The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright (Revisited)

RW

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).

It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.

To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.

About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.

Perhaps his ultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.

Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.

R.I.P, Rick: (28 July 1943 – 15 September 2008)

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The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright (Revisited)

rick-wright

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).

It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.

To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.

About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.

Perhaps his ultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.

Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.

R.I.P, Rick: (28 July 1943 – 15 September 2008)

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #4 (Revisited)

4. Pink Floyd, More (1969)

Here’s another one that may not be accused of sucking so much as not being acknowledged at all which, we should agree, is even worse. This is the single entry in the Pink Floyd catalog that might have fared better if it was not associated with the band. If More, incidental music for a film no one seems to have seen, was created by an obscure, one-and-done band, it would have turned up, by now, in some list as the great, lost psychedelic soundtrack. In reality, it is an egregiously overlooked gem somewhat understandably lost in the vault of treasures the group made before, and after it.

From a purely historical perspective, More is an important album as it illustrates an evolution of the “Floyd sound”. In particular, the interplay between guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Rick Wright, which had been perfected by the time Dark Side of the Moon, and the masterpieces that followed, were made. The elements of (take your pick) psychedelia/space-rock/trippiness, executed with mixed results on A Saucerful of Secrets and their live sets of the time, abound but are sharpened by a less guarded (less calculated?) Gilmour, who liberally sprinkles in his blues roots and a rawer, less refined sound.

The album can be broken somewhat cleanly into two parts: the slower, acoustic pieces—mostly written by Roger Waters and sung by Gilmour—and the lucid, icy grandeur of the instrumentals. The acoustic tracks are worthwhile (particularly the hallucinogenic “Cirrus Minor” and “Green is the Colour”) but ultimately don’t rank with the band’s better work. It is the dream sequences, at once evocative and mesmerizing, that make More a crucial stepping stone in the Floyd aesthetic and an indelible album in its own right. If you take the laid back confidence of “More Blues” and combine it with the aggressive, almost abrasive energy of “Ibiza Bar” you can almost predict where Meddle came from. Likewise, Rick Wright’s uncanny ability to create mood is showcased on “Quicksilver”, which anticipates “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. On “Main Theme” and “Dramatic Theme”, Gilmour and Wright lock into a groove and Waters and Nick Mason flex some rhythmic muscle.

It is possible that Floyd would never sound this human again, and if they had to move on to bigger and better things (they did), there is sufficient evidence here that Floyd could balance raw and fresh and achieve a coolness without being chilly. Of course, no one could do light and dark with the dexterity of Floyd in their prime, and they make it sound easy here, perhaps because, for them, it was.

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Pink Floyd: The Prog Rock Archetype

It isn’t that Pink Floyd made some of the best albums of the ‘70s (they did), or that Pink Floyd moved the art form forward (they did); it’s that Pink Floyd did the impossible: they made music that can’t be marginalized, and more than any other band, brought progressive rock into the mainstream. This, along with the unparalleled streak of top tier albums they created, elevates them above all others as the prototypical and most significant prog band.

As much praise as the group rightly receives, they may not be fully appreciated for the ways they changed the future of music. The Dark Side of the Moon did for progressive music what Sgt. Pepper did for rock ‘n’ roll: elevating it from pop to art, and through one indelible and irrevocable triumph, granted authenticity—for all time—to an entire genre. It simply cannot be overstated how meaningful it was, and remains, that one of the best-selling and influential albums in history happens to be the apotheosis of prog rock’s canon. In short, Pink Floyd made it not only possible, but inevitable that other bands would attract more—and more serious—scrutiny, however much many of them suffered by comparison. (My album-by-album analysis of the band’s output can be found at “All Things Reconsidered: Why Not Pink Floyd?”, PopMatters, 11 November 2011.)

Needless to say, The Dark Side of the Moon did not arrive as an abrupt burst of brilliance (great art seldom does) so much as the end result of a long and at times excruciating process, a sort of prog rock apprenticeship. Casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made as many albums before The Dark Side of the Moon as they did after. Even more casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, before there was prog rock, there was psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) was, in its way, a Sgt. Pepper for the underground, and it remains the most fully realized expression of lysergic-laced pop whimsy: deeply surreal songs you can sing along with.

