Carmen – The Albums 1973-1975 [3CD Boxset]

Carmen – The Albums 1973-1975 [3CD Boxset]

A few months ago, I reviewed Patterns on the Window, a set that I hoped would introduce me to dozens of little-known progressive artists from the 70s – after all, it had ‘progressive’ in the subtitle. But as wave after wave of pub rock artists invaded my ears, I could see the pickings were slim and that the set did not truly live up to its name. Nevertheless, there was one artist in particular that stood out, buried somewhere near the end of the second disc.

At the time, the group’s story seemed so improbable to me that it beggared belief; an American band fusing flamenco and prog, who had settled in Britain but were singing about Spain. Did anyone have that on their bingo card? The music was so engaging, however, that it didn’t matter where they came from or what they were singing about. I was even more impressed when I independently discovered that the group had cracked Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time list, and had earned praise from Mikael Åkerfeldt. I had to find out more.

I’ve seen ham-fisted attempts by ‘greater’ bands to blend two wildly different genres together – Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra comes to mind – but in Carmen’s music, the two styles are inextricable. What you’re left with is music that sounds like nothing that has come before or since – not even Triana, the only other prog/flamenco act I can think of; interestingly, they only came to life as Carmen were prematurely snuffed out by circumstance. It’s so rare to hear a group that sounds as completely original as this and quite magical too.

I was an avid CD purchaser in the past, but I must admit I’ve succumbed to the ease and economy of streaming in recent years. Nevertheless, I will always want to own a physical copy of an album that’s truly special to me, so I began to hunt for reissues but was disappointed to find they only came in sad-looking bumper packs that housed two CDs in one jewel case. The band’s third and final album was awkwardly bundled with singer David Clark Allen’s 2006 solo album Widescreen and the two albums could hardly sound less similar. This was hardly the reissue treatment that such fine music deserved so I resigned myself to streaming.

As if Esoteric had heard my woes, they announced a new Carmen boxset soon after. Incredible timing, I must say! I was looking forward to fresh remasters and full artwork restoration but more importantly, I desperately wanted to read the accompanying booklet, as there is so little literature about the group online. Steve Pilkington’s essay does the group justice and goes some way towards explaining just why these musicians were playing such a bizarre flavour of music. It turns out that the three Americans of the group, David Allen (not to be confused with Daevid Allen), sister Angela Allen and Roberto Amaral were all Latin Americans who were trained in flamenco in the first place, with David explaining that his parents were both established flamenco performers. It runs in the family!

The first album is sublime. Beginning with their three-part anthem Bulerias which puts the Spanish language and flamenco themes most prominently, you can tell you’re in entirely new territory right from the get-go. The 6/4 time signature – common to flamenco – is predominantly used on their debut, which of course lends itself to prog as well. Castanets are also used to enhance the flamenco feeling but there’s also an instrument that I had never heard before – footwork. This rhythmic stamping is one of the staples of the genre and Carmen would mic a fake floor in the studio and live to incorporate this into their music. Combined with Paul Fenton’s dizzying drums, the polyrhythms are truly mesmerising.

I must admit, for a group of people who don’t come from Spain, they certainly seem obsessed with it. The second song on Fandangos in Space is literally called Bullfight while the lonely house in Lonely House is situated in Madrid. Side 2 has a track that is brazenly titled Tales of Spain which mentions the Inquisition; did anyone expect that? But the Spain depicted in Carmen’s music seems more like a place of legend than a real country as there are plenty of mentions of myths, gypsies and curses. How about a track about tapas or paella? Even if the subject matter is outlandish – and let’s face it, when is it every ordinary in prog? – the group’s commitment to the part and taking it seriously is what keeps the music so engaging.

The tracks on Side 1 are more self-contained and are perfectly decent mini-visions. While Bulerias and Bullfight provide a strong opening for the group, Side 2 is where the real meat lies. It’s not explicitly written as a suite, but repeating themes such as the guitar break Por Tarantos and the Retirando choral section make it difficult to listen any other way. Looking at the Wikipedia article, there’s also some discrepancy about where each track begins and ends and – with Esoteric’s mistreatment of Fruupp’s The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes in mind (and failure to rectify, I might add) – it’s not unlike them to make mistakes. Looking Outside (My Window) opens by stealing a few bars of the Bulerias theme, showing the band are cognizant of their best musical ideas. It’s interesting enough to get you hooked, but the shifting metre in the song’s verses will make you stick around. For my money, the title track has the best themes overall, with extended 6/4 breaks that incorporate previous themes, including a climactic rendition of the Bulerias theme. It’s a powerful conclusion to a stunning album.

It’s unclear whether their follow-up Dancing on a Cold Wind was released the following year, 1974, or in early 1975 as sources differ. “How do people normally find a definitive answer?” I wonder. The date is slightly important as I wondered if Carmen were trying to copy Camel’s success of manipulating a cigarette packet into an album cover, which they had done earlier in 1974. In Carmen’s case, the band modified the French brand Gitanes whose name literally means “gypsy women” and features the silhouette of a gypsy woman dancing with a tambourine. Whether this was influenced by Camel or purely a coincidence, it’s still an interesting album cover that ties nicely to the music, although by prog standards it’s a bit cartoonish.

