1. A Visit to Newport Hospital (8:25)
2. Contrasong (4:21)
3. Boilk (9:23)
4. Long Piece No. 3 – Part One (5:06)
5. Long Piece No. 3 – Part Two (7:39)
6. Long Piece No. 3 – Part Three (8:01)
7. Long Piece No. 3 – Part Four (2:51)
Mont Campbell – bass, vocals, organ, piano, French horn
Dave Stewart – organ, piano, tone generator
Clive Brooks – drums
Henry Lowther – trumpet (2)
Mike Davis – trumpet (2)
Bob Downes – tenor sax (2)
Tony Roberts – tenor sax (2)
Released in 1971, Egg’s sophomore effort is one of those albums that, in a way, can be said to be representative of a whole movement, though they rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Though “Canterbury scene” may sound rather vague as a definition, being more about a place than an actual musical style, it is nonetheless undeniable that most of the bands and artists associated with this most peculiar subgenre do share a number of features that go beyond their somewhat ‘incestuous’ sharing of personnel. Many see the output of the “Canterbury scene” as a subsection of jazz-rock with poppy leanings and occasional excursions into more avant-garde territory; however, to these ears at least, the best Canterbury outfits offer a complete progressive package of humour, sophistication, diverse influences, and remarkable musical chops. Quintessentially English, with a timeless feel that often eludes the more stereotyped instances of symphonic prog, the Canterbury sound commands fierce devotion, though its quirky nature can also leave listeners somewhat cold.
To all intents and purposes, Egg was a continuation of Uriel, the psychedelic progressive quartet that also included guitarist Steve Hillage (later with Khan and Gong), whose only album was released in 1969 under the name of Arzachel. After Hillage left, the three remaining members took a different, more experimental route, pushing the keyboards at the forefront, and dabbling in those genre-defining contaminations between rock and classical music – as witnessed by “Fugue in D Minor” and “Symphony No.2”, both featured on their 1970 self-titled debut album.
In spite of its cult status among true-blue Canterbury fans, The Polite Force is generally not rated as highly as the likes of Third or In the Land of Grey and Pink. Some reviewers have even hinted at comparisons with the much-reviled ELP – owing to the similar configuration of both bands – which, unfortunately, does not do the album any favours. Now, though I consider ELP one of the most influential bands in the history of progressive rock, and rate their first five studio albums quite highly, I do not find the connection between their sound and Egg’s as evident as some maintain. While The Polite Force is very much a showcase for Dave Stewart’s distinctive style, and therefore a real delight for keyboard fans, it would also be unfair to state that the band is dominated by him. In fact, bassist/vocalist Monty Campbell and drummer Clive Brooks (who joined blues-rock trio The Groundhogs after Egg’s demise) do not just function as supporting cast for Stewart’s keyboard antics, but drive the band’s sound along with their impressive, though understated, skills. Campbell is also a vocalist very much in the classic Canterbury mould, with a polite (pun unintended), pleasant voice that is the perfect complement to the band’s quirky, complex sound.
Though seven tracks are listed on the back cover, the album actually comprises four compositions, one of which, “Long Piece No.3” is divided into four parts. “A Visit to Newport Hospital” is one of the most impressive openers to be found on a Canterbury album – introduced by an almost Sabbath-like riff, heavy and plodding, which suddenly loosens up into a cheery, sprightly organ section. The gently ironical lyrics, relating some of the band’s experiences in their Uriel days, are an unobtrusive yet essential accompaniment to Stewart’s elegantly assertive organ; Brooks’ drumming underpins everything with a discreet touch. The song then comes full circle, ending with the same gritty organ riff as it began. In the following “Contrasong” a full-blown horns quartet punctuates Stewart’s dynamic piano forays and Campbell’s urgent vocals, with a basic 5/8 9/8 pattern reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s counterpoint arrangements; Stewart switches to organ later during the song, propelling it forward in parallel with Brook’s drumming, and the horns coming in bursts. Next comes the somewhat controversial “Boilk”, a full-fledged avant-garde piece almost 10 minutes long, very much in the vein of King Crimson’s “Moonchild”. The composition, which had already appeared on Egg’s debut (though in shorter form), opens with the sound of running water, and includes improvisations on a Bach theme, tolling bells and a host of other effects.
The album closes with the ‘epic’ instrumental “Long Piece No.3”, about 20 minutes long if taken as a whole – though its four parts are listed separately. As the liner notes point out, the ‘outer’ parts (One and Four) are rhythmically based, while the ‘inner’ ones are harmonically based. Interestingly, the whole composition comes across as somewhat fragmented, with frequent pauses breaking up the flow of the music. Part One opens with Stewart’s briskly repetitive organ, assisted by Campbell on piano and organ, and driven along by Brooks’ skilful drumming. Part Two immediately introduces Stewart’s fluid organ, with the drums going back to a supporting role (though essential), and a palpably more melodic texture – though its central section contains a sort of improvisational organ piece that might bring “Boilk” to mind. Campbell’s bass introduces the textbook-Canterbury Part Three, with its almost military drum pattern, unbridled organ flights (sometimes reminiscent of Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge), and tone generator adding wailing, guitar-like effects. Part Four wraps up the album in a short but intense climax, driven along by frantic drumming and harsh, fuzzed organ.
As Edward Macan intimates in his book Rocking the Classics, The Polite Force can be seen as bridging the gap between keyboard-based symphonic prog and the jazzier, quirkier sound typical of the Canterbury scene. Definitely one of the finest moments of Stewart’s career, its eclectic nature – featuring as it does avant-garde experimentation, more or less ‘conventional’ songs, classical touches and plenty of instrumental brilliance –is likely to appeal to a wide range of fans of progressive music. While not a full-blown masterpiece like Third or The Rotters’ Club, it is doubtlessly one of the most interesting productions coming from the variegated Canterbury universe – and as such highly recommended.