The initial high from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved short-lived as the band’s principal songwriter, troubled genius Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-induced breakdown. (Much more on Syd HERE.) His mate David Gilmour was hastily recruited and, at least at first, did his best Barrett impression. Suffice it to say, no one could—or would—have predicted Pink Floyd’s eventual breakthrough based on their early struggles. As a result of Barrett’s departure two crucial changes occurred: Waters gradually assumed chief lyrical responsibilities and Gilmour became the primary vocalist.

Getting from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Dark Side of the Moon required several years and several albums, none of which sounded especially alike—a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each release, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece that at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the prism in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (from A Saucerful of Secrets), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle).

Perhaps the single-most important song Floyd produced during the earliest stages of their extended transitional period is the title track from their second album. The ways in which “A Saucerful of Secrets” expanded and crystallized is documented on the live section from Ummagumma, as well as the definitive version, recorded for their movie Live at Pompeii. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as a major musical force within the group, forging—along with keyboardist Rick Wright- – an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound.

This performance, recorded just before the sessions for The Dark Side of the Moon commenced, is very much the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward, carving away at the stone with each successive effort. The pieces finally came together (or fell apart, if you like) in the form of “Echoes”, the song that officially ended their transition and prepared them to make their masterpiece.

But if “Echoes”, combined with the shorter, snappier (and raw, earthy) tunes from 1972’s Obscured By Clouds provides a blueprint for the sensibility they would sharpen in the service of The Dark Side of the Moon, it’s 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite” that epitomizes the extremes and excesses prog rock would embrace, for better or worse. Where King Crimson can, and should, be credited with creating prog rock’s first unfettered proclamation, In The Court of the Crimson King (1969), Pink Floyd can, and should, be credited—or rebuked—for dropping the first truly progressive side-long “suite” on Atom Heart Mother (1970).

After this one, all bets were off and for the better part of a decade, many bands—including Pink Floyd—attempted to refine and improve upon this opus. Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work to that point, clocking in at over 23 minutes, it remains the most blatantly uncommercial track from an album that reached number 1 in the UK.

Making use of a chorus, an orchestra, the band’s growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable élan concerning the art of the segue, Pink Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes. It remains an intriguing question whether or not “Atom Heart Mother” (the suite and the album) would enjoy a better reputation, or at least seem less pretentiously impenetrable for many fans, if the band has stuck with its working title, “The Amazing Pudding”, quite apropos for such a gloppy, sweet, not especially easy to digest jumble.

It’s not just that Pink Floyd did everything first, it’s just that they often did things bigger, and more convincingly. However much Emerson, Lake and Palmer was admired/eviscerated for their audacity, typified by the insufferably titled Works, wherein each player had his own “solo” side, Pink Floyd did the same thing (sort of) on Ummagumma. They were not the first, and certainly not the last band to lie down tracks occupying entire album sides, but they made it acceptable, even inevitable.

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by keeping invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in an airport. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers, and as the resulting records prove, they always put the music first.

Although they became hugely successful, Pink Floyd championed a type of integrity that seems uniquely associated with progressive rock: they never imitated anyone else or copied their own previous efforts. For Pink Floyd it was always about feeling and the evocation of a particular mood (the altered states in sound of “Quicksilver”; the solidarity of human voices, literally via the chanting football crowd in “Fearless”; the frenzy of modern travel/life  in “On the Run”; the almost inexpressible sorrow of loss and remembrance in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”).

It’s interesting: although a “faceless” band celebrated for their inimitable blend of complexity and precision, Pink Floyd endures as one of the more soulful bands of the ‘70s. For this we can thank Roger Waters, whose development as a lyricist is responsible for a body of work that holds its own against anyone else’s. With the possible exception of Peter Gabriel (with and without Genesis) no songwriter composed more sensitive yet compelling statements concerning the human condition.

