When searching for your next prog fix, you can never tell when you’ll uncover a true gem. You certainly can’t expect it to come from a tiny record shop in Bayswater priced at a measly £5. And yet here I am with one of the most astonishing albums I’ve ever heard. Most albums that we review are sent to us, but listening to the sounds this American band had to offer simply inspired me to write this review so that more people might hear it.
I only picked this record up because the artwork seemed familiar; perhaps I’d seen it on some greatest American prog albums list. But I’d incorrectly assumed that the music contained within came from circa 1976. After all, the Americans got their prog influences from us Brits, right? Wrong, Touch was released in 1968. We’re talking pre-Crimson, pre-Yes, pre-nearly everything else. The age of this album, combined with its sheer prog value, already makes this disc a must-have. But on top of that, the music is actually brilliant. Let’s dive in…
We Feel Fine kicks things off with a heady mix of psychedelia and rock n’ roll, surely inspired by Touch’s contemporaries Vanilla Fudge. With contrasting dynamic and rhythmic sections, one already gets the sense that this is going to be an interesting and diverse album. Drawing to a chaotic finish, this is the ideal opener to such a legendary album. It certainly feels like something left off the Yes debut.
Track two seems a little too early to show the band’s restrained side, but when you find out what’s coming up, you’ll realise there’s simply no space to put this ditty anywhere else. No percussion is featured on this track, and none is needed. Starting with a quiet vocal section, more than half of the track is a flighty instrumental focused on Don Gallucci’s impressive piano arrangement. One is reminded of PFM’s Il Banchetto.
Miss Teach is undoubtedly the weak point of the album, seemingly a satire of the education system and how it divides the nation: “Whites to the left, and the others of you form a line on the right”. Very well, but the bastardisation of the blues sound attempted here simply isn’t that palatable. It’s still clever, it’s just not that good. Fortunately, this is the only poor song on an otherwise spectacular album.
The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer is where the real meat starts. Featuring a funeral-like organ-led opening not dissimilar to Padre by Reale Accademia di Musica, this mini-epic features strong musical themes, diverse sections and excellent instrumentals, including a very proggy fast-paced organ part in the first half.
However, the lyrics are interesting by themselves. In the first portion of the song it is suggested that the titular character has died, but not his body: “He seems alive and well and even Howard cannot tell.” But then moments later, in the joyous rock-n-roll section of the track, Howard is portrayed as being a happy man with “a house and a car and a pretty wife.” I had a theory about the meaning of this song, that Howard actually loses his individuality and therefore his spirit when he gains these commodities that every stereotypical American male should have, especially when I heard the lyric “Life is a bore when you know it’s all guaranteed to make you happy!” Trapped by the opiate of eternal happiness, Howard’s spirit will never again reach its full potential. Only today, when researching this album, did I discover that I’d misheard that lyric, as Touch actually sing “ball” instead of “bore”. I like to think that my meaning can still apply to this song. Ultimately, the lyrics give very little away, and I’d love to find out the true meaning of this epic, as it was clearly very carefully composed. Let’s start a discussion thread in the comments, please!
Now to side two, opened by the almost totally instrumental jazz-touched and acid-soaked Down at Circe’s Place. An energetic number, reminiscent of much English prog. This is quickly followed by the wistful piano-led Alesha and Others. Don Gallucci’s tinklings are masterful, ranging from symphonic to jazzy in the space of a couple of minutes. The coda to this track sets up the final piece, the 11-minute epic Seventy Five.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard a track like Seventy Five before, but knowing a track like this was released before Yes ever recorded has made me review my opinions about the development of progressive rock as a genre. Led by powerful organ stabs and decisive, pounding drumming, the track has an anthemic opening with mystical lyrics to rival Jon Anderson’s. Later on, a decidedly odd time signature prevails during the fast-tempo instrumental. There is masterful playing all around, especially in the guitar solo during the song’s emotional epilogue. This is the kind of track you’d put on to help you complete a marathon or perhaps even reach the summit of a mountain.
It certainly seems that Touch reached a new pinnacle back in 1968, and Esoteric have gone above and beyond to give a full picture of the band, with an informative essay by Esoteric exec Mark Powell, foldout liner notes that show the album’s artwork in full, including the poster from the original U.S. edition and 39 minutes of bonus tracks – almost as long as the album itself. These include a fantastic live in the studio recording of The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer, and two twelve minute instrumentals, Blue Feeling and The Second Coming of Suzanne. The latter was recorded in 1973 and was intended for use as a film soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, there’s more than a passing resemblance to the music of Goblin.
I’ve often pondered how celebrated bands like Starcastle would have been if they’d managed to somehow write their music earlier than Yes. With Touch, I’ve managed to find an answer. Certainly, the year of this record has much to do with how astonishing the music is, but that doesn’t take away from the strength of these recordings. I will be listening to The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer and Seventy Five long after completing this review, and touting Touch whenever I hear a conversation about the origins of prog. It’s about time they were recognised as the pioneers they truly were.
01. We Feel Fine (4:41)
02. Friendly Birds (4:54)
03. Miss Teach (3:30)
04. The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer (8:53)
05. Down at Circe’s Place (4:01)
06. Alesha and Others (3:06)
07. Seventy Five (11:12)
~ Bonus Tracks
08. We Finally Met Today (3:43)
09. Alesha and Others (Live Studio Demo) (3:18)
10. Blue Feeling (11:47)
11. The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer (Live Studio Demo) (8:07)
12. The Second Coming of Suzanne (12:20)
Total Time – 79:24
Don Gallucci – Keyboards, Vocals
John Bordonaro – Percussion, Vocals
Joey Newman – Guitar, Vocals
Bruce Hauser – Bass, Vocals
Jeff Hawks – Vocals
Roger Johnson – Guitar (track 12)
Trey Thompson – Bass (track 12)
Jim Varley – Drums (track 12)
Record label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: ECLEC 2310
Date of Release: 30th January 2012