I've practically given up on dollar-bin record shopping. My ability to judge proverbial books by their covers and to judge covers by the square inches they devote to musicians' chest hair (given the choice between two anonymous quiet storm soul LPs, side with the one whose auteur leaves the third button undone) has led me to some pleasant surprises. But once I get over the revelation that the past-prime BT Express album does indeed feature some funky breaks or the Wishbone Ash record does in fact, in its more placid moments, recall Terry Reid's River, I'm left with twelve-inches of empty signifiers that might beef up a Cultural Studies essay or a record collecting guide but will never give me persuasive reasons to listen closer, to listen more.
The Image Maker's charms linger a bit longer than those of most low-returns thrift store hauls. Partly because this ultra-obscure double-album is one giant vinyl-hound cryptogram. Though Shuttah's only LP was recorded on none other than progressive rock flagship label Vertigo's coin, these tunes never saw a proper release, and, more interestingly, no one is quite sure who played on the album. British copyright records don't reveal the songwriter's identity, and all information on the recording sessions has been lost. We know only two things for sure: these jams were committed to tape in 1971, and the culprits were likely involved in more prominent projects.
I won't venture any guesses as to the members' true identities -- sorry, I just don't feel like trudging through my old Renaissance and Procol Harum albums in search of clues. The Image Maker's high production values and adept songwriting do lead you to wonder how, exactly, this one fell through the cracks. Sure, the band veer into tepid bar rock waters when they try their hand at writing accessible songs, but this is at least marketable tepid bar rock, and the instrumental sections are top-notch. "Bull Run" is my favorite: panzer-sized riffs, storm-cloud fuzz organ, hallucinogenic snippets of military sound effects, out-there sax that could've come from John Surman or the dude who squawks all over Gong's Angel's Egg.
These genuinely inventive experimental cuts remind us that prog was never in theory a nauseating proposition. The genre's limitations come not from its ostentatious displays of virtuosity but from its failures to make good on its pretensions. Which happens here: the lyrical conceit -- some conflation of the Bible and a century of Anglo-American warfare -- never fleshes out. The statement Shuttah try so hard to make never fleshes itself out, kinda like how Isis' Panopticon never really elucidates its Foucaultian underpinnings. I don't doubt that this album will excite beard-strokers that enjoy being subsumed by menacing fuzz organ and enjoy the kitsch value of the lyrics' conceptual bent. Just don't listen to those people when they claim to take music seriously -- if they did, they'd admit that this album (like their Manassas, Tower of Power, and Yes records) is only a partial success, nice enough on its own terms but hardly a fount of missionary zeal.