Patto was an unusual rock band. Led by the distinct vocals of Mike Patto and inventive guitarist Ollie Halsall, filled out by bassist Clive Griffiths and the complex beats of drummer John Halsey (who went on to the Rutles), its early ‘70s albums were likely at any moment to shift time signatures and keys mid-song. Capable of bursting out of jazz-like arrangements with long improvisations, its guitarist doubling on vibraphone, this was one of the premier prog-rock bands, but it seldom forgot to rock. This was a jazz-inflected boogie band–imagine Faces stretching out, much as the illustrated face on the cover of its debut seems ready to blow apart. Esoteric has remastered and expanded the band’s four-disc catalog, and while bonus tracks may be for completists only, there’s plenty for the newcomer to this music to chew on.

Although the band would develop from its 1970 debut, that introduction is the most consistent of its albums, a restrained experiment that effectively spells out the group’s charms. Opener “The Man” builds its strange dynamics from low-key moments and startling eruptions, whether they come from Halsall’s unpredictable solos, Patto’s mewling vocals, or Halsey’s wild drums. Several tracks sound like ready-made ‘70s hard rock singles—you wonder why the straight ahead beat of “San Antone” wasn’t a staple of album-rock stations in the U.S. This impossibly catchy boogie is typical of what Patto did – it sounds enough like the blues, but its rhythms twitch and swerve, drunk enough to veer off course but sober enough to keep a tight pulse. The album’s one misstep is the noodling 10-minute “Money Bag”; while “The Man” tops six minutes, there isn’t a wasted note, but this is where Halsall wanders, and he’ll wander more, peeling off unimaginative runs on the 14-minute bonus cut “Hanging Rope” (which starts with a long drum solo, natch).

Sophomore album Hold Your Fire, from 1971, continues the counterculture boogie; to push the Faces comparison, the opening title truck comes off like an expanded “You’re So Rude.” Patto yowls, “I read pornographic literature/ And studied the underground press…/ Put aside your rifle! Halsall’s solos here are spot-on, his jazz-like runs perfectly structured and everything coming together for over eight minutes, even the dissonant piano chords (also courtesy of the guitarist). This is a more unusual animal; “You, You Point Your Finger” is a plaintive ballad of persecution: “me I’ve grown accustomed to the burden of your hate.” It may sound heavy-handed, but Patto’s vocal, usually verging on demonic blues, is more sensitive here.

After that promising start, however, the hooks don’t come as easily as on the debut. “Air-Raid Shelter,” which you wish lived up to its title, modulates between Patto’s vocals over spare accompaniment, and a simmering tension constructed by Halsey’s drums; but the track’s unusual structure, while it may mimic the unpredictability of an air raid, lets its momentum dissipate before it has a chance to sustain that tension, and Halsall seems hampered as well, resorting to a few predictable runs as if he’s frustrated with the material. Hold Your Fire gets a full bonus disc with outtakes and BBC sessions, and the best of these are alternates of tracks from the debut. Halsey contributes liner notes naming this his favorite Patto album, and the band indeed sounds

Patto‘s label Vertigo dropped the group after the second album, and its third, Roll ‘em Smoke ‘em Put Another Line Out was released on Island in 1972. This time the band had a single, “Flat-footed Woman,” which was catchy enough if not up to the earworm of “Government Man” from the debut. Island found the group both rawer and more experimental; “Mummy” is a strange kind of lover man comedy vocal, and “Singing the Blues on Reds” evolves from a conventional blues (with a little scratch-funk guitar) to a lush synth-driven fantasia before it gets back into the funk. “Loud Green Song” turns up the amps for some prime stoopid rock, with the timeless line, “I’ve been messin’ round in Mesopotamia.” Tighter numbers like “Turn Turtle” (“and play dead”) come from a band that had reigned in its indulgences, although those explorations are part of what characterized its sound. Increasingly loose tracks make it come off like a rock comedy album, as much Rutles or Bonzo Dog Band as prog rockers.

Halsall left the group before it completed its fourth album, Monkey’s Bum, which (ignoring unauthorized bootlegs) makes its first official release here. You can still hear the guitarist’s distinct work on the ironically-named opener, “My Days are Numbered,” but while the group was growing more conventional, its song structures more expected and the remaining members in a less exploratory mood, there’s still good original music like the paean to psychedelia of “Sugar Cube 1967,” as well as a strong cover of Randy Newman’s “Last Night I Had a Dream.” Without its signature guitar sound, Patto augmented the band with soulful horns, resulting in a more commercial album that nevertheless didn’t quite sound like Patto.

After the band finally split up, its leading figures didn’t fare well. Halsall and Mike Patto reunited in the group Boxer (perhaps best known for the notorious cover art of Below the Belt), but Patto died of cancer in 1979, and Halsall was felled by a drug-related heart attack in 1992. The band’s output was inconsistent, but the reissue of its debut album alone should ensure a new generation of fans.

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