One of the real perks of running Facelift Magazine back in the Nineties was having carte blanche to follow the paths of various bands and their musicians and often ending up somewhere entirely unexpected. Judging by social media posts in today’s fangroups, a decent percentage of Canterbury purists might well have been appalled by this divergence as the fanzine consequently gave column inches to the free jazz noodlings of the likes of Keith Tippett’s Mujician or the ambient/techno wigouts of the Orb. Really for me it was mainly taking the opportunity to appropriate some very fine music into the magazine whilst sharing the joy of following those links.
Somewhere along this route, I was privileged enough to get on the mailing list of LoLo records, a label set up by Bon Lozaga and Jim Loretangeli over in the States. As any Gong student will know, after Daevid Allen left the mother ship in 1975, the leadership, personnel and ultimately direction of the Gong band metamorphosed through various instrumental phases via Steve Hillage and Didier Malherbe’s stewardship, before ending up as a ‘Strasbourgeois’ orgy of tuned percussion led by Pierre Moerlen, the last one standing from the ‘Trilogy’ line-ups. The Pierre Moerlen strand continued until around 1981, adding his name as a prefix to the Gong name and under this monicker he continued to release sporadic albums over the next couple of decades until his untimely death in 2004.
Pierre Moerlen’s accomplices during this period varied, but certain key personnel kept popping up: principally bassist Hansford Rowe, but also brother Benoit (also on tuned percussion) and Mireille Bauer. Allan Holdsworth too added his signature soloing, not least on ‘Expresso’ from ‘Gazeuse’ and ‘Soli’ from ‘Expresso II’. With Mike Oldfield and the Stones’ Mick Taylor also cropping up on PMG albums, one could perhaps be excused in not seeing beyond the guitar of these stellar turns. So it was probably not until a brief flurry of albums on the LoLo label between 1993 and 1996 that I began to fully appreciate the work of Lozaga, who in terms of Gong appeared as early as ‘Expresso II’ but also appears as an integral part of ‘Live’, ‘Time is the Key’ and ‘Leave It Open’, primarily on rhythm guitar.
If you’ve come across any of the LoLo records, they’re most likely to be the ones which came out under the name Gongzilla, in particular ‘Suffer’ and ‘Thrive’. Both were percussive-heavy, heroically guitar-riffed and very fine indeed, reuniting the likes of Lozaga, Rowe, Holdsworth, and Benoit Moerlen. For me, however, I probably spent even more time listening to the two ‘solo’ Bon albums ‘Full Circle – Coming Home’ and ‘To the Bone’ – two highly polished guitar trio albums (with Rowe and drummer Vic Stevens) showing subtlety and expression alongside the expected driving rhythms. Both served to show what a very fine composer and soloist Lozaga is. I remember noting at the time in Facelift 16 that often Lozaga “takes Allan Holdsworth’s style, slows it down and manufactures it into something (even) more eloquent” – bold words indeed in retrospect! He also had an equal hand in the much more reflective ‘Project Lo’ (with label co-founder Jim Loretangeli) – an album which also never strayed too far from the CD player in around 1994.
And so a gap for me (in so many ways) through the Noughties, until, picking up on some old threads, or more likely revisiting those 2 Bon albums, I came across and sourced a third (or possibly fourth) solo album ‘Traces of Chaos’ in early 2017 (it had been released in 2016). This album possibly even trumped the other two, from the superb Hendrix-inspired pastiche “Gypsy King” (featuring credible Hendrixesque sounds, sampled spoken word recordings and a most unexpected flute solo outro), to the Mahavishnu cover ‘Can’t Stand the Funk’, to many sublime originals, most notably ‘Say What You Mean’, with its utterly beautiful melody closing the album out in a stately manner. However, nestled in amongst what is essentially an album which is easy on the ears (in a positive way) are a couple of almost incongruously brutal numbers called ‘Controlled Chaos’ and ‘Schoulars Bend’. Both of these took some of the thunderous drive of Gongzilla and metalled it out even more, in a high-powered trio format incorporating bassist Ryan Martinie and drummer Mitch Hull.
Which brings us to Soften the Glare. ‘Controlled Chaos’ in particular turns out to have been a spoiler for ‘Making Faces’, the debut album by the band, On the face of it Soften the Glare could be seen as being predominantly a vehicle for the rather talented Martinie – it’s him doing the press interviews, stripping down to a pair of shorts for most of a burgeoning video archive, and generally strutting his stuff in both sonically and visually. Whilst it’s true that Lozaga definitely solos for the band less than for albums under his own name, that shouldn’t belittle his impact. The band’s calling card is the rolling out of his consistently filthy riffs, delivered nonetheless in a pristine manner which should not be a surprise to anyone who heard the superbly production values of the Gongzilla albums.
True, it’s Martinie’s hammerblow bass which provides the intros and driving forces to 2 of the showpieces of the album ‘Mission Possible’ and ‘What Chandra Sees’, but elsewhere there are some quite ridiculously complex compositions – ‘Turn Around’ or ‘March of the Cephalopods’, in particular. The latter is videoed here and is mighty impressive, grin-inducing in its sheer bloody-mindedness and might win you over straight away, but if not, head for ‘Segue’. ‘Segue’ appears to be a cover of sorts of ‘Into The Sun’, from Bon’s first solo album ‘Full Circle – Coming Home’ but if you are expecting the beautiful central guitar melody, one of that album’s highlights, prepare to see it obliterated by an equally memorable but quite unseemly riff. This shows the band’s other side – gorgeous lush sounds, subtle moments, just waiting to be ripped apart by those killer guitar chords. Bon even pulls out one of his meticulously crafted solos here.
I’m still working through this album and appreciating its many virtues – the funked down and discordant rhythms of ‘Happy Weird’; ‘or Conscious Sense of the Present’, with tuned percussion effects – this should probably have been given the name of the next track ‘All Mixed Up’ as it jumps through a variety of different grooves, including some quite cheese-curling Casiotone melodies. But on the whole this album is a tremendous, powerpacked romp which I’m happy to say was my first purchase of 2018. I hope the rest of the year is as much fun…