I must be a sucker for double albums from the 1970s that are comprised of four side-long epics. Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes and Third by Soft Machine are mainstays in my stereo. Both are strange albums by the conventional standards of their associated genres, and yet they are celebrated to this day – though perhaps by a sadly dwindling demographic. It’s tough to imagine many young listeners in 2022 kicking back with an 80+ minute album and immersing themselves in the music the way we elders did, with no distractions save for the sleeve art and liner notes to follow along with until that last note faded away.
Septober Energy, the sprawling 1971 release from colossal jazz-hybrid conglomerate Centipede, could be the most far-flung and eccentric of them all – and certainly the most daring. Formed by noted pianist and composer Keith Tippett the previous year, Centipede was a fifty member (yes, literally a 100-legged) orchestra of sorts whose roster featured a who’s-who of the British jazz and progressive rock scenes of the day. Ian Carr, Robert Wyatt, Roy Babbington, John Marshall, Elton Dean, Ian McDonald, Mike Patto, Ollie Halsall, Boz Burrell, Karl Jenkins, … the list is positively eye-popping. It was like a giant, nebulous blob of various bands’ members (King Crimson, Nucleus, Soft Machine, etc.) dotted with further musicians of varying stripes and backgrounds. And all herded under the watchful eye of leader Tippett and producer Robert Fripp (no less), both already veterans of London’s Wessex studios where the monumental recording sessions took place. Eschewing practically all norms, even song titles were dispensed with for this platter, so the four large segments of music are simply named Part One through Part Four (rather ordinary compared to The Revealing Science Of God: Dance With The Dawn, although on reflection that title could almost work here).
The folks at Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings have added this one of a kind album to their fall reissue lineup, giving it a sonic spruce-up with a new remastering from the original master tapes. Previous CD editions have raised complaints; some claim that they were sourced directly from old vinyl pressings, while others bemoan shelling out for pricey Japanese editions on the wild frontier of the secondhand market. Fortunately, this out of print title is back in circulation on 30 September (I see what they did there) in a double CD package, with fully restored artwork in the illustrated booklet as well as a newly penned essay from author Sid Smith, who provides a focused history of the period. It looks and sounds terrific, and is thankfully free of the too-common bells and whistles that tend to inflate the sticker price. No ‘ultra-deluxe’ edition necessary here… just the music, ma’am.
Septober Energy is a swirling blend of styles that can challenge listeners who tend to stick to one genre. Some feel the music meanders, the free jazz sections are a cacophonic mess, or that there were simply too many cooks. But like any great work, the puzzle pieces slowly join together as we take a step back to examine the whole. Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it orchestral? Is it a brass band? It’s not a cop-out to say that it’s all of those things (though it might be a cliche to add ‘…and more’). The lyrics, courtesy of Tippett’s wife Julie (Driscoll), are sparse for the album’s length, and there are numerous mood shifts. In short, this isn’t a casual listen. No, delving into Septober Energy is more of a journey.
And what a journey! It all kicks off with the mysterious droning intro to Part One (or ‘side one’ if you still like to think in vinyl terms) which is accompanied by fluctuating levels of percussion and eerie, wordless vocals that howl and dissipate into leisurely brass parts. The lull of a sorrowful violin leads into a chaotic section which features stabs of honking & squealing saxes, abused electric guitar, and plonking piano keys underpinned by wild and unhinged drumming. Bizarre chants are shrieked over a relentless, thudding snare before pandemonium ensues again, like a more hellish vision of Dorothy and Toto in the tornado. Vocals and strings combine to form a hypnotic rhythm and a stunning saxophone showcase leads us into the long finale, which revisits the earlier ghostlike tone accented by rubbery upright bass… and that’s just the first track.
The more grooving Part Two mainly consists of two halves. Opening with a solid rhythm pocket, the piece provides plenty of room for multiple soloists to stretch out with oboe, flugelhorn, cornet, and electric guitar as the vibe crisscrosses between jazz, orchestral, heavy rock, and brassy funk flecked with soulful vocals. The midway point sees the track dismiss its structure and morph into haphazard horns which aimlessly wander until one of them eventually stumbles upon a melody. Quickly twinned by the bass and drums, the melody becomes a rhythm and everyone else resumes lead lines over the top, culminating in one of the best parts of the entire double record. A truly exhilarating piece of music.
A capella voices kick off the decidedly more avant-garde Part Three – surely the most formless of the four sides – and hints at the answer to the rarely asked question ‘What would an orchestra sound like if they jammed?’ Orchestras are more commonly associated with musicians sitting down to sheets of meticulously-composed music and are not renowned for their collective improv skills when those sheets are snatched away. But that doesn’t mean it never happens, as Part Three illustrates. Ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide if this piece is successful. In truth, I’ve heard every side rattled off as somebody’s favourite over the years (as I have with Third and Topographic), so it’s not like this piece doesn’t have its admirers. Part Three’s oddball and haunting closing is certainly memorable and compelling enough, and hints at what was to come much later with the post-rock genre.
The final side (and shortest, at a measly eighteen minutes) begins life with Tippett’s fluttering piano exploding into a delicious jazz-rock epic that employs a triple-drummer attack of John Marshall, Tony Fennell & Robert Wyatt. Brian Godding’s jazzy rhythm guitar chords and Elton Dean’s remarkably fluid sax leads are given a long turn in the spotlight. A repetitive vocal section carries most of the second half, growing to a grand finale before a gentler piano and trumpet coda trails away, leaving us to bask in the afterglow of this 85 minute whirlwind. Tippett himself would go on to have a long, prolific career both on his own and with collaborators, releasing numerous ‘must hear’ albums, and I’d advise anyone unfamiliar with his catalogue to start exploring it A.S.A.P., beginning right here with the now 51 year-old Centipede.
Slotting easily into the Love-it-or-hate-it category, Septober Energy can be baffling and off-putting to some, and a stunning display of genius to others. It’s unlikely you’ll hear many people say they think it’s ‘okay’. One thing’s for sure: like the other large-scale albums mentioned, this bold work is a relic of a bygone age where musicians were given carte blanche to create whatever they wanted; lurching fearlessly into the great unknown while blissfully untethered to commercial concerns. It’s intense and peculiar at times, no doubt. But great works are rarely possible without great risks, and any revisionist suggestions that albums like this would be improved by whittling them down to single-length releases are plain ol’ malarkey in my view. The innovation shown by Tippett & co. is marvelous – in the truest sense of the word – and listeners who invest their time are rewarded exponentially with each successive listen. Looking at the roster of musicians and the sheer scope of the recording, one wonders how such an ensemble could have even existed. But Centipede did indeed exist, and Septober Energy is the hyper-ambitious and otherworldly curiosity they left in their wake.