Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pink Floyd--Ummagumma (1969)

14/15 (live) + 8/15 (studio) /2=11/15
Disc 1 (Live): 1. Astronomy Domine; 2. Careful With That Axe, Eugene; 3. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun; 4. A Saucerful of Secrets
Disc 2 (Studio): 1. Sysyphus, Part 1; 2. Sysyphus, Part 2; 3. Sysyphus, Part 3; 4. Sysyphus, Part 4; 5. Grantchester Meadows; 6. Sever Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooming with a Pict; 7. The Narrow Way (Part 1); 8. The Narrow Way (Part 2); 9. The Narrow Way (Part 3); 10. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Entrance); 11. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Entertainment); 12. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Exit)

This one's a double, half live and half studio, but when it was released it was sold for a single album price. Of course now the bastards aren't gonna let you get forty minutes of music for free--you either have to pay full price or just swipe all 80 minutes. So, even though that information is no longer relevant to the buying public, it does put the album into context--either people were buying a live album and getting some studio experiments for free, or they were buying a weird, experimental studio album and also getting some live tracks. Knowing this makes me understand the studio album a lot more, because while Floyd had certainly been experimental before, this is barely anything but experimentation. Now, please understand that I have absolutely nothing against experimentation in rock music, nor do I feel that bands should only stick to established formula--in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The only reason I give the studio disc a relatively low grade is that I prefer experimentation stuck into actual songs, as opposed to just fucking around for the sake of fucking around, but unfortunately, Floyd decided to do the latter here. Each member got half a side of vinyl in which to make their artistic statement, with where they would do all of the playing (Mason cheated by having his wife play flute), but nobody really says anything that couldn't be better said in a band context. Nick Mason's contribution, "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party," is absolutely useless. Sure, the flute in the intro and outro is kind of nice, and I give him props for not wanting to just do a generic drum solo, but the main section mainly consists of some percussion over a bunch of mellotron farts. The actual solo in the last minute is decent (although Mason himself admits in his autobiography that he doesn't like drum solos), but the problem is that, nice guy and great drummer though he may be, Nick just isn't a composer, and an album like this doesn't work if all members of a band can't pull their weight (or, really, even if they can--see ELP's Works). Wright's contribution, "Sysyphus," is his attempt to write a classical piece, and it's somewhat better. Parts of it are genuinely scary-sounding, but I really think this could have been so much more if it were actually developed by the band as a whole, and maybe have an actual song surrounding it. As it stands, I consider the piece to be a mild failure, but a noble one.

Waters, predictably, gets the best song on the studio album with the lovely acoustic number "Grantchester Meadows," but it really didn't need to be seven and a half minutes long. Although the fly getting swatted at the end is pretty cool. His other contribution is a bit...difficult to explain. "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooming with a Pict" sounds exactly like what its unwieldy title implies--the "song" consists of nothing but Roger's voice played sped up and made to sound squeaky making a bunch of indecipherable noises, until the end where there's a long rant in a preview of the teacher voice from The Wall, which is actually pretty funny. It's something that everyone needs to hear once, but very few will either want or need to hear twice. More power to you if you get something from it, but it's a bit too avant-garde for me. Ah well, I guess this whole play by yourself thing is even harder for a bassist to fulfill than a drummer.

Gilmour, then, is the only one who really manages to do something worthwhile with his entire section, entitled "The Narrow Way." It helps that Part 3 is an actual song, complete with Dave playing bass, drums, and keyboards, but it's actually the weakest part of the piece, as his voice is mixed so low that you can barely hear the crappy lyrics, which aren't even printed on the liner notes in my version of the album! Supposedly he begged Roger to write lyrics for him, but the bassist refused. Clearly because he wanted to make Gilmour see that he had the confidence and ability to write for himself, and not at all because he's kind of a dick. No matter, the first two parts are what make this worthwhile--it's mainly Dave fucking around with different types of guitar noise, and provides a nice look at this style from a man whose style is often criticized (though not by me) for being too calculated and "focus-group tested." Not something I want to hear every day, but I always enjoy listening to it.

So there's nothing really earth-shattering on the studio disc, but I don't really care, because the live album is phenomenal. There are but four songs, but of them on "Astronomy Domine" doesn't improve from its studio counterpoint, settling for being different, but almost as good. "Set the Controls" and "A Saucerful of Secrets," on the other hand, are absolutely transformed live--the guitar on the former is actually audible, and the band plays with ten times the energy of the studio version on the latter. These versions so blow away their counterpoints that they make the studio versions sound rather tepid, but that's not even the main attraction. Hell, it's worth paying the price for a double album just to hear this version of the b-side "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" in all of its glory. The song has an absolutely masterful build-up, slowly adding to the intensity until Waters whispers the title at about three minutes in. Unfortunately for him, this Eugene fellow apparently isn't too keen on receiving an axe-safety lecture, because the blood-curdling scream that Waters unleashes puts just about any metal scream I can think of to absolute shame. He actually sounds like he's being chased by a crazy fucking axe murderer! The song goes on to include some great playing before dropping the intensity just as methodically as it was built up, but the scream's what people take away from this, and rightfully so. It's a wonder Roger can even still sing at all, seeing as he had to do that on a nightly basis, and I think there's a reason this song doesn't get played on his solo tours! Simply a marvelous composition, and one that, if you've never heard, you should stop what you're doing and look it up right now. It's that damn good.

So, yeah, the live disc, which is the only official release of the band playing live before The Wall tour until the recent remasters, is absolutely essential for anyone who considers themselves a Floyd fan. As for the studio disc, I rarely feel the need to listen to it, but give it a try and you might find something there. This shouldn't be your first Floyd purchase outside the big three (that should obviously be Animals, and Piper and Meddle are also more important), but you should definitely get it eventually.

1 comment:

  1. That famous "...Eugene" scream sounds to me more like Roger Waters IS the crazy fucking axe murderer. I want to travel through time and systematically hug everyone who's been traumatized by that one.