It chimed with the decadent experimentalism of the times, and today Phillips’ 1979 album Sides sounds more joyfully curious than ever. If he was trying to break away from the mould of 12-string acoustic player he certainly achieved that with this eccentric and eclectic work of two halves. There’s a disco shimmer to the pop-prog of Um & Aargh, with Ant himself (billed as ‘The Vicar’) singing on a catchy slice of art rock more befitting a Sparks or Quantum Jump. QJ’s Rupert Hine produces here, and their bassist John G Perry is part of the band, along with Crimson’s Mike Giles and Mel Collins. The recognisable 12-string jangle is present on mature ballad I Want You Love, sung beautifully by Dan Owen, who unleashes his inner Todd Rundgren on the sophisticated pop rocker Side Door. The proggiest moments come in the album’s second phase – there’s plenty to get stuck into on arpeggioed Souvenir, and the furious, multi-layered monolith Sisters Of Remindum. The four-disc boxset comes with a 2016 stereo mix, 5.1 Surround Sound mix and a disc of bonus material, though for most the original, stereo mix remastered will do the job.
Released two years later, 1984 wasn’t directly inspired by Orwell’s dystopian novel; Phillips apparently chose the name late into production. No matter, it’s still a feast for retro synth fans. The instrumental work is pitched somewhere between Patrick Moraz, Rick Wakeman and John Carpenter, with a prelude and anthem bookending its two main quarter-hour parts. It’s an enthralling, elegant and surprisingly lyrical construction of old Polymoogs and ARPs and ‘drumboxes’, all manual and pre-sequencer, with live percussion from Scottish drummer Morris Pert and not an axe in sight. This too gets Esoteric’s typically lavish boxset treatment – three mixes, a juicy bonus disc (complete with his needlessly good music for the TV series Rule Britannia). It’s the kind of package that weird, wonderful music, and the under-appreciated artist who made it deserves.