Remnant – 1967
Widely considered to be the “holy grail” amongst garage rock collectors, the 1967 album from The Rising Storm is far more than just a valuable curio; it both synthesizes a wildly diverse regional scene, and finds a remarkable young band displaying something much greater than mere ‘potential.’
Last July, a copy of an album recorded by a group of high school seniors in 1967 sold on Discogs for $4500. Fifty-four years earlier, a standard minimum run of five hundred discs had been pressed by the group: nearly half of which went unsold to the friends, family, and classmates whom the six band members enthusiastically pitched them. But while the rediscovery of long-forgotten music from the likes of Billy Nicholls and Sixto Rodriguez has become part of the lore of music enthusiasts – and even forms the basis for a successful business model – to call this particular record “forgotten” would be to falsely suggest that it had ever been noticed in the first place.
That record was Calm Before; and its teenaged creators were known as The Rising Storm. Students at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the sextet had formed for the most typical of reasons. Attending an all-male boarding school, the group’s members generally only found the opportunity to socialize with girls at dances; and what better way to stand out from their classmates than to be up on stage? By their senior year, The Rising Storm had become regular performers at these functions, but as college loomed, they looked to craft one lasting souvenir of their years together in Andover.
That keepsake would be a professional recording: one that gathered several highlights from the group’s live repertoire, plus a handful of original compositions. Recorded over five days at Continental Recordings in Framingham, Massachusetts, Calm Before would be self-released on the band’s own imprint: Remnant Records. Beyond its lukewarm reception at Phillips, the band members themselves seemed rather nonplussed by the finished product, and when the school year ended, they each went their separate ways: paths that led to college, careers, families, and lives outside of music.
What eventually became of The Rising Storm and Calm Before is almost too good to be true. It’s a story of creative redemption and affirmation from those who were never even seeking it. It’s a story of music lovers being gifted that most exciting of promises: a genuine “lost classic.” It’s a story best summarized by the six band members themselves, as they do in a charming thirty-minute documentary that discusses the rise, fall, and improbable resurrection of their teenage labor of love. For our purposes here, the real question is not about the quality of the story, but of the music itself. By now, you’ve probably noticed the rating, and of course any critic is wise to consider context in the evaluation of art, but make no mistake: Calm Before is far more than just a feel-good story.
Calm Before is comprised of twelve tracks: five originals and seven covers. Any garage aficionado knows that many promising albums from little-known sixties groups were ultimately derailed by rote takes on old rock and roll classics. In fact, by mid-decade, perhaps only The Sonics were actually capable of breathing new life into such tried-and-true standards. While The Rising Storm were not immune to dusting off old chestnuts, they keep them comparatively minimized on Calm Before. Their version of “In the Midnight Hour” is faithful, but adds nothing to the Wilson Pickett classic. Their “Big Boss Man” is forgettable. A solid run through “Baby Please Don’t Go” ends the album on a spirited note, but it’s inessential.
Far more interesting are the group’s interpretations of more recent material. Not only does their version of Arthur Lee’s “A Message to Pretty” match Love’s then-recent original, but it holds an almost eerie resemblance to Yo La Tengo: a band whose own debut was still twenty years away. Earlier, Calm Before opens with a cover of The Remains’ classic single, “Don’t Look Back.” Their version may not snap with the precision displayed on the original, but it’s a bold homage to local heroes. Even better are covers of the two sides from The Rockin’ Ramrods’ 1966 single, “Bright Lit Blue Skies” / “Mr. Wind”: another act of Boston-area pride. Where “Don’t Look Back” feels heavily deferential to the source material, The Rising Storm – and vocalist/guitarist Tony Thompson, in particular – sound wholly confident on the pair of Ramrods tracks: making them their own, and easily surpassing the original recordings.
However, as critic Richie Unterberger suggests, it’s unlikely that many listeners beyond Andover would’ve ever given a second thought to Calm Before if not for its original tracks. Aside from the lively rave-up, “I’m Coming Home,” these are surprisingly nuanced compositions for a group of prep school teens. Side-two opener, “She Loved Me,” constitutes one of the most impressive band performances on the record. Thompson again channels a future Ira Kaplan, and a manic descending fuzz guitar riff from Bob Cohan punctuates each pass through the song’s understated-yet-rollicking chorus.
Cohan contributes one of the album’s dreamiest moments with “To L.N. / Who Doesn’t Know.” An appeal to a distant love interest, the track bears the melancholy aspect that was a defining feature of New England garage bands, but never spills over into the kind of embarrassing platitudes that one might expect from a high schooler. Similarly impressive is “The Rain Falls Down” – written by multi-instrumentalist Rich Weinberg. The spacious arrangement represents the work of a group who were not merely content to take stage-tested rockers into the studio, but who were willing to experiment in the minimal time afforded to them.
At the center of the album is the track that arguably looms largest in its legend. Composed by Thompson, “Frozen Laughter” is another ode to a distant (or disinterested) lover. In three haunting minutes that blend folk, baroque pop, and psychedelia, Calm Before reaches its sensational apex. In the aforementioned documentary, the studio take of “Frozen Laughter” is juxtaposed with a version played by a nearly-seventy-year-old Tony Thompson on acoustic guitar. The husky-voiced older man provides a sharp contrast to the ethereal vocals of the recording that has become a treasured text to multiple generations of record collectors. As he reaches the end of the song’s first verse, the now-senior Thompson stops and smiles. In the intervening half-century, he attended Harvard, became a lawyer, an entrepreneur, and had raised a family: all significant life accomplishments. However, this look of satisfaction was reserved for something that may seem much smaller in the grand scheme of things. Fifty years earlier, he had written a fantastic song. And now, people had finally realized it.