|Knights of Space CD & DVD reviews
1. The CD
They say that the last thing to go with a boxer is the punch. In musical terms I always equate this to the
ability of a band to turn in a powerful performance live in concert, and Hawkwind proved to me and a
thousand other people, just three weeks ago at the Hawkfest, that they still pack a mighty wallop on stage.
But you would not know it from this CD, recorded live at London Astoria on 19th December 2007.
In any such document there are several layers that go into making it "good" or not. These include the
performance, the mix, the sound, presentation (packaging), style (arrangements) and content (material).
Taking the last of these first, the tracks presented account for no more and no less than the 19/12/2007 set
list, despite the fact that most retailers have claimed that the CD would add five new studio recordings.
That's misleading: they're nowhere to be found, and the egregious thing about this is that it makes the CD
and the audio content of the DVD totally redundant - there's no difference between them, and so I feel that
they are virtually being sold under false pretences. I may yet return the CD on this account.
So that's the first disappointment, but the various sales blurbs also mention this being a double CD set (it is)
that comes with an 8-page booklet. Well yes, but the booklet really boils down to a few photos of the
occasion. It's all pretty ho-hum, throwing the listener back to the music itself, as represented by the other
layers I mentioned. Let's consider the performance first. The band were under the weather at the time this
was recorded, with a couple of mentions of everyone being laid low with colds and flu. It must be utterly
wretched to have to perform in such circumstances, but Hawkwind are a well-drilled and professional outfit
who pull it off despite not firing on all cylinders. They stay remarkably tight throughout, and there are
moments, such as in the second half of Damnation Alley, where if you listened to that segment in isolation,
you would detect nothing amiss. And hey, even their off nights pee all over 99% of all other bands and
artists. But maybe you should panic, because this is Hawkwind not really connecting with the material and
their audience in the way that we know they can... For the most part they struggle to get beyond being
lacklustre, according to their own exalted standards. Or rather, the standards that we the fans hold them to.
What absolutely does not help is the sound, by which I guess I mean the recording quality, and the mix. To
be honest this has all the aural characteristics of an audience recording, not a live album. To revisit the
boxing analogy, it's Theophilo Stephenson rather than Muhammad Ali - or Nicky Piper instead of Nigel
Benn, if you like. There is clarity but no sparkle... Depth but no power. The mix has Jason's piano parts
and the vocals up high, with Tim Blake's virtual lead guitar and Dave Brock's actual rhythm guitar lower
down. Mr. Dibs' bass and the drums are about right, and Dibs perhaps comes off the best of anybody on
this recording. He puts in plenty of measured but never excessive runs on the bass - he's really growing into
the role and holds up the true spirit of Hawkwind here. The individual instruments sound creditable enough
apart from a thin tone on the Captain's guitar, but ensemble, they added up to a weak sound. This is one
reason why I don't collect audience recordings...who needs yet more renditions of overly familiar material
that has already been done better? I generally think there are far too many Hawkwind live albums on the
market, in relation to the number of studio albums, but at this stage in their career it's not realistic to look for
a new studio album every year, and at least the live albums normally have some post-production aural
excitement to make the music shimmer.
That was a digression, and I don't want to come off as condemning this album altogether. It does have
redeeming features (I've already mentioned a few). Here's another one: Space Love is a number that does
better here than the dismal studio recording which I would describe as nothing more than Hawkwind by
numbers, a tired resorting of already worn moves. But it works better in a live context, and is one of the
signs that Hawkwind don't rest on their laurels, there is continual experimentation and change. I won't
rehearse criticisms I've previously made of the arrangements they deploy on numbers like Orgone
Accumulator and Paradox, but will instead applaud the effort to broaden the band's sonic palette over the last
couple of years. This being the first sonic document of Hawkwind after Alan Davey, the new direction that
they've evolved is well portrayed, even if I or others think it makes the band sound much too polite.
But something that has been going off the boil for a few years now is the matter of narrations. There are
quite a few of them on this album, and where they worked well in years gone by was in the declamatory
talents that Hawkwind could muster in their line-up. There is now nobody with Bob Calvert's genius for the
dramatic delivery, or even Nik or Lemmy's distinctive unsettling spoken vocal tonalities. Dave, it has
seemed to me, doesn't have any particular gift for these voiceovers, and Dibs is particularly prone to
overegging the pudding, even on Ron Tree pieces like Abducted. Worst of all though, is Richard
Chadwick's inappropriate snarling on Robot. "...or allow a human being to come to HAAAAARM!!"
Perhaps this is particularly glaring in view of the musical arrangement exemplifying this recording's
shortcomings - Robot is just far too tame-sounding here. And I'm sorry, but the way the narration warps
into sung vocals on Sonic Attack and then Welcome To The Future is pretty much execrable.
