Thursday, January 3, 2013

Pink Floyd, Part 2

Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Rating: 9
"And if I start to go insane / Please don't put your wires in my brain"
Best Song: Summer '68
Worst Song: Atom Heart Mother

       After the scatterbrained individuality of Ummagumma, the band decided to do a complete 180* and release good ol' Atom Heart Mother, which while far more "normal" than Ummagumma (or any other previous albums, for that matter), is still a rather bizarre experience. 
       The main thing to note about this album is that it's extremely impersonal. It feels more like this album was conducted, as opposed to performed by Floyd. 
       And that's not too far from the truth either -- the first side, composed of only one track, is essentially a straight classical movement with a few avant-garde touches here and there. It's definitely an interesting idea, particularly for 1970, but as for its actual The main theme, entitled "Father's Shout", is actually rather good. It's a pompous, regal horn progression, and to be completely's pretty awesome. It feels like a really well-written film score (which could be the reason why Stanley Kubrick wanted to use it in A Clockwork Orange), full of energy and vigor. But the rest of the track I could do without. OK, the viola solo is pretty cool, and some of Dave's guitar work is decent, but the sections with the chorus and the avant-garde noises are pretty awful, to be honest. But still, for a psychedelic rock band to attempt a classical-fusion piece for their very first side-long track is at the very least admirable. Just not completely listenable, that's all.
       The second side is somewhat better, albeit a bit sleepy overall. The first track is Roger's "If", a gorgeous acoustic ballad with a terrible title. The main vocal melody is quite good (even if it is somewhat inferior to the similar "Wot's ...Uh the Deal" from Obscured by Clouds), and that guitar solo that pops up in the background from time to time is mighty pleasant. 
       Next up is Rick Wright's "Summer '68", which is an absolute winner. First off, the soft, piano-driven verses are absolutely amazing. Rick's vocals are gorgeous, and those organ parts are just so beautiful and inviting...and then you hit the chorus. The song then turns into something of a rocker, rife with bombastic, Beatles-esque horn progressions and dynamic, Beach Boys-esque harmonies and wordless vocalizations. Okay, maybe the horns are a bit over the top at times, but even so, they still manage to be nowhere near as dorky as any one section of the title track. One of Floyd's very best songs from this early period, for sure.
       "Fat Old Sun" is another folky, acoustic ballad, and while it's really pleasant and REALLY pretty...didn't we just have one of these five minutes ago? Ah well. It's gorgeous and melodic, so it isn't *bad* in any way, it's just...couldn't they have stuck in a rocker or something else? I mean, I get that folky ballads were one of the band's calling cards at this point, but...egh. If I want that, I'll listen to a Simon and Garfunkel album. They do it better, anyhow.
        The final number on the album is the thirteen minute "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" (What a title!), a...sound collage? Kinda?? The entire piece features the sounds of roadie Alan Styles preparing, and then eating, his breakfast. But no, the song doesn't merely consist of 13 minutes worth of a man saying stuff like "Yes, porridge is nice!" and making crunching noises. No, throughout the song, there are three snippets of music. The first section is a boring, uneventful jam, the second is a pretty acoustic guitar solo, and the third is a triumphant, piano-driven piece with some decent soloing. None are really that great (however, the last one is pretty good, and the second section is rather pretty), but then again, none are really that bad, either. It's just....meh. Heck, if not for the entertaining breakfast sound effects, it might just be a flat-out poor song. But whatever the case, I guess it's alright in this form. I guess.
       It's nowhere near a classic, and there's only one truly great song (that being "Summer '68", but I still can't help but like this some degree. I don't see myself returning to it much in the future, but as far as making a recommendation goes, if you're a diehard Floyd fan -- pick it up. Parts of the title track really rule, and the rest of the album ain't half bad. Heck, none of the songs are really *bad* (well, parts of the title suite are, but I digress), they're just...alright. Nothing too bad. Nothing too great. Just...alright.

