Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pink Floyd, Part 1

Pink Floyd - Complete Discography - Part 1

Top 10 Albums
1) Dark Side of the Moon
2) The Wall
3) Animals
4) Wish You Were Here
5) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
6) Obscured by Clouds
7) Meddle
8) The Division Bell
9) The Final Cut
10) Atom Heart Mother

       I'm not even gonna try and describe Pink Floyd. Much like The Beatles, the band has been talked about SOOOO much that I can't really add anything worth saying (on a macro level, at least). Personally? I LOVE the 70s band. The 60s and 80s iterations? Psh. Sure, okay, okay, Piper is quite good, but everything else? There really isn't much that I find essential in those two eras.
       But in the 70s? Oh man, these guys were geniuses. Sure, on a basic level the songs weren't THAT much better than the ones they wrote in the late 60s, but the key thing that the band learned in this period was that merely decent songs can be turned into AMAZING ones simply by the way that they're presented. And in their glory days, no one could present a song better than the Floyd.
       The concepts, the album art, the sound effects, the instrumentation, the production -- every album from Dark Side to The Wall works perfectly in this regard. And while they're normally lambasted to some degree, I actually find Roger's lyric-writing skills to be quite solid. Sure, he was better at ideas, allegories, and concepts than literal lyrics, but usually these concepts were strong enough to hold the albums up perfectly well on their own, despite the somewhat lifeless form in which his lyrics usually take shape.
       At their peak, Pink Floyd were one of the few classic rock bands (in my opinion, anyway) that could truly (this is going to sound so cheesy) motivate both your brain as well as your heart. Again, that sounds horrible, but it's true -- these guys were brilliant when it came to combining more "intelligent" forms of music (prog, jazz) with more "emotional" forms of music (gospel, country/folk, and arguably funk). I'll expound more on this in the individual reviews, but this is really one of the defining features of the band to my ears, and also the reason why I like them so much.
       But the rest of the time? Egh. Again, the debut is quite good, albeit a bit overrated, and easily one of the most unique albums I've ever heard (that's both a compliment and a con), but I really don't think that the band could have ever reached the heights that it did had it remained a Syd Barrett-led affair. 
       Speaking of Syd, I think that he's hailed as a musical genius WAY too often in the world of rock criticism. Yes, it's sad that a man with some degree of talent essentially self-destructed thanks to mental problems and chronic drug abuse, but still -- there's no reason for him to be hailed as some long lost musical god. He was creative and could write a decent melody, that's true, but still...I don't think he could have created a Dark Side of the Moon.
       Continuing down that line of thought, to be completely honest with you, I think that if anyone in the band was to have the title of "musical genius" bestowed upon them, it would have to be Roger. Yes, he was over-controlling. Yes, he wasn't the greatest melody-writer in the world. Yes, his bass-playing skills are somewhat limited. But as far as creating all-encompassing albums in the true sense of the word (that being a group of songs meant to be played together, as opposed to a collection of random songs on a disc), the Roger Waters of the mid-1970s simply cannot be beat.
       Of course, there's also David Gilmour, a guitarist who I feel completely "meh" about. I LOVE some of the stuff that he plays ("Time" stands out in that regard), but it always feels like I'm marveling more at WHAT he's playing than HOW he's playing it. When I think of great guitarists, I don't think of David Gilmour, that's for sure, but I still can't help but respect a great deal of what he plays. He's an average guitarist who has just so happened to be blessed with above-average material.
       And then you have Nick Mason on the drums and Rick Wright on the keys. They're fine, I suppose, but neither of them has ever done anything that sticks out in my mind very strongly. But then again, they do work fine in context, so I have no problems with them. Anyhow, I think I've said all I have to say -- let us begin.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Rating: 12
"Lime and limpid green, a second scene / A fight between the blue you once knew"
Best Song: Astronomy Domine
Worst Song: Chapter 24

