Stephen Tayler has managed the almost impossible here. Yes, the instruments are all far better defined, the stereo panning more expansively impressive and the vocals clearer in the mix. But somehow the essential ‘sonic soup’ of the original is still there having lost none of its indefinable greatness. You can still get lost in the quicksand of sound here, but you can see it so much better as you slowly submerge.
Ask any representative group of listeners what they would describe as the definitive Space Rock album, and chances are that Hawkwind’s astonishing 1973 assault Space Ritual would be top of a lot of those lists. That fact alone speaks volumes for this landmark release. It’s one thing to have an album which defines a particular band or artist (Close To The Edge, maybe, perhaps Selling England By The Pound, Crime Of The Century, or Dark Side Of The Moon. Maybe even Sgt Pepper, Sticky Fingers or Who’s Next). All arguable, but all in with a shout. But to get even close to defining an entire genre is something very rarely even suggested. Maybe, at a push, Never Mind The Bollocks as the definitive punk album, Liege And Lief as the definitive folk-rock album or Master Of Puppets as the definitive thrash metal album. But even then, there will be cries for The Clash, Steeleye Span or Slayer as soon as you suggest them. But Space Ritual isn’t just a great example of a Space Rock album, it lays down the irrefutable template which Hawkwind had already been playing with on In Search Of Space and Doremi Fasol Latido, Gong on Camembert Electrique and Pink Floyd on the live half of Ummagumma. Cosmic, whooshing effects, metronomically repetitive guitar riffs, almost free-form saxophone, poundingly hypnotic drumming, spoken word poetry interludes – and all tied together with an overall science-fiction concept and packaging and artwork which practically made you unfit to drive after looking at it for too long. And the icing on the hallucinogenic cake? It still sounds as mind-expanding and exhilarating as ever a full five decades on. Or in the case of this version, even better, because Stephen Tayler’s remix here is nothing short of breathtaking.
Like I’m sure many others, I approached this with trepidation, fearing that any attempt to ‘clean up’ or otherwise enhance the sound of the album might destroy the fragile brilliance of its hypnotic mix, everything threatening to become lost in a muddy morass of sound yet somehow all holding together by the skin of its teeth. Produce a polite, nice and bright version of Space Ritual, and you will produce a neutered and declawed version shorn of all its magic. But somehow Tayler has managed the almost impossible here. Yes, the instruments are all far better defined, the stereo panning more expansively impressive and the vocals clearer in the mix. But somehow the essential ‘sonic soup’ of the original is still there having lost none of its indefinable greatness. You can still get lost in the quicksand of sound here, but you can see it so much better as you slowly submerge. As examples, Lemmy’s role and importance has never been clearer here, as his remarkable basslines are more audible than ever, and it becomes evident just how much of the overall melodic content he always carried without it registering too strongly on the listener’s aural radar. Simon King’s drumming is also a revelation, and it utterly bears out Lemmy’s remarks when he once described that rhythm section as the best he had ever been a part of. Without that foundation, there would be no structure here, and it is now clearer than ever. Some tracks which were always lesser moments (at least to these ears) also now get the chance to shine, no longer in the shade of the ‘big hitters’ such as Brainstorm, Master Of The Universe or Lord Of Light. Chief among these must be the cosmic boogie-rock of Orgone Accumulator (based on a real invention, incidentally), which emerges butterfly-like from a slightly throwaway and lighter romp to an absolute behemoth of controlled power and enormous energy. It still segues rather limply into the underwhelming Upside Down (perhaps the weakest ‘full band’ piece here), but it provides a marvellous end to the first disc, given that the end of the disc does not correspond with the end of the original first LP owing to the extra material in the second half. Which I will come to now.
One of the things on the original album which always caused the teenage and curious mind to wonder was the matter-of-fact comment that ‘We had to cut a piece out of Brainstorm and Time We Left because they were too long’. This led to unavoidable musings about just what intergalactic and trippy wonders had been left on the cutting room floor – not expecting, of course, to ever hear the answer. Now we can, as both pieces have been restored to their full length, with roughly an extra five minutes added to each. In truth, there’s not much of value added to Time We Left This World Today (to give it its full title), being largely a fairly inessential and slightly funky jam section, but the addition to Brainstorm is a different kettle of space fish altogether – it’s nothing short of revelatory. On the original album, just as it faded out at the end of Side Three, there could just be made out the sound of a new guitar riff being started up, and that’s what we get here for the most part. A completely new coda to the track, it’s slower, decidedly stately and epic, and foreshadows the likes of The Golden Void in terms of the deliberate, unhurried majesty. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s one of the best bits of the whole album, and though some may be familiar with it from previous expanded CD reissues, it has never sounded better than this. There’s more stuff added to the original of course, coming at the end of the show. There are a couple of minutes of added applause at the end of Welcome To The Future (and even actual words spoken to the audience by the band members!), before we get the originally omitted encore of You Shouldn’t Do That. This has appeared before on the 1976 compilation Roadhawks, of course, but once again it’s brilliantly remastered, and slightly longer than on the Roadhawks release (though I confess I haven’t played them back to back for comparison).
Thus far I have covered the 2CD release, but there are also other alternative formats, most notably the massive 11-disc box, in which you get the original album, the remix, the complete Liverpool show, the complete Brixton show and also the complete Sunderland show (none of which was used for the album as released). There’s also a blu-ray with a 5.1 mix, a 68-page book and a reproduction tour programme, making it the desirable object of choice for the uber-fan, though for the more casual (or less obsessive) Hawkfan, this 2CD edition should scratch the itch splendidly. In addition, there is a transparent vinyl version, including original artwork reduced to a gatefold sleeve, but including a poster reproducing the foldout panels – this includes just the original album.
All in all, this is absolutely essential listening for any remotely discerning Hawkfan, and for those of us old enough to have got this first time around (or almost – I got it in 1975, a battered second-hand first pressing which I still treasure), it’s absolute long-buried treasure thanks to the masterful work of Stephen Tayler, who has excelled himself here. It could be argued that the ‘classic’ Hawks produced more polished or even better albums in the more traditionally ‘proggy’ Hall Of The Mountain Grill and Warrior On The Edge Of Time, but whatever your individual view of the merits of those albums, there has never been, and will never be, a more concentrated, pure, distilled encapsulation of what Hawkwind were at their finest and most iconic than this. Turn Electric Dreams Into Reality, indeed…