HATFIELD AND THE NORTH — Hatfield and the North (review)

HATFIELD AND THE NORTH — Hatfield and the North album cover Album · 1974 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Sean Trane
A Canterburian supergroup made from members of Matching Mole (guitarist Phil Miller), Egg & Khan (keyboardist Dave Stewart), Caravan (bassist Richard Sinclair) and GonG (drummer Pip Pyle) - and amazingly enough no-one from Soft Machine- Hatfield (for short) certainly made two of the most transcendental albums in the genre, starting with the self-titled debut in 73. Taking their name from a traffic panel somewhere North of London, the South-of-London combo chose a pink-filtered picture of an unremarkable suburb and added some savage scene of pillage in the clouded sky, a symbol that remains a mystery to this writer even today. On top of the famous Robert Wyatt appearance in Calyx, the group benefits from the help of the Northettes (a trio of female singers that includes Spirogyra's Barbara Gaskins), some sax from Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh and a un-credited Didier Malherbe (source: the Calyx site and the innergatefold picture) of GonG on flute. One can see this album as a variance of a concept album with not one but two book-ending tracks: the electronic pieces called Stubbs Effect and more ex-centric (because asymmetric) Big Jobs, where Sinclair announces the colour signing about "the song to begin the beginning, a few arbitrary notes, which they try to make sound right and that their music on their latest Lp will please us and should certainly be a laugh" in a very Wyatt-esque manner. Another way to look at this album is as if two giant nameless suites (one per album side), since all tracks are melted into in each other (from Stubbs to Rifferama and from Fol De Rol until Other Stubbs) and it's pretty difficult to see where each song starts, even, if the Cd certainly made this easier.

Describing Hatfield's music is rather difficult other than saying it fits the Canterbury mould that we know today without sounding like any other band in that category. It's definitely not rock music anymore (like Gong or Caravan), it's not Jazz (through the bossa nova) either, but to call it jazz-rock is only partly satisfying because applicable only 15% (roughly) of the time. Mostly instrumental, but when sung it is either stunning or completely silly lyrics, often courtesy of drummer Pip Pyle (humour-wise, Hatfield is typically Canterburian), the quartet is simply amazing with mastery of their respective instruments and the numerous tempo changes and tricky time sigs are simply head-twisting and can be a bit of a repellent for the normal attention span.. There are some remains from Caravan, sometimes from Egg or Gong, but you mostly have to look at the future National Health to have an idea of what they sound like. Little wonder since three of the four Hatfield will be involved in NH. To make matters worse, the album is filled with short unpredictable songs that generally don't respect any rules and end up melting into each other, much like the superb Wyatt-conscious Calyx leads directly into album-climax Homerton. Another strong track is Shaving Is Boring, which grabs a space rock (ala GonG) repetitive rhythms and Caravan soundscapes (the organ theme seems from Grey & Pink) and later on Bossa Nochance is a clear wink at Caravan's rhythms.

Hatfield is probably the first of the three most difficult groups to "dig"/get into after or with Gilgamesh and National Health and are an acquired taste that comes with multiple listens. The Virgin reissue comes with a non-album single of which both sides are sung by Sinclair, the Fitter B-side will find its way on the next album in a different version. These two stick out a bit from the rest of the album (different sound), but there is nothing shocking either. The new Esoteric label "remastered" reissue brings a two more bonus tracks (, more like work-in-progress), but present on TRC as well in the Mumps track, and the booklet has been revamped. While on the scale of the site and prog's greater spectrum, this first Hatfield album might not be essential, in the Canterbury skyline circles, it certainly is.
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