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Wishbone Ash - Argus CD (album) cover


Wishbone Ash


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4.23 | 617 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 'Argus' - Wishbone Ash (68/100)

Around 1970-71, the British musical zeitgeist was all about this kind of hard rock; a little bit psychedelic, a little bit progressive, and a lot of blues. I've made it a side-quest of mine to listen to as many of the golden-era bands as I can, and while I haven't heard many that were laughably bad, I wouldn't say there were more than a couple in every hundred of these heavy-blues-psych outfits that deserved to stand the test of time. Although the stream of incessantly mediocre records Wishbone Ash have churned out in the decades since their heyday has pegged them as a generally less-than-fantastic band in my mind, there's always Argus. While the band's best collection of songwriting still feels something brittle in my eyes, the band could play. The evocative album cover doesn't hurt either.

In my experience with Wishbone Ash, I've noticed two major opinions arise. The first (and arguably most relevant to Argus) is that Wishbone Ash had one of the most full-bodied sounds in hard rock. The vocal harmonies were crisp. The bass guitar was as heavy and thunderous as anything I might expect to hear from Chris Squire on a Yes album. The acoustic elements were effective and far from overwhelming, the solos were great, and the ever-so-praised twin harmonized guitar assault still gives the impression that, in one way at least, Wishbone Ash were several years ahead of their time. At least one foot was planted in the familiar blues rock canon, but Wishbone Ash were doing some pretty cool things on their other end. It's nigh-impossible not to think of the NWOBHM that took Britannia by storm a decade following some of the slick twin harmonies Powell and Turner pull off here. If anything, Argus is a home to some great rock guitar. The heavy instrumental jam that takes up the latter half of "Sometime World" is one of the coolest things I've heard in classic hard rock; whenever there's a guitar solo, the rest of the band escapes the excuse to be lazy and actually kicks it up another notch. Considering I'm usually given to thinking of rock guitar solos as ego-driven filler in all but the brightest cases, it's a major credit to Wishbone Ash that their jams are so exciting.

The second, possibly more controversial opinion rests on the band's composition; namely the impression that Wishbone Ash aren't particularly inclined towards writing compelling tunes. I'm sure even the staunchest fan would have a hard time arguing that Powell and company were as good at writing music as they were at playing it. While it's doubtful Wishbone Ash wrote five superb songs following their heyday, the lack of truly great songwriting is apparent even on Argus. Just look at "Time Was" for an example of this; I had high hopes for the nine minute track, but the lacklustre transition from the folkish acoustic overture to a predictable hard rock formula does little to stir me. Some of the album's most memorable numbers (see: "Warrior") cross my jaded ears as something Fly By Night-era Rush might have done on a less inspired day. The band's range from hard rock to blues, country and Medieval-tinged folk keeps the album from sounding samey, but for all of Wishbone Ash's relative ambition here, the songwriting never feels more than average. This wouldn't usually threaten a hard rock album so much, but considering Argus has earned itself the status of would-be classic in the decades since its release, I'll admit I was expecting something more from it.

I actually had the chance to see Wishbone Ash play live last night. If this review is any slight indicator, I was not particularly enamoured with any of the material I'd heard from the band, but I was nonetheless fairly excited to see how they might approach a concert performance. While the night benefited from a confident stage show and a lot of vivid guitar soloing, there is one thing about the show that's been stuck in my mind the most. Whenever a song from Pilgrimage or Argus was announced, cheers erupted from the small crowd. However, whenever there was a song from any of the two dozen albums thereafter, the crowd was virtually silent. I mean, Andy Powell introduced a song from their latest album Blue Horizon and for a few seconds, there wasn't a single cheer. It's as people had clamped up and insisted on hibernating until the next song from Argus played.

I felt a little bad about it; while this is definitely more a reflection on the poor crowd than the band themselves, it should go to prove a point. If Wishbone Ash were particularly good songwriters, there's a solid chance lightning would have struck more than once or twice. Even as far as Argus is concerned, the songwriting is a far step short of some of the band's better-loved contemporaries. If there's anything to make Wishbone Ash's magnum opus worth revisiting in my eyes, it's not the music itself, but the way it's performed. Even last night, the band stand as a great performing unit; it's all the more lamentable they've never had the great songs to back it up.

Conor Fynes | 3/5 |


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