(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
Bill Bruford: Drums, Percussion
Allan Holdsworth: Guitars
Eddie Jobson: Keyboards, Violin, Electronics
John Wetton: Bass, Vocals
Here I am again, going against type. Normally, there's two types of bands I avoid like the plague:
B) Bands that are named after geographical locations
My experience has been typically that both types of musical endeavors are usually ridden with crass commercial machinations, merciless hype, over-inflated egos and cliched tripe that adds up to far less than the sum of it's collective experiences and talents.
Then every once in a great while, there comes along a collective of musicians of considerable talent and brilliance that completely goes against the norm and produces a brilliant set of music. UK was one such wonderful anomaly!!
For a wonderful moment in time, this foursome produced some of the most adventurous, state-of-the-art (for the time period) symphonic progressive rock that you were ever likely to hear. While certainly very technically gifted, UK did not let flashy grandstanding obscure great songcraft. Each piece has incredibly strong melody and certainly more than enough instrumental fireworks to satisfy the most rabid prog fan.
The standouts for me are the 3 part "In The Dead of Night" epic that opens the album, the tear-inducing "30 Years" (what I would call a "Kleenex Classic") and probably my absolute top fave "Alaska/Time To Kill". The "Alaska" portion works so well as Eddie Jobson conjures up vast pictures of a windswept, desolate, snow-covered landscape on his synths, giving way to a firey interchange between all four musicians leading into the harrowing survival tale of "Time To Kill". This is easily John Wetton's most wrenching vocal performance on the album.
Another highlight is Allan Holdsworth's interjections with extruded, otherworldly guitar parts that sound totally impossible! I personally remember hearing this album when it was first released and scratching my head saying "HOW THE DEVIL DOES HE DO THAT??". Throughout the whole album, he unleashes extruded silvery chords, death-defying legato melody lines and things that sound, like I said, totally impossible on guitar. Bill Bruford and John Wetton carry over the telepathic brilliance they cultivated as the King Crimson rhythm section quite beautifully here. Never a dull moment.
"Nevermore" is a great feature for Allan, ranging from beautiful and thoughtful acoustic flourishes at the start to haunting "guitar orchestra" passages in the opening verses and firey trade-offs with Eddie Jobson midway through. Best of all, the whole song develops so beautifully like a symphonic piece, with Eddie Jobson's colorful textural shifts and swaths holding your rapt attention.
"Mental Medication" is the one cut that didn't quite fly for me. It starts off beautifully enough, with Allan unleashing some silvery, ghostly chord melody and a heartfelt John Wetton vocal introduces the song's theme. However, the whole piece takes on a rather stilted "pieced together" feel, with a lot of odd-meters and intricate passages for their own sake that don't make complete sense, in stark contrast to the beautifully written musical sentences throughout the rest of the album.
That quibble aside, this writer is of the opinion that UK's debut album is an essential part of your library, a display of unabashed brilliance, and sadly, a sort of swan-song, one last moment of brilliance before the forces of crass commercialism took their toll and told those of great talent they were no longer wanted around. Play it loudly, play it proudly!! Let the naysayers be served notice that real talent still counts for something!!!
U.K. is not the first or last supergroup in prog rock: from ELP through Transatlantic, the supergroup has always drawn considerable attention, if merely for the promise of the project’s potential. Formed in 1977, U.K. was comprised of prog rock stalwarts of exceptional pedigree: John Wetton and Bill Bruford of the recently-disbanded King Crimson, Eddie Jobson (formerly of Roxy Music), and Allan Holdsworth, fresh from Bill Bruford’s solo debut Feels Good to Me. Through the lens of hindsight, this line-up was obviously highly geared and cause for enthusiasm, and the tension between Bruford’s and Holdsworth’s near-jazz fusion leanings, and Jobson and Wetton’s pop-rock sensibilities only increased the power of the mix. U.K. does in fact contain some noteworthy performances, and if Jobson gives the recording its most unique, recognizable sounds, nonetheless it is Allan Holdsworth who deserves the laurel here for exceptionally tasteful contributions and nuance.
