Martin Barre – Back To Steel (2015)

FrontCover1.jpgDescribed by Martin Barre as the “most important work in my career as a musician” sets the, er, bar high for this much loved and respected guitarist. When it is set by the man himself, listener expectation is bound to be high too.

For the past couple of years or so Martin has been bedding in his current band. I spoke to him at the start of an extensive and surely gruelling European tour in September 2014 and of course at that time we were still asking about his departure from Jethro Tull.

With ‘Back To Steel’ he further carves out his own niche and a trajectory which, in truth, started back in 1994 with “Trick Of Memory”. But this is also a more integrated band album, rather than a true solo album. Perhaps it should even be billed The Martin Barre Band?

Martin’s fans will lap this up again. There is always great attention to detail in the arrangements. He doffs the cap to his former employer/heritage with fairly straightforward – if attractive – versions of ‘Skating Away’ and ‘Slow Marching Band’ whilst the inclusion of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ will delight those who have caught Martin on tour as this is one of the highlights of his recent set. It is to Barre’s credit that the Beatle song is the closest thing to Tull on the album, apart from those Tull covers.

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The tone is blues rock throughout, a smorgasbord of Martin’s cumulative influences, and there is some rather nice female harmony vocal work from Alex Hart and Elani Andrea whilst Dan Crisp further consolidates his position on lead vocals.

Throughout his guitar work is immaculate but, as previously, supportive rather than overtly spectacular. We know he can let rip and is one of rock’s finest but Barre-watchers may be dismayed that his approach – for the most part – is restrained.

There are only three instrumentals – the very short ‘Chasing Shadows’ and ‘Calafel’ echoing the tone of a previous offering ‘Away With Words’ and the more expansive ‘Hammer’. As ever, a few more of these more frenetic electric workouts would have been very welcome.

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The mix of the powerful and the pastoral is ever present with songs like ‘You And I’ (reminiscent of ‘Protect & Survive’ ) and ‘Sea Of Vanity’ (Fairports?) rubbing shoulders with the heavyweight ‘Moment Of Madness’, a potential single (!).

One can’t help wondering what would happen if Barre had taken a different musical direction, perhaps a bit more proggy or even hard rock/AOR. There are elements of course – ‘Moment Of Madness’ also shows a rather appealing commerciality – but for me the album is a little too diverse and as a result less cohesive. Its main appeal will therefore be to “the faithful”.

‘Back To Steel’ finds Martin Barre further escaping from the shadow of the Pied Piper and we can report he is in rude good health, and thriving.

Martin Barre is an English rock musician best known for his work with progressive rock band Jethro Tull, with whom he recorded and toured from their second album in 1969 to the band’s initial dissolution in 2012. In the early 1990s he went solo, and has recorded four studio albums and made several guest appearances. He has also played the flute and other instruments such as thesaxophone, mandolin, both on stage for Jethro Tull and in his own solo work.

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Martin Barre is one of those guitarists who often misses out on the awards and recognition but who, when you hear him, is one of the best musicians around. This album celebrates 50 (yes 50) years of playing saxophone and guitar and returns him to his roots, playing electric guitars with steel strings. Right from the title track he mixes it up, playing with fluidity and flexibility whether he is playing rock or edging towards prog and throws in some sterling melodies and riffing alongside his songwriting which is generally excellent. The main instrument throughout is Barre’s guitar but his vocals are pretty tasty, especially on numbers like Bad Man where his growled vocals go perfectly against a resonator acoustic. Back To Steel is pure rock with shrieking guitar set against a dark and heavy bass line while Hammer reaches an almost jazz like melody. When he softens his stance, as he does on the lovely Chasing Shadows, he shows a remarkable lyrical side to his playing. (unknown source)

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Personnel:
Martin Barre (guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, banjo, flute, keyboards)
Dan Crisp (vocals, guitar)
George Lindsay (drums, percussion)
Alan Thomson (bass, vocals)
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Alan Bray (bass on 15.)
Patrick James Pearson (organ on 01.)
Alan Thomson (slide-guitar on 14., organ on 11.)
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background vocals:
Alex Hart – Elani Andrea

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Tracklist:
01. Back To Steel (Barre) 3.37
02. It’s Getting Better (Barre) 3.31
03. Bad Man (Barre) 3.14
04. Skating Away (Anderson) 3.25
05. Chasing Shadows (Barre) 0.58
06. Hammer (Barre) 3.13
07. You And I (Barre) 2.54
08. Moment Of Madness (Barre) 3.07
09. Calafel (Barre) 1.53
10. Eleanor Rigby (Lennon/McCartney) 3.17
11. Peace And Quiet (Barre) 3.59
12. Sea Of Vanity (Barre) 2.55
13. Smokestack Lightning (Burnett/Barre) 4.02
14. Without Me (Barre) 3.12
15. Slow Marching Band (Anderson) 3.28

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