Graded on a Curve: Wishbone Ash,
Argus

Four English song-smithies who couldn’t figure out if they wanted to be guitar heroes or fey sylvan Medievalists playing music to seduce water sprites by, Wishbone Ash really gets my goat–wowing me one minute, and making me want to scream the next.

Take 1972’s Argus, Wishbone Ash’s most successful outing. This baby totally befuddled me as a kid; I loved the groovy guitar interplay between Andy Powell and Ted Turner, but got thrown every time by all the King Arthur’s-in-the-house horseshit. The damn thing sounded like a cross between a Renaissance Faire and Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal, and I simply couldn’t wrap my poor teen mind around it.

You got, for instance, “Sometime World,” which begins life as a moody evocation of England’s green and pleasant land and ends it as a guitar rampage for the ages. “Throw Down the Sword,” similar deal. It opens with a drum tattoo like you might have heard at the beheading of Anne Boleyn before going all Alfred, Lord Tennyson–or Styx–on your ass. But just when you’re ready to dismiss it as a piece of pretentious prog wankery, it goes out blazing in a fiery fandango of guitars that’ll set your hair on fire. It’s furious-making.

Why, oh why, couldn’t these princes of pettifoggery just throw away their suits of armor and kick out the jams like righteous 20th Century motherfuckers? “Warrior” comes on like a case of 21st Century schizophrenia, man, it’s all blistering guitars and cymbal smash and you think “Yes! Finally!” Only to then collapse like Percy Bysshe Shelley in a poetic swoon!

Well, vocalist Martin Turner doesn’t actually collapse so much as get all arm-waving melodramatic like he’s singing opera, and things look pretty bleak indeed until along comes this big, song-saving crescendo, during which Powell and Turner condescend to kick out the pudding like they live in flats and not inside a hollow tree somewhere in the environs of Sherwood Forest.

They pull their shtick off big time on LP opener “Time Was,” which is like totally mellow and opens real slow with a lot of acoustic guitar plucking prettily until the drums kick in and the song turns into a kissing cousin of “Sweet Jane.” Thereafter you get lots of tasty guitar fills and plenty of time changes that amazingly aren’t irritating and a pair of guitar solos so deadly they belong in holsters. To say nothing of a few big windmilling power chords they swiped from The Who!

“Blowin’ Free” kinda reminds me of Uriah Heep and opens with the immortally dumb words, “I thought I had a girl/And all because I seen her.” But its got a snazzy beat and ain’t half bad until things slow down and the boys put their voices together and suddenly you’re trapped in a CSN&Y song! How the fuck did THAT happen?

And then just to fuck with your head some more “the Ash” tosses in a very nifty guitar solo and takes the song out in a slide guitar frenzy that is totally gonzo! It’s like they’re pulling the old good cop/bad cop routine on you, but just what crime is it you were supposed to have committed exactly?

Those of you familiar with you Greek mythology (I had to look it up) will know Zeus had Argus slain by Hermes, who put Argus to sleep with a spoken charm before smashing his head in with a rock. I tell you this because there are moments when I want to do the same thing with this album.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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