|Litmus "You Are Here" CD review
It's not Hawkwind, but then, not everything on this site is: think of the "Music from the Hawkwind
family tree" series. I decided to review this CD because Litmus are a band that I like *a lot* and I think
would go down well with many, most or even all Hawkwind fans...
Litmus have been building a reputation for the last couple of years as the UK's best new space rock band,
displacing Mr.Quimby's Beard, who've been around a bit longer. They've played both Hawkfests and co-
headlined with Spacehead...so a number of Hawkwind fans can attest to their potency in a live situation.
But I've not been aware of any recorded output from Litmus before this, their debut album. (Except for
their cover of Paradox on the Daze of the Underground CD, of course!)
It boasts ten tracks of driving space rock, all suitably titled:
Infinity Drive 6:23
Dreams of Space 8:29
You Are Here 3:08
Sonic Light 4:19
Rays of Sonic Light 1:09
(Theta Wave) Inductor 10:12
I Can't Be Sane 2:47
Stone Oscillator (Static Ritual) 21:04
The opener, Infinity Drive, distracts you with a brief wash of synth and a bobble of bass before erupting
into a riff that could have come straight off one of Porcupine Tree's recent albums. However the similarity
ends there as the band opt for a murkier, muggier arrangement reminiscent of classic UA-era Hawkwind,
and unpretentious vocals that fit the dense, powerful arrangement to a T. It's pretty riff-based, but doesn't
follow the Hawkwind template of finding one particular riff and driving it into a hypnotic groove. Instead
three or four different riffs are woven together to put this into a place that's halfway between being song-
based and being just a sonic freakout. The accent is on power rather than subtlety (no complaints there,
then) but there are some interesting voices thrown in along the way, particularly a Hammondish organ.
Dreams of Space points up another aspect of Litmus: although some of the individual instruments sound
very Hawkwind-influenced (mobile bass runs, revving guitar chords), the gestalt does not come across to
me as an attempt to be or to 'do' Hawkwind. I think the answer to this is in the songwriting, with this
number presenting a New Wave chorus: "All our dreams of space" terminating in a punk yell of "mean
nuffink now!". The drawn-out coda is another power-trip with plenty of HW hallmarks, but the sound
remains distinctively Litmus's: they have more distortion at their disposal than the Space Ritual-era
juggernaut version of Hawkwind, and less space in the arrangements than the Electric Tepee trio.
Title track You Are Here comes as some relief after this, being an acoustic-based wander through the
cloudscape. The best thing about it is the unusual 60's style vocal arrangement (male voices in unison)
which recall the folk influences of bands of that era, such as the Lovin' Spoonful. It's supported by a
backing of acoustic guitars, strings and what sounds like treble recorder. In Hawkwind terms the album
where this track would be most at home is In Search Of Space.
Sonic Light picks up the blanga once more, but the 'Wind-like waves of synth which form the lengthy intro
launch a track which is actually quite unlike Hawkwind, again because it's not the sort of song they would
have written. Powered by a cleanish, pumping guitar and embroidered by synth melody hooks, the tuneful
chorus again hints at new wave / power pop influences. A sharp guitar solo after the second chorus
induces another change of course, making this impossible to pigeonhole. Despite all of the aforesaid, it
remains space rock by dint of the instrumentation. Litmus never lose sight of what they are.
A short synthy piece, Rays of Sonic Light follows, and this is pretty much indistinguishable from any of the
brief pieces of electronica that Hawkwind did in the 80's and 90's. However it segues without a gap into
(Theta Wave) Inductor, a number with a neurotic, looped riff underlaying rapid chant-type vocals. And this
is maybe the moment to point out something about the vocals: they're extremely reminiscent of the singing
on Starfield's "Return To Earth" album of a couple of years ago. I'd imagine this is purely coincidental, and
Litmus are a far more guitar-based proposition than Starfield, who of course were dominated by the EMS
synth of Keith Kniveton. As if to emphasise this, (Theta Wave) Inductor treats us to a couple of excellent,
ripping guitar solos and some superb drum work in the climatic closeout section, before the band go into a
clever robotic meltdown at the fadeout.
There, the seventh track, is a beautiful lush keyboard piece, not too many miles away from 90's Hawkwind
(Davey / Brock compositions particularly), featuring two chords and a lead voice which is maybe done on
glissando guitar, throwing in something of a Gong / Hillage / Ozrics / Here & Now motif. Very well done.
But at the core of Litmus is a shuddering, roaring hyperdrive engine, and it blasts back into life on I Canâ
€™t Be Sane...¦the punkish vocals and lyrical content don't completely obscure the prog riffing, and then a
bit of pure Brock wah'd guitar part coming in at 1:45. This pops up and is then subsumed back into the
ramalama as the song closes out fairly unremarkably. It could do with an extra minute of something else,
the sort of 'third way' move they have already pulled off successfully earlier in the album.
Chime is a subdued bit of synthy plonking that Del Dettmar might have been proud to have written.
Lastly, the lengthy piÃ¨ce de resistance is the closing track Stone Oscillator (State Ritual). The
atmospheric opening of found sounds gives way to a stoner rock grinding guitar riff, interspersed with
quieter passages of foreboding vocals and arpeggiated guitar chords. One really nice touch is the rotary
speaker effects on the lead guitar, providing a retro psych effect that's got nothing to do with love, peace
and flowers. This could so easily be early Monster Magnet, although the keyboard / synth skills on display
here lift this well above the muddy mundanity that characterized Wyndorf's mob ten or more years ago.
I'm not totally convinced by the Doom Metal riffs thrown in at around the nine minute mark, but they do
provide the vehicle for some highly Bowiesque vocal arrangements which are very successful, harking back
to the superior Ziggy Stardust incarnation rather than to the more self-conscious later stuff. However, by
about the 13 minute mark you begin to feel that this number isn't making any further progress. As if they're
aware of this, the band whip out another guitar solo, the longest yet, and start to pull together a grinding
Hawkwind riff underneath it. OK. This just about wears out its welcome before the arrangement goes
back into the tense arpeggiated chords, vocals and Leslie speaker guitar. They do this foreboding thing
pretty well, but this song said everything it had to say in the first twelve minutes or so. There's no final
cataclysmic explosion, as the tides of synth wash out over the space of a couple of minutes, bringing the
album to a close.
So, a more than decent effort all round, and of course I recommend this to all hairy-arsed Hawkwind fans.
I think Litmus could go on to do great things, but the overall feeling I came away with from this album
(which I will play again and again) is that they've not *quite* found their voice. The great thing is that while
they're obviously heavily influenced by Hawkwind, they've not (IMHO) fallen into the trap of being an
imitation. They have other influences besides HW and I would see the direction of the band's progression
being bound up with successful integration of these influences, to the point where you can't see the joins.
At that point the "sounds like" comparisons will fall away and the real Litmus will stand revealed in all their
driving, starbound glory.
30th July 2004: Here's a response from the band:
Many thanks for your enthusiastic review of our album! Just to say (as Litmus' 'proper' keyboard player,
as against audio gens), that the 'Hammondish' organ is actually a Hammond, and the various strings, flutes
and choirs are my trusty (and very real) Mellotron - no samples here... :-) BTW, we've got the next one
half written already!