It’s been a quarter-century since British composer Mike Batt recorded this album, based on Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name. The album has never seen a proper release here in the States, and in England it’s only been available as part of Batt’s archival boxed set. The record has a long history that includes some false starts and a few short issues and rapid-fire deletions. Not that this is the kind of thing that would set an American audience aflame. The Hunting of the Snark and Batt remain deeply British, but it remains difficult to deny the charms inherent in this project. The source material is decidedly rich, storied, and appropriately enigmatic while the composer has distinguished himself in his native land via a series of well-received and strong-selling releases that span just over 40 years.
Inspired in part by a long sea journey of his own as well as by Carroll’s poem, the album first took shape in 1984 and includes performances from George Harrison, former King Crimson member Mel Collins and violin master Stephane Grappelli, plus vocals from Roger Daltrey (in fine form), Julian Lennon (then still a newcomer), Art Garfunkel, and Captain Sensible. The London Symphony Orchestra provides the bulk of the musical backdrop, while Sir John Gielgud and John Hurt narrate. On pieces such as “The Escapade” and “As Long As the Moon Can Shine”, Garfunkel demonstrates with incredible ease that his reputation as a superb singer shall forever remain intact while Daltrey’s performance (“The Pig Must Die”) suggests a tragically underused dramatic ability. Captain Sensible’s contribution, “The Snooker Song”, is fantastic and reminiscent of King Herod’s big number (“King Herod’s Song (Try It and See)”) from Jesus Christ Superstar.
In American musical theater, overstatement and ornamentation reign supreme, while neither appear during the 55 or so minutes of Batt’s composition. The music gracefully supports the vocalists, and the vocalists support the material in a fashion that suggests a true ensemble cast. That said, Deniece Williams’ performance occasionally comes across as saccharine. The penultimate number “Dancing Towards Disaster” is a prime example. In an otherwise subtle and well-conceived piece, this track tries a little too hard to be contemporary and as a result comes up dated––smacking as it does of Chess, a piece that opened the year that Batt began work on Snark.
Batt conceived this as a concert work, but it quite clearly lends itself to a more expansive dramatic form. The composer did mount a dramatic version of Snark that was successful in Australia––a London production was well enough received by the public but was savaged by critics. That makes its release now all the more remarkable, and perhaps a testament to the strength of Batt’s character and belief in the project.
The UK version of Snark is augmented by a DVD featuring a 1987 Royal Albert Hall concert filmed for television. Billy Connolly, Justin Hayward, and Midge Ure join in while Daltrey, Hurt, Lennon, Williams, and Captain Sensible reprise their roles from the audio recording. Fans in the US will have to––and should––hunt down the UK version, as the Albert Hall performance only sweetens the deal. This is a lovely, original and unforgettable oddity.