ARGENT: ARGENT (1969)
1) Like Honey; 2) Liar; 3) Be Free; 4) Schoolgirl; 5) Dance In The Smoke; 6) Lonely Hard Road; 7) The Feeling's Inside; 8) Freefall; 9) Stepping Stone; 10) Bring You Joy.
As far as I know, the Zombies disbanded in 1968 not because the band members hated each other's guts or anything, but generally out of desperation: for the average band in the 1960s, three years without a major hit single meant artistic bankruptcy, even if it still managed to maintain a cult following. The Almighty rewarded them with an ironic twist of fate, turning ʽTime Of The Seasonʼ into a big international hit one year after the band's demise. By that time, however, lead singer Colin Blunstone had already entered insurance business, and somehow the band members must have thought it uncool to make a hasty regrouping.
However, the success of ʽTime Of The Seasonʼ must have been enough for lead organist and one of the chief songwriters, Rod Argent, to believe that there was still a place in this world for him. Furthermore, by 1969 the record-buying world was slowly beginning to develop a better understanding of that strange kind of music that the Zombies kept pushing ahead of their time: classically influenced, complex, «pretentious» art-pop. Giving it one more try seemed natural. And while it may seem somewhat arrogant to slap your personal family name on the visit card of your four-piece band — give our regards to Santana — «Argent» was certainly a much more appropriate appellation for a late 1960s / early 1970s progressively-oriented art-pop team than «Zombies» ever was. (Which begs the question: did the actual Zombies ever sit back and think just how many non-bought records their name cost them in the long run?).
Although all the other official band members are new (Russ Ballard on vocals and guitar; Jim Rodford on bass; Bob Henrit on drums), original Zombies member and songwriter Chris White semi-officially remained on board as one of the band's major creative personalities — making the «Argent» brand a completely legitimate follow-up to «Zombies»: there can hardly be any doubt that, had the actual Zombies managed to keep their act together through the years, they would have turned into Argent even without any lineup changes. Proof? The self-titled Argent still sounds more like the Zombies than the «classic» Argent of ʽHold Your Head Upʼ — and it is this transitional, fence-straddling nature exactly that makes it my favorite Argent album.
It is probably just a coincidence that Argent opens out on pretty much the same simple arpeggio as the Beatles' ʽI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ, not a subtle arrogant hint that the band is ready to pick it up where the Beatles have just left it off. On the other hand, late-period Beatles are an undeniable influence: Argent is «art-pop» that is not afraid to experiment with structures, arrangements, and genre-melanging, but still strives to be old-school commercial, with modest composition length, catchy choruses, and generally transparent moods — most of the tracks are unabashed love songs (with occasionally cringeworthy or clumsy lyrics: am I out of my mind or is the opening line "Like honey, you're sweeter" thoroughly ungrammatical? And what is "when night falls on rare wine" even supposed to mean?).
But never mind the lyrics: the Argent/White team, with just two years past their Odessey And Oracle peak, is still going very strong, and newcomer Russ Ballard is quite competent in the songwriting department as well: it was his own ʽLiarʼ, after all, that was turned into Argent's first hit... unfortunately, not before Three Dog Night covered it one year later, in an arrangement that was very close to the original, merely replacing Ballard's soft, McCartney-like, vocal for a rowdy barroom rasp (I am going to take it easy on 1970's record-buyers and believe that it had everything to do with better promotion, something Rod Argent never cared too much about).
Only one number points to the long road ahead, on which Argent would only embark with the subsequent album: a six minute long mystical circle dance, appropriately titled ʽDance In The Smokeʼ. The length finally gives Rod plenty of space to practice his half-Bach, half-Ray Charles organ chops, with lots of inspired, elegant passages that succeed far more successfully than the song in general — if, that is, the ambition behind the song was to come up with their own personal ʽHey Judeʼ, because the overall atmosphere is just a bit too stern and reserved to match the supposed euphoric joy of "every branch we'll tie somebody's worry to it, we will burn it and dance in the smoke". Still a great sonic landscape, though.
Overall, Argent is extremely romantic: on subsequent albums, hard rock and darker-tinged pagan mysticism would seriously concur with heart-baring lyricism, but this debut, with the exception of ʽDanceʼ, almost reads like a focused assault on some particular young girl's heart. Songs like ʽThe Feeling's Insideʼ and ʽBring You Joyʼ are almost too beautiful for their own good, the former written on a serious Bach organ kick, the latter more modernly R'n'B-ish / blue-eyed soulish, but both sung from the mental perspective of a medieval troubadour, no less. And why not? The vocal progression during the verse flow of ʽFeeling's Insideʼ easily ranks on the same level with the best Zombies material.
The «rockers» of the album are also quite clever in that they are almost exclusively keyboard-based (think of ʽLady Madonnaʼ as one of the chief inspirations), so there's speed, power, and energy, but no attempts to compete with hard-rockers that would be doomed from the start. ʽBe Freeʼ essentially flies by on the strength of its vocal arrangement, and Ballard's ʽLonely Hard Roadʼ is one song on here I could possibly see evolving into a long jam — the rhythm section is particularly tight, I wouldn't mind Argent practicing his razor-sharp organ solos some more while the groove is still on.
For some reason, my personal favorite on the album, for a long time, was Ballard's ʽSchoolgirlʼ — a clear attempt on his part to write a particularly simple, but effective pop tune in the classic early ʽShe's Not Thereʼ-era Zombies style. It's not quite up to those standards, but close, with an unforgettable falsetto resolution of the chorus melody, and Rod is playing these keys with classic restraint, exactly the way he used to around 1964. Other than that, there is not that much happening in the song, but it is a touching retro gesture the likes of which, unfortunately, would not be seen on subsequent Argent releases.
The record is not problem-free, of course. The songs usually blast off their full potential on the first minute, so repetitiveness is an issue. Ballard's singing is generally tasteful, but sometimes over the top, especially when he succumbs to the temptation of hitting notes outside of his normal range (the coda flourish on ʽFreefallʼ is simply awful) or tries going into full-scale operatic mode (ʽBring You Joyʼ could definitely use a different vocalist). The permanently keyboard-driven arrangements can get wearisome after a while (although if you are a Zombies fan already, that shouldn't be a serious drag).
But, in addition to there being no genuinely «bad» songs on here (I'd say even the worst ones are still memorable), Argent is also a very important record — it is one of the very few examples of a «typically 1960s» artist managing to re-orient himself at a «typically 1970s» musical paradigm without sounding forced or fake. Very few, if any, «pop» people from the former decade could reinvent themselves as «prog» people for the latter; the usual tendency was either for 1960s «pop» people to go on being «pop» and gradually falling out of grace, or for 1970s «prog» people to emerge out of some obscure 1960s shadow. Of course, neither the Zombies nor Argent counted as «1960s giants» (not back then, at least) or «1970s idols», but both bands had moderately respectable careers, and Rod bears primary responsibility for both. Thus, good songs + certain historical uniqueness = thumbs up guaranteed for life.