Onward CD review

May 5th 2012
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I concluded my review of Hawkwind's last studio album, Blood of the Earth, by saying "there's life in the
old dog yet".  As if to prove the point here they are again, less than two years on, with another new studio
album.  While this might indicate their becoming prolific in their old age, this 2CD set contains previously
released material; the rationale being to pay tribute to the memory of Jason Stuart.  The material in question
consists of tracks that have previously been made available on the band's Myspace page and/or the 40th
Anniversary promo CD (themselves re-recordings of old numbers), and just old material, recycled.  Three
of these inclusions are labelled as 'bonus tracks', but curiously, are embedded in the middle of the 2nd CD,
rather than being tacked on the end as is customary.  This does things to the running order of the album,
and to add to the feeling of déjà  vu, along the way we get (yet) another two re-recordings of old songs,
in addition to the "bonus tracks".

(The full running order is as follows:

CD1
Seasons
The Hills Have Ears
Mind Cut
System Check
Death Trap
Southern Cross
The Prophecy
Electric Tears
The Drive By

CD2
Computer Cowards
Howling Moon
Right to Decide
Aerospaceage Inferno
The Flowering of the Rose
Trans Air Trucking
Deep Vents
Green Finned Demon)

CD1 opens strongly with
Seasons, a chugging rocker that really motors along on the choruses, but gives
the impression of running on the spot in the verses.  Layered vocals seem to be predominantly voiced
(monotonally) by Mr.Dibs and there are many brief bursts of Dave Brock's lead guitar, high in the mix.  A
mind-song breakdown continues the staccato, halting vibe but there's a touch of classic Hawkwind rhythm
guitar, riffing away gruffly to tie it all together.  This track is credited to Chadwick / Darbyshire / Hone and
as a composition it's very similar to the main thread of material that was to be found on Blood of the Earth -
Prometheus, Sentinel and the like.

The Hills Have Ears is another rocking slab of rifferama, atop which Richard Chadwick's reedy vocals sit
rather awkwardly.  There's a pacier, steamroller quality to the song, which again is disrupted by a staccato
midsection.  However this shows off the skills of guest lead guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton, who continues to
widdle away (quite tastefully) through the close of the song.  At this point, you are thinking “if they're all
going to be like this, we've got a winner, here."  And thus far, this album boasts a much stronger opening
statement than its' predecessor, which you may recall stepped out with two more ambient / electronic
tracks and only then revved up into gear.  In these days of digital downloads, 99p per track or whatever,
listening to albums as a 'suite', let alone presenting them as such, seems to be something of a lost art.  By
comparison with BotE, the band seem to have made some improvements in this respect.

The same can be said for the packaging / versioning of the album.  There were complaints two years ago
about different 'bonus' tracks being allotted to the various formats in which Blood of the Earth was available
(single CD, 2CD and vinyl).  Here, Hawkwind have ensured the uniformity of the track roster across the
different formats: which has perhaps slightly backfired, since the "special edition" differs from the "standard
edition" only by dint of having a hard back to the booklet accompanying the CD discs (if which there are
two, in each edition).  Perhaps the "special edition" comes also in a digipack or clamshell case, but as I am a
cheapskate I bought the standard edition which comes in a jewel case with a floppy booklet.  Said booklet
contains 14 pages of colour graphics, a few gig photos and selected lyrics reprinted along with the credits:
all quite unremarakable.

Getting back to the important stuff,
Mind Cut does give us a change of tempo and mood, being ballady and
pastoral, acoustic guitars to the forefront.  Once the vocals kick in, we are surprisingly in mid-period Pink
Floyd territory.  It's not as bleak but I'm reminded of Comfortably Numb.

System Check...¦well, it does what it says on the tin.  This is one of those funny-noises-with-futuristic-
radio-traffic efforts.  If it sounds familiar, well we have heard it before.  It originally formed the intro of
what is the next track on this CD, but here is broken out as a separate number.  That next track is
Death
Trap
, and this is what, the 3rd studio recording of this particular number.  Admittedly, the first (on 1979â
€™s PXR5) was essentially a demo and therefore perhaps doesn't count.  It was remade successfully on
Alien4 in 1995, and that, I thought, was that.  No.  Here it is again, "updated" with early 90's rave motifs,
particularly the sequenced bursts of drum machine.  In common with the rest of this album the
instrumentation is overly lush, on what is basically a four-chord thrash of a song.  And even this isn't really
a new version.  It's been on Hawkwind's Myspace page for a couple of years, under the title ‘Death Trap
09'.  

