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Pink Floyd - Ummagumma CD (album) cover

UMMAGUMMA

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.47 | 1146 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Dedicated to Rick, gentle man, wonderful musician

Overview: A common misconception perpetuated over the years is that the live half of this album is essential while the studio portion is rubbish. That is absolutely wrong in my view. It is the studio half of Ummagumma that is important for its wild experimentations that would make it one of the most important, influential and liberating releases to many bands in the 1970s. Tangerine Dream and Cluster cited the album as a direct influence. It is the studio album that marked the progress of this band at this point in time. It was also successful to the hard core Floyd fans of the day and sold very well for a record company that had no idea what to make of it. One writer doing a positive review for WYWH called it their best work since Ummagumma, meaning Umma was being placed higher than everything between it and Wish. I'm not going that far as I find Atom Heart more successfully captured a spirit of experimentation with melodies that are more pleasurable for repeat listening, as did Dark Side. But make no mistake: the true Pink Floyd fan who considers him/herself a "progressive" rock fan needs to hear this important link in the growth of one of music's finest recording units. I will discuss the studio album at some length but the live album, while entertaining, should really be considered a bonus disc. It is a snapshot of the Floyd covering material they were genuinely bored with playing by this time, including a terribly mistaken attempt at a Syd track that does not work (and how could it, really?) Still it's certainly a nice disc to have despite the sound problems and my assertion that the studio album is the bang here.

People often use the latter day Floyd members disowning of this period as a reason to reject it which is another common mistake. While the old men of PF may consider themselves too distinguished for such excursions these days you have to ignore their revisionism and look back and read the quotes from their press clippings at the time. The fact is that the Floyd were excited about this material, about the chance to create their own piece and about having material to try live that was less structured than past albums would be. As Rick said in early 1969 "we are getting into a live rut..we're going to force ourselves to do new things." Did they ever!! Though I'm not sure much of this album made the live set, the band was off into AHM mode shortly after the release of Ummagumma. While they may have soured on these heady days in later life there is no reason their fans need to. If anything the early albums represent PF at their most exciting and most interesting. They would later claim the album could have been better had they taken more time and worked more together than separate. This is possibly true although given that Ummagumma represents their experimental peak why regret that it was made differently? It seems fitting and gives the pieces unique character.

Press: Patrick, The Pink Floyd Fandom website: "At their peak of their most psychedelic musical experimentation comes my favorite Pink Floyd album: Ummagumma. The studio album shows what each artist was capable of as an individual during the maturing of the group as a whole. I believe that it gives a great portrait of each member as a soloing artist. It is this individual soloing which then allowed the band to create long masterpieces (Atom Heart Mother etc.) where playing together and understanding each other musically is so important. Ummagumma is definitely an important piece of the puzzle of Pink Floyd, both as a building block and as a work of art everyone can enjoy."

UK's Record Mirror, Nov 1969: ".a truly great progressive album. They mix psychedelic and classical patterns, and explore sounds, music, and gimmicks to their fullest extent. The recordings are beautiful."

International Times, Oct 1969: ".an essential purchase for anyone who has ever got into the Floyd..these two albums are a really magnificent package. The first disc comprises four pieces from their live repertoire beautifully played and well produced."

The Music: The most interesting thing about Ummagumma is that it is Wright and Mason who really excel here. Their two sections are the best while Water's stuff is the weakest. That is a trend that would not continue but it is a reminder that PF remained very much a "group" until after Dark Side and that Wright was a potent force at this moment. It reminds that prior to the Waters led heyday of 1973-1983 the other members of the band often had good ideas too and led rather than simply taking orders.

Richard Wright: Wright more than any of them embraced the spirit of Ummagumma and the results show it. He had been telling the others that he was ready to make some "real music" as he'd been the only one with formal training, albeit brief. His 4-part concerto is called "Sysyphus" - the title of which was taken from a Greek myth about a soul condemned to hell. The music is quite dramatic as you'd imagine beginning with murky Gothic flavored dirge announcing doom and gloom. In part 2 things lighten considerably as we move to some gorgeous piano playing, among Wright's nicest moments in the band's cannon. The emotion of his solo piano is palpable to me, fresh, alive, buoyant. I imagine the piece to be about the passive reflections of a young man looking at the life and death process, the section starts with peace and sunny vibes and slowly escalates into chaos, perhaps signaling madness and death. The 3rd part shifts gears as Wright borrows some of Mason's pots and pans and Waters' small furry animals for some general mischief-making. In the last part Wright stretches out with what I believe is mellotron over bird sounds creating some relaxing moments once again before the mood crashes again with heavy organ and percussion, eventually leading us back to the doomy march of the first part. While he later felt the work was "pretentious" there was no reason for shame: "Sysyphus" remains one of the hard core Floyd fan's many truly wonderful gems and was no doubt a great experience for the undervalued hero of the band.

