Sunday, March 4, 2018

Esperanto - 1975 - Last Tango

Last Tango

01. Eleanor Rigby 7:43
02. Still Life 7:27
03. Painted Lady 3:26
04. Obsession 4:33
05. The Rape 12:07
06. Last Tango 3:29

- Roger Meakin / vocals
- Kim Moore / vocals
- Bruno Libert / keyboards
- Gino Malisan / bass
- Tony Malisan / drums
- Raymond Vincent 1st violin
- Godfrey Salmon / 2nd violin
- Timothy Kraemer / cello

The line-up of Esperanto changed considerably for the third album. Keith Christmas had left for musical reasons and the band was looking for a more energetic frontman. They met this time in London and published some ads in the music press, including in the Melody Maker (Genesis had recruited Steve Hackett through that channel). Esperanto auditioned and took on board their next singer Roger Meakin. His special vocal timbre made him an ideal partner for Kim Moore, female singer recruited in the same way, as their voices blended perfectly. The recording of the third album took place partly in London and partly at the famous chateau of Herouville near Paris where Jethro Tull, Elton John and many others recorded in the seventies. The album “Last Tango” was produced by Robin Geoffrey Cable (engineer and producer, notably for Queen, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Elton John and Carly Simon). It was released in 1975.

This time, the group seemed to have found its musical and personnel equilibrium and the tour which followed was very successful. They played at numerous famous festivals, including Reading, Newcastle and Bilzen among other engagements. The band also had a residence at the Marquee: an Esperanto concert was automatically programmed every 10 to 15 days in the famous London club for several months. The European tours were also quite successful, with memorable concerts at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and at the Festival de Montreux (Switzerland), with PFM.

Although the band seemed to have found its cruising speed and success was obviously on the horizon (they were still in complete ignorance of sales figures), A&M did not renew their contract. Esperanto band members were flabbergasted as they knew their music had real appeal, particularly given the growing success of their concerts. One of the negative factors was that situation in England in 1973-1974. Following the oil crises, the cost of vinyl manufacturing increased dramatically (note that the weight of records fell substantially) and labels were tending not to sign new artists or take any risks in this very unfavourable period. It was also the time of the miners’ strike which lasted 9 months, paralysed the country and certainly did not contribute to improving the economic climate in England.

Esperanto was probably also a victim of it’s formula as, even with a reduced line-up on the last album, it still had eight musicians and  large technical staff who had to be housed, fed and watered. The cost of touring was very high and the technical problems linked to this sophisticated musical genre necessitated a lot of complex equipment for the era (difficulties of amplifying strings mixed with electronic instruments, etc.). The band was thus expensive to run and, as it is often the case, the law of immediate profits justified A&M’s decision and overruled artistic quality.

This rupture marked the end of Esperanto. Nevertheless, they left as a heritage three remarkable albums, all different and full of qualities that this beautiful re-release will allow you to discover or rediscover. Some people compared Esperanto to a band like ELO because of the two violins and the cello but it is clear that Esperanto’s repertoire is much more varied and inventive and that is has its roots in numerous influences, like its musicians.

We can only regret one thing: considering the talent of the musicians and their musical evolution, the group had probably not said its last word. Although several important prog rock bands had already produced their main opus back in 1975, the door was still open for many talented bands as it was the golden age of prog, which faded several years later.

Many years have passed and we should simply enjoy this re-release. After a decade of patient searching and efforts, you now have in your possession a rare testimony of the past. I hope you will have as much pleasure listening to it as the musicians had playing it in the early seventies.

For Esperanto's last album, gone is singer Keith Christmas (and to a lesser extent 2nd violin Tony Harris) and in comes the duo of Kim Moore and Roger Meakin. But the core of the group again remains intact, and still they don't find the need for a guitarist. With a disturbing artwork about a disturbed dancer, this album is even more impressive than the previous Danse Macabre. It was also recorded in the famous French studios of Hérouville, and does it ever sound like it. Read the excellent bio to see why this group stopped on top of their art.
Starting the album on one of the craziest version of Eleanor Rigby, the least we can say is that Esperanto starts all four wheel and eight cylinders biting the asphalt on the highway to your heart. But hat to say of the sublime Still Life with plenty of drama and intense string interventions. The weird Painted Lady is sonically sticking out of the rest of the album, but crazy little features (like those sardonic laughs) are making still not out of line. The stunning Obsession is another beauty of a track, even if playing on an easy-to-please terrain, but the execution is so immaculate and they're pulling all the right c(h)ords that it's close to perfection.

