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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Camel: I Can See Your House From Here


1) Wait; 2) Your Love Is Stranger Than Mine; 3) Eye Of The Storm; 4) Who We Are; 5) Survival; 6) Hymn To Her; 7) Neon Magic; 8) Remote Romance; 9) Ice.

Just by glancing at the album cover and title, you'd think that Camel's last album of the decade would be some sort of sci-fi extravaganza — maybe a Gargantuan tribute to the lonesome genius of ʻSpace Oddityʼ, or a Tangerine Dream-influenced escapade into cosmic ambience. Turns out that nothing could be further from the truth: the whole setup probably owes more to marketing strategies and Star Wars-era futurism-in-the-past than actual musical content. Instead, what you really get here is Camel's most mainstream and poppy piece of product so far, an album even more «commercial» in nature than Breathless, but hopefully we are all sufficiently grown-up here to not let this detract us from an objective and adequate assessment.

The sessions marked what was probably the single most significant line-up change in Camel history: the departure of Pete Bardens, temporarily replaced by not one, but two keyboardists: Jan Schelhaas, formerly of Caravan, and Kit Watkins, formerly of Happy The Man (so third-genera­tion prog they even named themselves after a Genesis song!). In addition to that, Richard Sinclair also left, replaced by Colin Bass on, appropriately, bass; and, although Mel Collins still blows his sax on a few of these tunes, he'd also quit soon after the sessions. And, as if that weren't enough, rumor has it that Phil Collins himself adds his percussion skills somewhere, but I could not locate any individual song credits, and I am too unworthy to take a guess.

Anyway, with all these major changes we might expect major musical twists as well, but, as it happens, the transition between Breathless and its follow-up is fairly smooth — probably be­cause already the former was largely dominated by Latimer, and it was that dominance that ulti­mately caused Bardens to throw in the towel. Here, too, almost all the songs are either written exclusively or co-written by Latimer; the only exception is the instrumental ʻEye Of The Stormʼ that Watkins brought over with him from Happy The Man, a moody, leisurely stroll that slowly takes on a bolero-like form while not producing much of anything, except for the intertwining crawling patterns of two synthesizers — "eye of the storm" indeed.

As you can understand, this is the most «progressive» bit on the album, although it is seriously challenged by the final track, ʻIceʼ, which is even slower, features just as many vocal bits (none), and is really used as a simple trampoline from which Latimer unleashes an epic guitar solo, again showing us how well he can challenge Dave Gilmour at romantic bluesy desperation (actually, I'd say that the typical romantic bluesy desperate Latimer guitar solo from the 1970s sounds like a later, rather than earlier, Gilmour solo — think Division Bell era or something like that). The mechanics of that emotional manipulation are well understood, but Andrew still manages to stay on the other side of cheesiness, with what I'd call «realistic» tunings and tones as opposed to extra-flash-and-pomp you'd encounter on, say, a Gary Moore record. Simply put, I'll never be capable of crying my heart out to the sounds of that solo — but I'd gladly recognize anybody else's right to do that.

Most of the other material is poppy, ranging from the opening Seventies-style hello-sunshine upbeatness of ʻWaitʼ and ʻYour Love Is Stranger Than Mineʼ to the more contemporary, New Wave-influenced ʻRemote Romanceʼ that sounds like 10cc trying to write a Cars song (granted, I probably made it sound more interesting than it actually is). Oh, and how could we forget ʻNeon Magicʼ, the very title of which probably dates the song to a specific period? Featuring probably the very worst vocal delivery on any Camel album ever, it's not a disco song, but still one of those dance numbers that supposedly sound like parodies of dance numbers and end up being... just dance numbers. It's one of those pitfalls that are so very hard to avoid when you're trying to carry out an intelligent, critically appreciated sellout.

There's even a sentimental pop song here disguised as a prog epic due to its length — 7:51 for ʻWho We Areʼ is overkill, possibly inherited from Caravan, who had also by that time completed the transgression to pop, but sometimes allocated unreasonable spans to their ballad material. The good news is that all this soft-rock stuff is quite catchy, and most of the songs breathe with a very natural gentleness, never spoiled by excessive operatic oversinging, abuse of orchestration or synthesizers, or any uncomfortably cloying moves. There might be a bit too many falsetto vocal harmonies, and, most importantly, there might be an overdose of sweetness, but even something as simple as "we were meant for each other, we will love one another" can be forgivable if it is arranged as a captivating earworm.

On the whole, the album is a bit of a letdown after Breathless: the band takes fewer chances and goes for a generally more cohesive and monotonous approach, making even their «proggier» titles more poppy and accessible. But from a purely melodic point of view, it actually shows Latimer becoming a certified master of the form — and for doing that with very few lapses of taste (ʻNeon Magicʼ notwithstanding), the record certainly deserves a thumbs up.


  1. I've never been a big fan of this one or 'Nude' as whole albums (Neon Magic is a crime), but I find it puzzling you didn't mention the other song that endures in Camel live repertoire besides Ice (I'm one of those you say that finds it moving, although I prefer the latter similar instrumental 'Sahara' from 'Rajaz'): 'Hymn to Her'. The main guitar melody es as good as Camel gets, and many fans I know cite it as one of their favourite songs.

  2. Even though I've read your old review of ICSYHFH I was waiting for this in hopes that you'd have changed your mind about Hymn to Her. It's quite possibly my favorite song of all time.

  3. Listening to Ice has caused me to ball my eyes out on more than one occasion--nice thing to try if you're feeling vulnerable at some point. Who We Is is also quite lovely and majestic, if a wee schlocky in a new wave kind of way. I rather like the album. Perhaps it isn't quite as wholesome as Breathless, but it is tasteful and artfully crafted. I'd argue that it is not really any less proggy than Breathless in fact. There is just as much song-stretching, and even more unusual time signatures than that album. It is really the new wave vibe I guess that makes the album seem a little more snappy--I'd credit the production more so than the composing. The keyboardests are both total wizzes on their tools, particularly Kitt, who I believe does most of the soloing. BTW, according to guitarist Stan Whitaker, the name Happy the Man does not derive from the Genesis number, but rather from a quote from Goete. Seems rather too coinkidincal to be true considering how heavily influenced HTM was by early Genesis, but that's the claim.