There's The Rub
Wishbone Ash (Decca/MCA '70) Rating: A-
Although they achieved popularity in their U.K. homeland with a series of top 40 albums during their '70s heyday, today Wishbone Ash are mostly a forgotten footnote best known for having been one of the first bands with a harmonized lead guitar sound. As such, they're probably better known for the band's they've influenced (Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden) than for their own music, which is a shame because any fan of prog, hard rock, and simply great guitar playing should really enjoy this debut album. Actually, due to the Internet and SiriusXM radio they do seem to have a higher profile these days, and their innovative merging of progressive and hard rock elements with boogie-based rock and Celtic folk holds up remarkably well. This album contains only six songs, two of which exceed 10 minutes, but the album opener "Blind Eye" is your standard 3 minute boogie rocker, albeit an energetic, mildly enjoyable one. "Lady Whiskey" gets heavier, darker, and more intense, with some superb soloing from guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner (the rhythm section of Martin Turner (no relation) and Steve Upton is also really good), but my favorite non-epic (although it is almost 7 minutes long!) is actually "Errors Of My Way," the folksiest effort and the one song here where the band's vocals, here harmonized to haunting effect, are extremely effective, as mediocre vocals are probably the band's biggest weakness and perhaps hindered them from being bigger (p.s. as with every song here this one also has pretty twin guitar harmonies and wailing guitar solos, lest you think it's some sort of wimpy ballad). "Queen Of Torture" is another solid shorter number on which the guitars wail from the get-go, before the epics commence with "Handy," a mostly instrumental 11+ minute track on which each band member gets to solo. Pretty and melodic in parts but also a bit boring and self-indulgent at times, the best moments are still momentous, and "Phoenix" ends the album with a classic epic 10+ minute guitar track that's intense, soulful, melancholic, and explosive, with the requisite guitar jamming providing the best bits of course. On the whole, this was a flawed but mostly excellent (especially “Errors Of My Way” and “Phoenix”) first album from a really fine, highly underrated band.
Pilgrimage (Decca/MCA '71) Rating: B+
This was a strange second outing but not one without significant virtues. Stylistically this one is more all over the map, starting with "Vas Dis," a fusion-y rocker with annoying nonsense vocals and strong soloing (the latter part what you'd expect from such a musically talented band). "The Pilgrim” starts all quiet and pastoral for about the first three minutes before getting heavier and more progressive. Again the lyrics are more nonsense than anything else, albeit not as annoying as on "Vas Dis," and it's primarily the twin guitar magic of Powell and Turner that makes this such a winning 8+ minute effort. The chugging, mid-tempo, bluesy boogie rocker "Jail Bait" continues with the most straightforward song on the album, and it's a rare song here with actual vocals and comprehensible lyrics, even if it's a tad on the generic side (I still like it, though). The next three songs are of a piece and are unlike the rest of the album aside from the long intro to "The Pilgrim." "Alone" and "Lullaby" are short (2:24 and 3:04, respectively), melodic, pretty instrumentals that I actually like a lot (the former is more spacey, the latter more melancholic and aptly titled), while "Valediction" brings back the chanted dual vocals that had worked so effectively on "Errors Of My Way." It works extremely well here too, making me wish that the band had used this vocal strategy more often, as this lovely song and "The Pilgrim” are the clear highlights of the album for me. Unfortunately, the longest song (10:24) closes out the album, that being the live "Where Were You Tomorrow," an energetic, mildly enjoyable but ultimately forgettable and over-long boogie ("Valediction was over 6 minutes long too but if anything it seemed too short). On the whole, this is an impressive album that traverses a wide range of styles, which is both good and bad as it lets the band show off the breadth of their talents but it's also a bit schizophrenic in the way that it goes from jazz-fusion to prog to boogie rock to mellow folksier numbers and back to boogie again. In general, this album is mellower and more instrumental-based than the debut, whose highlights clearly soared higher for me and which I like better overall.