       Yes, it's just as unpredictable and weird as you've always heard. The only album where Syd was the sole leader of the man, the majority of Piper strikes an extremely eerie combination of children's nursery rhymes with dark, spacey psychedelic rock. This combo makes for a listen that is both frightening and innocent, and this juxtaposition is one of the coolest things about the record.
       But it's most certainly not the only cool thing -- another amazing facet of Syd is that his style of guitar playing is unmatched; not unmatched in the talent that it takes to play like he does, no, it's in that no one had ever played like him before. It's completely frenetic and chaotic, but it never sounds like he's just making noise for the sake of noise...well, except for parts of "Interstellar Overdrive", but you get my point.
       Heck, at times, the guitar parts actually save otherwise mediocre songs. Take Roger Waters' first-ever composition "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk", for example. Without the amazing guitar-led jam that takes up the middle section of the song, it'd be...well, it'd be hilariously awful. But hey, the parts of the song that aren't the jam are already hilariously awful, so what does it matter? Yeah, by all means I should hate it, but it's just so dumb that it works somehow. It also doesn't help that the vocal melody is actually somewhat catchy. Oh, and don't you just love those harmonies on the "Realize! Realize! Realize! ReeeeaaaaaLLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIZZZEEEEEEE!!!!!!" part at the end?
       The aforementioned "Interstellar Overdrive" is a ten-minute instrumental, and while it doesn't keep my attention for all of its running time, it sure does keep my attention for a good bit of it. The best way I can describe the song is that it basically sounds like a surf-rock song being performed by aliens. (I'm sure that Syd would be very pleased with that consensus) The main "Misirlou"-esque riff is fabulous, and the improvisational bits are just as cool and unpredictable as I'm sure the band meant for them to be to be. Good track, this one.
       Another space-rocker, and my personal favorite, is the album's first track "Astronomy Domine". Everything just fits together PERFECTLY here -- the haunting harmonies, the unsettling astronaut voices, those bizarre organ all works like a charm. And heck, even the nonsensical lyrics (the quote in the rating section is from this song) work perfectly in context! Frighteningly good. Literally.
       Ah, but not everything on the album is a jam-heavy, scary space-rock epic! No, a good half of the album is dedicated to Syd's other genre of choice -- ...demented (yet extremely melodic and catchy) children's nursery rhymes. And yes, these sound just as odd in practice as they do in my explanation. But somehow, against all odds, they WORK. Quite well, in some cases.
      "Matilda Mother" is probably my personal favorite of these, with some really clever lyrics about bedtime stories coupled with a BRILLIANT melody in the verses. The hook during that "There was a king who ruled the land / His majesty was in command" is particularly memorable. I'm not so enthralled with the bridge (even though those high-pitched yelps of "Waiitiiiiiingg!!!!" are rather entertaining), but that's a relatively small portion of the song, so it doesn't really hurt it in any way.
       "The Gnome" is another one of these sorts of songs, but this one's really creepy. On the surface, it's completely harmless -- the lyrics are a completely innocuous little story about a gnome named Grimble Gromble. However, the WAY that Syd sings them is positively disturbing. Anyone who's heard that whispered, echoed "Look at the sky, look at the river / Isn't it good?" line knows EXACTLY what I'm talking about.
       There's also "Flaming", a little ditty about hide-and-seek which completely passes me by, save that ridiculously catchy "Yippee! Ya can't see me!" hook. Same goes for "The Scarecrow", which is pleasant, but also quite mediocre.
       The only song here that truly crosses the line to bad for me has to be the droning "Chapter 24", an Eastern-tinged translation of the I Ching that bores me to tears every time I give it a listen. Why did the slowest song have to get the most boring melody? Why, Syd, WHY?!?
       Thankfully, though, the album ends on a very high note with the simply BIZARRE love song "Bike". Its lyrics essentially feature Syd attempting to impress this girl by showing her his bike...and some mice...and some gingerbread men...and other various...erm..."niceties". But the whole thing is set to a BRILLIANT melody, and oh, isn't that gunshot-sounding "*BANG*BANG*" sound effect in the chorus perfect? I can't think of another thing on the album that captures its overall spirit more perfectly -- a completely out of place, frightening-as-heck sound effect in the middle of an innocent, sweet love song.
       You need to hear this album. There's simply nothing else out there like it. Sure, yeah, there's a bit of filler (I forgot to mention the awful instrumental "Pow R. Toc H.", which wallows around in stupidity for three minutes), but there are also a lot of classics on here too. Plus, any classic rock buff worth his salt simply MUST hear this style. This is psychedelia taken to a WHOLE 'nother level. Even at their trippiest, The Beatles never even came close to being this weird. Unique, revolutionary, and imminently listenable -- there's a combination I can get behind.