I thought I had heard it all when I gave Fandangos in Space a spin, but the first track of Dancing on a Cold Wind had me obsessed; I couldn’t stop playing Viva Mi Sevilla for several days. A spiritual sequel to Bulerias, a lot of the same lyrics are carried over from the band’s anthem. However, these are used more sparingly, with most of the track’s six-minute runtime dedicated to instrumental work. The first two minutes feature a tension-building intro that steadily builds in volume and instrumentation, featuring more of the band’s iconic footwork. After the defiantly proggy verse, the band conclude with a hard rock jam that features some of the heaviest use of a cowbell I’ve ever heard; Blue Öyster Cult, eat your heart out! This climactic section is perhaps the best showcase for legendary bassist John Glascock, whose fuzzy licks are very prominent in the mix and reminiscent of Chris Squire. Glascock would go on to join Jethro Tull after Carmen folded before tragically passing away in 1979.

The sheer strength of Viva Mi Sevilla rendered the rest of the album dull to me on my first listen. Truly nothing made my heart palpitate quite like the thumping beat of that finale, and it was disappointing to be chasing that high only to hear nothing like it on the remainder of the album. But I persevered and eventually grew to enjoy these tracks. For example, I’ve Been Crying seems quite straightforward and monotone for the first couple of minutes but eventually veers into adventurous territory with a shifting tempo.

Earlier, I mentioned how I was looking forward to fresh remasters of these albums, because I had mistakenly assumed that Esoteric’s reason for reissuing them would be to improve on the existing versions of these songs. Disappointingly, however, these tracks don’t sound different to what has been previously available. Evidence of a poor transfer is strongest on Drifting Along which features several quiet bits; every time the track gets quiet there’s a rather noticeable hiss which seems like evidence that this album (and possibly all three albums) are vinyl transfers. Are there really no master tracks available? How could this happen to such great music? It just makes me sad. I feel as if AI should be able to help clean up the sound, but it seems as if Esoteric haven’t even gone to the trouble of doing that.

Also hissy is the album’s second side, this time an actual suite titled Remembrances (Recuerdos de España). While most prog suites have vague, esoteric lyrics that are open to multiple interpretations, there’s not much room for imagination on Remembrances, which tells the story of a gypsy prostitute who falls in love only to be betrayed. Interestingly enough, the story is told in the 2nd person, making the listener the protagonist of the story. The opening part, Table Two for One, imbues the main character with rather disconcerting attitudes towards prostitutes:

Just a look in her eye lets you know what she’s been all her life,
But you don’t give a damn ‘cos your not out to look for a wife!

Eventually, you meet the girl again, fall in love with her due to even more questionable reasoning and then leave her on her wedding day. It turns out you’re a bit of an arsehole in this story. According to the liner notes it’s based on the Petenera which is a myth in Spain that I happen to know nothing about. As for the music, there are good themes here and there and the suite hangs together okay, but at nine parts long, the suite feels too piecemeal to be very cohesive. Some extended instrumental breaks would have done wonders for this suite.

I was put off from hearing Carmen’s third album The Gypsies for a long time; given its low-ish ProgArchives score and slightly bawdy album cover, I presumed this would be Carmen’s very own Love Beach where they completely sold out. In fact, it is a very different album from what came before, but it’s far from awful. This final outing from the group came after they had completed a tour supporting Jethro Tull in the United States and apparently didn’t have enough money to make it back to the UK. Luckily, they were able to record a new album in Massachusetts.

The album begins with the familiar strum of acoustic guitars, similar to Viva Mi Sevilla but abruptly takes a turn into more standard rock territory, albeit enhanced with a 3/4 time signature. Indeed, the group’s quintessential flamenco stylings are largely vacant from this album, making it sound like a different band altogether, even though the same five members are all present. It’s quite a shock to hear this once-unique band play something that’s closer to the light prog/art rock of Jonesy. I’m especially reminded of that particular group because of Angela Allen’s expressive use of the Mellotron; the poignant, melancholic Joy would definitely fit on one of Jonesy’s records.

While the music here is pretty tame compared to their previous stuff, there are nuggets of brilliance to be found. For example, the largely acoustic Dedicated to Lydia is deceptively simple but only reveals its hand at the end as the bass and drums come in to count out the only 7/8 time signature I have heard in the entire set. Unfortunately, this part fades out far too soon; why only bring the other members in for thirty seconds of a song? It forced me to listen again, however, and realise that there are many more metre changes than meet the eye (or ear?). At the very least, none of the songs are boring; every one of them is infused with a modicum of innovation and drama, and it’s interesting to hear David Allen’s personality.

The highlight is undoubtedly the title track, which falls squarely in the prog category but contains references to gypsies and is played predominantly in 6/4 time. Months of playing with Tull must have rubbed off on the group as Allen’s singing style seems close to Ian Anderson’s here. A pulsating bridge builds to an exciting three-minute outro that sees a dazzling interplay between all the instruments over a set of repeating power chords. David Allen solos away on the guitar while the rhythm section of Glascock and Fenton count to 6 in a myriad of permutations. It would have been amazing to witness this live.

