absence are guitars and vocals. The rock element sneaks in surreptitiously in the pulsing rhythms of the compositions.

The Black Rock, though, is a quiet instrumental; “the gentle side of the Cauld Blast” to quote Kettley again. It’s a piece for piano, violin and clarinet that ambles along in a contented 5-time, just the thing for looking out onto snow-covered fields from a comfortable armchair in a snug room. Come, sit beside me and together we will laugh at the mini-beast as it sidles off to bring shivers to some other part of the world.

cauld blast orchestra, trimmed

The House on the Hill

album cover

The English master was about to hand back our homework. “Before I return your books”, he said, “I’d like to read you one of the essays”. We sat there nervously for a moment, not knowing what to expect. Was he about to praise the text he held in his hands or lambast it mercilessly? And whose work had he singled out for special attention?

As soon as the master began to read I knew I was off the hook. The piece had a title, something like “The House on the Hill”, and mine was gloriously untitled. So, with considerable relief, I listened, intent on understanding why this ordinary piece of homework was getting such exceptional treatment.

From the title I had expected the essay to be a descriptive piece but it turned out to be a short story. It was written in the first person and told of a boy who wanted to explore a ramshackle old house. For the sake of this blog post I’ll call him Joe.

painting

The house had been empty for years and there was an element of mystery about it that fascinated Joe. He knew his parents would forbid him to go. He knew, too, that there were perfectly good reasons not to go sniffing around – the structure might be unsafe and he might be arrested for trespass. But the dark windows beckoned him and the more he tried to put it out of his mind the larger it loomed in his thoughts.

So, one day, Joe gathered his courage and walked up the drive to the house. All was quiet. The house looked unoccupied. As he stood there on the porch Joe got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he should go home. But, if he chickened out now his curiosity would never be satisfied. Joe tentatively pushed the door and it swung open easily as if the house was welcoming him in.

Stepping into the hall Joe saw nothing unusual, just a traditional entrance with a big oak staircase and some wooden panelling. An open door led to the living room. With its patterned wallpaper and faded carpets this struck Joe as a bit old fashioned, but there was something else, too. The feeling that something wasn’t right was stronger here. Something was out of place, he was sure, but what was it?

Going from room to room Joe searched for something that didn’t belong here. It wasn’t the furniture or the ornaments, they were as much at home as the walls and the floors. But the house was blighted by something. Something out of place or something out of time. Joe had to find it. Then, upstairs in a bedroom, Joe suddenly realised what it was. It was him!

The story ended, I think, with Joe running home, never to return to the house on the hill – not because he was scared, simply because he didn’t belong there. When I heard that story I was, like my English teacher, immensely impressed. The writer would have been 12 or 13 at the time and his story was so well written that it could have been published alongside established authors. That was why it had been singled out to be read to the class.

Some six or seven years later a band called Audience wrote a song with a similar theme; The House on the Hill was the title track of their 1971 album. As far as I know there’s no connection between the schoolboy’s story and the Audience song but the band did play at our school dance around the time the album was being recorded. (Caveat: I didn’t go to the dance and I only have my feeble and unreliable memory to rely on for that curious fact.)

Audience were an unusual band. With Keith Gemmell on tenor sax, clarinet and flute as the lead instrument and Howard Werth’s nasal, warbling vocals their sound comes very close to Jethro Tull at times. And yet, at other times their material strays too far from Tull territory to categorise them as progressive rock. So much so that one review of the band’s eponymous first album describes three of the tracks as “pure twee twaddle”. The consensus seems to be that we should file Audience under ‘art rock’, but there are definite folk and prog rock influences, too.

Here’s The House on the Hill on YouTube. I find it peculiarly unsatisfying visually but it’s a good example of the band’s arty, proggy music.

I Promise

hands

Radiohead have always had many influences. A band that tips its hat to Pink Floyd, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, krautrock bands and 20th century classical music (among others) is bound to have developed a somewhat idiosyncratic style. And they are always experimenting. That gives their album catalogue something of a patchy feel. It’s not that their style has been changing, it’s more that Radiohead is a chimeric beast with a coat of many colours, like a tortoiseshell cat.

The end result is always interesting and often surprising but sometimes it misses the bullseye of that direct connection to the soul that some more conventional bands seem to be able to hit unerringly time after time. Yes, sometimes they’re a little off-target. And then they give us I Promise.

My Track of the Week is a single taken from Radiohead‘s latest album, OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album OK Computer. The new release contains remastered versions of the tracks on the original album, some B-sides and three previously unreleased tracks: I Promise, Lift and Man of War. The 2017 album was released on digital channels just two days ago.

I Promise is the simplest of songs. A strummed acoustic guitar, a snare drum ticking out a 3-3-2 beat like a tipsy metronome and a sweet male voice singing a delicate tune. A bass guitar adds depth and a light veneer of strings provides the finishing touch. For almost four minutes there is no change of key or rhythm or tempo, just a subtle crescendo and an instrumental break that repeats the verse. And every line of the lyrics ends “I promise”. But so deliciously sweet is the song that those four minutes pass in an instant. There is no time to get bored. This time Radiohead have really hit the bullseye.

I won’t run away no more. I promise.

Even when you lock me out. I promise.

Even when the ship is wrecked. I promise.

Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

If you still haven’t heard this track, listen now. You will find it is absolutely lovely. I promise.

Sledgehammer

Sledgehammer - scrat

Now, where did I put that sledgehammer?

There are at least three well-known songs called Sledgehammer. Top of the Spotify list is one by Fifth Harmony, a five-piece all-female vocal group that came together when the girls entered the X Factor competition individually in 2012. As Fifth Harmony they came third and third is where Crotchety Man places their fairly ordinary pop/dance Sledgehammer. If you have seen Star Trek Beyond you will have heard a bigger and better Sledgehammer. That one is an epic ballad sung by Rihanna and she does a rather good job of it. But the best Sledgehammer, in my opinion, is the one by Peter Gabriel.

The Gabriel Sledgehammer is a pop/dance track the way old man Crotchety likes it. It’s one of those funky soulful songs that makes you want to stomp your feet to the beat, but unlike a lot of modern pop music it also has a catchy tune, some intriguing synthesised sounds and a great production. It’s an irresistible combination that took it to the number one slot in Canada and the U.S. and number 4 in the U.K. in 1986.

The single release was accompanied by a brilliant video featuring animation by Aardman Animations (Nick Park’s outfit that created the Wallace and Gromit animated films). It won  no less than nine of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, more than any other video, and may still be the most viewed MTV video of all time. Here’s the obligatory YouTube link:

There’s an even sharper, crisper version of this video on Peter Gabriel’s website here.

They say you shouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut but Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel, has tried everything else. Perhaps Peter Gabriel will take pity on the poor unfortunate creature and lend him his nut cracker extraordinaire.