Southern Cross eases the tempo and mood back down.  This is a mellow instrumental with a bit of the old
Kon-tiki beat, plaintive lead guitar and pleasant synthesizer figurines warbling away in the middle distance.  
About 5 minutes in, some tinkling piano is overlaid.  The whole thing is done as a three-chord sequence (A,
F and G or something like that...¦haven't checked) and despite the generally melodic character of the
arrangements, it somehow ends up being tuneless, albeit in a very chilled, relaxing way.  This is a Tim Blake
composition, one of the few places on the album where his participation is evidenced, and was apparently
inspired by Hawkwind's trip to Australia in 2011.

The Prophecy is much more focused, though it maintains a similar steady, mid-paced feel.  The vocals are
particularly good, there are a couple of lovely little keyboard-dominated instrumental passages, that nicely
offset the wistful chord progressions and occasional momentary changes to the time signature.  Next track
Electric Tears is just under a minute of electronic filler overlaid with mellow, meandering lead guitar, but
pleasant enough.

The Drive By sets out with an interesting loping, dubby bass riff with tasteful dollops of lead guitar and
crystalline synth arpeggios overlaying it.  The musical mood it evokes was prefigured on the Brock / Calvert
project (the aforementioned's most successful venture in cool jazzy arrangements to date).  But this is
Hawkwind, and of course there are going to be odd left-turns and weird moments woven into the skein of
smooth mellowness.  These take the form of bizarre guttural grunts and vocal samples, flown in and out as
the song moves into a pulsing middle eight groove.  This lasts about a minute before returning to the main
motif which fades out, as you would expect, with an assortment of stray sounds and bleeps adorning the
musical palette.

CD2
Computer Cowards retains the grunts and snarls but makes a vocal track out of them.  The musical
backing is dark and claustrophobic, built on uniform riffing of bass-keyboard-guitar, and some of the lyrics
of Hades Deep get reused, too.  They fit quite well with the lyrical theme of hiding, sniding, sarcastic little
creeps, who really are the slithering slime of earth.  I think I know who inspired this song.  It ends with the
sound of a kettle boiling - are Hawkwind just letting off steam, here?

Howling Moon is another brief (2:13) instrumental - mostly jazz guitar runs with all the treble rolled off,
over a mélange of found sounds and dreamy synth textures.  And a bit of howling too, Mr.Dibs not
responsible for once!

Right to Decide is one of those that comes from the band's Myspace page, and was also on the 40th
anniversary CD (reviewed
here) that was given away to fans attending the Porchester Hall gig in August
2009.  As I've said before, this is a great, but superfluous, performance.  It didn't need to be here again
IMHO, and the same can be said for Aerospaceage Inferno.  I've described this on the
Revisitations page,
so that is enough said.

The Flowering of the Rose is the third of the three 'bonus tracks', located here amidships, and it’s
another instrumental remake of what has gone before.  In this case, the guitar riff from ‘Steppenwolf',
with some excellently arranged organ voicings to reinforce the vintage vibe.  Which contrasts with the
rapid, skittering pace of the overall arrangement.  Unlike versions of yore, there's also a ton of Dave Brock's
lead guitar all over this, and it too is terrific.  Over the last few years I think he's really found his feet as a
lead guitarist: not flashy, but it's never been about how many notes you can hit in half a second.  Instead his
style is understated and melodic.  Anyway, the Steppenwolf riff cuts over to the main theme from
Damnation Alley, the first syllable of which clued me in to where we’ve heard this before: it's one of the
tracks available as streaming audio on the band's official website, where it's called Dam Jam Jason.  His
organ playing is so superb, it's a shame there wasn’t more of this and less of the cocktail bar piano on
Hawkwind material during his all-too-brief time with the band.

Trans Air Trucking is basically more funny noises from locales as various as the farmyard and the
telephone exchange, and then a cheesey synth excursion punctuated by dated-sounding syncopated drum
machine programming.  
Deep Vents is even less momentous, being half a minute of amorphous whirrs and
bleeps.  These are the kinds of tracks you often find on Hawkwind albums, that are basically
inconsequential and do little more than bridge the gap from one song to the next.

