Classic Music Review: Argus by Wishbone Ash

argus

The early 70’s were an interesting period for rock music. The Beatles had dominated the scene like no one before or since, so when they split up to pursue solo careers of lesser value, it seemed to open the ears of the listening public to other artists who had hovered in the background, while at the same time energizing many of those artists to do some of their best work. Moondance, Who’s Next, Aqualung, Sticky Fingers, Blue, Hunky Dory and other impressive efforts graced the airwaves. Many of those artists had been successful prior to 1970, of course, but now that the shadow of The Beatles had vanished, people seemed to appreciate those artists even more, returning to earlier works in their catalogs to satisfy the itch the Fab Four would no be able to scratch.

Or so my dad says. It’s a plausible theory based on the available evidence, so I’ll run with it.

One of the most interesting albums from that brief period before rock went into a period of decline and fragmentation was Argus, by the lesser-known Wishbone Ash, a band primarily known today for their twin lead guitar attack. Argus was clearly their highest artistic achievement, as the band began to fragment soon thereafter, staying together with different lineups for decades, but pigeonholed as a guitar band. That was a very unfortunate turn of events, for Argus combined soaring melodies, lively rhythms, and, yes, amazing guitar work from a group of very talented musicians. It has its weaknesses, particularly on the thematically unified Side Two, but it has such highs that it can’t be dismissed as a relic.

I can’t think of too many albums that begin as sweetly and beautifully as Argus.

The opening passage of “Time Was,” with its ringing, clear and exquisitely simple pattern of rising and falling notes played on a kapoed acoustic guitar (7th fret), draws the listener in immediately with its quiet, steady progression, inviting you to a blessed moment of reflection. Supported only by very subtle bass and occasional touches of synth keyboard, the vocal begins and ends in carefully designed two part-harmony that enhances the mood, both musically and lyrically:

I’ve got to rearrange my life,
I’ve got to rearrange my world.
I miss you, I need you.
I’ve got to keep my memories aside,
I’ve got to try to live again.

And then they kick ass!

After a brief fade, the drums kick in with a friendly little skip pattern, the band comes in and the irresistible movement of the main passage begins. The first hot guitar lick rips into the soundscape after the second line, a tantalizing tease for what will eventually become one of the most enjoyable guitar performances in rock history. Martin Turner’s lead vocal is strong and full of melody, the rhythm section of Martin and Steve Upton ride the waves like champion surfers . . . and the lead guitars, oh my God, the fucking lead guitars! Many great lead guitar parts have melodies as hummable as the main melodic theme, and “Time Was” has several. The first solo is a ripper, a cascade of memorable riffs from several positions on the fretboard. The second brings in the harmonization of the two leads, perfectly panned and a perfect lead-in to the middle eight of the main passage. The third begins with power chords then turns into a stomp where the solo pushes the energy to the max before the crescendo and diminuendo leading to the final verse. “Time Was” never feels as long as the nine minutes and forty-two seconds claimed on the track listing because there is literally never a dull moment; it is the musical equivalent of an architectural masterpiece.

“Sometime World” follows, opening with the lead guitar using a more mellow tone than the opener, setting the stage for a pretty number marked by low vocal harmonies . . . but once again Wishbone Ash picks up the velocity, turning the second half of the song into more of an offbeat rocker where the guitars fly. This is followed by the perfect song for that moment right after you’ve been stopped for speeding and once again your tits and innocent smile have saved you from a court appearance. You wave bye-bye to the nice policeman, motor gently down the road and then as soon as you know you’re in the clear, you don’t floor it, but give your jalopy a good steady flow of life-enhancing petrol.

That was one hell of a metaphor to tell you that “Blowin’ Free” is an upbeat, steady mover. Not the all-out bash of something like Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” but a good, nourishing, comforting rock, and the two-part vocal harmonies are as good as it gets. I love this song!

We now move into progressive rock territory on what was then Side Two with what Wishbone Ash likely intended to be a mini-concept album, given its repeated images of kings, warriors and swords. “The King Will Come” opens with a passage best described as a military jig of sorts dissolving into an occasionally syncopated rhythm. The guitar harmonies in the middle section open to a single solo characterized by a hot combination of bite and swirl, but the song loses its interest for me as it becomes a bit too repetitive at times and contains lyrics that I suppose were intended to be meaningful but come across as high-falutin’. “Leaf and Stream” is dreamy, gentle track where the double guitars create a soft, spinning collage of sound that is intensely captivating; every now and then you hear hints of Celtic influence beneath a melody that could have easily fit into an album from the Summer of Love, a perception intensified by the enigmatic lyrics. Still, it’s the strongest track on Side Two.

“Warrior” begins with the roughest guitars of all, the rhythm on ragged distortion and the solo in “big guitar mode.” This is the song on Argus that sounds most dated, and the lyrics are faux-epic. The album ends with “Throw Down the Sword,” which is thematically interesting from a musical perspective, but the lyrics are far too formal and hackneyed to be taken seriously:

Throw down the sword,
The fight is done and over,
Neither lost, neither won.
To cast away the fury of the battle
And turn my weary eyes for home.

There were times when I stood at death’s own door
Only hoping for an answer.
Throw down the sword,
And leave the glory,
A story time can never change.

Very awkward, indeed! What makes the song pass muster is once again the dueling lead guitars at the end, weaving around each other, harmonizing on occasion, but never in conflict. Musically speaking, this is where Side Two of Argus lives up to its pretensions: a grand ending to a nice try.

I get the feeling from listening to this record that Wishbone Ash could have been much more. The talent was certainly there, and the tightness of the band was of the highest order. From my studies of the period, though, the 1970’s were a pretty weird time everywhere, so perhaps the bad energy floating around finally got to them. However, there’s no question that Argus deserves consideration when people talk about the better records of that era.

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