October 22, 2019

A fine collection of a band who might well have slipped under your radar

There are a lot of natural combinations of musical genres through the years which have endured and proven ever-popular. There’s jazz and rock, of course. There’s prog and metal. There’s jazz and funk, folk and rock and certainly rock and blues. All staples on the menu down at your local record emporium (if you’re lucky enough to still have one, that is). Then again there are other occasional dalliances which don’t get quite so embraced by the mainstream and sit somewhat more forlornly on the ‘left field’ shelf. Such as Progressive Rock and Country.

Indeed, quite. Not exactly two natural bookends for sure, but mid-‘70s UK band Wally, at least on their first album, actually managed to make those two very disparate elements work together. By their second album the country elements had lessened but were still there. Now, I can hear your head whirring as it tries to compute some unholy marriage between ELP and Merle Haggard, but it isn’t like that. In fact, this path has been explored by other intrepid souls, though generally in the 1970s when this sort of thing was encouraged more it must be said. Home – the first band of Laurie Wisefield before he joined Wishbone Ash – moved from a very countrified first album to full on prog for their third, the conceptual The Alchemist, and Cressida, from a little earlier, blazed something of a trail in this area. And let us not forget that Steve Howe was using a pedal steel guitar in Yes as early as 1972 (step forward And You And I and later The Gates Of Delirium). So it can be done, but how well do they do it?

The answer is, as this collection of their two albums illustrates, is essentially better than anyone else. The self-titled 1974 debut album is as perfect a blend of these odd bedfellows as you could get, with the full-fat prog of opener The Martyr (one of many songs about Joan Of Arc, but perhaps the only ten-minute epic to attempt it) leading directly into the beautifully simplistic and ‘down-home’ I Just Wanna Be A Cowboy, which is so nostalgically affecting in its childlike innocence that it makes Toy Story play like Last House On The Left. Two utterly beautiful songs which couldn’t be further away if they tried, all filtered through North Yorkshire in the mid-‘70s. The whole album is immensely entertaining, and comes with a non-album B-Side to boot.

The follow-up, 1975’s Valley Gardens, didn’t do as well commercially as its predecessor, which is a great shame as it is actually better. The country feel is still present (especially in the utterly disarming tribute to David Crosby on the B-Side Right By Me, which was left off the original album), but it is much more in the background as the prog is dialled right up to 10. The opening title track is superb, and this is followed up by a notable guest appearance on vocals by Madeleine Bell on the oddly titled Nez Perce, but the real meat is reserved for what originally made up the whole of the second side of vinyl, the 20-minute, three part The Reason Why. Written about the Charge Of The Light Brigade, it comes over like Barclay James Harvest only with a big dollop of experimentalism and ambition, and it works brilliantly, There is a slightly overlong piece of meandering noodling midway, but we can forgive that as the opening ten minutes and the closing five are fit to stand toe to toe with the usual side-long suspects of the era.

With a new essay which is informative and interesting, plus original artwork sprinkled throughout the booklet, this is a fine collection of a band who might well have slipped under your radar. Now the chance is there to see what you missed out on. Go git ‘em, boy!