PALLAS – Arrive Alive

As far as the more casual observer is concerned, the prog rock revival of the 80s was kicked off by Marillion and their ‘Market Square Heroes’ EP and subsequent hit album ‘Script for A Jester’s Tear’ in 1983. Marillion certainly flew the flag for prog’s unexpected commercial success during that decade, but the rumblings of a brilliant, but terminally unfashionable musical revival had actually begun much earlier.

Reading’s Twelfth Night had been self-releasing material since the late 70s, and their ‘Smiling At Grief’ cassette – released in January 1982 – would out-prog Marillion’s surprisingly chart-friendly style. In Southampton, the mighty IQ – a band which grew from an earlier instrumental act, The Lens – were taking a Genesis obsession to extremes before ‘Script’ became a massive success, and although their relative success would be a little longer in coming, Pendragon had been active as a band since 1978.

If any prog band deserved as much success as Marillion, it was Pallas. Formed in 1974 as Rainbow (a name dropped after Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow appeared on the rock scene) and adopting the Pallas Athena moniker soon after, the Scottish band had already put in some hard yards before people even started to talk about any kind of prog revival. In 1978 they issued the self-released ‘Pallas EP’ which mixed proggy musical flourishes with punky aggression, not a million miles away from ‘Quark, Strangeness & Charm’ era Hawkwind, and throughout the 80s, they showed an affinity for a complex, proggy style. But, unlike most of their then peers – Marillion excepted – they also displayed a knack for a decent chorus, should one ever be called for. By the mid 80s, their sound, as heard on the underrated album ‘The Wedge’ fused melodic rock with progressive ideals in a seamless fashion. On the road to finding that flawless sound, they shared more complex music, not least of all on their self-released ‘Arrive Alive’, which was issued on cassette in 1981.

Despite being a live recording, ‘Arrive Alive’ captures all of the melodic chops from the early Pallas in a very effective way. The first thing that’s very clear about this (one time) cassette only release is that, despite being recorded on a low budget in front of a small crowd, the sound quality is excellent. The second thing that becomes clear is how different the band sounded by 1981, armed with material that – even at its weakest – sounds leagues ahead of the EP recordings.

The ‘Arrive Alive’ cassette wastes no time in flaunting the band’s more excessive style. The darker tones that open ‘5 To 4’ highlight keyboard player Ronnie Brown’s retro sound brilliantly and his organ adds a very 70s feel to the sonic palette with immediate effect. As the track opens up a little more, the music seems in no hurry – but this is a good thing, since those who weren’t lucky enough to see the early Pallas live are really given the kind of showcase here that brings them more than up to speed. The ominous keys are bolstered by heavy drumming and the kind of theatrical vocal that really accentuates an ominous feel, and when guitarist Niall Matthewson cuts through the semi-gothic atmosphere with an even heavier riff, Pallas sound like a force of nature. That’s a strong start by anyone’s standards, but it’s once Niall introduces a few cleaner guitar tones that this number really starts to shine. The lengthy instrumental passages, featuring a great juxtaposition of clean guitar and downbeat rhythms, very much sound like a forerunner to Marillion’s early classic ‘The Web’, which wouldn’t see a studio release until two years later, and some of the later guitar and keyboard interplay shares a great deal in common with the best bits of the first two IQ albums which, again, were a fair way from release at the point Pallas managed to share this recording with their fans. A sprawling ten minute affair, ‘5 To 4’ clearly aims to be a showcase for everyone involved, and eventually moves away from a world of moody solos and posturing to indulge in something much rockier, and when approaching their riffs at full pelt, Pallas make it very clear they’re very comfortable with injecting something a little edgier into their sound. The driving riffs that take centre stage here blend progressive textures with the fire of the NWOBHM, and vocalist Euan Lowson very much has the power behind him to take the mantle of a rock vocalist, something that contrasts brilliantly with his then peers. By the time the last notes hit the crowd, it’s more than clear that this has been epic in almost every sense.

