Esoteric Recordings have always keep my wish list growing, growing, and growing. On my blog site, I’ve been a big champion of the label from their reissues and supporting new bands/artists since their launch in 2007. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the label, which has been a part of the Cherry Red family. So who knows what surprises will lay ahead for them in 2017. One of them is a reissue they’ve released this year of Gravy Train’s third album, Second Birth.
Formed in St. Helen’s, Lancashire in 1969, the combination of the two that started the wheel of Gravy Train's chugging were; J.D. Hughes (Wind instruments, Keyboards, and Vocals) and Bassist Les Williams. Soon Drummer Barry Davenport and vocalist and guitar player Norman Barratt joined the force of Gravy Train. The band did some rehearsals in the summer of 1969 at St. Helen’s Cricket Club in Merseyside before being signed to the Veritgo label.
The band released two albums (the self-titled debut and (A Ballad) Of A Peaceful Man) one of them didn’t do well, but the second album showed an assembling sound in their music. It wasn’t until they switched from Vertigo to the Dawn label which was a progressive subsidiary label for Pye Records. They recorded their third album at Orange Studios in North London. By this time during the making of the album, Barry quit the band, but he only appeared on three of the tracks (Morning Coming, Fields and Factories, and Tolpuddle Episode).
What happened was Barry was getting exhausted and fed up that the band was not getting anywhere, plus no money, along with stress he was going through. He suddenly had a breakdown and left. Russell Caldwell took his place after a long extensive search that the band went through to find the right person to fill Barry’s shoes.
Listening to Second Birth, it’s a diverse album. There were some inspirations between Jethro Tull, CSNY, Cream, and bits of East of Eden. When you listen to songs like September Morning News, it has this West Coast Sound thanks to the Country/Folk rhythmic sound of the Acoustic Guitar and Barratt channeling his Neil Young style on his vocals along with as I’ve mentioned the harmonizing vocals of CSNY.
Tolpuddle Episode is another Acoustic Folky composition that has this bright and gentle arrangement as the lyrics deal with a strong concept of hoping for a new beginning and a new life in a new year while the music goes towards the reminiscent of Colin Scot and Gary Farr. Strength of a Dream, I can imagine this song thanks to it’s ballad and melodic melodies and a different side to Gravy Train with their sliding guitar work, their homage to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass-era.
And when I listen to that song, I could tell that the band honor the sound and the style of his guitar playing and the album’s music is everywhere on the composition. It feels like it was recorded for the album’s sessions, but cut off due to time restraints. And Gravy Train’s song nails the Harrison tribute. Now let’s get to the rocking side of the band’s music.
There’s this classical guitar fast passage that Norman does in which it is a very tricky and hard riff-line in that tempo. You can hear the sonata format on Motorway which features thumping rhythm guitars and drums along with the bass and flute work a-la Tull styles with the homage to East of Eden’s Mercator Projected-era. The opening track, Morning Coming, feels as if it is a blaring alarm that is coming right behind you like a roaring monster from the guitars.
It is a great introduction to the start the album as if it is like a cannon blast coming out of the horizons to start the engines up. Not to mention the midsection featuring these mourning lyrical settings with guitars, drums, and keyboards setting this church-like choir. The closing title-track begins as I’ve mentioned, the fast passages that Norman does on his guitar along with Hughes’ flute between Melodic melody guitar/flute essence resembling Premiata Forneria Marconi and pre-Iron Maiden.
Inspired by controversial figure Norman Mailer’s novel in which I think in my opinion, it might be his debut novel in 1948 entitled, The Naked and the Dead. The lyrics are haunting and it delves into a disturbing view of the fictional universe between war and politics as the music sets the tone through the story. The midsection has a Van Der Graaf Generator twist and it is a chilling 7-minute story-song before fading into the night of what will happen next.
The bonus track, Good Time Girl which was released as a B-side, sees Gravy Train having a great time as they channel a shuffling Glam Rock take between the essence cross-over of Slade, The Kinks, String Driven Thing, and Ian Hunter. It is a rockin’ single and it shows them having a blast to get down into the groove and hitting the dance floors.
When the album was released in 1973, it didn’t do well. The band went back on the road and were supporting many of the big names including Genesis, Roxy Music, and Nazareth to name a few. The band broke up after the release of their fourth and final album, Staircase to the Day in 1974. When you listen to Second Birth, you can understand why this band were way ahead of their time.
It’s a shame they never got the recognition they deserve during the golden-era of the Progressive Rock scene of the 1970s. And with the Esoteric reissue which contains a 16-page booklet with liner notes by Malcolm Dome and interviews with J.D. Hughes about the history of the band and the making of their third album along with a little snippet interview with Norman Barratt.
Sadly, Norman passed away in 2011. And as I’ve mentioned Gravy Train never got the recognition they deserve, once you put this album on. You can tell where they could have gone and why they deserve some recognition. Let’s hope Esoteric does more of the Gravy Train reissues (they’ve already reissued their last album Staircase to the Day) including the first two albums released on Vertigo.