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9 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Stormcock' (Chrysalis)

Here's the one, if you are only casually acquainted with Harper, that his reputation is largely built upon. And why not - Stormcock is a stunning achievement, somehow feeling like the most complete and representative record of his career despite being only four long songs and almost entirely acoustic. What it's missing is the whimsy, the goofiness, which inhabits (or infects, depending on your POV) most of this other material. I personally like a little whimsy in my Harper, but Stormcock is so solid that I don't miss it. The three previous albums discussed here, while solid-to-great, still had their bits of filler (sometimes connected directly to the aforementioned whimsy), but there is not a trace of that here; it's as if every second of every song is perfectly placed, from the exaggerated reverberating twang of a stray guitar note in 'Hors d'œuvres' to the ripping solo at the end of 'The Same Old Rock'. And let's start with the latter song, actually. It's the one with Jimmy Page, famously guesting under a pseudonym, and their acoustic jamming pyrotechnics are brilliant, presaging Jugula by 14 years and with a much stronger composition than anything on that album. But there's so much more at play in 'The Same Old Rock'; it may encapsulate everything that is great about Harper. The delicate melodicism found in some of his signature songs (such as 'Another Day', 'Commune', 'Forever' etc.) is equalled if not surpassed; the way he starts singing ( 'All along the ancient wastes / the same reflection spins...') out of the slow guitar intro is like dawn breaking through the mist, and one of the more beautiful moments; the layered vocals and mild percussion comes in to separate the aggro riffage at the end from the rest of the song which always makes me think this is really Harper's 'Stairway to Heaven' (or 'Bohemian Rhapsody'). File alongside Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt or Fly?, and I wonder if this was an influence on Grubbs/O'Rourke. When one guitarist starts on this slightly middle-Eastern melodic riff (I assume Page), I always felt a bit like this used modal scales so seamlessly that it secretly revealed the whole album to be in the 'prog-rock' genre. Lyrically, it's an attack on religion and war, and Stormcock's first three songs feel predominantly to be addressing systems, structures, and other such big topics. 'One Man Rock and Roll Band' has some war imagery, made more stark by the flange effect on Harper's voice. I love this one too - the guitar is acoustic but the voice is electric, and the vocoder/flanger/chorus/whatever is a chilling complement to the natural timbre of his voice. When the piano chords show up, near the end, their thundering overtones are a perfect segue into the last track. Actually, studio production slowly creeps up slowly on this record, starting with the spare, minimal 'Hors d'œuvres' and building up to the David arranged 'Me and My Woman', where synths, horns, and other orchestral elements come and go around the maelstrom of strumming and singing. The drama is exaggerated at times (perhaps this is the album's take on 'whimsy' I was looking for) but it never cheapens things. It's huge, bringing matters to a close and ending almost suddenly, leaving an echo of headspace. If the man had a masterpiece, it's hard not to point to this one; it's a reputation justly deserved.

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