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'Mariner': a CD from Nostromo

integrally featuring a Procol Harum cover

A Salty Dog, Procol Harum's album about the sea ... was that ever really true?

Here, on the other hand, is a CD album that is genuinely about the sea, in that it sets out to dramatise, in music, Coleridge's poem The Ancient Mariner. And its Procol Harum connections do not stop there, as 'Nostromo' himself (aka Sev Lewkowicz) explained in various mails to BtP:

I have been a musician since the early 70s, having come to 'rock' music via classical piano lessons - hence I suppose my love for the music of Procol Harum. I bought all their albums as they were released. I didn't ever see them with Robin Trower - I first saw them in the early 70s when Dave Ball was playing the guitar. Later on in about 1980 I played in Australian singer Duffo's backing band with Dave. It might interest you to know that I am now in contact with Dave Ball, as a direct result of him finding my e-mail address in your Guest Book. Good eh - I hadn't spoken to him for some 17 years! I also played down the bill to PH at Surrey University - by this time Dave had been replaced by Mick Grabham.

In 1994 I set up my own studio at home. Also during that period I was singer, keyboardist and main songwriter on a comeback CD by 70s prog rock band Gracious!, released on Centaur Discs. I have really been a jobbing musician - without any great financial success - playing often as a session player. I was not in the original Gracious! The bass player, Tim Wheatley and I have played in many bands together over the years, and it was he that asked me to help them with their Echo album. Tim and Rob Lipson (drummer and brother of producer Steven Lipson) were the two originals, and Alan Cowderoy (original guitarist) played on 1 track.

I followed up this album by releasing my first solo album under the name Nostromo entitled No Such Thing As Silence - also released by Centaur. In 1997 I completely re-equipped my studio with a digital hard disc recording system, and opened it as a commercial concern. Since it has been open I have recorded an album by a folk rock band called House ... I have several other album projects by other artistes on the go, and I am recording an album of songs from her one-woman show with the actress Sarah Miles.

Sev's website tells how he first had the idea to record a musical interpretation of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner in early 1996 and how three tracks were demoed by Gracious! in mid 1996. Creative difficulties led to the shelving of this project, which resumed early in 1997 when he started work on Mariner on his own, in the re-equipped studio, now called The Music Loft.

I decided to re-record the three tracks I had previously recorded with Gracious! as I had written two out of the three tracks (the other being a cover of Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, which I also re recorded). I wrote and recorded the tracks in order of appearance on the CD, because I wanted to try and experience the same emotions as the mariner might have in his journey ... The album was edited and mastered at Keynote Audio,  and was  released in January 1999 by Centaur Discs ...

The CD is an ambient / rock hybrid. It has one foot firmly in Pink Floyd territory and the other in William Orbit's back garden. It is melodic, but it also has a groove. The album closes with a cover of Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, but apart from one other original song, it is all instrumental.

1 The bright-eyed Mariner

2 The Feast is set

3 The harbour cleared

4 The Storm-blast; Ice Mast-high

5 The Albatross

6 Idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean

7 The ghost-ship

8 Their Souls from their Bodies fly

9 The spell is snapt

10 A Salty Dog (the man that must hear me, to Him my tale I teach)


Oceanic effects, and The Bright-Eyed Mariner leads us off on this voyage with some ambient arpeggionics, a warm sound that's not especially distinctive except for a tinge of dissonance at the end; after which a big 'hit' reminiscent of the start of Something Magic heralds the sprightly medieval synth-dance of The Feast Is Set; a nice tune, though it alternates with a make-weight motif somewhat akin to the middle of Backgammon.

The Harbour Cleared is more atmospheric again, with wind effects over a breathy ostinato introducing drums and then a lyrical melody, a girl's voice played from a synth keyboard. Then the vocal starts, dry, bodiless: and the listener senses the influence of Islands-period King Crimson, both in terms of the melody, and of the words, by Nostromo collaborator Richard Ashworth: 'Steersman ... sirens ... winds to freeze the blood ... fanned by the gods ... hearth and home ... light-house ... harbour ... sacred liquor stills ...' It's the same sort of territory as Give Me Something to Remember you By, but the music doesn't allow as much space to the words as Brooker did to Sinfield there. I enjoyed this verbal piece and wish, I think, that there had been more Ashworth on the record. Sev writes,

Lyricist Richard Ashworth is a friend of mine of some 30 years' standing. He had a short-lived recording career himself in the late 70s, but now his main contribution is that he writes lyrics for my songs. He did live and work in Bristol some time ago - as a financial consultant. He is also a huge PH fan, and did manage to get to the Redhill gig.