On the flipside, in comes the disturbing 12-mins The Rape, where the groups climbs up and down every alley of sanity with their string section and the lyrics referring to Manson's rape and murder Sunday afternoon ballads and we're hearing the Helter Skelter stolen to Eleanor Rigby's creators. The closing section of this epic is a lengthy crescendo, which allows to recuperate from the previous madness. The album-closing title track is indeed a tango, one that could've been sung by Queen, if it hadn't been for the string section.

Difficult to make a better album than this Last Tango, especially given the group's inhabitual construction of the group. While not perfect, I find few albums that I keep coming back to over the last 30 years and listen with such delight, even if the periodicity of spinning is down to a couple times per year. Much recommended.

Esperanto - 1974 - Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre

01. The Journey 10:13
02. The Castle 3:31
03. The Duel 7:03
04. The Cloister 5:28
05. The Decision 5:57
06. The Prisoner 7:25
07. Danse Macabre 1:58

- Keith Christmas / lead vocals
- Glenn Shorrock / backing vocals
- Bruno Libert / piano, organ, ARP Odyssey, harpsichord, vibes, backing vocals, arrangements
- Gino Malisan / bass
- Tony Malisan / drums
- Raymond Vincent / violin, arrangements
- Godfrey Salmon / 2nd violin, tenor vocals
- Tony Harris / viola
- Timothy Kraemer / cello

- Bridget Lokelani Dudoit / vocals
- Brian Holloway / guitar

Back in England, the twelve musicians met up again, this time in a castle in Wales, and started to prepare the next album. The band always had to meet in farms and castles because of the large number of musicians and of the logistic difficulties of gathering the whole crowd in London. The Welsh castle was of course haunted and its strange atmosphere permeated the music of what would become the band’s second album (featuring a track called “The Castle”). After several weeks of rehearsals, the group recorded the first tapes and made an acetate which they presented to A&M, but the project was rejected by the record company. The situation then became difficult in the band, Glenn Shorrock, hit by nostalgia, decided to go back to Australia (he was well inspired as he later became very successful, notably in the United States, with Little River Band). A&M then asked Peter Sinfield (poet and song writer for King Crimson and ELP, and translator of Premiata Forniera Marconi’s work – PFM) to produce the new album. Peter accepted and brought with him a new singer: Keith Christmas. Keith Christmas, who had a career as a solo singer afterwards, had a very different style and was more folk music oriented but he did take over from Glenn Shorrock as the frontman. A new demo was then presented to A&M with different or rearranged pieces sang by Keith Christmas (on the acetate it was Glenn Shorrock – there are also unpublished pieces on this re-release). This time, A&M endorsed it. The three singers were still in the band but they were soon to leave, as would Brian Holloway, which explains why these four members of Esperanto are not (even though they play on the album) in the picture on the backsleeve of “Danse Macabre”.

The second Esperanto record, “Danse Macabre”, was released in 1974. If, on the first album, the band was obviously in search of its style, with pop, rock, classical and progressive influences, this new opus was much more homogenous, progressive, with a quite brooding atmosphere… The Welsh climate and the haunted castle had a great influence on the musicians and permeated Esperanto’s music. It is worth noting that the album was released in France without the piece “Danse Macabre” as the Saint-Saëns copyright-owners refused to agree to its publication in that country. Peter Sinfield put so much energy into the making of this album that he later declared in an interview that he declined an offer to produce the first Supertramp album after the Esperanto experience.

Meanwhile, Esperanto’s and its managers were preparing the next tour. Magma (another A&M artist, then little know in England) was to be supporting act. The tour took the two bands to most of the large universities in Britain. Again, Esperanto had no information on the album sales and were never paid any royalties for it by the label. They had to rely on the success of the tours to evaluate their impact on the public.

Very much an improvement on their debut album, Danse Macabre is probably the result of the group's taking their destiny in their own hands. While there were much changes amongst the singing casts, the core of the group remained stable, becoming tighter and musically more interactive. Produced by ex-Crimson Pete Sinfield, this album goes through several states of madness especially when it comes to the string section and it is a concept album. Indeed Raymond Vincent was now leading a four-man string section that was used as the main lead instrument . Starting on the small epic instrumental The Journey a demented trip flying on violin bows and wild paces, we then reach a Castle, a short sung soft and slow track by Keith Christmas. Ensues The Duel, a wild fight between the concerned instruments and some exciting scat choirs and a slight early Crimson influence. The flipside opens on the ecclesiastic and Gregorian The Cloister, but it is all a show, because the track is certainly not as peaceful as its title would have you believe. After an unremarkable Decision, I suppose that the more interesting moments of the Prisoner (those dark slow brooding gothic moments mean that there s some yummy torture, with a little Arabian touch later. The short title track closes the albums with a very weird screechy, almost dissonant violin section showing all signs of losing its marbles musically as they're all over the place. Impressive but perfectible.

