* Prices may differ from that shown
AFTER THE FIRE
After The Fire, or ATF, are best remembered as a kind of post-new wave foursome of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and enjoyed fleeting singles and albums chart success prior to disbanding in 1982. They had however started life in the mid-1970s with a slightly different line-up as a progressive rock outfit.
'Signs of Change' was first released in 1978 in a limited edition of 4,000 copies on vinyl on the group's own Rapid Records label, and sold at gigs or by mail order. It has since become a collector's item (I recently saw a copy for sale on eBay for $500, or around £314 - whether anybody bid that much, I don't know). Luckily it was reissued on CD, with bonus tracks, by Roughmix in 2004 and more recently by Angel Air.
If you are familiar with the better-known, more commercial and much shorter tracks from their later years, like 'One Rule or You' and 'Der Kommissar', you will hear elements of that on this debut album, written entirely by vocalist and guitarist Andy Piercy and keyboard player Peter Banks. Even so, this is a very different musical proposition. Names like ELP, Procol Harum, and Greenslade come to mind when listening to this. The dominant instrument throughout is Banks's Hammond C3 organ, although he also plays occasional synthesiser and piano.
The opening track 'Dance of the Marionette' (7.00) starts off with some brisk organ, with some nifty bass, drums and guitar in the background. The tempo slows after about a minute before Piercy's vocals come in. As on most of the songs (and as he did throughout their career), he has a distinctive style, with something of the intensity of Elvis Costello, but at the same time a rather Marc Bolan-like vibrato in places. ATF were known as a Christian rock band, and while there's nothing preachy about their lyrics (as Piercy once said, 'We're not a bunch of singing vicars!'), there is a subtle religious flavour to their lyrics - on this song, concerned with rejection against the idea of being controlled like a marionette and looking for a more spiritual life. It goes through several changes in tempo, with a sprightly dance (that's as in the kind of dances not far removed from Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker' suite, not contemporary disco) before one or two more twists and turns, and the final organ chords.
'Back to the Light' (4.30) is a rather shorter epic - brisk organ chords, backed with bass and drums, not unlike their later more poppy material, then slow, dreamy lead guitar passage.
The next two tracks follow a similar pattern. 'Now That I've Found' (8.10) starts off quite fast with a brisk, even quite catchy organ theme, then into a slow vocal passage, with some acoustic guitar in the backing although as usual the keyboards dominate. Much the same goes for the title track 'Signs of Change' (8.04) with its breakneck-paced organ at the start, with some changes in tempo before it reaches the vocals, and once more afterwards.
Just when you think the whole record is going to be more of the same, there's a complete change of direction. 'Jigs' (2.58) is basically what you would expect from the title - a sprightly instrumental on fiddle, flute (or is it organ effects - I suspect so), bodhran, handclaps, and the final part with a touch of folksy singing along, more like the Chieftains than ATF. This short piece leads into the longest track of all - and you thought the earlier ones were long enough? 'Pilgrim' (11.22) stays in Celtic folk territory, with Piercy's vocal almost Cockney, added to folk-rock guitar plus a few keyboard flourishes at a slower tempo about five minutes in. It's very reminiscent of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, although minus Maddy Prior's vocals. Towards the end you might recognise a musical quote or two on the organ, appropriately, from the hymn 'To be a pilgrim'.
The above tracks were the full extent of the 1978 LP, and to these the CD adds four bonus cuts, thus making a generous total playing time of 74 minutes.
'Samaritan Woman' (11.01) is probably the most overtly Christian lyric. It's not a 'Hosanna Praise him' kind of number, but actually based on a story from the New Testament. The usual unexpected shifts in tempo between the vocal and instrumental passages are there, and Piercy sounds even more like Bolan than the bopping elf in places.
'Dreamaway' (9.50) sounds closer to American AOR than the rest, particularly reminiscent of the band Kansas, in the classically-inspired organ and guitar, then slower, before the pace picks up with some faster rocky guitar.
Next follows the instrumental 'Hallelujah' (6.31), which is basically variations on a well-known Easter hymn with a few departures at the end. If you recognise the basic tune (and how many generations of us will remember singing 'Jesus Christ is risen today' at school), you have to admire the way they have turned the melody on its head slightly at the end and made something totally new out of it.
To finish off is a demo version of 'Back To The Light' (5.09), slightly less polished than the finished product which you will find on track 2.
After its heyday, prog rock became almost a term of abuse, and over 30 years later it still seems to have a stigma attached. 'Signs of Change' would certainly not have been a commercial proposition to find any major label backers in 1978. Anyway, could anything be less cool than Christian prog-rock? No sex, no drugs, no creepy monsters, witchcraft or demons? Possibly not. I suspect this is not the kind of album anybody would wish to come to 'cold', but if you enjoyed their more commercial material, you will find it interesting to say the least to hear how they started and developed. I had to listen to this a few times before it made sense and really fell into place. Having made the effort, and in spite of my not being over-enthusiastic about the likes of ELP or early Genesis, I soon grew to like it very much. Admittedly, the fact that I love the late 70s-onwards After The Fire probably helped.
So if you remember 'One Rule For You' or 'Der Kommissar' and want to hear where it all began, give it a go - but approach it with an open mind. 'Dance Of The Marionette' can be found on Youtube.
The eight-page booklet includes the lyrics, plus a few personal insights and reminiscences of recording the album written specially for the reissue by Banks and Piercy, who recall that a couple of tracks were played on Radio 1 at the time by John Peel and Alan Freeman, the latter on his mid-70s Saturday rock and prog-rock show.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Banks currently leads a revived version of the band, alongside guitarist John Russell, who joined after this album was recorded; Piercy has long been active on the Christian music scene; bassist and fiddler Nick Battle has worked in various branches of the music industry as promoter, publisher and radio presenter; and drummer Ivor Twidell (the bearded woolly-capped one on the back of the CD) is now a senior police officer in Gloucestershire. Check out google images and, not surprisingly, in uniform he looks very different.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]