As a teenaged rock fan growing up in Wales, the name Pavlov’s Dog was, thanks to magazines like Kerrang!, quasi-mythical. You rarely, if ever, saw their albums in the second hand shops of Cardiff, despite rumour (that turned out to be true) that the band had been handed the biggest advance ever by a record company to a no-name band. Surely there’s be thousands of unwanted copies of Pampered Menial for sale somewhere? we asked, to no avail (they were all in Scorpion Records in High Wycombe, I’m afraid – Ed).
Anyways, a few years later my horizons broadened beyond Barry Island, I travelled a little, I found these grail-like albums. Pavlov’s Dog were a seventies jazz/prog/rock outfit like no other. Actually not like no other – their music was heavily redolent of already-established names like Gentle Giant, Yes and Kansas – but in vocalist David Surkamp they had an X-Factor before that was even a flicker in Simon Cowell’s most fervid dreams. Surkamp could hit notes Geddy Lee could only get Neil Peart to dream about – another rumour kicking around the valleys was that he somehow ingested industrial amounts of helium to reach such heights – and it was his voice that set the band apart so much from the prog rock mainstream that were band were unable to make any headway with the normals on which rock radio depended. Only Dogs – not even Pavlovian ones – could hear him at times. And, thus, of course, like all true artists, Surkamp’s dreams of fame withered on the vine leaving him the best part of a million dollars in hock…
But enough history. Pavlov’s Dog are back again, with a new album, Prodigal Dreamer, and very nice it is too.
Of course ‘prog rock’ isn’t very much like it was in Surkamp’s seventies ‘heyday’. Pavlov’s Dog never display the sort of chops most people seem to think is required to be ‘progressive’ these days, and none of the thirteen songs featured even manage to dent seven minutes in duration. But there are trace elements of their old sound here – the trumpets and violins of Easter Day bring musical memories of Gentle Giant flooding back, and the overall feel of sombreness and regret often allow the listener to draw parallels with Kansas circa their great lost album Freaks of Nature. Central to this is the fabulous violin performance of Abbie Steiling, who quietly steals the show throughout with her superbly emotional, evocative playing.
Paris and Hard Times are early highlights, but if truth be told the album leans so much to introspection that highlights tend not to present themselves, with the album as a whole lending itself to the task of soundtracking a million late night reveries in darkened, alcohol-sodden and smoke-filled rooms.
And what of Surkamp? Well, those extravagant highs are all but long gone, of course, replaced by a careworn croon that sometimes has a whiff of Dylan about it. On the winsome Aria you feel he might make a grasp for former glories – it’s perhaps the most outwardly Pavlovian of all the tracks here – but wisely our hero keeps things sensible, content to deliver an understatedly compelling performance without resort to trying – and doubtless failing – to relive former highs.
It’s debatable whether Pavlov’s Dog will appeal to any more people now than they did in the seventies, save for the fact that their music is more readily available now – but there are enough moments of genuine class on Prodigal Dreamer to suggest a semi-glorious Indian Summer might be on the cards for them. I hope so.
Prodigal Dreamer is out now.