Atomhenge 76 CD review

1st January 2004
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Another retrospective live album falls into my clutches...this one has been out for a couple of years but it's
the first time I've ever heard it.  First, the packaging.  This 2-CD set comes with an 8-page colour booklet
which is a reproduction of the 1976 Astounding Sounds tour programme.  Well, the pictures from it, that is.
There's no detail about the tracks or which concert on that tour was taped for this album.  It is in fact an
archival live recording, of a gig that took place at the Hammersmith Odeon on October 5th 1976...

A brief intro precedes Reefer Madness, slightly slower than the studio version, and characterised by a
thudding bass sound from Paul Rudolph.  That, the drums and Calvert's vocals are to the fore in the mix.  
The overall sound is clear, a marked improvement over the only other live document from this era, the
Weird 5 CD... Whoever was on the sound desk for this recording did a good job of adjusting the levels of
the various instruments as the number progressed.  After the first verse/chorus, Brock's guitar becomes
more audible, with Simon House's keyboards remaining very subdued.  Then the guitar becomes very
prominent from the Honky Dorky interlude onwards, and House's keyboard parts can be heard when he
plays a solo...by the end of the song everything sounds more or less as it should, and that's more rounded
than the studio version.  The entire Astounding Sounds album always sounds to me as though there is a big
hole in the middle of it, with all the instruments circling around the periphery of the void.  Here, everything
has a slightly rougher edge as you would expect on a live album, and there are enough mid-frequencies to
warm everything up a bit.  As for this particular rendition of Reefer Madness, Paul Rudolph is certainly not
everyone's idea of a Hawkwind bass player, but his right-on-the-beat single note thumps have a mesmeric
effect.  Hawkwind's stock in trade has always been their use of repetitive riffs to lay down a hypnotic
groove, and that is exactly the effect achieved here.

Paradox follows.  The original was itself a live track, I think, and so this makes for an interesting
comparison.  Dave handles the vocals and his guitar is more fluid and less choppy than on the Hall Of The
Mountain Grill version, giving the 1976 vintage a smoother feel.  Which works well on the verse (there's
only one) but isn't quite as effective on the "always / always / it's the same thing" chorus.  An extended
middle section / coda showcases some textural keyboard playing from Mr. House and we hear Nik for the
first time with some atmospheric flute.  (Maybe they should have encouraged him to play more flute to
overcome his endlessly blaring sax instead of sacking him!)  The song segues into Chronoglide Skyway and
Nik's sax is now heard, sounding rather thin (as on the studio version) but not blasting away heedlessly,
before he yields to some lead guitar played by Paul Rudolph.  Now this is *excellent* and highlights the fact
that whoever is playing the bass (Simon House, I've heard) doesn't do it all that well...it's somewhat halting.  
The end result is a track that's weaker than the studio version, but you can't win them all!

Next up is what must be chronologically the earliest ever version of Hassan-i-Sahba.  Compared with the
locktight slice of blanga that this song has since become, the rendition on Atomhenge sounds like a clumsy
prototype.  Calvert messes up the lyrics on the first verse which doesn't help and the overall feel is plodding
and leaden.  Rudolph's bass playing doesn't suit the song IMHO even if he did co-author it.  The song
structure also sounds embryonic, going verse / chorus / verse /chorus before there is a shambolic freeform
bridge which segues into the "it is written" mid-section that features the worst backing vocals I've heard
from Dave Brock.  Does anyone remember the snarling bedouin-looking figure on the back of the Doremi
album cover?  It sounds as though *he's* doing the backing vocals.  A final verse / chorus wraps it up, and
on the strength of this you have to wonder that they persevered long enough with this song for it to have
become such a staple of Hawkwind's live set.

Brainstorm starts off with an unusual twiddly bit before the characteristic guitar chords and Simon King roll
around the skins kick off the song proper.  The mix has gone to pieces with Nik Turner's lead vocals
initially being almost inaudible while Calvert's backing vocals are much clearer.  The guitar is too quiet but
the keyboard parts are about right, set against the bass and drums.  But this is played well enough by all
concerned, Nik's sax squawks away nicely (but too quietly) during the instrumental jam section, and
Rudolph's bass does the business with some double-time strumming but otherwise nothing too fancy.  This
would be one of the better versions of Brainstorm were the instruments better balanced.

The first CD closes out with Wind of Change.  It starts off quite differently to the studio version with
strings, bass, hi-hat and what sounds like echoed guitar defining an unfamiliar motif with a cold, nordic
feeling to it.   Once this interesting little intro is disposed of, the familiar chord progression comes in
and...this whole version is dominated by guitar with Dave providing some spacy soloing full of feeling for a
minute or two, before the bass and drums start pumping harder to close the number out with a prog rock
vibe.  Well.  The most unusual version of Wind of Change I've ever heard, and a welcome addition to the
canon, although I did miss hearing Simon House's violin - which here transforms this song by its' absence.