Argus (Decca/MCA '70, '02) Rating: A
Wishbone Ash are best remembered for their early ‘70s work, and Argus was the clear high point of their career, both commercially (#3 U.K.) and from a critical perspective. With recurring lyrical themes about war, time, religion, love lost, regret, and moving on, Argus has often been touted as an early concept album. Likewise, its medieval imagery (perfectly conveyed by the excellent cover art) and continually shifting musical dynamics has had many a critic label it as a “progressive/art rock” album. In truth, these songs are only loosely related, and this British band actually has more in common with American Southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers and The Outlaws than the likes of Yes or King Crimson. As such, above all else this is an album for guitar lovers, as almost every song here features an extended guitar solo (consider that a warning to any of you punk rock loving, anti-guitar solo listeners). As mentioned previously, the twin guitar leads of Andy Powell and Ted Turner would influence many later bands, and Wishbone Ash’s classy mingling of English folk with melodic hard rock should appeal to fans of both types of music. Granted, the singing is only so-so (and again the vocals, which are typically soft even when the music rocks hard, are most effective when sung in harmony) and an average song length of almost seven minutes causes there to be a few long-winded lulls. In fact, it took several listens for me to warm up to the album, but the rewards have been well worth it (heck I love it now). This is because, for all their red hot guitar heroics, the band hasn’t neglected their songwriting duties. The album begins with a pretty acoustic guitar melody, but a little before the three minute mark “Time Was” changes gears and becomes an almost completely different song, one that’s highlighted by its melodic, free flowing grooves and the first of many memorable guitar duels. “Sometime World” is even better; it too starts off as a sad and pretty ballad before picking up the pace and taking flight with a catchy chorus and one of the album's best guitar jams. “Blowin’ Free” is also really good and is easily the album’s most commercial song, with a jaunty, galloping groove, poppy sing along chorus, and some smoking slide guitar, while “The King Will Come,” perhaps the best song yet, is carried by its militant beats and more great hard rock riffs and wailing guitar solos (plus as per usual it’s quite beautiful at times as well). Next, “Leaf and Stream” is a moody folk ballad that presents a lovely change of pace, as its guitar work is delicate rather than fiery, while “Warrior” is another song that elegantly mixes together mellow and hard rocking moments and adds a memorably anthemic (if somewhat cheesy) chorus to boot. This song perfectly segues into the majestic, melancholic ballad “Throw Down The Sword,” which ends the album on a high. Indeed, when its soulful, beautifully harmonized guitars cry out it provides a highly emotional, satisfying sense of closure. To speak in broader terms again, I once read somewhere that the music on Argus would make an excellent soundtrack to the Game Of Thrones TV series, and it does conjure up visions of epic battles in mythical, faraway lands, though it also has a timeless quality that should make it appealing to contemporary tastes. Also, unlike Pilgrimage, Argus not only contains great songs but its cohesiveness and clarity of vision makes it add up to more than the sum of its impressive individual parts. So, despite a few previously mentioned imperfections, Argus ranks as an epic masterpiece that’s simply one of the greatest guitar albums ever. Note: On the 2002 reissue, further treats are in store for all air guitar aficionados, as Live From Memphis, which was recorded at a radio station studio and released as a promo EP in 1972, has been appended to Argus. Containing expansive versions of “Jail Bait,” “The Pilgrim,” and especially “Phoenix” (17 minutes!), the inclusion of this welcome EP, along with a thorough remastering job and informative liner notes by Leon Tsilis, would appear to make this the definitive version of Wishbone Ash’s definitive album.
Wishbone Four (MCA '73) Rating: B
Although a significant dropoff from the once in a lifetime peak that was Argus, the comparatively unheralded and unimaginatively titled Wishbone Four (the album cover is lame as well) was still a solid effort when judged strictly on its own merits. The band self-produced (Derek Lawrence had previously done the honors), and the somewhat flat sound too often lacks the epic sense of grandeur and excitement of the band’s best work, though about half the album could be classified as ballads so the “lack of excitement” factor is less of an issue on those songs. The dual guitar magic of Powell and Turner is also downplayed, and the album lacks the laser sharp focus of Argus, as the mellower overall sound and attempts at diversity instead bring Pilgrimage more to mind. The album opener “So Many Things To Say” is extremely Who-like, so much so it almost sounds like a pastiche, though of course Wishbone Ash lacks a commanding singer like Roger Daltrey. Still, the song’s big riffs and Moon-like drums are entertaining enough, as the song rocks hard but has its mellower moments too, plus the jazzy soloing that starts at around the 3 minute mark and lasts for about a minute is an interesting change in direction. “Ballad Of The Beacon” is my favorite song here, as its epic balladry, replete with sing songy harmonies and multiple intense, soaring guitar solos, is worthy of comparison to the best of Argus. Alas, “No Easy Road” is an energetic if somewhat generic boogie rocker with a party time flavor, while “Everybody Needs A Friend” is another attempt at an epic scale ballad (it’s the album’s longest song at 8 minutes) only this one’s overly sappy even though the guitars at least salvage it. “Doctor” is another Who-like hard rocker, and it’s another good one, while “Sorrell” is a pretty folk ballad that’s a bit boring perhaps but which features more impressive guitar work from the band’s still-imposing guitar tandem. Unfortunately, going with back to back ballads probably wasn’t a good idea, and “Sing Out The Song” could also be described as pretty but boring, before “Rock ‘n Roll Widow” ends the proceedings with another somewhat generic yet satisfyingly moody rocker. On the whole, it’s hard not to view this album as a disappointment coming so soon after Argus, but it’s still a mostly enjoyable effort that’s worthy of comparison to most of the band’s better second tier albums.
