Fruupp - Wise As Wisdom: The Dawn Albums 1973-1975 (Esoteric Recordings)
Fruupp always were a strange confection with an odd name. Depending on which story suits your taste the best, it was either the left-over letters from a sheet of Letraset or the moniker of the female ghost that haunted the crumbling house in Belfast in which they rehearsed. An inspired and eclectic sound. A fusion of folk, an underlying jazziness, with subtle classical shades they embodied the diversity at large in the early '70s, but they also packed a formidable punch both live and in the studio. Lilting and haunting they shared the stage with Queen, Genesis, and King Crimson, but despite consistent touring they never stepped beyond a cult following, and were finally eclipsed by the advent of punk. Formed in Belfast in 1970 the band that finally hit London had matured from rock covers into sophisticated and symphonic combo that could stir the heart, yet rock the soul.
Their debut album Future Legends arrived in October 1973. Dynamic and blindingly original it showcased the strength and diversity they embodied, that rather put them against the grain of their contemporaries. Vocalist and bassist Peter Farrelly proved a charismatic interpreter of their songs. His voice had a restrained yet subtle theatricality that never dominates the drama of the music. The album has an inherent folk element that sets it apart, and yet is driven on by the dynamic drumming of former circus percussionist Martin Foye, the intricate guitar meanderings of Vincent McCusker which threads along neatly with Stephen Houston's exquisite classical keyboards, a boy from the Malone Road in Belfast on whom piano lessons were never wasted, even if they weren't necessarily utilised as his teachers might have desired. Entirely written by McCusker it is a perfect indicator of what lay ahead.
The title track is a winsome Irish instrumental, steeped in strings and sentimentality, but is briefly and exquisitely beautiful. "Decision" has an odd jazziness that wanders through the song giving it an unusual edge whilst "As Day Breaks With Dawn" rattles along with a rumbling intensity and heavy organ interspersed with lilting oboe. "Graveyard Epistle" is another hefty exercise in sublime vocals and driving rock. Heavy but definitely far from humble, and with an almost Indian element lurking.
"Lord Of The Incubus" is altogether more catchy and instantly memorable, with a bit of cod rock 'n' roll thrown if for good measure, whilst "Olde Tyme Future" could almost be a patriot's lament and betrays some of the band's members prior showband histories. "Song For A Thought" is a combination of discreet classicism and a manic Irish jig which Farrelly delivers with sublime, leisurely confidence. A pastoral facet slips between the symphonic aspects and builds to a manic and crazed crescendo signed off with a wilful guitar screech. Exhilarating and almost exhausting it is an utter masterclass of a song. "Future Legends" closes things in a sad sing song way. They had also intended to feature "On A Clear Day" on this album and it snuck onto initial pressings before objections from the Holst estate meant it had to be removed since it borrows heavily from his "Jupiter" one of the movements from the "Planet Suite." It can now be included with the lapse of copyright, and it is a valuable addition to proceedings.
A mere seven months later they delivered Seven Secrets in April 1974. Produced by former Andwella's Dream maestro David Lewis it is a more fluid and restrained affair. The opening track "Faced With Shekinah" beguiles via an ethereal aspect of voices in the opening track neatly underscored by Farrelly's pulsating bass lines ending as a baroque dance piece. This neat elegance is followed via picked and plucked strings and oboe in "White Eyes" an elegant ghostly song that again has an almost medieval theme, underscored by a certain off-kilter folk motif. The album seems deceptively effortless but is complex and and confident. Despite the beauty it contains it is less commercial in feel than Future Legends but is none the worse for that. More pastoral than symphonic "White Eyes" is a masterclass in restraint with Chopin-like piano that descends into a jaunty easy listening lounge-core of an ending. "Garden Lady" has a cohesive jazzy conceit with crazed organ and ethereal passages, meditative and flowing with some perfect guitar work from Vincent McCusker and perfectly understated piano from Stephen Houston, it builds to a swirling, dizzying conclusion. In "Three Spires," the most restrained cut on the album, a chamber baroque delight that merges and reminds of Clifford T. Ward at his most eloquent and wistful, and the end refrain is catchy enough to have seen it emerge as a strong if somewhat unlikely single. "Elizabeth" is a baroque hoe-down all strings and sparkling piano, Liberace meets Liszt, with Farrelly signing off at his most intimately mournful, a true and beautiful closer rather spoiled by the irritating whimsy of the ditty at the end "The Seventh Secret." A Jackanory-like travesty that mars slighty the sophisticated nature of things.
Not resting on their laurels they delivered The Prince of Heaven's Eyes in November 1974. Widely viewed as their masterpiece I find it something of a curate's egg. The cover isn't one of Peter Farrelly's fetchingly mystical servings, but a rather heavy-handed cartoon that doesn't best serve the project There are moments of stupendous beauty and delight but the production, their own alas, has a muffled dullness about it that deadens the majestic elements that it contains. Much of the music sparkles whilst most of the production fails to. "It's All Up Now" is a perfect example of Fruupp at their most hauntingly eloquent best, building to a symphonic delight interrupted by "Hold on! Hold on! What'll I do? I don't want to end up in a pot of stew!" which still sounds irritatingly cringeworthy as lyrics go, yet the song transcends that carried by the spirited aspects of Farrelly's delivery and Foye's delightful drum fuelled ending.
