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Argus “Then Again” Live
Artist: Wishbone Ash
Label: Talking Elephant
Time: 11Tracks + intro  / 73 mins
 
So it’s not just me, then? Argus is officially a classic album. Radio station XFM commissioned Wishbone Ash to play Argus all the way through in the exact running order as the start of a series of re-created classic releases. Just to make it even better, there are three newer warm-up tracks and a bonus of “Way of the World,” which fits in beautifully. This is not the first time that the disc has been refashioned. There is a version that has plenty of live tracks and extras added, but with no apparent thought given to the running order, and the various versions are all over the place. This year Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash recreated the disc in sequence, showing great respect to the original. Now it is the turn of Andy Powell’s version of the band. 
 
One strength of Argus is its consistency. There is no deep pool of reasons for the music being so eminently loveable; the tracks simply each work naturally within themselves and with each other, virtually every note being just right for its place. Bearing in mind that they shared a fan base originally with acts like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, with their highly riff-based music, Wishbone has a far more intricate, melodic style. Not only are the riffs often less bombastic than those of their rivals, sometimes morphing into rhythm guitar parts, but the lead lines often become part of the melody of the song; if you sing along, you find yourself singing the guitar solo note for note. Vocal harmonies support the interplay between the guitars.
 
Wishbone came to fame largely on the back of their then pioneering twin-lead format, and Argus was the third release. Previous disc Pilgrimage had some strong tracks, but Ash’s sound had not yet matured into the grandiose scale shown on Argus; while their follow up – the imaginatively titled Wishbone Four – also had brilliant songs like the touching, bluesy “Everybody needs a Friend,” but suffered from a loose diversity of tracks and too much of a country edge. As guitarist Martin Turner later admitted, while the fans were waiting for Son of Argus, an album they found impossible to top, “we realised the point was just to leave it at that and move onto something completely new".  
 
Although it was never intended to be a concept album, there is an epic side to Argus, with songs about reflection, end times, judgement, war, and the regaining of peace. The collection’s main public face was the “Blowin’ Free” single. Its unique, memorable intro riff pretties up a fairly basic rock track that is elevated to something special by some twin-lead work that begs an air-guitar session. But apart from that, and the breathing-space “Leaf and Stream” on what was side two, all the tracks range from six to ten minutes in length.
 
Written on acoustic guitar, the first two of these, “Time Was” and “Sometime World” both pass their opening minutes gently building up steam, before suddenly upping the pace. They belong together and starting with these two pieces sets the tone of the disc before “Blowin’ Free” shows the invention that came from messing about with chords from Beatles, Who and Steve Miller Band tracks, and which itself seems to have inspired bands like Steely Dan.
 
The inspiration at the start of the album’s second half is from the bible, which had fascinated writer Martin Turner for a while before he penned “The King Will Come,” which speaks of salvation at the end of the world. It begins with a gradually building military snare (which helps to link this piece with the warfare themes at the end of the disc) before again bursting into a full-blown riff that carries the rest of the song. The wah-wah guitar is terrific all the way through.
 
“Leaf and Stream” is drummer Steve Upton’s lyric debut and the pastoral ballad was barely played in the two decades after its release. Against such huge giants it would be easy to overlook this track’s simplicity, but time has shone a light back onto its beauty. Just as several tracks have a slow, quiet start to set up a crash into a louder section, this track acts as the prelude to “Warrior / Throw Down the Sword” so well that to end it without the “Warrior” riff powering in would simply be wrong. It says enough for the impact of these two pieces that they have always been in the band’s set for over 35 years.
 
How does this live version stand up to the original? Because the tracks were written with the individual guitar lines composed, rather than as riffs to be jammed over, there is not much room for improvisation. This release respects the original composition, but shows the evolution that live music brings about, such as the tweaked guitar solo seven minutes into “Time Was”. Occasionally, the high vocal notes have become difficult to hold, which can take off some of the sheen, but on the plus side, digital sound adds much to the feel. This mix is about as clear as you can get, with every touch to every string easy to hear and the cowbell shining out like a flashlight. The solos feel fresh and heartfelt, the guitars are chiming and resonant.
 
The bonus tracks do their job well, framing the centerpiece. “Real Guitars have Wings” – probably a passing reference to Andy Powell’s Gibson Flying V – starts off their set against a sequencer backing. It acts well as an instrumental prologue and is followed by “Mountainside,” a song about fathers (not) leaving their children. The two tracks have often run together as a tandem 10-minute opener. Before the album proper, the band also plays the 2007 track “Growing Up,” which sounds like a rehash of their old “Baby, the Angels are Here” and features the band’s trademarks. Having “Way of the World” as a finishing piece works well, because it comes from the disc that followed a four-album stay in America. Its return to Argus producer Derek Lawrence signalled a deliberate effort to recreate the distinctive British sound that launched them. The track itself was an attempt to find a piece to replace “Phoenix” as a live climax. 
 
Argus was one of the greatest rock albums ever made and must be heard by anyone who loves melodic guitar rock. While some acts depend on volume or speed, Wishbone Ash trade on real tunes and exquisite harmony. Newcomers will probably be inspired to search out more by the band, while those of us who have been playing the album for thirty-something years can enjoy a fresh take on it. The music is simply outstanding and the playing has rediscovered the original passion. 
 
Derek Walker

                      
 
 
 

 
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