CAMEL: CAMEL (1973)
1) Slow Yourself Down; 2) Mystic Queen; 3) Six Ate; 4) Separation; 5) Never Let Go; 6) Curiosity; 7) Arubaluba.
There is, and would always be, a lot of Pink Floyd influence in the music of Camel — but it is still instructive that their first album was recorded in August '72, that is, well before the release of Dark Side Of The Moon, so at least you couldn't accuse them of merely jumping on the nearest and most obvious bandwagon. Besides, minor keys and gloomy moods are not all it takes to count as a Pink Floyd rip-off.
Stemming from Surrey (every once in a while, you may see Camel listed as representatives of the «Canterbury school» of rock, which couldn't be farther from the truth — at least, not until Dave Sinclair joined the band, but that would be much later), Camel was largely the brainchild of guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens, who are responsible for most of the songwriting and singing (although bassist Doug Ferguson takes a couple lead vocals, and drummer Andy Ward is co-credited for writing the first song).
Although all four members were honing their musical talents already circa 1969-70, they only gelled together in late 1971 and got a recording contract with MCA in 1972, so they have to count as «second generation prog», a tough fate for all those who followed in the footsteps of Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, and ELP. As much as Latimer and Bardens loved all that music, they would never truly be capable of forging their own unmistakable and unmimickable personality — while both of them are excellent musicians, and Latimer has a very nice singing voice, their styles are simply too derivative of earlier heroes.
That said, as long as the band hits the energy pedal, all of Camel music is eminently likeable. Although the seven compositions on this album present no real breakthroughs, they are amazingly adequate — not too complex, not too simplistic, not too pretentious, not too humble, a sort of middle-of-the-road combination that manages to please rather than bore. They share the overall humanistic-but-pessimistic musical philosophy/vibe of Floyd — most of the songs are mournful or melancholic — but they have plenty of chops and musical ideas to make you believe that they are not here just to rip off a vibe or two. Above everything else, they have style, which is the one thing, probably, that makes them so attractive for me where bands like Kansas or Styx sound so irritating most of the time.
If you are not new to progressive rock, but new to Camel, I would suggest beginning with the last track here — the instrumental ʻArubalubaʼ is the easiest one to swallow, featuring the record's most instantly memorable doubled guitar-organ riff as the main theme, and rocking all the way to the bank, faster, tighter, and sweatier than anything in the Floyd catalog. The guitar and keyboard solos of Latimer and Bardens are not exceptional, but they succeed in maintaining tension all the way without resorting to excessive gimmicks, and last just enough to make you long for the return of the main theme, which dutifully kicks back in with a vengeance. Note, though, that this is rather an atypical composition for Camel (the album) and Camel the band in general — typically, their instrumentals tend to be softer and subtler, like ʻSix Ateʼ, which begins in waltz tempo, then slows down even further before becoming a quieter version of King Crimson's ʻMirrorsʼ for a few bars and then finally settling down into a steady mid-tempo guitar/keyboard jam. Again, no great shakes, but a little bit of magical mystery atmosphere is still present.
One reason why Camel, provided they were spotted by prog-hating critics in the first place, still largely avoided their venomous spit, is that they kept the «lost in fantasy land» thing to a minimum — like everybody else, they loved their Tolkien and shit, but were cool-headed enough not to try and make their albums sound like bona fide Lord Of The Rings soundtracks. Here, for instance, there's only one suspicious track (ʻMystic Queenʼ), and they immediately shoot the fantasy interpretation in the back by singing "have you seen the Mystic Queen / riding in her limousine", although if you don't pay sufficient attention to the lyrics, the song may still come across as a hymn to the Lady of the Lake or any such character — no matter, really, because it is made by carefully constructed Latimer and Bardens solos (the lyrics are minimal), slow, dreamy, a little bit psychedelic, and humbly restrained.
The best known songs from the album are arguably the opening number ʻSlow Yourself Downʼ and the single ʻNever Let Goʼ. The former is a grim blues-rocker that establishes Camel's vibe from the start — quiet, compact, concise music made by loners for loners, sung by Latimer in his lowest range and including a fast mid-section that, too, seems strangely intro- rather than extravert: if there is at all such a thing as «Anti-Arena Rock», this song, and Camel in general, is it. As for ʻNever Let Goʼ, which went on to become a permanent stage favorite, this is probably the album's most pretentious moment ("crazy preachers of our doom / telling us there is no room" — hmm, isn't that a kind of line that Ozzy would be supposed to sing?), but, again, leave it to Camel to deliver a pretentious message to humanity as if they were all standing with their noses in a corner. Do not, however, forget to turn the volume up really loud for the last minute — Latimer plays a killer solo, but with such a thin tone and buried so deeply in the mix that you really have to make yourself notice it. Didn't Mark Knopfler take a few hints from that guy?
On the whole, although Camel never achieved proper critical/commercial success until their third album, this debut is by no means «tentative» or «formative» — if you do not like it (and it is theoretically quite easy to perceive it as too cold, too sterile, or too limp), you will probably not get easily warmed up to the band in general... granted, «warmed up» is probably not the right word, seeing as how their music is always so cold. It is definitely lacking in flashiness, but it is moody and tasteful, even if it hardly sounds like anything a truly intelligent camel would have written. Well, maybe only a very Sufi camel. Thumbs up.