Well, it’s better than a slap in the face with a wet fish!

Oh, for the good old days, when drummers were the bane of the band – time-consuming, notoriously unreliable and dreadfully hard to come by. In an unthinkable about-face, I have had a couple of bands in recent times tell me it’s regular guitarists that are hard to find, which I’m sure many a six-string slinger like myself will find shocking. A case in point is that of Cambridge prog-rockers 4th Labyrinth, fronted by top-hatted German keyboard ace Marcel Kunkel.

4th Labyrinth grew out of a female-fronted soul covers band named Chancellors Of Vice. “We had a lot of fun with it,” says Marcel, “and there were a lot of our own arrangements. We used to run something in Cambridge called the Jazz and Funk Jam Session. We did that for years, and sometimes people wanted us to play for different kinds of events. It was all the old Aretha Franklin kind of stuff; all the numbers you would hear on 1960s and 70s soul records.”

That combo included Marcel on keys, who is a sound and keyboard technician in real life; an energetic lady bassist named Claudia Mackenzie, Tom Winch on drums and guitarist Rob Taylor. But when local academic Anne Leonie quit her job as singer, the band had to decide what they wanted to do. They didn’t feel like giving up the ghost, and as Marcel was also a songwriter, he became the de facto leader of a new entity that performed its own prog and rock material and became known as 4th Labyrinth, for suitably labyrinthine reasons. “Our bassist Claudia introduced me to a film with David Bowie called Labyrinth! Coming as I do from Germany, we don’t always have the same movies as you have here, and I didn’t know this movie at all. But also, there seemed to be a lot of 4s connected to the band around that time. When Anne left, Rob was 40, and he wanted to do a bit of a trip, a big journey, so he went for a year to India. So he just said guys, obviously I can’t be in the band with you, but we wanted to continue. So we got a guitarist in the meantime, and then of course we didn’t want to let him go, it would have been unfair.”

4th Labyrinth in full flow – photo by Howard Rankin

The new guitarist was John Harper, who played on the band’s debut album Quattre Stagioni, released in 2015. I am curious about the album name, which is Italian for Four Seasons. “Well the album is so eclectic that it seemed an appropriate title – and of course there was a 4 in there too!” explains Marcel.

The album featured a guest appearance on the song Pretty Coloured Faces by another local band named Fred’s House, with which the Labyrinth had struck up a close relationship. Fred’s House featured a guitarist by the name of Lachlan Golder. Rather like Labyrinth’s original guitarist, Lachlan left Fred’s House to go abroad, and Fred’s House reconfigured their band around a more keyboard-oriented sound. “We went to one of their gigs; I think it might have been the launch for their third album. Lachlan was back in the country because his mother was very ill. I spoke to the drummer of Fred’s House and he knew I was looking for another guitarist, so he said why don’t you go for Lachlan; he’s not going to rejoin Fred’s House again because we’ve got this setup.”

So that is how it went; Lachlan joined Marcel’s band and 4th Labyrinth became a 5-piece with a twin lead guitar attack – but not with John Harper, who had left for reasons of his own. “I always say that the reason bands break up is not always what you would expect – people not getting on, musical differences, that kind of thing – it is more often family commitments. The first guitarist we had could not really commit to the schedule.” So Lachlan Golder now found himself twinned with their new guitarist Andy Cross. For a complex chain of reasons, Fred’s House then lost their keyboarder and the one thing that was never supposed to happen, did in fact happen – Lachlan was invited back into his former fold. For a while he played in both bands, and contributed a number of guitar parts to 4th Labyrinth’s burgeoning second album, but scheduling conflicts were making life tricky. “I would have loved to keep him,” laments Marcel, “he’s a great guitarist and the band sounds really good with 5 people. But I had to say to him, listen, I can’t sell the band like this. I can sell it either as a 4-piece or the 5-piece, but I can’t do this thing where maybe we come as a 4-piece or as a 5-piece. We need to know, this is who we are, this is what we do, when we appear at a festival, you need to be able to say, yes it’s 4 of us, or, it’s 5 of us. We can’t do this ‘sometimes’ thing. He understands that and we’re still very good friends.”

The second album was released in October 2019, with the title Better, after its third song. The original idea was to name it after the opener, a full-on classic rock belter named This Is Rock’n’Roll, but they were almost 20 years too late for that apparently. “The Quireboys already had an album with that title in 2001. They are a much bigger band than us, so we didn’t have much hope of appropriating that title, so we decided to go for track 3 instead which is called Better. Of course as a band we are constantly trying to improve on what we have done before, so the name Better seemed appropriate, but then we couldn’t think of what to use for a cover image. We tried various plays on words and oblique references, but then someone – our drummer I think – said, well it’s better than a slap in the face with a wet fish! So that’s what we used for the album cover, a hand holding a fish with a lot of bubbles and such.”

Marcel Kunkel and Claudia Mackenzie rock out – photo by Gareth Nunns

The band’s cover art is very distinctive, with both albums sharing a common aesthetic: bright, brash and bold, almost cartoonish on a white background. It’s not a style I recognise from any other band’s work, so I enquire after the artist. “They are some friends from Germany! The company is called Pixelklan. They are good friends, we’ve known each other for many years.”

Pixelklan is a design company owned and run by Steffen Schiebli in north-eastern Germany, whose artistic sensitivities seem to coincide with the fabric of the band, as Marcel says: “The imagery in rock often seems to be very dark, and everything has to be pointed! Sharp edges, points everywhere in the album graphics. We are a rock band, but we are not like that, we are bright and colourful, our performances are colourful, so we wanted something that reflects that in our album covers.” Indeed, Better covers the gamut of the classic rock style, from the rhythmic mid-tempos of Free or Spooky Tooth in I’m A Hunter, to the introspective minor key of Darkness Calling, to early New Wave Of Heavy Metal á la UFO in the title track.

The frock-coated showman Marcel himself is a Steinway-trained piano technician and sound engineer amongst other performance-related skills; in fact his Facebook page refers to him as ‘The Rocking Piano Doctor’! We all recognise that keeping body and soul together through music is hard graft these days compared with the rock’n’roll excess of our youth, so I wonder if Marcel is still involved in work behind the scenes? “Well not as much as I used to do, because I’m concentrating on the band and I’m trying not to take on so many jobs these days. One of the very few things I have been doing on a regular basis is running a stage at the Cambridge rock festival. I have done it every year so far. It’s a lot of work getting there, running it and then dismantling everything on the last day. But I also play a set with 4th Labyrinth; that’s kind of the deal. These big festivals as you know; they are run by a lot of volunteers. I mean, it’s really exhausting doing both. I’m dancing at more than one wedding, as the Germans say!”

All four current members of 4th Labyrinth are heavily invested in the music biz; drummer Tom Winch is also a formally-trained pianist, guitarist Andy Cross owns and runs a studio in Cambridge, versatile and flamboyant bassist Claudia Mackenzie contributes her skills and sunny disposition to a wide-ranging array of bands and artists, as well as pursuing solo work – her flailing pink dreadlocks can hardly fail to make an impression on any spectator. Whatever else they have to do to keep bread on the table and a roof over their heads, it is clearly evident that 4th Labyrinth do the music because they love it – and they want you to love it too.

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