|Distant Horizons Atomhenge reissue
A much-maligned album (not least by me) sees the light of day once more, thanks to Atomhenge's
programme of Hawkwind reissues. This title comes from the very end of the period covered by parent
company Cherry Red's contract to reissue Hawkwind material spanning the years from 1976 through 1997.
And what were Hawkwind in 1997? Who they were is an easier question (Brock, Chadwick, Richards,
Tree) and where they were, too: in uneasy transition from the ending of one model of
how-Hawkwind-works to the genesis of another.
To generalise, Hawkwind had been a major (mostly UK) touring act in the 70's and 80's, and from about
1989 to 1995 extended their hectic gigging schedule to markets in Europe and North America. Right the
way through, their modus operandi had been to play set-lists dominated by newer material from their most
recent studio albums. They had also had an unusually stable line-up from the late 80's, based on the core
trio of Brock-Chadwick-Davey...but everything seemed to change in 1996 with the first departure of Alan
Davey. The previous year's Alien 4 album had set a new musical direction for the band, and with Ron Tree
adding bass to his frontman duties, they strove to maintain that course after Alan left. But given the
transitional heritance conferred by bedding in new band members, Hawkwind were without a UK tour for
the first time in many years, and this seemed to cause momentum to ebb away from the band. In hindsight,
one sees the beginnings of the next phase of Hawkwind's existence, towards the 21st century leveraging of
the back catalogue in live performance, and the importance of the internet in maintaining their presence.
1996 saw the launch of the original Mission Control website -dusty in the corners, scary on the angles- but
the band didn't settle for an online presence with a few gigs scattered here and there. In 1997 there was an
effort to get back on track, with the recruitment of lead guitarist Jerry Richards and the undertaking of a
nationwide UK tour in the autumn, to promote an album of new material - Distant Horizons.
The patchy attendance of the tour, last-minute promoter cancellations and the unreadiness of the album
when the tour started comprise a familiar tale (athough how much of it is hearsay is a question).. This was
to be the last Hawkwind album to appear on Doug Smith's Emergency Broadcast System label, and marked
the parting of the ways between him and the band. Knowing the role that the premature release of Distant
Horizons allegedly played in this, there is always a question in my mind as to whether it really was as
atrocious an album as all that. Atomhenge's reissue of it provides the perfect opportunity to reconsider the
merits or otherwise of DH: as well as providing a more rounded experience in line with their established
practice of improving the sound and packaging of the titles they've reissued, and adorning them with bonus
tracks. In the case of Distant Horizons there are three of the latter - Archaic, Kauai (alternate take) and
Morpheus. Despite the unfamiliarity of two of these three titles, they apparently represent Distant
Horizons-era material that was more lavishly recorded after the release of the album, providing a
what-might-have-been comparison, as Malcolm Dome's excellent new sleevenotes reveal. These are in the
booklet which adds a few period photos (some familiar, some not) courtesy of John Chase. This is already
much better than the barebones tracklisting which is all that accompanied the original EBS release. Though
better presented, the original artwork remains - probably disappointing to some of us, as the criticisms of
Distant Horizons have, in the past, even extended to bitching about the rubbish graphics on the album's
The album itself, then. The title track pulls together ambient synths, a pulsing beat and the toasting of guest
contributor Captain Rizz (despite Mr. Dome's assertion that he figures not). About three minutes in, some
classic Brock lead guitar is added to the palette and the layers of synthesizer voices thicken to place this
firmly in the canon of keyboard-dominated 90's Hawkwind - more about atmospherics than anything else.
Ron Tree's Phetamine Street is something else, though. Built around a stop-start percussive duel between
his pumping, trebly bass and Richard Chadwick's defibrillator drum parts, the upper layers of distorted
guitar and disembodied monotonal vocals add a thrashy character. But there are keyboard chords placed
higher in the mix than before, which round it out into a decent number.
Waimea Canyon Drive follows, and the plodding underpinning is still there, overlaid with slabs of rhythm
guitar. The vocal is a trancelike repetition of "On Waimea Canyon Drive", until the slightly plaintive middle
section kicks in at around 2:30, and here the vocals are so low in the mix as to be indecipherable. As with
the two previous tracks, there's a very noticeable improvement in sound quality when compared to the EBS
CD, but it does Waimea Canyon Drive a disservice, actually. Greater clarity in the mix leaves the mind free
to focus on the fact that this isn't really all that great of a song...(not that every number can be...)
Alchemy, a pacey progression of Jerry Richards riffs, is about as close as Hawkwind have veered towards
metal since the mid-80's. It's almost the first evidence of his participation on this record, but he completely
dominates here. Ron is definitely his partner in grind, though, with a headbanging unison of guitar and bass
only slightly leavened by the upper layers of synth and distorted voice samples. Grungey speed metal. It's a
taut, concise, perfectly timed (3:13) instrumental, appreciation of which is definitely enhanced by the clarity
of the Atomhenge mix.
