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Peter Banks and his Jolly Assortment of Unpopular Bands

Flash in the Pan?

Albums reviewed on this page: FlashIn the CanOut of Our Hands, Two Sides of Peter BanksEmpire Mk IEmpire Mk II.

Flash was: Peter Banks (guitar), Colin Carter (vocals), Ray Bennett (bass), Mike Hough (drums).

Flash (1972), ***1/2
The illegitimate son of Yes, with similar looks (sounds), but not the same brains.  After being kicked out of Yes, Banks formed Flash and Kaye pitched in after Yes dumped him.  As such, Flash has a good claim to the legacy of early Yes, so it comes as no surprise that Flash continued this sound.  This album sounds like an attempt to recreate The Yes Album with strong guitars, minimal synthisizers and multipart song structures.  "Dreams of Heaven" typifies this approach: classical guitar bits, shifting time signatures, and mystical lyrics.  Colin Carter sounds like a Jon Anderson knock-off, but suffers from sheep-like noises at the end of phrases when he lets his pitch and vibrato loose (baa-ing, I call it).  He also co-wrote most of the album with Banks.  His voice sounds comfortable only on the slower, odd closer "The Time It Takes".  Otherwise, drummer Mike Hough is average and bassist Ray Bennett is decent.  Bennett also contributes two songs, the acoustic "Morning Haze" (something the post-Banks never did) and "Children of the Universe" practically bubble with enthusiasm.  A few words on Banks - he's good, his classical guitar style is a bit closer to Robert Fripp, he changes tones a good deal (like Howe) and his solo lines are shorter. Yes, the lyrics throughout tend to be mystical nonsense, but Yes is just as bad. Finally, Flash only falls apart with the opening track "Small Beginnings", which sounds like any old group trying to imitate Yes.  If you like The Yes Album this is a good find, but do not look for the experimentation of Fragile.  The album quite well in the US, as did "Small Beginnings", with both hitting the Top 40.  Produced by Derek Lawrence.

Flash: In the Can (1972), ***
The burden fell on Banks and Bennett to fill Kaye's space this time around, which they did admirably. In the Can is Flash's most rocking album, as the two lead the band through a plethora of riffs and sections. The band's sounds better almost all around: the production is a mite better, Banks's use of varying tones is well done and even Hough clawed himself onto the B-List. Unfortunate then that Carter was still an awful vocalist; multi-tracked vocals attempt to compensate his voice's tendancy to take a dive at the end of a phrase, but it results in divergent vocal gusts.  The lyrics are also a disappointment. While Flash had the usual mystic gibberish that might have meaning, In the Can's lyrics are either romantic tripe ("Monday Morning Eyes") or overblown ("Black and White" which devolves into "Make love, last longer" which sounds like a spam email), further shot by Carter's reading of them. Still, the longer songs are musically strong ("Lifetime", "Black and White", "There No More"), even if they take cues from Yes (the intro to "Morning Morning Eyes" sounds a lot like Fragile) and they generally stick with the familiar ABCDEA structure. With only guitar and bass as lead instruments, Flash was certainly one of the more straight rock progressive groups out there. Indeed, In the Can has no attempts at outright classicism or classical instrumentation, making them relatively unpretentious and fairly good to boot.  Too bad Carter was dreadful; he must have been a chick magnet or something. Lawrence produced again.

Flash: Out of Our Hands (1973), **
The cover of this proclaims it is "FEATURING England's Peter Banks" which makes me wonder: is there an American Peter Banks with whom Banks did not want to get confused?  Certainly nobody wants to get mixed up with "England's Tony Banks," but was Banks famous enough to justify this pronouncement?  The cover art is weird in and of itself, a collage of knuckles, fingers and an eye, with a open-armed naked lady (or Roger Daltrey) turned around.  As for the music, Flash was fundamentally sound, and their self-production is good.  The main winner is Bennett's Rickenbacker, which makes him sound even more like Squire.  He has some nice interplay with Banks, who was trying his best through this sub-par material.  However, prepare to cringe whenever Carter opens his mouth because he still cannot sustain a pitch (and goes flying around), and there are  some real specimens for lyrics ("The Bishop" has 'Wino gourmet / Kipper fillet / Breakfast Boffin / Sending letters to his MP / Hoping he will eat it').  In fact, this is Out of Our Hands' main problem - too many words.   No, it is not a concept album; Ray Bennett wrote merely 5/6ths of one, with with a couple of negligible Carter tunes tacked on to the end.  Bennett's work, entitled "Catalina", is like The Day the Earth Stood Still - a sci-fi story about an alien coming to help Earth, although "Catalina" focuses more on action back on the alien planet.  Well, maybe it does.  You can't really tell.  Bennett uses a Tommy approach - giving different characters their own songs, but even vaguer than Townshend about the action.  Even with the liner notes, one is not quite sure how the songs fit into the story, or who the characters are.  Oh, and the characters are named after chess pieces.  To be blunt, it's pretentious and half-assed, which is not a great combination.  Beyond that, when the band starts to get into a groove, things take off (the "Escape" portion of "Psychosync"), and Banks has a couple of excellent intros and outros (the banjo at the start of "Man of Honour").  Carter's two songs ("Manhattan Morning" and "Shadows") get similar treatment - sandwiching a fairly blasť song in between the band's good playing.  The early Yes comparison is still valid, and Bennett does borrow the overlapping vocal line technique of Close to the Edge at the end of "Psychosync (Farewell Number Two)".  Banks only gets one co-write, so he was either being generous and letting the other band members get their songs in or he was stockpiling (a song entitled "Out of our Hands" later opened off the first Empire album.)  There are some good moments, but otherwise this is an album too focused on a story and not on the telling.   Out of Our Hands had a low charting position in the US, and Flash broke up soon afterwards because of "management disputes" or the like.  

