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Brand X: Locked & Loaded

John Kelman By

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There are a great many bands whose lineups have been so fluid that keeping track of who was in the band when is no mean feat. Few bands have, however, had as complicated a history as Brand X. Even in its latest re-reincarnation, there's been a lineup shift between the high octane fusion group's January, 2017 performance documented on But wait...There's more!, released independently the same year, and Locked & Loaded, culled largely from a show just five months later and released as the current band hits the road for a relatively short tour of the northeastern United States. But weathering lineup changes is something Brand X has long handled with aplomb, and Locked & Loaded is nothing short of a stellar addition to But wait...There's more! in documenting Brand X 2017, and with its own magic to recommend.

The band first came together in the mid-'70s as a rehearsal band, with an original lineup featuring guitarist John Goodsall , über-bassist Percy Jones, keyboardist Robin Lumley, included drummer John Dillon, vocalist/percussionist Phil Spinelli and Pete Bonas on second guitar.

After a stylistically different album was submitted to and rejected by Island Records, Spinelli and Bonas left, as did Dillon, replaced by drummer Phil Collins, who used the open-ended, improv-heavy Brand X as a separate creative outlet to the stricter confines of his by-then main gig with Genesis, the ascending progressive rock group whose diametrically opposed objective was to reproduce its studio material as faithfully and consistently as possible in performance.

This was the lineup that recorded Unorthodox Behaviour (Charisma, 1976), which also featured saxophonist Jack Lancaster guesting on one track.

Following a number of other percussionists fleshing the group to a quintet (including ex-Yes/King Crimson's Bill Bruford, Camel's Andy Ward, Jeff Seopardie and Preston Heyman), the quartet of Unorthodox Behaviour was ultimately augmented, for Moroccan Roll (Charisma, 1977), by percussionist Morris Pert, a busy session percussionist (tuned and untuned) who'd garnered attention for his work with Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, Canterbury mainstays Caravan, fusion compadres Isotope and, most notably, Marscape (RSO, 1976), an all-too-often overlooked progressive masterpiece led by Lumley and Lancaster, but also featuring fellow Brand Xers Collins, Goodsall and Jones.

But as Collins became increasingly busy with the demands of Genesis' upward trajectory towards superstardom, his participation with Brand X became inconsistent; even the band's third album, the live Livestock (Charisma, 1977), was culled from live dates featuring both Collins and, when he was busy gigging with Genesis, American drummer Kenwood Dennard, at that time best-known as a participant in guitarist Pat Martino's brief move away from mainstream jazz towards more hard-hitting fusion, Joyous Lake (Warner Bros., 1976).

Things became even more complicated still following the release of Masques (Charisma, 1978)—itself, representing no shortage of change in the studio and on stage, with Lumley and Collins/Dennard replaced, respectively, by Quatermass' Peter Robinson and Chuck Bürgi (Al Di Meola). But while, by this time, Brand X was effectively co-led (and owned) by Goodsall and Jones, a bout of tendinitis docked Goodsall from July 1978 through to the end of the year, and so American guitarist Mike Miller took his place on most tour dates until Goodsall was fully recovered.

Still, even with all its personnel changes, Brand X's overall mission statement had remained consistent...until 1979, that is, when Charisma, unsatisfied with the band's overall sales, began pushing the group towards more accessible music, a direction Jones felt would not only not garner more sales, but would, in fact, alienate the band's existing fan base. And so, there became two versions of Brand X: one, featuring Goodsall, Jones, Robinson and newcomer, Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters drummer Mike Clark, to focus on its more experimental side; while Goodsall, bassist John Giblin (Peter Gabriel, Steve Harley) and the returning Collins and Lumley worked on more user-friendly music.

Literally working in shifts at Ringo Starr's Startling Studios, the two lineups recorded enough music for two albums: Product (Charisma, 1979) and Do They Hurt? (Charisma, 1980). And, true to Jones' prediction, the somewhat schizophrenic nature of these two albums did, indeed, alienate some of its existing base while, at the same time, failing to bring a significant number of new fans into the fold.

