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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pink Floyd: Meddle

PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE (1971)

1) One Of These Days; 2) A Pillow Of Winds; 3) Fearless; 4) San Tropez; 5) Seamus; 6) Echoes.

General verdict: ...in which Pink Floyd finally unveil their master plan to take over the galaxy.

Meddle both closes a whole era in Pink Floyd history, and opens a new one — but if we were forced to make a clear-cut classification that does not allow for transitional states, I'd say that Meddle still belongs in the 1968-70 pool, and, together with the famous Pompeii concert, closes the door on psychedelia, avantgarde, and surrealism as the leading notions in the band's art. After this album, the band would begin to make music that made sense, from a philosophical and / or social standpoint — and it wasn't entirely because of Roger Waters assuming the reins, because everybody else joined in of their own free volition.

Meddle carries little by way of a profound (or not so profound) spiritual / intellectual message. Like the records preceding it, it is full of moments that are just bizarre, or enigmatic, or comical, or mind-blowing, but there is no ʽTimeʼ or ʽMoneyʼ here to guide people through crises of faith, no ʽShine On You Crazy Diamondʼ to bring on manly tears, no ʽPigsʼ or ʽDogsʼ to nourish our political beliefs and build up our social determination. Well, come to think of it, there is a pig — or, at least, part of a pig, in the form of a pig's ear on the Hipgnosis album cover. And, come to think some more, there is a dog — wailing and howling the blues on ʽSeamusʼ, in an innocent era when a popular act could still get away with this without bringing on the ire of animal rights activists. The difference is, nobody can claim to understand why there is a pig and dog on Meddle. They simply are. By 1973, Pink Floyd would be far more rational in their approach.

However, despite the fact that the themes of Meddle remain pretty much the same (you could say that ʽEchoesʼ simply continues the line of ʽA Saucerful Of Secretsʼ, and that ʽOne Of These Daysʼ builds up on the legacy of ʽCareful With That Axe, Eugeneʼ, etc.), the musical means of Floyd have by now evolved immensely — and the array of instrumental tones, production tech­niques, and melodic moves that is displayed here is much closer to Dark Side Of The Moon than to Atom Heart Mother. Roger's double-tracked bass that opens the album is as good a herald of a new era as anything: it has a sinister, merciless aura to it that had not been previously heard, but would be heard many more times on everything from ʽSheepʼ to ʽRun Like Hellʼ. More than anything, perhaps, Meddle has discipline — as the textures become denser and deeper, so does the level of rigid control behind them increase progressively as well. That funky mid-section in ʽEchoesʼ? Never before had the band gelled so tightly as a team — on this particular track, they might even have made proud such formerly untouchable competitors as Can.

Which means that I can very easily see where for some people Meddle might be the perfect Floyd experience — they have achieved top rank here as musicians, yet still remain completely free of the preaching / proselityzing / mentorial overtones, commonly associated with Waters and causing nasty rashes for those who like their music a bit more ambiguous and inscrutable. Heck, it might have been the perfect Floyd experience for myself — if not for the nasty realization that the album still sags in the middle, in a rather unpardonable fashion.

In between ʽOne Of These Daysʼ and ʽEchoesʼ, the two high points to which we will return later, Meddle squeezes four songs that range from «just good» to «somewhat silly», and I believe that most Floyd fans would agree that ʽSan Tropezʼ, a fluffy bit of jazzy vaudeville with Waters singing like Chet Baker, and ʽSeamusʼ, two minutes of generic 12-bar acoustic blues accompa­nied by Steve Marriott's collie dog (poor, poor thing!), tend to incline towards «somewhat silly», and not even particularly humorous, because, unlike The Beatles in their silliest moments, Pink Floyd always struggled with their sense of humor.

ʽA Pillow Of Windsʼ and ʽFearlessʼ are significantly more serious, but still, both of these pieces belong in that part of Floyd's pleasant past that is (a) more about atmosphere than truly memo­rable melody and (b) very much not exclusively Floydian in nature. ʽPillowʼ has a really nice bedrock of ʽDear Prudenceʼ-like acoustic picking, electric slide howls, and minimalistic bass zoops, but everything is a bit too soft and smooth to elicit any strong emotions — the song con­tinues the string of «lazing on a sunny afternoon»-style ballads that Waters was so oddly fond of in those years of transition. ʽFearlessʼ is more often acknowledged as a forgotten classic, but its biggest hook (the little upscaling, stuttery riff played against the acoustic rhythm) appears out of nowhere and is a bit too repetitive to make a proper impression; and the sudden transition of the song into a field recording of a Liverpool stadium chanting ʽYou'll Never Walk Aloneʼ makes preciously little sense, if you ask me.

