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Todd Rundgren - Initiation CD (album) cover

INITIATION

Todd Rundgren

 

Crossover Prog

3.75 | 42 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars One of the many things I admire about Todd Rundgren is his refusal to be pigeon-holed into a certain genre or category. Over the years he has steadfastly defied labeling by sticking his schnozzle into all sorts of musical styles without regard to what the big wigs and critics thought about that approach. By the same token, that independent and unpredictable streak of his might tend to make some proggers wary of blindly purchasing one of his albums in fear that they might end up with a collection of lite pop ditties on the order of "Hello, It's Me," thus causing much gnashing of teeth and/or incurable constipation. I understand. But when it comes to "Initiation" I assure you that this is exactly why the Runt is included in the artist roster presented on this website. It is the most progressive of all his offerings from start to finish.

While the music you'll encounter is of the highest quality and typical of the lofty standards he's maintained for decades, it's the intelligent and clever lyrics he delivers that make this album his best. Especially in light of the fact that the songs, for the most part, address the spiritual realm. Often artists who do that take themselves and the subject matter way, WAY too seriously and the whole endeavor becomes an embarrassing, preachy foray into dogma of one brand or another. Not so here. Todd's tongue-in-cheek yet tasteful sense of humor graciously saves "Initiation" from that dismal fate and the listener is richly rewarded for it.

The opener, "Real Man," is a prime example. It's a superb, well-structured tune heavy on the synthesizers and keyboards with slick doo-wop background vocals adding a touch of classy nostalgia but it's the way he approaches one's becoming aware of the soul that resides beneath the flesh that makes it great. Back in the old days young boys were enticed to enroll in courses like the one advertised in the comics by Charles Atlas in order to transform themselves from wimps into muscle- brained, macho he-men that could pummel sand-kicking bullies into a coma. Here Rundgren uses that trite mind-set to delve to a deeper level with lines like ".some so-called friends put me down/and they pity me for trying/bad emotions push me around/but the vision shines on and on/it will shine when we all are gone/and I'd like to add a little sparkle while I'm here/light it up/way down inside me/there's a REAL man." Rarely do inspirational songs of this ilk manage to be this ennobling and light-hearted at the same time.

The title of "Born to Synthesize" says volumes about where Todd's oval-shaped head was at in '75. This vocal-only, new-age gospel number is laden with state-of-the-art studio and synth effects (of that era) and it's a short detour off the beaten trail that works better than you think it will. The next cut, the hard-driving rocker "The Death of Rock and Roll," sent out a dire warning to the musicians of the mid 70s that conformity, looks-over-substance and crass commercialism was threatening to destroy the adventurous, progressive core of rock. (Turned out that Todd was a true prophet, no?). "Just the other day I got a call from a friend/'I heard what you been playin' and I think it's a sin/why can't you make a living like the rest of the boys/instead of filling your head with all that synthesized noise?'" he sings. Rundgren's guitars blaze a wide swath throughout and the dramatic bridge supplies a timely interlude but it's his impassioned pleas of "I thought we were supposed to be FREE!" and his disgusted observation that "we all got sold" that really makes it hit home. His wild & wooly but woefully self- conscious wail at the close is downright hilarious.

"Eastern Intrigue" is one of the most original tunes Todd ever produced. His satiric slant on the well- intentioned yet convoluted flower-power enlightenment fads of that age is spot on and brilliant. Early on he inquires "I'm on my knees/one question, please/will the real God please stand up?" and, after delivering snarky lines like "sell your wife and pawn your heater/buy the new Bhagavad-Gita/do the pranayama till your spine gets sore." he wearily asks "will the real God please sit down?" The tune's strong dynamics and the swirling, cosmic atmosphere he conjures during the finale are terrific. He gets his guru on for the no-funny-business, now-I'm-being-serious "Initiation" that follows and it's seven minutes of pristine prog. Drummers Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta, along with bassist John Siegler, lay down a fantastic track peppered with tight accents and the incidental guitar licks processed through a synth that Rundgren tosses in sting like a giant wasp. After a cool breakdown section where the drums and percussion front a tolling bell Dave Sanborn's sax, Todd's guitar and Roger Powell's synthesizer knock the studio doors off their hinges with sizzling solos one after another. Here Rundgren declares that, despite popular trends, ".there's one thing I know/where my spirit tells me to go/that's where I must go" and that takes big ones, Hoss.

It was a spark of pure genius to preface the soulful, R&B stylizations of "Fair Warning" with a droll, faux Barry White baritone. "You know.., wishing won't make it so/hoping won't do it/praying won't do it/religion won't do it/philosophy won't do it/the supreme court won't do it/the president and the congress won't do it/the H bomb won't do it/the sun and the moon won't do it/God won't do it and I certainly won't do it./that leaves you/YOU have to do it." Okay, so it's the least proggy thing on the disc but the smooth, bluesy feel and the lush background singing (all Todd) is nothing to turn your back on and guest Edgar Winter's white-hot saxophone licks keep the momentum from flagging for even a moment. Rundgren tells us that "you can say what you will about me/talk is cheap and I don't mind/when you lay your life down in them grooves/you know you're bound to get scratched up sometime." The sudden jump back into a reprise of "Real Man" serves as an excellent coda.

The album's large-scale instrumental opus, "A Treatise on Cosmic Fire," is an impressive undertaking for any one man to attempt. In that exciting period of musical history the synthesizer was finally coming into its own and brave artists like Isao Tomita were actively pushing the envelope of what that technology could accomplish by recreating classical works by the likes of Holst and Debussy. It's obvious that Todd was inspired by pioneers like Tomita to compose his own modern symphony and devote untold hours in the confines of the studio putting it together. The result is good but not great. The mystical intro leads to an energetic, three-part harmony guitar theme that's uplifting. Thickly- layered keyboards provide a dense backdrop to some fiery guitar lines, then the whole thing drops to an often arrhythmic but ever-flowing river of synths. A bouncy, calliope-like aura ensues, followed by a Stravinsky-ish section that is moody and expertly executed. It's all grand stuff but at the 16-minute mark what sounds like a herd of famished pachyderms galloping toward a peanut plantation begins to rumble and the emergence of an ominous, heavy guitar riff signals that a radical change of direction is in store. It's at this juncture that Runt gets a little too infatuated with the percussive aspects of his synths and, while it's interesting at first, it grows tiresome and noisy post haste. (The real shame's that Todd is playing his hiney off on his guitar but the incessant clanking in the foreground chokes it to death.) After 5 long minutes of this barrage you get a brief recess in the form of some psychedelic experimentation but the nerve-wracking onslaught soon returns for an encore of aural annoyance. Finally Rundgren relents and revisits the heavy riff but by now the epic has become overly self- indulgent as he goes wandering through his personal myspace. At 33:33 he resurrects the initial theme and takes you out on an upswing. It's all prog, for sure, but not always pleasing.

Had Todd exercised a modicum of restraint and lopped off about ten to twelve minutes of the aforementioned extravaganza, replacing it with another regular-sized song of the progressive persuasion, he just might have had a bonafide masterpiece on his hands. As it is, one can cruise comfortably through the album with joyful ease and simply terminate the journey when one has had enough of his lengthy "Treatise." Or not, if that's the sort of thing that melts the butter on your biscuit. Either way, "Initiation" is without a doubt the prolific Mr. Rundgren's finest hour (plus 7:40, to be exact) and is well-deserving of a spot in any progger's repertoire. 4.3 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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