CD2 opens with more twiddly bits which are halfway between "tuning up" and ghost music.  This provides
an effective intro to Steppenwolf, a no-nonsense version where the mix is sorted as far as the drums, bass,
guitar and vocals are concerned, though the keyboards and sax are again too low down for my liking.  It's
very close to the studio version, complete with a beautiful violin solo preceding the "I am a wolf man"
monologue in the middle of the song.  As Calvert works his way into this, the rest of the band pick up the
arrangement behind him, so that there is less disruption to the flow of the song, and Calvert sings rather
than speaks, too.  The entire number comes across as being more "musical" when done this way, and ends
well, too, with Rudolph dropping down from A to E it sounds like (I haven't checked) and Dave Brock
vamping around the chords.  This is another good addition to the body of the band's live work.

A metronomic riff in 2/2 time with the bass playing octave notes had me wondering what the next track
was.  Uncle Sam's On Mars it turns out to be, and continues in this vein with some nice incidental spacey
keyboards, but no guitar - so it's a very different arrangement to the others already out there.  Using just the
single riff makes this song like it is nothing more than a prelude to something else.  When the guitar kicks in
at around 5:30, *then* it starts to take on a shape of its' own.  Again, this is probably the earliest recorded
version of this song, which apparently developed out of Opa-Loka on the Warrior On The Edge of Time
album from the year before.  It moves smoothly into Time For Sale, of which this is the only available
recording.  The disco/funky edge for which Alan Powell and Paul Rudolph were subsequently booted out is
very evident, although the way that Bob Calvert phrases his vocals makes him fairly complicit in this, I
would say.  It's a shame that this number wasn't retained and developed further - there is a lot of promise in
the keyboard parts and Brock is obviously sketching out some rhythm guitar ideas, one of which is basically
the same as the two-chord riff from Steppenwolf.  But the dominant motif here is Rudolph's single-note
bass pumping, so you can see why it didn't survive his departure, not being strong enough to stand on its'
own merits as a song, unlike Hassan-i-Sahba, say.

A fluffed opening heralds Back On The Street, which once it gets going, features some different lyrics to
the studio version and a slightly different, simplified, guitar riff.  As with a couple of the preceding numbers,
the feel of this song is slightly plodding; something that was fixed when they took it into the studio, and so
we'll have to put this down to the normal vagaries of song development.  In place of the guitar solo there is
some slightly bluegrass-sounding violin which looks in two directions; back to Warrior On The Edge of
Time (Kings of Speed) and forward to Quark Strangness and Charm (Damnation Alley).  But where's Nik?  
He seems to have faded out of the mix altogether and come to think of it didn't seem to be on the last track
either.  Don't tell me he was sacked halfway through the gig...no, he wasn't: his backing vocals can be
heard clearly on Sonic Attack, which is intended as a straight rendition of the classic Space Ritual version.  
This isn't as good, lacking the electronic flair of Messrs. Dettmar and DikMik...in fact, it's a failure without
them.

Kerb Crawler rescues us from Sonic Attack, and it's rather rough round the edges, which suits this
particular track OK.  Is that Paul Rudolph throwing some lead guitar in just after the first chorus?  There's
more right after the bridge, and it has to be Rudolph, the style is completely unlike Brock's.  Well, well.  
Maybe it's because he's not on the bass that this number has a slightly sloppy or even sluggish feel to it.  
And it has sound problems, though not with the mix this time.  Instead, the entire track sounds quiet and
muffled, and gets worse as the song goes on, like the tape is slowly being mangled by the machine on which
it was being recorded.  And in fact the track stops abruptly, and that's the end of the album, rather
anticlimatically.  A shame it ended on a duff note.

To sum up...this is an album of mixed results.  While Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music was in many
ways Hawkwind's most distinctive album, and I expected Atomhenge 76 to be a live version of it, something
else is happening here.  It really gets across that this was a band in transition, and for me this album
provides the missing link that connects the era of Hall Of The Mountain Grill and Warrior On The Edge of
Time (74-75) with 1977's Quark Strangeness and Charm.  It is marred by recording defects, notably the
mix in some places and the sound quality in others, but these are compensated by hearing some new or
unusual things along the way.  The other thing I found of interest here was how important Paul Rudolph
was to the 1976 incarnation of Hawkwind - in fact, he largely defines it and differentiates the sound of this
band from all the other configurations that went before and came after.  When he picks up the guitar, he
plays lead very well, but the band suffers from someone else having to cover for him on the bass - no
disrespect is intended to whoever it was, as they were being asked to 'play out of position', no better an idea
for a rock band than it is for a football team.

If. like me, you've got everything else Hawkwind have done, this is a worthwhile purchase.  But if you're
still adding to your collection, there are other and better albums than this one, so the question is whether
you're mad and obsessed enough to need Atomhenge 76.  A possible alternative is Thrilling Hawkwind
Adentures, which features the exact same live recording but omits these titles: Reefer Madness, Paradox,
Chronoglide Skyway, Hassan-i-Sahba and Kerb Crawler.  The latter three are probably the poorest tracks on
Atomhenge 76, but Reefer Madness and Paradox are certainly worth having - so on balance I would go for
Atomhenge 76 over Thrilling Hawkwind Adventures.
Front and back cover of the CD, which was
released by Voiceprint back in 2001