Brock has managed to show us that the journey into the sleeping brain is even stranger than the one into deepest space.
Hawkwind have released a new studio album every year since 2016, and here they are like clockwork with this year’s release Somnia. It’s amazing really because Dave Brock is now officially an octogenarian. He really does put to shame those pampered rock stars who struggle to release an album every two or three years! Having spent decades creating images in our minds of endless intergalactic travels and strange fantastical worlds, the band turn their attention this time to something much closer to home but almost equally mysterious: sleep. But there are no cheerful and enchanted lands to be found in Hawkwind’s vision of the world of sleep. Instead, it can best be described as a troubled place, and at worst downright nightmarish, and is neatly summarised in the press release: ‘Dave’s lyrics tell the tale of sleepless paranoia, strange encounters, fever dreams and meditation’.
Brock is accompanied by his well-established partners of Richard Chadwick on drums, and Magnus Martin who like Brock plays guitars, bass, keyboards as well as adding vocals. Brock and Martin share the writing duties. The pair jointly wrote one track – the instrumental Meditation (a rather anonymous track, it must be said) – while on the vinyl version Brock contributed eight tracks and Martin just two. It’s the two Martin-penned efforts that grabbed my attention immediately though. The first of these is the ten-minute opener Unsomnia (no, that’s not a spelling mistake for ‘insomnia’). Do you remember My Sharona by The Knack? Well, imagine that in a gentle space rock mode and you’d have a pretty good idea of how Unsomnia starts off. It is slightly disorientating because it’s not a typical Hawkwind riff but it’s certainly hypnotic and does gets under your skin all the same. It doesn’t build up to any dramatic climax as such, instead moving through different slightly nightmarish instrumental sequences before coming to a curiously pastoral close. Martin’s other contribution is the languid ballad Alcyone which as well as having an attractive melody is also a showcase for some delicate bluesy guitar, and for me is one of the highlights of the album.
So, what about Brock’s contribution? Well, Strange Encounters is the closest to a classic Brock riff that you’ll find on the album but even in this case it is slightly hard to pick out in the first half of the song as it is almost submerged by layers of guitars and synths and a slightly odd vocal section. After an impressive guitar solo, there’s a slight pause before the main riff comes in loud and clear on its own for once and then gradually builds up again – strangely over a short acoustic guitar solo initially – before reaching a fine and satisfyingly Hawkwind-like conclusion. Chadwick fine powerful drumming also stands out in this track, as it does in Unsomnia.
Those three tracks – Unsomnia, Strange Encounters and Alcyone make up the excellent first side of the vinyl release. On the flip side, in addition to Meditation, we get a further six Brock-penned tracks that are something of a mixed bag. These include a couple of very weird tracks. Well, this is Hawkwind, so what do we expect, I hear you ask. Counting Sheep is a bizarre experimental track, with spoken words over a tribal rhythm and odd flurries of electric guitar, that eventually and very bizarrely morphs into a little reggae section. Sweet Dreams is also weird and despite the idyllic title and the poetic spoken words (‘we slumber together, holding hands in our chariot of dreams’) is deeply menacing and one of the more successful of the short tracks. There’s a couple of more typical Hawkwind rock ’n’ roll songs with It’s Only A Dream and I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, both enjoyable pieces and the latter being the only song on the album that has something of a commercial feel to it.
That’s it for the vinyl version but on the CD we get three extra bonus tracks, of which Barkus is perhaps the most interesting with its guitar theme bringing a rare moment of light and beauty amidst the gloom. It must be said that those hoping to discover a new classic to rival old stalwarts Brainstorm or Magnu, or even the more recent Flesh Fondue, may be disappointed by Somnia. On the other hand, this collection of songs does have a powerful and unsettling effect. It’s as if Brock has managed to show us that the journey into the sleeping brain is even stranger than the one into deepest space.