VARIOUS ARTISTS – Living On The Hill: A Danish Underground Trip 1967-1974

Europe’s love of progressive music has been well documented. The Italian record buying market was one of the only territories to take to Genesis before 1973 and The Netherlands’ own mark on the psych and prog genres became legendary thanks to bands like Ekseption, Trace and omnipresent yodellers Focus. Greece bore Aphrodite’s Child which, in turn, gave the world the talents of Vangelis, while the Germans’ own brand of progressive music took a much more experimental turn with Krautrock. Despite being fairly marginal from a commercial, both Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were taken to heart by a broad spectrum of UK record buyers in the 70s.

 Despite so many different progressive subgenres breaking into the album charts from and wide, the Scandinavian contingent got far less of a look in. Sweden’s Kaipa latterly became one of the best known exports thanks to Roine Stolt’s later success with The Flower Kings and Anglagaard were loved by a few die hards, but outside of John Peel’s influence, Scandinavian prog never really found a true champion in the 60s and 70s or scored any genuine chart action.

A cousin to Grapefruit Records’ excellent box sets covering a broad selection of British psych from the 1960s, the Esoteric label’s ‘Living On The Hill’ turns its attention to Denmark and a clutch of bands who straddled a musical spectrum of (then) progressive ideas. Moving from freakbeat/psych and into a huge amount of love for Deep Purple MK1, jazz fusion and occasional prog moods, this musical journey chronicles an ever-evolving underground scene and, for those willing to take the trip and keep an open mind, promises three discs absolutely loaded with unfamiliar treats.

An instant classic comes from Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe, whose ‘Avez Vous Kaskelainen?’ is a sprawling 60s freakbeat jam, delivered to the record buying public a few years too late. A cut from their 1971 LP for Sonet Records, the track fills almost five minutes with riffs and rhythms akin to the most insane 60s beat group. The drumming is as tight as hell throughout which, naturally, gives a great musical bed for other elements to do their bidding. In this case, intensive organ swirls and wah-wahed guitar motifs weave in and out of each other, while a punchy bass continually dances through the cracks. Imagine MK1 Deep Purple taking on the 13th Floor Elevators and you’ll have a small idea of where this band are coming from, but the speed and precision of the music lifts everything above mere “soft drugs infused jamming”. It really is the work of a great underground band. Another Ivanhoe offering, ‘Ksilioy’ veers a little further from hard rock and into the realms of late 60s prog. It won’t necessarily sound like a winner straight away, but there are plenty of great moments scattered throughout the ten minutes. From the outset, an atonal noise that could either be a distorted flute or a clever use of feedback challenges the main melody while droning keys suggest late 60s/early 70s experiments like very little else. Off-key harmonies that make Grateful Dead sound like Yes could be a little off-putting to some and a little too much of a reliance on a simple and repetitive riff pads things out a little too much, but for those keen to lose themselves within some truly cult music, this is still a very interesting number. Between an aggressive descending vocal melody, warm jazz basses, a drum part that sounds as if it’s pre-figured the birth of Krautrock and some heavy blues guitar fills, the band manage to create something genuinely progressive for the time. With a complex arrangement that straddles ‘Electronic Meditation’ era Tangerine Dream, very early Gong and Mountain – or something that rather spookily predicts Hawkwind circa ‘In Search of Space’ – it should be a mess. It sort of deserves to be, but as with the other BRI tracks, there’s always something to latch onto…and if you like heavy psych or weird blues freakouts, chances are you’ll love this too. [An expanded edition of their ‘W.W.W.’ album from 1971, originally recorded for John Peel’s Dandelion label, is also available from Esoteric Recordings.]

Their ‘Jingle Jangle Man’ (recorded in 1969), on the other hand, is less impressive. It’s almost like someone had heard King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ and figured it’d be easy to replicate. The riff is solid enough and the amount of echo applied gives the performance a nice sense of darkness, but the soprano sax is hard going and the lyrics are…suspect, but things improve once the instrumental section grows into an echoing blues where Finn Olafsson demonstrates a natural flair. There are moments of entertainment floating in and out of this ten minute jam (mostly thanks to Olafsson’s presence), but it’s fair to say that, decades on, it all feels a little generic.

