By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2014 01:32PM
I remember rushing out to buy a just-released album when I was a teenager, the heavily anticipated Wish You Were Here for example, bringing it home and listening to it two or three or four times in quick succession, sleeve in hands, poring over the images, credits and lyrics, assimilating the music. These initial listening sessions may have been using headphones to reduce the inconvenience of abstract sound on my parents or, if they were out in Kendal or Lancaster, inviting friends around to listen to it on our ‘best’ stereo.
I’ve just done this again, for the first time in many years, for an album that has been hyped as ‘the most anticipated album for 20 years.’ I had thought of pre-ordering a mid-range CD and Blu-Ray set of The Endless River from Burning Shed but a release date that coincided with Christmas-present buying and a couple of reviews, one in Prog magazine and one in The Guardian, dampened my initial enthusiasm for the project, despite an encouraging article in the same edition of Prog so I thought I’d add the album to my wish list and wait. It turns out I couldn’t wait and as I type this, I’m on my second listen, headphones on to avoid the inconvenience of abstract sound on my wife. My Sennheiser Anniversary HD414’s don’t appear to be able to cope with some of the frequencies present, creating an intermittent light buzz in the right channel – but they are over 20 years old; I’m using some Bose QC 15s for this second listen.
I’ve not acquired the album on vinyl, because the buying options available in Croydon’s recently reopened HMV were more limited than those available online. However, it is pleasing to go into a shop and pick up a physical product. I’ve pored over the information in the hardback digibook, which is a rather nice presentation for a CD. So what about the music? We’d been pre-warned that this was material from the Division Bell sessions and that it had passed through the hands of a number of producers in order to shape it into something coherent. I had been concerned about the critics’ insistence on pointing out the (short) length of the tracks but I believe you should ignore the individual tracks and seemingly arbitrary divisions into sides 1, 2, 3 and 4 and just take the music as one piece. Some people have called it ‘ambient’ but ‘instrumental’ would be a more apt description, with the exception of the final track Louder than Words; the tracks are seamlessly joined together using segments of early-Floyd sounding space-rock effects including a piece of metal sliding down the guitar strings, something I appreciate because it’s something I’ve borrowed from the Floyd for my own music (I use a tremolo arm) and, despite the self-depreciating track title On Noodle Street, it never comes across as pointless or self-indulgent. Early Floyd is in the ascendant during the first five tracks. After the opener, Things Left Unsaid, featuring the voices of the three members of the last incarnation of Pink Floyd that could have been taken from studio conversations for Live at Pompeii with Adrian Maben, beginning with Rick Wright saying “There’s certainly an unspoken understanding” followed by Gilmour, “There’s a lot of things unsaid”, comes what can only be described as a section inspired by Shine On You Crazy Diamond called It’s What We Do; over the keyboard wash you get the trumpet synthesizer sound and Gilmour adds languid guitar that transports you back to 1975, removing the black shrink wrap from your new purchase, trying not to rip the George Hardie ‘handshake’ graphic. Skins references Nick Mason’s contribution to the studio album of Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party. Though there’s no Mellotron on Skins, the keyboard part hints at the experimentation of 1969. There aren’t just references to earlier material; a tape of Rick Wright playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall during a sound check for a performance in 1969 (after which they were banned for using a smoke bomb, a professional hazard for rock acts at the RAH) forms the basis of Autumn ’68 and serves as a very fitting tribute to the keyboard player who died in September 2008. The title of the new track refers to Summer ’68, the Wright-penned track from side two of Atom Heart Mother.
The obvious unused material for The Division Bell, as opposed to warm-up jam sessions, includes the Stephen Hawking computer-voiced Hawkin’ Talkin’ but there is material that hints at Wall-era Floyd, what some fans regard as their best period and some may not have listened to anything before that. I think that these moments work well because they are reminiscent of the best instrumental sections of The Wall, untainted by Waters-penned lyrics. It’s quite neat that the only track with vocals, Louder Than Words, comes right at the end; it forms a conceptual bookend with Things Left Unsaid and Polly Samson’s words neatly summarise the tensions between the personalities in the Floyd but also remind us of some of their classic material, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Division Bell. This track, the longest on the album (if we’re going to count) could easily have been released in 1994.
Overall, the album fits neatly into the style of Pink Floyd from 1968 – 1977 with its long-form, multipart suite format that was integral to side long tracks Atom Heart Mother and Echoes and the 27 minute Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but also includes works such as the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets; the sound is both modern (and the Floyd have always utilised the most up-to-date studio equipment at their disposal, their production values much admired) and old school, with Farfisa and Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gilmour’s guitar playing is mature but dips into his past innovative use of the instrument to produce sound effects for the transition between tracks; Mason’s drumming is the best he’s performed and there are no supplementary percussionists.
It’s What We Do, the second longest track on the album at 6’17” is probably my favourite subsection because of the overt 1975 musical quotation. The album, taken as a whole (as Dave Gilmour himself has suggested you do) is like a historical journey, not necessarily linear, of the entire Floyd output with a bias towards the earlier material and with the album title providing a nice link to The Division Bell (a lyric on High Hopes.)
This is Pink Floyd. This is classic Pink Floyd. This is probably the last of Pink Floyd.