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Egg: The Civil Surface

John Kelman By

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First achieving prominence with seminal progressive/Canterbury group Egg, it was with Hatfield and the North that British keyboardist Dave Stewart matured into a more jazz-centric writer/player. That said, Egg's first two discs—Egg (Nova/Deram, 1970) and The Polite Force (Deram, 1971)—demonstrated a remarkably mature voice for someone who, alongside equal contributors Mont Campbell (bass, vocals, French horn) and Clive Brooks (drums), was still on the cusp of his twenties. With Egg's unfortunate demise in 1972, some of its best material remained undocumented, barring a now-lost BBC date. Thankfully, when Hatfield's 1974 eponymous debut garnered significant attention, Stewart was able to convince Virgin Records' Richard Branson to let Egg regroup in the studio to commit that material to tape.

1974's The Civil Surface has been in and out of print on CD (mostly out), but Esoteric Records' Mark Powell has applied the same loving care that he did to Eclectic's earlier remastered reissues of Egg's first two discs, making this the definitive version.

The Civil Surface reflects widening interests, with Stewart's greater jazz-centricity and wryly melodic Canterbury flavor most notable on the longer tracks "Germ Patrol," "Enneagram" and "Wring Out the Ground (Loosely Now)." That "Enneagram" and "Wring Out," the only vocal track for Campbell, reference "Lobster in Cleavage Probe" and "Gigantic Land Crabs in Earth Takeover Bid" from Hatfield's debut is only a matter of timing: these were, after all, originally written before that first album, just recorded afterwards. And the same sense of creating arcing musical threads that would define Hatfield records surfaces here, with "Enneagram" ultimately back-referencing one of the key motifs on "Germ Patrol."

The complex writing—episodic tracks filled with complex meters, rich harmonies and tight arrangements, as well as some strong solos—bears an unmistakable link to Hatfield but, with Campbell's rigorous classicism an equal part of the equation, it still sounds like Egg. A number of guests—including bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper and clarinetist Tim Hodgkinson from Henry Cow, and The Northettes (Amanda Parsons, Barbara Gaskin and Ann Rosenthal), who lend their near-angelic voices to the pensive "Prelude"—also expand Egg's textural landscape considerably.

Campbell's classical proclivities, which would mesh with world music concerns on his one solo album, Music from a Round Tower (East Side Digital, 1996), are even more apparent on "Wind Quartet 1" and "Wind Quartet 2." These two miniatures, along with "Nearch"—a curious piece that spends the last of its three minutes largely in silence, with the occasional sharp punctuation at seemingly unpredictable intervals—were originally written for and performed by The Ottawa Company, the Egg/Khan/Henry Cow big band that Stewart led with Cow's Chris Cutler in the early 1970s.

But it's the longer pieces (all over eight minutes) and "Prelude" that make The Civil Surface a more satisfying and inherently less-dated effort than Egg's first two albums. It's a disc that, over thirty years later, still sounds relevant and, with the improved sonics and Powell's informative liner notes, fills an important gap in the history of both Stewart and the Canterbury sound.

Track Listing: Germ Patrol; Wind Quartet 1; Enneagram; Prelude; Wring Out the Ground (Loosely Now); Nearch; Wind Quartet 2.

Personnel: Dave Stewart: organ, piano, bass (6); Clive Brooks: drums; Mont Campbell: bass, voice, French horn, piano. Guests: Jeremy Baines: germophone and bonk (1, 6); Lindsay Cooper: oboe and bassoon (1, 6); Tim Hodgkinson: clarinet (1, 6); Maurice Cambridge: clarinet (2, 7); Stephen Solloway: flute (2, 7); Chris Palmer: bassoon (2, 7); Ann Rosenthal: voice (4); Amanda Parsons: voice (4); Barbara Gaskin: voice (4); Steve Hillage: guitar (5).

Title: The Civil Surface | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Esoteric Recordings

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