CAMEL: RAIN DANCES (1977)
1) First Light; 2) Metrognome; 3) Tell Me; 4) Highways Of The Sun; 5) Unevensong; 6) One Of These Early Days I'll Get An Early Night; 7) Elke; 8) Skylines; 9) Rain Dances.
At this point, members of the Progressive Club usually begin having reservations about Camel's alleged loyalty. Not only does this period initiate the break-up of the original band, as Doug Ferguson is replaced on bass by Richard Sinclair (formerly of Caravan) and ex-King Crimsonian Mel Collins is added on sax, but it also initiates the drift towards a more commercial sound, as experienced, first and foremost, on the lead single ʻHighways Of The Sunʼ — with its straightforward rhythmic punch, anthemic catchy vocal, and joyful-optimistic atmosphere. Actually, there is little to distinguish the song from contemporary arena-ready soft-rock; it could have been produced by anybody from Chicago to Styx, and it sure as hell did not need to be produced by Camel, a band to which sunny optimism comes as naturally as reggae comes to AC/DC.
However, outside of the radio-oriented single (which did not seriously chart anyway), Rain Dances is actually not that much of a sellout. More accurately, it is a somewhat blander, limper companion to the atmospheric soundscapes of Moonmadness, with a similar mix of symph-prog, pop, jazz-fusion, and ambience, only more flaccid hooks and an even stronger promise to never erupt from the cozy comfy background. Not even Brian Eno, when invited to contribute on the most ambient of the tracks, ʻElkeʼ, can do much to break the quiet, uninvolving pleasantness: he may have been concocting mindblowing sonic panoramas for Bowie at the same time, but for Latimer, he just dishes out a standard synth canvas that merely serves as support for Andy's lazy, pretty, unmemorable flute solo. Did they really need Brian for that one? Gee, I hope he at least got underpaid for this hackjob.
I think the only track here that consistently gets respect from «serious» fans is ʻUnevensongʼ, because it, like, shifts keys and gears several times from beginning to end. But it sounds too fragile and fluffy for me to like it because of its energy, and too unfocused in any of its sections to like it because of its beauty or melodicity. Too much sunshine and not enough rain — too much tenderness that is not properly supported by outstanding hooks, and the dynamics is wasted, too, because the tricky time signature section in the middle, which the syncopated bass and the grumbly synthesizers would probably want to present as a disturbing counterpoint, is not played with enough feeling. In fact, very little on the album is played with enough feeling — you almost get the impression that the entire band was suffering from a severe vitamin deficit at the time.
The entire band shares credits on ʻOne Of These Early Daysʼ, a funky fusion track, almost bordering on disco in spots — with a series of keyboard, sax, and guitar solos that should qualify as «easy listening» (Latimer goes for a Santana kind of sound... but why?). Again, it is the kind of music that would be perfect as the theme for a mid-Seventies TV talk show, but it is pretty hard to acknowledge it as an actual work of art... and since pretty much the same goes for everything else here, I would like to just cut the review short and say that, of all Camel albums in the 1970s, this one is arguably the least essential — although the Progressive Club predictably rates it higher than Breathless, I profoundly disagree, because I by far prefer this band abandoning all progressive ambitions and going all-out pop than hanging in between, loosening and softening the complexity and energy of their music, but still refusing to make it catchy. Therefore, feel free to just skip Puddle Dances as a misguided transitional album, and see them reinvent themselves with a vengeance on whatever followed.