"Prince Of Darkness" sounds laboured and twee, a nursery story set to music with a Beatles-esque undercurrent. Opaque and irritating. I recall a review in the NME that said the album reminded the reviewer of the theme music to a Czech cartoon and this track belies that opinion perfectly, as indeed does the kitschy sounding "Jaunting Car" that appropriately ended up as the radio theme to a show in Northern Ireland by Gloria Hunniford. Things improve with 'Annie Austere' a dynamic piano driven epic perfectly embellished by some fine guitar adornments by Vincent McCusker, and again Foye spars manfully with Houston's sparkling piano. 'Knowing You' has all the melody and aching eloquence one expects from Fruupp. A beautiful vocal it pulls at the heart strings till it builds to an epic ending of pure dynamic fury and melancholy.
"Crystal Brook" continues the upward turn in proceedings and 'Seaward Sunset' is a delightful piece of piano prettiness that perfectly preludes "The Perfect Wish" which really brings to the fore Fruupp at their sophisticated best. Fleeting, effortless and strident it is seamlessly sophisticated with Houston delivering glittering piano crescendos and motifs whilst Farrelly indulges his finest Cleo Laine jazziness. The closing embers of the song is about as magical as it gets, and builds from nowhere to an exquisite moment of pure grace, beauty Dynamism and poise combine to leave the listener sad, beguiled and longing for something more.
February 1975 saw the release of Modern Masquerades completed in the wake of Stephen Houston's departure to enter the business of bothering God. His leaving also scuppered their audition for Seymour Stein at Sire Records, which in his absence proved a disastrous affair. Their fourth opus was a marked change of direction. Houston's replacement John Mason gave the band a more warm and enveloping feel, a shimmer of sublime sophistication aided and abetted by the production duties being transferred to the capable hands of former King Crimson member, and future stalwart of Foreigner Ian MacDonald. It opens with "Misty Morning Way" a delightful slab of mystical meandering. Mason's keyboards have a shimmering sheen and blends perfectly with the guitar dynamics of Mc Cusker. It resembles European proggers Nova and PFM, with elements of Greenslade to boot. 'Masquerading With Dawn' skips and dives with effortless ease. This is Fruupp at a more cohesive and strengthened level, refined via a freshened lightness of touch but delivering a calculated symphonic punch. Mason composed the Mervyn Peake inspired 'Gormenghast' again a sweepingly assured palette of textures and poignancy that wends well with Farrelly's sensitive vocal delivery via the implicit fluidity of the backdrop, perfectly abetted by some sublime sax from Ian McDonald. 'Mystery Might' lives up to the title, a forceful slab of driven sophistication, yet sensitively interspersed with achingly eloquent vocals and sense of exceptional drama driven furiously along by Martin Foye's relentless drumming. With 'Why' we can see the bare subtle refinement of Vincent McCusker's song-craft and the precise beauty implicit in Peter Farrelly's voice. A beautiful piano track underscores the simple sentiment of wondering about making a phone call. It has more in common with piano drenched maladies of the late Jobriath. A tender and exceptional masterpiece of a song.
"Janet Planet" -- a single in Ireland and a lost opportunity elsewhere -- is a wonderful ditty about Van Morrison's muse and lover. It skips along like an utter gem that reminds me of the Beatles and and the effortlessly whimsical nature of many of the songs of John Howard. Proceedings swerve to a resplendent conclusion with "Sheba's Song" a searing and glinting fantasy about a big cat, it shows the band at the height of their powers, full of distinctive riffs and a wonderful dynamic effortlessness, A cinematic aspect, it hints at much more in the future, but the future can rapidly change, and often sadly does.
Fruupp ground to a halt in September 1976 after a final gig at The Roundhouse. John Mason had already departed and despite recruiting a new member and recording a fifth album Dr Wilde's Twilight Adventure they called it a day after a fire at their flat in London almost killed Vincent McCusker and Paul Charles, destroying the master tapes for their new album, and the recordings for a projected live one. John Mason died a few years ago, but the original members remain. With this re-issue they might regroup for a final masquerade whilst time and health prevails. One can only dream. They had a strange revival of sorts in 2007 when Talib Kweli sampled "Sheba's Song" featuring Norah Jones for "Soon The New Day" on his Eardrum album which hit number 2 on the Billboard chart.
Despite the prettiness of the package, there are numerous faults and flaws afoot. Bar the release dates and recording details there are scant biographical details. The whole enterprise has the air of an a swiftly assembled repackage, and yet previous re-issues had copious informative liner note from Paul Charles their former manager and occasional lyricist. These could have been easily utilized to make Wise As Wisdom the tribute it deserves to be. There is nothing here that hasn't been previously available yet there are numerous quality live recordings out there that are calling out to be compiled, and deservedly so. There is also a plethora of ephemera concerning them that would have better served this re-issue than the instantly available stuff that has been lazily appropriated. It is perfectly imperfect primer for the uninitiated, but is far from definitive nor an improvement on prior re-issues.
Still, as was once said, "Best to be looked over than be overlooked" and Fruupp remain a band worthy of remembering or discovering afresh, even if on this modern masquerade they are not best served, they still have a future from their extraordinary past.