The debut opens with what is basically a three-song suite: “In the Dead of Night,” “By the Light of Day,” and “Presto Vivace and Reprise.” From the outset the listening audience is placed firmly within the tradition and conventions of classic progressive rock. “In the Dead of Night” begins in 7/4, and is based on Eddie Jobson’s bright (maybe overly so) keyboard rhythm. Wetton and Bruford complement that rhythm well with some nifty accompaniment: subdued but hardly simplistic. Holdsworth’s guitar is fluidly present after the first verse, but the playing is largely understated, allowing Bruford and Wetton to propel the tune. The guitar solo in the bridge is exquisite: if this is the listener’s first exposure to Holdsworth’s playing, the response will be appreciation, and, depending upon that listener’s age, familiarity, as the swift runs and unbroken leads are the prototype for what will later be Edward Van Halen’s trademark style. One may wish the drums were a bit more forward in the mix, but overall the sound is full and the balance between the instruments and vocals is even.
The opening track segues without lacuna into “By the Light of Day,” a softer, more evocative counterpoint to the driving force of “In the Dead of Night.” Wetton’s vocals are plaintive, calm and very smooth, much like an uninterrupted day of routine existence. The keyboards wash over the closing instrumental section, and keep the song sullen, but only momentarily, because the suite transitions into the funk-beated groove of “Presto Vivace and Reprise.” Here Jobson’s key work dominates and moves with a grace and a gyre, and finally descends back into the reprised introductory riff of “In the Dead of Night.” The band fully honors the motifs of progressive rock in its initial offering, but there is a hint of the new: the entire suite has a slick, highly processed sound, and for that, feels a bit too sterile – first-rate musicianship slightly undone by a too-clinical production. (As an aside, one might recommend the slightly abridged version of this three-song suite on the Prog Day ‘98 CD, featuring the John Wetton Band: a more muscular, less tinny presentation with a welcome rawness and brawn.)
“Thirty Years” is the fourth track, and features Jobson’s lush but tempered keyboard atmospherics and Holdsworth’s touching acoustic guitar fills as the tone is set for the song: regretfulness, resignation, helplessness, futility. A pronounced chord change announces the start of Wetton’s lyrics – a very clean, very sad rendering of the words. Again, Bruford is somewhat buried in the mix, until the tune jumps into its second phase. Here the band moves with a renewed energy, riding a short passage into an almost sinister, threatening beat – Bruford’s playing is now quite evident in its suitability and controlled flair – and Holdsworth’s slippery, almost Steely Dan-like serpent-leads. This tune highlights what is appealing to prog fans throughout the album: tight, focused playing with highly melodic passages which never veer toward any sort of arena pomp – respectable and finessed music. Wetton also contributes to this by singing the complicated lyrical sections with skill and without bombast.
“Alaska” follows, with what is perhaps one of the more convincing introductions in progressive rock: the playing is sparse and barren, especially due to Jobson’s clever, poetic use of keyboard tone. He paints with sound the desolation of a formidable landscape which discourages survival. The introduction meanders but holds attention, and then erupts into a frenzied beat and Holdsworth’s jagged solo, abrupt in its EKG-like pattern. The vocals of “Time to Kill” come after a short delay, and are impassioned but without hysteria. In many ways, U.K. is Wetton’s supreme singing performance, if only for his fine control over some extremely irregular vocal deliveries and phrasings. Jobson lets loose in “Time to Kill” with his first significant violin solo: it is impressive especially with its final wind-swirl into the returning vocals. In fact, it is in the violin passages that one best sees the band’s mastery of the material, and those passages often are preferable to the keyboard work.
“Nevermore” starts with more of Holdsworth’s flamenco-speed acoustic runs, beautiful and haunting (in a fashion similar to Howe’s acoustic style in Yes, at times, but less angular), but moves again into a pseudo-Steely Dan sound, featuring some very nice cymbal work from Bruford. The vocals again are tricky but well-sung. Jobson’s keyboard fills aren’t well-fitted to the song, especially as counterpoint to Holdsworth’s soloing; the keys again sound too synthetic. “Nevermore” is the weakest song of the recording, and (perhaps not coincidentally) seems most to foreshadow the emergence of Asia. The eerie keyboard at tune’s end is uncomfortable and unsettling – slightly psychedelic and paranoid – but soon converts into an easier cadence.