Peter Banks: Two Sides of Peter Banks (1973), ****
One of my favorite instrumental albums, Two Sides is a classical and jazz fusion album, and luckily has sparing use of synths.  The album starts with some peaceful and beautiful classical guitar work by Banks ("The White House Vale") which builds into Flash-style rock ("Knights").  That is followed by a couple of short closing numbers, reiterating the previous musical themes.  Of these, "Battles" is the best, with Phil Collins contributing some kick-ass beats.  The back side mainly consists of all-star electric "spontaneous jams" (as the back cover puts it), with "Stop That!" regretfully wandering around for its thirteen+ minutes.  However, Banks put in a wise call to Jan Akkerman, the Dutch guitarist from Focus, and gets some good lines out of him amidst this.  Akkerman also contributes a wonderful classical piece "Beyond the Loneliest Sea" which is almost too awesome for words.  The album ends on a good note, with Akkerman and Banks dueling it out in "Get Out of My Fridge", which is a directed jam.  The main players are Collins, Akkerman, and Ray Bennett, with Mike Hough, Steve Hackett and John Wetton making brief appearances.  It's peaceful, calm and without Colin Carter.  Out of print on CD, but not impossible to find.  Self-produced.

empEmpire: Mark I (rec. 1974, rel. 1995), ***1/2
By now Banks had recorded three albums of Yes-sounding material with Flash, and a solo album of classical and progressive jam explorations.  It is both astonishing and understandable that this record never found a label, as it combines all of these sounds and more.  Empire was a notch above Flash, but the band's real key is Sydney Foxx, both an excellent singer and Banks's then-wife (despite the porn star name).  Her lyrics and Banks' playing result in, well, romantic progressive rock with a female vocalist.   Sure, in many ways Mark I is the same sort of thing Banks tried with Flash (witness "Out of Our Hands"), but Foxx's lyrics are often directed to a woman, which throws an intriguing kink in things.  This is sort of material Yes used to record, but Foxx's voice is a lot more soothing than Jon Anderson's.  She has a smooth voice, like a folk singer, but deeper, and she gets rather bluesy with it as well.  Foxx's vocals provide Banks with something he can focus on besides his own high-quality jazzy playing (the end of "Sky at Night" is a beautiful multiple overdub of Foxx), and there are lots of atmospheric keyboards from Jakob Magnusson.  As if it was not enough that Empire focused on love songs in a genre that had long ascended to a higher plane, Banks piles in different genres.  In addition to the aforementioned blues ("Someone Who Cares" which drags on), the aching-to-be-a-hit-single, "Hear My Voice on the Radio" has a surprising country/honky-tonk flavor. Empire may have been all over the map stylistically, but truely it is not so far away from where Yes had gone, and Banks does not give himself over to simple genre exercises either (the ballad "For a Lifetime" has a backwards guitar solo, for example).  The key difference between Empire and Yes is that Banks still remembers how to arrange his songs well, sticking to shorter runs and introducing new ideas at reasonable intervals (the longer prog-rock "Shooting Star").  Yet another unheralded testament to Banks's capabilities.  The rhythm section is John Giblin (bass), and Preston Ross-Heyman (drums) both later of Phil Collins's Brand X, and Collins himself appears at one point.

emp 2Empire: Mark II (rec. 1977, rel. 1996), **
The first Empire album did not deserve to go unreleased, but this one certainly did.  Banks and Foxx had moved to America to try and get the first album released, got divorced, and then recorded this album without a real band.  While the first album was the product of a prog-rock group, just a rather light one, this is even less rocking (in a prog sense) than before.  The rhythm section is clunky and more rock-influenced (read less technical or jazzy) and the sparse keyboards are even more in the background.  Like some old vaudeville act going out on stage for the nth time with weary smiles and cracked shoe leather, so comes Banks and some of the old material from Mark I.  Length was not a huge concern before, but now "Out of Our Hands" (retitled as "Still Out of Our Hands") gets pushed to over eight minutes.  "Sky at Night" gets reworked a little into a quiet, classical piece, but this version is not as good as the original.  Given their divorce, one would expect that Foxx's lyrics would be less love filled, and they are ("Everything Changes" is not just about the time signature).  A good deal of the time she sounds like a club singer or the progressive equivalent of Stevie Nicks (the would-be single "Destiny").  All these changes would not be so bad if Banks didn't lay a brick every time he tried to out and out solo.  This album's magnum opus, "Everything Changes" is fine through seven minutes, but then Banks adds five minutes of erratic soloing at the end which kills the song.  In fact, he seems to have forgotten how to end songs, period.  His style has not changed much, but there are a few nods towards real rock (the Who-styled power chords on "Do What You Want"), and he does come up with a few moments of pure brilliance (the whole tone scale intro to "Everything Changes").  One of the attractions of the first Empire record was its light-sounding production, but it was not reproduced here, partially due to the clumping backing, and some questionable production choices (why have the drum rolls panned a la Carl Palmer?).  The end result is an album with a couple of decent tracks, "Destiny" and "Do What You Want", and a collection of dysfunctional problems.  For Banks fans only.  The band is Jeffrey Fayman (drums), Chad Peery (bass), and Robert Orellana (keyboards), with Magnusson appearing somewhere.  Produced by Banks and John Arias.

Empire: Mark III (rec. 1978, rel. 1996)
Banks' last attempt at Empire, recorded in LA.

Banks released some solo albums in the 1990s, which I have not heard.

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