More than four decades since the release of their eponymous debut, rock luminaries Hawkwind are still churning out albums with pleasing frequency. Many bands of this vintage get to a point where they tour constantly doing a greatest hits set and do little to challenge themselves and rarely issue new material.
Those well-established bands that do still produce new albums on a regular basis often fail to maintain the quality of yore and with numerous line-up changes and only Dave Brock surviving to this day from the original band, one doesn’t necessarily expect greatness from them in 2012.
Happily though, there is plenty of life left in these old space dogs.
Tim Blake who has been a member on and off since 1979 is back in the fold, layering his trademark psychedelic keyboard and theremin flourishes over the pounding noise and one time guitarist Huw Lloyd Langton makes a very welcome guest appearance on “The Hills Have Ears”.
So, is it any good?
Well, this album has taken nigh on a dozen listens for me to get my head round it. Hawkwind make the kind of wonderfully eclectic music that can sound like genius at times and chaotic nonsense at others. It is great to be greeted with an album that, like all their best material, takes a while to get to grips with.
Opener “Seasons” begins with a gentle wave of ambient metallic twanging and soft chimes and then a steady riff builds as we are treated to the aforementioned swathes of theremin and laser gun shooty noises! It rolls along with an unrelenting chanted vocal, giving way to a magnificent uplifting chorus that carries you away on a wave of euphoria with layers of reverb and echo. Sounds like the boys are back on form.
So far, so good.
However, towards the end of the second cut (“The Hills…”) the spaceship noises, bleeping and farting actually start to get in the way and become overbearing at times. The heavy guitar reverb and distant echoey vocals sound a little forced in places, but soon it eases up and the album settles into a more relaxed and natural pace.
There are some lovely vocal touches here and there – reminiscent of early Floyd as well as early Hawkwind and the sound is as much a credit to Mr Dibs, who shares vocal duties with Brock, as it is to the more established members.
“System Check” is a cheeky nod to their past – a spoken word track leaving you wondering if launch control at any space centre would really be run by a bunch of English stoners.
There are some tracks that feel a little like filler: “Southern Cross” meanders a tad and seems like a movie score excerpt. “Prophecy” and the instrumental “Electric Tears” are similarly Hawkwind-by-numbers and whilst they are by no means bad, they don’t reach the heights of intergalactic genius this outfit are capable of.
Having said that, “Onward” does deliver some real corkers too. “Drive By” is classic space rock enveloped in a shimmering modern techno overcoat and, to my ear anyway, works really well. “Computer Cowards” is sublime, as is “Death Trap”, which kicks into gear with a punky attitude and some neat drum machine work. The latter is reminiscent of live favourites “Urban Guerilla” and “Born To Go” (from 1972’s “Doremi” and 1973’s “Space Ritual” respectively) and shows the band able to invigorate their trademark sound with a more modern vibe.
Bonus tracks and live renditions are an excellent treat to round off the album (and are a fitting way to remember the late Jason Stuart who passed away in 2008) including bombastic versions of “Aero Space Age”, “Green Finned Demon” and the wonderful pop shimmer of “Right To Decide”.
Overall this isn’t quite the fully whacked-out LSD-soaked journey to the stars and beyond that once greeted us when we played a new Hawkwind disc, but this is still a vibrant, trippy and heavy album destined to satisfy long-term fans and hopefully welcome a few new ones to the fold.