Sunday, 14 May 2017

QUINTESSENCE - MOVE INTO THE LIGHT : THE COMPLETE ISLAND RECORDINGS 1969 - 1971 (Esoteric 2 x CD)

Very little (if any) remains of the West London Freak Scene since the property developers moved in around 30 years ago. What was once the epicentre of the…..errr……London Underground, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, Portobello Road and the surrounding areas, was home to an enclave of freaks, immigrants, drug dealers and bohemians long before the hippies got there and back in the late 60s and early 70s that could hold its head up as England’s answer to New York’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s Haight Asbury. It was a special area....Eric Clapton formed Cream whilst living there, Jimi Hendrix died there, Van Morrison sang about it on the song ‘Slim Slow Slider’ on his Astral Weeks album and Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell immortalised it in their cult film, Performance. At the cusp of the 70s, Notting Hill was the base for Freak Scene luminaries such as The Edgar Broughton Band, Mick Farren, The Pink Faries, Sam Gopal, International Times, Juniors Eyes, Marc Bolan’s hippy acoustic groovers Tyrannosaurs Rex, Frendz, Hawkwind, Barney Bubbles, Mighty Baby, Nigel Waymouth,The Pretty Things and never one to miss a bandwagon, Richard Branson, in the wake of the success of his hip record stores including the flagship shop in Notting Hill would set up the Virgin Records label on Portobello Road in 1973 and exploit the alternative scene even if most of his signings were not culled directly from the local community. Part of this beautiful swirling mess were Quintessence, a band very much born out of the Grove, celebrating their home in the song ‘Notting Hill Gate’ (“Getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate. We all sit around and meditate”). A sextet who based their music on ragas and mantras and took their Eastern path very seriously, the band comprised Australians Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones (vocals, keyboards), Ron ‘Raja Ram’ Rothfield (flute) along with Allan Mostert (lead guitar), Richard ‘Shambhu Babaji’ Vaughan (bass), Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling (rhythm guitar) and Jeremy ‘Jake’ Milton (drums). One of the few British based bands to successfully fuse Acid Rock and Eastern spirituality, within months of their formation in 1969 the pretty esoteric mix (even for ‘69) of Psychedelic Rock with Indian devotional music and their electrifying live performances had earned the band a dedicated following and Quintessence quickly caught the ear of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. In a the space of three years and during a phase of intense creativity Quintessence recorded three classic, timeless albums for Island Records until a dispute over money saw them dropped from the label……………..for the first time the complete Island recordings have been collected together by Cherry Red Records, remastered and released as a 2 x CD set on their Prog/Psych imprint Esoteric Records.

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Although at the turn of the 70s Quintessence were an extremely popular band on the Underground scene, playing the very first Glastonbury Festival in 1970 and the legendary Glastonbury Fayre of 1971 among a host of other festivals and gigs which included selling out the Royal Albert Hall, headlining at the Lyceum Ballroom and playing the Montreaux Jazz Festival, they had kinda dropped right of the radar by the end of the decade (we stumbled across them by picking up cheap second hand copies of Bumpers and Nice Enough To Eat, mainly for the Traffic, Nick Drake and King Crimson tracks but having our tiny teenage minds blown by ‘Ganga Mai’ and a live version of ‘Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Guaranga’ which originally appeared on the Island double LP sampler Bumpers in 1970). Maybe just too damn idiosyncratic to really fit in anywhere, Quintessence have been overlooked many times when a new generation get their minds scrambled by Psychedelic music. However, time has been kind to the band’s three Island releases, still sounding as fresh and vibrant as when they first appeared and with recent releases from new great Psych Rock bands such as Flowers Must Die and Sherpa plunging deep into Eastern music maybe this is the time that Quintessence get the recognition they deserve as one of the most innovative British bands from the early 70s. Released late 1969, In Blissful Company was a distillation of their free form Jazz/Rock inspired live sets where the band would drift into epic Grateful Dead style cosmic jams…………produced by John Barham, who had worked with George Harrison on the Wonderwall soundtrack and would also work again with Harrison on his All Things Must Pass album, In Blissful Company tapped into the late 60s zeitgeist of all thing spiritual, gurus and mystics and Indian vibes; a sudden passion provoked by the Beatles involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, fascinated by his techniques of Transcendental Meditation. In Blissful Company was, in every respect, a landmark achievement. A gatefold with die-cut booklet, it would be Island’s most expensive album packaging at the time. With its Indian god cover art and interior photos of the extended Quintessence ashram, Quintessence represented to the public an alternative way of being. And they all looked very happy.The opening track, ‘Giants’, seers into the brain like a bullet into the third eye…….one of the most underrated Psych Rock songs of the era where Quintessence channelled Acid Rock through a prism of Eastern influences with the track dominated by Allan Mostert’s scorching guitar playing. A fluid, mellow-toned, Grateful Dead influence would determine Allan’s playing in due course; for the time being the Jimi Hendrix sound was where it was at, spiced with a fascination for Ravi Shankar. The debut album from Quintessence is where the West Coast Freak Scene met the West London Freak Scene, both spiritual and mind melting, a collision of squalling Psychedelia and more transcendetal moods with producer John Barham honing their onstage magic into sublime studio sculptures, with inspired touches like the addition of oboe and female choir on ‘Chant’ and slowing down a tambour on tape to create a mesmerisic drone in ‘Midnight Mode’. Evolving into a drone out of epic proportions, ‘Midnight Mode’ closes the album……………it’s mix of mellow vibes and Eastern flavour not out of place in today’s modern Psych scenes. Now considered a classic, the first Quintessence album would have sounded terribly quaint and very dated even only a decade ago, but times have changed and modern Psych bands are now embracing the sounds of the early 70s again with albums such as In Blissful Company ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

