BLANGA: In Praise of a New Hawkwind Album
May 7, 2012 Leave a comment
My longest-standing claim to Internet notoriety stems from a 1993 online exchange on Compuserve’s RockNet Forum about the pioneering space-rock band, Hawkwind. Fellow RockNet denizen Zen Poet (a.k.a. Steve Pond, in the real world) shared my enthusiasm for Hawkwind’s thunderous noise-scapes, which he’d experienced in a very personal manner, both having seen the band in its heyday as an impressionable youth, and then later having played synths and guitar with Inner City Unit (featuring former Hawkwind mainstays Nik Turner, Dave Anderson and Dead Fred), and backing erstwhile Hawkwind frontman Robert Calvert (also with Dead Fred) during the final tours Calvert played before his untimely passing in 1988. (Steve and Fred still work together, by the by, now as the mighty Krankschaft).
At some point in some conversation way back then, in a stab at onomatopoeia, one or the other of us described the lock-step grinding guitar figures that anchor some of the group’s most scintillating flights of fancy as making a sound like “BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA . . .” We eventually started using the word “BLANGA” as a short-form description of the best qualities of Hawkwind’s music, and along with another RockNet chum named Dave Rice, we started compiling rankings of various Hawkwind albums based on their BLANGA scores, rating them on a scale from 0 to 10. As I wrote at the time: “A BLANGA Score of 10 is the epitome of the form; a BLANGA Score of 0 is ANTI-BLANGA, music from an evil alternate universe where all male musicians have their testicles removed at age 13, and female musicians are only allowed to sing seven-part amens whilst shrouded head to toe in surgical gauze.”
I had very limited Internet skills at the time, but Steve and Dave were both very technically adept, and at some point in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, the three of us agreed to craft an online version of our unofficial Hawkwind BLANGA Guide. I wrote the copy and assigned the ratings, then Dave worked his coding magic, and Steve did what needed to be done to host it on his Doremi website (named after the Hawks’ masterful Doremi Fasol Latido album), where it soon became an important part of the online Hawkwind experience. Amazingly enough, the BLANGA Guide lives there at Doremi to this very day, with one major sprucing and updating completed in 2010, some 15-plus years after the original version went online.
It has been quite an amusing treat over the years to watch the word BLANGA propagate among the Hawkwind community, to the point where I have heard band members using it in interviews, have been challenged by former band members about low BLANGA scores given to discs they played on, and seen tape traders rating various shows based on the quality of BLANGA therein. Other bands and their fans have adopted the term as well, with the most obvious nod coming from American space-rockers F/i, who titled their 2005 album Blanga, and filled it with songs like “In the Garden of Blanga,” “Blanga’s Transformation,” “An Extremely Lovely Girl Dreams of Blanga,” and “Grandfather Blanga and his Band Light it Up.” It’s kind of cool to have influenced people that way, without them having any idea that the word “BLANGA” wasn’t something that just emerged spontaneously from the ether, but rather has a specific, definable birth-place and pedigree. It was my word and it was Steve’s word first, but it has since flown away and taken on a life of its own, with meaning to countless people who we have never and will never meet. How cool is that? Pretty darn cool, I say . . . we invented a word!
Why do I bring this up now? Because on April 30, Hawkwind released a new studio album called Onward, and with a few days worth of listening under my belt, I’m thinking this disc deserves one of the highest BLANGA scores of the group’s past two decades, joining such latter-day crunchy classics as Distant Horizons (1997), Electric Tepee (1992) and The Xenon Codex (1988). It’s pretty amazing stuff for a band whose founder (Dave Brock) has been playing live for more than half a century, and who has worked with more members and put out more records than pretty much anybody this side of Mark E. Smith’s The Fall. It is also, frankly, pretty suprising to me, in that this is the second album produced by the current line-up (founder-leader Brock, stalwart drummer Richard Chadwick, prodigal synth player Tim Blake, and relative newcomers Niall Hone and Mr. Dibs), and the first studio record this version of the group released, 2010’s Blood of the Earth, did not impress me at all, from either a BLANGA or a melodic or a performing or a production or a songwriting standpoint. There were times on Blood of the Earth where I felt like I was listening to a Hawkwind cover band, so the creative growth in two short years that this group of players has achieved together with Onward is remarkable and delightful, as it is a very solid addition to their studio canon, with numerous songs that should be concert staples for years to come.
As has been the case with most Hawkwind studio albums since the late 1980s, Onward features an assortment of new compositions interspersed with recastings of older material from their catalog. Robert Calvert’s “Death Trap” and “Aero Space Age Inferno” both get excellent, high-energy treatments on Onward, while Dave Brock’s evocative “Green Finned Demon” gets a suitably moody treatment that presents it as well as it’s ever been framed since first appearing as a B-side to “Night of the Hawks” in 1984. The acoustic-synthetic freakout of “Mind Cut” (which evokes the equally twangy-loopy “Hurry on Sundown” from the group’s 1970 debut album) is a re-casting of an ancient, pre-Hawkwind Brock busking number called “Get Yourself Together,” and it’s aged surprisingly well all these years on. “The Flowering Of The Rose” is a walloping long-form groove built on a riff that appears to have been culled from the Calvert-era “Steppenwolf,” with some tasty leads tossed out by some combination of Brock, Hone, Blake and Hawkwind’s late keyboardist Jason Stuart, who died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorage in 2008. 1993’s “Right to Decide” also gets a fresh run-through recorded with Stuart before his passing, and it’s a nice enough version, though it really can’t match the power and passion of the original, which was one of the finest songs Hawkwind produced in the 1990s.
Among the new numbers, standouts include opening BLANGA-fests “Seasons” and “The Hills Have Ears,” (the latter featuring long-time lead guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton in a guest spot), the topical “Computer Cowards,” and the flat-out groovy “The Drive By.” The short spoken-word piece “System Check” is a worthy follower in the tradition of “Sonic Attack,” in which the concept of musical machinery as a weapon is explored, while Brock’s “Howling Moon” and Blake’s “Southern Cross” are evocative mood pieces, painting pictures with sounds and textures in lieu of tints and brushes. Onward is a long album, true, clocking in at nearly an hour and twenty minutes, but it is a very rewarding listening experience, and I recommend it highly, for both grizzled BLANGA veterans and space-rock newbies seeking a fresh thrill. It’s good to have fresh BLANGA in hand, especially when it’s delivered by the masters of the genre. We’ll have to update the BLANGA Guide soon . . .