Clouded Vision works well in a twisted way that Hawkwind have about them - this is basically a pastoral
kind of number, sparse guitar chords, with despairing lyrics, cleverly expressed by a lone, reverb'd vocal.
Another improvement in the mix brings out the frenzied, snarling Brock lead guitar after the first chorus...
(where *is* that new lead guitarist?!) The placement of isolated swooping synth chords here and there is
atypical, as is the sudden appearance of polynesian bongo flavour drums for a brief passage towards the
end. It really does sound like an exploratory recording, with a few ideas being tried out...and actually more
in tune with modern recording techniques with the way things drift in and out.
Reptoid Vision is another Tree / Richards punky thrash. Not a particularly pleasant riff, and Ron's one-note
vocal snarl fits it perfectly. He does do a good little restart on the bass after the false ending some way into
the song, and again I'm reminded that Ron has had rather a poor press as a bass player. His style is minimal,
but there are flourishes here and there. Jerry does less well with some fairy rank squalling, effected guitar
noise featuring. As with Alchemy, this is certainly taut, but the Tree and Richards show then makes a
ninety degree turn into becoming an Alien-4-ish angular, dystopian soundscape. The musical quality of
which regresses in stages, finally resolving into the main theme for a couple of minutes or so. What blessed
relief are the celestial keyboard sounds which segue us straight into Population Overload, a faux-reggae
rhythm fading in over them. But that is shortlived, and a monotonal pulse ensues, similar to that of Waimea
Canyon Drive, with an offbeat keyboard vamp in the middle of the mix keeping the notion of this being
reggae half alive. Structurally the song seems to go through several movements, despite all of it being a one-
chord throb. This again seems to be to do with the unfinished production, different sounds, voices and
instruments appearing for a short time and then being replaced by something else. The low point is when
this something else is dual, subdued vocals offset from one another in the stereo picture, and by a half
second of timing.
Wheels is another semi-instrumental that's dominated by metallic lockstep drums-bass-guitar, but this is
much more of a Brock riff and has more of a traditional Hawkwind arrangement, with a twisting, changing
layer of synths woven throughout. All the vocals are located in the suspenseful midsection, with a good
contrast of lead and rhythm guitar in the rocked-out coda. This is followed by another mood change: Kauai
paints a picture of the garden island with a two-minute synthphony nicely ushered in and out by the sounds
of ocean surf washing upon the shore. Let us not besmirch this with much mention of the succeeding Taxi
For Max, forty seconds of funny noises.
Love In Space is more familiar than most here, no doubt because it actually has a pedigree as a song, but
this is of course the unvocalled version. The overdriven, single sustained guitar chords in the second
passage were new to me, and there's just so much more texture and detail to hear in the arrangement â
€“mostly to do with synth voicings- that you just have to ascribe to the remastering job. Unlike the version
with vocals (I think), there is no return to the blissed-out first movement, and it's a little disappointing that
this comes to an end when it does. And with it, the running order of the original album.
From this point on we are into the bonus tracks and the first of these is Archaic. This is another cast from
the same mould as Reptoid Vision: the chord progression is truly naÃ¯ve in its punkoid amateurishness - but
not without charm. Ron does some quite melodic clusters of bass in the breakdown, and there are a few
interesting guitar figurines as the song wanders back into the confused skullduggery that is its calling card.
This is pretty wretched as a piece of composition, but sounds exciting enough with all the growing guitars
and bass thrashing away in bellicose unison.
Pairing a sampled female voice with some, um, tribal drums that might come from a low budget stage
production of the Lion King, is how the alternate take of Kauai starts off. But it abruptly cuts over to the
majestic synthesizer chords and sweeps of grandeur familiar from the established version. It's as brief as
before, and yields to the last track, Morpheus, which is very familiar. Something just like this has appeared
before in Dave Brock's solo work: though it certainly didn't end in the same way, with more of these rawly
produced sound collages, where instruments come in and then are taken out. I suppose the original release
of the album was as full of these sonic curios as this reissue, but they largely escaped my notice until now.
And that's the story of this reissue. There are extra layers of detail revealed by the improved mix /
remastering, and they make this a much more interesting album as a result. The unfinished-sounding
arrangements provide an intriguing insight (imagined or real?!) into the way that Hawkwind develop raw
ideas into completed recorded compositions. And there's a schizophrenic quality to the album as whole,
revealing the adjacency of Brock's 1990's exploration of occasionally reggae-infected, hypnotic, pulsing
synthscapes, and the more convoluted thrashing riffs that Jerry Richards and Ron Tree bring to the band.
Had these two different musical directions been more fully integrated -this would need greater compositional
strengths than the abum musters- Distant Horizons might have been as strong a latter-day title as Alien 4 or
Take Me To Your Leader. But Atomhenge have raised it from a 5/10 to a 6/10, which is what, a 30%
improvement. A must-have for the committed, and an absorbing listen for all...