Certainly all four of these are a tad anti-climactic after the opening stun of ʽOne Of These Daysʼ, easily the most aggressive Floyd track created up to that point — reflecting Eugene's maturation from a dangerous sleepwalker who is sometimes not very careful with his axe into a terrifying psychopath, now well awake and hellbent on cutting you into little pieces. The entire six minutes of this song is a relentless chase through the forest, as you keep running away from Death Incar­nate, its personality largely shaped by Waters' pulsating iron bass and Gilmour's heavily distorted blues soloing — although there is no discounting Rick's doom-spelling Hammond organ, either. They may not have started out this song with the intention of posing as the Four Horsemen, but that is the way it plays out, and I can see how it could still be possible to be creeped out by parts of this tune even in the 21st century. It even has one of the earliest examples of growling death metal vocals ever, and by Nick Mason, of all people! (Granted, when you get down to the bottom of it, it's all just a matter of slowed down tape — but who can tell the difference between slowed down tape and a death growl, anyway?).

As for ʽEchoesʼ, Floyd's second and last stab at a side-long progressive suite... well, the worst thing I can say about ʽEchoesʼ is that the composition truly came to life on stage. The studio version sounds positively docile when compared to the way they played it in Pompeii — or, for that matter, to the way Gilmour and Wright played it on their last tour together. With the live versions in hand, I am ashamed to say that I rarely come back to the mother — which, of course, does not make it any less monumental in terms of structure and emotional impact. Unlike ʽAtom Heart Motherʼ, ʽEchoesʼ is perfectly thought out, and could be interpreted as either a musical interpretation of The Creation (something vaguely alluded to in the Pompeii movie, where the music is cleverly intertwined with footage of volcanic eruptions, among other things), or a musical portrait of a passionately romantic human being — actually, the first verse of the song is about the former, and the second is about the latter, so it works all possible ways.

This is where everything, all the long years of toil and experiment, finally pay off — the build-up is fantastic, the thunderous wave-crashes following the verses take one's breath away (particu­larly in the late live versions, where they are accompanied by killer laser shows) — so much so that when the song seamlessly slides into its harsh, clenched-teeth, funky groove part at 7:00 into the show, it's like a breath of relief from all the tension. Many prog epics start and end great, but lag and sag in the middle — ʽEchoesʼ completely avoids that trap by sewing together several completely different components, going from gorgeous atmospheric ballad to epic Olympic rock to gritty funky jamming to ambient seascape painting (with Gilmour's guitar posing as the Alpha Seagull) and then completing the circle, with everything at top power level required.

It is surprising to me that after such a tremendous success, Floyd would never again properly revisit this territory — by the time they'd return to epic-length songs with Animals, their vision was already far more grounded and focused on the little people rather than the cosmic forces dominating the universe. But then again, I also doubt they would be capable of making another masterpiece of the same caliber: ʽEchoesʼ is their equivalent of Mahler's 8th (well, not literally, of course, just in relative terms of ambitiousness), and not wanting to spoil the effect with a pale shadow of the same thing is a respectable decision.

Even if everything else on Meddle sucked, the album would still deserve a high rating just for its second side — and I understand that, with all their forces probably concentrated on making this Gargantuan thing work, they may have earned the right to include a few passable pieces on the first side. Whatever be, as far as «Cosmic Pink Floyd» is concerned, Meddle represents the final triumph of Ambitious Reason over Barely Controlled Chaos — it succeeds totally, where every single one of their post-Piper records only succeeded in a humbly compromising manner. And, of course, it is the direct antipode of ʽPiperʼ: play ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ and ʽEchoesʼ back to back to see how random Brownian motion differs from mighty Intelligent Design. Which one do you prefer? It should probably depend on one's degree of intoxication.

7 comments:

  1. For many, this IS the first Pink Floyd album. Screw all that earlier noodling around and bizarre English pop stuff.

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  2. I don't know about that pig, if you open up the gatefold sleeve and turn it sideways it looks more like a human ear to me: http://i.imgur.com/9FNJwe7.png

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    1. That image is doctored. This is the actual album cover, which clearly does not show a human ear: http://i.imgur.com/FdMft9T.jpg

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    2. Here, I've rotated it to better show the contrast: http://i.imgur.com/eD7Vw7I.png

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    3. On closer inspection, never mind. It is a human ear. The ripples made the surface look flatter than it actually is, especially compared to the doctored version.

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  3. "It is surprising to me that after such a tremendous success, Floyd would never again properly revisit this territory..." I think they went there with 'Shine On...', unfortunately the instrumental sections of the second half of that piece aren't nearly as inspired and recycle some of the ideas from this album, mainly the aggressive slide guitar section (Part VI) echoing 'One of These Days' and the funky jam of Part VIII echoing (ha) the jam section of 'Echoes' (and 'Atom Heart Mother' before it).

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  4. I enjoy all peaces between ...these days and Echoes; 1st perfect and proper Floyd ....

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