The bright sounding keys that open ‘Queen of The Deep’ look a little further towards the kind of 80s production and influence that would colour the prog revival, but once Niall’s guitar kicks in, this tune captures as much of Pallas’ punch as the previous track. If anything, armed with a tough pre-chorus riff, it makes the band sound much heavier. Not that any heaviness dominates the number, since the arrival of a lengthy instrumental break changes the mood completely. Shifting from melodic hard rock sounds and into a jazz inflected rhythm, drummer Derek Forman leads the charge through a busy prog melody that sounds like a tougher take on one of the early Camel arrangements, before a dark passage pushes a wall of droning keys to the fore, much like the moodier work of IQ from a similar time. Eventually, the keys return to much brighter sounds, and with the band latching onto a broader melody, the listener gets an opportunity to experience Pallas in a full blend of melodic rock and prog; not only pre-empting their future works with a genuine confidence, but also showing why they should’ve achieved a much bigger success within the prog scene at the time.

Making time for something punchier, the brilliant ‘Flashpoint’ works itself around a hard edged bassline from Graeme Murray, which is interspersed with equally busy keyboard riffs, which take Pallas off in an unexpectedly funky direction. The arrival of a rocky guitar and proto-metal vocal appear to share a strong DNA with the early Blue Oyster Cult – something that would unlikely be an influence on most of the Genesis obsessed proggers of the era – and this, too, sounds superb. There are fleeting moments during an instrumental section that sound like ‘Sad Wings’ era Judas Priest, but, again, this is likely not by design. With a couple of busy guitar solos, this is one of those numbers where you really get a sense of Pallas flying high as a hard rock band, and sounding very confident with it. Not about to upset their prog-hardened crowd, ‘Flashpoint’ also finds time for a few Camel-esque guitar lines and various keyboard flourishes that show off Ronnie’s love of 70s fare. With a twin lead guitar creeping through towards the end of this performance, this number fills a pleasingly varied seven minutes, and is a track – at least retrospectively – that sounds like one of the best in the early Pallas canon.

‘Heart Attack’ occasionally captures the harder edges of the live Pallas sound, but what’s more interesting when heard retrospectively is how much Niall’s cleaner guitar tones pre-empt some of Steve Rothery’s work on Marillion’s ‘Fugazi’ – an album which wouldn’t emerge for another three years. The quieter moments of this track also carry hints of Genesis with its blankets of keys and occasional flute, but what’s more obvious is how Lowson uses the angrier end of his work to channel Peter Hammill, even if Pallas never delve into the weird and twisted realms previously occupied by Van Der Graaf Generator. For the prog traditionalists, the middle of this number will be particularly appealing with its warbling keys and waltzing, melodic rock melodies, which now sound like a clear inspiration to 90s proggers Grey Lady Down. In terms of vocal performance, it’s very much a highlight, too, since Euan manages to go head to head with some of the chunkier guitars, sharing a distinctive tone that would be put to better use on the band’s next LP. Overall, ‘Heart Attack’ the kind of number that values musicianship over obvious chorus hooks, but with a final instrumental passage that’s very obviously derived from ‘A Trick of The Tail’ era Genesis, there’s a pleasing grandeur here that rewards the listener during every successive listen, and decades after it first became beloved by the first wave of Pallas fans, it still sounds great.

Pulsing keys and spiky vocals open ‘Crown of Thorns’ in a way that’s unmistakably the hands of an 80s prog revival band at work, but a brief sojourn into slightly punkier riffs provides an unexpected throwback to those Pallas origins. As before, Euan sounds at his most confident vocally when Niall wheels out a much punchier guitar sound, but the guitarist actually sounds better when dropping into longer, soaring notes. The first couple of verses find Pallas drifting closely to being on autopilot – it’s certainly fair to suggest that this is one of ‘Arrive Alive’s weaker numbers – but prog fans will be easily won over by a more mournful sounding mid section that’s clearly modelled on the old Genesis number ‘Carpet Crawlers’ (hey, if you’re going to steal, you might as take from great stock). Returning to the punchier riff, Niall presents an absolute corker of a lead guitar break, which gives the track a massive lift, but as enjoyable as this is, all the best musicianship in the world wouldn’t make ‘Crown of Thorns’ rival ‘5 To 4’ or ‘Heart Attack’ in terms of all round greatness.

