Space Bandits Atomhenge reissue
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Here we are again with another Hawkwind album of yesteryear made available again in enhanced form by
Atomhenge Recordings.  The period of time they have to work with is Hawkwind's back catalogue between
the years of 1976 through 1997.  This offering hails from 1990, and did respectable business in its' day,
reaching a UK chart position of 70.  At that time the band was in transition from what had been a stable
lineup with a trajectory nearer to the mainstream of 80's metal than Hawkwind have usually ploughed, to the
90's model characterised by greater affinity with rave culture, and a dance-inflected dependence on
sequencers.  The inconsistencies of the Space Bandits album are a good reflection of the patchwork nature
of this transitory time, with plenty of dross failing to completely obscure the occasional gleam of quality,
and even the odd glimpse of gold.

The opening track of the album, Images, is one such nugget.  Dense, multitracked, effect-laden guitar
arpeggios count down into a pumping slamdance of crisp drums, fat stabbing guitar chords and, dominating
the listener's attention, a driving, exacting bass pushing everything else along.  Overlaid are Bridget Wishart's
vocals, working almost flawlessly in a studio setting.  True, there is a problem on the midsong breakdown,
which misguidedly features an overwrought narration over shapeless cacophony.  This collapses into chaos,
and a plaintive violin emerges like a cobra from a basket, slowly unreeling preparatory to the sudden
venomous strike with which the band restart the song.  This is so good that they do two more false stops
and starts before the track fades out with a superb Brock riff made up of blasting, staccato chords.  It's in
the top echelon of the things Hawkwind have done since the 70's.

And then we get Black Elk Speaks.  Risible as it is, this track actually has something.  Bridget supplies some
suitably generic Native American / new agey lyrics over a silly, yet mesmeric, pulsing beat.  The music is
made up of slow-flanging celestial synths panning overhead, adorned by abortive curlicues of not very
impressive lead guitar.  What holds it all together, and provides the rationale for the track, is a tape recording
of poet John G. Neihardt narrating lines from a Sioux prayer to the creator: "Grandfather, great mysterious
one, you have been always, and before you nothing has been..."  This John G. Neihardt came to know Black
Elk, the Shaman of the Oglala Sioux, and in the early 1930's transcribed his life story into the book "Black
Elk Speaks".  So I see this track as a tribute to the book, which it is not as good as.  Perhaps the best thing
about it is it might pique some interest in the book, as happened in my case.  That and Bury My Heart At
Wounded Knee tell the true, tragic story of the Native American tribes, which everyone ought to be made to
read.

Digression done, we come back (nearly) to earth with Wings, a plaintive-sounding early Alan Davey
composition.  Erm, yeah.  Lyrically it's right down there with Bridget's efforts on the preceding track, but
this is a bit better musically.  The arrangement (basically some quavering two-step keyboard chords played
in unison with a warm, glassy bass) is allowed to breathe, which is a strength.  But as a song, it's simplistic,
metronomic, pedestrian and comes across as having been written with the use of a drum machine, on a four
track.  When Space Bandits was first released, vinyl was perhaps still the predominant format, and as with a
lot of Hawkwind albums up to that time, it seemed to affect the sequencing of the tracks on the album.  
Wings occupies that end-of-side-1 slot that Hawkwind have often used for a more laidback / mellow piece,
before opening side 2 with a stormer.  Think of Doremi, with One Change presaging Lord of Light; Hall of
the Mountain Grill with Web Weaver and then You'd Better Believe It; the Quark album with Fable of a
Failed Race, followed by the title track...  A similar dynamic is at work here, with Wings paving the way for
the altogether more muscular Out Of The Shadows.  This is credited to Brock / Davey / Buckley (the latter
being Doug Buckley, an American fan who supplied the lyrics), but Brock's contribution provides the
definitive motif of off-the-beat thrashing rhythm guitar.  The track opens, though, with a welter of revving
motorcycles, fulfilling the characterisation of Brock's guitar as emulating a Harley Davidson in that fine piece
of literature, Time Of The Hawklords.  He is challenged all the way, though, by Alan Davey's thrumming,
pulsing bass...this was when Davey first really found his feet in Hawkwind, perhaps one reason why there
are so many good live recordings of the band in the 1989 - 90 period.  Out Of The Shadows fairly pounds
along, powered by the locktight rhythm section with a layer of knife-blade bowed guitar riding above.  A
jamming middle section slowly breaks down into random sound effects before an abrupt and foreboding
stop...

