June 11, 2024

Definitely one of those outfits who were cursed by their timing, as their proudly-laid new egg of a debut was immediately washed away on a new wave tide of punk and bluster flooding across the UK media later in 1976, and the highly unfair withdrawal of label support for this one. Had they appeared a couple of years earlier … they might, I suspect, have commanded a smaller but loyal fanbase and remained a respected and affectionately remembered name

Some historical explanation may be in order before delving into this fascinatingly unearthed, if unpolished, progressive rock gem. Absolute Elsewhere (presumably named after the lyric in John Lennon’s superlative Mind Games track) released an album in 1976 (their sole release), entitled In Search Of Ancient Gods, and a rather interesting item it was too. Inspired by the writings of Erich Von Daniken, and most specifically his Chariots Of The Gods bestseller, it captured the zeitgeist of the time without a doubt. Von Daniken’s outlandish yet engaging theories propounded the suggestion that many ancient structures (such as the Great Pyramids, the Aztec structures and Stonehenge) could not have feasibly been constructed using the technology of the times, and that these and many other artifacts may have been either constructed by alien visitors, or by men under their instruction. His work has been largely discredited in most academic quarters now, unsurprisingly, but there was a genuine buzz about his books and his claims back in the 1970s, and Absolute Elsewhere’s intriguing album art and title drew many curious souls to the record, including myself at age 15. Sadly it did not appear to draw most of them closely enough to actually buy it, despite the presence of Bill Bruford on drums, as the album failed to have any meaningful sales success, and a planned follow up release recorded later that same year was aborted by the record company, and the tapes presumed lost. That is until recently, when the album was discovered – and here it resides, with the title of Playground, almost 50 years later. No alien-human interaction concept this time, just an album full of music. But much of it is very good, and surprisingly timeless (though it is interesting to note the extent to which much ’70s rock has avoided dating itself, by contrast with the many hideous 1980s time capsules which assault our ears from the radio or TV, armed to the teeth with synths and drum machines so cheesy that Top Of The Pops almost required a lactose-intolerance warning message).

This time out there is no flashy label-backed packaging, and indeed not even a physical release, as at least in the first instance this is limited to download and streaming formats – so the music has to stand on its own merits, which is probably a good thing, as it frees us from any unconscious bias there might have been towards (or even against) its predecessor owing to its unique selling points, as the marketing men would have it (on which note it is interesting to find that guitarist Phil Saatchi is the younger brother of the Saatchi and Saatchi!). Listening to Playground now, it is possible to date it to its time, though not in such a way that it becomes hamstrung by it, because most of its influences are bands who have either not really dated themselves, or else have remained under the radar enough to retain a timeless air. This isn’t an album which evokes the big, instantly recognisable soundscapes and crescendos of Pink Floyd or Genesis, nor even the virtuosic flash of ELP or the labyrinthine complexity of Yes, so it avoids being chained to those overarching millstones (if millstones can be overarching…).

The main touchstones of the band as they sound here to me are unquestionably Gentle Giant and Greenslade – two highly respected bands who both, to be fair to them, remained firmly in the second tier of prog bands back then in terms of success. Greenslade evident through the diffident vocal style and the somewhat tinklingly jazz-influenced keyboard content, and Gentle Giant through the complex and intricate arrangements and copositions, allied to the similarly tinkling backdrop which alternated with powerful guitar-driven sections to provide much needed contrast. There is some excellent jazz-rock fusion here in places, but always in the right dose, and used to leaven the mix rather than dominate it. Interestingly, the Greenslade influence could partially be explained by the drumstool this time being occupied by Andy McCullough, founder member of that band and a constant through until their original split in 1976. He was also a member of King Crimson for the Lizard album, which gives Absolute Elsewhere the distinction of having featured two ex-Crimson srummers on their two albums!

The best tracks here are probably Time To Change (the most overt mix of the Gentle Greenslade style, as one could christen it), and the lengthy and multifaceted opener Relax, which is only partly hampered by a slightly disjointed feel. Also impressive are The Seven Year Itch, the atmospheric instrumental closer Tides, and the short yet impressive jazzy showcase which is the oddly titled It Doesn’t Take a Burglar Long To Fall In Love. The school-inspired Elementary Fools treads a similar course to Gentle Giant’s Schooldays from the Three Friends album, quite successfully though without quite the brilliant lightness of touch which that track possesses. There is a sense of humour plainly evident elsewhere in the light-hearted The Other Nine Worst Dressed Men (hi there, how are you other eight guys doing?), though by the same token it fails to hit the mark in a musical sense, irritating more than it impresses. It’s the only real skippable track here though, on what is an otherwise surprisingly consistent and still-relevant album.

Definitely one of those outfits who were cursed by their timing, as their proudly-laid new egg of a debut was immediately washed away on a new wave tide of punk and bluster flooding across the UK media later in 1976, and the highly unfair withdrawal of label support for this one. Had they appeared a couple of years earlier, in about 1974, it is easy to imagine Absolute Elsewhere achieving the same sot of success as those two bands already mentioned, GG and Greenslade, in that they would never have been likely to capture the inagination or wallets of the mainstream mass market, but they might, I suspect, have commanded a smaller but loyal fanbase and remained a respected and affectionately remembered name by prog rock fans today. It’s a shame, but at least we now finally have the chance to hear what was supposed to appear on the heels of those Ancient Gods. No alien-inspired work of genius here perhaps, but a genuinely solid effort which is well worth checking out.