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National Health: Playtime

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Once upon a time in the mid-1970s there was a British progressive rock band called National Health. A sprawling, ponderous seven-piece outfit, they eventually scaled down to four pieces and released two albums-their self-titled 1978 debut and its follow-up, Of Queues and Cures. This live recording captures the band on tour in late 1979, shortly before its first breakup in March of 1980.

A more stretched-out, jam-oriented affair than the original studio recordings, Playtime picks up on some of the furious, frenetic energy of the early fusion movement, when bands like Tony Williams Lifetime and the original lineups of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were going straight for the jugular with raw burn, tempered with intelligent writing, strict ensemble playing and audacious, chops-oriented soloing.

There are traces of early Weather Report and Passport in pieces like keyboardist Alan Gowen’s “Flanagan’s People.” Guitarist Phil Miller’s playing here is teeming with the raggedy, distortion-laced abandon of RTF-era Bill Connors with touches of the rock-fueled bravura that Tommy Bolin flashed on Billy Cobham’s 1973 landmark, Spectrum. And bassist John Greaves (formerly of Henry Cow) combines the rumbling tone of Yes’ Chris Squire with the more adventurous, rampaging aesthetic of Ralphe Armstrong on his solos. This freewheeling 16-minute showcase travels from hard-hitting heads to strict unison playing to wide-open free sections underscored by the nimble, swinging pulse of drummer Pip Pyle. And along the way they all push the envelope on sonic textures with a variety of effects pedals and techno gadgetry. Miller’s “Dreams Wide Awake” is another raucous fusion offering in that early RTF-Mahavishnu mode, striking a perfect balance between raw abandon and laser-sharp ensemble discipline. The soloing here and on the throbbing title track is full of nasty intent, frenetic energy and chops grandstanding, just as good fusion music should be.

Other pieces like Miller’s “Nowadays a Silhouette,” Pyle’s “Pleaides” and Greaves’ “Squarer For Maude” are closer in spirit to the more controlled prog-rock of Yes, Gong and Soft Machine. But the rest of this collection bristles with intensity and catharsis. This is first rate, risk-taking jazz-rock created in a bygone era by a greatly under-recognized band.