The trip into Fusion is a road populated by the harshest criticism from those that prefer other music. Fusion is the cricket of music and if you don’t understand it, best quietly change channels than shout at the television. Interestingly, Shamal is on the way to Fusion rather than being full-blooded Fusion and consequently it lives somewhat in a world of its own.
Daevid Allen had quit Gong earlier in the year, followed by Steve Hillage after this album was made but before it was released. This left drummer Pierre Moerlen to guide the group through their next phase – a journey into Jazz Rock Fusion that managed to stamp some of Gong’s eccentricities onto the genre because after all – they were wearing Pixie hats the year before, hanging out with the Cosmic Prince, taking unknown substances and living in semi-anarchic communes, Hippie heaven with children and brown rice, harmless seekers of an alternative lifestyle – another group that stir up harsh criticism – Gong seemingly had it all.
But the the record is a superb, mostly instrumental musical journey. Recorded in 1975 and produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, it opens with bass player Mike Howlett’s Wingful Of Eyes, sung by Hillage and although he is the singer and guitarist, it doesn’t have the density of his solo work. Can you imagine that this style could be a lighter, calmer, softer Gong? Somehow it is all those things, a leaning towards World Music perhaps in its influence with Didier Malherbe’s flutes and other odd sounding instruments (like the bansuri, another type of flute). It’s also concentrates hard on percussion, Pierre Moerlen plays drums, tubular bells and vibraphone but the inclusion of his girlfriend and ex Gong session player Mireille Bauer helped add this World Music angle to the project, playing percussion, glockenspiel, xylophone, gong and marimba. (Hillage’s girlfriend and musical companion, Miquette Giraudy is also present as always playing keyboards).
The second track, Chandra is written by the other keyboard player Patrice Lemoine and seems to head towards a moody Jazz Rock Fusion with soprano sax. Busy bass and all kinds of sounds appear from all these instrumentalists, expertly mixed together by Nick Mason’s ear. It’s instrumental for the first couple of minutes and is reminiscent of the Canterbury sound and amongst all those sounds, we hear the introduction of Jorge Pinchevsk’s violin. What’s not to like I wonder? I think these days the public are more open minded to music with long instrumental passages, whether it be ambient or busy – the groove has infiltrated the masses. Also the tempo changes that occur in this kind of music are effortless on this album, not at all hard to follow or clumsy- it doesn’t make you count to understand where the changes are.
The sound of wind introduces Bombooji, the song is written by Didier Malherbe and it seems initially influenced by Japanese traditional music before turning Irish. It’s a tasty world music stew. The song moves into that unmistakable, Steve Hillage guitar style, almost like the middle of a Gentle Giant song and then it’s South American, then 15th Century. It’s brain food, it’s a journey through the past, around the world and ends like life, on the wind as it began.
Malherbe also writes the next track, Cat In Clark’s Shoes. This one is an uptempo foot tapper despite its odd timing and jamming jazzy soprano sax. It superbly negotiates bends in the road that you simply don’t see till you are upon them. How these supposed Hippies found the wherewithal to learn this stuff is impressive. It jumps from style to tempo change, to exchanging soloists – sax to violin with the rhythm section never ever unsure or lost or not taking the dynamic in hand and pushing it through mood change after mood change, at one point finding itself in Penguin Cafe Orchestra territory in a 19th century boudoir. It’s intellectual music made by clever musicians that asks nothing of you but to accompany them on their journey – it’s like hanging out with a professor of tomatacolostonology – you have no idea what he is an in expert in but he is fascinating company.
The penultimate track, Mandrake is written by Pierre Moerlen and brings out the vibraphones, the xylophones, the musical instruments that you hit with a hammer. Lines are followed by the flute before the song lifts off into more easy soprano doodling and wonderful xylophonic counter rhythms.
The final track is the title track, Shamal and it’s a group composition without Hillage. It’s kinda Funky but has that odd eccentric hangover from the early Gong days. There’s something about it that a Funk or Fusion band wouldn’t incorporate – vocals that are almost avant-garde – punchy bass and violin that takes the whole thing, sweeps it up into the sky and then lays it back down on the Earth for the sax to take over. Effected bass overdubs and more frantic drumming lead the band towards the finale.
With two albums left on their contract and with Pierre Moerlen now as band leader, they went onto make two more Progressive Jazz Fusion albums – Gazeuse and Expresso II. Ultimately this incarnation would become known as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong and when their Virgin Contract ended they (perhaps unexpectedly) signed to Arista Records with Pierre Moerlen as a prefix to the original name. Sadly and also rather unexpectedly, Moerlen died of natural causes in May, 2005, he was just 52 years old.
In conclusion, if you can’t stand cricket, then don’t listen to this album.