on 20 June 2009
"The Chronicle of the Black Sword" may not be in the bucket of "Hawkwind's Best Albums" but it is, nevertheless, a good Hawkwind album featuring all of their trademarks and it is a pleasure to see it released on CD once again: it gives people like me who missed the CD the first time around the opportunity to add it to our collections once again. Like other releases in this excellent Atomhenge series, the CD sound is crisp and clear and the CD booklet is excellent, with an article by Mark Powell featuring lots of photographs and art-work from the period.
The line-up for the album was Brock, Harvey Bainbridge (on synths and keys), Huw Lloyd-Langton (guitar), Alan Davey (bass), Danny Thompson (drums) and Dave Charles (percussion).
This 1985 album focuses on the stories behind Michael Moorcock's "Elric" books, which many of us will have read in our teens. Moorcock and other science fiction imagery have been associated closely with Hawkwind since their early years: their famous album "Warrior on the Edge of Time" being a good example. It's a good marriage, both musically and artistically. "The Chronicle of the Black Sword" perhaps fails to live up to the magic of "Warrior on the Edge of Time" but is not a bad album by any means. Effectively mixing up sung and instrumental tracks throughout, the pick of the bunch are "Needle Gun" - a pacey rhythmic offering in the best Hawkwind tradition - and the ethereal "Zarozinia".
The bonus material, starting with Arioch (a B-side), is good too - in particular the four-track "Earth Ritual Preview" EP (1984) which is included in its entirety is well worth its presence on this disc.
CONCLUSION - A very good and worthy CD, even if not Hawkind's best.
I caught Hawkwind live on two consecutive nights on the 'Black Sword' tour in 1985 (Bristol and Cardiff) and witnessed a different version of the 'Elric set' at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton in 1987. I'd seen Hawkwind twice before this, both times with Nik Turner, initially on the Earth Ritual Preview Tour (late 83 I think) and again on the tour that followed (late 84). So the material this Atomhenge edition covers ('The Chronicle of the Black Sword'/'Earth Ritual Preview E.P.') I saw performed live during those years. The Bristol Hippodrome gig was the only concert I've ever been to where people were headbanging in the boxes (very 'Phantom of the Opera', right?), while I spent the Brighton Worldcon set sat next to a female Anne McCaffrey fan from New Zealand, who was wearing a bergundy cloak (as you'd expect of a McCaffrey fan - cloak, female...sorry, but being a bookseller, I can tell you that sometimes the popular vision of 'fanboys'/'fangirls' is sadly correct). I was wearing my Sonic Assassins t-shirt, had black hair down to my nipples and was in white drainpipes and had bumped into Dave Brock in a hotel corridor scant hours before 'Alright mate' he'd said, smiling, clearly spotting a Hawknaut. 'Alright Dave,' was my eloquent reply. Well, I had just met Michael Moorcock and Linda Steele (MM's wife, who the lyrics of 'Choose Your Masks' and 'Arrival In Utopia' were originally credited too, presumably for tax reasons). I think I was more impressed by Linda, as she'd been Harlan Ellison's p.a..
As fun as the 'Black Sword' gigs were, they were a little Spinal Tap, as some of the naysayers here have said. Hawkwind were getting a bit too metal by this point. I'd loved them with Turner and Dead Fred on the 'Earth Ritual' tour - I thought Fred was Simon House (I was newish to the band then) and Nik was brilliant. The liner notes of this Atomhenge remaster of 'Chronicle' claim that fans and the music press (who cares about them, right?) weren't happy with his antics, but as far as I can see, it was probably Alan Davey who instigated the anti-Nik feelings. He was, after all, the new boy with the lemmy fixation ('Who is this dwarfish Kilminsterite' I thought when I first saw him on the last tour with Nik before the 'Elric' tour, '...and why is he so metal? Hawkwind are psychedelic spacerock, man!').
So for the record, for me, Nik's departure in '85 was the end of the band as a true creative force. 'Levitation' had been great because it had featured world class musos Ginger Baker and Tim Blake - and Huwie Bach was on form too, but 'Sonic Attack' had mostly been dull synth-metal. "Choose Your Masques" was much better due to there being some decent Moorcock and calvert material on board, plus Nik was around a bit too. But the arrival of Davey added to Brock letting Huwie ruin his own vocal melodies live and get way too busy on the guitar solos tended to edge Hawkwind further towards a sloppy metal mess - and not a swirling one like in the days of Space Ritual, but a dull one. Bainbridge has never been a first class synthesist - put him up against Blake, Simon House or Richard Barbieri (Japan/Porcupine Tree) and he's predictable and nowhere near virtuoso level...and I tend to agree with Ginger about Harvey's basswork too - it's just not very inspiring. Pity he got shoved off the bass to fit Davey in though....
