Hawkwind Light Orchestra - Stellar Variations CD review

February 3rd 2013
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"Tim lives in France, Dibs in Derbyshire.  We 3 are based in the West Country, so we get together more
often.  This music was made during those days.
"  This inclusion in the sleeve notes defines what the
Hawkwind Light Orchestra is: but the writing credits are split evenly between the Brock-Chadwick-Hone
triumvirate and just Brock.  Though they also cover a Tim Blake number, Song For A New Age.  The
artwork in the booklet, which reprints all the lyrics, is credited to Richard Chadwick, with a tip of the hat to
Barney Bubbles.  (The designs look very much like Barney's graphics for the Space Ritual Alive set /
album.)  These cues very much suggest this is a Hawkwind album in all but name.

Opening track
Stellar Perspective doesn't dispel the preconception.  Twittering synths presage a staccato,
tremelo blast of guitar chords, joined by a pumping bass and propulsive drums.  The vocals are Brock's,
given one of his dystopian, overdriven  treatments, though a melodic chorused vocal on the refrain is not by
him...sounds more like Richard, albeit with sufficiently plush equalization to remove any suggestion of the
reedy qualities observed on earlier outings.  Pretty soon this settles into a mid-paced, compelling groove,
which is IMHO the defining characteristic of the band as presently constituted.  Another typical touch of
latter-day Hawkwind is the way the song abruptly transitions into an amorphous instrumental passage
towards the end.

All Our Dreams kicks off with a reverie of decidedly psychedelic harmonies, very Beatles-y in a "Within
You, Without You" kind of way. This transitions, via a disturbing interlude, into a pulsing rhythm that
intermittently sounds as though it were lifted from the Church of Hawkwind album.  There's a section of
this where the arrangement is kicked into gear by a drum'n'bass throb, and some soaring lead guitar.  But
then it subsides back down into drifting synth parts, still covering the same basic riff.  These mutate into a
free-form collection of found sounds, underpinned by some simple rhythmic vamping, which is dignified
with the title
Damp Day In August.

It's All Lies pushes the tempo back up, turning in the album's first all-out (B)rock anthem.  Slabs of
blasting, roaring guitar chording hold this number together, with the bass and drums arranged around it,
filling out the rhythm.  It really swings as a result and of course there's a wonderfully direct, uncomplicated
vocal - which doesn't cover much ground melodically, but that is not what anthems do.  A middle section
features some plaintive lead guitar over a simple 2-chord sequence, not outstaying its welcome, before the
main theme comes slamming back in for a couple of minutes.  This is a better song than 'On Waimea
Canyon Drive', which appeared on 1997's Distant Horizons, but it has some of the same hallmarks in terms
of the songwriting: a simple idea, strongly expressed.

Variations 3 starts out as an atmospheric, Halloweenish couple of minutes of synth-tones  held together by
an edgy, nervous bass riff.  Tasty keyboard parts, almost funky, duel with dark, searing lead guitar voices
off in the middle distance.  Just as you think the keyboards have won, the song then shocks the synapses
with a layer of brutal guitar blast, before fading out with the same basic theme, sans the guitar and the bass
riff.

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad wears a disguise.  At first coming off as another synth-dominated
instrumental over 2 chords, a kon-tiki beat insinuates itself into proceedings.  This is a well-known
Hawkwind motif, as are the animal noise samples which are then flown in.  But, the very unusual vocal
refrain (a repeated utterance of the song's title) throws in a surprise.  It's post-punk, sounding like
Shriekback of all people.  Some other snarled lyrics are interspersed, sotto voce, between the refrain, but
are lower in the mix and seem less consequential to the song.

In the Footsteps of the Great One is perhaps the least august effort so far into this album.  The lyrics are a
confection of those written for Chronicle of the Black Sword, and there they were at least in context,
whatever one's views of Hawkwind's mid-80's flirtation with cheesey sword'n'sorcery heavy metal.  (I
liked it!) Here they are set to a pedestrian plodding rhythm, all one on note, with an arrangement featuring
layer upon layer of keyboards.  

Richard Chadwick's wistful lead vocal on
Song For A New Age recalls his effort 'Digital Nation' on
TMTYL, but this is of course a Tim Blake number.  It's very well done, the verses beautifully set off by
arpeggiated rhythm guitar chords, played with a clean tone and some light tremelo.  Melodic bass parts
intertwine with this, leaving the drums to pound and slap away as the only component of the rhythm, and
it's the only one that's needed.  There are scads of incidental lead guitar scattered across all this, low in the
mix, and this technique generally works really well.  The choruses are, by contrast, characterised by unison
blaring of the instrumentation -not a criticism- and each is followed by a beautifully yearning guitar solo.  
(Brock, not Hone, one assumes.)

We Serve Mankind has been around for a while in preview form on the band's official website, and should
be familiar to all.  Like everything else on this album, the track is built around a mid-paced rhythmic groove,
fleshed out with lush keyboard arrangements, pumping bass and crisp drums.  The heaviness backs off
slightly during the vocal passages, one of which is almost a rap.  The sweetest thing about this number is
what sounds as though it should be the closing sample, of children's voices yelling "Yaaay!"  Slightly
disturbing it is that this is chased with some orgasmic moans which I will blame on that Chadwick
character.  They're probably all responsible, though, for the funny noises and samples which close this
track out and introduce the next:
Cities of Rust, which proceeds (after about a minute) to rescue
proceedings with another Brock-penned rock workout.  This seems to revisit some of the directions that he
/ the band were exploring in the 1990's.  This has the feeling of much of the material on the Electric Tepee
and Alien 4 albums, and even a bit of the pacey bludgeoning of 1998, as heard on the Pink Floyd
encyclopaedia tribute tracks.

Instant Predictions is the final number, and not qualitatively different from those that have preceded it.  The
musical underpinning is monotonal, the arrangement is a fusion of pounding drums, crashes of distorted
guitar, thrumming bass and layered keyboards / synths.  There are some vocals, not many, and a notably
lighter closing passage where the stringed instruments pull back to let the synths and FX dominate.

So, there is much here that epitomises Hawkwind these days.  Dave Brock's rhythm guitar has always been
the core ingredient, and it is throughout fused to a succession of pulsing grooves, overlaid with dense layers
of keyboard.  The connection to some of the 1990's ideas is interesting.  It is as if the band, working as a
trio, has compensated for the slimmed-down lineup by opting for overly lush arrangements.  It works well
on this album, where the songs aren't the strong point.  As a result, Stellar Variations stands up alongside
their other albums of recent years.  They may call themselves the Hawkwind Light Orchestra, out of
respect for the absence of Tim and Dibs, but this is full-on Hawkwind.