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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 248 - 11/14/16

Judge Smith
Requiem Mass
Masters Of Art

It's been a great autumn for followers of Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG) and its cohorts. In addition to the new album Do Not Disturb by the band itself released the last day of September, the Rockpalast concert from 1981 with Peter Hammill's K Group including two former VdGG members in addition to Hammill himself finally saw the light of day on CD and DVD in late August. And here's the new album by VdGG co-founder along with Hammill and original drummer, the artist formerly known as Chris Judge Smith. I guess the album might be characterised as the eccentric outskirts of the VdGG sphere. It's certainly a one of a kind album, a real mass of the dead, in the vein of Roman catholic masses - with lyrics in Latin - in nine movements for a massive 48 members strong choir, brass and a rock'n'roll band. No organ involved. With the rock group it's not a traditional mass as such, neither a "rock opera" as his and Peter Hammill's The Fall Of The House Of Usher, nor the kind of songstory that Judge has written a few of earlier, Curly's Airships being the first. It's certainly a one of a kind Work ...

The recording of the Requiem is new, but the Work itself was written about 41 years ago (whereas The House Of Usher was only 25 years in the making ...). Well, written and written, initially not the traditional way. Let's call in the Judge himself to explain, from his home page:

'In many ways, I am a musical primitive. I can't read or write music, I can't play the guitar and my keyboard has the names of the notes on it. I can sing and I was a very poor drummer, and that's the extent of my musical motor-skills. However I have always been able to imagine quite complicated music in my head, and in considerable detail. With the advent of cheap synthesisers and sequencers in the late 70s, I was able to make simple demos of the music bouncing around in my brain, demos that real musicians were able to turn into real music. It was a wonderful liberation. Before then I had to sing everything to a sympathetic muso, one part at a time, a process both slow and humiliating.'

The sympathetic muso in this instance was Michael Brand, a young brass band leader who had starred in a prize winning short film directed by Judge, about a man being chased by a, you guessed it, brass band. Michael transcribed the Work, in the laborious way described above, around 1976. The centrepiece of the Work "Dies Irae" was performed in simple rock arrangement by Judge's Imperial Storm Band around 1976-77 and the band recorded a demo version of the, eh, song, available on Judge's first, eh, solo album called Democrazy (Oedipus Recs, 1991), an entertaining collection of demos from Judge's, eh, career, in the fringes of the music business. Apart from that nothing really happened about the Work for the next 30-something years.

Let's move over to Bergen, Norway, in the present millennium and the Spanish/Basque music associate professor at the local university, violinist, conductor, composer, independent record company boss etc. Ricardo Odriozola. He had earlier in the decade collaborated with Van der Graaf sax and flute player David Jackson and was interested in the music of Judge. He had heard about the unfulfilled Mass, was given the score and transcribed the Work into a digital notation programme. He also offered to edit and develop it with Judge. Over to Judge himself again, from the booklet of the album:

'In April 2009 I travelled to Norway, and found that working on the Requiem Mass with Ricardo was a rather spooky business. We were undertaking an act of musical necromancy, in the sense of bringing back to life something long-dead. I had completely forgotten some of the music, and to hear it played back from this thirty-five years old score was an eerie, and rather emotional experience for me.'

It took a lot of work, including corrections, improvements and transcription of an additional movement of the Mass. This movement was also composed in the 1970s, soon after Michael Brand had done his job, and substituted one of the original movements not up to the standard of the others, according to Judge, but never written down earlier. Judge: 'By the time I came home from Norway, Ricardo and I had completed an improved, lean and powerful score for a half-hour Choral Rock-Monster.' It would take another six years before he found the right opportunity to record it the proper way. The recordings started in November 2015 and feature The Crouch End Festival Chorus (a prestigious symphonic mixed choir that in the world of rock among others has been involved in performances and recordings with Ennio Morricone, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and Ray Davis, including the latter's The Kinks Choral Collection) conducted by David Temple. The lead vocals are sung by baritone Nigel Richards (who has helped out Nick Cave and Tom Waits among others). The trumpets were played by Jon Bencke and Hans Øyvind Lunde, trombones by Håvard Sannes and Chris Dudley and recorded in Bergen, Norway under supervision by Ricardo Odriozola. The orchestral percussion was handled by Matthew Whittington (of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra etc.) whereas the four-piece rock band comprised guitar players John 'Fury' Ellis (Vibrators, Peter Gabriel's band in the early days, ex-Peter Hammill's K Group and ex-The Stranglers) and James Pusey, drummer Chris Maitland (ex-Porcupine Tree, ex-Nosound etc.) and bassist Daf Lewis. The latter three are cunning London West End theatre session musicians, but, according to Judge's diary: 'They can also Rock Like Hell, which is of course the general idea.'

As you might expect, the final recording sounds a bit pompous here & there, as it ought to, with a big choir, brass and all. Though not in the self-centred pomp (& circumstance) way. Here & there the rock band dominates and there are unquestionably some rock'n'roll songs involved here, with blistering guitar solos by Fury Ellis and all. Only they are sung in Latin by a big choir and a male lead vocalist that belongs on the theatre/musical scene. The opening "Introit" with the reprise, sort of, "Communion" towards the end, are tight little rockers turned into symphonic rock once in a while when the full choir kicks in. During "Sanctus" I even seem to discern some short glimpses from Deep Purple's kind of mass of the funeral pyre "Into The Fire" ... But there are mellower moments involved as well. "Tract" in particular is a great little requiem ballad, sort of, with gentle guitar picking, choir and lead vocals, while "Agnus Dei" is closer to West End musicals. Judge insist that "Dies Irae" includes real rock'n'roll lyrics (translation from the album booklet):

Day of wrath and doom impending
David's word with Sibyl's blending
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth
When from heaven the Judge descendeth
On whose sentence all dependeth.

I guess some black metal workers might nod approvingly. I also guess the lyrics are traditional Roman Catholic Mass stuff, and not our Judge writing his autobiography.

In his own writings about his requiem, though, Judge has admitted that: 'I am a hopeless salesman; I couldn't sell a lifejacket to a drowning man.' And yes, the Requiem Mass seems like a hopeless project commercially. That might be one reason why it appeals so much to me. There certainly are no commercial hidden agenda involved here. The album clocks in at just a little more than 30 minutes, which is about ideal, according to the norm of the classic pop albums from the 1960s. Only this is something completely different. Very different from anything else in my record collection, as it happens. But the musical blend is indeed very fascinating. Hats off to Judge who managed to fulfil the project 41 years down the road. He and his Work certainly deserve all the support they can get. The album can be ordered from our man's own home page. Or you might check out if Burning Shed still have copies signed by Judge available.

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You may also want to check out our Judge Smith article/review: Curly's Airships.

© 2016 Luna Kafé