Sunday, 7 August 2016

"Mountains" by STEAMHAMMER [feat Martin Pugh and Kieran White later of Armageddon] (2016 Esoteric Recordings CD Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...We Could Almost Touch The Sun..."

"Mountains"by STEAMHAMMER from November 1970

Two tours with Blues Legend Freddie King in 1968 and 1969 saw the nucleus of England's forgotten and overlooked STEAMHAMMER be given the grounding for two albums on CBS Records - their raucous Blues-Rock debut "Steamhammer" in early 1969 on CBS S 63611 (also known as "Reflections" because of the cover art) and "Steamhammer MKII" in late 1969 on CBS Records S 63694. But Steamhammer was better than just Blues-Rock and had melody makers at their core too. The first of those albums featured Acoustic Guitarist genius Martin Quittenton - who would be a quintessential part of Rodders band sound for five amazing Mercury Records LPs between 1969 and 1973 - "An Old Raincoat Won't Let You Down", "Gasoline Alley," Every Picture Tells A Story, "Never A Dull Moment" and Smiler" - as well as co-pen the monster hit "Maggie Mae" with Stewart in 1971.

But the British band's "Mountains" album from late 1970 saw original band member Martin Pugh return to the fold (he was on the first LP) as Lead Guitarist and along with founder member Kieran White (Vocalist and principal songwriter) - Steamhammer changed tack and went a bit more Prog Mellow with their third and what many feel is their best record. November 1970's "Mountains" was issued on the Charisma Records offshoot label B&C Records. Its gorgeous sticker-titled gatefold sleeve (the Chris Stepan artwork is now fully reproduced n the newly upgraded booklet) has been a notorious and sought-after vinyl rarity in the UK ever since - often exceeding its modest £50-ish price tag by three or four times that amount.

And that's where this superlative little 2016 CD Reissue and Remaster by England's Esoteric Recordings (part of Cherry Red) comes storming in - a very welcome and timely reminder of a band and a record that shouldn't have been so marginalised at the time and deserves mucho reappraisal now. Let's get to the details for Mark III...

UK released Friday, 29 July 2016 (August 2016 in the USA) - "Mountains" by STEAMHAMMER on Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 2549 (Barcode 5013929464940) is a straightforward CD Remaster of the 8-Track 1970 LP and plays out as follows (41:07 minutes):

1. I Wouldn't Have Thought (Gopher's Song)
2. Levenia
3. Henry Lane
4. Walking Down The Road
5. Mountains
6. Leader Of The Ring [Side 2]
7. Riding on The L&N [Live At The Lyceum, London]
8. Hold That Train [Live At The Lyceum, London]
Tracks 1 to 8 are their 3rd studio album "Mountains" - released November 1970 in the UK on B&C Records CAS 1024 (no US issue). Produced by FRITZ FRYER and Engineered by MARTIN BIRCH - it failed to chart in the UK. The last two tracks were recorded live at The Lyceum in London (no dates provided). Principal vocalist and songwriter Kieran White penned all the songs except "I Wouldn’t Have Thought (Gopher’s Song)" which was co-written with Martin Pugh. "Riding on The L&N" is a live cover of Lionel Hampton’s old R&B classic while the whole band contributed songwriting credits to the second live track recorded at London’s Lyceum venue - "Hold That Train".

KIERAN WHITE - Lead Vocals, Harmonica, 2nd Acoustic And Electric Guitars
MARTIN PUGH - Lead Acoustic, Electric and Bottleneck Guitars
STEVE DAY - Bass, Organ and Vocals
MICK BRADLEY - Drums and Percussion

Keith Nelson guested on "Henry Lane" playing Banjo

The 16-page booklet restores the album’s gatefold sleeve artwork throughout whilst offering newcomers superb MALCOLM DOME liner notes (presentation conceived and carried out by Mark and Vicky Powell of Esoteric). Dome interviews Guitarist Martin Pugh and Engineer Geoff Calver (who did the two live tracks) and gives a potted history of the band and its line-up changes and 4-album history. But the big news over the 2000 Repertoire CD reissues is a new 24-Bit Digital Remaster of the original B&C mastertapes by BEN WISEMAN at Broadlake Studios in Hertfordshire in 2016. This CD sounds great – full of presence and warmth – tracks like "Levenia" full of life.

Viewed from a distance - "Mountains" is a curious album with its six new studio-cuts sat uncomfortably alongside two live songs bookending Side 2 that feel like the band of old. Most of "Mountains" has very little to do with the Blues Rock influenced debut LP and a lot more in common with Man or even Help Yourself – excepting as I said those last two. Songs like "Henry Lane" and the near six-minutes of the title track "Mountains" are wonderfully melodic – the guitar warmer – the harmony vocals sweeter – and dare we say it – at times gentle and even beautiful (lyrics from it title this review).

"Levenia" feels like MAN circa "Bananas" where Kieran White is shadowed on the vocal line by Martin Pugh’s electric guitar at every turn and then later by deft Acoustic work. The bass opening that explodes into guitar on "Walking Down The Road" feels like Juicy Lucy or even Audience – but just when you think you know where its going – the later half of the song goes all bongo-and-drums Funky like Osibisa on a roll.

Listening to the acoustic prettiness of "Leader Of The Ring" – as mellow as America or Donovan or even Duncan Browne - it’s impossible to think of Steamhammer as the band Status Quo covered when they did their Hard Rock version of "Junior’s Wailing" on their August 1970 LP "Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon" (they’d also do a live version of it on their 1975 "Status Quo EP"). Yet the very next track does just that – rocks like a mother – Steamhammer’s ten-minute live version of "Riding On The L&N" where the sophistication is gone and they sound like The Groundhogs enjoyed a thumping bass and wah-wah guitar boogie wigout. The shorter 5:45 minutes of "Hold That Train" is actually better – a great guitar-boogie that feels like Man at their live best. Damn shame they didn’t see fit to record it properly for the album but maybe there was a life in the live version they couldn’t get in the studio.

You can’t help but think in hindsight that Steamhammer made a stylistic mistake with those last two live tracks filling up much of Side 2 (though others swear they’re the best things about the LP). I can’t help but think that if they’d stuck to their artistic guns and produced two more studio-cuts of the same melodic diversity and beauty of the preceding six – we would be looking at a bona fide Prog Rock masterpiece - with "Mountains" held in awe instead of a curio people stumble on.

A split-up Steamhammer would later join ranks in 1974 with Keith Relf from The Yardbirds to form the hard-rocking Armageddon for one highly revered self-titled album on A&M Records in 1975 (AMLH 64513 is also reissued by Esoteric Recordings on ECLEC 2150 in 2009).

In the meantime we’ve "Mountains" to savour - and 46 years after the event – a hill worth re-climbing…

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