What does it sound like?:
If. like me, you file your music in strict alphabetical order, I’m guessing the section marked “Q” is very sparsely populated indeed. Only five “Q” names grace my shelves and you can probably guess what they are. That’s right, it’s Quatermass, Queen, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Quiver and Quintessence (those Quarry Men bootlegs are filed under “Beatles”, need you ask). Of those five, the one that gets the most needle time by far is undoubtedly the magnificent and timeless Quintessence.
For those of us who were buying records in the 60s and early 70s our first introduction to the band was almost certainly via the 1969 Island sampler LP Nice Enough To Eat. Here, nestling among new and exciting offerings from Fairport, Tull, Free, Mott and Crimson was the Quintessence track Gungamai (sic). But in their haste to get Nice Enough To Eat into the stores, Island made a few basic errors with the sleeve notes (see comments for more details).
Such confusion aside Gungamai (sic) with its overtly Indian overtones was an attention-grabbing departure from the other prog/folk/blues fodder on Nice Enough To Eat and it was the start of a love affair with Quintessence which outlived the band’s brief five album lifespan and continues to this day.
When I read that almost everything on Spirits From Another Time was previously unreleased I was initially concerned it might turn out to be a ragbag collection of unfinished and inferior material. I needn’t have worried. Most tracks are extended versions of familiar songs, or powerful alternate takes/versions. Plus, with eye-watering cover art supplied by the Afterword’s own Pencilsqueezer and several pages of closely-typed and insanely detailed sleeve notes courtesy of the redoubtable Colin H, everything here is of the highest quality and stands well up against the band’s official Island catalogue.
Colin has also scoured the archives of Melody Maker, NME etc and come up with a wealth (and I mean dozens) of contemporary ads for Quintessence gigs, showing them rubbing shoulders and sharing stages with familiar (and some not so familiar) names of the day. Just about every prog/folk/psych band of note is mentioned here and it’s enough to send any early 70s rock historian into a nostalgic tail spin.
Raga rock and Indian music in general enjoyed a brief but significant period of popularity in the late 60s, with everyone from the Beatles down dabbling in meditation and other spiritual pursuits. Ravi Shankar had long been the darling of the folk and classical music crowd of course and things reached an unlikely climax in the summer of 1969 when the Radha Krishna Temple took their George Harrison produced Hare Krishna Mantra Apple single to number 12 in the UK charts. It’s probably no coincidence then that John Barham, the man who produced the Quintessence Island albums also worked as arranger on those RKT recordings, as well as some of Beatle George’s own albums.
With their flutes, sitars, tablas and none-more-hippy “only love can save us” lyrics, Quintessence occupied a similar area of Indian influenced devotional music which tapped into prog rock, hypnotic psychedelia and went on to evolve into electronic dance music and trance. The main difference being they were much louder with a clearly defined high energy rock sensibility and could often be found playing free concerts in and around their Ladbroke Grove manor. Although based in Notting Hill Quintessence were also a truly international band with frontman Phil “Shiva” Jones and flautist Raja Ram both originating from Australia, while other members hailed from America, Canada, Mauritius and Yorkshire.
The opening track Notting Hill Gate sets the mood with the timeless lyric “We’re getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate. We all sit around and meditate” and the original In Blissful Company album recording is extended here by a full minute to include previously unheard references to their home turf of Ladbroke Grove.
The guitar dexterity of Allan Mostert and Maha Dev was always one of the main Quintessence drawcards for me and it’s here in abundance, with almost every track featuring a surfeit of fierce wah-wah guitar set among the blissed-out flutes and sitars. Nowhere is this more evident than on Epitaph For Tomorrow, an 11 minute plus epic instrumental jam with west coast-meets-live Cream overtones.
More blistering guitar work is evident on Body, a rare concert track recorded at St Pancras Town Hall in 1970. This is one of the highlights of Disc One and shows the band were a live act to reckon with.
Disc Two opens with an alternate take of Sea of Immortality from their self-titled second album. Very different to the released version, this features yet another quite extraordinary guitar solo. Tree Of Life is a previously unheard song with modern overdubs, while Marwa explores the Indian raga form to the full.
Only Love is perhaps the, ahem, quintessential Quin track with every element in place. Raja Ram’s ethereal flute leads off this alternate take before the “we’re gonna come together” mantra takes over and the song settles into a hypnotic groove of guitar and tabla, gradually speeding up to a frantic and chaotic climax. If I had to choose just one track to represent the sound and style of Quintessence it would be this one.
Finally, thanks to Colin’s sleeve notes for a couple of priceless trivia gems:
It was Quintessence drummer Jake Milton who came up with the name “The Old Grey Whistle Test” following a BBC recording session circa 1971
Simon Lanzon who contributed piano to some Quintessence tracks had previously worked in Donovan’s Open Road band and went to be a part of anarcho-punk outfit Chumbawamba
What does it all *mean*?
While very much of its time, this music is somehow timeless and unchanging and stands up to repeated listening. After the three Island albums, Spirits From Another Time forms an essential part of the Quintessence catalogue.
Goes well with…
Just about anything. Quintessence played the first two Glastonbury festivals (then called “Fayres”) in 1971/72 and were truly representative of the ideals the event was founded upon. You might want to think about that in 2016 as you queue for the iPhone charging tent.
Might suit people who like…
Indian influenced raga rock, prog, psytrance and fine guitar playing