Over at Rolling Stone magazine, critic David Fricke wrote that Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love is the "most underloved record ever made by a rock god." I'd have to agree with him – the guitar great's sophomore effort was released less than a year after his groundbreaking debut, capping off a whirlwind period of roughly eighteen months that saw Hendrix introduced to British rock fans, blow away the crowd at Monterey, catapult to stardom, and release two best-selling albums.
Still, bookended by two critically-acclaimed and barrier-punishing works such as Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland, Hendrix's Axis is often overlooked by even the hardcore Jimi fanatic. While the young blues-rock guitarist – already a veteran of years playing on the Southern "chitlin' circuit" of R&B clubs – had yet to have time to fully digest the measure of his rising stardom, the wealth of ideas that were spun into Are You Experienced? had obviously yet to run out when he began working in the studio with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell on Axis. While not entirely as heart-stopping groundbreaking as his debut, Axis rocks hard nonetheless.
Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love
Opening with an odd, disconnected voice, the sci-fi jest "Exp" devolves into an instrumental assault on the senses with screaming psychedelic guitars, feedback, oscillating metal thunder, and repetitive riff patterns – all in under two minutes – before leading into the soulful blues song "Up From The Skies." With Jimi's best zoot suit vocals up front, and the band delivering a spiraling funky groove, Hendrix layers on his tense psych-blues guitar notes. The semi-metallic hard rockin' "Spanish Castle Magic" is more in line with the material on Are You Experienced?, Hendrix's strident and imaginative fretwork providing a strong crosswind to the blustery rhythms laid down by Redding and Mitchell.
"Wait Until Tomorrow" is one of those overlooked entries in the Hendrix canon, a mid-tempo folk-rock ballad, of sorts, with almost spoken vocals, delicate guitarplay, and Mitchell's potent drumbeaten backdrop. The locomotive rhythms driving "Ain't No Telling" are marred by a mix that places Hendrix's spry vocals too deep in the mix, his guitar barely rising out of the quicksand to make his point, the result an engaging rocker that nevertheless could have been much better.
Hendrix's Little Wing
Songs six through nine represent the heart and soul of Axis: Bold As Love, beginning with the ephemeral "Little Wing." Covered by everybody and their brother, from alt-rockers like Concrete Blonde to blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the song's familiar refrain and easily-recognizable melody mask one of Hendrix's more emotional instrumental performances. The song's brevity is somewhat deceptive, as well, hiding one of Hendrix's most poetic, if somewhat oblique, songwriting triumphs. It's a classic song, no doubt, a mesmerizing moment that leads into the monster protest song "If 6 Was 9." With a guitar riff that is equal parts blues and rock, Hendrix shouts out his powerful vocals above Mitchell's explosive drums and cymbals, Redding's bass throbbing with immediacy. By the time that Hendrix kicks it into overdrive, his out-of-this-world soloing is weirdly transcendent.
"You Got Me Floatin'" is a died-in-the-wool rocker that pointed to musical directions that Hendrix would later take with Electric Ladyland. Above an insistent rhythm, Jimi's guitar darts in and out of the mix with fierce imagination, his vocals almost lost in the mix – a good thing, this time, adding to the song's overall chaotic vibe – while the vocal harmonies provide another dimension to the performance. The important middle of the album finishes with "Castles Made Of Sand," a psychedelic-tinged blues-rock poem that mixes reality with fantasy, tragedy with whimsy as Hendrix's swirling leads and fluid rhythm guitar prop up his inspired vocal turn.
She's So Fine
Although the middle four songs are the heart of the album, Axis doesn't peter out afterwards...Redding's "She's So Fine," featuring the bassist on vocals, is a more conventional rocker with psyche flourishes, a British pop undercurrent (I'm thinking of the Who and the Kinks), galloping drumbeats, and sublime fretwork from Hendrix. The chameleonlike "One Rainy Wish" begins as a lovely ballad before changing its colors, becoming a raging rocker before calming down into a head-spinning pastiche of lofty vocals and layered guitars. The title track, of sorts, "Bold As Love" brings Hendrix's blues pedigree in contrast to his status as rock 'n' roll godhead, the song offering bluesy vocals with folkish lyrics, jazzlike guitar flourishes, and a subtle rhythmic foundation courtesy of Redding and Mitchell.
As part of Sony Legacy's reissue series of the Hendrix catalog, the original albums are accompanied by a DVD that includes interviews with engineer Eddie Kramer, producer/Hendrix manager Chas Chandler, and Experience bandmates Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, as well as scraps of rare live performance footage. Here they speak about the making of several songs from Axis: Bold As Love, including "Little Wing" and "If 6 was 9." The deluxe packaging includes a beautiful CD booklet that includes song lyrics, never before seen photos and concert photo graphics, and insightful liner notes from writer Jym Fahey.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Honestly, the blues take a backseat to psychedelic rock and experimental sounds on Axis: Bold As Love. Hendrix's blues and soul background is woven throughout the album, its presence strongly felt as the guitarist's musical influences come to the fore in a strong set of songs that stretched the boundaries of rock music at the time while taking full advantage of studio technology.
Unlike the songs on Hendrix's debut album, which had been field-tested during months of heavy touring, the material on Axis represented the guitarist's conquering of a different challenge: the recording studio. Working with engineer Kramer, Hendrix pushed the confines of the studio to their extremes, creating a wealth of songs that would seldom be performed live by the band. The material stands with the best of Hendrix's milieu, however, representing a major step forward in the guitarist's creation of his legacy. (Sony Legacy Recordings, released March 9, 2010)