Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pink Floyd- The Piper at The Gates of Dawn

Pink Floyd- The Piper At the Gates of Dawn: Released in 1967 for Columbia Records
Best Song- Astronomy Domine

In the beginning...
In 1963, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Keith Noble, Clive Metcalfe, and Sheliagh Noble formed a sextet entitled Sigma 6. The band changed their name to The Meggadeaths (No relation to Megadeth), the Abdabs (No relation to the dab), the Screaming Abdabs, Leonard's Lodgers, and The Spectrum Five, before settling on The Tea Set. Metcalfe and the Nobles left the band, with Chris Dennis becoming the new lead singer, and Bob Klose and Syd Barrett added on guitar. Richard Wright played keys, Roger played bass, and Nick played the drums. Dennis and Klose left in 1965, so Syd Barrett took vocal and guitar duties, in a band now known as the Pink Floyd Sound, then just Pink Floyd. The lineup stabilized as Syd Barrett on vocals and guitar, Roger Waters on bass, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Nick Mason on drums. The band played R&B covers at the time (Yes, PINK FLOYD did R&B) but by 1966, they started composing originals, with a much more psychedelic sound.

In 1967, the band signed with Columbia Records. After releasing two hit singles ("Arnold Layne", and "See Emily Play") they went into EMI Studios and recorded their first album, produced by Norman Smith, which is the topic of today's review.

For those of you who know of Pink Floyd for their classic progressive rock albums, such as The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, you'd definitely be shocked to find that this album consists of straight-forward, spacey psychedelic rock. This is due to the influence of Syd Barrett, who wrote every song on this album, except "Take Up Thy Stethescope and Walk" (What a delightful title) written by Roger. And for those of you who know them for angsty lyrics like "All you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be", you'd be shocked to find the lyrics of this album are mostly in the vein of "I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like" or "That cat did something I can't explain".

Okay, enough of that, time for the quality. Well... it's patchy. There's a lot of good stuff, but lots of weaker, more fillerish stuff. Oh well, everyone's gotta start somewhere. Syd Barrett has a great guitar style, and Richard Wright is already an excellent keyboardist. Syd's singing isn't the best, but it isn't bad, and his voice mixes with Richard Wright's very well.

The album actually gets off to a great start. We start off with the fan favorite and live staple "Astronomy Domine". The opening radio transmissions (Provided by manager Peter Jenner) do a great job of building tension, which then leads into a great, menacing four-note riff, before we go into the main song itself, driven by great chugging guitar lines, Syd Barrett and Richard Wright's harmonised singing, and powerful drumming. After a verse, we go into a bridge, with a cool, spacey descending guitar line leading the way. Then, when you would expect another verse to come in, we instead go into an instrumental jam, with some more cool guitar sounds, a ripping, spacey guitar solo with tons of cool sounds in the background, before we go back into the main verse, which finally slows down into a effective resolution. A great start to the album. 

Next up on the agenda is "Lucifer Sam", which is about a cat (Yes, they did a song about a cat) and it comes very close, but doesn't quite reach the level of "Domine".  It is driven by a AWESOME descending guitar riff which almost sounds like something out of James Bond, backed by Syd's menacing vocals, WICKED percussion and bass effects. We then go into a VERY cool bowed bass (!) solo, before more repititions of the verse.  It could be a bit longer, and the chorus is kinda dumb, but oh well.

Next is another Wright/Barrett duet, "Mathilda Mother", a song about a mother reading fairy tales to her kid. (Reminder that this song was made by Pink Floyd) The verses are led by a great, hypnotic organ theme, with Wright's affected vocals on top. The chorus is more upbeat, with a great repeating guitar line joining Syd and Rick's pleasant harmonised vocals. There's also a cool, heavily distorted organ solo. We end with some trippy harmonising. Another good song. 

"Flaming" is up next. While it might come as a tremendous shock to hear the band sing "watching buttercups come to life" or "Sitting on a unicorn" the song itself is good, driven by a driving organ theme, with upbeat drumming in the background, which then goes into a more pleasant chorus, driven by a nice upbeat guitar line and cool sound effects in the background. A nice slow organ solo follows, with more wacky sound effects, with some great piano and guitar parts, before the chorus again. 

