Time for a wee history lesson folks; regular readers of Ave Noctum, or even casual viewers of the metal scene, can not have failed to notice that in the last couple of years there has been a bit of a resurgence of appreciation for classic seventies style rock. In many a rock venue around Camden flares are making a bit of a come back, both on stage and in the audience, with new comers like Satan’s Satyrs and recent sailors on the good ship Retro, The Vintage Caravan garnering high scores. Whilst the sound has never really gone away, only coming to the forefront again recently with the increasing popularity of, for example, the superlative Blues Pills, many musicians associated with extreme metal showed their more melodic nature with assorted side projects before this new generation came to prominence. Gods of Grind Carcass themselves spawned two such acts, the now on (hopefully not permanent) hiatus Firebird fronted by Bill Steer, and the subject of this piece, Mike Arnott’s Spiritual Beggars. With the aid of the newly resurrected and massively respected Music For Nations brand, said Mr Arnott has overseen the reissuing of the four LPs originally released between 1996 and 2002 on that label, this time on collector’s edition vinyl, perfectly designed to grace the shelves of budding retronauts and long time fans alike. To make things even easier for those who like to listen to their music on the move, or like me, don’t have a record deck (I’m so old I remember CDs coming in people!), each is accompanied by a CD version, and it is those that arrived for me to review.
First up, I must admit to already owning assorted previous releases of the CDs, so was happily familiar with the songs; I’ll even admit to being slightly disappointed that there were no new tracks on my promotional copies, as such reissues can sometimes be a haven for rarities and hidden treasures. Furthermore, playing them back to back with the originals that I dug up from the attic, with the exception of being cleaner and lacking in some crackling, the result of being new as opposed to wearing the occasional scratch, I couldn’t hear a difference in the sound. In a way, that’s a good thing, as it shows that the band got things right the first time round, and the sound does not succumb to the digital need to drown out all subtlety with volume. How the vinyl will sound, I don’t know.
First album, ‘Another Way To Shine’ opens with ‘Magic Spell’, and is a world away from the extreme sound of Carcass or Arch Enemy, being a massive slice of hard rock, the vocals clean, drums laden with cow bells and high hats, and the guitar solo being played with a plenty of wah-wah and blues inspired progressions. ‘Blind Mountain’ follows, and a swaggering bass break firing the sound back to the white boy blues sound of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. If you get the chance to hear their eponymous release (not on this collection as it came out on Wrong Again Records) you can hear the band have really got tighter and started to groove, bringing a Bad Company vibe to the whole album.
1998’s ‘Mantra III’ highlights the addition of a Hammond organ to the mix by opening with the frankly horrible lounge number ‘Superbossanova’; with swirling keys and exaggerated bongos, it’s not so much Santana as Murph and the Magictones! However, this rancid slice of cheese (listen once for a cringing laugh and then remember to jump past for evermore!) is clearly just included for a bit of a laugh, ‘Homage to the Betrayed’ stomping forth and kicking it aside with the point of a well worn cowboy boot, the whole sound of the album adopting the harder fuzz driven tones of stoner rock, titles like ‘Monster Astronauts’, ‘Lack of Prozac’ and ‘Cosmic Romance’ enhancing the whole feel. Do you like Monster Truck? Well, there can be little doubt they heard this album, and shared the same influences.
‘Ad Astra’ comes up next, and is the last to feature vocalist Christian “Spice” Sjöstrand, and the stoner vibe has been placed by a simpler rock ethic, the keyboards becoming even more prominent than before, opener ‘Left Brain Ambassadors’ channelling the squealing keyboards of Jon Lord. Indeed, it is impossible not to imagine Deep Purple were a big influence on the band as they recorded this album. ‘Wonderful World’ has a virtuoso interplay between organ and guitar that used to be the hallmark of Lord and Blackmore, whilst on ‘Sedated’ “Spice” approaches the vocal gymnastics of “The Hairy Scream” himself, Ian Gillan. By the time the album rolls around to ‘Mantra’, complete with a gentle electric piano opening, the massive sound of the music had transported me back to 1971, with ‘Ad Astra’ being played in its entirety in the Albert Hall to an audience of earnest hippies drinking it all in on a bill that included Zeppelin and Free, complete with rolling drum solos care of sticks-man Ludwig Witt.
‘On Fire’ completes the collection and marks both the band’s final recording with Music For Nations, and also their first with Janne Christoffersson on vocals. If that name sounds familiar, so is the voice, belonging as it does to Grand Magus front man JB, his fist in your face vocals a perfect foil to the harder edged music. Whilst ‘Street Fighting Saviours’ is a straight rock number, doomier tones play out in ‘Young Man, Old Soul’, the bass fighting for dominance with the guitars, whilst the keyboards hint at a lurking menace. Whilst JB’s only writing credit is on ‘Look Back’, the album does feel as if written to support his style; of course, it could just be that he’s such a powerful vocalist that he takes ownership of each track and stamps his mark indelibly on the sound of Spiritual Beggars. Either way, his presence and delivery lends a more metal edge to ‘On Fire’, and ‘Killing Time’ or ‘Dance of the Dragon King’ could easily be incorporated into a Grand Magus set with a minimal of arrangement changes. Ironically, ‘Look Back’, the one track on which JB gets a writing credit, is in many ways the biggest musical throwback, being equal parts Deep Purple and pre-hair spray and bleach Whitesnake, the sound being rich and textured, a virtuoso demonstration of the art of musicians playing against and with each other to their fullest.
Whilst not offering any new music to discover, what this collection does is allow those who maybe didn’t get the albums when they first came out find Spiritual Beggars, and experience them as something new, whilst those audiophiles who insist that music sounds best on vinyl can listen to the music the way they like it, as well as having the joy of a physical medium to drool over, so long as they remember to clean it properly afterwards with the correct dribble cloth of course!