Is Centipede's Septober Energy the best prog album you've never heard?
Making the case for Centipede's classic album Septober Energy and its addition to the prog canon
Keith Tippett is best known to progressive music fans for his work on King Crimson’s early 1970s albums, but when the pianist released the epic double album, Septober Energy, he was already hot property on the European jazz scene. Bristol-born Tippett had not only wowed critics and the public with his lightning-fast technique, but also with his qualities as a composer with two highly-rated albums recorded for Polydor and Vertigo. When he came up with the idea of writing a large-scale piece that would bring together more than 50 musicians from jazz, rock and classical music, RCA’s progressive boutique label, Neon, jumped at the chance to sign him up.
During 1970, the massed ranks of Centipede played several high-profile gigs at home and abroad with RCA chartering a jetliner to ferry the musicians, gear and crew to Europe. Cited by a young Mike Oldfield (who saw them perform) as an influence in his thinking for Tubular Bells, Centipede boasted five vocalists, including Tippett’s wife, Julie Driscoll, three drummers, and legions of brass and string players drawn from the very best contemporary music circles of the day. Featuring members of Nucleus, Soft Machine, King Crimson, Blossom Toes, and Patto, Tippett’s magnum opus was informed by a utopian impulse that regardless of genre, music was a uniting force for good.
In June 1971, with Robert Fripp at the controls in Wessex Studios, players were ushered in groups to overdub their parts. The combination of a complex score coupled with its improvised passages added up to not only a high-pressure environment but an expensive one that allowed just three days in which to get everything done. Everything, that is, apart from Fripp’s own guitar solo as they simply ran out of time. Beginning with ambiguous percussive sounds, ominous drones and ethereal vocal harmonies unfurl as though stretching in the morning sun, until the air is filled with skittering notes and fleeting encounters between brass and strings. Spread across four side-long movements, Tippett’s tone poem breaks into strident themes that march firmly along to rock grooves which are springboards into jazzy excursions. The pianist’s writing for such an extended ensemble focuses attention on the unconventional dynamics of the line-up but never loses sight of melodic and harmonic opportunities. Sing-a-long chants, gothic strings, turbulent arrangements and acerbic soloing makes for a formidable and sometimes challenging listen. The critical acclaim the album received upon its release didn’t translate to sales and RCA dropped Tippett after his next, more introspective improv album, Blueprint. Nevertheless, Septober Energy remains a magnificent testament to Keith Tippett’s ambitious and visionary enterprise.