The Alchemy Album Project - Reviews
Mal Burns, reviews "Alchemy - 30 Years of Counter Culture", throws some perspective on Alchemy's history and gives an enlightened look at the background of the CD project.

I arrived in London as something of a teenage rebel at the height of the "hippie" era and in those days London's Portobello Road was the cultural equivilent of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury area. Indeed, the road and it's surrounding areas of Notting Hill and Holland Park were the location of choice for both the underground press of the time and just about every other self-respecting "alternative" enterprise. Even the local shops were experiencing a new phenomonem - that unique cultural retail outlet known as the "headshop" supplying the populace with all manner of products for the new lifestyle.

In 1972, yet another venture joined this throng - a small stall called "Alchemy" run by a man called Lee Harris and born of the mail-order operation "Alchemail" run in conjunction with the legendary "OZ" magazine. Unlike its competition, Alchemy remained a modest but viable business and later moved into publishing with "Brainstorm Comix" and "Home Grown" amongst others. More remarkable still, despite the passing of several newer generations, it's still there - now London's oldest shop of its ilk and a slightly offbeat institution wedded to the road itself.

Thirty years down the line it has been celebrating with a year of exhibitions, signings and events, cumilating in the release of an audio CD simply titled "Alchemy: 30 Years of CounterCulture" - the same moniker it's employed for publicity throughout the year itself. Fusing together a mixture of spoken word and contributions from varied sound stylists, it is a rather strange but surprisingly contemporary musical journey moving from dub beats into ambient soundscapes and ultimately trance. Indeed, the sheer variety of moods embraced in the mix makes it hard to say exactly when a prospective listener would want to embark of this 62 minute audio voyage, but it is in the perseverence that the underlying nature of the complete sequence reveals itself. The key is less in the music and more in the spoken word overdubs - namely those of Howard Marks, Brian Barritt and Lee Harris himself.

All three men represent the old guard of the underground or counterculture but have separate styles of delivery. From Howard there is the humour, from Brian there is profundity and from Lee comes the showmanship and, in this case, the focus. Indeed, it is Lee's voice that re-occurs throughout the piece - not over every track exactly, but frequently nonetheless. Rarely intrusive, he simply reappears on the soundstage to set the mood for various parts of the suite. Combined with Brian's quality of learnedness and Howard's deep voice of experience, a needed sense of history lurks unobtrusively in the background of this whole listening sensation.

But these are minor omissions, since both I and the principal audience for this work will probably be familiar with either the Alchemy scene or one or other of the select musical genres featured in it. One way or another, one can picture each of Alchemy's myriad range of customers finding something here to appeal. Be it reggae, dub, ambient, deep-trance or just the quirky extras like Lee and Howard mimicking an early Cheech & Chong piece against a subtle backing riff which, at the crowded lauch party, momentarily reminded me of the mood in Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side".

Possibly my favourite part of the sequence in the middle period of ambient sound and the highlight here is Spongle - otherwise Raja Ram, who is a featured musician whose career spans the entire 30 years of Alchemy's existence. For those of us who were around at the beginning, concerts by his original band, Quintessence, are a very fond memory indeed. (I'm personally still searching for a copy of a poster I did for them once!)

Following the ambient section, the CD suddenly moves into high gear with Brian Baritt's reminisences layered within a pulsating trance beat and here too is probably the most renowned misician involved - Killing Joke bassist and prominent producer, the man called Youth. If anyone knows what he's doing, be it in the higher echelons of the commercial pop stage or deep underground, this man does! His influence extends way beyond his own contribution.

There's always more to say, but the celebratory CD is out now. And some sense of history can also be gleaned from artist Alistair Smith's nice photoshop montages on both the cover and in the accompanying booklet. Check it out!

Mal Burns