After two progressive rock albums with Rare Bird, Graham Field flew to greener pastures with Fields. The band featured a lineup of Field on organ, Andy McCulloch (late of Lizard) on drums and Alan Barry on everything else (vocals and double-necked bass/guitar). Their eponymous debut was reminiscent of Rare Bird but more musical, in many ways the more fitting followup to their first two records. Unfortunately, CBS shelved their second album (eventually released as Contrasts in 2015), and the trio went their separate ways. Their debut remains a sought-after collectible among prog aficionados that will appeal to fans of ELP, The Nice, Procol Harum and (of course) Rare Bird.
Kronomyth 1.0: EMERSON LAKE EMBALMER. Those who followed Rare Bird after their second album found themselves in the bewilderedness of Epic Forest when, in fact, they should have pursued the outstanding Fields instead. Fields was conceived as a post-ELP power trio featuring Graham Field (here credited as the author of “Sympathy”) and a pair of peripheral Crimsonites, Andy McCulloch and Alan Barry. Their first, eponymous album picks up where As Your Mind Flies By left off, and adds elements of ELP and Yes to the mix while favoring shorter song structures. The explosive opening, “A Friend of Mine,” is fair warning that big things are afoot in Fields. Yet, by sticking to a conventional four-minute song format, the band would seem to thwart their own epic designs. There are isolated moments of brilliant flash on songs like “Over And Over Again” and clever ideas tucked away on “While The Sun Still Shines” and “Feeling Free,” but as soon as an idea gets interesting, it seems like it’s over and Fields is on to the next thing (e.g., minstrelsy, organ interludes). McCulloch and Barry are a considerable improvement over Rare Bird’s rhythm section, and you have the sense that Graham Field didn’t leave his former band for creative differences so much as the opportunity to create more complex music. And while Fields is intricate at times, it tends to topple over on itself. As a progressive rock sampler, this is definitely a tasty debut and worthy of its semi-cult status among progsnobs. It is not, however, an opus on the scale of Tarkus or The Yes Album, although after you’ve exhausted the albums of The Nice in pursuit of a second ‘ELPing this would be a logical next step.
Rare Bird were discovered by Tony Stratton-Smith and signed to his fledgling Charisma label alongside such progressive luminaries as The Nice, Van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis. Their eponymous debut showcased the band’s unique lineup (organ, electric piano, bass & drums) and spawned a worldwide hit in the stately “Sympathy.” The followup, As Your Mind Flies By, was even more overtly progressive and featured one track, “Flight,” that took up the entire second side. Creative tensions, coupled with a lack of commercial success, led to a split that resulted in founding organist Graham Field forming Fields and drummer Mark Ashton resurfacing under Headstone.
Under the direction of Steve Gould (vocals/bass/guitar) and Dave Kaffinetti (keyboards), Rare Bird was a bird of a different feather. The music of Epic Forest, Somebody’s Watching and Born Again favored contemporary rock/funk songs over progressive flights of fancy, although the band never completely cut the cord from their progressive past, as evidenced by the occasional eight- or nine-minute epic. Despite major-label support and a stint as the opening act for the similarly star-crossed Barclay James Harvest in 1974, the new Rare Bird never really took off and they finally folded after a single that prophetically featured a song called “Passing Through”—as fitting an epitaph as any for the band.
Kronomyth 4.0: BUT NOBODY’S LISTENING. Somebody’s Watching asks the musical question: If Rare Bird dropped another album in the same vein as Epic Forest, would anyone hear it? By this stage, Rare Bird had completely morphed into a kind of cross between Steely Dan (the title track is a near ringer for “Do It Again”), Barclay James Harvest and whatever is funkier than those two bands and features a lot of clavinet playing (I have a limited lexicon of funk references, in case you hadn’t noticed). Now, if the idea of a Steely Harvest didn’t send you screaming in the other direction, good for you. As much as I enjoyed their second album, I didn’t plan to carry a torch for it through eternity. The band shifted in a more mainstream direction under the leadership of Gould and Kaffinetti, but they didn’t stop making good music. Songs like “More And More” and “Turn Your Head,” for example, are well worth hearing. Now, the addition of VDGG’s Nic Potter on bass doesn’t alter what has always been a bit of a boring bottom end on Rare Bird recordings. And the band’s tepid version of “Hard Time” is a missed opportunity. But I honestly enjoy this album more than their last, even if neither are likely to become staples in my musical diet. For the obstinate proggers who refused to let go of the past, the band includes an epic version of Ennio Morricone’s “A Few Dollars More” at the end. (Signs that you’re probably not a progressive rock band: John Wetton guests on your album and you misspell his name.) The later CD release adds the nonalbum single “Virginia” b/w “Lonely Street” as a bonus.
