Album Reviews: Brand X — Is There Anything About? / Missing Period / Live at the Roxy L.A.

It’s a popular (and not wholly inaccurate) contention that Phil Collins did his best work with Genesis in the immediate years after Peter Gabriel left, and then – around the release of ABACAB, headed for the ditch creatively. Of course the commercial approach reaped rewards in terms of album sales; once Genesis quite being challenging (and, I’d say, interesting) they shifted a helluva lot more product.

Still, there’s no knocking Collins’ ability as a drummer, and in fact his musical taste in those days was a mite better than he sometimes got credit for. For several years he was deeply involved in a side project, a jazz fusion band called Brand X. As it happened, Collins was an on-again, off-again member of this aggregation, owing largely to his commitment in his other band.

Being that it’s jazz fusion with which we’re concerning ourselves here, it’s safe to assume that Brand X rarely troubled the upper reaches of the album charts. Though in fact four of their eight studio LPs – including 1982’s Is There Anything About? the last to feature Collins – did in fact crack the US Top 200 charts, albeit briefly.

That 1982 album – actually culled from session tapes after Collins had left – has recently been reissued by Gonzo Multimedia, along with two other Brand X titles. Missing Period is a 1997 collection of “lost session tapes,” and 1996’s Live at the Roxy L.A. is a bootleg-quality document of a live Brand X gig from 1979.

Belying its cobbled-together nature, Is There Anything About? features some catchy fusion playing; highlights include the opening track, “Ipanemia” and the synth-based “TMIU-ATGA” (short for “they’re making it up as they go along”). Collins is in fine form, but the real stars here are guitarist John Goodsall and fretless bass virtuoso Percy Jones. Jones’ work on “Swan Song” suggests what The Police might’ve sounded like had they given weight to their own jazz inclinations. The band’s approach is perhaps best summed up on the aptly-titled “Modern, Noisy and Effective” (though the signature melody sounds, er, borrowed).

Missing Period collects session tapes dating from the band’s earliest days. Here they sound a bit like a more hyperactive version of Phil Manzanera‘s Quiet Sun; the various instruments all seem to be soloing at once, yet somehow it all (just) hangs together. “Dead Pretty” might not have impressed Genesis fans of the era, but for anyone who enjoys knotty, precise jazz fusion with equal emphasis on chops and melody, it’s impressive stuff. “Kugelblitz” recalls Frank Zappa‘s work around the same time. Collins and his bandmates are on fire and they play with a mix of reckless abandon and cold precision. Overall, though, the album seems to focus primarily on the work of keyboardist Robin Lumley. And that’s just fine. Comprised of six longish tunes (none clocks in under seven minutes), Missing Period flies by quickly, but deserves repeat plays.

Judging by their prowess in the recording studio, it’s intriguing to wonder how Brand X would have sounded in a live onstage setting. Billed in the liner notes as capturing Brand X “at the peak of the band’s career,” Live at the Roxy L.A. is little more than an authorized bootleg. That said, it’s not at all unlistenable if one accepts it for what t is, and appreciates the rarity of its contents. The band runs through numbers from its various albums, and though the perfomrance is intially a bit on the subdued side, once the players warm up (around the thirds track, “Don’t Make Waves”) they firing on all cylinders. The presence of Collins’ lead vocals on some cuts plants the music more in a pop vein than would otherwise be the case, but it’s still arguably superior to most of Duke (Genesis’ 1980 release).

It’s good to have these three generally overlooked releases back in print. The Gonzo reissues don’t add new liner notes or bonus tracks, but the original albums all have enough winning qualities to justify straight, no-frills reissues.

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