CAMEL: RAJAZ (1999)
1) Three Wishes; 2) Lost And Found; 3) The Final Encore; 4) Rajaz; 5) Shout; 6) Straight To My Heart; 7) Sahara; 8) Lawrence.
Rajaz is an Arabic poetry meter that has traditionally been associated with the slow, regular pace of camel hooves across the desert — meaning that, all of a sudden, Latimer must have woken up from a prolonged dreaming period and thought, «Hey! Last time we actually justified the band's name was on the album cover for Mirage! Why do I keep calling this outfit Camel if all I do is sing about the Berlin Wall, the Dust Bowl, and Irish immigration?» And there you have it — after years, if not decades, of detours, Rajaz is a conscious attempt to (a) explain why the band was originally named Camel after all and (b) get back to its (Camel's) original roots, or at least provide some reasonable facsimile.
Of course, this is not really a nostalgic revisit of the styles and sounds of Mirage or any of those early records. Once the initial positive reaction of the «wow! finally something different and attention-grabbing!» is over, you begin to realize that this is still very much a solo Latimer album, and that he is still relying on the same chords and moods, and that Ton Scherpenzeel is back on keyboards, and that Latimer's wife is still writing the lyrics, and that the best tracks are all grouped in the record's first half, and that it still tends to slip back into moody, draggy, Harbour Of Tears-like inoffensiveness every now and then, and...
...and none of it really matters when the album opens with ʽThree Wishesʼ, a multi-part instrumental that employs complex and frequent tempo changes, for once, and even incorporates elements of jazz fusion — first time in how many years? Even the keyboards, which had been Camel's weakest link ever since Bardens' departure, have been diversified, with Scherpenzeel using a whole array of organs and synthesizers instead of stubbornly sticking to the plastic string-imitating tones of yesterday. The track has a nice buildup, gradually evolving from a desert-like atmosphere of solitary blueswailing lines over a dusty synth horizon to a pretty art-pop gallop through said desert and then to bits of tricky jazzy time signatures and, eventually, even a mystically-magically distorted pseudo-Eastern guitar solo which is probably the closest Latimer ever came close to sounding like Steve Vai in his entire career.
That is just to give you the general idea that things are on the move — like I said, do not expect too much change, but expect just enough to feel a new surge of life after the seemingly endless rut of the past fifteen years. When the vocals enter the picture on ʽLost And Foundʼ, the impression is disappointing — the same kind of tender hookless ballad that we already know so well — but once they go away, it's back to jerky-jazzy signatures and tonal diversity, with no less than three different approaches to guitar soloing, the last of which, heavy on sustained notes, seems to be taking a serious (and efficient) lesson from Robert Fripp. More stellar guitar work awaits on ʽThe Final Encoreʼ, and then, of course, there is the title track — yes, the one allegedly composed «on the camel meter», and while it does not exactly conjure visions of camels all by itself (probably because it shows no Eastern influence whatsoever in the melody), it's still a good example of «sick and tired blues», culminating in a drawn-out slide solo that helps make the accompanying four-note «camel riff» even more hypnotic.
As we get to the second half, things begin to get less and less exciting, with more languid balladry like ʽStraight To My Heartʼ and fewer of these exciting jazzy interludes. Still, ʽSaharaʼ is largely similar in structure to ʽThree Wishesʼ (same mish-mash of New Agey ambience, happy art-pop, and Eastern overtones), and if only the grand finale of ʽLawrenceʼ weren't so stretched out — Andy, come back to your senses, you're no David Lean! — it would have made for a more convincing conceptual conclusion; but it's a little too slow, too repetitive, and too scarce on ideas that weren't already musicalized on the first three tracks. In other words, sixty minutes of music is overkill: by all means, Latimer should have restricted himself to the usual running length of the LP era. We know he's a first-rate guitar player already.
Still, there is no denying it: Rajaz is the best Camel record since Nude, and although I am sure it could have been even better (if, for instance, Latimer had bothered bringing in a more refined keyboard player, or if he'd made it completely instrumental), it's one of those reassuring moments when you know that you have not waited around for nothing — the moment when cobwebs are shaken off, the sleeping giant awakens (or at least bats an eye), and suddenly you distinctly remember why you used to single out the band in the first place. A definite thumbs up.