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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Pink Floyd: Ummagumma


1) Astronomy Domine; 2) Careful With That Axe, Eugene; 3) Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun; 4) A Saucerful Of Secrets; 5) Sysyphus (Pts. 1–4); 6) Grantchester Meadows; 7) Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict; 8) The Narrow Way (Pts. 1–3); 9) The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Pts. 1­­–3).

General verdict: Sane people trying to sound crazy — not the best idea, but workable at times.

Ummagumma is not bad; rather, it seems misguided in a somewhat comical manner. It is arguably the culmination of Pink Floyd's uncomfortable «interregnum» period, when they were still under the invisible pressure from Syd's ghost — marketing themselves as unpredictable weirdos, loosely following the trends of avantgarde music, when in reality Gilmour wanted to play the blues, Wright wanted to revel in melancholy atmospherics, and Waters wanted to punch somebody in the face. Yet even under these warped conditions, Pink Floyd were determined to push on a unique agenda: they did not want to sound like anybody else, ensuring that even after all these years, even their most pointless albums still attract curiosity.

The decision to make a double LP, combining a chunk of their live show with a new studio experience, must have seemed novel at the time (though by no means unprecedented), but today looks particularly regrettable — as a live band, they were already excelling over much, if not most, competition, and if they so wanted a double album, a much safer bet would have simply been to release a double live one, perhaps including a few of their bold semi-improvisations along the way rather than providing us with alternate versions of previously released studio tracks. Even so, the version of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ captured here is the band's only classic that has earned this status exclusively through the live version — which totally destroys the studio B-side by making it longer, subtler, and more tense, and by amplifying Roger's demonic screams to a truly banshee-like state. Some might complain that after taking a short time to wind itself up, the jam takes too much time to wind down, but four minutes is precisely what it takes my nerves to calm down after Roger's screaming, particularly if headphones are involved. Like everything Pink Floyd did after Syd, the song is meticulously calculated for maximum psychological effect, but my only gripe with it is that although it is one of the greatest tributes to horror movies ever made, I cannot imagine any good horror movie in which all of its eight minutes could be used as part of the soundtrack. (Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, in which it was used under the title ʽCome In Number 51, Your Time Is Upʼ, was neither a horror movie nor, I'm afraid, a good one — slow-mo explosions are no visual match for this experience).

The other three live numbers, representing Floyd's space-rocker side, are all impressive, but there is less contrast between them and their studio prototypes. ʽAstronomy Domineʼ loses part of its crazy charm without all the studio overdubs, and Wright's quiet keyboard interludes do not make a lot of sense, but it is still awesome to see them bring back the Terrifying-Space vibe with the limited set of means that was available to them on stage. ʽSet The Controls For The Heart Of The Sunʼ is slightly expanded from its original vamp-like status to include more chaos and thunder on the solo plus yet another psychedelic Wright solo spot; and, surprisingly, ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ, the one number that might have earned a real significant live transformation due to the relative freedom of all its different sections, is performed as close to the original as possible — which is a respectable effort in its own right, but ultimately superfluous.

Regardless, at least all four of these lengthy tracks are legitimate, meaningful, and emotionally impressive compositions — which is more than can be said about the studio part of the LP. For reasons beyond my immediate comprehension (but possibly, as it frequently is in such cases, related to financial issues), the studio LP was equally divided between all four members in com­positional terms: last time a thing like that happened, it was with The Who's A Quick One, and it did not end well at all.

Predictably, there is some fugly crap here. Nick Mason's piece, ʽGrand Vizier's Garden Partyʼ, begins and ends with a nice brief flute part from Nick's wife Lindy (chauvinistically uncredited), but its main section is an attempt to justify the concept of the Futuristic Drum Solo: I give credit to Nick for not wanting to fail at imitating Ginger Baker and John Bonham and doing something different instead, but a drum solo loaded with electronic effects, mutated through tape splicing, and consisting of short bits played at different tempos rather than long uninterrupted blasts is still a drum solo, and that is enough of an offense to get the Grand Vizier to decapitate you on the spot. Besides, how predictable it is for the drummer to «write» a drum solo?..

