Free to Be Stoned: Complete Decca Recordings

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Few other times than the late 1960s and early '70s, perhaps, could an act as consistently uncommercial as Clark-Hutchinson have released three albums on a major label (albeit its progressive/underground subsidiaries) in just a couple of years. All three of them are combined into this two-CD reissue: 1969's A=MH2, 1970's Retribution (whose first two tracks end CD one, and whose last three tracks lead off CD two), and 1971's Gestalt. What's more, each of the three albums was quite different from each other, though all of them combined rock, blues, raga, and psychedelia to some degree. Clark-Hutchinson did record some more material (some blues-rock cut just prior to A=MH2 appears on Sunbeam's expanded edition of that record), but the material on this anthology is the core of their legacy. The lengthy liner notes, with quotes from Mick Hutchinson and full of period photos and graphics, tell the story well, and will be valued by the small cult following the band has garnered among serious collectors of British psychedelia.

As edgy as Clark-Hutchinson were, all three of the albums had their flaws, starting with A=MH2. Consisting entirely of five long Indian-blues-fusion instrumentals (though some vocal chanting is heard), the lack of variation will grate on many listeners, though others might find it trance-inducing in the better sense of that term. Andy Clark takes vocals on the far more blues-rock-oriented Retribution, though the throaty, aggressive vocals and some tense, lunkheaded riffing (especially on the over-the-top "Free to Be Stoned"), will irritate those who like their late psychedelic hard rock with some taste and restraint. At other points, the blues-rock is so rudimentary, and less adventurous, that it's hard to imagine these guys could have competed well on even the second tier of bills with the many straight-ahead British blues-rock acts populating the U.K. scene at the time. Gestalt is the most accessible of the albums, though perhaps the one least likely to interest those who like their cult rock on the extreme side, as it finds the duo toning down to much more subdued, at times folky, blues-rock. Clark's vocals are still unappealingly hoarse, and remain on the histrionic side (if less so than on Retribution). But while much of it has a burned-out, downbeat feel, the more laid-back numbers in particular have an appealing after-the-flood ambience, like a heavy blues-rock concert that's been forced to take stock of itself after the power's been cut off and too many acid casualties have been carted away to the medical tent. Hutchinson's use of Spanish guitar on some tracks expands their sound into a more gentle and beatific direction, though there's still some tortured electric angst, and some raga influence on one of the best cuts, "Orientated," where Clark plays snake-charming lines on saxophone.

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