ARGENT: RING OF HANDS (1971)
1) Celebration; 2) Sweet Mary; 3) Cast Your Spell Uranus; 4) Lothlorien; 5) Chained; 6) Rejoice; 7) Pleasure; 8) Sleep Won't Help Me; 9) Where Are We Going Wrong.
Evolution happens. Where Argent could, more or less, be seen as the last true Zombies album in spirit, Ring Of Hands represents the crucial bend after which you no longer see the train (might still hear the echo). As the new band gains momentum and ensures its own stability, two new musical directions are emerging. Russ Ballard is now officially the «rocker» of the band, leaning towards a louder, sweatier, more aggressive sound — an early brand of «arena-rock». Rod Argent, on the other hand, is taking his cue from contemporary progressive rock, exploring the world of complex structures and lengthy keyboard solos. Counterbalancing all of these tendencies is Chris White, retained as resident songwriter and contributing as many good old pop hooks as can withstand the pressure of Ballard's Big Buffalo Riffs and Argent's Extended Toccatas and Fugues.
Does it work? How could it not work, when so much talent and freshness is involved? At the risk of occasional bits of corniness and silliness (yes, ʽCast Your Spell Uranusʼ is an unlucky title, and naming your songs after Tolkien toponyms never helps in the long run), the album as a whole is excellent, with nary a single genuine misstep. Neither Ballard's hard rock nor Argent's progressive experiments sound forced or boring, and almost every single song shows just how much fun it must have been for Rod to do this — he attacks the keyboard with the verve of a teenager attacking a brand new video game. There is no condemning Ring Of Hands, even if you don't like it: these guys are clearly excited, and an excited Rod Argent is beyond condemnation.
The troops are still marching behind hippie-idealistic banners: ʽCelebrationʼ opens the proceedings on an exultate-jubilate folk-rock note that might just as well open a Crosby, Stills, & Nash record. But in reality, the song is not at all typical of the rest of the album: round-the-campfire idealism only serves as a formulaic bait, upon which the artists launch into either more personal or more heavily «intellectualized» ventures. It does stress the album's relative diversity, though: folk-rock anthems, heavy rockers, blues stylizations, romantic ballads, keyboard pop-sonatas — the band casts its net quite far and wide, even despite its main songwriters already patenting their own established songwriter styles.
Ballard is, of course, the weaker link here. He is not only incapable of matching Argent's talent and experience as player and composer, but also shows less taste, which would eventually doom the band. Most unpleasantly, he tends to overscream and kick up too much pathos where a slightly more tongue-in-cheek attitude wouldn't hurt (was there no one in the studio to let him know just how ambiguous the word URANUS may sound when it is made into a chorus hook?). Which, somehow, still does not prevent ʽUranusʼ from kicking some ass, mostly due to Argent's piano and organ parts that genuinely rock harder and sharper than Ballard's vocals.
Russ fares somewhat better on the more guitar-driven ʽChainedʼ, with a well-constructed solo and interesting work on the harmonies; but his best contribution is probably ʽWhere Are We Going Wrongʼ, which manages to end the album on a frenzied / paranoid note, in a disturbing manner that contrasts impressively with the rose-colored start of ʽCelebrationʼ. With psychedelic choral harmonies, an R'n'B-ish drive, fluent guitar and piano solos (Rod brings out his fastest jazziest licks for the latter), it's one of those «intelligent rockers» that requires a little sinking in to take full effect, but don't miss it.
Of the Argent/White collaborations, ʽLothlorienʼ is the most easily notable, if only due to the eight-minute length. Although the title may look provocative, the whole thing is really not so much a Tolkienist fantasy as it is a pretext for launching into some keyboard-dominated jamming: for the first time ever, Mr. Argent feels himself fully free to engage in anything he likes, switching several instruments along the way and gliding from Bach into Art Tatum without effort. For the record, Tolkien's Lothlorien is the last place I would be associating with this kind of music, but it's nice to know J. R. R. can be so different for different people.
One should not miss ʽRejoiceʼ, either, a McCartney-inspired ballad with a sprinkling of gorgeous falsetto vocal hooks framed with even more Bach quotations (organ sound this time); ʽSleep Won't Help Meʼ, where Rod seems to be inspired by Ray Manzarek's solo on ʽRiders On The Stormʼ, playing highly similar patterns on the same electric piano (unfortunately, like any other «tribute», this one is emotionally inferior, even despite Argent's irrefutable technical superiority over Ray); and even the blues-boogie shuffle ʽSweet Maryʼ, potentially generic, boring, and taking one too many cues from ʽThe Night Time Is The Right Timeʼ, is lifted off the ground by an exquisitely tasty Ballard solo. (They never did this kind of material no more, which is a pity — some old-school blues-rock instead of Ballard's lumpy-leaden-metal on subsequent albums could actually help to enliven them).
In the end, Ring Of Hands is probably the best «proper» Argent album — only the debut hits me emotionally in a manner truly comparable with the best of the Zombies, but Ring Of Hands explicitly tells us that this band is not the Zombies, and, well, we'd have to understand that: they didn't change the name for nothing, after all. And as far as a non-Zombies Rod Argent-led band is concerned, Ring Of Hands is tops, with a fair balance between simplicity and complexity, a coherent attitude and plenty of diverse ways to realize it. And, historically, it is a good example of a great band doing its finest work before becoming destroyed by commercial success — Ring Of Hands didn't sell, and in this particular case of this particular band, we can only thank God for that. So, thumbs up.
Check "Ring Of Hands" (MP3) on Amazon