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The Nice - The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack CD (album) cover


The Nice


Symphonic Prog

3.47 | 121 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars In 1967, when there was a seemingly constant trickle of new albums that were proposing new possible directions for rock music to take, it wouldn't have been especially apparent that this was going to have any sort of significant lasting impact; by contrast, when In the Court of the Crimson King came out in 1969, pretty much everybody knew that a Big Thing had happened, even if there was disagreement as to how good a thing this was. Much of this album bears the unmistakable imprint of having been recorded in 1967; the mixture of Moody Blues-ian harmonies (at least as much as could be attempted with such weak individual vocalists) and Hendrix-style guitars (in heavier parts and lighter parts alike), the whispered recitations in "Dawn," and the general approach of mixing all of the genres they could get their hands on into a single album all help date the album's release into a very specific six month window. That said, it would be a mistake to accuse this album of being nothing more than a derivative aping of the band's betters, because the album does bring something new to the table, and that is Keith Emerson's keyboard playing. He's not in full flight on this album, obviously, and it's not as if The Nice were the first band of significance to prominently feature a keyboardist, but it seems obvious to me from listening to this album that Emerson was going to end up as something special. The hyperactive aggression of his style creates an odd menace in the tone of the album even in moments when he's playing few if any notes; there's a constant threat hanging over the album that he's about to lead the band into a long noisy instrumental passage, and even if this threat materializes only a couple of times in the album, the vibe this threat creates gives a fascinating dark edge to it on the whole.

This dark edge is especially prevalent in the first half of the album, which is great enough to prompt me to give this album a high rating despite that the second half only strikes me as pretty good. "Flower King of Flies," which opens the album, starts off as a shuffling psychedelic ballad that can't help but remind me a bit of "(Listen to the) Flower People," but it quickly adopts a darker guise once Emerson's keys start flickering in the background, and the track becomes rather intense in the instrumental passage between instances of the chorus. The Hendrix-y jams are a lot of fun as well. Jackson's vocals, as would become the standard, aren't great here, but the parts where he sings solo are kept slightly quiet, and the louder moments hide him behind a thick wall of harmonies. O'List takes over on vocals in the following title track, and he isn't really an improvement, but the main features of that song, namely the playful melody repeatedly sung by the backing vocals and the bouncy harpsichord parts, more than compensate, and I enjoy the track a lot. Then there's "Bonnie K," which reminds me in all sorts of ways of the kinds of Hendrix-y rockers that Procol Harum would do back before Robin Trower left the band (granted, a lot of them would happen after this album, but my point is that The Nice and Procol Harum were of a similar mind in regard to rockers of this kind); Jackson works as kind of a poor-man's Gary Brooker in his vocals, Emerson's keyboards are full of life and energy, and O'List's guitars rawk out in the best way that pre-Zeppelin 60s hard rock could offer.

But really, all of this is just a warmup for "Rondo." Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo la Turk" was an established jazz standard even at this point, and one may scoff a bit at the idea of the band making a cover of this into one of the centerpieces of its repertoire, but the band claims the piece as its own as much as one could reasonably expect. The band simplifies the 9/8 time signature of the original into 4/4, and through this and other arrangement tweaks the band de-emphasizes the tricky intricacy of the original and amplifies its power and majesty, and in the process they basically turn this track into one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Emerson's downward Hammond swishes in the climactic portions are the moments that jump out the most, but there are great noisy guitar passages here and other enjoyable keyboard passages as well, and the powerful steadiness of the rhythm section throughout holds everything together perfectly. Given that I'm somebody who greatly enjoys the extended versions of "Space Truckin'" that Deep Purple would be doing in concert in a few years, it's hard for me to see why I wouldn't adore this track, and I consider it an essential part of my collection.

The second half of the album, then, isn't especially great, but all of the tracks are at least decent. "War and Peace" is another instrumental built around active Hammond organ and guitar work, and while it doesn't live up to "Rondo" in terms of memorable themes or an especially tight rhythm section, it's a rousing blast while on, and I'd definitely take this over a lot of the instrumental passages in some of their later work. "Tantalising Maggie" is an odd take on the style of the rest of the album, with the guitars showing a lot jangly twang amongst the hyperactive keyboards (which suddenly go into a classical piano mode near the end), and with Jackson's vocals confined to one channel in a mildly psychedelic way (until the vocals get all chaotic and weird in the last minute or so, making the psychedelic elements more pronounced). "Dawn" is an odd combination of Hammond noodling (eventually harpsichord noodling), noisy distorted guitar chords and noodling, and lots of whispered vocals that make the track sound very pompous. The track is probably a good example of the bad sides of 1967 in a lot of ways, but I don't especially mind it, and it's yet another interesting change of pace (if there were another track like this on the album then I might view it less favorably). And finally, "The Cry of Eugene" has a muffled vocal part that doesn't allow for the vocal melody to resonate as deeply as it could with better singing, but there's an odd gentleness in the combination of the Hammond and the psychedelic guitars (with a brief frenetic section as the song transitions into a more bombastic conclusion) that I find rather enjoyable (the sudden cutoff at the end is amusing as well). Yes, the album takes a clear step down in the second half, but it's not a crippling one; the first half would be in the range of a *****, and the second half would be in the *** range, and the combination lets the album settle into a solid **** range.

In my edition of the album, there are five bonus tracks, and except for the single version of the title track (it's just as long as and I think it just has a slightly different mix from the original), all of them are worth having. "Azrial (Angel of Death)" combines a solid grumbly guitar riff with bits of atmospheric piano and pompous (but fun) lyrics before briefly turning into a psychedelic freak-out near the end (then returning to the original riff), and it would have been a fine inclusion on the original album. "The Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon" bases itself primarily around a gentle line doubled on Hammond and trumpet (from O'List), and the keyboard passages that grow out of it are rather lovely. The best of the group, though, come in the form of the full-length and single versions of "America," the band's instrumental take on the West Side Story number. The bombastic organ introduction and the closing recitation from a three-year old are a little ridiculous, but the bulk of the song shows The Nice at its very best. The main riff, played by the organ, is used as the launching pad for all sorts of rousing guitar work and inventive keyboard work, and I never find myself getting bored or tired when listening to it. It's too bad the band didn't use this as the album's conclusion, as a sort of balance to closing out the first side with "Rondo" (I get that "War and Peace" is the "Rondo" counter but I'd be fine with swapping that out for "Azrial").

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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