CAMEL: THE SNOW GOOSE (1975)
1) The Great Marsh; 2) Rhayader; 3) Rhayader Goes To Town; 4) Sanctuary; 5) Fritha; 6) The Snow Goose; 7) Friendship; 8) Migration; 9) Rhayader Alone; 10) Flight Of The Snow Goose; 11) Preparation; 12) Dunkirk; 13) Epitaph; 14) Fritha Alone; 15) La Princesse Perdue; 16) The Great Marsh.
I confess that I have not read anything by Paul Gallico — I also confess that the basic plotline of The Snow Goose does not impress me nearly enough to seek it out, nor do the occasional critical slashes at the sixty-four page novella that accuse it of excessive sentimentality. Nevertheless, I would also think that a profound acquaintance with this literary work is not totally necessary in order to enjoy Camel's third album for what it is: the quintessential, if maybe not the best, Camel album that only Camel could have made.
Ironically, it was the success of the lengthy suites on Mirage that led the band to considering making a record that would be fully based on a piece of literature; but that piece of literature was not a Tolkien epic, but a modern time fairy tale with a sad ending, sort of a cross between Hans Christian Andersen and Erich Maria Remarque. The fairy tale has three characters — the loner Rhayader, the innocent girl Fritha, and the symbolic Snow Goose — who are so self-sufficient, it seems, that the entire world, from the marshlands of Essex to the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, just acts as a canvas for their triangularity. That was exactly what Latimer and Bardens needed to set them back on the right track and recreate the atmosphere of dark-beautiful loneliness that they originally generated on Camel, but sort of dissipated on Mirage.
The album is completely instrumental, and its full title is, in fact, Music Inspired By The Snow Goose; both of these things are due to Gallico's disapproval of the project and the necessity to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits. The lack of vocals does make the experience a bit more demanding: the tunes are generally very similar in mood, and the emphasis is on texture rather than flashy, distinctive hooks. But The Snow Goose really has to be assimilated as one 43-minute suite with a bunch of separate movements, even though some of the songs had to be pulled out as singles; in concert, they tended to play it complete whenever possible, and even the titles clearly hint that they're all part of a whole — I mean, ʻFlight Of The Snow Gooseʼ, when issued as a single, probably made people not-in-the-know think it was a parody on ʻFlight Of The Bumblebeeʼ or something.
The music in general is fairly typical for Camel, incorporating elements of jazz fusion, folk, «art-pop» hearkening back to Sixties' psychedelia, and first generation symph-prog. Everything is handled very delicately: despite the sentimental potential, this is not really the kind of music that will tear and rip you apart with sonic passion — most of the themes are played quietly, without rising to breathtaking heights or plunging to abysmal depths. For instance, ʻRhayaderʼjust hops along at a moderately fast tempo, with pretty flute and keyboard melodies creating a cheerful atmosphere (too cheerful, I'd say, for a loner like the title character); ʻRhayader Goes To Townʼ slightly increases tempo and fuss, throws in some shrill guitar solos, then becomes a blues jam for a few minutes, then just sort of fizzles away. Always pleasant to hear, rarely memorable.
In my opinion, this «pleasantness» only becomes to gradually evolve into something grander with ʻFlight Of The Snow Gooseʼ — all those short bits when Rhayader and Fritha save the bird and help it to convalesce are cute, but it is only when the main theme of ʻFlightʼ emerges out of the synth bubbles that the album starts building a bit of epic muscle. ʻDunkirkʼ is the second big success, though probably not as big as it could have been: the jazz-rock interpretation of the big event is quite furious for Camel, but surely Yes or ELP would have raised even more tension. And then there is the stately finale of ʻLa Princesse Perdueʼ, built around a simple, but beautiful «friendly-sad» guitar figure from Latimer, reminiscent of either Harrison or Gilmour, depending on your immediate associations. The musical ideas contained in these three tracks are like pillars on which everything else is resting.
That said, I would not have given the album a thumbs up for just three tracks. In reality, it is the kind of record that I like more when I am not listening to it too closely. When I try to do that, I usually get bored quickly; but if I do not, eventually it grows into something bigger and more mysterious than simple background music. Believe it or not, it does feel like some strange and sentimental happening, taking place somewhere in a far away marshland: lonely place, lonely people, spiritual isolation, the works. You might have to wait a little for the humble magic to start happening, but eventually it will, maybe with a little active help from the imagination. And maybe it is a good thing that this album was not made by the likes of Yes or ELP, because they would have made it all on a grand grand scale, which would be all right for ʻDunkirkʼ but certainly not for any other tracks. The subject, the atmosphere, the vision — this all perfectly suits the talents and characters of Bardens and Latimer.