It ought to have done: it would have been a 'rock & classical music' fusion album to rank, certainly, alongside Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Moody Blues and The London Festival Orchestra and most of the mid-seventies God-Rock efforts. This 30 minute work has riffs that Pete Brown's Piblokto or Spooky Tooth would have been proud of, easily surpassing in both grit and quality the 'middle-class’ ostinati on offer at the time from the likes of Karl Jenkins, Mike Oldfield or Lloyd-Webber and Rice.
A Requiem Mass is a piece of music especially composed to honour and pay tribute to the dead, defined pretty much by the words of the Introit, ‘Requiem Aeternam Dona Eis’, the first part of any requiem mass, ‘Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them’. They're usually choral and really come into their own at funerals. Mozart wrote one. Berlioz, too. And so did Judge Smith. But he put electric guitar, bass and drums in his. He added beat. You're not supposed to do that.
Why not? Composer Judge Smith came of age in the beat generation. Check out his recent album Zoot Suit and you’ll see what I mean. Beat was exciting, made you want to groove. A beat was what you added to something to make it really swing. The Beatles were a beat group. But if, like Keith Emerson, Love Sculpture or Episode Six you took classical Music and put a beat to it, you'd be sure to rattle the Bone China in the ivory towers of the BBC’s Third Programme.
While drummers protect the beat in rock music, conductors safeguard the pulse, spirit and energy of the Requiem Mass. With The Nice's version of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, the rythm lends itself to the beat perfectly, but requiem masses tend to have the sanctimony of the noli me tångere about them so John Ellis' vivacious guitar solos would certainly have caused The Reverend and Mrs. Gingham-Tweed of Esher to choke on their rectory tiffin.
Of course, one can say it's a work very much of its time but the real achievement is that Judge Smith has reinvoked it here - transcribed and orchestrated by both Ricardo Odriozola and Michael Brand between them - just as he originally conceived it, in a freshly laundered set of duds to celebrate its release following forty years of cranial servitude. The singing of the Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple and featuring the splendid baritone Nigel Richards is brave and commanding, with all the energy one hears in Mozart or Haydn.
It might be worth checking out a requiem mass by Michael Haydn, Cherubini or Saint-Såens to trace how requiem masses developed from the Baroque period to their dramatic embelishments in the Romantic age to further appreciate Smith’s approach to the form, with its nine recognised movements from the Introit and Kyrie to the Communion and the Amen.
The Introit here has something tribal about it while the Kyrie recalls the free rythms of seventies Jazz Rock. The gentle acoustic guitar arpeggio of the Tract [James Pusey] contrasts effectively with the fourth movement, the Dies Irae, - Day of Wrath and Doom Impending - which is where the real anarchy resides with a galloping 4/4 and some exemplary rock guitar work from John ‘Fury’ Ellis, capriciously tossing in some quirky major thirds to an uncompromisingly minor modal setting and who, incidentally, would not have been available at the time of any 1976 recording, due to committments with The Stranglers (Smith might have had to make do with Ritchie Blackmore or possibly Steve Hillage). Also in this Dies Irae, Nigel Richards is coaxed successfully to notes well beyond his natural baritone.
The fifth section, the offertory is almost a Doo-Wop while the sixth, the Sanctus, is a blend of fizzy Tijuana brass with another irresistably provocative rock motif.
After some military style percussion, the Agnus Dei - movement seven - has a lyrical beauty which would have suited the voices of Scott Walker or Quintessence’s Shiva Shankar Jones: the eighth movement, Communion, echoes the Introit, and finally, the Amen hints at souls in torment rather than spirits at peace - but this could be the whole point: the Requiem Mass was originally a conceit of the Catholic Church and posed, it seemed, the question as to whether the idea of God’s will was supposed to be of spiritual comfort or ultimately intended to scare the living daylights out of you. The history of mankind’s approach to religion up until the Victorian era was that we should all cower in fearful deference to the Almighty.
Judge Smith has, over his career, given us The Songstory [The Climber, Orpheus], Sprechgesang [LRAD] and he is one of two founding fathers of the Van der Graaf Generator dynasty and, like his magnum opus Curly's Airships, The Requiem Mass is a considerable achievement but what of It now? What must it bring to us today?
Well, as we had 'beat', so Malcolm McLaren brought 'mix' and trance to opera; and as current rappers and deejays bring ambience and cross-over to all kinds of standard repertoire, I'd like to see a new kind of treatment brought to the work; after all, a requiem mass is as much a celebration of sacred memory as it is a reverential gesture tothe concept of eternity. It’s also a very beautiful piece of choral music. I would have liked a double CD set of the original rock version and a maybe minimalist, musique noire approach: you couldn't do that with Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph's Dreamcoat or Godspell, and yet these musical shows are revived fréquently.
So if you like late 1960's and early 1970’s underground Music as a genre, this is the album that didn't make it here for you until now. Not only does it fully merit shelf-space in the Van der Graaf Generator trophy room, It is an example of how 'Good' music sounded in those innocent and inspiring times as well as an extraordinary feat of memory and composition, and must be allowed to take its prestigious place among the other fine works in the Judge Smith canon.
Oh, and by the way, you don't have to wait for someone to die to compose a reqiuem mass: as this piece of choral music has no dedicatee, each contributor to the project has submitted a picture, forming a thumbnail mosaic of remembrance, of a dear departed loved one or relative as a composite part of the CD cover, to each one of whomJudge Smith's work is respectfully dedicated. How comforting to know that no person or persons died especially for the making of this album and that those cherished ones who went before, now have a beautiful piece of music to be remembered by.
[Lemming 08.10.16] © David Shaw-Parker 2016