Meddle (1971)
Rating: 11
"So I throw the windows wide / And call to you across the sky"
Best Song: Echoes
Worst Song: A Pillow of Winds

       Maturity!!! After the painful (and slightly humorous) clumsiness of Atom Heart Mother and the like, the Floyd finally found their unique style. And what is it, you ask? Well, it's mellow, it's soothing, it's gorgeous, and it mixes just enough elements of prog rock into those attributes to make the sound interesting. The sound effects wouldn't be incorporated too strongly for a few albums...but that's okay, because for now, we get Meddle, which is pretty great, as far as pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd albums go.
       The thing opens with "One of These Days", an aggressive, slow-building instrumental that would easily be the best thing on here if "Echoes" didn't exist! (We'll be there soon enough...) It starts out with a dark, ominous bass line that continues to build and build with guitar riffage and cool, icy synth chords being layered on top until everything instantly dissipates, and we hear a creepy robotic voice screaming "WON UH DEESE DAYS / IM GUNNA CUT CHU INTO LEETLE PEECES" in a way that's both laugh-out-loud hilarious and incredibly scary. After this, an incredibly cool guitar solo begins wailing away in an incredibly awesome, intense manner. This eventually leads into the sound of blowing winds, which leads us into, what do ya know, "A Pillow of Winds".
       "Pillow" is a dull, overlong acoustic ballad, the likes of which had been done to death by Floyd at this point. Yawn. This leads into "Fearless", yet another overlong acoustic ballad, but this one's actually pretty decent! It's got a good riff, the chants at the end are cool...yeah, I don't mind it.
       I don't mind "San Tropez" either! I know I'm supposed to hate it and call it a dumb British riff on Jimmy Buffet-esque island music, but...come on, it's fun! And it's catchy! And it's short! So why do people hate on it so much? I dunno.
       Same goes for "Seamus", a funny little blues song that features a howling dog on lead vocals. Yeah, sure, it's goofy, but I really don't think it hurts the album at all. So there.
       And then we hit it, oh yeah, the big one -- the side-long "Echoes". I don't find it to be the Floyd's crowning moment or anything, but I do think that it's definitely one of their best songs. In my Floyd top 10, definitely. But anyways, it starts off with this pinging sonar noise that gradually leads into the mellow, soothing main section of the song. The vocal melody here is quite good, as is that neat, passionate guitar riff that pops up after every stanza. After this comes the universally praised "jam" session, which absolutely puts anything like "Any Colour You Like" to shame. Fantastic playing from all members of the band here, and the whole thing is just absolutely aces. Awesome.
       Sadly, after this we go into my least favorite part of the song, the sound collage. As far as sound collages go, it's...alright, but I still think that the band probably could have come up with something better to fill in this part of the song. But who cares, because after a few minutes of this we go back into a reprise of the triumphant main section! Woo hoo!
       When all is said and done, this is undoubtedly the best thing the band had done since Syd left. There's only a bit of filler, and the whole thing flows quite well. It would be bested slightly by the band's next release, but nevertheless, Meddle is still a very enjoyable listen. Highly recommended for anyone who's already familiarized themselves with the band's greatest (and more famous) works.

Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Rating: 11
"The memories of a man in his old age / Are the deeds of a man in his prime"
Best Song: Wot's... Uh the Deal? or Mudmen
Worst Song: Everything is pretty much equal

