❉ A fascinating addition to the Esoteric Records catalogue from the Danish prog-rock pioneers.
“It is thanks to Cherry Red Records’ thoughtful presentation and sympathetic remastering that we are able to gain a clearer picture of the diverse and rich influences that swirled around the early years of progressive rock. In this case, we have been treated us to a sumptuous remastering that reveals some spellbinding musicianship.”
I did not particularly enjoy my later teenage years. This was doubtless due to my own sullen disposition post-puberty rather than any great hardship growing up in North East England of the late 1980s. Yet in a tale familiar to many, I managed to find small lagoons of calm from which to escape this late teen angst by spending Saturday mornings wandering around second-hand record shops. It was here that I began the great quest – the search for any prog artist or band I had yet to hear but with a huge back catalogue, ripe for discovery.
The record shop I am thinking of in particular was at the top of the High Street in Stockton-on-Tees and had a very peculiar system of cataloguing and storing the records. It used a hybrid system classifying first by genre and then alphabetically. The owner of the shop recognised us humans as creatures that love to see patterns, even (or perhaps especially) where none exist. I think they also must have known about my own quest because they would drip feed the gems into the particular section of the shop that would be my first port of call on any visit: the area marked ‘PROG ROCK’. The quest would continue, and the agony of my latest failed romantic venture would, temporarily evaporate, anesthetised by the comforting aura of old records.
The decision by Cherry Red Records to release Mind Funeral should be a cause for celebration for all of us who are record-store browsers (by heritage or inclination) and engaged upon the great quest to find those as yet undiscovered gems. It is a collation of the two albums from Danish prog-rock pioneers Day of Phoenix plus two singles which were recorded separately. I have had the privilege of reviewing several of these reissues from Cherry Red and with each one I become ever more convinced that they are worthy custodians of such prog-rock heritage. It is thanks to their thoughtful presentation and sympathetic remastering that we are able to gain a clearer picture of the diverse and rich influences that swirled around the early years of progressive rock.
In this case, we have been treated us to a sumptuous 24-bit digital remastering of the original master tapes that lift every element of the recordings and reveals some spellbinding musicianship. These two albums and the additional bonus recordings, liberated from the constraints of their early media, are a fascinating addition to the Cherry Red Records back-catalogue. Day of Phoenix evoke obvious comparisons with US psychedelic bands like the Grateful Dead but that is not the limits of their work. In Mind Funeral, we hear them import the folk music rhythms of their native Denmark, jazz and free-form experimentation and an adventurous musicality that both engages and bewitches.
One of the many delights of a Cherry Red Records release is the comprehensive booklet of information detailing the genesis of the band. Mind Funeral is no exception to this. The notes accompanying the recordings, written by the always engaging Sid Smith, contain interviews with one of the surviving members, guitarist Ole Prehn and contemporary Danish multi-instrumentalist, Robin Taylor. These provide a fascinating insight into the roots of the band, the recording process and the overall cultural impact of the group within both the Danish music scene and more broadly within the wider progressive music scene. Reading these notes, one gets a sense of a group of musicians emerging from an almost simplistic ‘hippie culture’ to try and push their own musical ambitions and generate a more sophisticated approach to writing. As Prehn states about the recording of Wide open N-Way, ‘some passages taxed our musicianship to and over the limit’.
The origins of Day of Phoenix are, as so many other groups of the time, rooted in a disparate array of musicians from various bands coming together. In this case, it was in 1968 in Denmark, where protean British guitarist and vocalist Cy Nicklin joined Prehn, Karsten Lyng and Jess Stæhr to record a single as Day of Phoenix. Released in 1969, that single Tell Me, written by Dave Cousins and it’s B-side I think it’s Gonna Rain Today written by Randy Newman are both included as part of Mind Funeral and are heavily rooted in the musical style of the 1960s. (Although, if you will again forgive more self-indulgence, this is a staggeringly good version of Newman’s song, no small praise for a track which is seemingly ubiquitous having been covered to death).
Nicklin and Stæhr’s departure, early on in the life of the band saw them replaced by Hans Lauridsen as the lead singer and Erik Stedt on bass, and the classic line-up that would record the two albums was born. Wide open N-Way, recorded and released in 1970, whilst tentative in places, provides a series of intricate extended progressive pieces. The album starts with the guitar-driven Cellophane #1 and #2. The title track, the acoustically accented Wide open N-Way a shorter piece which would grace any progressive album of the era and then follows the rock oriented If you ask me.
It is the avant-garde Mind Funeral that really commands the attention and moves the album forward. Gentle acoustic themes are undercut by disconcerting rhythmic variances and the listener can never truly embrace the mellow fug that the band are seeking to lure us into. Sublime melody crashes against guitar jams and the whole piece accelerates towards an ending where the music seems to be tearing itself apart. Prehn unleashes a searing solo, played against a jazz trio of oboe, piano and double bass for a wonderful crescendo. After this epic feast we are treated to a final, soothing palate-cleanser, as the album finishes with the playful acoustic ballad, Tick-tack.
If Wide open N-Way is a daring, tentative step into a new musical direction, the second album The Neighbour’s Son is a much more traditional, melodic and straightforward album. The group haven’t utterly forsaken their progressive inclinations, but the album has generally shorter, simpler songs. Indeed, the music here is much closer in form to traditional pop and the writing lacks the delicacy of the first album whilst still rewarding the listener with pleasing melodies and ever improving standards of musicianship.
The sophisticated Paradox, the psychedelic It’s a long way and the interesting, if Beatles-esque Turn me on, all stand out, providing teasing indications of the direction that the band might have taken had they stayed together. As it was, only a few months following the release of their second album, Day of the Phoenix broke up. As with so many musical collaborations of the late sixties and early seventies, the fiercely talented collaborators looked in different directions to satisfy their musical ambitions.
If you will forgive one final indulgence, I will take you back to one particularly dank and overcast Saturday morning in the late 1980s in North East England. Browsing around the Prog Rock section, I chanced upon, and purchased a very battered, very scratched LP. Intriguingly named ‘Wide open N-Way’, the unmistakable influences of the emerging west coast sound were clearly evident, as was a naïve but distinctive musical voice. The quality of that recording was let down by the poor condition of the vinyl but there was undoubtedly something intriguing and promising in amongst the crackles, pops and jumps. On my next visit I asked the record shop owner if they knew of any other material by this band. They did not. But they promised to put anything aside for me if they found it. They never did.
This release by Cherry Red Records of Mind Funeral represents the sum total of the body of work of Day of Phoenix and completes a personal journey lasting four decades for me. It is beautifully remastered, allowing me to enjoy the full soundscape I was denied as a teenager, and extremely well packaged. Undoubtedly it will make a fascinating and worthwhile addition to any afficionado of the genre and provides yet another tantalising piece of the jigsaw of the progressive rock movement from the early 1970s. The quest may go on, but this is a wonderful place to pause a while and enjoy its fruits.
❉ Day Of Phoenix: Mind Funeral – The Recordings 1968-1972, 2CD Remastered & Expanded Edition (Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22738) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ CJ Newman combines a lifelong love of music, science fiction and cult movies with his alter-ego, as an academic writer on space exploration. He can be found on twitter as