Another band providing the heart of this box set, Ache are represented by three very interesting recordings. Their ‘Equatorial Rain’ (originally released by Philips Records in 1971) captures a similar mood to bands like Elias Hulk and to a lesser extent Vertigo’s Beggar’s Opera. It opens with some really sinister and tuneless drones which, coupled with a flat and ominous vocal, really doesn’t seem too inviting. However, after a couple of minutes, a fantastic slab of proto hard rock springs forth. Driven by enormous jazz inflected drums and a manic organ, the band go head first into the kind of massive jam you’d find nestled among the tracks on Uriah Heep’s ‘Salisbury’ album from the same year. If ‘Equatorial Rain’ could be likened to something ‘Salisbury’-esque, then the mournful ‘Shadow of A Gipsy’ is their own ‘Come Away Melinda’ – all aching melodies and vocal bombast, underscored by a Procol Harum-ish darkness. It’s easily the most accessible Ache piece to be found in this anthology, but not necessarily the best. [Listeners who’ve enjoyed these numbers would be advised to check out Ache’s ‘Green Man’ album where they flaunt a love of early Deep Purple so obviously, they cover ‘We Can Work It Out’ in a similarly bombastic style to their heroes, even adding a section that’s most obviously derived from the Purps’ own ‘Flight of The Rat’, the cheeky bastards.]

With regard to the tracks on ‘Living On The Hill’, Ache’s crowning glory comes in the shape of the nineteen minute epic ‘Homine Urbano’ which manages to straddle the sounds of Procol Harum and Deep Purple MK1 and add a distinctly Euro flair. Within the first two minutes, an overdriven guitar collides with a booming vocal, both brazenly stealing the melody from The Beatles’ ‘Every Little Thing’ (albeit playing it in almost the same way Yes had in ’69). Subsequently moving through passages of soft piano and haunting melodies on loan from Procol, they arrive at mad poetry that’s obviously derived from The Doors’ ‘Horse Lattitudes’. Hey…if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from some of the best… Thankfully, after five minutes of magpie tendencies and indecision, more of Ache’s natural talents are finally allowed to come through, via a heavy rhythm ‘n’ blues groove with the bass pushed to the fore and a subsequent piece of bombast where they take a Beatle-ish melody and reimagine it in the deep psych mould. By the time a jazz fusion keyboard riff underscores a hard groove and moody torch song rises, it’s clear they’ve chucked everything but the kitchen sink at this in the hope of making it work. It isn’t all great, but you have to admire the sheer balls of it all.

A pair of tunes from Polydor signings Culpeper’s Orchard provide solid hard rock thrills. A highlight from their 1971 debut (and subsequently a highlight here, too), ‘Mountain Music (Part One)’ appears to take elements Iron Butterfly and the furious lead guitar work of Ten Years After and combine them to make a glorious sound that could rival Led Zeppelin’s debut. Having exhausted that kind of blues drenched aggression after a while, the track takes a drastic left turn into some hazy psych that might appeal to Jefferson Airplane fans. ‘Classified Ads’ (from 1972’s ‘Second Sight’) isn’t quite as strong due to a much flatter production, but is able to supply more than enough of an idea of how Culpeper’s Orchard had progressed between albums. Here, there’s a weird Moody Blues vibe sitting rather uncomfortably against the sound of something desperate to roar with a real force. It takes a few listens to appreciate and is clearly good in its own way, but never gets past sounding like three unfinished ideas forced to co-exist.

Another Polydor signing, Blast Furnace are cursed with some of the worst singers ever and a terribly ugly album cover, but for their faults, their chosen selections show off some brilliant musicality. ‘Ginger Cake’ is a tasty jazz rock tune, heavy on the fluid basslines and floaty flute melodies. Beginning like a Greenslade prototype, it eventually teases with a few melodies straight from the first couple of Tull albums and grows into a fine jazz rock tune, whilst ‘Toytown’ reverts to a more basic hard rock/blues groove at first, but thanks to a prominent drum sound and the kind of analogue production sound that few seem to be able to replicate in 2020, it’s got its own charm. By the instrumental break, things take a massive upturn with the arrival of some truly frantic jazz-blues fusion. Sit back, crank the volume, let yourself go… You won’t be sorry. Much like ‘Ginger Cake’ it’d be even better without someone shouting over some of it, but you can’t have everything… [A genuine mixed bag ranging from jazz rock to blues and even a couple of things that sound as if they should be on a John Cale LP, The self-titled Blast Furnace album from 1971 is a must-hear for anyone interested in that era’s inventive sounds.]

Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover another couple of essentials from The Old Man & The Sea, a band whose bluesy progressive sounds really capture the mood of the early 70s with music that, had they been British, surely would have seen them being championed by the legendary Vertigo label. The more immediate of their selections, ‘Living Dead’ applies Deep Purple organ flourishes to some heady funk. With the addition of a heavily accented vocal and bombastic vocals, the listener gets thrown into a world that mixes early Kaipa with the more streamlined aspects of Uriah Heep’s semi-theatrical style. A second track from the band, ‘Going Blind’ stretches out further, and although in this case longer doesn’t necessarily equal better, the number showcases some strong players – especially bassist Knud Lindhard, who clearly understands the importance of a melodic root and guitarist Benny Stanley who has been given plenty of space to roam with a lengthy blues solo. As long as you can make it past an acquired taste of a singer, there’s fine 70s rock to be enjoyed, as these guys set about something that sounds like an odd Scandinavian variant on a deep cut from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.

Another absolute must-hear, Secret Oyster’s ‘Fire & Water’ offers a cyclical melody that’s played at speed, while funk bass underscores an almost cinematic melody where strings and keys swirl in an almost giddy fashion. Much like the best bits of Blast Furnace’s work, the jazz fusion aspects have a definite Samurai and Greenslade vibe and although the jazz elements might not always click with those who came for prog and rock fare, the playing is absolutely stellar throughout. Made up of ex-members of Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe, this couldn’t be any further from that band’s Deep Purple inspired sound if it tried and unlike many of their peers, Secret Oyster actually gained a little attention in the UK, eventually scoring an appearance on the legendary Old Grey Whistle Test. If you have any interest in fusion, 1972’s self-titled album should be sought for further listening.

Elsewhere, Beefeaters’ ‘Night Flight’ is a brilliant instrumental cut, heavy on organs, but almost as big on sassy lead guitar sounds, falling somewhere between garage rock and proto-prog; The Savage Rose’s ‘Long Before I Was Born’ is lumpen beat group music that would be best avoided…and that’s before the weird helium induced screaming started; Hurdy Gurdy’s ‘Lost In The Jungle’ supplies Cream-like heavy blues over a ten minute stomp and Alrune Rod’s ‘Natskyggeveg’ has definite designs on being Pink Floyd’s ‘Set The Controls’, but lacks any real hook. Given pride of place as this set’s true centrepiece, Rainbow Band’s ‘Living On The Hill’ takes the listener on a quarter-hour journey of guitar driven, fuzzy, jazzy and jammed out sounds, an equal of any of the era’s better known musical powerhouses. Hearing it for the first time, you really get the sense that Denmark had their own Hendrixes and Alvin Lees, and it’s a great pity that so many good musicians never got their due outside of their homeland. If this anthology opens them up to new and appreciative audiences, then it’s work is done.

Overall, ‘Living On A Hill’ has something to offer lots of fans of late 60s and early 70s rock. Be warned, though, if you’re one of the many prog fans who believes that all “progressive music” has to sound like Yes or Genesis in 1972, there’s not going to be much for you here, despite what you may make of the title. That’ll be your loss, of course, but you’re obviously more than happy living on Willow Farm and will have no need for these overseas curiosities. For everyone else with a true sense of adventure, ‘Living On The Hill’ will provide approximately three hours’ worth of experimental sounds to explore, some of which are very good indeed. It isn’t all immediately accessible and a few bits aren’t even especially tuneful, but it’s always interesting – and for the keener music buff and collector, “interesting” will be enough of a pitch to pull in any curious ears.

October 2020