As the album cover might go to imply, Ache‘s De Homine Urbano was intended as a ballet. With the advent of the first major rock opera the year before (The Who‘s Tommy) I suppose it wouldn’t have been such a surprise for a rock musician to want to appropriate another classical format; of course, while the notion of the rock opera soon evolved into a codified genre of its own, a rock ballet still sounds like a novelty affair. Somehow I’ve never contemplated the potential association between progressive rock and dancing young women in tights; though I would have met the idea with cynicism at first, Ache have managed to make it work to their benefit; De Homine Urbano is a fine piece of early symphonic prog that gracefully adopts the delicate finesse of a ballet into its stylistic mainframe. It’s perhaps a tad unpolished when compared to later works of symphonic prog, but Ache‘s debut is nonetheless an impressive work, worthy of attention in retrospect.
Like many of the more ambitious progressive rock LPs to come out during the 70s, De Homine Urbano offers up one ‘epic’ per side, with the music’s only interruption being the presumed time taken to flip sides. Of these, only one is the ballet proper; the first side is the album’s primary focus, whereas the second piece “Little Things” offers an appetizing-but- less-so second round. Although Ache only intended the first of these compositions to be interpreted through the lens of a ballet, both pieces have lot in common as compositions. Although the title piece is more explicitly stated as being a suite, both consist of a series of micromovements. The organ is the flagship of Ache‘s sound, with the guitars taking a secondary role, most often as a counterpoint. Although Ache have clearly intended both the title track and “Little Things” to be approAched as epics, they ultimately lack the scope and structure consistent with the better-known prog suites. Instead, the music unfolds often as a series of individually contained ideas; this is especially true with “Little Things”, as the title ballet offers a stronger sense of control and focus.
There’s absolutely no doubt as to which half of the album impresses me more. De Homine Urbano can and should be checked out for the merits of its ballet centrepiece. As I’ve mentioned, I find the idea of a prog rock ballet somewhat hokey, but De Homine Urbano goes a long way to make a believer out of me. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the sort of choreographies that may have been set to the music; the fuzz of the organ and distorted guitars seem very out of place in a ‘ballet’, but the composition itself could have been set to stage quite nicely. There’s a notably lessened attention to detail and flow with “Little Things”, but it’s a fairly satisfying way to conclude the album. The introduction of vocals to the mix is well-intended, but doesn’t serve to help the music much. Vocal comparisons to The Nice are aplenty when speaking of Ache, and the reference doesn’t go without merit; Ache‘s second track seeks to blend 60′s pop sensibilities with classical repertoire in a similar manner to The Nice. Personally, I might draw comparisons to the would-be sound of Van der Graaf Generator; Ache have a dark and brooding undercurrent running through their sound, and it doesn’t feel like Ache have managed to tap entirely into that potential. Musical motifs not-so-subtly drawn from The Beatles‘ “Every Little Thing She Does” and Led Zeppelin‘s “How Many More Times” haven’t gone unnoticed either.
Like so many progressive, and prog-related albums from the turn of the decade, De Homine Urbano sounds like it’s torn between the 60s and 70s with its sound. Compared to what else was coming out that year in prog, Ache were pretty forward- thinking for the time; it would be a year before the rest had really caught up to them. As such, De Homine Urbano has earned fair recognition even in recent years. Even so, I cannot help but feel the album is lopsided- the title ‘ballet’ is excellent, whereas the second half is merely decent. Had Ache put the same time and care into “Little Things”, there may have been the workings of an early classic in progressive rock. Still, the album’s quite impressive, and comes recommended to any with a penchant for the style.
Say what you will about the notion of a ‘rock ballet’; Ache were onto something interesting and – dare I say – unique with their debut LP, De Homine Urbano. Though decidedly less successful or promising than its operatic counterpart, Ache innovated the rock ballet, and a Danish ballet company even staged the nineteen minute piece; from what I’ve read, the performances were great. Moreso than that, Ache had a firm grip of symphonic prog at least a year before the style hits its peak. The bottom line is that, in spite of the debut’s issues (of which there were several), Ache had a promising foundation from which to explore and develop their sound.
…and what do they go off and do? With Green Man later in 1970, we hear Ache receding to a far more conventional and period-appropriate heavy psych rock. The band’s second album solves my biggest concern with the debut (an uneven structure) but it’s come at the cost of their unique edge. In the end, the albums roughly equal one another in terms of quality, although that quality is derived from fairly different avenues.