From “If” to “Echoes”, then “Free Four” to everything through The Final Cut, Waters was rock music’s consummate psychologist, turning a keen (and increasingly wary) eye on Western culture. His calling card became a series of trenchant takes on the intersection between the personal and the political as they relate to a society turned sideways. His insights on the forces governing our affairs, be they corporate, military, nationalistic or religious, were fodder for some of the most engaging artistic reflections of our time.

Perhaps, when measuring the true scope of their import, it’s most instructive to consider the way Pink Floyd handled their post-The Dark Side of the Moon career. With the exception of “Money” there were no obvious or intentional attempts at a crossover song that might receive airplay. As phenomenal as they remain, it seems certain that “Wish You Were Here”, “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine” all became classic rock staples once Pink Floyd was already Pink Floyd. Or, these were the last three songs until The Wall sufficiently short to even get played on the radio.

Beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon and stretching through The Wall, Pink Floyd at once exemplified prog rock while transcending it. Every album was a perfect calculation; from the album art to the sequence of the songs, each entirely convincing on its own but an irreplaceable part of the whole. Again, considerable credit must be given to Waters who, through a tense combination of talent, ego and will, claimed ultimate control of the band’s direction. His acerbic personality and control freak tendencies took their toll, inexorably leading to his departure and one of rock music’s most bitter, protracted soap operas. But attention must be paid: his drive and vision demanded indelible work that may otherwise have been merely excellent.

A well-documented instance would be the two songs that served as prototypes for later masterpieces. “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta Be Crazy” were road-tested contenders for inclusion on The Dark Side of the Moon‘s follow-up. If the rest of the band had had their way, they would have comprised one side of the new album while “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” would have run, uninterrupted, on the other. Waters was not satisfied and, judging from the fascinating but far from flawless live versions, he was correct.

As a result, he busied himself on a set of new songs that became “Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here”—a triptych of disenchantment, alienation and bereavement that are crown jewels in the Pink Floyd canon. As important, the temporarily sidelined songs were refined and reworked into Waters’ most cohesive concept album, Animals. With major contributions from Wright and Gilmour, “Sheep” and especially “Dogs” represent some of the best work the band ever did.

It’s not, in sum, that Pink Floyd became the most visible and best band to carry the progressive rock banner (they were). It’s not that they sold the most albums (they did) and had the best album art (they did—R.I.P. Storm Thorgerson!). It’s that they provided cover, through their influence and example, for smaller, equally brave bands who sought to push past the tedious Top 40 boundaries. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten became the punk rock poet laureate, insolently scribbling “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. How much street cred would he have had sporting similar sentiment on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull t-shirt?

To this day any band, whether it’s The Flaming Lips, Bjork or Radiohead, who emphasize sound and feeling over accessibility, are in some way emulating the standard Pink Floyd set. The key to understanding Pink Floyd’s magnitude is that they made consistently challenging, progressive music, and still found an audience. Indeed, they did not find an audience so much as their audience found them. Pink Floyd was the first truly underground band to cultivate a sound too remarkable to remain obscured by clouds. They willed themselves to be consequential, and their eminence is undiminished today.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/171044-pink-floyd-the-prog-rock-archetype/

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The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright (Revisited)

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).

It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.

To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.

About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.

Perhaps his ultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.

Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.

R.I.P, Rick: (28 July 1943 – 15 September 2008)

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Got Floyd?

So…you may have heard that the Pink Floyd discography (all 14 albums, pictured above) is getting the remastered (or re-remastered or, if you really want to be technical re-re-remastered) treatment.

This time there is a campaign called “Why Pink Floyd?” (of which more later) and I’m equal parts honored and overwhelmed to be tackling the band’s studio output for an upcoming PopMatters feature. I’m doing my best not to turn it into a novella, but it’s difficult to address a career that spanned three decades and at least three major stylistic changes and keep it a one-trip-to-the-toilet endeavor.

While I was awaiting the bounty (all 14 albums, pictured above) to arrive in the mail, I was contacted by a reporter from  Época, a weekly magazine published in Brazil. My take on this “Why Pink Floyd?” matter was solicited and I was happy to provide it. Below are my answers (in English) followed by the article, which sadly appears to have only used one quote (unless, understandably, I could not find the full article on the site).

More (much more), coming soon. You’ve been warned. Welcome to the machine.

