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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Camel: Stationary Traveller

CAMEL: STATIONARY TRAVELLER (1984)

1) Pressure Points; 2) Refugee; 3) Vopos; 4) Cloak And Dagger Man; 5) Stationary Traveller; 6) West Berlin; 7) Fingertips; 8) Missing; 9) After Words; 10) Long Goodbyes.

I imagine that after the blatant «sellout» of Single Factor, this was Latimer's attempt at repen­tance — another concept album on the issue of feeling lonely, oppressed, and rejected in a hostile world, only this time neither rooted in fantasy, as Snow Goose, nor in exotic reality, like Nude: Stationary Traveller deals with the everyday routine and escapist dreams of East Berliners, just five years before the demolition of The Wall, but still in a period when most people could hardly even dream about this event. A pretty decent topic for a Camel album, for sure, but the lineup assembled by Latimer for the sessions is questionable from the beginning — Ton Scherpenzeel on keyboards, a Dutch player who was the founding member of the occasionally pretty, but often bland and boring «soft-prog» band Kayak; and drummer Paul Burgess, whose main claim to fame was playing for the Godley-less and Creme-free version of 10cc.

Not that we should exclusively blame the keyboardist and the drummer for the fact that Statio­nary Traveller, for the most part, is a tedious, lifeless bore — a record that, dare I say it, is much worse than The Single Factor, because it pretends to a higher level of spirituality and a deeper level of, uh, depth, while at the same time fully embracing the safe, predictable, and sonically limp values of «adult contemporary». The sound has been compressed into a single monotonous texture of plastic synthesizers and Latimer's out-of-new-ideas weepy guitar solos, and all the songs produce absolutely the same emotional effect. Unfortunately, I just can't take any of this seriously — certainly not when even a Mel Collins guest spot on ʽFingertipsʼ takes on the charac­teristics of jazz muzak à la Kenny G.

What really kills the album is that its ultra-serious tone came at a very inopportune time. Take a song like ʽVoposʼ, which is supposed to brew up an atmosphere of fear, nay, dread at the per­spec­tive of being taken at night by the Volkspolizei — the atmosphere in question being repre­sented by a dark synth-bass line, a couple simple overdubbed synth loops, and a distorted power metal riff added in climactic moments. Not only do all those tones sound plastic and dated in the modern age, but the effort seems lazy and amateurish compared to emotionally similar work from, say, The Cure: Latimer is simply incapable of handling all that technology without making it obvious that he is doing it just for the sake of trendiness. Or ʽCloak And Dagger Manʼ — that's a classic example of «dinosaur prog gone pop», a steroid-muscular rocker that sounds more like post-Howe Asia than anything truly respectable... and, by the way, why is it trying to be so furious when it's about secret KGB agents?

It gets no better with the instrumentals, which uniformly lack memorable themes and just feature one dull keyboard or guitar solo after another. ʽPressure Pointsʼ is arguably the most interesting of these, compositionally, with Latimer taking after Mike Oldfield and delivering a strongly Celtic-influenced rather than blues-based passage — but the effect is still almost nullified by the awful backing synthesizers. As for stuff like the title track, it's largely conventional blues balla­deering (ʽHotel Californiaʼ style) with equally awful arrangements.

By the time we get to the grand finale of ʽLong Goodbyesʼ, your main concern might very likely be about how to make the actual goodbye shorter — at any cost possible. You were supposed to be drawn into a realistic atmosphere of fear, depression, and solitude, but the means chosen to express it all were so inept that, of all Westerners alive, I can only think of Barclay James Harvest as an even worse speaker for the freedom and happiness of German people. I have no idea of how well the album did on Western German charts at the time, but I do know that Decca never expressed any desire to go on with Camel's contract after it was released, and for once, I couldn't really blame them; so here we go, with the first definitive thumbs down in Camel history.

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