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SUBJECT ESQ. (Ohrwaschl OW010) [1972/71]
SUNRISE (Ohrwaschl OW022) [1974]
FOR ALL THE CLOWNS (Ohrwaschl OW021) [1976]

The rock importing business in the 1970s had reached a point where two companies were responsible for at least 90% of the progressive imports which turned up in American record stores. The better known was Jem Records in New Jersey, but the Peters International company in New York City was also active, and had by 1973 launched its own Cosmos label to reissue foreign albums in the U.S. Cosmos reissued these albums with similar but non-identical packaging and (generally) inferior pressings.

The 6th Cosmos album was Sahara’s SUNRISE (PILPS 9006), and that was my introduction to the German group. Because Peters generally got contractual agreements with the company which originally issued the albums, once an album appeared on the Cosmos label it was usually impossible to find any imported copies of the original version. Which was a real shame, because the 27-minute title suite which occupied all of the LP’s side two was not well mastered and parts were audibly distorted. (27 minutes is stretching the limits of an LP side.) And that side-long suite was a knockout – a track I played many times for friends – a real tour de force, musically, with a thunderstorm midway through.

So I searched diligently and eventually, a year or two later, came up with a copy of the original German album, on Ariola’s Pan subsidiary (the same label which issued the German versions of New Trolls’ ATOMIC SYSTEM and Uno’s self-titled album, both reviewed elsewhere here and here) (87306 IT). Unsurprisingly, it was better mastered. It was also a gatefold album, unlike the Cosmos version.

And, a couple of years later, Ariola (not Pan) issued FOR ALL THE CLOWNS (89377 OT). I was grateful I’d snapped up the import when I saw that Peters had also grabbed the album for their Cosmos label (PILPS 9017) and in the process given it an inferior and rather cheesy cover and rearranged the tracks on the first side (track 1 became track 2, track 2 became track 3, and track 3 became track 1).

In 1993 the German CD label, Ohrwaschl, reissued both albums on CD (oddly, the second one first in catalog numbering). I have no idea what the label’s relationship with Ariola is, but my impression is that in each case they used the master tapes – there is a wider dynamic range than is customary with LPs, and no discernable distortion or surface noise. Interestingly enough, Ohrwaschl had issued SUBJECT ESQ. earlier, in 1991.

SUBJECT ESQ. was the work of a group of that name which began life in the mid-‘60s as a German “beat” group originally known as The King and the Subjects (der Konig und die Untertanen), evolving into Subjects by 1967, and Subject Esq. by 1969. In 1972 they released their self-titled album on German Epic (S 64 998).

At that point the group was a quintet which consisted of Michael Hofmann on flute, alto sax and vocals; Alex Pittwohn on harmonica, 12-string guitar and vocals; Peter Stadler on keyboards; Stefan Wissnet on bass and vocals; and Harry Rosenkind on drums and percussion. The music on the 1972 album was song-oriented, but the album had only six tracks, and side two held only two long tracks. It’s hard to characterize Subject Esq.’s music: it fell into a broad area midway between mainstream rock and progressive rock – an area occupied by Traffic and a variety of other early-‘70s bands – and one can hear in it the germs of Sahara’s music, but it is less individual and less accomplished.

In addition to the Epic album, the SUBJECT ESQ. CD contains almost 29 minutes of additional material, “bonus tracks” recorded live “on 2 track tape” in Munich in 1971. The first of these, the nearly 19-minute “Giantania Improvisations,” is a revealing jam in which each musician has time to stretch out with an interesting solo. It is credited to Hofmann, Pittwohn and Wisnet. The second, “Untitled,” is, at 10 minutes, shorter but flabbier.

Only a year later, in “Autumn 1973,” Subject Esq. had shed Stadler, replacing him with Hennes Hering on keyboards (Hering was from Out Of Focus, a German band mostly given to boring “psychedelic” jams), and had added Nicholas Woodland on guitars to become a sextet named Sahara. Also Hofmann was now credited with woodwinds, Moog synthesizer and Mellotron in addition to vocals, and Pittwohn with harmonica, tenor sax and vocals.

