Bob Downes released five albums under the Open Music moniker. Ranging from the hard rocking and horn hefty Deep Down Heavy to the abstract outing with Wendy Benka, Episodes at 4 AM, the territory explored by the UK reedman was profound. 1975’s Hells Angels was the terminal statement. Where the earlier records show ample consideration to the UK’s underground rock scene – Deep Down Heavy and Electric City play like adventurous jazz prog, thrown out of Canterbury for refusing to partake in wry English-isms – Hells Angels trades familiarity for unabashed cosmic impulse. Considering the swath of sonic possibilities inferenced from Downes’ prior output, the content of the LP paints surprise on the horizon.
Subtitled ‘A Visit to the Devil,’ side one roars to life with the full force of the eleven-piece ensemble. The arcane horror flick imagery of the cover art is instantly justified. Herbie Flowers leads the charge on bass, with the horn section in lockstep. The side-long title cut is a simmering primordial sludge, roaring to life amid a series of deafening horn-led themes and spontaneous freeform meltdowns. The man behind it all takes the ensemble’s energy and relinquishes solos that weave seamlessly between the Rock Sax of Bobby Keyes and Albert Ayler’s modal annihilations. A motorik passage or two is thrown in with assistance from Laurie Baker’s synthesizer; we get a rare Herbie Flowers tuba exposé (an oscillating drone to induce chills no matter which circle of hell you’re on); powerful full band eruptions signal each new phase of the group’s journey into the underworld. Ascending from the abyss, a return to the original theme signals the end of the voyage.
Flipping the record, the large ensemble side-long approach is discarded in favor of series of trio explorations. The bombast of the title track is replaced with subdued – though no less blazing – free improvisation. Alternately flanked by Harry Miller and Jeff Clyne on bass, and John Stevens and Denis Smith on drums, this side would be right at home on ECM, FMP, or Incus. The pieces demonstrate that, under different circumstances, Downes could have comfortably blended into the European Free Improv scene dominated by the likes of Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. The mastery of timing, space, and restraint on this side presents a vastly underrated ensemble weaving sonic textures from nothing—a swirling surrender to instinct. Abandoning the arranged ‘theme-improv-theme’ formula of previous albums, Downes triumphantly leads these trios into the uneasiness of the unknown.
Hells Angels plays like a transitory record: Shrugging off acquainted facets of prior work, retaining a core sound the artist is known for, and branching into an alternate direction. Unfortunately, we aren’t granted the end-product of this dialectic. Downes retired the Open Music distinction after the release of this album. With what appears to be a single limited cassette release over the next few decades, this sojourn with the devil would be Bob Downes last. | j rooney