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Universal Recordings 1987-1989 Reviews

Universal Recordings 1987-1989 (SlowBurn Records) When you get an album full of some musician’s early four-track recordings in your hand, your presuppositions are not necessary that positive. Nevertheless, Eric Johnson from Tucson who’s now playing in Sun Zoom Spark, Black Sun Ensemble and other bands proves with this double CD that he already had a clear and excellent musical vision twenty years ago. Also the sound quality is good enough, and the material has been remixed and mastered for this release. The album begins with the great ”The Path Forgotten” that has a bit of Velvet Underground feel to it. This almost 16-minute-long monster also has plenty of jam sections. The playing is a bit wobbly at times, maybe because Eric has played the drums, bass and guitar by himself and also does the vocals. On some of these tracks there are also other musicians. “Drone” is a track that reminds me of the softest songs by early Sun Dial with its beautiful folk atmospheres. It’s a pretty psychedelic, good number that also includes keyboards and percussion. “10000 Miles” begins as heavier psych rocking and then changes into something groovier and again there’s some acoustic guitar and vocals. The little more pop-like “October” is a totally okay, instrumental guitar track that also reminds me of early Sun Dial’s more peaceful stuff. Starting with cacophony, a piano-driven track called ”Co-Serpentine Lines” ends the first disc. ”Egyptian Queen” and ”The Seed” are heavier, mid-tempo rock tracks that somehow bring to mind Ethereal Counterbalance. The latter also has acoustic guitar and a keyboard solo. Great stuff! “Storms Rise” is an okay track with boogie feel. Starting off with synthesizer sound “Osiris” is a floating and experimental instrumental. An excellent psych instrumental is “Icy Lucifer” that already has the same kind of feel than later on would be immanent in Sun Zoom Spark and sounds a bit like Black Sun Ensemble, too. This one also has great guitar soloing and the track works very well in other aspects, as well. Maybe the best track on the album still is the last, over 19-minute-long ”Easy Journey to Other Planets”. It begins softly and in a moody manner. This is a really excellent, slow and melancholic number that also has vocals later on. At around the 14-minute-marker the track speeds up and the going is just superb. This album is worth getting for just this track alone! There are also plans to release other compilations from the old recordings and I for one will be happy to receive them. -Santtu Lasko Universal Recordings 1987-1989 (SlowBurn Records) This mammoth, 2CD retrospective is the first in a proposed 3-volume series of the mostly solo recordings of Sun Zoom Spark/Black Sun Ensemble guitarist, Eric Johnson, who recorded 17 full-length cassettes worth of material under the Universal moniker. Johnson recorded these selections from his first five releases at his parent’s house in Chicago in a recording space that was soon to develop into the Slowburn Studio. The set begins at the end, with selections from the 1989 release, “Oceans.” “The Path Forgotten” is an epic, 16-minute guitar workout which seamlessly weaves in and out of jam band sensibilities, as Johnson works a couple of tasty Garcia-like guitar runs into the song, meaning it will definitely appeal to Deadheads, past and present. A later version of the title track from 1988’s “Drone” as recorded by Universal’s live counterpart, Isis Rising, featuring Young Arnold on bass and Brian Pott (great name, that one!) on drums is another mellow, occasionally Eastern-tinged psychedelic workout. “10000 Miles” (from 1989’s “Icy Lucifer,” the first album Johnson recorded on his new Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder) finds him moving into a new, visceral, garagey, explosive direction. It’s a snarly scorcher in the Detroit Rock City style of Stooges, Nugent, et. al. The first of four cassettes Johnson recorded in 1989, “Sandstone” is represented by three tracks that find him dealing in a more folk/psych direction. I hear a lot of his future employer, Black Sun Ensemble in the meandering, psychedelic snake charmer, “Salamander,” with Johnson’s guitar lines winding around your brain like a sidewinder coiled and poised and ready to strike in the hot, Arizona desert sun. The shortest track, the 3:00 “October” may be the most enjoyable and accessible track on the admittedly “out there” and experimental, “Drone” and Johnson’s gentle guitar work here bears more than a passing resemblance to some of Neil Young’s folkier efforts. I think I even detect a slight whiff of the melody line from “Hey Hey, My My” wafting through the breeze! Johnson demonstrates his versatility as a musician for us by throwing a curve ball at us to end the first disk with “Co-Serpentine Lines” from 1989’s “Oceans.” This track delivers a jazzier flavor on what builds into a lengthy piano solo, with occasional flights of fantasy into vaudevillian directions, with forays into barrelhouse stomping and segments halfway through the track that have a fey classical air. Johnson opens the second disk with the blistering garage fuzz of “Egyptian Queen” from Universal’s 1987 debut, “Blind Child And The Garden” concept album around the themes of birth and