Quintessence’s second, self titled, album was even better. Island originally had signed the band after only a few months of being together, with an album recorded and in the shops around six months later and In Blissful Company reflected this. More sonically adventurous, the second album saw Quintessence riding on a wave of popularity that saw them able to experiment more and this is evident on the opening track, with producer John Barham still at the controls the original studio recording of ‘Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Guaranga’ has a depth that the debut album lacked. Elsewhere, mixed in with devotional mood pieces, there is more Prog/Psych feel with Raja Ram’s  spiraling flute piece ‘Prisms’ leading the way for bands like Gong to take trips to the further out there melding together Jazz and Psychedelic influences. Seguing near seamlessly into the the wonderful Twilight Zones,……………these tracks along with the tripped out ‘Only Love’ were possibly as near to perfection Quintessence ever got. Quintessence also included a couple of live tracks that highlight what a great live band they were at the time and what a beautifully fluid guitar player Allan Mostert was……….both ‘Burning Bush’ and ‘St. Pancras’ are full on freak outs that still sound brilliant today. With the record peaking at 22 in the album charts, it looked as if Quintessence were on course to fulfil the expectations of their label and audience alike. One still-born goal they set themselves was an opera/oratorio, requiring an Indian orchestra and Tibetan musicians, based on a spiritual journey from Ladbroke Grove to the East. ‘High On Mount Kailash’ on the second album would be the project’s sole survivor. This record, nearly 50 years after it was recorded, has aged and matured beautifully and really needs you to wrap your ears round it. The second album by Quintessence shows a band at the peak of their powers……………the band were darlings of the music press and the underground earning admiration from such luminaries as Pete Townshend of The Who (who attended Quintessence concerts) and Jim Morrison of The Doors, selling out shows on a regular basis with stunning live performances and Island were negotiating for their records to be released in the USA……..what could possibly go wrong??

Released in 1971, Dive Deep was mostly produced by the band themselves. John Barham had been sacked by Raja Ram and although he returned to salvage some of the tracks at the mixing stage, Quintessence were given free reign to indulge in their predilection to jam and see what happened. Nowhere as good as the first two records but still with a good few great tracks, Dive Deep saw the band moving in a more Prog Rock direction with epic tracks such as ‘Dance To The One’ and ‘Epitaph For Tomorrow’ both clocking in around the 10 minute mark. It’s different, but essentially the same Quintessence but with more of an eye on the expanding Prog/Psych market in the UK. More gentle than before, Dive Deep shows off the band’s outstanding musical ability with the album’s title track being really good while  ‘Epitaph For Tomorrow’ is an outstanding song, strange and beautiful in equal measures sounding more like the songs from the previous albums with squalling, fuzzed out guitar running through it’s core. It’s a solid album but was not a great seller for Island records which caused a degree of consternation for the label and in an act of outstanding career suicide, four out of the six band members vetoed an American record deal because of a disagreement over the amount of advance they had been offered. Following the band’s sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall, American tour dates had already been booked with the opening show set to be at Carnegie Hall……………..had Quintessence made it across the Atlantic they would have gone down a storm, more so when they hit the ballrooms of S.F. .Seriously pissed off with Quintessence, Island Records quickly lost interest, dropping the band from the label at the first opportunity and although the first three albums were reissued on CD by Repertoire Records nearly 10 years ago they have to date still yet to have an official release in the U.S.A. . The band resurfaced briefly on RCA’s long forgotten Prog Rock imprint Neon (what RCA hoped would be their progressive equivalent of Harvest, Vertigo or Deram) before singer and principle songwriter ‘Shiva’ Jones along with Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling were kicked out the band, never again reaching the creative and critically acclaimed heights of their remarkable first two albums for Island Records and quickly fading into obscurity as tastes changed over the following decades.

Maybe the best band you have never heard of, the music of Quintessence is well worth exploring for any discerning PsychHead, fans of classic Prog and anyone into Indo/Jazz fusion. Out NOW and available from all good record shops/online, check it out People.



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