The closing track is “Mental Medication,” which opens with lounge-lizard lyrics and a minor Vegas vocal feel: a pleasant but unusual Wetton delivery that flows into some harder verses which again evoke Steely Dan, especially in the chord progression. The middle rhythmic break features a hallmark Wetton bass line holding the bottom while Jobson and Holdsworth trade solos. A bit later, Jobson unleashes his best violin solo of the recording, while Wetton lays down a tight, popping bass part. The violin seems to be unweighted of electronic effects here, and the near-acoustic sound fits into the overall blend decently. The song rounds out with a return to the lounge, and closes with a sleepy mildness and resolution, and some Brian May-sounding guitar overlays.
Overall, a grand offering. Interestingly, although this is hardly a commercial recording in the sense of an Asia or even a 90125, it is full of catchy but difficult musicianship, and commands attention with its complexity and forays out into the world of fusion and staccato beats. Wetton sings well throughout, Jobson and Holdsworth each impress, and Bruford once again displays the efficacy of selective percussion placement. The recording suffers marginally from the passage of time: the keyboards no longer sound novel or fresh, and perhaps annoy more than anything else at times, but in certain spots (e.g., the opening to “By the Light of Day”), the keys pull the listener straight into the track. A live presentation of this material, with a little less subtlety and a little more force, must have been worth the price of admission.
I would recommend this recording to all progressive rock fans fond of Wetton-Bruford era King Crimson, fans of fusion and Mahavishnu Orchestra, fans of the Van Halen-Malmsteen-Satriani-Vai style shredding, and even fans of Asia when they are inclined toward a more adventurous experience. Fans of Rush might perhaps enjoy this album, as well as fans of Tormato-Drama era Yes.
I have been buying CDs, DVDs, Minidiscs, MP3s and before that Vinyls and Cassettes for approximately 35 years, not all of them are items I would bother reviewing here and some I wouldn't even admit to owning in the first place.
But every so often you stumble across something that screams quality and proficiency to the extent that you know you're having a life changing experience. These events happen maybe half a dozen times in a music collectors lifetime.
When UK formed and subsequently released their eponymous vinyl disc in 1978, I though OK, another supergroup riding on the back of each individuals pass glory, maybe? Anyhow, I thought I'd give it a chance, after all, with Bill Bruford in command of the percussion section, it's hardly gonna be rubbish.
So there I was in my favourite record store in High Wycombe in the UK and I asked if I could hear a bit of the album in question.
"Sure" they replied, almost as if they had been waiting eagerly for someone to ask them.
They put on side two and after a few moments of beautifully dark ambient soundscaping it dropped into a manic prog/fusion arrangement that took all the punters by surprise and had all the knowledgeable and world weary assistants barely able to contain their enthusiasm as they tried to concentrate on their respective tasks.
I knew then I was in the presence of greatness and didn't need to hear any more.
Having said that, because of the complex nature of some of the time signatures for example, the album was a little challenging to fully appreciate at first, but that is precisely what makes it great. If there's no challenge involved there's no sense of achievement when you do get to understand everything that's going on (although even 27 years later, it would be a brave man who could proclaim to recognize all the nuances and syncopations employed within).
There's no point in naming individual tracks, the magic of the album is it's completeness as a concept. It's the feel, the dark nature, the professional dexterity, the individual moments of brilliance, the satisfyingly complex arrangements that leave you wanting more and, above all, the fact I found the CD version years later in a car boot sale for £2. Ok, true story but perhaps not the most important factor.
The classic lineup for this album was never to be repeated and perhaps this is also a contributing factor towards it's breathtaking uniqueness.
I have come to realize over the intervening decades that, for my money (all £2), this is the finest studio album ever constructed, (certainly the best value).