A final contractual obligation album, Is There Anything About? (culled from tapes dating as far back as the group's very first album), featured Goodsall, Jones, Lumley, Robinson, Giblin and Collins, though only Lumley was actually involved in any new recordings for the release. The record was issued in September 1982 by CBS in the UK, more than two years after the band's dissolution.

And that seemed to be the end of Brand X.

Until the early 1990s that is, when Goodsall and Jones reunited under the Brand X moniker, but this time as a trio with drummer Frank Katz, who would also collaborate in the bassist's nascent group Tunnels, beginning around the same time and reaching into the early part of the new millennium. With Goodsall assuming a dual role as both guitarist and, through his utilization of MIDI-driven sampling, pseudo- keyboardist, XCommunication (Ozone Records) was released in 1992 and, while a worthy return to original form and sonic/stylistic update, still failed to generate any kind of significant notice beyond hardcore fans.

Expanding to a sextet (its largest lineup ever), the band returned with Manifest Destiny (Cleopatra) in 1997, with Goodsall, Jones and Katz joined by bassist/keyboardist Franz Pusch, bassist/keyboardist/vibes/MIDI-vibraphonist Marc Wagnon and X-Communication guest, flautist Danny Wilding, before dissolving once again in 1999, after a couple of years of occasional touring in Europe and Japan, with ex-Gong drummer Pierre Moerlen replacing the departing Katz in 1997, along with the 1998 addition of keyboardist Kris Sjorbing.

And so, the band once again became dormant until 2016, when it was announced that Goodsall and Jones would reunite with Kenwood Dennard, who had gone on, after his short tenure with Martino and Brand X in the '70s, to record and/or tour with jazz luminaries including vocal group The Manhattan Transfer, guitarist Stanley Jordan and trombonist Robin Eubanks' EB3 trio, the latter releasing the truly mind-boggling Live Vol. 1 (RKM, 2009). Goodsall, Jones and Dennard were joined by newcomers Chris Clark (keyboards) and Scott Weinberger (percussion).

Clark is not as well known as he deserves to be, familiar (at best) to those who've heard drummer Ron Thaler's Grain (Hotwire, 1998), the pair's contribution to Mahavishnu Redefined: A Tribute To John McLaughlin And The Mahavishnu Orchestra (ESC, 2009), or John Entwistle's short solo tour, a year before The Who bassist's death in 2002.

Weinberger, too, is worthy of greater recognition. Having studied with Dennard in his formative years, the percussionist has, more recently, spent time in the studio with guitarist Adrian Belew, in addition to guesting onstage with Security Project, a collaboration between Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Shriekback alum formed to pay tribute to Gabriel's first four, more experimental solo albums, its ongoing tours documented on a series of live albums beginning with Live 1 (7D Media, 2016).

The newly minted Brand X's But wait ... There's more! demonstrated that not only was Brand X back, but in top form as well, bettering Livestock both in sound quality and, more importantly, musicianship. Goodsall, Jones and Dennard have all matured significantly over the years, with the guitarist's early, raw, John McLaughlin-esque playing still possessed of all these qualities but also a more sophisticated and dexterous bent.

Jones' lithe fretless bass work, with his unique use of harmonics, unusual leaps from low-end anchors to surprising upper register flights, and a distinctively visceral tone, is as instantly recognizable as ever, and remains a strong counterpoint to Jaco Pastorius, who emerged around the same time but garnered greater acclaim as a fretless bassist, despite Jones being no less distinctive and, in his own way, groundbreaking. Jones' own solo releases, his work with Tunnels (which also included Goodsall in the early 2000s) and with other projects has resulted in the bassist recapturing the spirit of Brand X while, at the same time, rendering it relevant in a new century.

These same qualities abound on the shorter, LP-length Locked & Loaded, with all but the final "exclusive bonus track," "Cambodia," recorded at a June, 2017 performance in Lancaster, PA, and the closing track, first heard on Do They Hurt?, culled from a show five months later in Pasadena, CA.

