I have to admit that when I first heard about this 3-CD package I thought it was a little untimely. Retrospectives are normally reserved for a posthumous release, and at a time when Shpongle 4 is in session and Raja himself is involved in just as many projects as ever before, it can’t help but feel a little premature.
The package runs thusly: one CD of Quintessence, Raja’s old band in the London 70s psych scene; one CD of The Infinity Project; and one CD collecting Shpongle, Cyberbabas and 1200 mics. You also get an eighteen-page booklet which smells really nice, contains heaps of rare photos, and a one-take monologue from Raja which is possibly the closest thing we’ll ever get to an autobiography out of him.
The Quintessence stuff is probably the real draw here, chiefly in virtue of its complete lack of availability elsewhere. Like a lot of bands of their time and ethos, their music is largely improvisational, experimental stuff. And like a lot of bands of their time and ethos, it’s a bit hit and miss.
When the band comes together though, they are utterly on fire: the instrumental midsection on Notting Hill Gate is quite brilliant, Prisms echoes strangely forwards to Shpongle, Sri Ram Chant is adorable, and the sweetly musing It’s All The Same deserves to be much more widely-known than it is.
At other times, it’s so self-indulgent it might as well not be there. Jesus, Buddha, Moses is hilarious: full of hippy wonderment cloaked in a vague garb of comparative religion. Meanwhile both the lyrics and the arrangement of Dive Deep are so crude they’re borderline unlistenable.
It pretty much all comes together on the closing track, Cosmic Surfer: droning sitars, lazily-smacked drums, and what sounds like (and probably is) a load of people sitting in a circle chanting Krisna. Confronted with this, it’s impossible not to love Quintessence. Either they were taking the piss, or they were so starry-eyed all the time that they didn’t notice whether or not they were wearing any trousers. Either way, they are fucking fantastic.
The Infinity Project are also fucking fantastic, as we all know. Their inclusion on this set is inevitable, however their disc being mixed – by Lucas at that – is less than desirable. It’s a good collection, starting out with 1991’s The Law, going through the big tunes like Feeling Weird, Uforica, Mindboggler, Telepathy and Binary Neuronaut, before going into the ambient Infinity Project stuff.
Meanwhile there are two unreleased cuts: a Hallucinogen remix of There Were Noises, which has got a big acidline in it, and an unreleased dub mix of the same track, which sounds unfinished.
The decision to have all this valuable stuff mixed is exceedingly unfortunate. There’s only one minute and thirty five seconds of Uforica, and two and a half minutes of Binary Neuronaut. The mixing itself is bland, consisting mostly of fades from one track to another, suggesting the involvement of Ableton or Protools, or something.
It’s nice to have it all in one place, of course; but in listening to the entire CD you’re going to wish it was unmixed about twenty or thirty times. I know of nobody who would think that if you’re going to re-release this stuff on CD with what sounds like some sort of remaster or tweak, that it’s more valuable mixed than unmixed.
The third disc is also mixed, and to be fair Lucas does more with the Shpongle disc than on the previous. It all comes across as a bit of a Shpongle Mega Party Mix: Star Shpongled Banner gets just over a minute, Tea Daze gets just under three, while And The Day Turned To Night gets just 2:21. It’s too pacey, moves too quickly, betraying the fact that once a 3CD set has spent 2 CD’s without touching the last ten years of a man’s career, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover in one go.
One thing I will never be able to understand is quite why the three 1200 mics tracks they chose are High Paradise, God Of Rock and Rock Into The Future. They’re not their best tracks by any stretch, and with three full albums to choose from you’d think that more could have been done; better programming would have means that you might spend a little more time with the final third of this release.
Despite these shortcomings, it’s still a nice package. It succeeds in highlighting Raja’s influence in the scene we all consider ourselves part of, and knowing that it all more or less came down to one band’s 1969 session in Ladbroke Grove puts a sort of flighty, fractal perspective on things.
The Anthology will change your perspective on Raja: who he is, what he’s accomplished, and what he represents. You’re not going to be playing all three CDs daily until the day you die, but if you fancy a bit of quiet reflection and to have your perception of Raja tweaked, you’ll find something to interest you here.
I guess the bottom line is that, although Raja has made some bad music in his time, he hasn’t made nearly as much bad music as Bob Dylan has. Dylan is still cool, though, which makes Raja an avuncular, energetic, modern-day legend that we all ought to be thankful to.