Of course this album is not to be compared with Space Ritual Alive, for example, but it does seem to me to
be legitimate to look at it critically in terms of how it stands up against latter-day live albums like 2000's Yule
Ritual or 2002's Spaced Out In London. Of course, it's obvious that my subjective answer to that is that it
doesn't. Those who were at the 19/12/2007 gig, for example, may well react differently and that is no less a
valid reaction than mine... But I can't make myself feel that this is a necessary purchase, even for the
committed fan - especially one who collects audience recordings, because that's what this sounds like. 5/10
2. The DVD
As with the CD, the pre-release sales information was misleading in that it promised bonus materials to
include interviews, etc.. There's nothing like that here, and the audio is exactly the same as what was on the
CD, so I'm going to concentrate on the visuals...
There are individually selectable song titles which is an improvement on the last DVD (Space Melt). And
once you get into the material, there are many more camera angles than on all previous Hawkwind DVD's,
with excellent intercutting between close-ups of different band members, plus long shots from the back of
the venue and from about halfway back, off to each side of the hall. Not that any of these camera angles are
at all static, with much panning and zooming, and solid selections of visual elements - Jason's hands flying
over the keyboard, Tim's planing over the antennae of his theremin, and the faces of Dibs and Dave as they
come forward to the mics to deliver their vocal lines.
Intermixed with all this is plenty of footage of the backdrops and lightshow. The footage was shot without
concessions to filming requirements, and so what is represented here is the true intensity of a Hawkwind
lightshow, unlike the old Classic Rock / Bedrock video filmed in a Nottingham TV studio in 1990. But now,
as then, dancers make up a major visual element of the show and they come on first during the
music-plus-narration of The Awakening. Personally I never get very much added benefit out of dancers
appearing in the show, but they are something else to look at, besides the amusing grimaces of Mr.Blake and
limited movement of other members of the band. Considering they were all sick with the flu, they do a good
job of coming across as interested, willing and engaged. Tim of course is visually the most arresting due to
his instrumentation - the aforementioned theremin and whatever that 1980's keyboard is that he wears
strapped around his neck like a cross between an accordian and an elephantine guitar. But Jason is at least
as animated behind his decidely more conventional keyboard setup, and Dave does a few times wander
across the stage to trade riffs with Tim, like he used to with Alan Davey. Rock stars, eh?
The predominant colours of the stage lights are blue / red with white spotlights mounted high over the stage
and the customary Chaos Illumination back projections - evolving geometric shapes in Orgone Accumulator,
for example. This is a familiarity that breeds no contempt. As the DVD progresses into harder-edged
material (MOTU, Damnation Alley) these glacial tones are supplanted by warmer hues of red and yellow.
During Paradox we get close-ups of Dibs' deft fingering and Richard's backing vocals - elements which
might have easily been missed by the DVD production team. Well done to them for picking up on these
subtle touches within the overall spectacle of what's happening on stage. In terms of professional
production, this particular Hawkwind DVD leaves all the others standing. And perhaps because of this, the
soundtrack that made such a disappointing live CD is not really a problem or drawback in the context of the
DVD. However, some of the comments about the band not fully connecting with the audience seem to be
borne out by the apparent immobility of the crowd during this middle segment of the gig. The dancers are
little more animated during Robot but one of them wears the welding mask that appears on the cover of the
DVD (and CD). Hawkwind have gone on record as saying they had nothing to do with the artwork. :-)
Rather more impressive are their costumes during Alien I Am: the dancers are on stilts, clad in what appear
to be long white flags. But this a subdued segment in comparison to the blaze of white lights that herald
Master Of The Universe, and it is really at this point in the set that the band start to hit their stride. You can
feel it in the added thrust and verve of the music, and see it in the gathering animation of the audience. Not
to be outdone by this, the DVD production throws in a complementary sequence of fractal, prismatic
overlays during the disjointed middle section of Time We Left. This bit is just too short, and the momentum
that was just starting to build dissipates as the band move into a Brock-sung Lighthouse, that is very much
Hawkwind-plus-Tim-Blake rather than the other way round, as it used to be... Things get a bit more rocked
out during Arrival In Utopia, but the unsatisfactory mix referred to in the CD review above is what stops this
from going stratospheric - Tim's virtual lead guitar ought to be much more prevalent than it is, for example.
Incidentally, this number includes the Death Trap riff and new lyrics that I mentioned at Hawkfest 2008 in
the mistaken belief that this was a new development. Just goes to show how behind the times I am...(but it
came across so much more forcefully than this!)
The show peaks with Damnation Alley and winds down to the end of the main set, with the blue lighting
once again predominating. The band come back on for renditions of Flying Doctor and Silver Machine, and
as much as one is looking for this segment to be the climactic high point of proceedings, it never quite
happens. I get the impression that the band were ruefully aware that those moments of triumphal power had
just eluded them, though there are flashes of it after the breakdown in Flying Doctor and during the last
chorus and coda of Silver Machine. Perhaps they did get there in the end.
In any case, the DVD is a much better proposition than the CD despite being aurally no different. I'd
recommend buying it and not the CD, of course, and would give it a 7½ out of 10.