By the end of the 60s, jazz fusion band The Web had recorded and released two interesting but commercially unsuccessful albums. 1970 found the struggling musicians in a period of minor flux: a change in line-up saw frontman John L. Watson replaced by vocalist/keyboard player Dave Lawson (ex-Alan Bown) and a change of label took the newly christened Web [no longer the definitive; that was so last decade – just ask Pink Floyd] from Deram to Polydor. The new phase saw the release of their third and arguably best known LP, ‘I Spider’. ‘I Spider’ became their most famous work not through any increased exposure or notable sales, but by eventually becoming one of the era’s most sought after rarities.
By 1971, the final Web line-up changed their name to Samurai, switched record companies again and released one sole LP on the Greenwich Gramophone label. Like its predecessors, ‘Samurai’ failed to convince the record buying public and eventually faded into relative obscurity. Much like ‘I Spider’, the Samurai LP gained interest on the collectors’ market over the following quarter of a century, but never really got the mass re-appraisal it deserved. Despite the band showing lots of talents that should have found them mentioned in the same breath as Gentle Giant, King Crimson and early Soft Machine, the name Samurai is likely to be greeted with a shrug.
It’s time Samurai – and by extension, Web – were given their full due. Their one and only album is absolutely brimming with superb, progressive 70s sounds; its abilities to take jazz fusion to an open minded rock audience is on a par with the mighty Colosseum. Right from the opening bars of ‘Saving It Up For So Long’, this band shows a genuine gift for not only blending blues sounds into interesting shapes, but an eagerness to take listeners on one of the era’s finest journeys across two sides of black plastic, should they wish to go. With this opener, Samurai move through at least three moods, giving a brief overview of the next half an hour in the process. From a pumping bass used effectively as a rhythm, fuzzy blues guitars rise and a sturdy drum part evokes the kind of Alan Hawkshaw piece that might later be used to underscore a scene in The Sweeney. This would be enough to entertain those who love solid blues rooted sounds, but Samurai take things to the next level by shifting into a chorus where the vocals become more grandiose, while saxes and vibraphones busy themselves as if adding a jazz core to an old psych side. Moving into the instrumental break, the rock edge subsides in favour of pure fusion, as a fantastic sax and heavily percussive jam falls somewhere between prime Colosseum and the more melodic end of Jack Bruce’s ‘Things We Like’ LP. …And more impressively, all of this is condensed into a little under four minutes – a giant two fingers to the bands and listeners who insist that “progressive” has to mean drawn out over twice that length.
Samurai’s complex but very melodic style also shines really brightly throughout ‘More Rain’, a soul/jazz banger that’s big on flutes and even bigger on trippy sun-drenched melodies. The way the bass and flute weaves in and out of heady rhythms and hazy vocals is certainly of its time, but it’s easy to imagine the end results scoring a film scene very effectively. Given time to adjust to the hippy-ish sounds, it’s also worth noting that Lawson – a man who isn’t always known for the most perfect of voices – is a perfect match for the music here and, indeed, turns in fine performances on most of this record. The jazz interludes get a little braver on ‘Maudie James’, as aggressive and jarring time-sig changes jab throughout an arrangement that would otherwise be fairly soulful. It’s quickly clear that any “song” elements here are merely used to bookend the instrumental prowess, as the instrumental work is great, involving a confident sax pre-figuring the smoother jazz moods of The Crusaders and a strident piano foreshadowing the soon to be popular sounds of Steely Dan. Hearing this decades on, you have to wonder why Samurai never really found a larger audience, especially when bands like Caravan achieved a reasonable amount of commercial success by adding similar jazzy elements to their work.
After using those tracks to warm up, Lawson clinks his piano beneath an unsettling mournful sax before ‘Holy Padlock’ explodes into a jaunty prog rocker that sounds for all the world like a proto Greenslade with a slightly harder edge. Passages of off-kilter 70s rock are interspersed by descending sax runs; theatrical vocal bursts are offset by Terry Edwards dropping in angry guitar interludes and by the time the piece reaches its climax – driven by drummer Kenny Beveridge truly attacking his kit – it’s a genuine disappointment when the track appears to fade too early. Samurai can often be commended on keeping their progressive sounds within 7″ single-friendly durations, but this is the one time those (presumably) self-imposed restrictions sells them short. Literally.