Next number Realms is an instrumental synth nightmare soundtrack.  It is dominated by low-pitched, buzzy
wavering chords, warm in tonality, but fraught with menace.  They loom out of the mix and draw back in
again like mist-shrouded cliff faces in a foggy fjord.  There is a feel of distance and threat...  But an angular
riff fades in, syncopated snare and metallic bass; the track Ship Of Dreams.  Dave Brock's vocals drip
disdain and an oddly depersonalised remoteness and eventually his guitar comes to the fore, while the song
maintains a steady march on the one riff that it comprises.  A little skirl of violin and minimal keyboard
textures do nothing to get this going - this is one of those songs that you wish would explode into life, or
perform some unexpected transition, but it just does that hypnotic / motorik thing for an endless few
minutes before fading out to the sound of submarine bubbles.  Seems like it sunk.

And then, Harvey Bainbridge's major contribution to the album, T.V. Suicide, pops up.  This is another one,
like Black Elk Speaks, that I don't particularly like, but I have to admit it has something about it.  A pulsing
synthbeat comes in with a tide of sound samples, gradually building in urgency and acquiring a snappy
rhythm along the way.  Finally Harvey's spoken narrative joins the proceedings, and he even does his own
backing vocals, giving this a hook and almost a structure.  With perfect timing, that passage ends and
another commences - sweeping, majestic synths measure out a simple two-chord sequence with overlays of
angel voices, arpeggios and phase-shifted oscillations.

That's the end of the album proper, and it's on to the bonus tracks.  Out Of The Shadows is the first of
these, and it's a luxury rendition by comparison to the original, with a fuller, richer tonality provided by
locating keyboards higher in the mix, and having the violin take over the lead instrument voicing.  But that
pummelling Brock / Davey riffing is still there.  The long instrumental passage that is the third movement in
the song benefits from the interplay of lead guitar and keyboard flourishes.  Unlike the studio original, the
spoken lyrics aren't the precursor to the song ending, but usher in an extended workout which culminates in
the riff from Hades Deep being played in unison by the entire band.  Both this and the next track are
described as being Live Studio Versions, but in fact it seems to be an enhanced mix, and perhaps edit, of the
25/01/1990 recording in a Nottingham TV studio.  As is the next track, a direct contination onto the
instrumental passage that is sometimes known as Snake Dance - a long, slow ambience unfolding with
arabic menace, until guitar and violin snap and snarl at each other, surrounded by warbling synthesizer tones.

Then another version of Images, this time a 7" single edit of the original album track.  This could actually be
an improvement, or at least a successful alternative, depending on the strength of the editing, in much the
same way that 1974's Psychedelic Warlords worked so well as a single edit, compared with the rambling,
unfocussed quality of the full-length album version.  But, oh dear.  The ropey rubbish of the mid-song
breakdown is nearly all still there, clumsily spliced back into the rollicking thrust of the second half of the
song.  There's another, far more adroit, edit leading into the final verse, after which the song continues as
per the original, culminating in those excellent Brock chords.

Compared with, say, Atomhenge's 3CD reissue of Levitation, three bonus tracks is not lavish, and the
packaging reflects that this is a fairly down-to-earth release by their exalted standards.  It's a single CD in a
jewel case, and the main improvement on the original issue is an enhanced booklet.  It contains a decent
length essay by Tim Slater and some contemporaneous photos, a few of which I recognise as having been
taken at Shank Hall, Milwaukee on 22nd May, 1991.  What about sound quality?  Relative to the original,
there is greater clarity in the mid-to-upper register, but this is a qualitative and not a quantitive improvement.  
Overall, this approach fits well with what is a patchy Hawkwind album - some wonderful moments and
some duff ones along the way, but one would not be without it.