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Rating: 8
"Little by little / The night turns around..."
Best Song: Corporal Clegg
Worst Song: See-Saw, I guess

       Well, Syd's antics were finally too much for the band -- after one ridiculous act too many, the other guys kicked him out. Ultimately, this was the for the best, as one can easily see that Syd's talent was on its way out, but nevertheless this would COMPLETELY change the band's direction from here on out.
       It should also be mentioned that Syd was replaced by his good college friend David Gilmour, a name you just might have heard of. My thoughts on Gilmour can be found in the introduction, but as far as comparing him to Syd goes...I think he was really a better fit for the direction the rest of the band was wanting to head in.
       And what was this direction you ask? Moody mellowness! Y'know, Dark Side, Meddle, Wish You Were Here -- none of these contain anything resembling the chaotic, bizarre writing style of Syd Barrett. Now, this style definitely didn't fit Syd's voice OR his guitar playing, but David Gilmour fits it to a tee. His soft, folky tones blend perfectly with the soothing, jazzy direction the band would eventually take. 
       But don't think that this album is anything close to any of those soft, moody ones that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. No, it would take some time for the band to get completely in that style. However, the groundwork for the kind of music found in those albums can definitely be found here -- take Roger's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", for instance. It's a dark, droning piece that just sorta floats around all meditatively for a good 5 minutes. Is it a great song? Most certainly not. BUT, it's definitely moody, and for a band that would eventually make some of the greatest mood songs of all time, it's an important starting place. And it works good as a chill-out tune, too.
       Also in this dark, moody style is Rick Wright's "Remember a Day", a slide-guitar led piece with an interestingly Egyptian-tinged melody. Much like "Set the Controls", it's not a classic, but the melody is catchy, and yet again, it works well as a soothing agent. 
       So, you're probably imagining in your head right now that this is a relaxingly ethereal album, one that you could use as background music, or as an insomnia aid, or whatever. Almost a lesser version of Before and After Science, if you will. Yeah, that's not the case. 
       While the aforementioned two songs most certainly fit that bill, the rest of the material DEFINITELY does not. (Okay, maybe Rick's dull "See-Saw" kinda fits that description, but whatever. It's forgettable, anyway) The most famous piece from the album is deservedly the title track, a 12-minute sound collage...of sorts, and it's definitely not "relaxingly ethereal". It's supposed to be an aural depiction of a space battle, but that's a bit of a stretch. Here's what it sounds like to me: a few minutes of directionless, "spacey" noises and keyboard sounds, a few minutes of Nick Mason going to town on his drum set while directionless, "spacey" noises and keyboard sounds are layered over it (but this time in an aggressive, frightening way), and then some really awesome organ chords and choral vocals. So...yeah.
       I get it, it's supposed to be revolutionary,, as far as noise/sound collages go, I'd take "Revolution #9" or "L.A. Blues" over this any day. But I must admit, the final few minutes, what with the choir and such, is really quite nice. Of course, The Flaming Lips would essentially condense this into its own standalone song 40 years later with "Gemini Syringes", and I still think that the F'Lips song is better than this. But eh, it's a least a little interesting...even if I'll probably never ever have the urge to hear it again. (Seek out the live version on Ummagumma to see just how good this song could actually be)
       Also noteworthy is the album opener, "Let There Be More Light". It starts out as a dumb (but enjoyable) ripoff of The Doors' "Break On Through", but after a few minutes the main body of the song begins. It's essentially a Piper-esque space-rock song, and while it's not quite as good as something like "Astronomy Domine", it's not too far behind!...Oh wait, no, it actually is, because instead of having the common sense to cut the song off at its logical end, the band decided to throw in David Gilmour's very first guitar solo. Yes, this is a jam by early-period Pink Floyd, and yes, it is truly horrible. Really bad. Oh yeah. But the rest of the song's good, so cut it off after the 3.5 minute mark, mmkay?
       I don't really like this album. But then again, I don't hate it either. There really isn't anything on here that I love--HOLY CRAP I FORGOT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE BEST SONG EVER!
       "Corporal Clegg", another Waters addition, has to be one of the most horrible songs ever written. It is so, SO dumb that it works amazingly. Trust me, folks, as accidentally funny as "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" was, this thing's better. WAAAYYY better. There's a freakin' KAZOO solo, for crying out loud! No, wait, TWO KAZOO SOLOS! IT'S AN ANTI-WAR ROCKER WITH TWO KAZOO SOLOS!! Plus, it features the band doing all sorts of dumb cartoon voices, AND the melody's actually great! Seriously! It'll be stuck in your head for days!
       Anywho, as I was saying. With the obvious exception of "Corporal Clegg", there really isn't anything here that I love. Then again, there aren't many songs on here that I hate either. It just swirls around in slightly interesting mediocrity for 40 odd minutes. know what? Slightly interesting mediocrity, when filtered through a band as creative as these guys were in the late 60s, can be enjoyable! Of course, when you filter mediocrity through a band like...I dunno...late 80s Pink Floyd, it can become something truly awful, but we'll get there soon enough. If you really like Piper and other early stuff like Atom Heart Mother, go ahead and get this. It ain't a classic, but it's at least rather enjoyable. AND, it has "Corporal Clegg", so yeah, go ahead and boost that rating to a 15. 


