…or ‘how to do a budget box set well’. Budgie, by all accounts, are the proto-metal band who never quite achieved the fame they deserved. Formed in 1967 the band channelled the likes of Cream and, as they developed, Led Zeppelin into satisfyingly bluesy blasts of prog-tinged hard rock that influenced the likes of Megadeth and Metallica to the extent that the latter covered ‘Breadfan’ as a B side to ‘Harvester of sorrow’. Signed to MCA (and later parent-label A&M) until the late 70s, Budgie had a strong, if slightly ludicrous, visual presence thanks to the astonishing artwork of Roger Dean (Yes), but they became a somewhat forgotten band, seemingly in spite of the praise lavished upon them by the likes of Soundgarden (who also covered a track) and the aforementioned thrash acts. Not helped by the fact that their albums have long been somewhat expensive (a 2004 remaster series saw the albums packaged with bonus tracks and an ambitious price tag), Budgie seemed destined to slip into obscurity as much as a result of the poor treatment of their back catalogue as anything else.
Happily, for long-term fans of the band and newcomers alike, the powers that be have seen sense and not only reissued, but also remastered, the three albums for which Budgie are, arguably, most famous – ‘Never turn your back on a friend’, ‘in for the kill’ and ‘bandolier’ – under the guise of ‘The MCA albums 1973-1975’. Quite simply this box set is revelation with regard what record companies can do when they turn their minds to it. The three albums come packaged in a rock solid card case with the memorable ‘in for the kill’ artwork on the cover. Unlike the cheap card packages found on most album reissue series (yes, we’re looking at you Rhino), this offering is well-printed and solid, meaning that it will look good on the shelf and survive regular use (and it will certainly get it). Inside the box equal care has been taken with the albums themselves. Each one is packaged in a gatefold style sleeve and this is one of those rare cases where deviating from the original packaging works in the fans’ favour. Of the originals, only ‘never turn your back on a friend’ was gatefold (and the inlay remains intact here too), but clearly the label decided to upgrade the follow-up releases, adding welcome band shots to the inlays of the latter two albums. Remarkably a substantial booklet is also included, complete with essay from renowned writer Malcom Dome (a man who is no less than a walking encyclopaedia of rock and metal) and plenty of pictures. It’s a rare example of a package that has been put together as a celebration of a band’s work and it becomes even more remarkable when you note that the whole thing retails at £7.99 here in the UK. Quite frankly it puts most similar anthologies to shame and Steve Hammonds, the product coordinator, deserves full credit for putting together this well thought-out set.
Of course, the set would be worthless if it wasn’t for the content and you could be forgiven for thinking that here is where the label might slip. You would, however, be quite wrong. Whilst the bonus tracks that graced the 2004 reissues are gone (four each from ‘in for the kill’ and ‘bandolier’ and three for ‘never turn your back on a friend’), what we have here are pristine 2016 remasters courtesy of Andy Pearce (whose remastering credits also include Dio and Rory Gallagher), each of which bring out the very best from these albums. Whilst Budgie could never be accused of having a particularly clean sound, Andy has bolstered the power of each album without succumbing to a desire to brickwall the darn things with the result that tracks like the epic ‘living on your own’ (‘in for the kill’) now pack a remarkable bluesy punch, with plenty of separation between the instruments and Tony Bourge’s heroic soloing shining through the mix loud and clear. Equally the classics, such as ‘Breadfan’ (never turn your back…’), sound better than ever (that awesome slide guitar) and the epic ‘parents’ makes full use of its ten-minute run time to explore territory that few bands dare to tread even now, far less back in 1974. A near perfect ten-minute prog rock epic, ‘Parents’ is perhaps Budgie’s proudest moment and the remastering here renders it with a clarity that is like hearing it all over again for the first time. A real goose-bump moment, it highlights the wonderful creativity that lay at the heart of Budgie and it should be all the reason you need to buy this magnificent set.
In short, this is a near perfect box set. If you are a Budgie fan, the sonic upgrade is worth the asking price (even without the bonus tracks) whilst if you’ve not encountered the band, even a cursory listen will reveal a group of visionaries who influenced everyone from Metallica to Rush with their powerful, dirty, oft-progressive sound. The only slight shame is that the label ignored the first two albums (despite their being referenced in Malcom’s excellent and informative liner notes), but perhaps we can hope for a separate release of these at a later date – certainly at the price it seems churlish to criticise such an excellent package and we can only hope that other labels sit up and take note of what happens when a label really takes care of their legacy releases.