CAMEL: MIRAGE (1974)
1) Freefall; 2) Supertwister; 3) Nimrodel; 4) Earthrise; 5) Lady Fantasy.
I have never really been satisfied with Camel's second album. Prog fans tend to praise it, but it seems to me that most of the praise is for reasons that are all too obvious — the songs get longer, the solo/jam passages more technically challenging, and there is at least one Tolkien-inspired tune (maybe more, because even though ʻLady Fantasyʼ does not drop any direct references, it works well in tandem with ʻNimrodelʼ).
The problem is that such an approach by itself could hardly surprise anybody in 1974 (not to mention today) — the question is not whether Mirage is more «complicated» than Camel, but whether it manages to preserve and develop the band's own identity, to have a face of its own that would distinguish it from all the other faces. And from that point of view, too much on Mirage sounds like rather unconvincing imitations of Yes, Genesis, ELP, and even some of their more ancient predecessors (for instance, the first keyboard solo on ʻLady Fantasyʼ is uncannily reminiscent of the Doors' ʻLight My Fireʼ).
Most importantly, a crucial vibe is missing here — the melancholic mood, that quiet desperation which is so much the English way, has dissipated, as the band embark on a flight of colorful fantasy. There's nothing wrong with flights of colorful fantasy in general, of course, but for Camel, this is a somewhat uncomfortable detour: epic songs about wizards and love ballads to mystical fantasy ladies is not something for which they have any special knack. The two long suites sound tasteful enough, but there is not a single melodic line or twist there that would really capture my attention. Signature changes, polished guitar solos, pretty harmonies, alternations between loud and quiet; only the «magical», echoey slide solo at the end of ʻNimrodelʼ really sounds like nothing we'd previously heard before — good find, that; not enough to grant masterpiece status to the entire song, though.
Of the shorter tracks, Bardens' ʻFreefallʼ is quite an energetic opener, but, again, just seems way too much like an inferior Yes tribute; the instrumental ʻSupertwisterʼ is a cute little waltz with some flute work from Latimer; and the other instrumental, ʻEarthriseʼ, exists somewhere on the border between classically influenced prog and jazz-fusion, without properly making its mind about which side of the border it wants to stake a real claim on. Honestly, I do not know what to say about them. They rock, but not too hard; they're pretty, but not beautiful; they have well thought out melodies, but they're not catchy. Generic second generation prog, in short.
Consequently, I am one of the few who feels tempted to dub this a «sophomore slump» — a half-decent, but misguided and forgettable attempt at aping the founding fathers of the progressive genre without adding even a drop of their own personality. Had they persisted in this direction, the world might have already forgotten all about Camel; fortunately, the mistake would not be repeated again, at least, not on the scale of an entire album.