Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Master's Apprentices — Choice Cuts & A Toast To Panama Red (1971;1972)

THE MASTERS APPRENTICES is an Australian band, citing 1965 as their formative year. Their history started the year before though, with the formation of The Mustangs. Featuring Mick Bower (guitar), Rick Morrison (guitar), Brian Vaughton (drums) and Gavin Webb (bass), they made a name for themselves playing cover tunes by acts such as The Shadows and The Ventures. When The Beatles toured Australia in 1964 that style of music went out of fashion though, and after adding vocalist Jim Keays to their ranks, the band started rehearsing their own material.

Choice Cuts

There may be some confusion about this album with European readers. Choice Cuts was released in Europe as 'The Masters Apprentices', sometimes with a heavily cropped version of the Hipgnosis designed cover. It is a totally different album to the Astor release under the name 'The Masters Apprentices' from 1967.

Choice Cuts represents a number of firsts for the Masters Apprentices: the first album the group has recorded where the intention was to go into a studio and record a complete album (the others being collections of work over a few years amalgamated into albums); the first of two album recorded at the legendary Abbey Road studios; and the first to feature the Masters line-up that would be considered the 'classic line-up' - Jim Keays, Doug Ford, Glenn Wheatley & Colin Burgess.
With the new line-up and the production guidance of Jeff Jarratt (an engineer on a number of The Beatles recordings and Pink Floyd's 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn') the Masters recorded an album that was influenced by much of the new music they were exposed to while in the UK. These influences included King Crimson, Hendrix and Free from the heavier end of the music spectrum, and Donovan and Van Morrison from the acoustic end.
Choice Cuts is by no means a true progressive album, however it does step away from the beat sound of the past and migrate into progressive areas. "Michael" and "Easy To Lie" are a couple of tracks with a progressive edge. Both make use of some smouldering guitar from Doug Ford that reminds me of Uriah Heep's guitar sound. These are supplemented by the somewhat psychedelic "Our Friend Owsley Stanley III" (a direct reference to the LSD culture of the period), the tribute to the slain Martin Luther King with "Death Of A King", and "Song For A Lost Gypsy".
The hits from the Choice Cuts album are the ballad "Because I Love You" and the Latin- influenced "Rio De Camero". "Because I Love You" features Jeff Jarratt playing piano of the legendary white grand piano belonging to Paul McCartney, and has become an Australian classic over the years. "Rio De Camero" was written at the last minute to give the album another few of minutes playing time, however it did not become a hit until 1974 when it was released as a single to support the Masters "Best Of" album 'Now That It's Over'.
Overall Choice Cuts presents this incarnation of the Masters Apprentices as a competent and cohesive playing unit. It is an important album that showed that Australian artists could venture overseas, learn from their experiences, and translate that into music with a fair level of success.
While not rating high as a progressive album, the Dinosaur is giving Choice Cuts four stars. Why? Because of the influence Choice Cuts had on those artists that followed by giving belief that great albums could be made by Australian artists. This included the next Masters album, an outright progressive album in the form of 'A Toast To Panama Red'.

A Toast To Panama Red

A Toast to Panama Red' is Masters Apprentices most accomplished approach to prog rock and it is a fabulous album. Each track chugs along with some excellent guitar from Ford and the wonderful vocals of Keays. Time sig changes are prevalent throughout and very well structured compositions that begin and end without flourish.

'The Answer Lies Beyond' motorvates along at a nice medium pace with cool riffs and pulsating drum beats of Burgess. The slow meandering phased guitar of Ford carries along 'Beneath the Sun'. The vocals are quiet, and there is no chorus, as is the case for most of the tracks. It changes direction mid way through with a hypnotic riff, strange effects and psychedelic nuances.
This was 1972 and prog had survived the birth pangs and was beginning to flourish with this type of heavy psych approach which was complex and not just designed for pot heads. Keays drew the album cover and his wife wrote out the lyrics in her own hand, it was a real collaborative effort. 'Games We Play 1' is surrealistic and off kilter with an early Sabbath feel in the guitar work with very erratic drumming. The 7 minute track changes moods and launches into an ace bassline by Wheathers that drives it along, than Ford's lead punctuates the track with high pitched fret screams.

'Games We Play 2' is an instrumental that heavily relies on a driving guitar riff and showcases the musical prowess of the band. 'The Prophet' poem is read over the music in true Hawkwind style and choral voices from the Crikey Choir! This enhances the track with an ethereal quality and its worth a listen though only available on this album.
The next track 'The Lesson So Listen' opened the vinyl album side 2 and is held together by a progtastic riff; angular guitar and intricate drum patterns propel it along. The contagious melody of 'Love Is' is a definite highlight, and is a track that boasts some imaginative use of brass and acoustic flourishes. There is an excellent lead break and the estranged lyrics are well sung with multilayered harmonies. 'Memories of St Kilda' is intriguing and works as a rocker that changes signature and blasts to a sudden conclusion.
'Southern Cross' is the highlight of the album featuring an excellent lead guitar solo from Ford, a key to the success of the group. There is some great bass on this too and vibrant drum beats. 'Thyme to Rhyme' is soft album closer with acoustic guitar and is short and to the point.
Conclusively this album is perhaps the best of Masters Apprentices apart from the plethora of compilations that are still being churned out. Great arrangements throughout and innovative structures creating a strange ethereal atmosphere. This is an early 70s look at Aussie Prog and it is well worth a listen.

The Master's Apprentices — Choice Cuts & A Toast To Panama Red
2  in 1 CD

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