There could hardly be a more enticing prospect to a prog rock fan than Centipede, the fifty-piece group that contained a veritable who’s who of distinguished early figures of the prog scene. Led by pianist Keith Tippett, whose previous albums I enjoyed greatly, the band also features members from many iterations of Soft Machine and King Crimson, as well as many others. Some notable members include Robert Wyatt, Ian McDonald, Karl Jenkins, Elton Dean and Mike Patto, just to name a few! The whole thing was produced by the one and only Robert Fripp, who was so busy with all of the logistics that he had no time to record his own guitar parts.
With this nexus point of so many prominent musicians established, I eagerly sought to purchase this album, but could not find a suitable reissue that I deemed worthy of my coin. At long last, reissuing titan Esoteric Recordings has swung by to fix this problem with their newly remastered version that features the original plain white cover used in the UK. The American version, released three years later, featured a rather hideous cover of exotically painted bottles against a garish yellow background; this artwork is included within the liner notes, although the back cover is unfortunately chopped up and cropped.
If the prospect of all of these musicians coming together seems too good to be true, then in a way it is. Hardly a fusion between the heady styles of Soft Machine and King Crimson, this is entirely the Keith Tippett show, a series of jazzy jams and haunting repetitious themes punctuated by freely improvised moments of dissonance or solos. There’s a structure to the thing, but it’s very loose, and some repeated themes last for ten minutes or longer. The dynamics range from just one member playing, to several – as in a regular band format, to seemingly the entirety of the group, creating a cacophonic mayhem that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Part One of the suite has to be the hardest to get into. The first seven minutes are very quiet, hardly representative of the album at all. The listener is then barraged with three full minutes of the band playing as loudly and dissonantly as possible. Every time I’m listening to this section with my headphones on the street, I wonder what people would think if they knew what I was listening to; “He’s a lunatic,” is what springs to mind. There are two further minutes of a frantic and frankly annoying theme before more avant-garde nonsense that takes up the remaining nine minutes of this side. I didn’t really want to continue after this point.
Fortunately, Parts Two, Three and Four are far more rooted in traditional rhythms and melodies, and the album becomes much more listenable and accessible as a result. There are some really great moments too and I like the subtle ways in which the preordained themes are linked through moments of free improvisation.
However, one starts to realise the drawbacks of having so many great musicians in one place. First of all, with so many people playing at once, with many doubling on the same instrument, it’s difficult to tell who is who and appreciate their contribution. Secondly, with so many of these musicians known for vastly more technical, tight compositions, it’s a little frustrating to hear them play the same basic themes over and over again. While Tippett’s feature-length composition is certainly an incredible achievement, it doesn’t quite feel worthy of the abundance of talent that was afforded to it. When one peruses the star-studded list of musicians, one hopes that the album will be greater than the sum of its parts; that sum is so high, however, that Tippett couldn’t possibly hope to outreach it.
This is by no means a bad album, however; Tippett’s singular vision is a monumental epic that has rarely been surpassed in the progressive sphere in terms of scale and grandiosity. I can absolutely see how this would float others’ boats, but for me it’s a bit heavy-handed and sombre. It’s a shame, really, because on paper it seems like it could have been so much more, but perhaps the reality is that too many cooks spoil the broth.
01. Septober Energy, Part One (21:44)
02. Septober Energy, Part Two (23:35)
Time – 45:18
01. Septober Energy, Part Three (21:17)
02. Septober Energy, Part Four (18:43)
Time – 39:59
Total Time – 85:17
Wilf Gibson (lead)
Ian Carr (doubling flugelhorn)
Mongezi Feza (pocket cornet)
Mark Charig (cornet)
Elton Dean (doubling saxello)
Jan Steele (doubling flute)
Dave White (doubling clarinet)
Karl Jenkins (doubling oboe)
John Williams (bass saxophone, doubling soprano)
John Marshall (and all percussion)
Roy Babbington (doubling bass guitar)
Keith Tippett – Musical Director