– Do you think this relaunch of the entire Pink Floyd catalog was necessary? Some people say that is just another way for the band to make some more money. I mean, if you already have those records, you should buy it again?

I think these questions come up fairly regularly, in part because at this point so many famous bands have had their catalogs remastered and revamped so many times. It’s fair to inquire whether or not this is the prototypical cash grab but I think the bottom line is that the consumers always determine if these decisions are wise or foolish. If there is demand for yet another reissue, the sales figures will speak for themselves. Put another way, for fans who are perfectly content with the albums/discs they already own, there is no pressure or obligation to shell out money this time around. On the other hand, certain bands have done an admirable job. The recent remastering of the Jimi Hendrix catalog was, to my mind, done exceptionally well: each album received enhanced audio fidelity, came with a bonus DVD and the price points were incredibly reasonable. Many of these classic rock bands have, at this point, a larger number of greatest hits collections than original albums, so if we get new editions with rare or unreleased tracks, that is usually enough to entice die-hard fans. With any release of existing material there is an implicit –and inevitable– message of Caveat emptor.

– This project can introduce Pink Floyd to a new generation of fans?

Of course it can. And since most of us would agree that Pink Floyd made some of the best and most important music in rock history, the endeavor is totally worthwhile if it introduces the band to a younger group of listeners. I never take for granted that there are possibly tons of people, even those familiar with Pink Floyd, who may not have heard Animals or even Wish You Were Here (not to mention the pre-Dark Side works). If this occasion tempts someone to discover those albums for the first time, it’s a victory all around, and that is much more important than the dollars and cents.

– Among the thousands of bootlegs and never issued music by the band, based in what are going to be released, do you believe it was a good selection?

I can’t comment on bootlegs, since that is such a controversial subject. It’s ultimately in the band’s discretion to decide which unreleased (or unauthorized) material they endorse. I do think the idea of a band opening up the vaults and making old (especially live) recordings available to the fans is a win/win: money can be generated and fans can get otherwise unavailable material that they are happy to pay for.

– In a few words, how can we explain the importance of the band for rock music?

Simply put: pound for pound Pink Floyd’s catalog of music rivals just about anyone else’s in terms of variety, quality and influence. They also made what may be the only flawless rock album in The Dark Side of the Moon.

– Pink Floyd have influenced a lot of artists. In today’s music, in which artists you can clearly identidy Floyd’s influence?

I think any band, whether it’s Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes or even Radiohead, who emphasize sound and feeling over accessibility, are in some way carrying the banner Floyd proudly waved during their prime. The key with Floyd is that they made consistently challenging and progressive music that still found an audience; it was seldom indulgent (at least until the end when Roger Waters took greater control of the sound and vision, to the music’s detriment) and never crass or commercial. Consider that, with a few exceptions, the bands’ faces were never on the covers of their albums: this was revolutionary in its way, and Floyd were perhaps the biggest band on the planet who, in their heyday, would not have been recognized in airports. That is the essence of integrity: they did not find an audience; the audience found them. I believe that Floyd was the first truly underground band who cultivated a sound that was too remarkable to remain obscure. They willed themselves to be huge, and their influence is undiminished today.

Pink Floyd: som ainda melhor

O relançamento de The dark side of the moon, o maior clássico do grupo, é um material de grande valor musical.

Houve um tempo, no início dos anos 1990, em que relançar caixas com CDs de artistas famosos, com uma ou duas faixas adicionais, era uma fórmula infalível para ganhar dinheiro à custa da curiosidade dos fãs. Como todo truque, porém, sua eficácia caiu com a repetição. Hoje, com a multiplicação de relançamentos, os fãs passaram a pensar duas ou três vezes antes de comprar álbuns que já possuem.

Em meio a tanta mesmice, o relançamento de The dark side of the moon, da banda inglesa Pink Floyd, destoa por oferecer (finalmente) um material antigo de grande valor musical. O álbum, o maior clássico do grupo, voltará ao mercado em duas versões: a Experience (com dois CDs), que chega ao Brasil nesta semana, e a Immersion (com três CDs, dois DVDs e um Blu-ray), disponível apenas na edição importada. As duas versões dão início a uma trilogia de edições especiais: Wish you were here (em novembro) e The wall (em fevereiro) completarão a série. Os outros 11 álbuns da banda também voltarão às lojas, em versões remasterizadas simples, e também à loja virtual iTunes.

