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V/A - East of Underground: Hell Below

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Artist: V/A

Album: East of Underground: Hell Below

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Mar. 7, 2012

The Armed Forces have served as spawning grounds for musical talent since their inception. But for every Jimi Hendrix (101st Airborne) or John Coltrane (Naval Reserve), there have been legions of players who went nowhere with their post-service musical careers. Battles of the bands have an even deeper history that stretches back orders of magnitude further and is very nearly as lengthy and varied as music itself. Now & Again’s Hell Below reissues explore an intriguing and largely overlooked nexus of these two traditions, focusing on the work of four bands whose combination of talent and good fortune earned them victories in U.S. Army-sanctioned competitions at the start of the 1970s and the opportunity to record for posterity in a Frankfurt-based studio. All of the groups are essentially cover-bands, though it’s not completely clear how much of that emphasis was a function of contest rules or group choice.

The 1st Annual Original Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband contest of 1971 culminated in a tie for the first place prize. East of Underground occupy the whole of the first disc, turning in a set that borrows from the major funk and soul acts of the day and opens with an energetic if somewhat ragged rendering of Sly Stone’s “Gonna Take You Higher” that allows for plenty of vocal cutting up and comedy between choruses. The band tweaks the tempo and structures of other tunes with mixed results. Slowing down and stretching out the tight groove on The Temptations’ “Smiling Faces” works wonders. Conversely, their decision to speed up Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below” evaporates much of its brooding cynicism and ends up reducing the classic indictment of racial animosity to an over-baked boogaloo.

“People Get Ready” comes off comparatively straight and is the better for it for showing off where the band’s chief strength lies, in lush Impressions-style vocal harmonies. Definitely registering in the “surprise” column, a medley arrangement of Funkadelic’s “I Bet You” with “California Dreamer” makes for a curious coupling, but one that strangely works thanks to the enthusiasm of the group and an underlying ironclad groove as glue. A second pairing of “Popcorn” and Oye Como Va” (simplified to “Santana” on the sleeve) benefits from a hot recording balance strongly favoring bass and drums.

After a wah-wah saturated opening salvo through Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” co-1971 winners Soap’s set list on the second disc leans more heavily to the squeaky clean pop and AM-radio folk rock ends of the spectrum. Shimmering, harmonies-heavy takes on Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and The Beatles “Ticket to Ride’ serve as pleasant if pedestrian fodder, particularly in contrast to energy exuded by East of Underground. They even bravely breach Cher territory with a spirited rundown of “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” and Neil Young’s “Southern Man” injects a shot of social-consciousness to the repertoire, though the band sounds a bit stolid on the choruses and falters audibly on the song’s up-tempo instrumental breaks.

The third disc contains a program split between the 2nd Annual contest winners from the following year, each of which line up stylistically with the East of Underground, starting with five A-side songs by the first place The Black Seeds and rounding out the B-side with another six from second place The Sound Trek. Despite the more budget-conscious vinyl space accorded, both bands are well represented with highlights including an almost dub-inflected exploration of “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the Seeds and “If Loving You is Wrong” by the Trek that veers heavily toward the pithy and definitive Luther Ingram Stax arrangement. The vinyl sourcing is a bit rougher here and invasively dubbed-in segments of audience applause on both bands sets end up as distracting rather than enlivening agents to the overall sound.

The set’s packaging and documentation are each superlative with heavy cardstock gatefold facsimiles of the albums housed in a similarly sturdy box with a thick booklet and even an advertising poster of the original competition included. Also helpful are the band members service ranks listed right alongside their respective instruments. In light of how little the compilers had to go on, it’s a small miracle the documentation is as complete as it is. Starting strong with the title band and falling off somewhat with the others, this box is an involving experience in story and sound and a singular one considering the martial circumstances surrounding its source material.

By Derek Taylor

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