When I get my classic prog fix, I don’t tend to venture as far back as the ’60s, simply because it was a nebulous time for the genre and progressive music hadn’t evolved into all of its trappings that I do so enjoy. So this three-disc collection from the obscure and transient High Tide, whose recordings were all made between 1969 and 1970, felt like a gamble.
Slipping into the first album, Sea Shanties – the title alone gave me premonitions of a collection of folk songs – I can’t say I was impressed. The band’s sound was much heavier than I expected, sounding like a demented version of Iron Butterfly with fewer keyboards. The loose and chaotic nature of the compositions, combined with Tony Hill’s continually noodling guitar solos made it difficult to plant any kind of foothold from which I could appreciate the music. The second track, Death Warmed Up, was practically nine minutes of pure noise. I couldn’t take it.
The eponymous second album High Tide didn’t seem to hold any further fruit. My first impression was that it was insane that the eight-minute Blankman Cries Again could have a five-minute outro consisting of the same two chords alternating ad nauseam. I don’t even remember hearing The Joke the first time.
But then, incredibly, I was moved by the album’s third and final song, the 14-minute Saneonymous. The song starts off with High Tide’s typical noodling over a lolloping rhythm which continues for about four minutes. Whatever. The music suddenly came to a halt and launched into an entirely separate section in 5/4 with a melancholic theme that feels as powerful as if the world was ending. Holy shit!
Truthfully, what the band did next was an act of utter genius, as it comes out of doing something so counter-intuitive. Closing the 5/4 section we get… an almost identical repeat of the first lolloping section of the track, though with slightly different noodling. And after another four minutes, the 5/4 doomsday part repeats one more time. The feeling of déjà vu was so intense when that section started that I had to check my phone to see if the song had somehow played twice, but it hadn’t! This feeling had somehow brought me far closer to the song than I had expected, and the pulsating 5/4 rhythm seemed to go through me like a shockwave.
For the next several days, I played Saneonymous on repeat and realised just how great the lolloping section is as a build-up for the real action. I couldn’t believe that such a ‘simple’ track (A-B-A-B structure where A and B are completely unrelated) could move me so effectively. Indeed, part of the reason I was so stunned was that High Tide made no effort to hide the joins. Saneonymous was like an epiphany to me.
Finally ‘getting’ what High Tide was doing, I had the drive to rediscover the rest of their discography and – lo and behold – it started making more sense to me. The noodling interplay between the guitar and violin, the pitch-black heaviness and the bizarrely-composed tunes all started to come into focus and I could see this truly unique band for what it was. While it was evident that the group had refined their sound into a more sophisticated style between Sea Shanties and High Tide (a lot less crashing around aimlessly), the first album was a lot more interesting than I had given it credit.
Esoteric’s Complete Liberty Recordings box set contains no new bonus tracks that weren’t already featured on their 2010 editions of Sea Shanties and High Tide but instead moves them all to the third disc… except for one bonus track which remains on Disc Two. I thought this might have to do with space, but since the bonus tracks add up to roughly 70 minutes, there’s no reason they couldn’t all inhabit their own disc. Similarly, there’s no reason Esoteric had to change the running order at all, and it seems as if the third disc might just be a waste of plastic, and a way to make the box set appear ‘grander’. Would you even call a 2CD set a box set?
What the box set does add, however, is an excellent essay by Esoteric label manager Mark Powell, whose insight into the group seems to know no limits. With very little of the customary platitudes and handwavy storytelling, Powell gets down to brass tacks and states the dates and locations of the band’s recording activities between 1969 and 1970. This helps to give a more thorough appreciation for the bonus tracks, which seem faintly interesting without any context but come alive when you discover their origin. Most interesting and satisfying are the two recordings of the long and complex The Great Universal Protection Racket, which were recorded roughly a year apart for inclusion on each album but never made the cut due to time constraints. Each track’s recording date and location is made clear and it’s fascinating to hear the band’s earliest demos at the Beatles’ own Apple Studios, where the Let It Be album had been recorded just two months earlier. I doubt that High Tide was allowed to play on the rooftop, however.
Something Powell fails to clear up, however, is the confusing issue of what happened to High Tide in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Researching the group, I was shocked to see the band had six albums released between 1986 and 1991, with three released in 1990, including an album of old recordings entitled The Flood. Other commenters seem to think that these albums are of doubtful origin, and whether some of the tracks have anything to do with Tony Hill et al. Powell only mentions 1990’s Ancient Gates and The Flood in his review, which would suggest that the heavily synthesised 1986 album Interesting Times was created by an impostor. I suppose those albums have nothing to do with this set, but it would have been nice to have this history cleared up once and for all.
The box set also contains a reproduction poster which I have sadly not been privy to. Nor have I been able to inspect the illustrated booklet and artwork; instead of a PDF, I got sent a DOCX file which only contained the essay. I understand that sending digital files helps to cut costs and makes distribution easier, but it also impinges on my ability to be able to give a full review of a set, especially a reissue which features physical items. I don’t necessarily wish to be entitled to free CDs – though they are always nice – but at least send me some photos of the final product so I can have a sense of what I’m reviewing.
But whether the package is decent or not, the music contained within is some of the most mind-boggling proto-prog I’ve heard. It’s deep and complex, almost to a fault, but the nuances are masked by muddy production and an understated composition style that doesn’t initially draw you in. If you stick with it, you might have an epiphany too and realise just how innovative it is.
Disc One – Sea Shanties
01. Futilist’s Lament (5:18)
02. Death Warmed Up (9:09)
03. Pushed, But Not Forgotten (4:45)
04. Walking Down Their Outlook (4:58)
05. Missing Out (9:39)
06. Nowhere (5:55)
Time – 39:46
Disc Two – High Tide
01. Blankman Cries Again (8:27)
02. The Joke (9:29)
03. Saneonymous (14:30)
~ Bonus Track:
04. The Great Universal Protection Racket (Recorded at Morgan Studios, 10th April 1970) (15:46)
Time – 48:12
Disc Three – Demos & Studios Sessions 1969 & 1970
01. Pushed, But Not Forgotten (demo) (Apple Studios, March 1969) (4:06)
02. Death Warmed Up (demo) (Apple Studios, March 1969) (7:36)
03. Dilemma (Apple Studios, March 1969) (5:16)
04. The Great Universal Protection Racket (Recorded at Olympic Studios, 18th June 1969) (11:26)
05. Time Gauges (Recorded at Olympic Studios, 8th July 1969) (6:25)
06. The Joke (first version) (Recorded at Olympic Studios, May 1970) (7:46)
07. Blankman Cries Again (first version) (Recorded at Olympic Studios, May 1970) (8:27)
08. Ice Age (Recorded in 1970) (3:24)
Time – 54:30
Total Time – 2:22:28
Tony Hill – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Organ, Vocals
Simon House – Electric Violin, Organ, Piano
Peter Pavli – Bass
Roger Hadden – Drums, Piano, Pipe Organ
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings | Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 27th October 2023