Blackfeather – At The Mountains Of Madness

Psychedelic blues-rock by underappreciated Oz pioneers

When it comes to what is now regarded as the golden era of ‘classic rock’, i.e. the late ’60s and early ‘70’s, the antipodes remains an oft overlooked contributor to that particularly explosive chapter of popular, and less than popular, music. If the likes of Lobby Lloyde and Billy Thorpe had of been plying their trade in England from day one, their records would have likely sold ten-fold, and possibly be included to this day in many of those ‘greatest rock albums of all time’ compilations many music magazines are obsessed with. And if there was ever one LP deserving to be on on such a list, it would be Blackfeather’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Blackfeather formed in April of 1970, a period when progressive rock, as it was then called, was beginning to blossom. Popular music had begun to move away from the more traditional three to four minute conventions for some time (though of course not entirely if you were somebody like Tom Jones), and toward something far more expansive, and liberal in execution. Albums such as In A Silent Way, by Miles Davis, took the listener on a cerebral journey, where every note’s importance depended upon the listener paying attention to what was being played. Nothing new in the jazz spheres for sure, but for rock, it was a revelation.

The title track begins with some distorted guitar lines, while Neale Johns speaks the lines “I walked through fields bathed in sunlight/To a forest of green pines/And at the edge of the forest I met an old man selling apples… “Just eat this” he said with a smile in his eye… And suddenly I woke and everything around me had changed… and I knew I was there at the mountains of madness.”

Is the apple in question an analogy for the fruit of knowledge, spiritual awakening, LSD, or all of the above? Who knows, and who much less cares, because no sooner than the Tolkien-hippie dialog is over, the listener is thrust into something akin to the sort of frenzied nightmare only Ian Anderson could have dreamed of. “On This Day That I Die” has an almost Beatlesque feel to it, especially Johns’ vocals, while the guitar toward the latter part of the song is reminiscent of Clapton’s contribution to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

Whether Jethro Tull proved to be much of an influence on the Australian rock music scene in the early 1970’s isn’t easy to say, but “Seasons of Change” certainly has a touch of Tull in it, except for the string arrangements. It’s a beautiful song, and the buying public thought so too, sending it to #15 in the national charts (#2 in Melbourne). And if you want to know who’s on the recorder, that’s none other than the late great Bon Scott, who before Whole Lotta Rosie and She’s Got Big Balls, was hanging out with the prog-rock crowd.

Mangos Theme (Part 2) is a rather ambitious number, where guitarist John Robinson want to take you on a Spanish/Persian journey of instrumental virtuosity. The violin and string arrangements have an almost Ravelesque quality to them, as Robinson lets loose with some roller-coaster riffing the likes of which Jimmy Page would be proud of. And now we’re back to hard rock with “Long Legged Lovely”, where by the two minute mark, the band embark on an extended jam for about four minutes before returning to the main riff, which for some reason reminds me of Free.

“The Rat (Suite)” is another one of those progressive journeys made popular by Cream. In other words, some fast, and slow moments, followed by convulsive guitar workouts, with a little blues thrown in. Neale Johns is hardly John Mayall when it comes to the Mississippi Delta, much less a Robert Plant, which is perhaps what the song requires. Nor is Alexander Kash equal to John Bonham, no matter how hard he pounds the skins. By about the nine minute mark we get to hear the band break out into asylum mode, reminiscent of Hendrix’s “And the Gods Made Love”, from Electric Ladyland, which based on an educated guess, I’d say these lads must have loved and been enormously influenced by.

Aztec Music have, as always, done a fabulous job on the remastering, even including a couple of bonus tracks: “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Gimme Shelter”. The former is a bit so and so in my opinion, however the latter is a priceless example of how the group sounded in a live setting, probably in a reasonably confined venue.

As far as debut albums are concerned, At the Mountains of Madness was a strong beginning for a group that was destined for failure. Conflicts of personality would see some members leave, most notably Neale Johns, who Robinson had sacked, and yet went on to form a new incarnation of Blackfeather, which would prove to be even more successful, at least on a commercial level. For a brief moment in time, the band were at the cutting edge of Australian progressive rock, and had they not been so unstable, they definitely had the potential for far greater things. But as they say, youth is  often wasted on the young.

By the way, the album title was directly borrowed by an obscure book written in 1931 by American author H. P. Lovecraft.