–Atomic Rooster: Death Walks Behind You (1971)

death-walks-behind

–Atomic Rooster: Death Walks Behind You (1971)

Remember the British pop band, Dexys Midnight Runners? If you’re anything like me, you may know them for one early-‘80s single, “Come On Eileen,” if you know them at all. But a casual search through their band-lineup history reveals an intriguing anomaly. During a brief period in 1985, a certain Vincent Crane became the piano player for Dexys Midnight Runners. I learned this information recently, and admittedly I was a bit flabbergasted. So, THE Vincent Crane, the iconic mad-genius organist and songwriter behind Atomic Rooster, the master of melancholy lyricism and avant-garde hard rock, was reduced to session-musician status? This factoid was a bit hard to swallow, but I also felt a twinge of pride in knowing that one of my musical idols was associated with an internationally-known pop act; also, it is personally heart-warming to know that the ultimately doomed Crane never quite gave up on his musical career during his dark end times.

Atomic Rooster is an oddly appropriate sort of band name for a uniquely brilliant and talented musician. Vincent Crane was one of the greatest keyboard players of the nascent hard rock, prog, and acid-rock scenes of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Somehow he managed to fuse the aforementioned genres and more (funk, blues, jazz) into the distinct and exciting musical statement that was Atomic Rooster. The Rooster was Crane’s baby, alongside his numerous house cats that he adored, but his internal demons were his overlords. Crane was described as a soft-spoken, sensitive soul who suffered from the same clichéd-sounding, self-destructive melancholy that dominated all the Keats, Poes, and Morrisons of the art world. But his internal torment was real, and naturally it shaped his music, lyrics, and personal life in ways that fans and outsiders can only speculate upon. He may have lost his battle to bi-polar depression, but the music he created on albums like Death Walks Behind You remains vital and very much alive.

Before delving into the album, a bit of background exposition is necessary. Crane first received some international recognition for his keyboard playing as a member of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown from 1967 to 1969. While with Brown, Crane met and was joined in the band by Carl Palmer; yes, THAT Carl Palmer, the legendary uber-virtuoso drummer, later of ELP and Asia fame. The band gained some attention due to Brown’s operatic, high-range vocals, and wildly eccentric and (literally) incendiary stage shows. Unfortunately for the Brown band, Crane had to be hospitalized after suffering a severe bi-polar episode, resulting in the cancellation of the band’s second U.S. tour. After having recovered, Crane left The Crazy World of Arthur Brown for greener (rooster-feeding) pastures, taking Palmer with him to form the first of many incarnations of the mighty Atomic Rooster. Bassist and vocalist Nick Graham joined them, solidifying the drums/organ/bass/vocals instrumentation for their debut, almost self-titled record, Atomic Ro-o-oster.

While not quite a commercial success in their native Britain, Atomic Rooster’s debut solidified the band as a leader in quirky, avant-garde progressive hard rock. The album featured the haunting single “Friday The 13th,” which included a lyrical theme of helplessness amidst a creepy stalker/killer scenario; the album also boasted the brooding ballad, “Winter,” an early glimpse of Crane’s autobiographical forays in melancholia. Crane, feeling the band needed a guitarist to fill out their sound, added Andromeda’s John Du Cann for the Rooster’s next album. Lineup stability wasn’t in the cards, however; Graham nearly simultaneously quit the band, leaving the band this time with a new guitarist but without a bass player. No matter, the ever-resourceful Crane solved the problem by overdubbing the basslines on his Hammond B3 organ via a combination of his left hand and foot pedals. Then in June 1970, Palmer left the drum stool to play with ELP. He ultimately was replaced by the very capable Paul Hammond. Du Cann promptly added vocals to his duties, and the personnel was set for one of the greatest hard rock albums of the 1970s.

Death Walks Behind You possesses that intangible sort of magic that only those rare albums ever attain. Perhaps the trite old adage about the stars (or chicken coops?) aligning perfectly applies in this case; or, maybe it’s just one over-zealous writer’s diarrhea-bran attack of hyperbole. Either way, the album is a bona-fide masterpiece of avant-garde hard rock/prog/acid, the kind of real-life musical trip that rings eternally in one’s mind. Not to imply that there’s anything at all wrong with either Atomic Rooster’s debut or Death’s excellent follow-up, In Hearing of Atomic Rooster. There’s not, but that doesn’t change the fact that Death Walks Behind You is considered the definitive Rooster album. These songs overflow with technicality and innovation but never lose their focus on memorable song structure – and catchy melodies. This equilibrium between prog self-indulgence and pop sensibility never waivers here, and the listener’s experience is made all the sweeter for it.

Take, for instance, the title track, which serves as both the album’s opener and “hit single.” Crane and Du Cann’s bouncy, syncopated main riff is simultaneously heavy and funky, a unique combination, to say the least. Du Cann’s cascading and galloping verse riff sounds aggressive and slightly jarring, which, coupled with the morbid lyrics, serves to make the quasi-funky chorus riff seem almost uplifting. “VUG,” by contrast, is a twisting, turning, noodling blast of a prog-rock workout. This instrumental sounds like the musical equivalent of a good old-fashioned wooden roller coaster; Crane and Du Cann’s frenetic riffs and solos intertwine in a seamless and hyper-melodic fashion. Bravo! “Tomorrow Night” features another deliberate and syncopated piano riff from Crane, though this time the band sounds even more unabashedly funky in a dark manner; Du Cann’s pristine mid-range vocals ooze with soul-drenched passion. On “Streets,” perhaps the Rooster best encapsulates their unique blend of heavy-yet funk-a-delicious riffs, proggy instrumental excursions, and infectious vocal melodies.

Side Two begins with the more straight-ahead Du Cann-penned hard rocker, “Sleeping for Years.” This reminds one a bit of what Steppenwolf might have sounded like if they took a few more years of piano lessons and practiced 10 hours a day. Next up is another song written by Du Cann, Can’t Take No More; and it, not coincidentally is another driving hard rocker. It brilliantly juxtaposes the straight-forward verse riff with some fleet-fingered harmonies and melodies from Crane and Du Cann. Crane also exemplifies his uncanny ability to play technical and progressive lines without sounding meandering or self-indulgent. That serves as a perfect segue into “Nobody Else,” a melancholy godfather of all future melancholy metal ballads. Crane’s minor jazz chords serve as the perfect underscore to his hopelessly depressed lyrical sentiments. “My whole world is falling down/my whole world is fallen down/couldn’t see/you’re only me/nobody else to blame/my whole world is gone away.” Chipper, that one. Then the track suddenly morphs into an up-tempo prog instrumental breakdown before returning to the ultra-dismal, though beautiful, main vocal melodies.

Then there’s “Gershatzer.” Really, what other way could Death Walks Behind You close than with a super-technical prog instrumental? The main riff, anchored by Crane’s distorted Hammond B3, sounds like a triumphant renaissance fanfare that is also very hard-rocking. In addition to the memorable main riff, the songs feature some of Crane’s most tasty and melodic piano and organ melodies, as well as some truly bizarre-sounding licks and special effects. Hammond also contributes a spectacular drum solo to this Roosterific extravaganza. It’s the perfect way to end a flawless album, and I believe Vincent Crane still would smile in its appreciation. R.I.P. Mr. Crane, you brilliant, mad keyboard genius. Your tortured struggles ultimately were not made in vain.—Jonathan Kollnot

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on October 27, 2016.

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