This is the first offering from Atomhenge ("a Cherry Red label managed by Esoteric Recordings") under the terms of their acquisition of the Hawkwind back catalogue between the years 1976 and 1997. It, like its companion compilation The Dream Goes On, which covers the years 1985-1997, is a 3CD anthology aimed at the casual buyer rather than hardcore Hawkwind fans like all those gathered here. Where it differs from The Dream Goes On, however, is in the inclusion of a handful of previously unavailable versions of familiar numbers. For that reason alone, I bought and am reviewing Spirit Of The Age 1976-1984 but won't be putting my hand in my pocket for The Dream Goes On...
But if anything might persuade me to do so, it would be the handsome packaging, assuming it matched what is on offer here. The whole package is presented in an attractive clamshell box. Inside are three CDs, each in their own individually designed slip cover, and a 24-page colour booklet which has been well put together. Spread throughout are a raft of photos (all readily recognisable) and a top notch set of sleeve notes penned by author Ian Abrahams ("Hawkwind, Sonic Assassins") which basically occupy the first half of the booklet: the best part of 12 pages. The back half of the booklet details the albums and EPs from which the individual tracks have been anthologised, to just the right level of detail: graphic of the original cover, notes on where, when and by whom it was recorded, and any other incidental information to hand, such as the highest UK chart position attained. It all speaks of the real dedication that Mark and Vicky Powell (Esoteric Recordings) have to this project - the back catalogue could not be in better hands, based on the evidence thus far.
On the back of the outer clamshell box (hinged to open vertically like a calendar, not horizontally like a book) is a tracklisting for all three CDs, and it's a model of clarity in identifying which cuts are previously unavailable versions. Hitherto the exemplar for Hawkwind compilations was the 1999 release Epoch-Eclipse: 30 Year Anthology` but in some respects it is outdone by this one, despite the narrower chronological range from which the selections are drawn. If I were tasked with filling 3 CDs with selections from the period, I hardly think I would have chosen any differently than Esoteric have done. Particularly when considering that the occasional gem appearing on the Weird CD series is probably out of bounds for contractual reasons. And then a very few of these selections are even better than could have been expected - the opening cut for example. Reefer Madness in its' entirety has never been heard before by the hoi polloi, but here it is: the instrumental mid-section previously cut and retitled as b-side Honky Dorky is spliced seamlessly and skillfully back into the core of Reefer Madness. Forensic Hawkwind discographer Mark Coggins points out that the album version of Reefer Madness was 5:58 long, while Honky Dorky lasts 3:14 (according to the confusingly-similarly-named Tales From Atomhenge CD released by Virgin in 1992) giving a total of 9:13. However the extended version of Reefer Madness is 8:13, suggesting that Honky Dorky contained a minute or so of the Reefer Madness edited version - but you can't see the join. This is thanks to fan Nick Loebner, who explains "I made the edit, reconstructing the full length Reefer Madness, from the two tracks on the original Griffin CD issue. I sent this new master to Mark and Vicky Powell. I don't know whether it's my version that appears, or if they used it as a template to recreate the piece from what they could find in the vaults..." Well done chaps!
Another thing that has been very well done is the mastering: the sound quality across the three CDs is excellent and in fact the credits identify that new 24-bit digital masters were created for the purpose. It's another indicator of the care and attention lavished on this project by Atomhenge... this is light years advanced from the myriad shoddy compilations that don't even attempt the most rudimentary volume equalisation across tracks, for example.
There is another constraint on the selection of material than those mentioned already. Although aimed at the general buyer, the previously unavailable versions have actually made this anthology indispensable for the Hawkwind Kollector - it would be interesting to know by what degree it will outsell its' companion collection The Dream Goes On. But it is also a mere precursor to the reissued albums that are expected to be Atomhenge's main bread and butter: there's a balancing act to be performed between whetting the appetite by incorporating some of the best cuts from those albums into this anthology, and not obviating the purchase of those albums by including *all* of the premium tracks therefrom. I would say the balance is just about right. The chronology kicks off with selections from Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, including the full-length Reefer Madness, plus Kadu Flyer, Steppenwolf, and Kerb Crawler. Collectively these tracks represent most of the high points of the original album, but not all of them - you will still have to buy the reissue when it comes out to get the whole enchilada. But as a nice bonus to tide you over till then, the A- and B-side of the non-album single Back On The Street / The Dream Of Isis is here too.