The Storm-blast is a dramatic piece of music, chord-led rather than richly melodic. You can hear the Hesperus going under during the opening bars! One senses that the drama would be greatly enhanced by live performance, where a bit of gritty guitar would do wonders: here a guitar-voiced synth takes a long solo eventually, but a doodling quality remains. A sudden chilling adumbration of A Salty Dog now emerges in Ice Mast-high, in which the familiar four-to-a-bar chording hints at, but never copies, the famous opening of Brooker's Swiss-train masterpiece.

Nostromo paints an attractive synthscape in The Albatross, harmonically bright and restless; an ominous riff, near the end, uses Thin End of the Wedge effects to evoke the doom brought on the ship by the bird's destruction. Idle As A Painted Ship Upon A Painted Ocean again uses Salty chords to depict the spiritual doldrums into which the ship is plunged: this Wagnerian treatment of Brooker's Swiss-train leitmotiv promises well for the end of the suite, when, we imagine, the joy of the full Dog will allow the anguish to thaw and resolve. But how will the bodiless voice we have heard before cope with the final soarings of the title-phrase?

The Ghost-Ship is perhaps the most modern-sounding track on the album, with a little brain-niggling scratchy rhythm itching away behind fatter synth sounds, and a loosely funky drum loop. Not that I'm a great fan of the Portishead school, but this is a track that I think works exceptionally well. To my shame I didn't unaidedly spot the horn motif from another maritime epic, Britten's Peter Grimes, which actually pervades the track: all to Sev's credit that it's so seamlessly integrated!

A much more believable guitar-sound announces the apocalyptic Their Souls from their Bodies fly which, at 2:24, is among the shorter tracks on the album. The Spell is Snapt, on the other hand, is a long 'un, revisiting much of the material in the suite during its seven-minute development. The Salty chord comes in and out of focus. Harsh sounds, bone-like Danse Macabre echoes, sprangling harps, triumphal trumpetings ... it's not unlike some of the mellower moments on A Salty Dog Returns. I wonder if Q magazine's Tom Hibbert would damn Mariner (as he did ASD returns) as 'footling about in the potting shed of sound' ... it would be ill-deserved, since Nostromo's intentions are sweepingly emotional. It must be said, though, that it is hard to imagine a synth album that would stand up, long-term, beside the magic, haunting grandeur of Coleridge's icy masterpiece.

As regards equipment used, I'll try and remember what I had then, but it was 18 months ago, and I have a load more gear now: Korg M1 keyboard / Yamaha CS50 (old analogue synth) / Alesis SR 16 drum module / Akai S900 sampler / Korg 05/RW sound module / Zoom 1204 multi effects / Behringer Ultrafex II exciter / Atari ST with Cubase / Seck 12/2 mixing desk / Tascam Porta One 4 track. Nothing very cutting-edge or hi-tech, as you can see.

The Spell is Snapt is sustained throughout by a more-or-less jaunty beat that must, we feel sure, let up eventually in deference to the shade of BJ: A Salty Dog duly 'tunes in with a few tweet-tweets' as one would hope, tom-toms pan across a spacious stereo ... but then we're adrift in a world of loose chugging rhythms, miles from the original sound-world.

The chords take off on their own, and where is the vocal? The song's been restructured, perhaps reminding us of the way it starts in the 'Latin' version from Within our House: yet this time it's also been transposed up six semitones (into a key as far from the original as it's possible to get!). Surely the singing will start impossibly high?

No, despite the transposed backing, the vocal starts on the original Brooker note, and the effect is intensely surprising! In order to avoid discordance, it has to shift downwards in the second bar, whereas the Brooker version starts each of the first three bars at exactly the same pitch. This means that the 'no-one leave alive' phrase has to be re-contoured to fit the chords it's floating over, as follows:







No -



a -








And, whether one likes this iconoclasm or no, it certainly helps us to focus on what makes the original so effective: that vocal G# against the G natural in the chord, and the huge upward sweep of the whole phrase, whose compass is eight semitones (in this cover reduced to six). It must be Gary's most sophisticated melody, surely, and it's a brave soul who takes it on at all, let alone recasting it in this radical fashion.

Sev lets the chords and melody reunite conventionally after this, and the harmonic surprise is not so great when the same rewrite recurs in subsequent verses. The instrumental section is slightly reharmonised by a shifted bassline; yet he is mindful enough of the original to assign to his flutey sounds the original string interpolations from verse three, and to ensure that his voice does rise with portamento into the title phrase; it is quite quietly sung, however, and doesn't command the passion of the original.

