Sunday, 25 February 2018

REV: Empire, The Complete Recordings

The Peter Banks Musical Estate is working to get Pete's music back in print. Empire's The Complete Recordings was released late last year and following in early March are The Self-Contained Trilogy, with his three '90s solo albums, plus Be Well, Be Safe, Be Lucky... The Anthology, with all sorts of rarities and extras. I was kindly sent previews, so I'll post reviews of the forthcoming releases soon, but first some thoughts on Empire.

In summary, The Complete Recordings does what it says: a handy and low priced collection of everything Empire did, lovingly put together, bringing the material back into print, and allowing one to appreciate this neglected period of Peter Banks' career. Empire was formed by Banks with Sidonie Jordan (initially his partner, latterly his ex) on vocals, then performing as Sydney Foxx.

Jordan helped assemble this 3CD release which has everything on the band's four albums –  Mark I, Mark II, Mark III and The Mars Tapes – remastered and in a different order. There are extensive notes and photos from Jordan and others in a 40-page booklet. There is also an additional track: "Who", a 1975 demo for a proposed post-Empire project with Banks and Jordan. This was previously included on a compilation from Flash's Ray Bennett, who's on bass. (The one Empire-related song missing, I presume for rights issues, is a 1974 recording of the Jordan-penned "All God's Morning" by Jordan, Banks and Pete Townshend from With Love, one of Townshend's Meher Baba albums.)

None of the four Empire albums were actually released when the band was active. Banks and Jordan tried to get the band off the ground several times without success. Jordan met Banks in 1972 (her sister was dating Mike Hough, Flash's drummer) and they were married in 1974. She had been a recording artist for 10 years, with a publishing contract with A&M, and Empire was as much her band as Pete's. The first album was built around Jordan's back catalogue of A&M songs. Banks was coming out of Flash: indeed, the original plan had been for the new band to be called Flash until they found out they didn't have the rights to the name.

The first Empire line-up, recording in 1974, has some familiar names to prog fans. John Giblin (bass) and Preston Ross-Heyman (drums) were both later in Brand X, while keyboardist Jakob Magnusson later worked with Kevin Ayers. The most notable guest, on one track, is Phil Collins. Shortly before Empire, Collins had been playing in a live outfit called Zox and the Radar Boys with Banks, and they'd worked on some of Banks' ideas. Collins would then help the nascent Empire, lending them Genesis' rehearsal room.

However, Empire failed to secure a record deal. Jordan and Banks separated in 1975 (they didn't divorce until 1986), but ended up sharing a flat in Los Angeles. Empire tried again and this time got an album deal with Tattoo, a Warner subsidiary. Mark II was recorded in 1977, with a line-up including Jeffrey Fayman (later to work with Robert Fripp). Magnusson guested on the new sessions, the only other musician from Empire's first incarnation. However, Tattoo dropped them, complaining there wasn't a single on the album. The band dissolved and Jordan and Banks went their separate ways.

Until late 1979, when Banks found some backing for a third go at Empire. It is from this period that Mark III and The Mars Tapes comes. However, when the backing was withdrawn, the Mark III material was hastily completed, with Jordan apologetic for the production standards in the liner notes. Again, no record deal was forthcoming. None of the Empire material would be released until Mark I came out in 1995.

So, some of the Empire material is a bit rough, unpolished, and there's some repetition in the tracks ("Sky at Night" was carried over from Mark I to Mark II, "Destiny" from Mark II to Mark III), with the quasi-live Mars Tapes mostly covering material from the other albums, as well as reaching back to Yes' version of "Something's Coming". But in all I found re-visiting this material and having it all together to be revelatory. There was some magic here. The band sits – often successfully, if occasionally less easily – between Banks' progressive stylings (familiar from Flash and early Yes) and Jordan's American white soul. They could groove, they could be romantic and they could deliver 12-minute epics.

Jordan is a great singer. Delicate on "Sky at Night", romantic on "Destiny", sexy on "Soul Empire", and downright dirty on "Do What You Want". Banks is superb, and his key role in the Yes guitar sound apparent. Stylistically diverse, bringing a range of genre approaches that prog needs. However, the proggier Empire sometimes lacked a broader base of instrumentalist input or maybe they just needed some tighter arranging? "Foundation" goes on and on, in need of some keys or bass virtuoso playing. Although the rest of the band could deliver too, as on the 17-minute "Something's Coming".

The whole release has been put together with care. The one choice you might question is the break from chronological order. Instead disc 1 is labelled the 'Best of Empire', disc 2 is most of The Mars Tapes set, and disc 3 is the 'Rest of Empire'. But this works. I think the distinction is more between the 'Best' being an Empire as a successor to Flash or Yes, a proggier Empire, and the 'Rest' being a soul Empire aiming at the the late '70s clubs. In other words, disc 1 is full of guitar solos and freak outs, while disc 3 is more direct. Disc 2 sees the band stretch out with a quasi-live set.

But I suggest Empire was most successful when combining Banks' and Jordan's styles, e.g. with tracks like the Mark I "Sky at Night" (the one with Collins guesting), "More Than Words" or "Shooting Star". The multi-part "Shooting Star" is a stand out for me, with Jordan's voice, Banks' playing, and good support from the others (including some strong keys from Magnusson).

Sometimes overlooked compared to Flash before or Pete's '90s solo resurgence, Empire has plenty to offer and you can find it all here.

To buy The Complete Recordings, click through
To buy The Self-Contained Trilogy,
To buy Be Well, Be Safe, Be Lucky... The Anthology,

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