Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Fireballet: Close Tutu The Edge

There are some decisions that bands make, or perhaps that their managers railroad them into, from which there is no way back. I imagine that the recriminations still fly some 35 years after Fireballet allowed themselves to believe that the concept for the cover of their second LP would in some way enhance their fledgling career. To prepare the ground for the enormity of the horror that I am about to present to those of you unfamiliar with the artwork that adorns Fireballet’s sophomore LP, here is the perfectly acceptable, to my eyes, image that graces the cover of their debut album, Night On Bald Mountain.

Not much to complain about there: mysterious, hooded, druid-like figures emerging from a network of caves carrying flaming torches; numerous women in a state of semi-undress; a fiery, ritualistic dance (a fireballet perhaps) on a pentagram-festooned altar under the light of a full-moon and so on, and so on… Okay, the castrato Lemmy lookalike in the bejewelled Speedos doesn’t float my boat, but hey, it’s all atmosphere right? The rear sleeve continues to build on that atmosphere, presenting images that further pique the potential listener’s interest.

The border is decorated with yet more pentagrams, whilst a frame of fire surrounds a band portrait in which they look down on us from their lofty perch beside the ruins of a castle. To a man the band members are unsmiling, their attire intriguing (how big is that crucifix!?) and their general demeanour is unsettling, unwelcoming and borderline hostile. The vibrant blue sky is at odds with their pasty complexions, suggesting that they are unaccustomed to being abroad in the daylight hours. The band’s faces and the tumbledown castle walls seem to be locked in a battle to see which can appear most unkempt, most overgrown. This cover has all the ingredients that make me want to slip the record out of its sleeve and lower the needle into the groove: from the tantalising clues offered up by the artwork I’m pretty sure I’m going to like what I hear, but I couldn’t say with any certainty exactly what that might be. Perfect!

The same can not be said of the artwork that sullies Two, Too…!

I was going to say that after a few pints down the pub it probably seemed like a good idea, but, on reflection, I can’t imagine this cover concept seeming like a good idea after a dumper truck full of crack cocaine and hallucinogens. It would have been a truly appalling sleeve even if the band had found a bevy of beautiful young women to pose in the tutus, but what combination of mind-altering drugs and budget cuts in the art department could explain this horror? And, it doesn’t end there. Not content with inflicting their Darcey Bussell fantasies on the world just the once, we are treated to a further eight (yes, eight!) snaps from the same regrettable photo session on the rear sleeve. Helpfully, just in case we didn’t get the pun, (you know, album number two, Two, Too…, big hairy geezers in ballerina outfits), they re-title the album Tu, Tu… on the back cover. Slaps his forehead in moment of clarity: oh yeah, I see what they’re doing here. Lucky they spelled it out though or I’d have never twigged!

I know what you’re thinking: it can’t get any worse, right? Wrong! A lyric sheet is always a welcome addition to any LP. Or so I thought. The LSD trip was clearly at a peak in the collective Fireballet brain when the idea occurred to someone to present a cut-out-and-keep ballerina panorama on the flipside of the lyric insert, especially for all those members of the record buying public who are both progressive rock aficionados and fans of hairy brickies in drag. You know who you are.

It would appear from the photos on the lyric sheet that a couple of band members had begun to come down / have misgivings as they have turned their backs to the camera to conceal their identities. I think that horse may have bolted. The next day they probably sat, heads in hands, praying that the album sold really badly. Back in 1976 they will have consoled themselves with the fact that at least there was no way for the handful of people who owned their album to share these images with millions of complete strangers, worldwide, at the click of a button. Err, whoops!

Drugs? Just say no, kids!

Musically, the two Fireballet LPs differ insomuch as the debut has a more traditional, okay, derivative, symphonic progressive rock sound with the usual English influences of Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. Oh, and did I mention Yes?! King Crimson's Ian McDonald produces the LP and lends his saxophone and flute playing to proceedings, so shades of that particular band of Brits creeping in are perhaps inevitable. Two, Too... has a considerably updated sound with what some reviewers have termed 'prog rock cliché' being dropped in favour of a poppier, cleaner sound. I make no apology for loving a bit of prog rock cliché: give me multi-part cod-classical suites, up-front Chris Squire-alike bass (preferably with pedals), nods to the guitar playing of Steve Howe and Anthony Phillips, mellotron, pipe organ and synths a go-go, and, in the case of Night On Bald Mountain (Suite), melodramatic 'ah-ah' vocal harmonies reminiscent of Uriah-Heep at their finest. I don't always crave originality, sometimes I just want bells and whistles. Two, Too... is in the same general neighbourhood as Starcastle and Ambrosia with its all together cleaner, lighter, quirkier sound. Opener, Great Expectations, sounds like something from Hippie musical Hair, with its Age Of Aquarius-style chorus. Elsewhere, Fireballet's quirky Art Rock approach shares groove space with the Prog Rock of the debut LP to impressive effect. So, which is their better album? I would have given Night On Bald Mountain my backing, but having revisited both LPs for this blog entry, I'm no longer so sure. I love them both. One thing's for certain, both album sleeves feature some fine chin and lip frondescence.

For those magnificent Cheech Marin handlebars...


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