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National Health: the late masterpiece of the Canterbury Sound

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In February 1978, the first self-titled album of one of the most incredible groups the Canterbury Sound was published, an excellent combination of jazz and progressive rock.

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National Health (debut album)

Affinity Records. 1978. England

When progressive rock entered the critical phase at the end of the 70s, after a few years of live splendor and the creation of multiple paradigms, it was unlikely that a new band with extremely dangerous content would appear outside the punk environment and music disco.

National Health he made his recording debut in late February 1978, when he was already three years old, walking around Dave Stewart (keyboards) and Phil Miller (guitar), two of the most important musicians known Canterbury sound who were part of main bands, in particular Hatfield and the Northin which they agreed after being an essential part of it eggs and Khan -first-, and Delivery and Matching Mole -the second-.

Beside Alan Gowen (keyboards), Phil Lee (guitar), mt Campbell (low), Amanda Parsons (voice) and Bill Bruford (drums), made the first recordings in 1975 and ’76, which, for unknown reasons, were not released until 1996 under the name Missing Pieces.

After several changes to the line during 1976 and 1977, including Steve Hillage (guitar) and Neil Murray (low), and the presence of Bruford – who was creating his own project with Stewart – alternated with him Richard Burgess, john mitchell and finally pip pill (ex Hatfield and the North), the group was finally able to give a definitive shape between February and March 1977 to the material – a year later – that would make the first album of the same name.

Miller, Stewart, Pyle and Murray, with participation from Alan Gowen on the piano and Moog synthesizer, Jimmy Hastings on the flute and the piano, john mitchell in percussion and Amanda Parsons in the voices, they devised four extremely complex compositions, full of intensity in both rhythmic and melodic and harmonic aspects, without forgetting the variety of textures, textures, dynamics and form, moving in a terrain that jazz overlaps with progressive rock , very much in the style of Canterbury, although far from Soft Machine either caravan.

The rigor of composition, arrangements and execution has not affected the element of improvisation, spontaneity and freedom that has always characterized Canterbury groups.

we have roads” the A-side starts off great. For 14 and a half minutes, the group shows all its talents.

The classic Canterbury sound surfaces throughout, Stewart’s distorted organ and electric piano, Pyle’s spinning drumming, Murray’s beefy bass and Miller’s characteristic guitar draped in effects from Big Muff and Memory Man, they lead us through complex passages in which there are wonderful duets between keyboards and guitars, high-octane rhythms, frantic and calm moments…

After six minutes, Parsons’ voice seems to introduce an exquisite nuance, halfway between folk, jazz and lyrical. The dynamic changes again at minute nine, when the piece is left in the hands of delicate electric piano, minimalist bass and pastoral flute.

The last minute and a half develops a melody in which the voice and keyboards join together, and the rhythmic base expands in all his voice. The epic finale leaves us prostrate.

We remember again that it was February 1978, the same month that the attention of the British media focused on the announcement of the separation of Sex Pistols.

Amanda’s playful synth and lyrical voice kicks it off”Funeral”, composition of Alan Gowen -the only one Stewart does not participate in-, which was part of the group’s initial repertoire. Although he was not part of the central core of it National Health, who was able to participate in the recording. Hastings plays an important role on the flute.

Around the fourth minute, the dynamic changes radically, with an excellent fretless bass on which Pyle develops a rhythmic noise, while Stewart and Gowen dialogue with pianos, organ and synthesis.

Miller has less of a leadership role, but in the final stretch he makes his triumphant appearance with a superb solo.

This is how the A side closes

Side B consists of two more pieces. The first is “Borogovs”, which is divided into “Excerpt from Part Two” and “Part One“, in that order.

In the first four minutes Murray performs a masterful solo, which gives way to another by Miller, over a great slave riff. Pyle’s drumming is accompanied by Mitchell’s congas. The end is sudden.

The next section comes immediately, with a triumphant synth and distorted organ. Among them sneak Miller’s guitar and Parsons’ voice. Some aspects could be remembered here Gentle giant

The disc ends with “an elephant”, that as “we have roads”, stretched for 14 and a half minutes.

The composition shared by Stewart and Gowen begins experimentally with improvisation that gradually develops, until at minute two a powerful rhythm and dominant guitar are incorporated.

And how could it be otherwise, when we least expect it, the development takes an unusual form. The synth solo plays very much in the vein of jazz fusion over a funky rhythm, until around minute seven the bass announces another change in dynamics, leading to the wonderful melody that Parsons and Stewart presented to us on the first track.

The final four minutes show his most pastoral side National Healthwith a flute in the plan of the first King Crimsonwith Pyle playing a pixiphone (toy marimba), delicate electric piano and Parsons’ voice on the same plane as the instruments, all slowly fading away, leaving us in a state of blissful contemplation.

The eccentric cover with a photo of him Laurie Lewis and the design of Kevin Burkein which the group members are seen with a series of objects on a hospital bed, a kind of parody of the British health system in the 70s, which inspires the band’s name.

A few months later the second album National Health, Of queues and medicinesanother great document, with John Greaves replacing Murray on bass. That will be the subject of another review.

Juan Carlos Ballesta

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