The Charisma era continues with a similar selection of four essential tracks from the Quark Strangeness and Charm album, and then a coupling of Sonic Assassins numbers. Inclusion of Over The Top from that occasion is pretty much de riguer, but how nice to see their version of The Golden Void featuring too. This one is something of an overlooked treasure, rarely being seen on compilations etc. in comparison to the other Sonic Assassins tracks. For the Hawklords album, though, a slightly different approach is taken with three previously unreleased mixes featuring in addition to opening track Psi Power. The new mixes are 25 Years -this lacks sparkle and strips off at least one layer of multitracked guitar solo- and non-crossfaded versions of Free Fall and The Only Ones. The latter two are sonically no different to the familiar album versions and thus perhaps aren't all that interesting. But they are still the right tracks to have anthologised from that album, and the effort expended to have located versions with anything new about them is to be applauded.
It evidently wasn't possible to do the same thing with the selections from PXR5, but once again the instinct to pick the four key tracks of epic length was the right way to go. And what this does is neatly wrap up the Charisma era before the jarring disconnect that marks the transition to the very different sounding Hawkwind of the Bronze era. The single edit of Live 79's Shot Down In The Night heralds this new, NWOBHM-oriented band, and is followed by that album's distinctive thrash through Brainstorm. The Levitation album and associated single A- and B- sides close out the remainder of Disc Two. Again, there are four pukka album tracks, and smart selection of single edits (Who's Gonna Win The War) and rarity B-sides. Continuing on to Disc Three, and representing the Sonic Attack album / RCA era, Angels Of Death is the big surprise though, being a previously unreleased alternate single mix. At this point, premium quality material starts to become scarce, and the anthologers adapt by dropping down to fewer selections from each featured album or EP. Angels of Death is succeeded by two tracks from Sonic Attack, and my initial reaction was that they are not what I would have picked, considering Living On A Knife Edge and Lost Chances instead. But on reflection, while those two tracks are pacy rockers, they're not as distinctive as Rocky Paths and Virgin Of The World. So I have to say these Atomhenge people are indeed cleverer than me.
Church of Hawkwind is also limited to two tracks, again arguably the most distinctive on that album, before something of an oddity: the A- and B- side of the 1982 10th anniversary Silver Machine single, the B-side being Psychedelic Warlords. Both these numbers were revisitations of past glories and I have elsewhere argued that to have been a misguided move. I might have omitted them in favour of two more from Church Of Hawkwind (how about Star Cannibal and Looking In The Future?). Particularly so in view of the strong representation of the Choose Your Masques album (four belters) which follows directly on from the two single cuts, making something like 6 songs from the Choose Your Masques CD reissue, which included them as bonus tracks...
It is now becoming difficult to find anything of the requisite quality to close out this compilation, and we get two tracks from Zones: Social Alliance and Utopia 84, both of which I personally find worthy of derision - but what else could have been picked? The Earth Ritual EP fares slightly better with Night Of The Hawks and another overlooked HLL classic, Dragons and Fables. Good choice. Then we get Stonehenge Decoded from This Is Hawkwind Do Not Panic (at least it wasn't Watching The Grass Grow) and lastly, a live Orgone Accumulator that hails from the Undisclosed Files Addendum album. The Epoch-Eclipse 30 Year Anthology had a similar problem in running out of decent quality material halfway through the 3rd CD, but it's perhaps more intractable here with a narrower range of time from which to select. So I think Atomhenge have done as good a job as possible in the circumstances, and the overall impression is very positive. This is a thoroughly creditable stab at representing the transitional years bridging Hawkwind's greatest commercial success up to the mid-70's and the career nadir they suffered a decade later. And depending on how obsessive a fan you are, those previously unreleased versions might elevate this anthology to essential status.