Monday, July 15, 2019

Roy Harper

Roy Harper
Flat Baroque and Berserk
Roy Harper and Jimmy Page
director's cut, Blender, 2008

by Simon Reynolds

Although he rivals Richard Thompson as a supremely inventive folk-rock guitarist and easily surpasses him as a charismatic vocalist and an original songwriter,  Roy Harper is barely known this side of the Atlantic.  In Britain, though, this Manchester-born minstrel  enjoys the adoration of a cult following and the admiration of superstar pals like Led Zeppelin (check their homage  "Hats Off to  [Roy] Harper") and Pink Floyd (he sang on  "Have A Cigar").  

It took Harper a while to find his voice: on his fourth album, 1970's Flat Baroque and Berserk,  pre-electric Dylan's imprint is audible still in the nasal tone and acoustic jingle-jangle of "Don't You Grieve,"  while "I Hate the White Man" hark even further back to the populist sloganeering of folk-revivalists like Woody Guthrie.

But the four long songs of 1971's Stormcock saw Harper arriving at his style:  obliquely scathing protest poetry sung with a unique mix of searing intensity and soaring majesty, framed with delicate-yet-muscular guitar and subtly spacious production. Lyrically, the tone remains scathing , but there's a new subtlety and wit to Harper's diatribes against injustice and the pompousness of authority ("Hors d'Oeuvres" swipes judges and critics), sometimes veering so far from the old plain-spoken speaking-out as to become flowery and oblique.    

The textures are folk and mostly acoustic, but this music rocks and electrifies, "One Man Rock and Roll Band" swings heavy and ominous  like Zozo Unplugged,  while  Jimmy Page himself  guests on  "The Same Old Rock,"  a 12 minute epic whose twisting and plunging song structure climaxes with a dizzy-making chasm of multitracked Harper vocals criss-crossing like close-formation jets at an air show.  That trick worked so magically the singer couldn't resist  recycling it repeatedly across his career, including on "Nineteen Forty-Eightish"  from 1985's Jugula,  a fine full-blown collaboration with Page.                                                                                                                                                                       

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