Rare Bird left the fields for the forest and forsook the intricate designs of their last album for a more direct route. Despite the tantalizing name, Epic Forest features shorter songs driven by conventional rock rhythms that suggest Wishone Ash or early Kansas on the heavier cuts and Crosby & Nash on the acoustic cuts. (An observation that many other reviewers have made, btw, proving that I really add nothing to the conversation.) That’s not to dismiss the new Rare Bird out of hand; the acoustic numbers (“Darkest Hour,” “Hey Man,” “Fears of the Night”) are as interesting and evocative as anything that BJH was playing at the time. Yet Graham Field seems to have taken the band’s primary progressive weapon—the towering spires of celestial organ—with him to his new endeavor (named, wait for it, Fields), and no one steps in to fill his shoes. The band still has some progressive fire in their belly (“Turn It All Around,” “Epic Forest”), though you can’t help but wonder whether they can (or care to) sustain it over time. The organ and guitar solos feel rushed, for example, as if the band were checking off a box and moving on to the next thing. Even the arrangements feel hurried, or at least compressed, some of which can be blamed on poor production I suppose. I suspect the reason that the acoustic numbers are more agreeable is that they’re allowed to breathe. The breathless performances of “Baby Listen” or “Birdman” are tantamount to musical hit and run. As consolation, the record included a free three-track single with “Roadside Welcome,” “Four Grey Walls” and “You’re Lost,” lingering longer than it might. If you were excited at the progress made on their last record, you’ll need to temper that excitement with the reality that half of rare Bird had flown the coop in search of greener pastures. In its place is a mix of hello and goodbye, a sudden shift in strategy from organ-driven epics to shorter, tighter (but still imaginative) rock songs. Not a bad record by any means, but a different journey than their last and one less likely to engage proggers who had packed in preparation for a purportedly epic adventure.
Kronomyth 1.0: ORGANASM. Tony Stratton-Smith’s fledgling Charisma label would prove pivotal in the progressive rock movement, introducing many in the world to the work of Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and The Nice. Rare Bird never quite joined the rarefied ranks of those bands, despite Stratton-Smith’s early enthusiasm and a promising debut that included a worldwide hit in “Sympathy.” The band’s initial distinction was a double-keyboard attack that invited comparison to the Nice (although the outnumbered Emerson still had the upper hand), led by Graham Field (organ) and David Kaffinetti (electric piano). On their eponymous debut, Rare Bird sound like a cross between VDGG, The Nice and, thematically, Barclay James Harvest (humanity, war and birds are recurring themes for both). The arrangements are often bombastic (“Iceberg,” “God of War”), occasionally quite seductive (“You Went Away,” “Natures Fruit”) and make good use of vocalist Stephen Gould’s dynamic range. As with most young bands, Rare Bird were still a work in progress. The rhythm section of Gould and Ashton is serviceable, not superlative, and the band seems to lack a proper lyricist. The result is a debut that sometimes feels half baked (“Times,” “Melanie”), and more than a few times I wondered if the band weren’t simply a smarter version of Steppenwolf rather than winged princes of the new progressive army. Few acts were pushing rock’s boundaries with as much force in 1969, however, so proggers will give Rare Bird the benefit of the doubt, particularly during one of Field’s or Kaffinetti’s flights of fancy. If you’re in the mood for heavy, heady keyboard prog and don’t mind the occasionally ham-handed passage, Rare Bird’s debut is certainly worth a flier. [Note that the US version featured different artwork and flipped sides one and two. No doubt the excellent “Beautiful Scarlet” proved a better opening track, just as “God of War” provided a better close.]