While De Homine Urbano was impressive for its scope and ambition, Green Man offers a less problematic set of songs- quite a far cry from the pseudo-classical compositions from before. Instead, it sounds like Ache are trying to sample a range of other artists’ styles, most notably Procol Harum, The Nice, Yes and Deep Purple, even The Beatles at times. Though the time between the release of this and De Homine Urbano was only months, the quality of their execution has increased notably. Green Man enjoys a fine blend of heavy organ and guitars, much like the first pair of Yes records.
For what it lacks in identity or cohesion, Green Man does offer an engaging variety of material. “Equatorial Rain” is a great piece of heavy psych that lays the atmosphere on heavily from the start. “Sweet Jolly Joyce” is a surprisingly prurient tune with catchy riffs and upbeat hooks enough to explicitly distance this album from the debut. “The Invasion” and “Acheron” are slight returns to form, bringing the focus back on the organs. “Green Man” (the song) is steeped in 60′s pop. Closing off the album, Ache offer a cover of The Beatles‘ “We Can Work It Out”. Although this wouldn’t be the first time Ache tipped their hat to the Fantastic Four, it’s a great example of how a song can be reimagined successfully. Instead of taking the song at face value, Ache make “We Can Work It Out” their own, taking the skeletal frame and chorus and fusing it into a Hammond organ jam that nearly kisses the nine minute mark.
Even if it feels like a disappointing step backwards in many respects, Ache‘s second album is still pretty good. In abandoning the possibility of further exploring their organ-rich longform compositions, they went for something different. For what it is, Green Man feels more realized as an album, and the songs have benefitted from the sort of improved musicianship that only comes with time. Still, there’s no denying the sort of missed opportunity entailed with this album. In my eYes, originality is still miles more important than polish or finesse. Green Man sounds like it could have been done by a hundred other psych and progressive bands from 1970; what more is there to say?
I’ve said a fair bit about Ache‘s first and second albums in their own respective reviews, and I’ve recommended both, albeit for different reasons. Whereas De Homine Urbano was an enticing debut with an intriguing ‘rock ballet’ angle to it, Green Man succeeded as a more conventional effort. Stylistically, the two albums feel quite different from one another; it’s surprising really, considering the two albums both came out in 1970. The particular details of each album may be left to their respective reviews; looking at the two together, we get a taste of one of the many early 70′s progressive acts that could have ‘made it’, but didn’t. The quality is certainly here, but especially with the streamlined style on Green Man, I’ve left feeling like the band’s potential wasn’t exploited well enough.
De Homine Urbano bit off more than it could chew to be certain, but those weaknesses could have been worked on, bringing the organ-dense brand of symphonic rock to uncertain heights. The nineteen minute title track of that album in particular sounded mysterious and pleasantly dark, and even if the album’s second half wasn’t as sound, it still stands as one of the first progressive rock compositions to hint at what the style was capable of. Before the end of the year was through however, Green Man was released and presented an Ache that had succumbed to the trends of the time- pop melodies, a psychedelic tinge and blues-influenced riffs were their new staples. Even then, Green Man was a more solidly presented album, but it never did anything with the potential I heard on the debut.
Both albums are worthy pieces of early progressive rock, but neither are excellent and both face a share of issues. Put together, their respective qualities would have probably ended up making a great album. I suppose the closest we’re going to get to that is this compilation.
De Homine Urbano tracklist:
1. De Homine Urbano (19:01)
2) Soldier theme
3) Ballerina theme
4) Pas de deux
5) Ogre theme
7) The dance of the demons
8) Pas de trois
9) The last attempt
2. Little Things (18:37)
Green Man tracklist:
1. Equatorial rain (6:59)
2. Sweet Jolly Joyce (3:47)
3. The Invasion (5:58)
4. Shadow Of A Gypsy (4:38)
5. Green Man (4:38)
6. Accheron (4:47)
7. We Can Work It Out (8:43)
De Homine Urbano line-up:
* Torsten Olafsson – bass, vocals, harpsichord
* Finn Olafsson – guitars, vocals
* Peter Mellin – Hammond organ, piano, vibraphone, vocals
* Glenn Fischer – drums, percussion
Green Man line-up:
* Torsten Olafsson – vocals, bass, spinet
* Peter Mellin – Hammond organ, grand piano, vibraphone, vocals
* Finn Olafsson – electric & acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion
* Glenn Fischer – drums, percussion
* Johnny Reimar – backing vocals