CAMEL: MOONMADNESS (1976)
1) Aristillus; 2) Song Within A Song; 3) Chord Change; 4) Spirit Of The Water; 5) Another Night; 6) Air Born; 7) Lunar Sea.
The last album to be produced by the original lineup, Moonmadness does bring on some lunar associations, but not much by way of madness, which is just not a state of mind that comes naturally to Camel music; Moonsadness or Moonmelancholia would have been a far more apt description. In many ways, this is a return to the stylistics of Mirage, but it sounds more original and «Camel-native» than Mirage, without so many blatant Yes-isms or Crimson-isms and, fortunately, without such an explicitly stated Tolkien influence. If anything, it represents the symphonic progressive ambitions of Mirage tempered with the «secluded loner vibe» of Snow Goose, so that some of the tunes come across as bold and humble at the same time.
Most of the record is taken over by five multi-part compositions, with the vocals making a slight, not triumphant, return — the focus remains on instrumental passages and their capacity of being woven into dynamic suites with constantly, though not too quickly, changing keys, tempos, and vibes of whose nature the band members themselves are often not too sure, so they just name the songs ʻSong Within A Songʼ and ʻChord Changeʼ to avoid a painful search for verbal interpretation of their own musical ideas. And indeed, how would one describe the seven minutes of ʻSong Within A Songʼ, other than «tastefully pleasant»? It goes through a slow nocturnal-pastoral section, with moody keyboard and flute solos, then through a «solemn» transitional phase with a repetitive guitar riff that never seems to find a proper resolution, and finally through a fast blues-rock, almost boogie, section with «astral» synth solos all over the place. It's a nice thing to have, and it is all much more restrained and less «rockish» than any given instrumental passage by Yes, but this also means that it does not affect the senses too heavily.
Things get quirkier and/or more focused later on, though. ʻChord Changeʼ is one of their best efforts in the jazz-fusion sphere, with some terrific guitar work from Latimer, sometimes playing «spiraling» descending scales that turn him into a less flashy Santana. ʻAnother Nightʼ employs grimly distorted power chords and psychedelic pedal effects to convey the feel of panicky desperation creeping up on you in the night — a well-known feel, for sure, but somehow they manage to transmit it by means of arena-rock tricks without making it sound like cheap arena-rock, if you follow me at all. ʻAir Bornʼ, for a change, has a really dainty vocal melody that agrees well with the synthesized string background. And ʻLunar Seaʼ, as follows from its title, sets itself the challenge of combining «maritime» and «astral» atmospheres — and then rises up to the challenge by squeezing everything that is possible from Bardens' synthesizers, although I am not quite as sure if the song's sped-up, jazzier, more tempestuous passages truly evoke the feeling of a storm taking place in the middle of a «lunar sea».
Anyway, choosing between Mirage and Moonmadness to answer the question «which one of Camel's albums from the symph-prog shelf should be our first pick?» is very much a question of subtle and fickle taste; I vote for Moonmadness because my personal intuition detects faint traces of gentle sorrow and intelligent gloominess, many of them «felt» rather than properly «heard», which were sacrificed on Mirage to make way for a little more rockin' energy so that the guys could classify as true prog-rockers, with emphasis on the second part. On the other hand, it's not as if this here was some particularly breathtaking collection of superior prog rock melodies, either — too few of the themes rise above «nice» as far as their ability to rattle one's nerve strings is concerned. Thumbs up it is, after some deliberation, but still a small step down from the vibe of Snow Goose — although without Snow Goose in between, this would probably have been Mirage Vol. 2, so here's to maturity and continuous self-discovery.