Live Dates (MCA '73) Rating: A-
Wishbone Ash weren't known as the most charismatic live act, but they sure could play. This live album features fantastic playing, generally very good if not totally consistent songwriting, and so-so singing which is slightly weaker than on the band's studio albums. In general these songs hit harder and are more expansive than their studio counterparts, and though I wouldn't call them improvements in most cases, Live Dates still works extremely well as a de facto "best of" the band's early years when Ted Turner was in the band (he would leave after the release of this album, though he'd put in another near-decade of service years later). Let's face it, the main attraction of Wishbone Ash is their monumental twin guitar attack, and that's mostly what's showcased throughout this set, most prominently on the tremendous 17 minute version of "Phoenix" (the same one from Live From Memphis) that provides a grand finale. "The King Will Come" gets things off to a rousing, exciting start, and in between the band runs though the majority of their best songs; if I were to pick my favorite songs from their first four albums, almost all of them would appear on this track listing, including two from the debut ("Lady Whiskey," "Phoenix"), two from Pilgrimage ("The Pilgrim," "Jail Bait"), four from Argus ("The King Will Come," "Warrior," "Throw Down The Sword," "Blowin' Free"), two from Wishbone Four ("Rock 'n Roll Widow," "Ballad Of The Beacon"), and one new song with a cover of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do." In truth, this bluesy slide guitar showcase is my least favorite song here, and I have a few minor quibbles elsewhere as well; for example, though "Warrior" and "Throw Down The Sword" are appropriately sequenced back-to-back, the latter appears too early for my liking (it worked perfectly as the majestic finale on Argus). These are nitpicks, however, as Live Dates does an excellent job of showing off the band's stylistic variety (bluesy boogie rock, prog, pop, Celtic folk, hard rock, even jazz) and especially their impressive chops. I can see why the band's distinctly British sound never quite found the success they deserved in America, but Wishbone Ash were a very good band who deserved a bigger audience and more recognition than they achieved. Live Dates is one of the best showcases of the band's talents and it also effectively ended their first era.
There's The Rub (MCA '74) Rating: A-
Ted Turner is replaced by Laurie Wisenfeld on guitars and vocals, but rather than take a step back I'd say that along with the debut There's The Rub is a serious contender for the band's second best studio album behind Argus. The album is produced by Bill Szymczyk, and the anthemic opener "Silver Shoes" does indeed remind me a bit of Joe Walsh and The Eagles while being a fine effort in its own right, helped along by a singable harmonized chorus and of course more great harmonized guitars (Wisenfeld fitting right in right away) and solos. Elsewhere, "Don't Come Back" and "Hometown" up the tempos and rock both hard and well, if unspectacularly, as for me the album's primary highlights come in the form of a pair of epic ballads, as let's face it Wishbone Ash does epic ballads exceptionally well. "Persephone" is a pretty, mournful ballad with more wonderful guitar playing, while "Lady Jay" (whose lyrics according to Wikipedia "are based on the Dartmoor folk legend about Kitty Jay") is also excellent if not quite as great. "F.U.B.B." (i.e. "Fucked Up Beyond Belief") is a funky near 10-minute bass-led instrumental (remember the rhythm section is really good too) that perhaps takes too long to get going but boy does it groove along and when it gets heavier and adds more guitar soloing a little after the 6-minute mark it really takes off. On the whole, this six song album (remember when filler-free six song albums were commonplace?) shows the band getting back to what they do best, which is melodic, alternately mellow and hard rocking long songs (average song length = 6:30) with lots of guitar and vocal harmonies and plenty of cool solo turns (Powell with his trademark Flying V usually leading the way on that front). Alas, Wishbone Ash would subsequently move away from their strengths to pursue a more streamlined, AOR friendly sound (not uncommon at the time), and though I can't honestly say that I've heard the majority of their prolific subsequent output (with Powell being the lone member to stay throughout the band's long history), the general consensus is that the fecund 5-year period from 1970-1974 represents the band's peak.
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