Roger Waters: Roger's "Granchester Meadows" is an ultra-pastoral ode to a special place in his past employing mainly acoustic guitar and double-tracked voice. Sound effects of nature are also used throughout to create the bucolic mood of the lyrics. Along with "If" on the next album these pieces are not convincing and have to qualify as among Water's most underwhelming work. It's no wonder he doesn't like Ummagumma, his material is the weakest on the album. The problem with Granchester is that it just lays there. It doesn't really pack the beauty needed to convey the feeling of the place in his mind and the singing is so whispered as to be nearly inaudible unless one can get to the volume to crank it up. He follows this with the all time gimmick track "Several Species" which every teen thrills to two times in their life: the first time they hear it, and the second time when they play it for their best friend. While an impressive exercise in the construction of those effects the track is one you will likely skip when you play this album. Water's used his voice and drumming away on his own body as the origins of the sounds and then altered tape speed and used echo to create the piece. The coolest part of the track is the way he seems to create conversations between the creatures and you can imagine the dialogue as they scuttle about alarmed with some unseen threat. He would comment that "The Final Cut" meant a hell of a lot more to him that "Ummagumma" and that's fine, but not every album has to have heavy conceptual, literal overtones. Occasionally people like to let their imaginations roam with abstract sound- or at least they used to.

David Gilmour: The 3-part "The Narrow Way" was Dave's contribution to the studio side of Ummagumma and like Waters, Dave has claimed it is basically bits and pieces of fooling around that he hadn't listened to in years. He recalled being so mortified with the idea of writing his lyrics for this piece that he phoned Roger and asked for help; Roger of course told him NO and to get on with it himself. As with the Waters tracks I find some feelings of contrivance with portions of Dave's contribution, for whatever reason Wright and Mason's works just seems so much more natural and successful. But "The Narrow Way" does have fine moments too. Part 1 finds Dave easing in slowly with his back-porch acoustic ramblings accented by some oddly Syd-sounding slide flourishes (think the "Remember a Day" scrapings) Part 2 is really cool in the way the mood taps into what Wright was doing on the sinister gothic parts of Sysyphus. Dave comes up with a doomy riff that almost sounds like a bit of Sabbath and gives the album a feel of recurring themes that add some depth. Part 3 is the payoff for most Floyd fans though with a drop-dead gorgeous, smooth Gilmour vocal played off of some delicate piano. It's the one moment of Ummagumma that provides some melodic oasis to the mainstream Floyd fan wondering what the hell they just got themselves into here. As Sinkadotentree says it could fit in effortlessly among the tracks on Meddle.

Nick Mason: "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" is a fitting title for such a grand little piece which begins and ends with some lovely baroque flute sections performed by Mason's wife Libby. The beefier mid section called "Entertainment" is a truly insane collage piece constructed with percussion and tape effects and perhaps influenced by Stockhausen. Of note here is the over the top stereo-separation which surely blew the mind of many a stoned music fanatic playing this album in the dark after sparking up. Mason's piece is truly quite erratic and disruptive to one's expectations of what Pink Floyd *should* sound like and hearing it for the first time can be difficult. It needs to be approached without expectations of the typical drum solo. Like the others Mason is a bit dismissive of his work these days which is unfortunate, in his mind apparently polishing fancy cars is a more important endeavor than experimentations in sound. But I love the little percussion call and answer he does with these little rolls around the 5 minute mark. Sure it's not the highlight of progressive rock but then Mason will admit he was never the world's great drummer. I give him much credit for going with the spirit of the album rather than playing it safe.

Conclusion: The funny thing about Ummagumma is that it's the ace in the hole of the long time Floyd fan. Once you have heard Dark Side and Animals and Meddle to death for decades and have every note imprinted to memory, Ummagumma serves as a choice reservoir for some vintage moments of Pink Floyd that sound strangely fresh the older and more patient one becomes. Who would have guessed that fresh on the heels of Wright's tragic early death it would be this album, written off by many as irrelevant, that would provide me with some real "lump in the throat" tribute listening for Rick and for a time when the Floyd were a real band: Rick's majestic piano clashing with the doomy organ in one of his most poignant and unrestrained moments in Pink Floyd. Dave's peaceful "pillow of wind" voice floating you away as gorgeous as any vocal he ever did. Nick's ode to Stockhausen sandwiched between wife Libby's beautiful flute parts providing a wild ride on the stereo-separation roller coaster. It's a treasure chest of little moments that are the very essence of what "progressive music" fans claim to be about-opening their minds and accepting that which isn't always an easy hum. Ummagumma falls well short of a masterpiece but remains a crucial step in the evolution of a musical force. The band would improve on the next album by incorporating more accessibility into what was still sound experiment. They would then move away from this phase of splendid curiosities and into the realm of the '70s music machine which would have its own set of peaks and valleys. But any progger who purports to be a Floyd fan must eventually come to terms with Ummagumma and see the pearls that hide there. And I'm not talking about the live disc, which again, should really just be considered a bonus disc on this release. In a time when many of the most popular "progressive" bands are slick, predictable and little more than elaborate pop music with syrupy vocals/sentiments, it is somewhat refreshing to revisit a time and place when something like Ummagumma could actually be released by a major label. When a band could be both popular and on the edge. 7/10

Finnforest | 4/5 |

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