“Back To The Pavilion - And Other Stories” - The Anthony Phillips remasters examined by Alan Hewitt.
In view of the fact that we have another lengthy interview with Mr Phillips elsewhere in this edition, I thought it might prove useful to cast a wee glance over the recent re-issues from Ant’s back catalogue.
Ant’s story has been one of studio excellence and live absence for almost forty years now and throughout that time the Private Parts & Pieces series of albums has been a mainstay for his more left field creations. So where better to start that with the first album in that series. Here we have a fascinating mix of music from when he was still a member of Genesis through to the mid 1970’s. If you want to understand what makes Anthony Phillips tick, you might get some of the answers on this album. From the slightly paranoid pianistic Beauty & The Beast to the truly wonderful acoustic guitar beauty of Field Of Eternity which I would say without reservation couldn’t be bettered if John Williams played it, you have an insight into a man whose music has been a haven of substance over gimmickry. Fans of Ant’s time with Genesis will be fascinated to hear tracks such as Stranger and the legendary Silver Song although here in Ant’s own demo nonetheless, there is much to marvel at in this inaugural album including the bonus of a previously unreleased movement from a Guitar Quintet which makes this album a must for Ant’s fans.
The second album in the series, subtitled Back To The Pavilion, appeared in 1980 and as second albums go, this one was typically more problematic. Compiled predominantly from material which Ant had written through out the late 1970’s it includes some of his first forays into the world of library music. As such, it is far more episodic in nature than its predecessor. The Scottish Suite stems from an abortive attempt to produce a series of educational albums combining dialogue from some of Shakespeare’s plays and rock music. An adventurous idea and one which Ant threw himself into as the resulting music shows. Intriguing, and as one would expect from Ant, amusing at times, the resulting music is fascinating to hear. The album suffered from poor production at the time meaning that many of the tracks were marred by excess hiss etc.. This thankfully has been put right on this new version, which among some of the more truncated library pieces, contains some of Ant’s real gems, especially the likes of Heavens, Spring Meeting and Romany’s Aria and the classic Nocturne and Lucy : An Illusion.
Sadly, due to technical issues, the third and fourth volumes in the series have not reached TWR HQ yet but rest assured, as soon as they do, I shall give you the lowdown on them. So instead, we shall move right on to the fifth and sixth volumes.
Private Parts & Pieces V, subtitled Twelve was released back in 1985and in its way was a concept album in so far as it took as its theme the twelve months of the year. Performed entirely on twelve string guitar, this is one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding of Ant’s albums. I guess we will all have our favourites from the months of the year, mine is February - can’t think why!
Continuing in a similar vein for 1986’s Ivory Moon, the sixth album in the series, although no defined thematic element is here, the one constant is Ant’s playing on the piano which may come as a surprise for anyone who had him pegged solely as a guitar player. There are several pieces here from another ambitious musical project based around Kit Willams’ book Masquerade which sadly never saw the light of day. Melancholy and at times reflective, this is an album that needs time for its full character to emerge but when it does, the rewards are enormous.
By the late 1980’s Ant had established himself as one of the country’s foremost composers of library music. As many of you will know, as a rule, this material seldom if ever ends up in the public domain and so remains unheard by fans unless you have a keen enough ear to recognise a piece that appears on TV! The next album in the series, 1987’s Slow Waves, Soft Stars took the step of addressing that problem by making some of this material available for the fans. One of my favourite albums by Ant, and this re-issue merely confirms that opinion. Firmly divided into two camps; the electronic synthesiser side of things and the purely acoustic guitar side. They contrast beautifully with each other and on occasions when they merge, such as on End Of The Affair, the end result is breathtaking. Okay so some of the synthesiser sounds are a little dated now, but that only adds to their character and you will never hear Ant’s acoustic playing better than on this album.