Closing the original ‘Arrive Alive’, Pallas bring out the big guns with their then show-stopper, ‘The Ripper’. A fifteen minute epic dealing with abuse, murder and rape, the track was seen as very controversial at the time, since the Yorkshire Ripper was still very much in the news. The stage act would see Euan dressed as different characters, acting out several grisly, unpleasant scenarios. Allegedly, the stage antics caused upset at The Marquee, and the legendary London venue threatened to ban Pallas if they didn’t drop the number from their set. Obviously, future audiences have been spared that spectacle, but the audio is reproduced here in all of its epic glory. The intro shows off some great, simple interplay between the drums and keys, before the arrangement launches itself head first into a world of squirling keys and militaristic rhythms. Occasionally, within the obvious bombast, the music hints at a different kind of retro with flashes of Deep Purple within the guitar tones, but it isn’t long before Pallas lose themselves with a more obvious prog world, with Euan warbling Hamill-like, and Niall sharing a world of semi-aggressive lead guitar. The vaguely Eastern flourishes that colour some of his lead work on this track lend the melody a brilliant sense of grandness, which is offset perfectly by Graeme playing a very muscular bass groove throughout. A heavier riff which mirrors the melody from Pink Floyd’s ‘Let There Be More Light’ appears to be shared with a very knowing wink, but Pallas find a more distinctive sound via a swaggering groove where the drums and keys lock into something much rockier. Lowson, meanwhile, closes his theatrical performance with a world of manic laughter and screams which sound particularly unsettling when heard against a rather aggressive collection of keyboard and guitar riffs. It would be easy to call this the early Pallas masterpiece, based purely on scale; but it’s greatness actually comes from its variety and shifting tones. From the quiet and ominous, to the purely aggressive, Pallas hit their mark both confidently and consistently. Despite threatening to overshadow the rest of ‘Arrive Alive’ with its sprawling arrangement and aggressive lyric, the track still fits very naturally within the band’s early body of work. Marillion may have had their ‘Grendel’, but in terms of early 80s prog epics with enduring qualities, this is only really matched by Twelfth Night’s ‘Sequences’. Yes, it really is that good.

Decades on, the early Pallas material, and ‘Arrive Alive’ especially, has dated far more sympathetically than most prog from that time, and the decision to record live gives a far more natural, organic quality to the listening experience. This ensures that the rougher edges are less obvious than they might have appeared in the studio when recording on a small budget – something which, with hindsight blights the first two IQ albums to some degree. It might be a small stretch to call it an absolute “prog essential”, but for anyone interested in the history of neo-prog, this live debut is certainly required listening.

It would take another three years for Pallas to get their first studio album – 1984’s ‘The Sentinel’ – to their fans, but by that time, the ‘Arrive Alive’ material had been honed to perfection. The long wait for a full length studio product turned out to be rather fortuitous, too: the record hit the racks at the height of the prog revival. That year saw a debut release from Pendragon; a genuine cult classic from Solstice in ‘Silent Dance’; an early career highlight from IQ with ‘The Wake’; a shift towards something more commercial from Twelfth Night with the hugely enjoyable ‘Art & Illusion’, and an eventual fan favourite from Marillion, whose ‘Fugazi’ gave the band major UK chart success. The increased interest in all things prog gave Pallas commercial success too, with ‘The Sentinel’ peaking just outside the top forty. Their future seemed wide open…

[A release with a fairly complex history, the original ‘Arrive Alive’ featured six live tracks on cassette. A later LP reissue featured just four of those tracks alongside a new studio recording of the title track which had been issued as a DIY 7” in 1982, and later CD editions appended four more studio tracks. In 2024, ‘Arrive Alive’ was reissued by Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Records as part of ‘Eyes In The Night’, a lavish, comprehensive 7CD/blu ray box set covering everything Pallas recorded from 1981-86. It marks the first time that all six of the ‘Arrive Alive’ recordings have been reissued.]

Buy the Pallas box set here.

May/June 2024