ATOMIC ROOSTER — Death Walks Behind You (review)

ATOMIC ROOSTER — Death Walks Behind You album cover Album · 1971 · Hard Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
The late 60s had been a tumultuous ride for Hammond organ wizard, pianist and bassist Vincent Crane who had ridden high as part of the whacky Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, however Brown himself demanded to be the center of attention which left a bad taste in the mouths of the supporting musicians who were keeping him afloat. Crane jumped shipped and took drummer Carl Palmer (yes, THAT Carl Palmer) with him to form their own version of heavy soulful rock with a few prog curve balls. The answer came in the form of ATOMIC ROOSTER after snatching up bassist / vocalist / flautist / guitarist Nick Graham to form the new power trio. However, this new vision only lasted a mere album when they recorded and released the debut 
“Atomic Roooster,” before Carl Palmer decided that Crane’s musical vision wasn’t a good match. It wouldn’t be long before he would join Emerson, Lake & Palmer and become one of prog’s biggest stars.

Unfortunately Graham would jump ship as well and join Skin Alley which left Vincent Crane scrambling for suitable replacements. After scouring the musical world for the right talent to align forces with, Crane ultimately settled on Andromeda vocalist and guitarist John Du Cann who would handle the triple duties as guitarist, bassist and lead vocalist. For the near impossible task of replacing the jazz-rock master Carl Palmer, newbie Paul Hammond joined the crew and the new triumvirate of talent had been christened and the creative process began to take root. This all led to the next phase of ATOMIC ROOSTER which released the second album DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU a mere seven months after the debut in the same year of 1970 and the trio that appeared at this stage would be forever referred to as the “classic” lineup.

This sophomore offering is what is known as the most critically lauded, most popular and well known album of the entire ATOMIC ROOSTER canon with its instantly recognizable cover art of the William Blake monotype Nebuchadnezzar, a character that according to legend was a former ruler who lost his mind through hubris and reduced to animalistic insanity. The cover art wasn’t just a gloom and doom artistic photo op but actually provided inspiration for the darkened themes contained in the album’s eight track run. While Crane had been the main compositional writer on the debut, DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU finds an equal playing field with Du Cann writing and co-creating as much material as Crane. The result is a tremendously different sounding album that finds the balance of power working in favor of a more interesting and dynamic roster of musical treats. Sadly no songwriting from Hammond.

Despite the album residing on the heavier side of rock with progressive elements strewn about, the title track plays a beautiful mind trick by starting out with a creepy piano jingle accompanied by a weird series of guitar squeals which sets the darkened macabre tone of the album before it jumps into the more familiar guitar and organ dominated bluesy rock shuffles with the rather unorthodox songwriting procedures of the era. The immediate effect is that DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU is immediately more mesmerizing than the debut album with much more interesting guitar riffs, a better mix of keys and drums and the far superior vocal style of Du Cann whose vox box was tailor made for the part. At a playing time of over seven and a half minutes, the band manage to craft exquisite twists and turns in their boogie based heavy rock antics.

While the opening title track establishes ATOMIC ROOSTER as a veritable heavy rock band with a wealth of sophisticated tricks up their sleeve, the following instrumental “VUG” on the other hand showcases their prog chops with incessant time signature deviations, exquisite instrumental interplay and a flair of musical adventurism woefully absent from the album prior that only emerged a scant few months before. While primarily a rhythmic backdrop to showcase the supreme organ dominated gymnastics, scorching guitar solos are allowed to fire away unencumbered. The riff-laden hit single “Tomorrow Night” follows and changes gears to an almost Santana-esque percussive frenetic pace but it’s the intricate guitar parts that steal the show. The track made it all the way to No. 11 on the UK charts in 1971.

The secret to DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU’s amazing popularity is the diversity of the tracks. Every single one has its own personality and sounds completely different from what it just followed. “Seven Lonely Streets” (“7 Streets” on some albums) is the most straight forward rocker although rich with Hammond organ stabs. “Sleeping For Years” i starts with a blistering series of guitar tricks before erupting into another organ driven heavy rocker and has a rather Jethro Tullish vocal swagger to it actually. “I Can’t Take No More” reminds me of Jeff Lynne’s future ELO track “Don’t Bring Me Down” in the guitar melody department. One of the lesser tracks here. “Nobody Else” begins with freaky vocal effects before breaking into piano ballad territory. While clearly the mellowest track on the album, it has interesting time signatures and slight pauses between the piano notes. It picks up steam in the middle as it starts to rock.

The entire album really leads up to the impressive closer “Gershatzer” up to which the band members hold back their avant-garde urges and let em all gush out in this eight minute prog behemoth of a track. While starting out as a rather familiar organ led heavy guitar, bass and drum rocker, it quickly finds Hammond’s percussive drive taking on a new energetic level as he seems like he’s become a hundred times more caffeinated. Likewise, Crane finds some stellar piano shredding which turns into a series of absolutely bizarre experimental organ riffs. The track hops, skips and jumps from frenetic musical outbursts to placid calming slower piano runs. Overall the track reminds me of some of the symphonic prog that Focus would latch onto with tracks like “Eruption” on their second album, however much weirdness occurs on this grand finale which leaves little doubt that ATOMIC ROOSTER belongs in the prog universe.

DEATH WALKS BEHIND YOU is a major step up in quality from the decent but not mind blowing debut album. The so-called classic lineup gels perfectly together as they create some of the most pleasing musical interplay within the beautifully crafted compositions. There is not a boring track on this one and if you find yourself with the re-mastered 2004 edition with bonus tracks, you’ll be treated to the B-Side “Play The Game,” the 1970 demo “The Devil’s Answer” as well asa several BBC Radio Session tracks. While the album is utterly essential and cream of the ATOMIC ROOSTER crop, these extra goodies make a great album even better. Unfortunately the quality heard on this sophomore album wouldn’t last very long. While the following “In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster” is an excellent followup, the band would fall into the mediocrity club fairly quickly. For this moment however, they crafted one of the best heavy rock albums of 1970.
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