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Monday, January 16, 2017

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11


Pink Floyd's first album of the new decade also marks a number of other firsts. It's their first "regular" album since Syd's departure if you regard More as nothing more (pun intended) than a soundtrack and Ummagumma as half live album/half half-baked experiment. It's the first album where they show some pretty major progressive tendencies, thanks to two lengthy numbers bookending it (which in itself is another first; a number of their 1970s classics follow a similar principle of bookending). And finally, it's the first album where they try to hide their psychedelic past with the artwork. Instead of a trippy portrait, an acid-tinged lagoon, or a weird mirror-trick, there's nothing but a cow. It's quite a nice cow, too. It probably confused a whole bunch of record buyers, especially with the lack of title or band name accompanying it, but it has since gone down as a "classic" record sleeve thanks to its simplicity and contextual irrelevance (although at least one of the subtitles to the title track's sections try to relate to the bovine cover).

Somewhat like on Ummagumma, there's a bit of a democratic flair to the album. The two lengthy pieces are group credits, and each of the three short songs in the middle is composed by a different member of the band – thankfully, this excludes Nick Mason, who was far from a mediocre composer, let alone a good one – primarily showcasing their talents and personalities. The best of the three, oddly enough, is the one written by the member of the band who would least write his own material, Richard Wright. And yet, "Summer '68" clearly shows he has a definite knack for a great pop melody. In fact, in parts, the song reminds me of the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, or at least that band's final singles before their classic record's conception. Starting with slow, upbeat piano chords and shuffled hi-hats backing Richard playfully dismissing the girl he had a one-night stand with, it suddenly shifts to a sombre minor-key, with the pianos becoming more bombastic and swirling organs accompanying them, punctuated by an ultra-catchy moody vocal part where David Gilmour echoes out "How do you feel?" as regret for the one-night stand kicks in. Some have complained about the horn parts after each refrain, but I think they add to that aforementioned regret. And besides, the cheery "ba-pa-pa" harmonies in the middle-eighth are so well arranged and memorable that they more than make up for it.

Roger Waters' acoustic folk tune "If" is a close second for the shorter songs. The quietly plucked guitar arpeggios and Roger's wistful, whispered vocals almost make a drone out of it, which, if it doesn't make it more memorable than the previous album's "Grantchester Meadow", it certainly makes it a lot more hypnotic. It also introduces the lyrical style he would bring to its peak in Pink Floyd's classic era, with a bleak portrait of his mental state (or Syd's), containing some silly lines like "If I go insane, please don't put your wires in my brain"; as an added bonus, the slow, stinging slide guitar solo with an almost psychedelic tone certainly recalls that of one of their future anthems for the insane, "Brain Damage". David Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun" is clearly the weakest of the three (but then again, even in the band's classic era his best efforts were in arranging Roger's tunes rather than writing his own). Still, with its slow stately chords, high-pitched, slow melodic basslines, and bright organ backing Gilmour's soft falsetto cooing, it makes it a great song to just sit back and relax to on a lazy summer day, even as it builds up into a full band arrangement (with Gilmour supplying all but the keyboards, oddly enough) with an uplifting guitar solo – one that's a bit generic, sure, but it's still tasteful. It also kind of reminds me of the Kinks at times, but that mostly has to do with the similarity in title to one of their tunes, "Lazy Old Sun", rather than any specific detail in the music (although sometimes David's vocals reminds me of Ray Davies' vocals later in his band's career).

Of the two lengthy tracks, the closing "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" is clearly the weaker one. In essence, it's avant-garde, since it's 13 minutes of their roadie Alan Styles preparing and eating breakfast, with some of the sound snippets doctored for, per the title, "psychedelic" effect (the most prominent being an echoed "marmalade, I like marmalade"), interrupted by three musical themes with breakfast-ready subtitles, "Rise and Shine", "Sunny Side Up" and "Morning Glory". Funny enough, the actual music is what shatters the track's avant-garde credibility. Not that the themes aren't pleasant. "Rise and Shine" with its playful dual piano melodies, bright organ patterns and twanging Leslie-processed pedal steel, "Sunny Side Up", with its pleasant interweaving acoustic arpeggios and slow, decorative pedal steel, and "Morning Glory" with its bombastic three-layered piano, uplifting, yet somewhat buried lead guitar, and pompous drumming, all have decent musical ideas and would make perfect backing music to the café/restaurant in an L.A. hotel (as Alan mentions), but it's nothing more than muzak masquerading as "art". If it were just the muzak without the sound effects (or the sound effects didn't interrupt the music itself; who needs to hear a roadie aggressively chomping on cereal backed by pretty acoustic guitars?), I'd be much more happy with it. It'd still be a disappointing closer, of course, but slightly less so.

The other lengthy track is more than just the stronger of the two. Rather, it's the album's best track (for me, anyways). "Atom Heart Mother" may not be the first progressive epic (Procol Harum's "In Held 'Twas in I", for instance, surpasses it by a solid 2 years), but it's a really good one anyhow. In fact, it's one of Pink Floyd's only, and one of the few reasons they can ever get called a "progressive rock" band at all. Anyways, like any successful 20-minute-or-more epic, this one's multi-parted with a general flow to them. The vibe I get from this flow, in particular, is sci-fi-esque, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, coincidentally, said film's creator Stanley Kubrick wanted to use the suite for his A Clockwork Orange film) or Star Wars.

Maybe it's the orchestral accompaniment arranged and composed by Scottish composer Ron Geesin that helps give that impression. You can't hear the initial chaotic horns and the pompous main fanfare melody (subtitled "Father's Shout"), the following moody cello solo backed by twinkling organ, flexible bass and drums and the equally moody and melodically similar slide guitar solo (subtitled "Breast Milky") or the gradual crescendo of a simple organ pattern layered with choral vocals (subtitled "Mother Fore") without picturing some great, big, space station. Perhaps the bit of blues-rock jamming at the start of the "Funky Dung" section doesn't quite fit the space-rock vibe, but Richard's funky organ chords and David's blueswailing spar it out quite well, and it's one of their best blues workouts, so I don't mind. The second half of "Funky Dung" brings us back into the spacey vibe, with the organ chords sticking around, now complemented by jazzy piano soloing and more choral vocals singing some kind of made-up language that especially strengthens the Star Wars connection in my mind. Aside from a reprise of the first two sections called "Remergence", the final section is a bit of avant-garde, and good avant-garde unlike "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast", with the goofy title "Mind Your Throats Please". It kind of reminds me of "Revolution No. 9", thanks to the clashing Mellotron flute and violin chord patterns and fading horns and processed inaudible spoken word from Roger, but its brevity makes it far more accessible than its Beatles-bred brother-in-arms. So while the suite is obviously not a catchy hit single of any kind, it shows the band having fun with atmosphere and decent-to-great melodies and themes.

I'm still somewhat unsure whether the LP as a whole deserves a 10/15 or an 11, although I settle on the latter. On one hand, the title track is a well-constructed epic that doesn't have any particular low moments and most of side two consists of decently written songs. On the other hand, the closer is nothing but muzak masquerading as avant-garde, and of the aforementioned decently written songs, only one really strikes me as a solid highlight. And while it's definitely an improvement over Ummagumma's studio side, it's mostly a step down from More (although then again, there's no "Quicksilver" on it). Still, as the group's first album of the new decade, it shows them officially declaring their own new identity and mostly abandoning whatever ties they had with the Syd Barrett (while ironically producing his albums...), so we must give it its dues for that.

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