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Camel - Moonmadness CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.38 | 2154 ratings

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4 stars One of the definitions that can be applied to the word extraordinary would be "a work of art where the difficult seems effortless." On "Moonmadness," as the group known as Camel smoothly traverses through intricate passages involving tricky tempos and unusual time signatures, that rare ability is abundant and makes this collection of tunes a joy to experience. Coming off the heels of their celebrated "Snow Goose" album, this one finds these gifted musicians to be more confident than ever and the cohesive tracks presented are a testament to their professionalism, dedication to their craft and their hard-earned, accumulated experience. (And is this one fantastic example of glorious cover art or what?) The shame is that well over three decades passed me by before finally discovering this band's unique charm. Yet I think many proggers who grew up in the USA adoring British bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis are in the same clueless situation because Camel received little or no radio play over here and they were never promoted properly to garner the attention of those who would have flocked to their sound. Like me. Alas, better late than never, I say.

A delightful little ditty called "Aristillus" opens the album and, despite the fact that it was written by guitarist Andrew Latimer, it's almost all synthesizers layered over a marching percussive beat and establishes an unassuming, playful air right off the bat. It's nearly impossible to dislike this short but endearing instrumental number. "Song Within a Song" follows and it is one of the most seamless performances you'll ever come across in prog. As you'll hear throughout the proceedings the vocals are good but so subdued that they tend to blend into the background. That's the sole aspect of their talent they seem to be insecure about but, for the most part, it doesn't detract from the overall presentation. Latimer's excellent flute playing is exquisite here, the interjection of a lively guitar/bass riff prevents the song from becoming boring or predictable and Peter Barden's tasteful synthesizer ride towards the end is hypnotic. It's a first-class cut of prime prog from start to finish.

The band shifts into a higher gear for the jazzy "Chord Changes," a harmony guitar-based tune where drummer Andy Ward shines like a supernova as he slides and glides gracefully over the musical landscape behind the group. Midway through they slow things down and allow Andrew to dazzle with warm electric guitar runs and Peter with a stunning Hammond organ solo that can only be described as magical. Aficionados of that majestic instrument will undoubtedly be impressed. After a return to the initial up tempo jazz motif the song slowly fades away but remains firmly seated in your prog consciousness. Just when you think they've peaked, along comes the heavenly "Spirit of the Water." Beautiful doesn't do it justice. A serene union of flute and keyboards joined with a haunting vocal fed through a Leslie speaker cabinet (giving it a cool underwater ambience), the only criticism I have is that it's entirely too brief in duration. I could blissfully swim in it for another five minutes or so.

"Another Night" is a more commercial venture somewhat rooted in the then-popular Alan Parsons Project style. But here the diminished vocals are a distraction, making the opening verses come off as rather pedestrian until the all-music break arrives and the tune veers off into a very engaging direction led by Doug Ferguson's strong bass lines. The song develops well-needed drive as it evolves and both Latimer and Bardens contribute spirited solos toward the end. "Air Born" starts nicely but loses momentum the moment the vocal melody enters, marking the nadir of the album. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad at all but it's also not particularly memorable. "Lunar Sea" serves as a wonderful finale, though. This instrumental piece begins with mysterious synthesized strings hovering like mist over a still pond before a sizzling, jazzy groove rises like the summer sun and takes over with Ward again splintering sparks from his drumkit, guiding the group through the song's exciting hills and valleys. I consider the ARP synthesizer (so very popular in the seventies) to be one of the most misused and horribly abused inventions of that era but, in the hands of a master, it could be wholly entertaining and that's what Peter accomplishes with it here. His lead is tactful and leisurely performed, showing all keyboardists how it's done. Andrew tosses in a white hot guitar solo prior to the number dissolving back down into the spacey aura of the introduction. This is great progressive rock not to be overlooked.

I'm not partial to hearing loose studio run-throughs that often get slapped onto reissues but here the "bonus" tracks actually live up to their promising title. The single version of "Another Night" actually benefits from the vocals being more upfront in the mix than on the original. The unadorned demo version of "Spirit of the Water" not only surprises but mesmerizes. It's just Bardens performing the song alone on the piano but it is nothing short of drop-dead gorgeous and I could listen to it over and over again. Maybe it's just me but all I can say is "Wow!" Including live recordings as extra cuts is most appreciated and the pristinely engineered and mixed performances of "Song Within a Song," "Lunar Sea" and (from Snow Goose) "Preparation/Dunkirk" are perfect compliments to the CD. With Camel not being a "jam" band, they add little to the studio renditions but the way the band delicately fades in and out on "Lunar Sea" is awesome and Latimer's passionate guitar ride on the same song is remarkable.

With so many reviews already posted for "Moonmadness" it's obvious that, when it comes to Camel, I'm an over-the-hill late bloomer. So be it. Can't do much about it now except to play catch up and start collecting and enjoying their fine prog creations one album at a time. It will be a pleasure. 4.3 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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