       Hey, not bad! It's not a classic or anything, but this shows the Gilmour/Waters-led band at their pre-Dark Side best. The boring acoustic ballads are gone, Gilmour's guitar playing has fully morphed into its most famous form, and for once, the band made an album with no lengthy wank-a-thons. The longest thing on here is about five minutes, and given that I haven't really been thrilled with any of Floyd's previous lengthy pieces (the awesome parts of "Echoes" notwithstanding), I definitely feel like this is a good thing.
       As for the contents of the album, it's yet another soundtrack for yet another French film entitled La VallĂ©e (Translation: The Valley), which was directed by the same guy who directed More. Even more important than that, however, is the fact that this album was developed at the same time as another little album you may have heard of entitled The Dark Side of the Moon. And in all honesty, these songs aren't that much worse than the songs on there. But as I'm sure you know, the crystal-clear production, sound effects, and lyrics are just as important as the actual songs on Dark Side, and this album has absolutely none of that.
       That's not to say that this isn't a worthy album, though. No, any fan of Floyd's later works most definitely needs to hear this -- heck, I'd call it the unofficial start of the band's "classic period". 
       But sadly, the album doesn't exactly start with a bang. No, it starts with more of a whimper. The title track is a three minute instrumental that essentially goes nowhere. It's just this repetitive, keyboard heavy pseudo-jam that builds and builds ends. Yeah. Not the most exciting piece of music. 
       The title track then leads into another instrumental, the bizarre "When You're In". The piece sounds like a cross between an Indian war chant and a glam rock stomper (think a really slowed-down "Suffragette City"), and the overall effect of having a song that sounds like THAT be a two-minute instrumental is...quite strange, to say the least. Still, it doesn't really bother me, and it probably works perfectly in the movie, but on here? Not so much.
       But hey, after those two downers, it's pretty great! Following "When You're In" is "Burning Bridges", an excellent combo of the band's previous folk stylings ("Fearless", "Grantchester Meadows") with the lush, jazzy style of Dark Side tracks like "Breathe (In the Air)". It's not a classic, but it's short, pretty, and blows the band's previous folk songs out of the water. 
       Speaking of folk songs, there's also the brilliant "Wot's... Uh the Deal?" (what a weird title). To me it sounds more like a neo-traditionalist country ballad than a folk song, but whatever the case, it's got one of the band's prettiest melodies ever going for it, as well as a beautiful acoustic backing, so if that's not enough for you, I don't know what would be. I'm serious, folks, this is "Wish You Were Here" territory. Just listen to those breathtaking harmonies! And that piano solo! Ah, as far as "peaceful" forms of acoustic music go, it doesn't get much better than this.
       But for those of you who prefer your music with a little more grit to it, not to worry! "The Gold It's In the..." (again, weird title) features Gilmour's take on traditional hard rock, and when I say "hard rock", I mean it -- this is White Album territory. Heck, it's close to Exile on Main St.. Of course, it's no "Helter Skelter" or "Soul Survivor", but's not bad. The riffage and soloing is quite excellent, and the rhythm section is no slouch either. The melody's even pretty great. No, the main problem with the song is that Gilmour just can't sing this kind of music. In Mick Jagger or John Lennon's hands, this could be a minor classic, but here? Eh, it's pretty good.
       My favorite bit of the album, however, is most definitely the duo of "Mudmen" and "Childhood's End". "Why," you ask? Simple -- it's obvious that these two songs are DEFINITELY the starting place for "Time" on the next album. And being as I love "Time" to should be obvious why I like these two so much.
       The best of the two is definitely "Mudmen", as it essentially takes the intro to "Time" (the part with the keyboard tinklings and guitar lines, not the clock part) and stretches it out to 4 minutes. Again, since the production isn't nearly up to the standards of Dark Side, the song isn't better than the intro itself, but still -- it's definitely quite good. Gilmour gets to let loose quite a bit here, and I must admit...there are several really cool sections that definitely allow for some good 'ol fashioned air guitar and grimacing at the sky. Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course.
       However, if "Mudmen" was pretty obviously a precursor to "Time", then "Childhood's End" is extremely obviously one.  I mean, come on, it opens with the EXACT SAME "tick-tock" sound effect that "Time" does! And the main portion of the song consists of Gilmour singing over a jazzy funk background, complete with guitar riffage identical to that found on "Time". Heck, at times it even reminds me of "Any Colour You Like". Of course, the vocal melody isn't as good as the one on "Time" (but what vocal melody is?), but it's still a rewarding listen, and one that I enjoy freely.
       "Free Four" is often cited as a highlight of the album, but I've never really been too sure as to why. Sure, I love the ironic effect of having some of Roger's most depressing lyrics ever (now THAT'S saying something) sung over a cheery, acoustic pop song (complete with handclaps!), but the song itself has never really stood out to me. Sure, I guess it's catchy and pleasant and all, but eh...not a highlight, to my ears. Still a fun little number, though. 
       The album closes with the dark, moody "Absolutely Curtains". I could see someone really hating this one, but I me, it sounds like a three minute version of the last minute of The Beatles' "Long, Long, Long", and being as I adore that portion of the song, I naturally like this quite a bit. The eerie synths, the rolling drums -- this is a genuinely creepy song! Of course, the last two minutes are just an African tribe singing something, but eh, it doesn't detract from the song too much. That's what the "stop" button is for, eh? (Oh, and if Peter Gabriel didn't have this song in mind when he made "Biko", I'd be shocked)
       To be honest, I actually enjoy this album quite a bit more than Meddle. Heck, I'm really close to bumping it up to a 12, but there's one simple problem -- there really isn't anything that I would consider "classic" on this record. "Mudmen" and "Wot's...Uh the Deal" come close, but still...I just can't give it a 12 in good conscience. But it's a really high 11! 

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