(Re-released by Aztec Music)
What a perfect little album this is. The vinyl original came out in 1975 and I remember very well buying it and playing it to death, though I’m less clear on why I’d even heard of it or why I thought I wanted it. Peer pressure or social osmosis, I guess. Yay for following the herd then. I actually still have the vinyl copy but it’s in storage (long story) so I haven’t heard it in an age. So when I saw this re-released CD version in a shop the other day I grabbed it. Glad I did.
As I say, I didn’t know much about the band, though I did know they were from Melbourne, and I do remember my cousin telling me when she was staying with us in Canberra one Christmas holidays that she knew someone who knew the lead guitarist, which I thought was pretty cool, and I can even remember writing a letter to the guitarist and giving it to my cousin to give to her friend to give to him, but I’m pretty sure it never made it past my cousin. God knows what it said.
Listening to Stillpoint again after all these years was less a trip down memory lane, or a nostalgia mainline, than a reacquaintance with an old friend who had grown and prospered in the years of our separation. By which I mean, I am hearing it with fresh ears and I think that it stands on its own two feet without any need to justify itself in terms of past glories. To put it another way, if someone released it today, it would still sound fresh and original.
Describing the music is a bit tricky. There is a noticeable blues element, especially apparent in lead vocalist Mick Fette’s voice. But it isn’t a blues album. Some of the acoustic guitar licks are pretty straight sixites folk, or folk-rock, so I guess you could put it in that category. Rock n’ roll? Well, sure, but that’s a bit of a meaningless, generalised term. There also seems to be a tendency to put them in the “progressive rock” category, a genre that is even evoked in the literature that comes with this re-release, but I don’t really hear it, I must admit. That is, if by “progressive” you have in mind the likes of Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Soft Machine. Nup. There is none of the symphonic over-the-topness of any of those, nor any of flashy instrumental soloing you associate with them either.
However, if by “progressive” you had in mind the likes of Uriah Heep or Greenslade or maybe even Jethro Tull, you might be onto something. Maybe. All of those bands were more interested in hooky, shorter songs, and that’s what you get with Madder Lake too. Not as heavy as Heep or as idiosyncratic as Tull, and more guitar based than Greenslade, but I can still see why I might’ve been inclined to lump them all in together. In fact, I reckon it might be the Middle Earthish cover art (which is really wonderful, by the way) that has people thinking progressive, maybe even more so than their music. I mean, the Roger Dean factor was a huge part of the fun of Yes, Greenslade, Heep and others and the cover of Stillpoint was also definitely part of the appeal of this album too, back before the rest of the world decided that Middle Earth is somewhere in New Zealand. But that’s a pretty tenuous link to “progressive”.
Anyway, two things really strike me about hearing the album now and those two things might even seem contradictory. First, it is amazing to me how much of the album is actually instrumental. Most obviously is the eight-minute opener, ‘Salmon Song’, which only has a chanty little bit of vocal right at the end. But nearly all the songs are quite light-on for vocals, which is kind of weird given what a distinctive and good singer they had.
So that was the other thing that struck me: I’d forgotten — or maybe never realised — what a great vocalist Mick Fettes was. I guess you’d put him in the Joe Cocker category, if you wanted a point of reference.
The album sound is really clean, with lots of space, with every instrument, every lick apparently carefully considered and given due room in which to make its presence felt. The playing is tight and the songs themselves are all strong. In fact, I could’ve easily lived without the extra tracks loaded onto this re-release (mainly single and live versions of songs on the original album). There’s not a dud song on here and some of them are just extraordinary (‘Salmon Song’, ‘On My Way to Heaven’, ‘Song For Little Earnest’).
Actually, there’s a nice passage in the liner notes that sums it up: “Recorded in just six days, Stillpoint highlights Madder Lake’s distinctive sound which was mostly due to the combination of Fettes unique (often effects laden) vocals, Mason’s understated blues-tinged guitar playing, the sparse yet effective use of McKinnon’s keyboards and the agile drive of the rhythm section. In addition to the vocal effects the band used fuzz bass and a bass pedal which is easily mistaken for a synthesizer, while Mason’s subtle use of wah wah to produce shimmering explosions of sound gives the album an almost otherworldly quality.”
The band released other albums, but who cares? As it says on their website:
Stillpoint went Gold nearly completely on Victorian sales only. At that stage a national profile wasn’t held by many artists.
1974 saw a change in members with replacement of John McKinnon with Andy Cowan. This impacted on the band material and direction changed. With this line-up Butterfly Farm was produced, an album in a new direction, but unfortunately didn’t outsell Stillpoint. Consequently this had an effect on the machine that was promoting us.
In 1974 the band parted company with Mushroom and worked with various agents and independently.
It was at this time that the band connected with Classical and pop conductor David Measham, and the concept of band and orchestra was touted. Madder Lake composed a piece based on Brave New World. The project still lies dormant, partly due to the death of David Measham.
It’s like they came into the world in order to bring forth this album and then, their work done, they drifted away. A little rock n’ roll fairy tale for which this beautifully done re-release provides a happy ending.