Saturday, November 24, 2012

The 90th One - Review Special

Meanwhile Gardens by Levitation
Meanwhile Gardens by Levitation

As my regular reader will have noticed, I was currently playing my way through my upstairs record collection; starting at A and going all the way to the Zutons. I got to C, found my way to the extraordinary album by Cradle called Baba Yaga and figured I'd stick a link to the best song on the album on my social networking sites. This simple You Tube search set the tone for the entire week (and, no, I haven't made a mistake at the top of this page).

Chloe's Room is a strange one. It's about 16 minutes long and is pretty much a folk/acid/prog track. It is the outstanding track on Baba Yaga and suggested that the man behind Cradle, the utterly bonkers Terry Bickers, was something of an old hippy. Finding Chloe's Room proved to be almost impossible and the only thing I could find on the entire interweb thingy was the entire album on You Tube. Thanks to my extraordinary powers of observation, the recommended watches on You Tube included something called Food for Powder by the mighty Levitation and something I didn't know existed.

Levitation was the short-lived Terry Bickers project after he walked out on The House of Love (yes, that's where you've heard of him) and he famously split the band up after a gig suggesting the band had lost it at a time when it was clear they were just about to become one of the best bands in the world; the music press loved them, even if some dared to suggest they were actually more influenced by prog rock than anything else. I had to be content with just two albums - Need For Not (the only official album) and Coterie (an album of b-sides, extras and out-takes that was actually released before NFN) and a large hole in me.

If I had to sum up decades of my life by bands, the 60s was probably The Beatles, the 70s was Genesis, the 80s was Talk Talk and the 90s would be a struggle between The Verve, House of Love and the mighty Levitation. I'm inclined to think on overall output that Levitation would just scrape in as the winners - that's how important this band were to me. But they disappeared, Bickers did odds and ends but apart from Cradle most of it was meh and because of Cradle I discovered there is another album, that was never released. except there wasn't just one album, there were two...

For me, finding a lost Levitation album could only really be matched by a new Talk Talk album and I frantically searched the net for some idea of what Meanwhile Gardens actually was, only to discover there were two versions of it. The original version with Bickers on vocals and a different version with another vocalist, dragged in after Bickers threw his toys out of the pram.

I found a blog. I found a link. I downloaded an album that I can't buy. Then I downloaded another album I can't buy that was the same but different.

Meanwhile Gardens (1): Despite being press darlings in 1993, the fact it took me 19 years to discover this album even existed suggests that Levitation were not commercially viable, which might suggest why this album was never released. That's a massive shame because even though this album is clearly not the finished article, it showed just where the band were going and they were going 'Prondie'. If Talk Talk were the innovators of Post-Rock, then Levitation were the innovators of Indy Prog and even if bands such as Blow Up Hollywood have never heard their stuff, then their influences must have been seen in other bands.
This is a monster of an album - not in size, but intention. It starts off like an indie shoegaze album but quickly morphs into something different. Bodiless, Greymouth and Food For Powder are all pretty generic and the kind of thing you imagine Levitation doing but not making the finished cut; but once Gardens Overflowing starts you realise you've just wandered into wonderland.
If you got lulled into the sense of disappointment by the first three tracks, the next 6 bend you over and give you a damned good fucking. Prog pop meets indie brilliance meets something altogether new. King of Mice, Going Faster, Magnifying Glass are all massive tracks; long, sprawling and resonating with menace and passion - Going Faster possibly a single, but also classic Levitation, which best sums of King of Mice as this could have featured on any album and been a highlight. Twice is an instrumental that just barks at you and makes you wonder why they didn't do more and the actual album ends with the sublime Burroughs, possibly one of the best tracks ever written by anyone anywhere.
The album is completed, as such, by three tracks that were recorded at the studio but never got further than instrumental tracks - Heavy Roller, Unknown and All At Sea are all unique, not like you would imagine from a band with the sensibilities they have and possibly a hint at where the band might have gone had their leader not been a bit mad.
Obviously, knowing me, this album has been on heavy rotation since I downloaded it. It's in the car, it's in the office and I'd have it in the bog and bedroom if the wife would let me. it has a few weak spots, but it is like finding an orgasm I forgot about 20 years ago and reliving it over and over. 9½/10

Meanwhile Garden (2): After Terry Bickers left the band, the remaining members figured they had a future, even without their master. They did, they became Dark Star and had their own flirtation with success. However, they went back into the studio and re-recorded a lot of the above album with a new singer, Steve Ludwin, and this version was released in Australia and has since become something of a collectors item.
As a Levitation album it's not a patch on the above, but as a stand alone album, with some different tracks, it's pretty good. Ludwin is no Bickers in the vocal department (and that is damning him with faint praise as Bickers vocals sometimes leave a lot to be desired because they can seem so weak at times) and you get the impression that the gutsy tracks on 1 have had their balls removed by too much production. Take King of Mice, an atypical Levitation track which with Ludwin singing just hasn't got the power or the atmosphere and it suggests that Levitation were only brilliant because of Bickers and as hard as the rest of the band tried, without their god they were just another cult. 6/10

Things have moved really fast since I downloaded these on Tuesday. I have now discovered there is actually two versions of the first album - the summer and autumn versions. Whether these will ever be available or found on the net who can say (a quick search just kept taking me back to the forum where I first discovered this), but the history of one of my favourite bands has just got a whole lot murkier and after nearly 20 years of resignation, I'm excited at the possibility of finding even more tracks by them. That helps keep the legend alive!

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