Ian Carr and Nucleus: '70s British Jazz Rock Progenitors
While Nucleus remained a band worth following, there is no question that by the time Under the Sun was released they had reached a plateaux, one that would not be overcome on their next release, '75's Snakehips Etcetera. With a stable line-up of Carr, Bertles, Shaw, Castle, Sutton and newcomer Roger Sellers on drums, gone were the days of more collective improvisation, and instead the group seemed, for the most part, to return to the theme-solo-theme format that they had so steadfastly eschewed from the very beginning.
Still, there are plenty of things to like about Snakehips Etcetera. There is a certain clean soulfulness to some of the material, in particular Bertles' "Rat's Bag" and Castles' "Rachel's Tune." Some of the material, in particular Carr's irregular metered title track and "Heyday," which sports some 12-string acoustic guitar from Shaw that is somewhat reminiscent of Ralph Towner, features longer forms that hearken back to the early days of Belladonna. But the group is more literal, less open; and the result reeks too much of a rhythm section supporting a soloist rather than a group of improvisers who are working off each other. And while Bertles and Carr continue to be strong and imaginative soloists, Shaw comes too much from a rock background and hasn't enough jazz sensibility to keep things truly interesting during his lengthy solos.
But if Snakehips Etcetera is Nucleus at their most predictable, their most pedestrian, they are still a step ahead of many of their peers of the day.
'75's Alleycat features the same line-up as Snakehips Etcetera and, consequently the same set of strengths and weaknesses. Still, at this point Nucleus was a busy performing group, with regular tours in Germany to hone the group's sound. They may not have been as adventurous as they were in their early days, but they were a tight group, with a distinctive sound that was more about funk and soul than more traditional jazz roots. A band that had started as a hybrid looking towards fusing a variety of genres into a coherent sound had evolved into a more straightforward groove band. Sure, there are hints of more adventurous harmonies on tracks like Carr's "Splat," and a certain element of blues roots to tracks like the Carr/Shaw/Sutton collaboration "You Can't Be Sure," but the closest the group comes to recapturing their earlier days of adventure is on Bertles' "Nosegay," with its staggeringly fast theme and energetic Tower of Power burn over which Bertles delivers the strongest solo of the record. But, again, the writing is all about theme-solo-theme, a philosophy that Carr had so adamantly avoided in previous incarnations of the band.
Still, there's an energy about this incarnation of the band, and a broader accessibility that must have made them an exciting live act.
With Alleycat Nucleus ended its long association with Vertigo Records, who had released everything by the band since its inception. Moving to Capital Records with perhaps hopes of greater marketability, in particular in North America, Nucleus would go on to release their next record, the live recording In Flagrante Delicto. But in the meantime Vertigo issued Direct Hits , as fitting a retrospective as one could ask for.
Interestingly, the most recent album represented would be Under the Sun , with more emphasis on the earlier incarnation of the band with Brian Smith. And what is most noticeable on the compilation is just how much ground they covered in their first year. With "Song For The Bearded Lady" from We'll Talk About It Later , "Crude Blues" from Elastic Rock and "Torso" from Solar Plexus , a clear picture evolves of a band that truly had its own take in shaping the fusion of jazz with more contemporary rhythms and tonalities. And while the group continued to push the envelope forward with Belladonna , Roots and, in particular, the ambitious Labyrinth , there is something special, something vital about the first incarnation of the band that was never quite recaptured, although the group certainly continued to develop its own sound and approach.
While Bertles was a fine player, the return of Brian Smith to the fold in '77 demonstrates how one player can have a significant impact on the complexion of an entire band. By this point Nucleus had pared down to a lean, mean five-piece featuring keyboardist Geoff Castle and drummer Roger Sellers both of whom, with a couple of years with the group under their belt, were more seasoned and prepared for a return to the more collective improvisational approach that Smith's return represented. And while new bassist Bill Kristian had only played a few gigs on Nucleus' German tour in February '77, when In Flagrante Delicto was recorded live in concert, he had already melded nicely into a group that was now a little less soul-oriented, and was prepared to tackle darker material, including Carr's "Heyday" and the sixteen-minute title track, where Carr and Smith solo in tandem for much of the time, with Castle dropping intuitively appropriate supporting chords behind them.
In Flagrante Delicto may not represent a full return to Nucleus' early days, where the group came to the rock end of things from a more jazz disposition, but with a cleaner sound and greater sense of interplay, this is unquestionably the group's best album since '73's Roots.