This was the group which recorded SUNRISE. “Sunrise” the piece occupied all of side two, as already noted; side one consisted of three separate pieces, “Marie Celeste,” “Circles,” and “Rainbow Rider.”

“Marie Celeste” opens with a phonograph playing a few bars of a classical warhorse, segues into some hard-rock guitar riffs, and then segues again into a spacey organ which leads into the vocals. Only gradually does the melody emerge. The piece was written by new keyboardist Hering – a sign that he was looking for a more ambitious band than Out Of Focus for his material. Alex Pittwohn’s “Circles,” too quickly dismissed by some critics, opens with familiar Nashville country-music riffs, but quickly veers into a non-country melody and some rich vocal harmonizing. (All lyrics on all three albums are in English.) And “Rainbow Rider” by Hofmann and Woodland finishes the side with another strong melody, presented as a mini-suite, which vaguely reminds me of an ambitious Brian Wilson.

Despite the attention drawn by “Sunrise” on side two, these three pieces on side one grew on me the more I listened to them. I was left, finally, with the feeling that this was mature rock music – nearly unclassifiable as to type even as the best Beatles songs were, but very well accomplished with many subtle touches and unusual melodic twists and turns. This is music which defies categorization.

But “Sunrise” is the killer. Opening with bubbling, gurgling sounds of water, it has a full-fledged thunderstorm which kicks in about 10 minutes in. The Freeman brothers in their THE CRACK IN THE COSMIC EGG, describe the piece this way: “a winding excursion that ranges from Camel to The Cosmic Jokers, from Pink Floyd to Pulsar, from…you get the idea? It’s a cosmic fan’s nirvana.”

There’s nothing like “Sunrise” on Sahara’s second album, FOR ALL THE CLOWNS. The album is all songs – seven of them, a couple less than two minutes long, although to make up for that two of the longer pieces exist as parts I and II. But, as the Freemans note, “a much more distinctive sound developed.”

The personnel had shifted again: Rosenkind was gone, replaced by drummer Holger Brandt (from Missing Link), and Woodland was replaced on lead guitar by Gunther Moll (although he played 12-string guitar on one track). And Alex Pittwohn was reduced to “Co-ordinator & stage sound” – there are no saxes (or harmonicas) on FOR ALL THE CLOWNS. The band was back to a quintet, and dominated by keyboards and guitars.

This narrowed Sahara’s focus but sharpened it melodically. As the Freemans put it, “really it was back to Subject Esq., with an overdose of progressive influences, notably Focus, Caravan and Yes, and a potpourri of other styles. The results were a very complex and sophisticated progressive [sic], and an album that is still very fresh and surprising.” (The Freemans think more highly of SUBJECT ESQ. than I do.) Where the Freeman brothers hear “a potpourri of…styles” I hear a much greater stylistic consistency than was apparent on SUNRISE, and a greater homogeneity in the music on the album, the majority of it the work of Wissnet and Hofmann.

Each track is a polished gem, but the title track (originally at the end of side one), “For All The Clowns,” is the winner of the lot. It has a sublime solo section in which each soloist segues smoothly into the next and the music builds organically, accented by synthesizer swooshes which, in my 1970s Dynaquad four-speaker stereo system, circled the room impressively.

Dag Erik Asbjornsen in his Cosmic Dreams at Play: Guide to German Progressive and Electronic Rock , says “Sahara were never a stable unit. … Sadly the band wasn’t able to cope with more line-up changes when Brandt and Moll [the two newest members] decided to leave and consequently disintegrated in 1977.” That’s a genuine shame. Sahara embodied so much musical talent that has never been seen again, and they left us the legacy of only two superb albums.

Both Sahara albums are highly recommended; the Subject Esq. album is largely of historical value and will be disappointing to those seeking more of the accomplished music which exists on the Sahara albums.

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