As a huge Moorcock fan (during his last commercial heyday in the 80s, fantasy readers used to travel many miles to speak to me about the man's work in the bookshops I managed -and I hosted three signings/readings with MM himself back in those days), I've always seen 'Black Sword' as a missed opportunity. I should say that the remaster from Atomhenge is much better than the original CD and vinyl, so it's a must. The problem is with many of the songs - they're just too monolithic and conventional, the kind of thing iron Maiden would come up with on an inspired day (this is damning with faint praise by the way). The synth instrumentals were the highlights of the live shows and are on the CD too - 'Shade Gate' and 'Pulsing Cavern' are lovely mini-masterpiece of 80s ambient and although I love Dave Brock's folky, nasal voice, 'Song of the Swords', 'Elric the Enchanter' and 'Horn of Destiny' do tend toward the leaden and dull. 'Zarozinia' plods too much, 'The Demise' and 'Chaos Army' are filler designed to give the listener an idea what some of the stage show would be like, but 'Sleep of a Thousand Tears' is fabulous, a track worthy of inclusion on the last important Hawkwind album ("Choose Your Masques"), but then it sets a great Moorcock poem to music and doesn't outstay its welcome. 'Needle Gun' is good fun, referencing Jerry Cornelius, of course (Like Elric, another avatar of The Eternal Champion) and one of the few more metally Hawkwind cust of the era I like - it does remind me of 'Kings of Speed' from "Warrior on the Edge of Time" (the REAL Eternal Champion Hawks album) in tone and feel...and 'Speed' does of course reference Cornelius too, as 'Mr C' and 'take a tasty trip on Frank and Beesley's Rocket Ship' in the lyrics. If you don't know what this means, go and buy 'The Cornelius Quartet' by Moorcock NOW. It's essential reading for all fans of 1970s Hawkwind.
Another highlight is Huw's 'Sea King' which at least moves the narrative forward very well in song form, depicting the chapter in 'Elric of Melnibone' when our anti-hero's cousin Yyrkoon chucks him overboard a ship. As all serious Hawkfans know, Huw wrote other songs for the Elric show which didn't make it onto the studio album - shame, as they are much better than Brock and davey's contributions. 'Dreaming City' and 'Moonglum' both appear on 'Live Chronicles' (the CD of the two London gigs that closed the Elric tour) and they're both excellent. When I'm playing Fantasy Albums in my head, I have visions of replacing the latter part of 'Elric the Enchanter' and 'Horn of Destiny' with studio versions of these tracks. Shame there are no studio versions.' Moonglum' in particular has a great melody and lyrics, brilliant stuff, Huwie!
So, the ideal version of this album doesn't exist. What it needed was Calvert on board to improve the lyrics, a different bassist and keyboard player and a bit of violin to broaden the sonic palatte - Hawkwind had stupidly by now dropped acoustic instruments altogether, which limited their tone colours and made them seem lumpen and dismal; 80s synths were no match for 70s analogues and acoustic instruments clashing against the electronic ones. There's no virtuoso or stylist here - no House, Turner, Blake- so it;s all a bit plodding overall.
Bonus tracks: 'Arioch' is Davey-penned and fast, but not exciting (check out Inner City Unit's 'Zodiac' from "The President's Tape" for a lesson in this sort of thing, Al), while 'Night of the Hawks' a tiresome tub-thumping anthem with very little meaning (but its nice to hear Lemmy there). The rest of the 'Earth Ritual preview E.P.' is excellent -'Green Finned Demon' is classic Brock/Calvert, lovely wordplay, but the best version is on 'The Business Trip Live'. But then whomever mastered the CD makes a MASSIVE error - the crossfade between 'Dream Dancers' and 'Dragons & Fables' has been removed and there's a track-gap silence instead. WHAT????
This is an outrage. The eerie, trippy 'Dream Dancers' (one of the best digital synth instrumental fillers Hawkwind ever recorded, up there with 'Berlin Axis') made a perfect, sublime overture to the sweeping yet light-footed majesty of 'Dragons & Fables', Huw's finest songwriting moment. Removing the crossfaded segue on the Atomhenge version means that the vinyl original remains essential, as does the first appearance of these tracks on CD (the 'Mighty Hawkwind Classics' EP compilation from Anagram). Shame, as the Atomhenge remaster of both tracks is excellent, but splicing the tracks into two has killed them for me. Argh!!!! I'm annoyed!!!
Maybe I'll compile my own version of the Elric saga as told by Hawkwind, using the best bits of this CD and 'Live Chronicles'. Overall, I'm glad I bought the remaster (cover art is lovely,better than the dreadful black and red of the original CD and more like the vinyl sleeve) despite my frustration with some of the songs, my eternal battle with the spirit of Alan Davey and the spliced 'Dream Dancers'/'Dragons and Fables'.
Stephen E Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Fantasy Novels', '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'