Thursday, December 31, 2009
Freedom's Children - Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde (EMI, 1969; 2008)
Considering that, for the most part, only two members of the band, bassist/lyricist Ramsay MacKay and drummer Colin Pratley, actually played on this album, Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde is pretty good. When compared to the two subsequent albums by Freedom's Children, however, it is clear that their recorded debut was by far their weakest effort. But as is the case with all great bands, even the lesser works are worth a listen.
The story behind Battle Hymn is a strange one. By late 1968, Freedom's Children had already made a name for themselves in their native South Africa. Nevertheless, constant changes in personnel left MacKay and Pratley as the only remaining musicians left to carry on the name at the time. Although the duo had already made plans to relocate to England and start a new version of the band, they spent their remaining time in South Africa working on the beginnings of their first long player. The project stalled when the bassist and drummer encountered difficulties working with producer John Nowell, although prior to their departure they did manage to record backing tracks and (in MacKay's case) the narration that would be interspersed between the songs. Battle Hymn was eventually released in early 1969 while the reformed Freedom's Children were finding their way in London.
Not surprisingly, MacKay and Pratley were a bit taken aback when the album came out since their presence was barely discernible on it. Indeed, the finished version of Battle Hymn featured a host of session musicians and singers performing on most of the tracks, which resulted in it sounding radically different than the style developed on Freedom's Childrens's next two LPs. The fact that there are spoken-word sections (displaying MacKay's Scots brogue to good effect) between the songs suggests that this is a concept album despite the disjointed nature in which it came to fruition. The closest I can come to finding a spot where the concept is revealed is to point out a passage in the first track, "Introduction," wherein MacKay states, "I was going to battle against myself." The album then proceeds to the gentle, folky "Season," which is then followed by the garagey "Judas Queen." "Mrs. Browning" features the crooning of an unknown vocalist (Steve Trend? Dennis Robertson? Peter Vee?), and sounds like an English music hall piece on acid. "Country Boy" is what its title suggests: South African country music, or at least a close approximation thereof. "Your Father's Eyes" is more folky gentleness. The first side concludes with a radio-like advertisement for Pepsi (one of the most despicable "food" corporations on the planet) that I thought upon first listening had been placed there as an ironic statement. However, according to group biographer Nick Warburton, EMI used such a promotional spot as a way to help finance the LP's production. "Eclipse" has a majestic feel to it as well as some nice guitar work likely from Pete Clifford, while "Ten Years Ago" is musically akin to "Mrs. Browning." The stunning "Kafkasque" (also rightfully included on the Love, Peace & Poetry: African Psychedelic Music comp) had been released as the band's first single for EMI the previous year and is apparently the only track on the album to feature a genuine version of Freedom's Children (probably the lineup that included MacKay, Pratley, guitarist Julian Laxton, electric pianist/vocalist Craig Ross, and organist/vocalist Harry Poulos). Sounding at times not unlike Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the only mystery about this sublime psychedelic nugget is the title. Is it a misspelling of Kafkaesque, meaning "1. Of or relating to Franz Kafka or his writings" or "2. Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger"? Inquiring minds would like to know. The lovely "Boundsgreen Fair" sounds like a Donovan or Incredible String Band-influenced piece, and the album ends on a strong note with the poetically rocking "Miss Wendy's Dancing Eyes Have Died" in spite of it being followed by another one of those annoying Pepsi commercials.
3. Judas Queen
4. Mrs. Browning
5. Country Boy
6. Your Father's Eyes
8. Ten Years Ago
10. Boundsgreen Fair
11. Miss Wendy's Dancing Eyes Have Died