death. Some heavy, bluesy guitar runs make this a sweaty, whiskey-soaked winner. The same project also gives us the raga rock of “The Seed,” another Eastern-flavored track that will appeal to fans of the Electric Psychedelic Sitar Headswirlers compilation series. “Storms Rise” boasts more heady, electric string-bending, while “Osiris,” the third selection from “Sandstone” visits the same psychedelic experimental jam stylings as the aforementioned “Salamander,” making it another that will surely please Black Sun fans. The title track from “Icy Lucifer” is another psychedelic onslaught, reminiscent of Hawkwind in full regalia, or more recently, the flamboyant stylings of the Wizards from Walthamstow, Nick (Bevis Frond) Saloman and Gary (Sun Dial) Ramon. The trip concludes with the epic, sidelong equivalent (nineteen minute), “Easy Journey To Other Planets,” which also originally appeared on “Oceans.” Mixing elements by everyone from psychedelic, krautrock head explorers like Tangerine Dream through to the otherworldly, bleak psychedelia of vintage Pink Floyd, up to today’s finest (head)space cadets like Spacious Minds, this is a journey that I’ll want to take again and again and is a fitting conclusion to this wonderful compilation of Universal’s early efforts that no fan of psychedelic home recordings will want to be without. And the best part may be that we have two more volumes waiting eagerly in the wings! 7/10 -- Jeff Penczak (31 October, 2007) Eric Johnson 1987Universal - "Recordings: 1987-1989" (Slowburn Records 2007) I first became aware of Eric Johnson when he and fellow members of the band Sun Zoom Spark helped breath new life into Jesus Acedo's Black Sun Ensemble some years ago. But Eric has had a lengthy recording history, beginning as a teenager in the 1980s and having completed 17 full-length cassette projects as Universal. With a few exceptions the music was all penned and performed by Johnson, and the 2-CD Recordings: 1987-1989 is the first of 3 collections of four track recordings Johnson plans to release. Disc one begins with the 16 minute "The Path Forgotten". It starts off with Neu styled motorik rhythms, but soon launches into a rock 'n roll song. The core song is decent melodic rock, but when Johnson gets down to serious jamming we're treated to some tasty grooving psych rock that at times has a Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead feel. "Drone" begins as a trippy jangly psychedelic rocker, but after a couple minutes transitions to a very cool spacey komische prog instrumental segment. "10000 Miles" starts off as a blistering rocker, but after several seconds seems to abruptly change its mind about direction and shifts to a rock n' roll tune similar to the song portion of "The Path Forgotten". But things get really interesting when Johnson takes off on an acid guitar jam that holds its own nicely for a couple minutes before returning to the song. The multi-themed "Salamander" is a prog-psych instrumental with interesting and well thought out dual guitars, later transitioning through various song segments, from melodic acoustic to frantic and spacey. "October" is a short acoustic instrumental. And "Co-Serpentine Lines" is quite different from the previous tracks, being a piano dominated track. It starts off with a mad pianist intro, then veers off into a bouncy toe tapping motif. Continuing with that theme, Johnson experiments with mood and atmosphere, bringing in the guitar intermittently for full on 70s influenced prog jams. Lots of very cool music so far, but disc two had what for me was the strongest and most enjoyable music. There's a couple shorter songs that are standouts. Like the drugged stoner-psych-garage-punk "Egyptian Queen", and the similar but spacier "Storms Rise". "The Seed" is a very cool hard edged acid psych rocker with Eastern influences that bear some of the traits of the Black Sun Ensemble sound Johnson would contribute to many years later. A solid combination of jamming and melodic development. "Osiris" is a total space voyage that's explores kosmiche prog and space ambient territory. "Icy Lucifer" is a heavy jamming down 'n dirty psych rock instrumental that again brings to mind Black Sun Ensemble. Lots of great guitar on this one. And the 19 minute "Easy Journey To Other Planets" wraps things up and is a mind-bending deep space exploration that is the highlight of both CDs for me. Spacey Pink Floyd jams certainly come to mind, as do a variety of early 70s progressive rock influences. The music just drifts along in a dream state, slowly traversing the landscape, jamming little melodies on the guitar and keyboards, and basically just giving the listener something to meditate or chill out to. Later in the piece Johnston introduces vocals, doing a short song bit, before launching into a prog edged hard rock jam that bring the track to a close. Awesome! I love it when musicians dig into the archives and give us a glimpse into their roots, warts and all. Johnson was creating some very interesting music in these early years and covering a range of territory. Check this out for an appreciation of just how much of a contribution Johnston would later bring to Black Sun Ensemble. From Aural Innovations #38 (January 2008) Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz

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