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Utopia - Todd Rundgren's Utopia CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

4.14 | 257 ratings

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5 stars A blueprint for progressive rock, 'Todd Rundgren's Utopia' is sixty minutes of riotous, ecstatic pleasure and is, I believe, an absolute must for every progressive rock collection.

Yes, TODD RUNDGREN is a ridiculously talented and lamentably inconsistent pop star. He's still out there, believe it or not, part of the latest incarnation of THE CARS: there's really nothing he can't do. But for a few years, amid all his pop/rock innovation, he spearheaded UTOPIA, who produced this debut album of outstanding music. UTOPIA were at this point a sextet, including three (!) keyboardists, and this album makes maximum use of the sonic weaponry at their fingertips.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the opener, the live 'Utopia Theme'. This is, in my opinion, the best live jam I've ever heard, and ought to be the template for frenetic rock soloists the world over. From the unusual opening motif this song - almost completely instrumental - is totally convincing. Odd time signatures vie with synth stabs, funky bass and truly exhausting drumming to set the scene for five memorable solos. Heralded by a rising sequence of chords and swirling synths, the main theme comes in at the 2-minute mark, a fast one-note guitar bringing in the first minute-long keyboard solo. Yes, it's so show-off it ought to be up for a Petrucci Award, but its charm lies in its ridiculous over-the-top nature. Then it's back to the main theme to introduce the second keyboard solo, which blows the first solo away.

Eventually RUNDGREN gets to sing a few lines, essentially a prelude for his guitar solo, which begins with the same melody as he's just sung. This, guitarists of the world, is how it's done. Guitar solos do not exist in isolation. They must be prepared for. They need a context. DAVID GILMOUR knew this, and his solos were always notable for when they occurred. PETRUCCI could learn from this: RUNDGREN clearly knows. It's such a lyrical solo, which then grows into a shred-fest of the highest order, a glorious freak-out in which the listener cannot fail to lose his/her mind. Truly magnificent, and over so soon.

The song has a pleasing shape to it, lifting us up and bringing us down by turns. What I appreciate most about this is RUNDGREN proves he has the oh-so-rare ability to 'let go', to compose and play music so over-the-top it transcends cheese and becomes simply brilliant. And don't the crowd love it! There's a rhythm-led diversion after RUNDGREN's solo, and a recapitulation of the main theme and a final short guitar solo before the closing motif: perfection.

Three paragraphs on one song? It's that good. Listen to it and let yourself go.

The great thing about this incredible album is that there are three songs still to go. 'Freak Parade' is ten minutes of moody and somewhat quirky progressive nirvana, full of hooks, and we are brought down (as we need to be) by 'Freedom Fighters', a short, poppy number which has a few twists amid its BEACH BOYS harmonies. Then, at the point where many artists would be struggling for material, UTOPIA unleashes - well, utopia, in the form of 'The Ikon', a full thirty-minute prog classic. This track is sadly under-appreciated by the progressive community, possibly because at the time American progressive bands were relatively rare, and were not noticed by their target audience. It's a ridiculous melange of just about every style in the book, from jazz, rock, funk and disco to a country hoe-down, all wrapped up with hook after hook in the acclaimed RUNDGREN style. No, it's by no means a symphonic prog classic in the traditional mould: rather, it's a lucky dip in which you'll not like everything but you'll be kept interested and constantly surprised. And after a few listens it will begin to work its magic on you. This is how LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT might have sounded with good material.

Are there any flaws? Yes, a few, chief among them the sound quality. I'm impressed by neither the mix nor the fidelity, partly, I think, because of the length of the album: sixty minutes is too long for one piece of vinyl. It's not an easy listen either: complex and lengthy, it probably needs a couple of sittings before it begins to make sense. Actually, 'The Ikon' never makes sense. Perhaps it would have been better had it been edited, but what parts? The bits I like are probably the bits you hate. Leave it in all its bizarre, bloated, lopsided glory.

Not to everyone's taste, but what album is? Certainly I'd argue that this is one album that performs as advertised: this is musical utopia.

russellk | 5/5 |


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