Dois fatores tornam os relançamentos do Pink Floyd diferentes dos anteriores. O primeiro é o apreço que a banda sempre teve pela qualidade do som de seus instrumentos e pela experimentação sonora. A remasterização traz à tona detalhes sonoros que estavam escondidos pela tecnologia disponível ao tempo da gravação original. Com a alta definição sonora permitida pela tecnologia atual, alguns sons serão ouvidos pela primeira vez.

O segundo motivo que faz esse relançamento relevante são as gravações inéditas da banda. As apresentações feitas pelo Pink Floyd durante os anos 1970, em que música e imagens se misturavam em um espetáculo único, nunca foram lançadas oficialmente. Até agora, a única alternativa para quem quisesse ouvir os shows da banda em seu auge eram gravações piratas, cultuadas pelos fãs e distribuídas de mão em mão. A edição Experience do The dark side of the moon traz a primeira gravação oficial de um show desse período: um dos CDs é ocupado pela apresentação no estádio de Wembley, em 1974, quando a banda tocou o disco na íntegra.

The dark side of the moon justifica o culto. Lançado em 1973, o álbum traz a banda no auge da experimentação. O disco foi um sucesso imediato e passou 14 anos entre os mais vendidos da Billboard. “É talvez o único disco perfeito da história do rock”, diz o crítico americano Sean Murphy, do site Popmatters. “Qualquer banda de hoje que se preocupe com a sonoridade e com o sentimento que a música passa carrega a bandeira que o grupo levantou nos anos 1970.” Segundo ele, bandas como o experimental Radiohead e o neofolk Fleet Foxes só existem hoje graças às barreiras que o Pink Floyd derrubou.

A única barreira que nunca deixou de existir foi a criada entre o baixista Roger Waters e o guitarrista David Gilmour. Veterano da banda, Waters liderava o Pink Floyd desde a saída do ex-vocalista e guitarrista Syd Barrett (afastado da banda com a saúde debilitada pelo uso de alucinógenos em 1968). A partir de Animals, de 1977, Gilmour passou a disputar com Waters o controle criativo da banda. A tensão entre os dois se intensificou nas gravações de The wall, de 1979, e culminou na saída de Waters em 1985. A banda seguiu sob o comando de Gilmour e lançou dois discos antes de acabar. Os integrantes lançaram carreira solo e se reuniram para algumas apresentações esporádicas, sem a sintonia de antes. Com a morte do tecladista Richard Wright, em 2008, o relançamento de The dark side of the moon oferece uma possibilidade de ouvir a formação completa do Pink Floyd mais perto de sua harmonia e grandiosidade originais.

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The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright (Revisited)

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).

It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.

To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.

About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.

Perhaps his penultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.

Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.

R.I.P, Rick: (28 July 1943 –  15 September 2008)

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #4

4. Pink Floyd, More (1969)

Here’s another one that may not be accused of sucking so much as not being acknowledged at all which, we should agree, is even worse. This is the single entry in the Pink Floyd catalog that might have fared better if it was not associated with the band. If More, incidental music for a film no one seems to have seen, was created by an obscure, one-and-done band, it would have turned up, by now, in some list as the great, lost psychedelic soundtrack. In reality, it is an egregiously overlooked gem somewhat understandably lost in the vault of treasures the group made before, and after it.

From a purely historical perspective, More is an important album as it illustrates an evolution of the “Floyd sound”. In particular, the interplay between guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Rick Wright, which had been perfected by the time Dark Side of the Moon, and the masterpieces that followed, were made. The elements of (take your pick) psychedelia/space-rock/trippiness, executed with mixed results on A Saucerful of Secrets and their live sets of the time, abound but are sharpened by a less guarded (less calculated?) Gilmour, who liberally sprinkles in his blues roots and a rawer, less refined sound.

