What’s to like
“Forget that fear of gravity….” and touch down with a neat box set of albums by seventies prog rockers Max Webster, who were once considered to be “Rush’s little brother”.
The low down
“We’re all here for a celebration, the madcap scene and the max machine…now we’re just musicians, here to thin the thickness of your skin.”
The lyrics from the band’s song The Party, are a fun way to introduce you to the music of Max Webster, a Canadian band that had a brief run of successful albums before quietly folding due to lack of support from their record label.
The Websters are perhaps best known for their association with fellow Canadians Rush, whose patronage helped them to reach a wider audience beyond their home crowd, through support slots on Rush’s tours and a one-off collaboration in the studio which produced one of the Webster’s best known songs Battlescar.
But perhaps it was that close association that also scuppered the band’s longterm prospects. While both bands became firm friends, when it came to sharing the same record label, Anthem, the Websters always seemed stuck in the shadow of Rush’s growing popularity. One commentator described the band as “Rush’s little brother, not to be taken too seriously”, and you wonder if they might have survived longer on a different label?
They had the tunes and the chops to play them well, and in some ways their music had the potential to appeal to a much broader audience than Rush’s did at that point. Whereas Rush were in the midst of their heavy and intense brand of prog rock, circa the Hemispheres period, Max Webster’s music by comparison was easier to catch onto with its catchy choruses and quirky melodies.
Their music could be just a technical a challenge to play as that of Rush, but it wasn’t so serious-minded, and you could sing along to it. Guitarist Kim Mitchell had a fine voice that suited both the harder rock tunes and the softer more whimsical material. The band also had an ace up their sleeve with their lyricist Pye Dubois, who wrote the kind of lyrics that were immediately catchy in a pop kind of way, but which also had depth in their social observation if you felt inclined to dig a little deeper.
Dubois’ lyrics must have had something going for them, because Rush’s Neil Peart was impressed enough to collaborate with him, and the end result was the classic track Tom Sawyer.
But unfortunately, while Rush’s star continued to rise, the Websters quietly folded after plans to tour Europe had to be aborted because of lack of funds coming from the record label. Their six albums gradually became harder to track down, and these days the band are little more than a well-respected footnote amongst Rush fans.
But, perhaps the reissue of the Websters’ catalogue in a new box set, might address that?
Titled, appropriately, The Party, it brings together the five studio albums, along with a live album, an EP and an eighth disc of rarities. The albums have been remastered, and the set is available on vinyl or cd, but while the vinyl box comes with a booklet and memorabilia, the cd set simply houses each disc within a replica sleeve with no liner notes.
It’s an expensive purchase for UK fans if you try looking for the set on Amazon, but you can also buy the set from Pledge Music at a more reasonable price. However, on this occasion I opted for a download version via 7digital.
The good news is that the downloads come at a good quality 320kbp bit-rate, and they sound terrific, both on the headphones and as ripped cds on the hi-fi. The albums have been mastered carefully, with sensible volume and plenty of breathing room for the music. Guitars are full-bodied but not harsh, bass lines are solid and defined, keyboards sound clearer than they did before, and it’s all held together by a great drum sound which works a treat when drum rolls pan across speaker to speaker.
I decided to spin the albums in chronological order and it’s an interesting journey, as the band kick off with more rudimentary rock arrangements on the debut self-titled album, and then quickly develop their unique style on the follow-up High Class In Borrowed Shoes. It’s not a startling shift between the two albums, but you can sense the band hitting their stride, and by the time of the Mutiny Up My Sleeve and A Million Vacations albums they’re truly on a creative roll.
The band’s popularity possibly peaked at this point, reaching beyond US shores, and even landing in the UK singles charts with the single Paradise Skies. It’s a fine example of the kind of style that the band made their own, and here they are performing it on the BBC programme Top Of The Pops:
Alas, things then began to unravel a bit as frustration with record label set in. Keyboardist Terry Watkinson left the band, and the resulting album Universal Juveniles plays more like a Kim Mitchell solo album. It’s telling that the album cover only features Mitchell, and the overall sound is a precursor to the harder, more commercial guitar rock sound that he would adopt for his solo career. The box set includes Mitchell’s debut EP as a bonus.
Personally, while I enjoyed the Universal Juveniles album a lot, it wasn’t quite as satisfying as the ones that preceded it. But it does yield one track which many consider to be a definitive Webster moment – Battlescar. This is the track where the remaining members shared the studio with their pals in Rush and recorded the song as two bands combined. It’s a terrific track which manages to showcase the best of both bands:
Of the original albums, that just leaves the album Live Magnetic Air, a collection of edited concert highlights, where versions of the earliest tracks actually improve on their studio counterparts, but it’s a piecemeal affair rather than the double album complete show that the band wanted to release.
As for the main bonus disc The Bootleg, it’s a modest collection of odds and sods that are fun to hear – live versions of Oh War! and Let Go The Line, and a demo version of Battlescar without Rush – but they won’t have any lasting value compared to the main albums.
In some ways, Max Webster were a band very much of their time in terms of how their instruments sounded, but paradoxically they were also a band out of their time, as their music was probably too quirky for mainstream hard rock fans, but not quite experimental enough to be embraced by the prog rock community in the same way that Rush were.
Still, they left behind a fine collection of albums, and it’s nice to see them back in the public eye with The Party box set. Oh, and in case you’re asking – no one in the band was actually called Max or Webster!