May 1, 2020

[on the second album] They’ll still hit you over the head with a wooden mallet, but they’ll see if they can do it in an interesting time signature.

Here we are, finding ourselves in the company of another one of those artists who spend most of their time hiding in the shadows, and lurking in the darker recesses of record collections owned by men who inhabit dusty corridors of the Dark Prog Internet. Occasionally, however, these most reclusive of cult artists find themselves thrust into the gaze of the public eye, thanks to excellent reissues such as this, and it falls to us to weigh up their true worth, and how they rank on the scale of Deservedly Obscure up to Criminally Neglected. Most will be in the middle of that scale, to be fair (not too many Zeppelins and Floyds languish unknown for decades, whereas some things are just too terrible even to be cult favourites). Sir Lord Baltimore (a bit greedy with the title surely? Even Alan Sugar is content with just ‘Lord’ these days) find themselves in the upper half of that mid-ground. These are not perfect albums, but on the other hand there is genuinely great music here.

So, who were these oddly-named guys? Well, first off, it’s a band – there is no ‘Screaming Lord Sutch’ figure taking centre stage just in case you wondered. A threesome, at least to begin with, they recorded two albums, in 1970 and 1971, before disappearing completely for three decades before staging the most unexpected comeback since Lazarus said he was feeling a bit better, and regrouped for a third album in 2006. This three-disc set contains all three of those albums. There are no bonuses, but then Sir Lord Baltimore didn’t really leave a treasure trove of unreleased gold behind them – if they recorded it, they released it. A garage band before such a thing existed.

The 1970 debut is Kingdom Come, included here in all of its original gatefold packaging (as is the second album – a great touch!), and it would be absolutely uncontested to describe the album as unrefined. If you want a Steely Dan production sheen here, you’ve wandered into the wrong review by mistake. Essentially, the way you are likely to feel about these ten tracks could probably be gauged by your response to the question: ‘would you have liked Jimi Hendrix to have chucked his solo career in and elected to join Grand Funk Railroad instead?’ If your answer to that is ‘what a combination, how can I lose?!’, you will love this album, and are probably Homer Simpson. If you recoil in horror with the words ‘who would advocate so perverse a suggestion? Begone!’, then you will in all likelihood hate this band and all they stand for. Let’s get things straight, however – this is not to imply that guitarist Louis Dambra was in the league of Hendrix, as he clearly was not – but if ambition, desire and intention counted for anything, he sure as hell would be, as he scatters his wild, untrammelled lead lines all over the album with an obvious glee. Let’s get one thong straight, this album is heavy. If it were a weight, it would be ’15 tons’. If it were a vehicle, it would be a juggernaut. It’s loud, it’s basic and it’s quite thrilling for that reason. It’s like Blue Cheer, only better. Titles like Master Heartache, Pumped Up and Hell Hound are as rough and uncompromising as they sound, while the title song takes some quasi-religious imagery, feeds it through a Black Candle Factory and emerges with one of the most terrifying pieces of music you’ve heard for some time. The real curveball here, though, is the fourth track Lake Isle Of Innisfree as the band unexpectedly down instruments and throw a harpsichord into the mix, almost unaccompanied, as the vocal intones a Tudor folk-song to rival Greensleeves. The effect is almost like someone suddenly ceasing kicking you repeatedly in the face and instead applying soothing cream to your ears. I have no idea what it’s doing on here, but it is a pleasant song and does provide a nice contrast to the insanity elsewhere.

In 1971, the band’s second, self-titled album appeared, and it immediately opened things up quite considerably. Suddenly it’s as if those Grand Funk guys, with Jimi in tow. had been locked up in a room for some weeks with only Black Sabbath’s debut release and a stack of Yes albums for company. And fed with raw meat passed under the door. Nowhere is this more apparent than the eleven and half minute opening track, Man From Manhattan, an oddly religious parable, or perhaps allegory would better describe it, which veers wildly from sweetly melodic sections to big full band interludes with plenty of harmonised chanting thrown into the mix. They’ll still hit you over the head with a wooden mallet, but they’ll see if they can do it in an interesting time signature. Four straightforward heavy rock assaults follow up (including one with dubbed crowd noises pointlessly trying to appear to be a live recording when it is nothing of the sort) before the prog flashbacks hit us one last time with the closing Caesar LXXI. To describe this as a startling album would be a starting point at best. Incidentally, Louis Dambra’s brother Joey Dambra is with the band on this album as well, as a second guitarist.

At this point the public were spared any further pincer attacks on their eardrums and sanity when the band dwindled away before calling it quits a short time later, although they did abortively start work on a proposed third album in 1976, only for it to be scrapped. When Louis Dambra and drummer/vocalist John Garner joined forces to release a third album in 2006, the world was divided into two camps: those who were amazed, and the other 99% who had no idea it was happening. Bassist Gary Justin was no longer involved, so the band brought in extra musicians to provide bass and more guitar. Even more surprisingly, much of the music written for that planned 1976 album was resurrected, put to new lyrics (often oddly Christian in nature), and used as the basis for this very short, sub-30 minute, album, entitled rather clumsily III: Raw. No-one would expect this to be any more than a sort of curiosity tagged on to the two original albums, but in actual fact it is rather better than one might think. Most of it is crunching, jugular-piercing rock, but the seven minute Wild White Horses, with its pleasing bed of acoustic guitar and strongly melodic construction is a real contender for the band’s best track ever. Elsewhere, opener (Gonna) Fill The World With Fire gets things out of the blocks strongly, while the closing pair of Cosmic Voice and Mission send things out an an excellent note. Rising Son is notable for some piercing Robert Plant-isms, and a general desire to turn themselves into the living embodiment of Zeppelin’s fourth album, but the rather too strident vocals make it a little hard to take. The photo used for the front cover of this 2006 album was taken from a program for a Fillmore East show in 1971, which seems a rather bizarre choice! The album was only released via mail-order when it first came out.

This is another fascinating snapshot into the career of one of those names you might have heard and wondered about without knowing the music, and certainly an essential purchase for those few souls still hoarding battered old vinyl copies. The first two albums are presented in replicas of their original gatefolds, as previously stated, while a poster coming with the set features some hilarious sleeve notes written by a guy who appears to love Sir Lord Baltimore so much that his house is probably a shrine to them. Enthused isn’t the word for it, and it makes a fantastic read. Try investigating this one – following the recent deaths of both Garner and Dambra, their time is now irrevocably done, but shouldn’t be forgotten!

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