Moderately better is Rick Wright's ʽSysyphusʼ suite, whose main theme, with its painfully moo­ing synth, fatalistic Mellotron, and doom-laden timpani, is actually quite evocative of the poor king rolling his stone up the mountain. Unfortunately, soon afterwards it turns into a poor man's Chopin, then into an even poorer man's Alban Berg, then into an utterly poor man's John Cage, then segues into nature sounds and proto-New Age, and finally returns to the main theme after a set of disconnected musical hallucinations, presumably caused by Sysyphus ingesting too many mushrooms during one of his in-between-stone-pushing breaks. In a way, the whole thing is intriguing — Rick really does his best to be weird in a dozen different ways — but I think you can tell this was truly not his style.

Waters, the sly one, gets to have one of the most «normal» songs on the album, the lazy-summer-day ode ʽGrantchester Meadowsʼ, where he is found at his most Paul Simon-esque, with merely an acoustic guitar, birds, flies, and beautifully produced double-tracked vocals. An excellent song for relaxing and losing yourself in nature, it is unusually tender (but not sentimental) for Roger, and so lulling that its seven minutes fly by almost undetected. Once the irritating fly has finally been whacked, though, it segues by contrast into one of the album's most radical inventions — and, okay, it is easy as heck to condemn ʽSeveral Species Of Small Furry Animals...ʼ as gratui­tously egotistic crap, but now that we are in the 21st century, it is also fun to note that the track may be seen as the blueprint to a large chunk of the early experimental stuff by The Animal Collective. Actually, the craziness generated by Roger's dicking around with tape speeds, loops, and overdubs, is almost infectious for a couple of minutes — where the track really becomes insufferable is when the fake Scottish accent comes in. Not only is it ethnographically and linguis­tically incorrect to mix up Scots with Picts (about whom, frankly enough, we have no idea what they sounded like), but the effect is just not very funny, and turns what might have been an almost mind-blowing sonic experiment at the time into Benny Hill for no reason.

No wonder, either, that the most openly «musical» chunk of them all belongs to Dave: the first part of ʽThe Narrow Wayʼ is a pleasant acoustic folk instrumental (in much the same vein as Jimmy Page's work from the same period), the second is gruff stoner rock led by a heavy, almost Sabbath-esque guitar riff, and the third is a nice proto-ʽEchoesʼ piece of bluesy art-rock, clearly undercooked but also clearly the most «Floydish» piece of them all. This was Gilmour's first significant solo credit with the band (discounting ʽA Spanish Pieceʼ from More), and while he still had a long way to go at the moment, you can already totally see his trademark signature, and totally (but probably secretly) respect his decision to participate in as little of this bullshit game as possible.

The real bad news about these four distinct chunks is that it could have worked — if the band members were ready to each show their true faces. But I think that Gilmour is the only one here who actually dares to be completely honest with the listener; the rest are too dominated with the parts they are supposed to be playing in order to hold on to their Artistic License. There is so much collective talent in the band that even this forced and uncomfortable nature of the album does not prevent it from being part-time intriguing, part-time hilarious, and part-time charming; nevertheless, as a work of avantgarde art it does not stand proper competition with the likes of, say, The Soft Machine, who, conversely, only succeeded as long as they were weird. The Hip­gnosis album cover is really cool, though — first and last time that the post-Barrett band would be featured on the front sleeve... and so many times!


  1. Hi George please ditch the yellow text. My eyesight is only moderately terrible yet I can't read it at all against a white background

  2. I agree with Andrew. The yellow text has got to go

  3. Make it mustard yellow!

  4. Great review as always. But what possessed you to post record reviews in such a garishly loud color? The nerve of some people.

  5. Might at least be somewhat ethnographically correct to confound Picts with Scots, as typically cultural/linguistic expantion and supercedence happen without complete anniolation of the preceding culture and people. Of course lots of Scots got Norce ancestry as well. And I'm thinking there just might have been some trans-species exchange going down here to boot, at least culturally.