National Health - Playtime

Year of Release: 2001
Label: Cuneiform Records
Catalog Number: Rune 145
Format: CD
Total Time: 66:56:00

Since the advent of the compact disc, many record companies and music enthusiasts have delved deeply into their archives to unearth previously unreleased (and often unheard) works of artists either still performing or lost in the annals of music history. Latest among these is National Health, an English band from the "Canterbury school" that evolved from other such groups, including Soft Machine and the highly-praised Hatfield and the North. Playtime - which draws its name from an Alan Gowen tune - documents two dates from 1979 by the band's last line-up, including a show recorded in France featuring an additional guitarist.

The first four tracks feature the French date with guest guitarist Alain Eckert augmenting the line-up of (the late) Alan Gowen, John Greaves, Phil Miller, and Pip Pyle. "Flanagan's People", the first featured Gowen composition, opens the show at break-neck pace. Keyboardist Gowen drives the song with frantic chords and fireball fills, and guitarists Miller and Eckert trade solos like dueling shootists. The real stars, however, are bassist Greaves and drummer Pyle who always know exactly where they are in the song's structure and provide a sturdy musical foundation for the others to build on. "Nowadays A Silhouette," written by Miller, features Gowen's synthesizer tearing through a swing arrangement built around a seemingly endless set of chord progressions and key changes from Miller. "Dreams Wide Awake" (also by Miller) kicks out the jams with a nice ensemble riff, then Gowen, Miller, and Eckert face off in a three-way shoot-out. Again, not to be overlooked are Greaves and Pyle, who manage to get in some frenetic riffs of their own. "Pleiades," the only solo Pyle composition presented, starts off gently, but quickly becomes a Brand X-style jam, similar to "Malaga Virgen" (minus Percy Jones' insistent bass hook). The guitars take over the rhythm duties and Gowen, Greaves, and Pyle make the most of a keys/bass/drums trio arrangement. Miller and Eckert return for the song's final minutes, but their subdued leads seem more like accents than solos.

Then we're off to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania for the second show (minus Eckert). "Rhubarb Jam," a one-minute atonal sound collage, gives the group a chance to stretch out a bit, then segues into "Rose Sob," a tone poem written by John Greaves and Peter Blegvad, that features the only vocal on Playtime, courtesy of Greaves. From there the band dives headlong into Gowens' "Play Time," a Return To Forever-style heavy fusion workout. The RTF comparison is really driven home by the keyboard/guitar solos and duos of Gowen and Miller, who sound amazingly like Corea and DiMeola in their meatier moments. Greaves and Pyle, however sound nothing like Clarke and White, and it's the rhythm section's unique sound that makes "Play Time" much more than another RTF rip-off. The show closes with two Greaves compositions, "Squarer For Maude, parts 1 and 2." Part 1 resembles a highly-disciplined King Crimson jam and features some nice off-time ensemble interplay between Gowen and Miller. Unfortunately, some nasty static shows up here (probably occurring during the actual taping of the performance), but it only lasts for several seconds. In Part 2, each member of the band tries to out-solo each other within a dangerously incoherent arrangement, which then evolves into a wild (Moraz-era) Yes-style improvisation before screeching to a sudden stop.

Cuneiform Records is to be heartily commended for their fine work on Playtime. Every aspect has been handled as a labor of love, from the packaging and liner notes to the album's production by band members Miller and Pyle. Playtime is a fusion lover's dream, a wonderful archive of a once-great band, and a fitting testament to the memory of Alan Gowen. Another straight-in entry on my Top Ten list for 2001.

Flanagan's People (15:57) / Nowadays A Silhouette (6:32) / Dreams Wide Awake (8:18) / Pleaides (10:26) / Rhubarb Jam (1:17) / Rose Sob (1:46) / Play Time (9:38) / Squarer For Maude part 1 (5:11) / Squarer For Maude part 2 (7:51)

Alan Gowen - keyboards
John Greaves - bass, vocals
Phil Miller - guitars
Pip Pyle - drums
Alain Eckert - guitars (1, 3, 4)

National Health (1978)
Of Queues And Cures (1978)
D.S. Al Coda (1982)
Missing Pieces (1994)

Genre: Canterbury

Origin UK

Added: April 25th 2001
Reviewer: David Cisco

Hits: 837
Language: english


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