American Tears: Branded Bad

There’s something intriguing about a new group that manages to make a powerful impression without falling into any easily defined category. That’s how I feel about American Tears, whose first album has importance written all over it, yet eludes my attempts to pin down what makes it so special.

The group, which made two albums as Valhalla a few years back, consists of Mark Mangold, Gary Sonny and Tommy Gunn. Mangold writes all the songs, sings all the leads, and plays keyboards, ARP and minimoog. Not surprisingly then, American Tears is built heavily around the keyboard sound. The particular keyboard sound which dominates the album is not that of Keith Emerson, nor of Leon Russell or Uriah Heep. The most striking similarity is to Procol Harum, with classically-influenced piano figures augmenting full Hammond B3 chording. The similarity is strongest on ‘Take Me Lord’, which also features early Trowerish guitar and a rather fervent religious theme.

This resemblance to Procol Harum is primarily one of instrumentation, however, and should be taken only as a point of reference. Lyrically and thematically, American Tears are clearly on different ground, with none of Keith Reid’s ornate wordplay. There’s more of the gospel approach in American Tears; short suggestive phrases, often repeated, and made meaningful by their interpretation rather than their overt content. Mangold is a born vocalist, with a strong rich voice that can draw words out until they become an extension of the music.

Even the most explicit song, ‘Dr. Abreaction’ means very little if you merely read the lyrics. Yet listening to the track, you get caught up in the heat of what sounds like a jam between early Lee Michaels and the young Stevie Winwood, and come away feeling as though you’ve just heard a heavy meaningful statement.

Based on this, I would suspect American Tears to be a tremendously exciting group live, for it is rare enough that a group with this kind of approach can pull it off successfully live, let alone on record, and American Tears has already proven its ability to create an album that is as alive as any record could be. This is a band to watch out for.

© Greg ShawPhonograph Record, August 1974

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