What an improvement over the previous album, but then again, wait until their final album to know how much better they could get. In either case, Esperanto's DM is an excellent trip through one of the most visited clichés in the genre. Almost as essential as its follow-up album.

Esperanto - 1973 - Esperanto Rock Orchestra

Esperanto Rock Orchestra

01. On Down The Road 5:00
02. Never Again 5:40
03. Perhaps One Day 4:35
04. Statue Of Liberty 5:00
05. Gypsy 6:35
06. City 4:06
07. Roses 5:10
08. Move Away 3:39

Bass, Flute – Gino Malisan
Cello, Piano – Timothy Kraemer
Drums – Tony Malisan
Guitar, Piano – Brian Holloway
Keyboards – Bruno Libert
Viola, Saxophone – Tony Harris
Violin [1st] – Raymond Vincent
Violin [2nd] – Godfrey Salmon
Vocals – Janice Slater
Vocals, Acoustic Guitar – Bridget Lokelani Dudoit
Vocals, Flute – Joy Yates
Vocals, Guitar – Glenn Shorrock

Esperanto is a language invented in 1887 by Zamenhof, who combined bits of various Romance language to make what he hoped would become a vehicle of universal communication. The Belgo-English band of the same name at the beginning of the 70s had a short but intense career and produced an extremely varied musical repertoire thanks to the many different nationalities, origins and outlooks of its members.

It all started at the end of ’71 when the Belgian violinist Raymond Vincent, leader of the Wallace Collection wanted to embark on a more adventurous musical endeavour (in spite of his surprising predilection for hard rock) after his band had broken up. After playing for a short period with Daniel (Dany) Lademacher and Roger Wollaert (who had left Kleptomania), then with Dirk Bogaert (of Waterloo), he got in touch with Bruno Libert who was completing his musicology studies and playing piano every night in Brussel’s theatres that were putting on “off Broadway” musicals, which were quite fashionable at the time. Raymond told Bruno about his new project and showed him some musical ideas. He also played him a promotional album, Metronomics, that he had written for an advertising campaign. The two musicians agreed to launch the project and started to look for other musicians. They discovered the Malisan brothers, two Italo-Belgians of the Mons area: Gino, bass player and Tony, drummer. They started to rehearse in the back room of a small cafe, wrote a series of new numbers and recorded a first demotape at “Cathy” studio in the Brabant Wallon region, owned at the time by Marc Aryan (Belgian singer successful at the beginning of the 70s).

The four musicians took their demo to England, where they met David Mackay who had produced the Wallace Collection and The New Seekers and later produced part of Esperanto’s first album. David was interested by the project and agreed to recruit more musicians in order to strengthen the line-up which was quite limited on the first demo (violin, piano and Hammond organ, bass and drums). Soon, he contacted Glenn Shorrock, an Australian singer who was living in London at the time and had left his group, the Twilights (note1). David also played a series of records from his collection to the musicians to try to find female singers. Raymond and Bruno were immediately convinced that Cliff Richard’s trio of backing singers would fit the bill. David set up an appointment with Joy Yates, Janice Slater and Bridget Dudoit (who had released a record under the name of Bones) and easily convinced them to join the group as they were quite enthusiastic. The band was also looking for a guitarist and  more string players in order to form a quartet. David Mackay found Brian Holloway, an Australian guitar player. As he regularly conducted recording sessions in London studios, it was also easy for David to assemble a modern–sounding string section, unlike Belgian strings which tended to sound more classical. A second violin (Godfrey Salmon), a viola (Tony Harris) and a cello (Timothy Kraemer) joined Esperanto and the first line-up was ready.

The producer rented a farm for several weeks in Cornwall and the twelve musicians, some of whom barely knew each other, or having just met, began to rehearse. The results were excellent. The group then moved to a farm in Houyet, in Belgium, to further work on the repertoire. They went back to London, and David Mackay took everybody to Morgan studios to record the first album. Several new pieces were written, among which “Black Widow” and “Publicity”, which would be released as a single but was not included on the first album. After the recording, the producer went in search of a contract. Polydor was quite enthusiastic about the music but, because of a small disagreement on contract details, the negotiations failed and the contract was never signed. In fact Polydor did invest in another group which had quite a career: Slade. Finally, after months of prospection and a meeting with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, a contract was finally signed for three albums with A&M. The first album “Esperanto Rock Orchestra” was released in 1973.

