It was never intended to be released. And sometimes, over the three years since it was recorded, it looked as if it never would be. But during that time low quality cassette copies of low quality cassette copies, so poor the music had become virtually inaudible beneath the hiss, turned up in the unlikeliest of places, and Forward! became legendary without even trying. Rumour built on rumour, fuelled by the praise offered by the few people (including various members of Mogwai - particularly a typically vociferous Stuart Braithwaite) who were genuinely in possession of a copy, and the desperate boasts of the many more who were't.
Within months of Forward! being recorded, internet postings began to appear claiming to have finished copies for sale (which, as it wasn't actually completed and ready for release until 2 years later were clearly somewhat premature), while those involved sat back quietly, bemused by the attention, amused by the furore, and simply waited. Offers from labels eager to provide Forward! an outlet began to arrive. Many were dismissed, others acted upon, but each time it began to look as if release was imminent, events conspired to leave the recordings in the shadows, until Gringo Records came knocking and offered just the right combination of commitment and understanding.
Yet despite all the setbacks, and the passage of time, neither I am Spartacus nor Forward! were forgotten. In fact, if anything, the legend grew; the unavailability adding to the status of the recordings (rather like a latter day Basement Tapes maybe?), with those lucky enough to have - or have heard - them continuing to dine out on their knowledge.
All of which could place an unbearable burden on a lesser work, but Forward! is a special and timeless record, one that remains capable of living up to the claims made on its behalf, and sounds as fresh now as when it was recorded.
Its legendary status is not simply a result of its unavailability, but also of what was captured on tape over one weekend in August 1998, and, for those for whom such things are important, the combination of people involved.
I am Spartacus was already, as it remains, an unpredictable and flexible collective when Forward! was recorded, ostensibly to capture the beauty of a line-up which was about to be decimated by cellist Tianna Kennedy's imminent return to New York.
So it was that eight people gathered in Nottingham's Big Mouse House Studio with a loose intention to record some music over Tianna's last two days in the UK. Included in the line-up were three members of 'enigmatic' Nottingham based underground heroes bob tilton - Neil Johnson (who, now, as well as remaining central to any and all Spartacus activity, can be found spreading chaos and confusion in the Wolves Of Greece), Allan Gainey and Ralph Hamilton on guitar, drums and bass respectively, along with two musicians both entering a recording studio for the first time. Steven Stanley's tangential guitar playing found itself gelling perfectly with Tianna's textural and ambitious cello and Allan's melodic approach to drums, while Chris Beckett's precise guitar and instinctive, untutored piano added a bruised melancholy. The record was produced with a wilful disregard for technical niceties and single minded pursuit of a mood to suit the times and the tunes, by Mark Spivey (whose recent work ranges from the noise infected garage punk of The Grips to the delicate majesty of savoy grand) and engineered with extraordinary empathy and timely cups of tea by Doggen Foster, who can currently be found providing guitar of suitable grandeur for the latest Spiritualized incarnation.
From the opening reflective piano of a dream woke me to the gradually mounting tension of the closing title track, Forward! offers ten instrumental tunes of devastating beauty, punctuated only by the occasional burst of redemptive, startling ferocious climax.
It is a record which mirrors and amplifies the bittersweet mood surrounding its birth, and represents both the beginning and the end of I am Spartacus Mk I. In the time since Forward! came into being, a second line-up - I am Spartacus Mk II - emerged, butterfly-like, to perform only two live dates of entirely new material, the second of which was committed to tape from the audience by the mysterious, indefatigable bootlegger known only as Brummie Simon. With a line up consisting of Neil, Steven and Chris from I am Spartacus Mk I, aided by the addition of two further refugees from bob tilton in the shape of Mark Simms on drums and Simon Feirn on surprise vocals, plus Wolves Of Greece bass rock monster Phil Welding, and with Mark Spivey on live sound, here was a worthy successor to the first I am Spartacus line-up. And when a cheap cassette copy of it arrived at Spartacus base camp, it was immediately clear that the only thing stopping Brum's bootleg further fuelling the I am Spartacus legend was the fact that virtually no-one knew of its existence.
Thankfully, the release of Forward! is set to change all that, as, hidden discretely on the CD, the whole of the Brummie bootleg is waiting to be found by those who know where to look.
Recorded at The Big Mouse House, Nottingham. Produced by Mark Spivey. Engineered by Doggen Foster.
Mastered by Mark Spivey at 273.
Artwork by Chris Summerlin.