October 11, 2020

In which the diligent miners at Esoteric Records unearth yet another nugget from the rich 1970s seam which only the more dedicated of ’70s prog devotees are likely to be familiar with. In this case, it was blink-and-you’d-miss-them, as Samurai released this sole album in 1971 before folding almost immediately. There was more to them, however, as they evolved from a previous band called The Web, which released three albums before the change of name. After the first two Web albums, they came into contact with keyboard man Dave Lawson who was at that point plying his trade with Ian Gillan and Roger Glover in Episode Six. Lawson was persuaded to get stuck in the Web, and he joined for their third, and best regarded album, I Spider. The band decided at that point to rename themselves, as they were repeatedly being misspelled as Webb, which does seem somewhat odd, as one would think the more conventional Web to be the obvious spelling! It was the time when footballer David Webb was playing for Chelsea, but other than that rather spurious connection I can offer nothing! Still, change the name they did, and with the band’s sax player departing, Samurai were born.

In fact, the loss of the horn player is an odd one, as the newly christened band did not enlist a band member to play brass or horns, but utilised two guest musicians in the studio to provide sax, flute and clarinet. The music was written and arranged with the horns in mind, and the sax in particular is almost a bedrock of the album’s sound, so the decision not to have a band member handling this seems very bizarre. Indeed, this was largely instrumental (pardon the pun!) in the band splitting, as they toured without any wind players and found the live sound unsatisfactory. It seems most peculiar to base your sound largely around instruments you then won’t have access to – but then again, this was the early ’70s, and pretty much anything went!

The album itself remains a solid listen. Lawson (who provides the vocals), of course went on after this to join Greenslade, and a strong air of their particularly reflective, thoughtful brand of prog pervades this record. The horns give a sense of Hot Rats-era Zappa as well, as well as some snippets of Gong and Van Der Graaf Generator at times – although without the insanity of the former or the intensity of the latter. The general polite ‘Englishness’ of the sound could also excuse use of the ‘Canterbury’ label as well, but once again this only partially applies. The strongest of the seven tracks on the original album are the first and last – opener Saving It Up For So Long is a concise, tight jazzy prog piece driving along energetically with a serpentine guitar riff and nice sax and keyboards in the mix. It’s the most immediate track on display, while the other highlight, the closing eight-minute-plus As I Dried The Tears Away is the most diverse, incorporating all elements of the band’s sound, from laid-back passages through dramatic horn interjections and a general Gentle Giant sense of being gusy and complex yet all fitting together well. Elsewhere, the cleverly titled Holy Padlock (as in ‘wedlock’), Maudie James and Give A Little Love are all nice examples of jazzy prog which hit the spot almost as well. Face In The Mirror frustrates a little with some magnificent instrumental work then being undermined by a weak vocal section to finish, but the only real weak link to these ears is the second track, More Rain, a soporific 3am cool jazz piece, which is so laid back it threatens to develop bed sores. Good strike rate overall though.

Strangely enough, a big tick in the plus column for me comes with the bonus tracks here, which consist of three tracks from the album recorded live in Sweden. Contrary to the claims of the songs not working without the absent horns, it could be argued that the live arrangements are better. Give A Little Love is far stronger than the album version, with the playing much more forceful and the guitar allowed much more chance to shine, and Holy Padlock also acquits itself extremely strongly. Both rise above their studio counterparts in this writer’s opinion. The third live cut is More Rain, which still fails to even rise to a seated position, and seems a poor choice for the stage, but those first two live cuts certainly lift the album another notch.

The name Samurai still seems something of a misnomer, suggesting as it does galloping warriors, slashing swords and honourable kills rather than meticulously arranged jazzy prog rock, and would perhaps better suit a metal band, but that is by the by. It certainly fed into the album cover, which depicts an unclothed Japanese man and woman, him rolling up a large joint as she stares wistfully at what may be clouds of smoke. Now that image does conjure the music far more readily!

Another nice Esoteric find, sitting comfortably in the bracket of ‘cult expensive vinyl now made affordable’ – and with better sound than ever as well as those great live cuts, you can’t lose. Plus, Dave Lawson himself fills you in on all the facts in the booklet, which also reproduces some (occasionally hilarious) press reviews of the time. Greenslade fans in particular should take a big interest in this.