The album can be broken somewhat cleanly into two parts: the slower, acoustic pieces—mostly written by Roger Waters and sung by Gilmour—and the lucid, icy grandeur of the instrumentals. The acoustic tracks are worthwhile (particularly the hallucinogenic “Cirrus Minor” and “Green is the Colour”) but ultimately don’t rank with the band’s better work. It is the dream sequences, at once evocative and mesmerizing, that make More a crucial stepping stone in the Floyd aesthetic and an indelible album in its own right. If you take the laid back confidence of “More Blues” and combine it with the aggressive, almost abrasive energy of “Ibiza Bar” you can almost predict where Meddle came from. Likewise, Rick Wright’s uncanny ability to create mood is showcased on “Quicksilver”, which anticipates “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. On “Main Theme” and “Dramatic Theme”, Gilmour and Wright lock into a groove and Waters and Nick Mason flex some rhythmic muscle.

It is possible that Floyd would never sound this human again, and if they had to move on to bigger and better things (they did), there is sufficient evidence here that Floyd could balance raw and fresh and achieve a coolness without being chilly. Of course, no one could do light and dark with the dexterity of Floyd in their prime, and they make it sound easy here, perhaps because, for them, it was.

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Four

10. The Who, “Underture”

The Who were not a prog-rock band. While both Tommy and The Who Sell Out could—and should—be considered crucial touchstones that helped pave the way, Pete Townshend’s feet were always rooted too firmly on terra firma to do anything other than what he was doing, which was quite brilliant thank you very much. Nevertheless, the all-instrumental “Underture” which, along with the album-opening “Overture”, bookends the first two sides of Tommy, is in many ways a blueprint for what other bands would build on. It is rather unlike anything else in The Who’s catalog, both in terms of length and style. Moon and Entwistle are in typically torrential form (Moon’s playing on this track managed to prompt kudos from jazz legend Elvin Jones), and Townshend employs acoustic guitar dynamics he never equaled (or needed to) again. If a slash-and-burn could conceivably be described as subtle, that is what The Who accomplish on “Underture”: it is propulsive and furious, yet dark and exquisite. It would be impossible, and pointless, to try and pick a single song from a writer as prolific and influential as Townshend, but these ten minutes might represent the most undistorted evidence of his compositional genius and infectious imagination.

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

There is a simple reason Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it is one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you are not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

8. King Crimson, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog-rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be frightening), and then, after the bird calls and an invocation of the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

Jethro Tull were on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick As A Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick As A Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full forty-five minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Frontman/mastermind Ian Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring, and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade.

6. Rush, “2112”

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

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A Splendid Time Is Not Guaranteed For All

The Easy Star All-Stars, to their credit, do not believe in half-measures. In 2003, they introduced themselves to the world with their reggae reimagining of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, appropriately rechristened Dub Side of the Moon. The results surpassed even the most open-minded fans’ best expectations. Not content to be a one-and-done novelty act and, no doubt, encouraged by the acclaim their first effort garnered, they returned in 2006. Having already tackled the quintessential ‘70s album, they turned heads, again, when they dropped Radiodread, their version of the near-universally worshipped ‘90s classic OK Computer. Incredibly, this release was even more impressive, expertly finding the ideal balance between respectful homage and brazen departure. Displaying an even greater sense of adventure than they demonstrated on Dub Side, the band went several steps further in reimagining Radiohead’s songs, occasionally even (blasphemy alert!) taking them in directions not attained on the original. It was—and remains—an instant and uncanny archetype, in part because it manages to sound so strikingly different while always feeling oddly familiar.

How could they possibly follow this up? Obviously by setting their sights on the most discussed, dissected, and influential album of all time. Simply stated, the chutzpah factor is officially off the charts with the release of Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The band is now three-for-three in the sense that, before listening to a single note, they deserve substantial credit for even going there. It is, therefore, more than a little disappointing to report that they have saved their sophomore slump for the third album. ESLHDB is not a failure so much as a mediocrity; it’s less a failure of execution than a failure of imagination. How, it seems fair to ask after their previous, almost impeccable track record, could this possibly be? Perhaps they (finally?) bit off more than they could collectively chew, or maybe they have run out of creative steam (temporarily?) this time out. The results would seem to suggest that the band was ultimately reluctant to tinker too much with an album that is so important to so many people. Of course, this timidity tends to obviate the refreshing audacity that made their previous efforts so rewarding.