Offering something a little straighter, ‘Give A Little Love’ sounds like it should have been a hit single of sorts, since it carries a dominant guitar sound that’s a perfect fit with the era. Edwards hits upon a heavy riff that’s drowned in fuzz and wah-wah, the rest of the band fall into place with a groove that echoes bits of Focus. Lawson croons and cries, but as before manages to scale back just enough so his voice never feels as if it’ll dominate, and at the point you think Samurai are about to deliver a hard rocker with prog flourishes, the brass rises to add a full compliment of jazz quirks. Here, the pairing of Don Fay (saxes, flutes) and Tony Roberts (saxes, flutes, clarinet) sounds like a true force; talents enough to rival the better known Dick Heckstall-Smith. With a perfect balance between hard riffs and indulgence, this barrage of bombast could serve as the ideal entry point into Samurai’s world for a first time listener.
For those who’d hope this septet would branch out just a little, the album closes with a couple of jams that reach a little farther. ‘Face In The Mirror’ kicks off with a moody sound, where the drums lead a slow groove and the twin saxes wheeze a downbeat melody. Whereas traces of influence from all kinds of jazz and rock bands make up the Samurai sound, the Zappa influence upon this intro is unmistakable. It’s like hearing an unfamiliar take on a segment of ‘Hot Rats’ or ‘Waka/Jawaka’. Even when the melody shifts into something more recognisable as being the band from the rest of this LP, Lawson’s decision to sing in higher registers in a theatrical bent carries more than a faint echo of the Volman/Kaylan Mothers. Changing the mood a third time, a lengthy instrumental works through a slow groove that allows Roberts and Fay plenty of room, but whereas the earlier tracks had them deliver frenetic bursts of jazz, they remain locked into the rhythm section throughout, again, almost as if this were the ultimate homage to FZ’s best fusion experiments. …And if that weren’t clear enough, the final passages feature Edwards relatively high in the mix, delivering melodies that are almost certainly derived from Zappa’s own ‘Son of Mr. Green Genes’. Although this is by no means the album’s least exciting track, its obvious homage to a true fusion legend makes it essential listening. Last up, the eight minute ‘As I Dried The Tears Away’ takes no prisoners as it blends ominous riffs on loan from Procol Harum with weird jazz inflected vocals in a way that’s deeply unnerving. Passages of clanking piano and mistreated piano strings, ugly organ swirls and a jagged rhythm often give the feeling of being trapped on a fairground ride against your will, but, beneath the layers of darkness, there’s also a weird beauty and, throughout the piece. Lennie Wright’s vibes add an other worldly trippiness whilst Edwards’s featured lead guitars really bring out the sometimes underused blues influences that are so important to the core of the material. Eventually reining in his presence, Lawson seems only too aware that the listener should be calmed before this ride is over and his last vocal passages, set against a minimalist melody, evoke the sound and feel of many of the era’s most atmospheric prog rock recordings.
Unfortunately, despite being packed with strong material, the album was another relative failure and Samurai broke up. However, for Dave Lawson, this split only provided new opportunities as, within the year, he became an integral part of jazz fusion/prog rock band Greenslade. With that most cult of 70s acts, he would appear on the legendary Old Grey Whistle Test TV show and eventually score a top forty hit in 1974 with ‘Spyglass Guest’ – an LP that ranks among the decade’s very best progressive long players. ‘Samuarai’, meanwhile, remains one of the era’s most interesting (but often overlooked) records: it’s more focused than ‘Close To The Edge’ by Yes, often more melody conscious than ‘Octopus’ by Gentle Giant, nowhere near as frightening as Comus, more accessible than Van Der Graaf Generator and Egg…and (thankfully) far less smug than Tull’s knowingly ridiculous ‘Thick As A Brick’. With so much to love within its grooves, it should be heralded as a true classic.
[The Samurai album was reissued by Esoteric Recordings in 2020, with three bonus live tracks that were only previously available on a unauthorised edition of the CD.]