Green Finned Demon was remade about a year ago in support of The Sea Shepherd.  I saw fit to review
it on the
CD singles page of this site and see no need to do that again.  This is apparently a different mix /
edit, but listening to it on the CD while re-reading what I wrote about the download version, that description
still holds good. The variances between this and the download are surely perfunctory, and I'm too lazy to
do an A / B comparison to try to pick out the differences...¦

There is, though, an unlisted, 'hidden' track that follows Green Finned Demon, and perhaps surprisingly it's
not another anonymous electronic number, but an actual song with vocals and lyrics.  Mr. Dibs seems to be
handling the vocal duties, clearly articulating the lyrics in the bleak dystopian manner that Nik Turner used
to do quite effectively.  Musically, the verses are built on a slightly leaden three-chord thump, and the
choruses reuse a plodding riff from Night of the Hawks.  But just as you feel this is wearing out its'
welcome, we go into a mid-song spoken word passage from Dave Brock, and the tempo drops into the
slow-to-mid-paced hypnotic territory that Hawkwind pretty much owns.  This dwindles into low-key
atmospherics consisting of nothing more than fleeting synth figures that fly in through one stereo channel,
and out through the other.

Overall, what would have been a very strong 1CD album has been diluted into a decent-to-good effort.  I
accept that the 5 or so previously heard numbers will be of interest to those less obsessed with Hawkwind
than the hard core fanbase, and perhaps that justifies their inclusion.  I could also, in all honesty, do without
some of the formless short instrumentals, but it occurs to me that they may be here for monetary reasons â
€“ to get the maximum financial leverage out of publishing royalties.  Regarding the sound of the album,
there's a sense that everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown into the mix, and while this isn’t as
muddy-sounding as Blood of the Earth, Hawkwind could benefit from the services of a third-party producer
to clear out the denseness of the musical foliage, and perhaps trim the running order to deliver a more
focused final product.  But, judged against the band's last couple of studio albums, this is better yet than
TMTYL or BotE, with some really strong songs and a notable development in their talent for integrating the
hard rock, jazz and space-synth elements that are the basis of Hawkwind's sound in the 21st century.  
Onward indeed.
May 29th 2012 - another review from the estimable Graham P. to whom my sincere thanks...

Hawkwind - Onward

Nowadays any new Hawkwind album comes with accumulated baggage from the past, this one more than
most, since it also serves as a tribute to the late Jason Stuart. Hence, inserted into the playing sequence on
disc 2 (one of several odd decisions about track sequencing) are three tracks recorded with Jason,
including the familiar "Right to Decide" and "Aerospaceage Inferno" and a jam around “Steppenwolf"/"
Damnation Alley" called "Flowering of the Rose". I assume these tracks were recorded live but any crowd
noises are mixed out. We also get re-makes (albeit rather good ones) of “Death Trap" (the second re-
make in fact as it also appeared on Alien) and "Green Finned Demon�. The remainder divides between
solid new band-performed songs (although "Death Trap" is possibly the only track featuring all five current
band members) and various more sketchy pieces, mainly written by Dave Brock, on which only one or
two of the band perform, and which sound very much like the material he puts on solo albums. There is
also a "hidden track" at the end of side 2, possibly a full band performance.

Although Dibs takes more lead vocals on stage these days, Dave Brock's is the dominant voice on the
record. His vocal performances mostly sound heavily treated but I guess it is unfair to expect the 70+
Brock to have the vocal power of 40 years ago. Tim Blake is noticeable by his absence from much of the
album (he plays on just four of the new tracks). He gets one writing credit, for the fine instrumental â
€œSouthern Cross" (a longer version of which appears on his latest solo album).

In concept then, if not in terms of general quality (which is excellent) this is something akin to an album
like Out and Intake, or indeed Live Chronicles, with new material interwoven with old material presented in
new settings. Despite a few unnecessary lulls caused by poor sequencing of the content, and probably a
couple too many linking tracks, it almost all sounds excellent and whether you rate this as a great or so-so
album is probably mainly down to your tolerance of recycling. The reviews in the music press seem to
bear this out: the (younger?) reviewers who think it's all new (apparently unlike the output of some other
"heritage" acts) give it high marks and single out the cutting edge sounds on Death Trap and the lyrics of  
"Green Finned Demon" and "Aerospaceage Inferno". Others point to the prominent recycling and are less
generous.