The set also includes a clutch of bonus tracks that were mainly released as singles. Quiriquitu is a little unbearable with its plodding rhythm and annoying chorus melody that is repeated ad nauseam in the fading outro. The low audio quality Out on the Street seems too long to be released as a single track at over six minutes but has a surprisingly heavy outro that is worth sinking your teeth into. Flamenco Fever is the song that introduced me to the group and is delightfully weird and un-straightforward; just the sort of thing that makes you look into a band some more.

The weirdest track, however, is Only Talking to Myself which doesn’t seem to belong anywhere near these albums. It’s immediately evident that a drum machine is being used; this is not an artefact from the 70s, and yet the booklet gives absolutely no information about this track. I had to go straight to the source to find out more: David Allen told me that Angela wrote the song in the summer of 2006 as a tribute to Glascock and sang the vocals while collaborator Laurence Lush created and played the arrangement. Calm and relaxing in nature, it provides a stark contrast to the rest of Carmen’s music. I don’t mind its inclusion with the set, but the lack of any notes in the booklet is a huge oversight by Esoteric.

While it’s fantastic that Carmen are getting a new retrospective box set that will look better on your shelf than the previous CD reissues, one can’t help but feel as if this is yet another slapdash job by Esoteric. Although Pilkington’s essay is a great introduction, there is a lot of ground left uncovered. A few more photos of the group in their heyday or some posters would have been nice to see. The booklet also has glaring errors such as the title of the second album being written as Dancing in a Cold Wind. The bonus tracks are given no context or introduction; one of them wasn’t even written in the same time period. But what’s truly upsetting is the lack of a new remaster that this music so desperately needs. Esoteric have been content just to repackage the same three CDs that were reissued in 2007. Why do Nektar get to enjoy expansive 50th-anniversary remixes while Carmen and Fruupp – arguably more original groups – get the most paltry treatment?

As much as it pains me to vouch for this sketchy reissue, however, you owe it to yourself to own this music. Carmen are truly one of the most unique 70s bands I’ve ever heard and I’m astonished that it’s taken me – a dedicated fan of retro prog for 15 years – this long to find them. My peers sometimes question why I tend to review so many reissues and the answer is simply because I’m still not done extracting all the treasures from the golden age of progressive rock; after a decade and a half, I’m not sure I ever will be. The gems are still flowing but finding such a unique and engaging band all these years later came as a total surprise to me. Carmen were an excellent group; I just wish this box set did their legacy justice.

DISC ONE – Fandangos in Space

01. Bulerias (5:24)
02. Bullfight (4:18)
03. Stepping Stone (2:53)
04. Sailor Song (5:13)
05. Lonely House (4:07)
06. Por Tarantos (1:45)
07. Looking Outside (My Window) (5:08)
08. Tales of Spain (8:59)
09. Retirando (0:44)
10. Fandangos in Space (6:37)
11. Reprise / Finale (0:57)

Time – 46:01

DISC TWO – Dancing on a Cold Wind
01. Viva Mi Sevilla (6:04)
02. I’ve Been Crying (5:09)
03. Drifting Along (7:19)
04. She Flew Across the Room (1:32)
05. Purple Flowers (5:19)
06. Table Two for One (Zambra) (2:16)
07. She’s Changed (2:58)
08. Gypsy Girl (Caravan) (1:39)
09. The City (3:13)
10. Time (She’s No Lady) (1:25)
11. People Dressed in Black (4:06)
12. Dancing on a Cold Wind (2:12)
13 The Horseman (3:46)
14. Conclusion (She Changed) (2:13)
~ Bonus tracks
15. Quiriquitu (2:53)
16. Out on the Street (6:14)

Time – 58:11

DISC THREE – The Gypsies
01. Daybreak (5:08)
02. Shady Lady (4:02)
03. High Time (3:21)
04. Dedicated to Lydia (2:51)
05. Joy (3:44)
06. The Gypsies (7:30)
07. Siren of the Sea (3:52)
08. Come Back (3:51)
09. Margarita (3:15)
~ Bonus tracks
10. Flamenco Fever (3:29)
11. Only Talking to Myself (5:50)

Time – 46:50

Total Time – 151:01

David Allen – Vocals, Electric Guitar, Flamenco Guitar, Piano, Mellotron, Synthesiser
Roberto Amaral – Vocals, Vibraphone, Footwork, Castanets, Chimes, Percussion
Angela Allen – Vocals, Mellotron, Synthesiser, Footwork, Piano
John Glascock – Vocals, Bass Guitar, Bass Pedals, Synthesiser
Paul Fenton – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

Record Label: Esoteric Recordings | Cherry Red Records
Catalogue#: ECLEC 32873
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 31st May 2024

Carmen – Website (David Clark) | Facebook | Info at Cherry Red Records | Amaral Studio