Procol Harum tampered very little with this song, before Brooker came up with the Latinised version; but there was a time in the mid-70s when they doubled up the second instrumental section, with a luscious modulation, so that the final verse had to be sung a tone higher than the first and second. This extraordinary act of vocal bravado (most singers would be trying to bend the song so that it came out lower for the finale!) can be heard best on a fantastic version of the song from a set known to some fans as The British Biscuit, to others as Five and Dime.

Nostromo's Salty Dog also repeats the final instrumental, but without the luscious key-change, and the song fades over ninety seconds, nodding to Mars from The Planets, and perhaps to the Crimso version as well. It's hard to know how to respond to this conclusion to the Mariner suite: I have a feeling that it might work really well in the ears of someone who was less addicted to the Brooker / Reid original, and had less strong memories of having been stirred by it in concert so many times.

The album is in the top twenty of best sellers with my distribution company C&D Services, which I am very pleased about.

Sev's report above confirms that there is a enthusiastic market for intelligent, nicely-produced concept-albums like this one, and I have no doubt that it will introduce many new listeners to the original A Salty Dog as well as giving a lot of pleasure in its own right. Procol completists will need it, synthophobes probably won't. Next time I teach The Ancient Mariner this record will certainly come into the classroom, alongside the splendid Doré illustrations. And we'll also have a careful look at the liner-note by lyricist Ashworth, erudite, polemic and ingenious.

"He's joined the stupid club," Kurt Cobain's mother is reported to have said on hearing of her son's suicide. The other members of course include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Michael Hutchence, too young to die, too fast to live. These young casualties epitomise a particularly stupid and offensive aspect of rock culture: the idea that premature death is romantic ....

The Ancient Mariner you might argue is the alternative. What if you lived forever? Just how tedious might you become? Hope I die before I get old, Pete Townshend wrote. Where was this notion born? ...

... Keats, Shelley, Tennyson were young, sensual and licentious, and their verse makes that quite clear. Coleridge was into drugs, Byron would reputedly have had sex with a dog as long as he was on top ... To be remembered young they had to die young ... We can find the Hero, the Trickster, the Vamp in millennia-old myth but not the doomed youth. He is a 19th century innovation. The romantic image promises, by way of early death, eternal youth ...

The mariner ... is constantly reproached by his prematurely dead comrades. He's ugly, dirty, unkempt and boring. These are the consequences of shooting the albatross of his inspiration ... His analogues in rock'n'roll are Peter Green, Brian Wilson, Syd Barratt, Sly Stone, Arthur Lee; they lost it but wouldn't die ... None of the above are desirable role models. Heavy metal bands suspending groupies from third-storey windows and punk groups - like the mariner - casually shooting pigeons from the studio roof are not admirable, but then neither is a half-blind 20-stone diabetic poleaxed by one acid trip too many ...

The mariner however is changed by the voyage of life, the sea is clear metaphor for the passage of time. He learns compassion ... tested by time and sea, youthful carelessness gives way to mature responsibility ... he knows his very soul depends upon regular heartfelt warnings to the young ...

Taken in this light, the mariner is not acid wreckage, but the rock'n'roller who has used his good fortune to learn. He is Paul McCartney - an ageing genius with ... wealth and all his marbles. He is Fairport Convention ... in control of their business from publishing to lighting rig. The aggression and energy of youth has given way happily to the wisdom and taste of middle age.

But is it sexy? ... Who at 45 would choose to be 15 again? How many 15 year-olds believe the answer?

Kurt Cobain didn't and Coleridge's text would not have deterred him.

Richard Ashworth [excerpts]

Powerful stuff, and worth reading in full when you get the album! It's not explicit about the place of A Salty Dog in the suite, but surely the Brooker / Reid song is intended, in this setting, to correspond to the mature voice of the Mariner, to the 'wisdom and taste of middle age'? Gary Brooker may now be turning into another 'ageing genius with all his marbles', yet the harrowing truth is that A Salty Dog was written when he was in his early twenties! Yet The Ancient Mariner would be a perfect jumping-off point, should the mature Harum ever fancy another excursion into the conceptual worlds of In Held, Whaling Stories, and The Worm and the Tree.

How about it, Keith and Gary? Something for the millennium?

Last word from Sev, 20 September 1999:
I think it's a very fair review, and I don't think I'd take issue with anything that you've written ... I'm just finishing Sarah Miles's album this week, and in two weeks' time we start a run of her one-woman show, The Widow Smiles, at the King's Head Theatre in Islington. As well as having recorded all the backing tracks and sound effects, I'm doing the sound.
Have a look at her website ...

Procol Harum cover-versions

Nostromo website

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