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Nestled in between two absolute classics of the genre, Squawk is the redheaded stepchild of classic-era Budgie, oft forgotten due to its lack of sustainable anthems and Mellotron experimentation. But what it lacks in songwriting it nearly makes up for in variety and exhibitionism: this is the sound of a young band striking out into different musical pathways and testing their meddle, the product of which would eventually be one of the 70’s most worthy heavy metal albums. Here they are still finding their way, and it is at the very least interesting to see what directions they might have headed in had things progressed differently for them.
Though the guitars have come up in the mix to better match the titanic bass tone, Squawk is not quite as heavy an endeavor as its predecessor. Riff-wise, it’s sort of a step back from the primordial, chromatic, doominess of their self-titled in favor of riffs more firmly planted in the band’s bluesy roots. Opener “Whisky River” and “Rocking Man” are the most apparently ‘traditional’ as classic rock goes, but even the token oddball-titled track “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” seems to be more regressive than similar material off the last album. Tony Bourge even plays slide guitar here. But the band still rocks out purposefully: Bourge’s pentatonic-from-hell soloing, Burke Shelley’s pounding bass riffage and fevered vocals, and Ray Phillips’ unwavering percussive mastery still forge the heaviest sound this side of Sabbath. And with tunes like “Drugstore Woman” and “Stranded” in their repertoire, even the Fab Sabs might have been just a wee bit envious of their Welsh contemporaries.
One new element for Budgie’s sophomore effort is the use of keyboards (a 70’s inevitability), particularly in the band’s obligatory ballads. Two seems to be the magic number of ballads for these guys, and on this album they happen to be crammed right next to each other. The folksy, Beatles worship of “Rolling Home Again” is the more obvious of the two, while the soulful piano-backed “Make Me Happy” shows the maturation of the band’s acoustic stylings. Still, these acoustic elements work better in the context of longer compositions, epitomized by the band once again with “Young is the World,” where the clean guitars and potent Mellotron allow Shelley to conjure up visions of pastoral beauty between bouts of Bourge and Phillips storming in with a powerful display of force. This bit is heavily derivative of Robert Fripp’s ominous master-riff from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Still, the then-fledgling Judas Priest would incorporate this kind of songwriting into their early albums, resulting in masterpieces such as “Dreamer Deceiver” and “Run of the Mill:” cuts directly sewn from the Budgie template.
Bizarrely, the King Crimson nod isn’t limited to one track. “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” ends with a heavy bit intended to be musically reminiscent to “Mars,” the most famous movement of Holst’s “Planets” suite. This has apparently been rendered by roughly every band in the history of music, notably ELP (Emerson, Lake and Powell), Diamond Head, Symphony X, and specifically King Crimson. Check out the track “Devil’s Triangle” off the album In The Wake of Poseidon, released two years before this particular Budgie album. But while Budgie might not have had the Crims’ foresight, they certainly out-heavy them for sure, even the humble Squawk album is testament to this.
It may not be Budgie’s finest hour, but this bird always manages to display a certain degree of charm in most everything they do. And while you won’t hear Budgie at their best here, you’ll hear them advancing and improvising towards what is generally considered their pinnacle a mere album away.
For fans of the band then, this remains indispensible.
Budgie attempt to branch out and explore a softer, more acoustic sound on a couple of songs here - Rolling Home Again and Make Me Happy - but aside from those folk rock-inspired numbers this is mainly a continuation of the bluesy proto-metal of their debut, though leaning more towards Led Zeppelin than Black Sabbath in terms of their sound this time. Album closer Stranded approaches doom metal territory, whilst Young Is the World uses mellotron and a complex song structure in a stab at dabbling in progressive rock, and Hot as a Docker's Armpit deserves mention for its seamless marriage of furious riffs with hilarious lyrics, but otherwise the album's rather forgettable - a bit of a disappointment after the extremely capable debut.
In particular, Burke Shelley's vocal style is here closer to that on the original album, rather than the piercing shriek he would deploy on some tracks on the subsequent Never Turn Your Back On a Friend, and whilst his light and comparatively high-pitched singing voice is still quite novel on the heavier tracks, on the gentler material it drifts into psychedelic/folk-rock cliches, like a second class Neil Young. On their next album Budgie would return to a heavier approach, and would come across better for it.