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Pink Floyd - Ummagumma CD (album) cover

UMMAGUMMA

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.48 | 1211 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Wicket
Prog Reviewer
1 stars Ever wonder what John Cage and "Ummagumma" have in common? Well, the answer explains the extremely rare path Pink Floyd undertook to develop their unique sound. (And read the whole review before you jump to conclusions.)

All bands, no matter what they play or how famous they are, usually tend to follow the path of the tried and true sound, with a few tweaks along the way, or the path of most resistance, taking a complete 180 halfway through their careers, a la Beatles.

And then there's a little band from England called Pink Floyd.

They started where the Beatles left off, in psychedelica land: kinda catchy, but fairly forgettable. Then again, this was the late 60's: taking acid everyday was considered healthy for the human body. But Pink Floyd decided to undertake something fairly radical, especially at this point in time:

They changed their sound with each forthcoming album.

Sure, elements of trippiness remain. "Saucerful Of Secrets" began with "Let There Be Light", which fused the fading drug-tinged rock n roll vocals with prototypical guitar solos that would later become a staple in the Floyd repetoire. It seemed irrelevant then, as it's still long forgotten even in the mind of the true progressive fanbase. No coincidence that the most famed off the album is "Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun", a prototypical space-out jam, something Pink Floyd mastered during their hayday.

And yet, no seems to remember the title track, the longest one, filled with spacey sounds, organ jumbles and slow, soothing chords at the end. Hmm, I wonder why? Ignoring the "More" soundtrack (fairly forgettable), "Saucerful Of Secrets" was comprised of the psych rock of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and the acid-tripping experimentation of this album, "Ummagumma". Ignoring the first four tracks, live versions of older songs, this is, by far, the most complicated and difficult Floyd album to breach, mainly because of the many similarities with 20th-century classical music.

Those of you who know your classical music will know that tonality (pieces with key signatures) died in 1909 when Arnold Schoenberg published his Drei Klavierstücke in 1909, marking the first time a piece was published that contained no key signatures and truly abandoned harmony and tonality. Ever since then, composers expanded his twelve-tone theory technique and fiddled with creation compositions in various means, using microtones, unusual instruments, adding electronic sounds, finally coming to a head when John Cage published his now infamous "4'33" in 1953, in which a composer sits at a piano for 4 mintues and 33 seconds, doing absolutely nothing.

But what does that have to do with this album, you ask? Everything.

The album truly begins with "Sysyphus", which begins with ominous timpani and low drones, heralding doom and despair. Probably. At least, Part 1 does. You'd think it would be the start of a grand prog epic, but actually, Part 2 is, essentially, a piano solo. Think of "Sysyphus" as a classical composition. Part 1 is the theme of dread, whereas Part 2 begins with lush, beautiful piano harmonies, effortlessly flowing through key signatures and slight hints of chromaticism all around. Halfway through Part 2, Richard Wright's piano playing deters from the traditional happy, melodic sounds and immediately descends into atonality, "stressful music", exactly the kind of stuff that Schoenburg had essentially conceived back in 1909, thus ending in a flurry of tone clusters which was probably just Wright punching his piano over and over again. I mean, that's what it sounds like. I've tried that.

Part 3 continues along the evolutionary line of classical music. Without insider knowledge, it sounds essentially like the inner pluckings of a piano, highlighted by sporadic cymbal mutes and snare drum crushes... and screaming babies. I think. But again, the similarities of this album and the progression of classical music in the 20th century are astonishing. The birth of the percussion ensemble in the 1930's was the result of the melodies created, but with whatever sounds could be produced by hitting instruments and other things.

Part 4 sounds almost exactly like a Morton Feldman composition. Feldman took music to new heights when he composed atonal music with normal instruments, but then expanded the lengths of the pieces so vast, it would make a Yes album feel puny by comparison. With no percussion or noticeable rhythm, the entire piece floated on in ghostly fashion, much like Part 4. Even when the organ enters, there's nothing for the listener to grab onto, no noticeable theme, no catchy melody, until the main theme from Part 1 slowly hovers back into view with roughly a minute left to go. It's a marvelous composition when taken as a whole. Not really something you'd hear on Q104.3's classic rock station, though.

"Grantchester Meadows", then, comes as a surprise. It's not particularly catchy, but it's traditional Pink Floyd prog folk. Perhaps an experimentation of traditional British folk tunes? Possibly, composers like Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams were masters at taking British folk songs and incorporating their elements into more modern compositions composed with modern means.

Still not convinced by the relations with contemporary classical music? The next track drives the nail in the coffin. "Several Species" is essentially 5 minutes of noise, or, if you're John Cage, music. It was this extreme philosophy that forced people to rethink music. If coughing or sneazing could be considered music, something had to change, but it was this experimentation that defined the 20th century in terms of classical music, and it was this experimentation that also defined Pink Floyd. Unlike contemporary composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen or Milton Babbit or Brian Ferneyhough, they realized they had no gone too far the other way in terms of the musical spectrum, so they decided, "let's try to meet in the middle!"

"The Narrow Way" begins with a nice little acoustic passage highlighted with synth sounds and wooshes, followed by Part 2 which sounds a bit omminous a la "Sysyphus Part 1", which fades out into drones and whistles before vocals enter in Part 3, and we finally hear a bit of that gaping, cavernous echo which defines Pink Floyd's best known materials so well. Here, then, for the first time in the Floyd's career, do we finally find a meeting of both extremes, which would meld into one of the greatest sounds by one of the greatest rock bands ever made.

Except we're not quite done, there's still the "Grand Vizier's Garden Party" to attend to. It begins with a lovely flute melody, highlighted by the crack of the snare drum and a fanfare-esque roll. Now, it sounds like a modern symphonic prog epic! Except...it doesn't. In reality, it turns out to be a collage of percussion oriented sounds, much like a contemporary percussion ensemble, which then evolves into a sort of (no offense) a half-assed drum solo highlighting an electronic soundboard. And then the exit reprises the happy flute melody. So, again, more experimentation.

But therein lies the crux of this album. This is 1969. Pink Floyd haven't discovered their sound yet. So, like most people, they set off to find it, so they recorded what they made, put it on a record and sold it, predictably, to minimal results. But while many elements comprised in this album are mimicked and noticeable in future albums, they weren't created to this extreme. This is the closest any rock or prog fan will get to what classical compositions by the likes of Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis or Babbit would sound like.

So, finally, to explain the lone star that accompanies this review. This is one of, if not, the most experimental prog-related albums by far ever made. You're certainly not going to hear it on the radio, and most tunes you probably won't like, mainly because it just sounds foreign to you, like 20th-century classical music does to almost anyone that doesn't play it (unlike myself). My father, a huge Pink Floyd fan, despises this album immensely, so surely even some collectors of Pink Floyd material will either hardly hear it or admit they just don't like the music from it.

Yet, what this album lacks in catchy listenable tunes, it does make up for in the genius the Pink Floyd's compositional and songwriting skills. This is a landmark album in the progression of Pink Floyd's sound. Much like Cage's 4'33 sparked the Minimalist sound movement with Terry Riley and Steve Reich, the quartet realized they had reached to such an extreme to find their own unique sound, that they had gone TOO far, and realized there must be harmony and equilibrium between catchy, accessible music, and continuous storytelling through unique sounds, auras, progressions, instruments and technology.

Happy music died in 1909. But what Pink Floyd discovered in 1969, they reprimanded 4 years later. Something classical composers today in 2014 still have not done. This is a landmark album. No doubt about it.

Wicket | 1/5 |

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