Classic albums A-Z: Wishbone Ash – Argus (1972)

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While the self-titled debut and Pilgrimage each contained some excellent songs and especially outstanding musicianship, they also suggested that the band could do even better if they turned their strengths into advantage and didn’t rely as much on the mid-tempo boogies many of their contemporaries focused on as well. On Argus, Wishbone Ash finally manage to fulfil the promise, leaving out the less interesting material almost altogether and doing what they were best at: combining lush English folk with melodic, guitar-dominated hard rock.

Well, maybe ‘hard rock’ is a bit of an exaggeration, as they rarely turned in dirty or heavy performances like Led Zeppelin, but they had a twin guitar attack that must’ve influenced dozens and dozens of hard rock bands.  On Argus, you basically get one successful track after another, and while they’re not all stellar (“Blowin’ Free” employs that thumping mid-tempo boogie – but to fine results), they’re still quite amazing 42 years later. With its peculiar cover (I’ve rarely seen one that fits the music it conceals this good) and lyrical stress on themes such as war and love and the place of mankind throughout the ages, it’s often regarded as progressive rock (a seven-song conceptual album! YEAH!), and while that’s not far-fetched, the band basically follows the course that was already hinted at before.

The key elements – the folk-influence and the melodic nature of the songs and the playing – are intact and even highlighted. More than anything, this is an album for guitar aficionados (or basically, musicians) who’ll drool over the immaculately produced instrumental passages (and the liner notes tell you who’s playing which solo – nifty!) and interplay.

Even though they – like all hard rock bands – dug in the blues history for inspiration, they turned as much to folk. While most guitarists out there seemed to deliver variations on Clapton’s work with Cream, Turner and Powell – like Richard Thompson, for instance – nearly boasted as much virtuosity, but this was devoid of the overpowering dominance of the blues. Instead of the gut-targeting misery of the black music, they managed to infuse many of their songs with a more lyrical, ethereal style that almost seems the lush, direct opposite of raw and dirty emotion.

“Leaf and Stream,” written by bass player Martin Turner is also an enchantingly gentle folk number, with lovely guitar parts and suitably fragile vocals. These guys weren’t the greatest of vocalists, but their harmonies fit perfectly in the folk tradition and, come to think of it, these songs really wouldn’t have been any better if they’d been sung by a more powerful, “soulful” voice. These enigmatic slices evoke the moist dreariness of a desolate English landscape, and that’s why these wimpy voices are perfect.

And as a bonus, the remastered edition of Argus also includes the rare promotional EP Live from Memphis, which was recorded around the release date of the album, and contains three tracks that lengthen the album to 77 minutes: the boogie “Jail Bait” and “The Pilgrim” from their second album, as well as a mind-baffling, 17-minute version of the grandiose “Phoenix,” from their debut. Pretty essential.

(Guy Peters 2005)

Full track listing (inc. bonus tracks)
  1. Time was
  2. Sometime world
  3. Blowin free
  4. The King will come
  5. Leaf and Stream
  6. Warrior
  7. Throw down the sword
  8. Jail Bait
  9. The Pilgrim
  10. Phoenix
Lineup
  • Martin Turner (bass, vocals)
  • Andy Powell (guitars, vocals)
  • Ted Turner (guitars, vocals)
  • Steve Upton (drums)

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