Review by Bruce Eder
Most casual onlookers don't remember it today, but there was a time when Island Records was well known as the home of numerous varieties of music beyond classic reggae and the 1980s work of U2. In fact, from 1967 until the early/mid-'70s, Island was one of the major outlets for progressive and art rock bands in England. The label didn't have much of a presence in the United States until the second half of the 1970s, and many of the groups that it had under contract only released their work through Island in England, with major acts such as Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer having separate contractual relationships with Warner/Reprise and Atlantic in the United States. But Island's U.K. roster of prog rock acts was impressive, as you're reminded by just about every minute of this three-CD, 48-track box, which encompasses everything from the widely familiar (Traffic's "Paper Sun" and "Feelin' Alright," Jethro Tull's "A Song for Jeffrey" and "A New Day Yesterday") to culty weirdness (Wynder K. Frog's "Harpsichord Shuffle") and genuinely experimental acts such as White Noise, and strange B-sides (King Crimson's "Groon"). The obscurities flow fast and thick throughout, including the Mick Moody guitar showcase "Pearly Queen" as recorded by Tramline (many years before Moody would find fame and fortune with Whitesnake), and Quintessence's "Giants" and "Notting Hill Gate," the latter a classic British hippie anthem. The emphasis is on singles where they were relevant, although notable album cuts are also present — everything from one-off singles like King Crimson's "Catfood" (by a version of the band that scarcely existed for a month) to "A Sailor's Life" by Fairport Convention, clocking in at 11 minutes plus, which reappeared in their repertory for decades. The range of sounds is also wonderfully diverse, from the progressive folk axis of John Martyn/Fairport/Sandy Denny/Nick Drake/Incredible String Band/Amazing Blondel through arty rockers like ELP and McDonald & Giles, to the bluesy hard rock focus of Tramline and Free, as well as acts like Tull that fall in between them, and horn bands like Alan Bown that fall outside of any of them. The sound is excellent throughout, the annotation is extremely thorough, and the packaging is well designed and easy to use (and this reviewer loves the fact that the box and sleeves re-create the color scheme of the old Island logo). What's more, the cost has been held to the midline range (equal to roughly 12 dollars a disc on the American side of the Atlantic), making this nearly four-hour-long release not only attractive to longtime enthusiasts of this sort of music, but an ideal vehicle for neophyte listeners to experiment with and discover the genre and the history, and the wealth of lesser-known and downright obscure bands represented here alongside the famous.