The stand-out song "Seasons" is also the opening track, and a good one it is too, but also probably the only
one which DB had no hand in writing. Dibs sings lead and the entire band except Tim Blake play on it. The
form of the song incidentally recalls the considerably inferior "The War I Survived" from 24 years ago, on
which a monotonous chanted verse (slightly less monotonous on the version sung by Huw) builds up
tension which is released by the excellent and catchy chorus.

The following "The Hills Have Ears" maintains the high energy levels and seamlessly integrates Huw Lloyd-
Langton on lead guitar but is slightly let down by Richard Chadwick's histrionic lead vocals.

The tempo drops for "Mind Cut", a woozy, folky number sung by Dave Brock and, nice though it is, it
breaks the spell. "System Check" is a HW-by-numbers linking track which segues nicely into the frenetic
sounding "Death Trap". Despite a commendably forceful delivery I would probably deduct points for over-
familiarity and also wonder whether the heavily produced sound can be re-created on stage. Another drop
in tempo follows, for the reflective "Southern Cross".

The first CD ends with what is in effect a three-track Dave Brock solo suite. "The Prophecy" is slightly
more robust than "Mind Cut", but it is still a bit on the thin side instrumentally. Guitars duel politely with
synths over a basic mid-tempo drum pattern and Dave's vocals are strong yet mournful; they could do
with backing from the full band. "Electric Tears" is little more than an instrumental coda to the previous
track and segues into another mellow mid-tempo (mainly) instrumental track. Despite its title, "The Drive-
By" is inoffensive and rather rambling and brings disc 1 to a low key end. In the middle of Drive-By,
someone speaks to a character called Max (possibly the one who last appeared on the least engaging track
on Distant Horizons!)

Just when you think the Hawks have lost the plot, disc 2 kicks off with the savage energy and righteous
anger of (the self explanatorily titled) "Computer Cowards", which ends with a scream, the sound of a
kettle whistling and a cow mooing. There is then another brief instrumental interlude, "Howling Moon�,
as atmospheric as its title might suggest; pleasant but insubstantial.

What follows sounds really good but probably belongs on a bonus disc rather than in the middle of the
album proper, namely the three-track Jason Stuart tribute. It kicks off with a cracking version of "Right
To Decide", sung by Dave, and a Dibs-fronted "Aerospaceage Inferno", the latter admittedly considerably
made over since its origins and boasting an interesting new spoken section, which possibly gives the album
its title, as Dibs declaims " ...¦outwards and onwards, seeking new worlds". While effective, it doesn't
seem to relate much to the original song, until, that is, its' protagonist goes up in flames, heralding a return
to the finale of the song proper. The third part of the tribute is a jam based on the instrumental sections of
"Steppenwolf" and "Damnation Alley" and it trips along very nicely for seven minutes or so.

We return to the album proper with "Trans Air Trucking", another track which sounds like a Dave Brock
solo piece, mixing a synth-based instrumental with various found sounds, and "Deep Vents", which is so
inconsequential that it has finished before you notice it started. An excellent version of “Green Finned
Demon" follows, which just leaves the (rather good) hidden track, which sounds like a full-band effort,
with spoken vocals from Dibs and Dave.

Good as most of the individual tracks are, this listener was left frustrated by the sense of a lost opportunity
to showcase the band's undoubted strengths. There is a killer single album here, the impact of which has
been diluted. Along with the best of the new stuff, I'd keep "Death Trap" as it is such a good version and
resequence it all slightly to give something like this (11 tracks, 51 minutes):

1 Seasons, 2 The Drive By, 3 The Hills Have Ears, 4 System Check 5 Death Trap
6 Southern Cross, 7 The Prophecy, 8 Computer Cowards, 9 Howling Moon, 10 Mind Cut, 11 (Hidden
Track).

You could then compile a bonus disc from the rest: 1 Right to Decide, 2 Aerospaceage Inferno, 3 The
Flowering of the Rose, 4 Trans Air Trucking, 5 Electric Tears, 6 Deep Vents, 7 Green Finned Demon.

Anyway, roll on the tour, and...¦ onward!