Fans of the series had a while to wait for the next instalment but 1992’s New England was definitely worth it. By the time this album had appeared, Ant had found another outlet for his library music compositions in the shape of the Missing Links series (more of that later in this review). New England marked a welcome return to the acoustic work for which he is justly famed. From the synth driven Aubade to the Pieces of Eight and New England Suites, here is Anthony Phillips at his very best. We even get that rarity on an Anthony Phillips album, not one but two songs. The first of these, Sanctuary is a delightful piano based ballad which suits Ant’s unique vocal style extremely well. Understated guitar features as well. Throughout the album, Ant’s playing is as thoughtful and crafted as we have come to expect. Beautifully observed moments such as the first part of the New England Suite, will delight fans old and new and for a truly amazing example of the songwriter’s art try Unheard Cry for size!
A further four years were to elapse before the next album in the series, 1996’s Dragonfly Dreams, another album I have a soft spot for, maybe that is in part due to the fact that I gave the album its title during a listening session I had at Ant’s place to select music for it. Don’t hold that against the album though because once again, you have an album cast in the more traditional mould of the series with a healthy mix of old and new material. Keyboard and guitar are perfect bedfellows on this magnificent album and it serves as yet another timely reminder of Ant’s talents on both instruments. Once again, we are treated to a song on this one too, the truly awesome She’ll Be Waiting - tears will flow when you hear this one I guarantee it!
1999 saw the release of the last album in this series to be re-issued as part of this project. Soiree, returned to the piano based side of Ant’s music which had first been heard on 1986’s Ivory Moon. This is an album that harks back to a more sedate age, the age of parlour music and the musical evenings from which the album takes its title. Romantic and wistful, this is an album to enjoy on a cold winter’s evening with a roaring fire and a glass of your favourite tipple.
As mentioned earlier by the beginning of the 1990’s Anthony had established an alternative home for his library music in the form of the Missing Links series of albums, and the first three of these have been repackaged as part of this re-issue series. Opening with 1991’s Finger Painting, the series provides a fine showcase for the kind of music which a wide variety of musicians work in. Episodic in nature and by necessity, that doesn’t mean that the episodes themselves don’t work independently of their visual subject matter. On this album you have the drama of tracks such as Force Majeure and Lord Of The Smoking Mirror and the wonderful evocation of Hong Kong’s wildlife which is the Land Of Dragons Suite, coupled with a scattering of the more traditional acoustic fare without which such an album would be unthinkable and once again the resulting album is a delight to hear.
The second album in this series, The Sky Road, released in 1992, was a much more dynamic affair. Here is music which I defy anyone who has an appreciation of the musician’s art not to enjoy. The entry price is justified by the presence here of the majestic Exile, unbelievably an out-take from the magnificent Slow Dance album. Here too, we have the wonderful suite of pieces from the Central TV series, Lifeboat which is brilliantly evocative of its subject matter. In addition to that you have some fine collaborations with Martin Robertson, whose saxophone playing lifts Tears On A Rainy Day into the realms of high art. We also get another glimpse into the work which Ant and his long-time collaborator, Joji Hirota have done for wildlife TV programmes which makes for fascinating listening. As if that wasn’t enough, for fans of vintage material, there are two tracks dating from the beginnings of Ant’s musical career, and such is the quality of the rest of the music that they do not seem out of place here!
The most recent album in this series of reissues, 1997’s Time & Tide took us back to the original premise behind the series. Comprised totally of music which Ant had written with Joji for wildlife programmes over the years. Here you have the terror and mystery of the ocean in music written for the Jurassic Shark programme, to the shimmering sands of the Kalahari desert and the sweltering lungs of the planet which is the Amazon rain forest. Brilliantly observed character portraits of some of the creatures found in these places are mixed with those of locations such as the brilliantly observed portrait of Hong Kong in Back In The Land Of Dragons. A veritable voyage around the globe for the ears!
Speaking of travelling around the globe, the final album in this marvellous series of re-issues takes us back to the major composition which Anthony created in the early 1990’s for the Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race Lasting some 36 weeks and broadcast at an ungodly hour of the morning, nonetheless, the programme generated some of Ant’s most vivid and descriptive music from the high drama of sailing round Cape Horn to more intimate moments along with three previously unreleased tracks.
So, there you go, if you are already familiar with these albums, you will know exactly what to expect. If you are new to Ant’s music though, I can only envy you your enjoyment as you begin your voyage around the world of the music that is Anthony Phillips - enjoy!