Friday, May 19, 2017

In blissful company

The first inkling, like many others, came from the seminal Island Records compilation, "Nice enough to eat". After the rage, fury and musical precision of King Crimson had shattered into a thousand pieces, a jaunty bass riff took centre stage. The riff was taken up by other instruments, turned into the backing for a vocal section, leading into a long trippy guitar solo, followed by a chanting section and then returning to close the song. This was "Gungamai" by Quintessence, an ode to the river Ganges. The British underground meets the Indian sound. Listening to this song now, I realise that it is based on one chord.

In those days (1970), it could be very hard to find out about groups, especially the more obscure ones. One was limited to what appeared in the music papers - in those days, only the New Musical Express and Melody Maker (Sounds joined to make a triumvirate in 1971). It would never have occurred to me to request a press package from the record company. So Quintessence were very much an unknown quality.

Intrigued by this song, I found a single by Quintessence, entitled "Notting Hill Gate", whose lyrics seemed to be "We're getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate, we all sit around and meditate". When I found myself with a few hours spare in London in July 1970, I duly headed to Notting Hill Gate, trying to find this mysterious group but did not succeed. In the following year, I saw the group in the Victoria Rooms in Bristol and was so moved by the experience that I wrote a gushing letter to either their management or to the record company. I was even more moved when the letter appeared in Melody Maker the following week - betrayed, because the letter had been transferred to a third party, elated because I had a letter published in MM.

I bought the second album by Quintessence, which had a very elaborate sleeve. This record impressed me less than their opening salvo, as lyrically it was too religious and musically it was less exciting. My enthusiasm waned demonstrably when I heard the title track from their third album, "Dive Deep", and so all things Quintessence dropped from my radar.

A few years ago, I began trying to track down the music of my youth which fell outside of the axes of Fairport, Van der Graaf and Crimso. A surprise find yielded the first two albums of Quintessence, which is when I discovered that the version of "Notting Hill Gate" which I remembered was a different - shorter and poppier - arrangement to the one which appeared on their first album, "In blissful company". These days, I find that first album more interesting that the second.

It seems that I am not alone in my renewed interest in Quintessence: a few months ago, the online music magazine Siiye published an article about the group which was very interesting, as I never knew much of their background. Following that article, another website announced that their first three Island albums would be repackaged as a double cd, and sold along with a 48 page booklet in the near future. That near future is now and the double cd has landed.

The booklet - whilst informative to a certain extent, giving a potted history of their early days - is almost unreadable, being printed in white letters on a multicoloured background. The credits page is printed in black, but on a pink background, making it also almost illegible.

And the sound ... well, I have been listening to these albums in the past few years. The rhythm guitar, when isolated, is embarrassing in its sound, but fortunately it is kept mainly in the background. The real blooper is the opening track, "Giants", which starts with the rhythm guitar playing barre chords up and down the neck, followed by a cringe-inducing vocal, "Once there were giants". Fortunately, everything picks up after that; but why start with what might seem to be the weakest track?

The compilation, consisting of their three Island lps along with both sides of the afore-mentioned single, is called "Move into the light" - the name of the song on the b-side of NHG.

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