So far, we have what seems like a 5/5 album. Great songs wall-to wall, even if there's significant unintentional comedy value from the lyrics. Unfortunately, the album gets much patchier from here on out. The first sign of trouble comes in "Pow R. Toc H.". The "song" if you can call it that, is essentially just Roger and Syd making tons of dumb sounds which almost remind me of kids imitating monkeys at the zoo, and there's almost no coherency to the melody either.  A pleasant enough piano solo in between the tomfoolery, and the ending's nice, but that's the only redeeming quality. A disaster of a song.

Thankfully, the next song is better. "Take Up Thy Stethescope and Walk" is penned and sung by Roger Waters, the only song on the album to be that way. His voice is completely different from the one we know, sounding almost exactly like Syd. It starts off with powerful drumming over which Roger sings stupid lyrics, but what really makes the song great is that soon turns into a WILD jam, with KILLER, super fast organ soloing from Rick and CRAZY guitar soloing from Syd. This jam only lasts 2 minutes or so, but it could last much longer. We end with a reprise of the opening melody. A great song that eases the pain from the terrible last track. 

Sadly, the next song is worse than even "Pow R. Toc H.". "Interstellar Overdrive" actually starts off great, with a cool descending guitar riff leading the way which turns into a great guitar led jam, with cool organ noises as well. That's the first 2 minutes. However, afterwards, it fades out, and the remaining eight minutes are just a meaning-less avant-garde jam with no rhyme, reason, or melody, just... noises. For EIGHT MINUTES. Why, Syd, why?

"The Gnome" comes next, a silly story about a Gnome. This song contains a pleasant enough acoustic guitar melody, as well as cool reverbed vocals in the "look at the sky... look at the river" section, but it's nothing special. At least it's better than "Interstellar Overdrive".

"Chapter 24" follows, with lyrics taken from I Ching (!). It's much better than the last two, with a hypnotic vocal performance by Syd Barrett being backed by equally hypnotic, lazy guitar and keyboard parts, which make this a great song to fall asleep to (That's not an insult), and the harmonies in the "sunrise, sunset" section are beautiful. Great organ soloing from Richard Wright as well, as well as a wonderful portion near the end where Syd and Rick alternate their pleasant vocals with a brilliant countermelody. A great song that eases the pain (Though "The Gnome" isn't really painful per se) of the last two. 

"Next up is another very short song, "The Scarecrow", which clocks in at a mere two minutes, about a Scarecrow (Another reminder that these are the men who made The Wall, sans one). It starts with a neat, easterny organ riff, which alternates with another passage featuring a great guitar riff, good singing from Syd, and nice harmonies joining in from time to time. A cool, high pitched organ solo follows, and then... nothing? After the solo there could easily be a few more choruses, but it trails off into nothingness, with no resolution at all! That kinda hampers my enjoyment of the song, but it's good while it lasts.

And then, there's "Bike", which ends the album on a VERY low note. The main melody and vocals are just STUPID, the backing instrumentals are almost non-exisistent at parts, the sound effects throughout are lame, the song somehow manages to be overlong and rambling despite being only two minutes long, and the remaining minute adds to the pain by just featuring a bunch of cartoony sound effects. A very low end to a quite patchy album.

Overall, this album is very inconsistent, with lots of weak songs, and some that are among their worst.  However, there's quite a few good ones, and a few that I love. However, there's still lots of bad, so a 3/5 seems in order. Get it for the good stuff, and skip the bad. Sadly, it wasn't until 1972 when they finally gained more consistency, patchiness abounds over the next few.