Ummagumma (1969)
Rating: 7
"*pretentious noodling*"
Best Song: A Saucerful of Secrets
Worst Song: Sysyphus

After releasing a few albums where he had little to no input, Richard Wright approached the band and said that he wanted to make "real music", whatever that means. After hearing this, the band decided that for their next album, they would split up and work separately. Thus, they created a studio album with four clearly defined sections, one for every band member.  After making this studio LP, they also decided to throw in a live disc as well, thus making this their first double album.                              
       We'll get to the live album in a bit, but for starters, allow me to expound upon you the merits of the studio album...oh wait, there are none. "Sysyphus" (Rick's song) is weird, boring noise with keyboards, "The Narrow Way" (Dave's song) is weird, boring noise with guitars, "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" (Nick's song) is a drum solo with a woman playing flute over it, "Grantchester Meadows" (Roger's first song) is a dull folk song, and "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" (Roger's other song) is nothing but a bunch of chipmunk noises for five minutes.
       If you can't tell, the studio album is EASILY the second worst disc in the band's catalog (obviously, the worst is A Momentary Lapse of Reason). I can find no reason for anyone to ever seek it out, and I will never, ever be revisiting again. In case you can't tell, I do not enjoy it in the slightest.
       Sure, okay, maybe some parts are decent, but listening to all of that meaningless, atonal drivel for 40 straight minutes is pure agony, to my ears. So then, why in the heck do I give this thing a 7? Well, the live half is pretty great, actually.
       The first track, "Astronomy Domine", works just fine, if not a bit worse than the studio version. I sure do miss those perfect harmonies and sound effects...but hey, the studio version didn't have the cool, eerie middle section where the band breaks apart save for Rick's organ, only to come busting back in a few moments later. Great effect, that one.
       But if it's a great effect that you want, you'll get your kicks from the AMAAAAAZING rendition of "Careful with that Axe, Eugene". It starts off as a slow space-rock jam that just keeps building and building....soft drumming, ominous whispering, frightening organ just goes on and on, the intensity rising over time....and it rises....and rises....and then it starts to get louder. Just a little. And then the scream hits. And when I say "scream", I don't mean "Aaahhh!". I mean "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!
       After the big release, the song turns into a great, rocking jam section, filled with great drum fills and guitar riffs. And then it slowwwwwly makes its way back down to where it started from. If there's anything truly essentially on Ummagumma, "Careful with that Axe, Eugene" is it...
       ...or maybe not. After those two, we get renditions of "A Saucerful of Secrets" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and you may be surprised to know that for whatever reason, I really love this rendition of "A Saucerful of Secrets". Okay, I'm still not too crazy about the "battle" section (but heck, even that part sounds pretty good in this format; the effects Dave gets out of his guitar are quite cool), but the last half of the song? Geez, that's the most epic, awe-inspiring that the Floyd had done up until this point. Heck, the most epic, awe-inspiring thing they'd do until "Echoes"! It really is that good...somehow. The keyboard chords, the omnious, wordless vocalizations, the rolling bass lines -- it works really, really well at being really, really anthemic. The closest comparison I can make would be the "Würm" coda to "Starship Trooper" by Yes, and trust me -- that is very high praise coming from me. I'm not a big Yes fan, but MAN, I love that coda. And yes, I love this song. This version of the song, anyway.
       As for "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"? Eh, it's a bit better than the studio version, but there's still no reason for it to go on for NINE MINUTES. Still though, I like how it's slightly sped up from the studio version, and the mood it creates works out alright, so I can tolerate listening to it...for about five minutes or so.
       So there you have it -- a little of it's really great, a little of it's decent, and most of it's bad. If the live version was sold separately, I would be able to recommend it quite heartily -- it'd get an 11, or maybe even a 12. But as it is? Man, I can't find a single positive thing to say about the studio disc.  Unmelodic weirdness for the sake of weirdness, that's what it is. Approach with caution...the studio stuff, anyway.

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