21 Nov 2016
Hawkwind - The RCA Active Years 1981-1982
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
Atomhenge continue their vanilla issue Hawkwind box set campaign and while this latest edition doesn't quite meet the consistent highs of the previous "Charisma Years", it still contains more than its fair share of riches.
Bypassing the band's brief dalliance with Bronze Records (the excellent studio album"Levitation" and the middling "Live '79") the RCA Active years collects three studio albums released within a whirlwind twelve month period.
First up is "Sonic Attack" which sees the band embracing the popular NWOBHM sound of the time. Most commentators seem to focus solely on this, ignoring the emerging emphasis on synthesisers and sequencers which would have such an impact on the two albums which followed - a pity as this creates an impression of a much more one-dimensional album than this actually is. Huw Lloyd Langston's fiery guitar leads fit perfectly in this context and clunky drumming aside (Ginger Baker's shoes are pretty hard to fill) the NWOBHM tracks here are pretty good, if not particularly memorable (although "Angels of Death" became a live favourite). Much more interesting are the tracks where Dave Brock and Harvey Bainbridge's synth tendencies began to take hold, with "Virgin of the World" being particularly effective and evocative.
"Church of Hawkwind" followed in quick succession. Beginning life as a solo Dave Brock synth project, other Hawkwind members were eventually roped in to contribute on what has become one of the band's most misunderstood and underappreciated albums. The album's original release came as a shock to fans willing to embrace the heavier approach of "Sonic Attack", while subsequent CD issues have muddied the waters by messing with the track sequencing and peppering unrelated bonus tracks seemingly at random throughout the album's original sequence.
Restored to its original running order and freed of bonus tracks, it proves to be a singular pleasure, albeit one that will take a bit of adjusting to for some fans. It works particularly well as an uninterrupted suite and while it may be a little less immediate than most Hawkwind albums, I'd argue that it's one of the band's most cohesive - certainly during the eighties.
Synth driven soundscapes make up a lot of the album's running time, but repeated plays reveal these to be full of imaginative melodic and rhythmic twists. And as for 'real' songs, why "Nuclear Drive" isn't rated among the band's best is totally beyond me.
"Choose Your Masques" completes this triptych and it's easy to see why it's considered the best of the three. Retaining the heavy synth emphasis of "Church of Hawkwind", "Masques" is a more song orientated affair with more vocals and more guitars making it much more palatable to long term fans. An unnecessary reworking of "Silver Machine" suggests a lack of confidence from Brock and co. but they really needn't have worried, this is one of their most consistent sets. "Arrival in Utopia" should have been a single, while "Void City" is an endearingly quirky vocoder driven ditty that sounds improbably like Brock channelling "McCartney II".
The balance between driving space-rockers and airy synthscapes is perfect here, making this the best studio representation of the band during this era.
Lovely sounding masters here from Atomhenge in a lovely, simple clamshell box. And while you're at it, pick up "Coded Languages", recorded on the "Choose Your Masques" tour and featuring a returning Nik Turner, it's every bit the equal of what you'll find here and ably demonstrates just how quickly these songs evolved in a live context.
The RCA Active Years 1981-1982 is available here (UK/EU) or here (US).
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