Lost Album of the Week: Audience's The House on the Hill

On March 16, 2016

by Ryan Reed


Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Audience's The House on the Hill

The House on the Hill, Audience's unsung 1971 masterpiece, commences with "Jackdaw," a bluesy art-rock anthem built on honking saxophone, fingerpicked "electric classical guitar," lyrics about a home-wrecking crow, and an volatile vocal moan that makes Robert Plant sound like Tiny Tim. Too playful and accessible to be prog, too meandering for classic rock radio – a complete original both in its era and today's.

The British quartet formed in 1969 and attracted an early cult fan-base, supporting (and impressing) established bands like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson on-stage. "I … very well remember the first time we met Genesis was when they came along to see us and we talked to a couple of them, including Phil Collins, backstage," bassist Trevor Williams recalled in an interview with The Marquee Club website. "I think it might have been there that Collins suggested he would like to join us if [Audience drummer] Tony Connor left because he didn't have a lot of faith in Genesis getting anywhere."

But "cult" is the key word: Audience's first two albums were only issued in the U.K., and despite making famous friends, they failed to make a substantial commercial impact. With The House on the Hill, they seemed poised to make wider noise. They commissioned a melodramatic cover image from art gurus Hipgnosis. They brought in Elton John collaborator Gus Dudgeon to smooth out the production, working at London's famed Trident Studios (home to sessions from The Beatles, David Bowie, Yes, and other legends). Elektra Records issued an American version with a tweaked, radio-friendly tracklist that included the jazz-folk strut of "Indian Summer" (which cracked the Billboard Hot 100) and Beatles-esque 1970 ditty "It Brings a Tear."

Still, Audience were too weird to write hit songs. Howard Werth's voice gave the band muscle and grit, but his arrangements – mostly penned with Williams and woodwind expert Keith Gemmell – were unfashionable for the time: no electric riffs, no blistering guitar solos, no keyboards of any kind (this, mind you, at the height of Rick Wakeman's cape fetish). But those quirks ensured that The House on the Hill stood out from its contemporaries.

The opening "Jackdaw" description doesn't even do justice to that warped rock howler, which incorporates jazz-flute and a Latin-leaning groove in its dynamic mood shifts. Each track explores the same basic instrumental foundation, yet each occupies its own headspace: Soulful sing-along "You're Not Smiling" conjures Van Morrison fronting Supertramp; instrumental "Raviole" navigates classical themes with Werth's galloping guitar; "I Put a Spell on You" reimagines the Screamin' Jay Hawkins' blues ballad with eerie flute and vibraphone.

But the demented title-track alone – a revamped cut from their 1969 debut – makes The House on the Hill worth its admission price. Werth plays our shellshocked narrator in this gothic epic, describing the disturbing events that take place at the titular home. "Say that there's a King Rat who wears a judge's black cap / And I wouldn't go near the house on the hill," he sings, adopting a creepily clipped vibrato. "When it snows around the house on the hill / The rat becomes a maiden, her soul endowed by Satan."

Wait, what?

"As is her sin, yeah, in the house on the hill / She lures travelers into the house on the hill / Enchants them with her charms then she falls on and devours them."

Holy shit.

The lyrics read like fucked-up folklore, or the most terrifying bedtime story ever crafted. And the music only amplifies the bleak mood: Williams' barking bass line, Connor's textured drum solo, Gemmell amplifying the horror film atmosphere with an ethereal, echo-doused saxophone freak-out. This could very well be the most frightening rock song ever recorded.

Audience never topped The House on the Hill, but they only had one more shot: After recruiting pianist Nick Judd and famed session players Bobby Keys (tenor saxophone) and Jim price (trumpet, trombone), they released 1972's Lunch, a more conventional rock set that sanded off the band's idiosyncrasies en route to cracking the Billboard 200. Then the band fizzled out altogether. Werth formed a stripped-back solo album, 1975's King Brilliant, under the moniker Howard Werth & the Moonbeams. But he nixed the project after it failed to generate momentum, temporarily moving to America in talks to replace Jim Morrison in a new version of The Doors.

Decades after Audience's initial break-up, the world has been offered enough time to soak in their brilliance. The band reformed in 2004, releasing a live album the following year – and they've stuck around ever since. This sustained interest proves The House on the Hill hasn't been forgotten among purveyors of eccentric rock. But it deserves to be heralded as a legitimate lost classic.  

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