Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Sides of Peter Banks

It's been a while since I've done a record review, so here goes. On Father's Day, Connor and I did our traditional trip to buy old records, because yes, I'm a vinyl nerd. I'm also a progressive rock nerd, so I was pleased to find a re-release on heavy vinyl of an album I'd never heard of - Two Sides of Peter Banks. In my prog rock explorations - which I didn't start making until a few years ago - I've mostly ignored Yes, which featured Banks on guitar for the first two albums. So I honestly didn't know who Peter Banks was, which doesn't say much for my prog rock credibility.

Anyway, I bought the record unheard after looking at the lineup of musicians, which include Peter Collins and Steve Hackett of Genesis, and John Wetton of King Crimson, my favorite Crimson vocalist whose voice and bass work dominates by favorite incarnation of King Crimson (Larks' Tongues in Aspic through Red). Also present are Ray Bennett and Mike Hough, of Banks' post-Yes band Flash, and Jan Akkerman of Focus, who provides a meaty second guitar.

Released in 1973, the album's entire first side features only one instrumental song - something that screams "prog" just by looking at the track list. The epic song is divided into six movements, all of which have titles denoting knights, dragons, kings, and other fantasy fare common to early-70s prog groups. As an album side, it's almost perfect. Beginning with a mellow and sweet-sounding guitar duet between Banks and Akkerman, about halfway through it lapses into some bombastic metal that sounds like King Crimson at its heaviest. It certainly kicks anything Yes ever recorded in the balls. Not one to smash us over the head with heavy riffage, Banks pulls it back to the mellow after a few measures. But this time, the mellow has a more sinister quality, like that we'd expect from King Crimson or, say, Pink Floyd at their best. Subtle, tinkling guitar work and almost Rick Wakeman-like keyboards from Hackett keep us floating along until we're surprised again by a movement called "Battles," which smacks us in the face with a palm-muted metal attack not dissimilar to the chunka-chunka-chunka sound of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, only better. Things get a little sloppy here, but Phil Collins steps in with a drum break that leads to a frantic jazz-influenced barrage of point-counterpoint work from Wetton, Akkerman and Banks. Following this, things slowly die down, and the suite rounds out side one with a whimper, not a bang.

Side two is less impressive, consisting of another gentle instrumental followed by the thirteen-minute track "Stop That," which, according to the liner notes, was a spontaneous jam in the studio that engineers captured by chance. It's not bad, but it sounds like what it is, and was probably more interesting for the guys to record than it is for me to listen to, and Wetton, whose bass playing I'm normally quite fond of, seems heavy-handed and bored. A final instrumental jam is added almost as an afterthought, with some incredible southern-fried riffage traded by Banks and Akkerman. But the countrified nature of the jam, to me, doesn't sit well with the rest of the record.

What I take away from this: one, Peter Banks is an incredible guitarist. I have every intention of seeking out his other solo work and look forward to exploring the band Flash, which I'd never heard of. I also enjoyed listening to Phil Collins solely as a drummer, which I don't think I've ever really done (I'm not familiar with Gabriel-era Genesis). He's no Bill Bruford, and frankly, the drums seem snare-heavy without enough mic on the cymbals. Nevertheless, Collins provides a solid, thumpy backbeat that leaps out to accent in all the right places and other times is wisely subdued. I was impressed with his playing. I'd also never heard of Akkerman or Focus. Hell, I even listened to the first two Yes albums after hearing this. So it's a good "gateway" album for someone like me who likes prog rock but doesn't know a lot about it.

The real treasure of this album is, however, the guitar interplay between Banks and Akkerman. No one who is a fan of the instrument should miss hearing at least that first, side-long epic.

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