However, those next few albums would be missing a very crucial figure...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Rush- Hemispheres

Rush- Hemispheres: Released in 1978 for Mercury Records.
Favorite Song- Hemispheres.
A Farewell To Kings was a sizable hit for Rush, charting number 33 in the US and number 22 in the UK, definitely thanks to the success of the hit single "Closer to The Heart", which has become one of their signature songs. Riding the wave, Rush re-released their first three albums in the box set Archives, and toured relentlessly from September 1977 all the way through May of 1978. After the extensive tour came to an end, Rush went back into Rockfield Studios, under the wing of Terry Brown, to record their sixth album, Hemispheres. It continued the Farewell to Kings format of two epics book-ending shorter songs, and continues it's "Progressive hard rock" sound. However, while A Farewell to Kings featured 4 shorter songs, Hemispheres features just 2. The instrumentation, by this point, has become incredibly diverse, with Geddy playing bass, vocals, synth, (a Minimoog and Oberheim Polyphonic) and bass pedals, Alex playing electric, acoustic, and classical guitar, and synth, and Neil playing drums, glockenspiel, bell tree (!), bells, tympani, gong, cowbell, temple blocks (!), wind chimes, and crotales (!).

As for the album itself, it's just as good as the masterpieces that came before it, as Rush continues to stay at their peak. Geddy's voice is just as powerful and screamy as ever, and the instrumental machine is still crankin'. Synths continue to slowly creep into the bands sound, but they work, providing a solid backing for the main guitar parts. And the songs themselves are all astounding, ranging from great to masterpiece. 

The masterpiece comes from the title track, Rush's last side-long epic, and definitely the second best Rush song of all time, only behind "2112".  The story of the song is garbage,  and makes "2112" look like a masterpiece of fine literature. Here is is, as paraphrased from Wikipedia.

"Apollo represents the left hemisphere of the brain, Dionysus the right. They pull man in opposite directions, towards Order and Chaos, respectively. The debate between classical and romantic cultures is ongoing. The explorer from "Cygnus X-1" enters Olympus, frightened by the fighting, and is declared Cygnus, the God Of Balance. Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is quoted in the last few lines of the song"

Though the story might be just Greek God fanfiction, the song itself is a masterpiece. The song bursts out at you immediately, with the opening guitar cords of "Prelude" sure to blow out your speakers if you're not prepared. The melodies in this section are great. I really love the WICKED, super-menacing section near the start, as well as the relaxing, ambient guitar lines that are later featured in Parts II and III. All of the melodies eventually get reprised later in the song, a tradition of Rush's big epics. After 2 minutes, this section fades out, but a soft, synth driven part continues in the background, which sounds really nice, with some pretty good bass-lines. The guitar then enters, and goes into a section that reminds me of "Xanadu"  The vocals enter around the 3 minute mark, and they're incredible, with Geddy screeching out the lyrics like only he can.  The guitar lines in the background are also really good, with a nice chorus effect on them, a first for Rush. The section continues, with more great guitar and synth lines. This section then fades out, and you might think the song is over right there.

However, it's not the end, merely the beginning, as we go into the second part of the song, "Apollo: Bringer of Wisdom". This section is great, alternating between a hard-driving section and a slower, relaxing, pleasant section, with a nice guitar melody with a neat chorus effect. Both sections are great, and the transition is seamless. We then go into the next part of the song, which reprises the basic melody of the lyrical part of Prelude, and it's just as great here as there. The vocals are also really good here. The guitar solo in this part is great too, bordering on shredding, but it doesn't sound excessive, more fitting in with the song, and not "Look at me, I can play guitar really fast". 

We then go into the third part of the song, "Dionysus: Bringer Of Love". This section has the same basic melody as Part II, and it's just as great here as there. Afterwards, things get much more menacing, as we head into the fourth part, "Armageddon: The Battle of Heart and Mind". The guitar riffing in this section is KILLER, especially the arpeggio lines early on, the pleasant synth lines provide some nice accompaniment and contrast, and Geddy's forceful singing complements it perfectly. We then go into a more upbeat section, which is also really good, with more great melodies (with a reprisal of the Cygnus X-1 theme at one point) and singing (I love the way he sings "Spiraled through that timeless SPACE, into THIS! IMMORTAL!  PLAAAACE!"). 

However, as great as these parts are, they simply can't compare to the centerpiece of the song, the beyond amazing "Cygnus: Bringer of Balance". All of the instruments cut out, leaving just some STUNNING, eerie beyond belief, and WONDERFULLY ATMOSPHERIC synth lines. The vocals then enter, with an INCREDIBLE sounding, otherworldy effect put on them, and the soft vocal lines add to that effect perfectly. We then go back into a reprise of the Prelude, with Geddy singing tons of REALLY POWERFUL vocal lines. Then comes a cool guitar solo, and then, a reprise of another part of "Apollo/Dionysis", another great instrumental section, and a "big rock ending". Wow!

