Colosseum II was a British band established in 1975 by the former Colosseum- drummer and leader Jon Hiseman following the demise of his band Tempest in 1974. After a concert of Tempest, Hiseman was approached by a very young guitarist named Gary Moore. “We should form a band together”, he said to him. Well, they did and Ghosts was born. During the next eighteen months they tried to find the right musicians and a record company. A demo tape was shown to the label manager of Bronze Records, who suggested to change the band's name into Colosseum II. He believed it would make them more successful. The line-up was completed by keyboard player Don Airey, bassist Neil Murray and lead singer Mike Starrs.
The band's debut Strange New Flesh is strongly jazz-rock and fusion oriented. The music is based on the guitar work of Moore, leading to a much heavier sound than Colosseum had. After disappointing sales of the first album, Murray and Starrs were sacked by the band's record label in July 1976. The band continued with a new label and with bass player John Mole. They recorded the two largely instrumental albums Electric Savage and War Dance, both released in 1977 and both commercially unsuccessful. In August 1978, Gary Moore left to rejoin Thin Lizzy for a fourth spell; he was replaced by guitarist Keith Airey, Don's brother. The plans for a fourth album fell through when Don Airey decided to join Rainbow in December 1978.
Recently the band's debut Strange New Flesh got a perfect reissue by Esoteric Recordings. Maybe this time the album gets the attention it deserves, because at the time the punk movement was knocking on the door! This reissue has been extended with ten bonus tracks comprising studio demos from 1975 and 1976. It also restores the artwork of the original album and it includes new liner notes. The quality of the recordings on both discs is very good; it's all much better done than on previous CD-versions. This 2-CD Expanded Edition really offers a lot more good material than you already could enjoy on the original album. The music on both discs can be regarded as progressive rock with jazz-rock and fusion elements. Music wise there's not so much difference between the original album and the bonus tracks. The original consists of only six tracks, most of them longer than average thanks to the brilliant soloing of Gary Moore and Don Airey!
The album starts masterfully with Dark Side Of The Moog, a nice pun on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. It contains an incredible keyboard explosion reminiscent of Jan Hammer's fantastic playing. Later on the keyboards are joined by a dynamic rhythm section and some amazing guitar interplay in the vein of Jeff Beck. This instrumental and energetic track dominated by the keyboards and electric guitars, develops with many tempo and mood changes. Down To You is the first track featuring Mike Starrs on lead vocals. I was really impressed by his emotional performance when I heard him sing for the first time. The original version of Joni Mitchell is mainly an acoustic folk track, but the band turned this piece into a highly emotional and impressive prog fusion epic in which electric and acoustic passages are intertwined.
Gemini And Leo contains a more aggressive fusion style which is very reminiscent of the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Once again you can enjoy outstanding vocal work. The funky rhythm section is mind blowing and the bluesy guitar solos are majestic. On Secret Place lead singer Mike Starrs is at his best. The rhythm section again sounds pretty amazing while Airey's keyboards and Moore's guitar shine all the way through! On Second Thoughts also contains strong singing as well as great interplay of the musicians. This piece has a rather laid back atmosphere with very tasteful guitar melodies; it ends with a short drum solo which is resumed at the beginning of Winds. Now Hiseman is at his best. This piece once again features some amazing instrumental interplay and mind-boggling complexity. On this track the musicians demonstrate what progressive jazz-rock meant back then!
The music progresses with lots of rhythmic changes, but still fluent with constant virtuoso demonstrations in a jazzy atmosphere and with a rock style approach. In a way this piece summarizes the entire album. Especially Moore and Murray were into American fusion played by John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, amongst others. The group wanted to play energetic jazz-rock with virtuosity. Well, I guess they succeeded gloriously in this attempt on all of the six original album tracks!
I will also spend a few words on some of the bonus tracks. Castles is a fine melodic song, served both as an eleven-minute and a five-minute version. This song later on appeared on War Dance (1977). Walking In The Park is a new version of a song from Colosseum's debut album Those Who Are About To Die Salute You (1969). The Awakening and Siren Song are extended tracks in the style of Winds from the original album. Rivers is a nice piece of normal length on which Gary Moore sings, something he never did in those days. However, he got used to singing more and more after Mike Starrs was fired! The Scorch was later on used for the album Electric Savage (1977), but unfortunately the current version lacks the fantastic synthesizer intro by Don Airey. Interplanetary Slut is a kind of instrumental duel between Moore and Airey. Later on a new version appeared on Electric Savage. This second disc turned out to be a great extra, because every single note is worth listening to.
People who enjoy progressive rock with influences from fusion, funk and jazz-rock will add a fantastic album to their collection with this release. When I heard this album so many years after its first release I was still pretty amazed by the strong musicianship of this excellent collective. It's a shame that Colosseum II never continued with this first line-up. However, the albums that succeeded Strange New Flesh were outstanding albums as well. It is to be hoped that War Dance and Electric Savage get a re-release in due course!
**** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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