Contacts were then established with tour managers and Esperanto began a series of concerts, first in England, as supporting act for Sha na na (also with A&M at the time), playing gigs at the Roudhouse, the Shaw Theatre, the Rainbow, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, but also in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, etc. The tour was difficult to handle for the band, as the public of Sha na na was not really that of Esperanto and, in spite of an acerbic article published in the famous “Melody Maker”, which called them “pseudo-hippies”, it went on in Europe, this time with the Strawbs The band also made a series of live recordings for the RAI in Rome, Naples and Turin which were broadcast on the Italian television. Esperanto did however not know the sales figures of their album and had to rely on the reactions of the public to evaluate their success.

Even those unfamiliar with Esperanto Rock Orchestra will likely find something strangely familiar with their sound, although exactly what that is may be difficult to pinpoint. Hard to believe one of the main singers on this debut record (Glenn Shorrock) would soon be crooning out soft-rock hits for Little River Band ("Well I was born in the sign of water, and it's there that I feel my best; the albatross and the whales they are my brothers...").
The rest of the multinational lineup were relative unknowns, although cellist Timothy Kraemer had managed to land an appearance with the monster assemblage known as Centipede during their epic 1970-71 recording sessions for 'Septober Energy'. And several of the female backing singers had also backed Al Stewart; two of them would score a minor UK hit in 1974 by covering an old Phil Spector tune under the name of The Hooter Sisters.

Esperanto drew their name from their varied nationalities, ranging from England to the U.S. to Italy to New Zealand and Australia, although the band itself was formed by a Belgian and was briefly based out of that country before traveling to England in search of a record deal. This, their debut album, featured a large cast including at least three different lead singers, although the lineup would prove to be fluid both during the recording sessions and throughout the band's brief career.

The influences of the Broadway, pop, folk and classical music backgrounds of the various members are all apparent in the lush and varied production of this album. Attempting to genre label would be a futile exercise and also a mistake with this music, as it ranges quite fluidly across so many spectrums of classical and contemporary disciplines.

The opening "On Down the Road" is a fairly straightforward light rock number with Shorrock's distinctive voice reinforcing the commercial feel to the tune, but with violins, cello and piano that are not all that different than what ELO would probably have sounded like without Jeff Lynne. Undoubtedly this was intended to be the launching single for the album.

The band begins to branch out almost immediately though, following the opener up with the Janice Slater-fronted, slightly R&B-tinged "Never Again" before returning to the strong string accompaniment with another Shorrock tune in "Perhaps One Day". This one seems to have progressive rock ambitions, but doesn't quite pull it off and ends up sounding like a pop-rock tune with a heavily fussed-over instrumental arrangement.

Shorrock adds a slightly sappy 'go USA' tribute with the self-penned "Statue of Liberty" that really doesn't seem to belong here ("hey you, get out the way - anything can happen in the USA!"); but the band acquits themselves quite well by following that with a trio of loping, comfortable-like-your-favorite-shirt numbers in "Gypsy", "Roses" and "City", the latter two of which move away from the orchestral string arrangements in favor of a more R&B sound with prominent three-part female vocals, featured lead electric guitar and plenty of dance- inducing percussion that comes off as sort of a white 5th Dimension (maybe a little bit like Silver Convention without the disco beat).

Given the folk and soft-rock influences of several members (not to mention the presence of an acoustic guitar player, cellist, violist and both 1st and 2nd part violinists), it was inevitable the band would include a slow acoustic number as well, which they saved for the end of the original vinyl on "Move Away".

CD reissues of this album include three bonus tracks. "Getting Along" is a funky dance number, while "Waiting Till the Day" is pure soft-rock with some proggy accoutrements and more extended organ breaks than appeared anywhere on the original record. I'm not quite sure but I believe the one of vocalists here is Keith Christmas, who appeared on some of the demo tracks the band brought to England and who would become the band's lead vocalist for their second release 'Danse Macabre'. Shorrock remains the lead singer here as well though. And "Emma" is another slow tune with a twangy guitar riff and vocals that remind me quite a bit of the bands America and Home circa around the same time period.

The large lineup, classical-music-meets-Broadway sound of the band could be compared to a blend of bands like Carnegie, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the 5th Dimension. I'm not sure this really qualifies as true progressive music, but it is a good introduction to some of the more complex and ambitious work the band would employ on their next two releases. A decent record to have in your collection; not a masterpiece but worth picking up especially if you are a fan of strings with your rock music. Three stars and recommended to fans of representative eclectic progressive rock from the mid-seventies.