Unorthodox Behaviour's opening two tracks, the knottier "Nuclear Burn" and more ambling "Euthanasia Waltz," are reprised from But wait ..., along with Livestock's ethereal (and, at just under five minutes, much shorter) "Isis Mourning," which still manages to feature some incendiary work from Goodsall in its second half. But the rest of the material is new to the current lineup's two live recordings, rendering Locked & Loaded just as relevant (and appealing) as its two-disc live predecessor from the year before.

Moroccan Roll's "Disco Suicide" opens Locked & Loaded in powerhouse fashion, but still manages to evoke its stylistic duality. Clark takes an impressive piano solo early in the Robin Lumley composition's second, more relaxed section, before leading to its singable (and, originally, with wordless vocals originally sung by Phil Collins) theme. Things turn more frenetic still with a third section that features knotty, light-speed stop/start phrases and fluid synth lines, before bringing the piece to a close with a return to the second section theme, this time played with greater firepower.

Duality has, in fact, long been a part of Brand X's music, which often combines atmospheric sonics and tempestuous Mahavishnu Orchestra-style gymnastics. The group's unbridled, paradoxically Latin-esque yet funkified look at Masques' "Earth Dance" is a fervent demonstration of instrumental mastery from all five members of Brand X, but in particular newly added drummer Kenny Grohowski (Lonnie Plaxico, Andy Milne, Felix Pastorius ), whose thunderous energy is particularly notable here, alongside Weinberger, who manages to avoid the ever-present risk of train wrecks when combining with a kit drummer. Instead, the two fit together tongue-in-groove with the emphasis on groove (albeit, oftentimes, of the high velocity kind), with a mid-song, ostinato-driven feature for the pair, as they trade-off and, ultimately, come together to create some truly joyous noise.

A combination of light speed lines and guitar arpeggios lead to another track from Masques, Goodsall's epically episodic "The Poke." It's hard to believe how the guitarist manages to fit so much music into so little time while still feeling like a seamless whole, even as it moves from idiosyncratic, high-velocity lines and four-on-the-floor rhythms to brooding arpeggiations and half-time grooves made all the more potent with Grohowski's Dennis Chambers-like double bass drum work.

Introduced as "a romantic little ballad," the album-closing bonus track, Do They Hurt?'s "Cambodia," may, indeed, emerge with a slow tempo and (again) arpeggio-driven lines that, nevertheless, build in a way reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra's respective A and B side-closers, "Hope" and "Resolution," from its mega-selling Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973), but ultimately turns into a full-on feature for composer Goodsall. The guitarist demonstrates just how far he has come in the ensuing decades in terms of clean articulation, fiery speed and compositional focus as he builds a truly searing solo that's a highlight of the set.

A final drum solo over harmonically shifting arpeggios leads to a return of the song's memorable theme and a tumultuous conclusion to both the song and Locked & Loaded. With its set of seven compositions from across all but one of its early recordings (only Product is unrepresented), Locked & Loaded dovetails perfectly with But wait ... There's more!, bringing together fourteen tracks that represent some of Brand X's best music.

If any is needed that Brand X is back and as good as it's ever been—better, even—the one-two punch of But wait ... There's more! and, now, Locked & Loaded provides ample evidence, from a band that may only feature two of its original members but clearly the most significant ones when it comes to defining the group's overall modus operandi. With its seamless blend of fusion- heavy, complex compositional constructs, heavy on sonic atmospherics and room for everyone in the group to interpret and extrapolate, Locked & Loaded continues to position Brand X as a band with high potency relevance, and plenty left to say, in the second decade of the 21st century.

Track Listing: Disco Suicide; Earth Dance; Euthanasia Waltz; Isis Mourning; The Poke; Nuclear Burn; Cambodia (exclusive bonus track).

Personnel: John Goodsall: guitar; Percy Jones: bass; Chris Clark: keyboards; Kenny Grohowski: drums; Scott Weinberger: percussion.

Title: Locked & Loaded | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Self Produced

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Locked & Loaded

Locked & Loaded

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2018

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