OLD REVIEW DUMP #2: THE SQEAKUAL (6/7)
Oh look, a review that sounds like it was written by an actual human being. PRAISE THE SUN!
The album itself I’ve mellowed even more on then when I first wrote this (despite how amazing the live section is), but I still enjoy this review. Everything is better: the critique, the description, the humor, the voice. Some of the complaints are a bit repetitive, and I think that just lampshading that wasn’t enough, but overall this is a vast improvement, even if it lacks the enthusiasm I generally associate with my best reviews.
Here it is, in all its grooving furriness:
Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox
Gone to ground
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer
Making for the sea
WHAT THE CRAP DID I JUST LISTEN TO?!? I mean, being weird is Floyd’s forte but…geeze. Syd Barrett sounds downright normal compared to this. As far as unapologetically wacko Floyd albums go, it’s not as good as Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but it’s okay nontheless. It feels a bit criminal (but still understandable) that this is more well-known than More or Obscured by Clouds, but at the very least, it’s an interesting album, albeit not always an engaging one. This was basically the experimental, toss-everything-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-works album, and the results are more fascinating to discuss then listen to. The album’s major saving grace is an AWESOME live section that blows any other live Floyd out of the water in terms of sound and tightness of playing. This alone is worth the price of admission, and you get some cool other stuff too, so overall, Ummagumma is a reasonable success.
So…LIGHTS! TURN ON THE SOUND EFFECTS! ACTION! “Astronomy Domine” is the first song in the live section, and it sets the bar impressively high. As with most live versions of songs, it’s difficult to critique, but rest assured it’s fantastic, not to mention far different then the studio version soundwise. It seems to have a fuller tone, not to mention a nice quiet section that builds to the end, and very enthusiastic playing all around. I might prefer this to the studio version. My favorite song on the album.
Things stay awesome with “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” There’s some debate as to whether the live or studio version of “Astronomy Domine” is better, but there’s no contest here. This version is INFINITELY better than the studio version, with a thick atmosphere, an amazing scream a few minutes in, and super-tight playing. I slightly prefer “Astronomy Domine”, but really you can’t go wrong with either of these, or anything in the live section really.
“Set The Controls For The Heart of the Sun” is just about as good as the original, which is to say it’s amazing, though for different reasons. The original is one of my favorite songs of all time, but it’s a bit hard to listen to in a normal context because it’s strictly ambient. This version is a bit more accessible, with lots of cool sound experimentation and a noticeably faster pace.
The final track on the live section is “A Saucerful of Secrets.” It’s a lot more visceral and raw then the studio version, which is to be expected, and it’s marvelous, though I prefer the sound of the studio version for reasons I can’t really articulate.
Now we get to the studio half of the album, which is bloated but overall alright, with some really good material. “Sysyphus” comes in four parts from Wright. The first part is a great menacing intro, the second part is a wonderfully spooky piano theme interspersed with moments of genuine beauty and a rainstorm-like feeling, the third part is a somewhat disturbing but still cool dip into insanity, and the fourth part is a REALLY disturbing and cool plunge into insanity, though it runs a bit too long. All in all, a great set of songs, though it did take me a few listens to really appreciate them. This is my favorite piece on the studio side.
Waters is up next with “Grandchester Meadows”, a pleasant folk-ish song with evocative lyrics and beautiful guitar. Once again, it’s a bit overlong, but for a continuation of the folk stylings of More, it’s nice, though Waters doesn’t seem to have actually made much progress. It does offer an amusing moment at the end where a fly is swatted, as if to flip off the folky idealization of country life.
Waters next and last song is the awesomely titled “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.” It’s just as weirdly awesome as the title suggests. I don’t even know how to describe it. Like a lot of songs on this album, it’s too long for what it offers, but what it offers is just funny. It’s a fun, trippy descent into pure weirdness for the sake of weirdness. And hey, is that thick-accented voice the proto-Schoolmaster from The Wall? I like to think so.
Gilmour’s piece is called “The Narrow Way”, and it comes in three parts. Part one is a nice enough guitar experiment, part two has a cool main riff but ultimately is short on ideas other than “TURN ON THE SOUND EFFECTS,” and part three is just dull despite some okay lyrics and nice vocal harmonies. Once again (tired of this complaint yet?) it’s just too long. The ideas on this album are…present, I guess, but they’re not substantial enough to fill songs of this length. This comes out in all the worst ways in Nick Mason’s piece.
“The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party,” which comes in three parts, is, far and away, the worst piece on the album, which is a shame because it didn’t have to be. The first and third parts have some nice-sounding flutes that promise (or wrap up) some spectacular musical entertainment from whoever the “Grand Vizier” is. Unfortunately, said entertainment, found in the second part, is not only ridiculously boring and largely free of melody or atmosphere, it’s also SEVEN GOSH DANG MINUTES LONG. What a way to end the album. Yuck.
And that’s four art school dropouts throwing their weirdest ideas at the wall. Much like Piper, I did not like this album AT ALL when I first listened to it or even when I sat down to write about it, but having sunk my teeth into it, I actually quite like it. I would never get it before underrated gems like More or Obscured by Clouds, but the phenomenal live section makes it worth it even if you don’t like the studio material. Just give it a few runs before you judge it.
Listenability: 3/5 The live section is really engaging, but the studio section is spotty and bloated.
Themes: 3/5 Some of the musical ideas work, and some don’t.
Lyricism: 3/5 There’s very little, and it’s not fantastic, but it’s serviceable.
Diversity: 5/5 Ho boy. Say what you will about these songs, there’s no confusing them.
Resonance: 3/5 Some of the atmosphere works, some doesn’t.
FINAL RATING: 7/10 The best live Floyd by far, but some of their least interesting studio material.
Recommended Listening: The entire live section (especially Astronomy Domine), Sysphus, Grandchester Meadows, the first part of The Narrow Way, Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict