Back in 2017, Esoteric reissued all of Tim Blake’s existing studio albums and I was there to review all of them… except one. I loved Crystal Machine and Blake’s New Jerusalem, found The Tide of the Century to be lacking in quality and was relaxed by the soothing sounds of Caldea Music II. As a completist, it irritated me thoroughly that I had not reviewed 1991’s Magick and I tried several times to request a review copy from Esoteric to no avail.
I suppose that irritation never really left me because as soon as the Crystal Presence box set was announced, combining Blake’s first three albums, I realised I could finally fill the hole in my set of reviews. Why Esoteric has chosen to end this collection at just three albums is beyond me; perhaps they’ll combine the three Blake albums released this century in another compilation. At any rate, I’m grateful for the chance to reassess the first two albums and finally listen to Magick.
My memory of the first two albums was that they were brilliant, so I was disappointed when Crystal Machine breezed by me on this relisten, a tepid set of electronica and new-age. Apart from the 7/8 bass riff in opening track Midnight, which I only noticed towards the end of the song, there was barely anything keeping me connected to the music.
Those who have listened to Gong’s impeccable Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy will be aware of Tim Blake’s talents, especially in his compositions such as A Sprinkling of Clouds, which glistens with his shimmering keyboards for half of its runtime before he’s joined by the rest of the band for a climactic finale. And that’s honestly the problem with Blake’s debut: the songs remind me so much of his work in Gong that I somehow expect some percussion or something to come in and spruce up these tracks. The tension that he builds in some of these pieces never gets released.
Blake has admitted that Crystal Machine was sort of made “by accident”, having recorded some of his live work and realising he had enough to make into an album. The success of this served as a springboard to make Blake’s New Jerusalem the next year. It’s a thoroughly more polished affair, with less electronic improvisation and more structure. Four of the album’s five songs have lyrics while the remaining track – Passage Sur La Cité (Des Révélations) – is probably my favourite of the whole set: a blistering instrumental with an intense shifting chord structure, a pulsating rhythmic bassline and Blake soloing on top. Play this on full volume and you’ll feel as if you’re tripping.
The tracks with vocals are fine, but again, not as good as I remember. Song for a New Age surprises with its guitar-based timbre and verse-chorus structure while Lighthouse and the epic New Jerusalem seem closer to Blake’s mission. As the longest track, New Jerusalem does have a satisfying amount of depth to it but it does feel as if more could have been done in the time, and the piece just fizzles out after a quarter of an hour. Meanwhile, the saccharine, major Generator (Laser Beam) feels almost like a comedy track. The B-side The Woodland Voice is included as a bonus track but is hardly worth a look-in, a tacet instrumental with a bubbling repetitive structure. Gone are the 35 minutes worth of bonus material that was present on the 2017 reissue of Blake’s New Jerusalem; Esoteric tend to strip the bonus tracks from their box sets, which is a frustrating practice because it surely wouldn’t cost them any more to leave them in.
New Jerusalem pushed Blake to greater heights and soon he found himself playing with Hawkwind. However, an incident where the band left him high and dry on the road made him quit playing altogether for several years. During the ’80s, keyboard technology evolved quickly; MIDI was invented during this time and Blake was eager to keep up with the advances, tinkering around with it. His new compositions were merely experiments but he was persuaded into making it into an album, filling it out with some older tracks such as Waiting for Nati. Thus he had once again made an album ‘by accident’.
It will come as no surprise that Magick is a far worse affair than the previous two albums, but it’s by no means a write-off. It’s a little disappointing to hear the very clean digital keyboard sound compared the the lush analog keyboards of the ’70s. As for the tracks themselves, they are mostly the aimless noodlings you’d expect for a Tim Blake experiment; I needn’t have held my breath for this release. One track, More Magick, is a mostly drone-based affair that seems to build over its eight-minute course, until suddenly a strong drumline erupts in the sixth minute, only to vanish just as quickly as it came. A little disappointing that this energy doesn’t go anywhere.
The lyrics on this album are more grounded than the science fiction of Blake’s New Jerusalem, but Blake’s voice seems to have deteriorated greatly in the intervening years. I was cringing hard listening to the drivel on the love-themed Tonight, and Waiting for Nati wasn’t much better.
Ultimately, I simply don’t vibe with Blake’s style. I think I’m a lover of ‘foreground music’, and it takes a true genius to make background music that also works as foreground music – think Gilgamesh’s Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Me Into. Blake managed to achieve a bit of what I’m talking about on his second album, especially with Passage Sur La Cité (Des Révélations) but I seem to lose interest in most of his work. It’s pretty, and perfectly listenable – I’m sure I could get a lot of work done with this in the background – but to me that’s lower than the standard I expect.
Esoteric’s box comes with a booklet that features one of the most galling introductions to an artist I’ve ever read, written by Ian Abrahams. Take a gander at this:
“[Tim Blake’s first two albums are] records that those ‘in the know’ might have. They’re albums that mark you out as not just a casual music buyer, not just a fan, but the sort of records the possession of which heralds you as knowledgeable, as an expert. You might not buy them at that time, but they’ll stick in your mind as you go through life and one day you’ll commit to them. The thought of them will haunt you until you do.”
What a load of hogwash. Even Malcolm Dome wasn’t this bad! I was almost put off reading the rest, but fortunately it is all very factual and interesting after that. I was a little confused by some of it, however, especially the recording of Magick, which apparently was recorded live in studio, but had been composed in MIDI. How does that work? The notes stop abruptly after Magick with Abrahams teasing the next part of Blake’s story as “for another time and place” which suggests that Esoteric might do a second box set soon with Blake’s remaining three albums. If I’m right, I suppose I’ll have to cover that one too as I haven’t heard Noggi ‘Tar yet…
Disc One – Crystal Machine
01. Midnight (6:26)
02. Metro / Logic (6:29)
03. Last Ride of the Boogie Child (7:53)
04. Synthese Intemporel (15:36)
05. Crystal Presence (2:05)
Time – 38:28
Disc Two – Blake’s New Jerusalem
01. Song for a New Age (5:14)
02. Lighthouse (6:47)
03. Generator (Laser Beam) (3:34)
04. Passage Sur La Cité (Des Révélations) (7:44)
05. New Jerusalem (16:19)
~ Bonus Track:
06. The Woodland Voice (B-side of single) (3:38)
Time – 43:13
Disc Three – Magick
01 A Magick Circle (7:05)
02 Tonight (6:38)
03 The Strange Secret of Ohm – Gliding (12:17)
04 A Return to Clouds (6:03)
05 Waiting for Nati (8:34)
06 A Dream (3:08)
07 More Magick (7:39)
08 With You (4:52)
Time – 56:12
Total Time – 137:51
Tim Blake – Keyboards, Vocals
Jean-Philippe Rykiel – Mini Moog (on Passage Sur La Cité (Des Révélations) & New Jerusalem)