Obviously, there is a subjective line separating inspiration from appropriation, and while the Easy Star All-Stars need not worry about clueless critics impugning their integrity, this one still feels dialed in. A healthy irreverence is what makes their concept work, and too much of the time, that is what ESLHDB lacks.  Perhaps the clearest, and fairest, way to highlight what is missing here is to consider what worked so wonderfully before. It’s not difficult to recall the ingenious ways they mixed up Dub Side while remaining remarkably true to the letter and spirit of the original. For instance, the coughs and sputtered inhalations alongside the bubbling bong water that replace the cash register at the beginning of “Money”, or the free-form reggae rap substituting for David Gilmour’s immortal (and inimitable) guitar solo in “Time”. Or, later, on Radiodread, the melodica on “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or the brass replacing the guitars on “Paranoid Android”. Then there is the total reworking of “Let Down”, which remains a revelation: not just a left-field, upbeat redirection, but a thorough rethinking, obviously enhanced by Toots Hibbert’s irrepressible vocals. Nothing on ESLHDB is as arresting, or interesting, as the work they did on the first two albums. And that observation is not meant to imply that the random employment of oddball effects or disorienting tactics would necessarily invigorate the results. But by not putting their peculiar imprint on this material they constantly remind the listener of all the ways it fails by comparison with the original.

The opening song sets the tone in a way that is emblematic of the entire album: Junior Jazz sounds fine singing those oh-so familiar words, and the song is a perfectly adequate cover. Therein lies the rub (a dub): that it is merely adequate is at once the best and worst thing that can be said of this effort. The next two songs are pretty much pedestrian reggae remakes: neither offensive nor particularly memorable. Of course, one alternate perspective might propose that there were so many unusual and previously unheard-of sounds on Sgt. Pepper that the more straightforward arrangements represent a kind of ironic alternative. If so, mission accomplished, but that faint praise only underscores the perplexing lack of vision throughout.

Some of the songs are more successful. Max Romeo’s trippy take on “Fixing a Hole” recalls the oddball energy of the previous Easy Star albums: the extended dub outro hits the mark while leaving a mark. “She’s Leaving Home”, featuring Kristy Rock (who did such a stellar rendering of “Paranoid Android”), recalls Radiodread’s “Let Down” in the way it takes a somber song and turns it into a rocksteady romp. This strategy does tend to undermine the original song’s lyrical import, but at least the band is stretching out a bit. It seems a shame that Lee “Scratch” Perry was not spirited into the studio to tackle “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”—a song that screams out for his outlandish skills (indeed, he was spearheading his own primitive studio innovations at and around the same time George Martin and the boys began breaking the mold at Abbey Road).

The rest? More of the same, mostly. “Within You Without You” is another unremarkable rendition, although Matisyahu’s lugubrious vocals and subdued human beat-boxing are appropriate for the occasion. It is difficult to quibble with Sugar Minott’s ebullient reading of “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and it’s fair to suspect that some of this material might be conveyed more effectively in a live setting where it has room to breathe. Both “Lovely Rita” (featuring U-Roy) and “Good Morning, Good Morning” (featuring Steel Pulse) would seem to provide ample opportunity for interesting departures, but they are uninspired on arrival. Finally, the moment of truth: what will (can?) they do with “A Day in the Life”?  Nothing special, alas. Certainly, it’s a neat moment when we hear the lines “dragged my fingers through my dreads” (in place of “dragged a comb across my head”) but … we need more.

Ultimately, this seems like an extraordinary opportunity missed. Not wasted, necessarily, but in a way, that’s worse, isn’t it? It’s better to shoot for the (dark side of the) moon and fall short than to play it too safe by half and end up with something second-rate. In the end, no matter how iconic its intentions, this release must be assessed for what it is: an underwhelming set of cover tunes that comes entirely too close to sounding like a novelty act—the very fate this band managed to avoid the first two times out.

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