We finally close out with an acoustic outro, "The Sphere: A Kind Of Dream". And it's beautiful,  driven by some wonderful soft vocals and pleasant guitar lines, even if it feels a bit tacked-on. Also, I know I don't care much about lyrics, but I have to say that the lyrics in this section are GREAT. A nice end to a masterwork of music. 

The other songs are no slouch, however. The riff-rock of "Circumstances" is up next, and it's another strong track, driven by 2 great guitar riffs (Yay!) over which Geddy sings some of the most feminine-sounding vocals he would ever do, as well as more powerful, strong screeches in the chorus, with great vibrato. The instrumental section is great too, driven by some pleasant bell and synth parts, before going into a heavier section, which also sounds great, with great guitar lines. 

The mega-hit of the album, of course, is "The Trees". Part of the song's fame, of course, comes from the ambiguity of the lyrics. Is it an unironic tale of trees arguing, stupid as it sounds, or an allegory for Communism? The choice is yours. Personally, I lead towards the former, as Neil said it himself, and I believe his word. Sure, it's kinda strange, but if Bowie could write a song about his girlfriend crawling into a TV, and if Led Zeppelin could write songs about Lord of the Rings, then why can't Rush write a song about trees arguing? Lyrics aside, the song is a wonderful one. The song starts off with a pretty acoustic intro, with Geddy doing some very low vocals. The song then BLASTS out into a heavier section, with great guitars and vocals. The instrumental section is nice too, starting with some neat quiet guitar, synth, and bells, with some cool synth-bass bursts as well, then shifts into a more uptempo section driven by a great riff, powerful drums, and nice bass. It goes back into a heavier section, with nice bell breaks, and more excellent guitar, before going back to the main song. The ending is awesome as well. ("BY HATCHET. AX. AND SAW!").

We close things out with Rush's first instrumental, and one of their most well-known, "La Villa Strangiato", based on a dream of Alex. It's definitely Rush's most complex, going through 12 different sections in 9 minutes (Some only 10 seconds long!). We start with "Buenas Noches, Mein Froinds", which is a neat, Spanishy acoustic intro. "To Sleep, Perchance To Dream", starts with a neat repeated guitar sequence, with fat synths and bells, and it's good, even if it sounds a bit cartoonish. Neil also plays some cool drums in the background. The song builds in intensity, building more and more tension as all the instruments get louder and louder, before going into the main section of the part, "Strangiato Theme". Driven by a wonderful guitar riff, great synth lines, and powerful drums, with two cool guitar solos as well. "A Lerxst In Wonderland" follows, driven by a drum beat over which Lifeson plays some REALLY cool spacey guitar, which leads into a cool, shredding solo, before going into another laid back section, with some very fat, bassy synths leading the way. 

Lifeson's guitar then BURSTS out, as we then head into "Monsters!". This section has a fast, powerful riff, which was actually ripped off of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" (Which you may know from Looney Tunes). "The Ghost Of Aragon" comes next, which begins the jam section of the song, with great guitar, drums, and bass, all playing off of each-other to create tons of cool sounds. "Danforth And Pape" continues the jam, with more guitar, bass, and drum interplay, with all doing tons of WILD soloing. "The Waltz of The Shreves" (What a delightful name) is a waltz, and features one killer riff after another, "Never Turn Your Back On A Monster!" is a slow reprise of the "Powerhouse" riff, which is then reprised in the fittingly titled "Monsters Reprise". We finally close out with a reprise of the main Strangiato theme, fittingly titled "Strangiato Theme Reprise" (How creative), before "A Farewell To Things" sends us out with a reprise of the Monsters riff. Overall, a great, VERY complex instrumental, though "YYZ" is better.

Overall, another fantastic album from everyone's favorite Canadian rock band (Sorry, Nickelback). Great songs, great instrumentals, great singing, what more do you want? Despite the success of "The Trees", the album only charted number 47 in the US, though it made 14 in the UK and has since been regarded as one of their best. It definitely deserves it. 5/5.