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




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4.14 | 258 ratings

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4 stars Now this is something surprising. Todd Rundgren, for the most part, recorded pop-rock and gave us the occasional hit like "Hello, It's Me", "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference", "I Saw the Light", "We've Gotta Get You a Woman", etc. But then he noticed that bands like Yes, ELP, King Crimson, etc., were making some really elaborate albums and were being rather successful at it, so he too hopped on the prog rock bandwagon with UTOPIA. This is the original UTOPIA, as a six piece, with Rudgren, three keyboardists (Frenchman Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat, Moogy Klingman, and Ralph Schuckett), bassist John Siegler, and drummer Kevin Ellman. I don't know the backgrounds of many of these musicians, except for "M. Frog" and Ralph Schuckett. "M. Frog" was the odd one because he spent his youth in a monastery in France, but he wanted to pursue a career in avant garde classical (in the vein of Stockhausen, etc.) and rock and roll.

Eventually he came to America and got a hold of an EMS synthesizer, and released a bizarre album of electronic and prog rock in 1973 on the Bearsville label (same label as Rundgren/Utopia, although that album predates Utopia). Some sources wrongly say that "M. Frog" was Roger Powell, which is incorrect (although Powell also did release a pre-Utopia solo album in 1973 called Cosmic Furnace, it sounds nothing like "M. Frog" Labat's album from the same time). Powell was the guy who replaced Labat. Ralph Schuckett was a session musician, and he even played keyboards for Carole King (including her highly acclaimed classic Tapestry - it's so strange to see a guy playing for an easy listening singer/songwriter act, and then entering the world of prog rock).

When "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" was released in the fall of 1974, the rock critics were quick to shred this album, accusing it of being pretentious, pompous, overindulgant, etc. (but then this was 1974, and such bands that used to have some respect from the critics like YES and JETHRO TULL started releasing albums that might have pleased the fans but hardly the critics - like "Tales From Topographic Oceans" and "A Passion Play"). With the exception of the very short "Freedom Fighters", none of the music is under 10 minutes long. The music is all unbelievable complex, with extended solos, different keyboards (EMS synthesizers, electric pianos, pianos, etc.). You can see that with the opening piece, "Utopia", which was recorded live in Atlanta, giving the audience a preview of UTOPIA's sound. The rest are studio efforts. "Freak Parade" is a more quirky number, I can't help be think a little of GENTLE GIANT (another prog rock band that rock critics hated, for the most part, but gets lots of respect, for good reason, in the prog community). "Freedom Fighters" is the shortest piece, and I guess Rundgren needed a piece that would go over well on the radio. So this ends up sounding like something he's done on his solo efforts. Then the album ends with "The Ikon", which literally clocks at over 30 minutes (prior to me buying this LP, I never thought that much music can be crammed on to one side, but it's true).

This is, as you expect early UTOPIA. Different themes, changes, some tedious passages that seem to exist to show off each member's instruments, in a nutshell, prog rock at its most extreme and excessive. Sure this album didn't please the critics any, but it still sold quite well (meaning at that time, many people simply ignored the ROLLING STONE and CREEM critics - because many thought the critics didn't know what they were talking about, and should have stuck to albums they know and like already, such as The VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO, or Van MORRISON's "Astral Weeks" - not that I'm criticizing those albums, it's just that the mainstream rock critics worshipped those albums while slamming prog rock in general). Obviously if you're looking for a more pop-oriented Rundgren (in the vein of "I Saw the Light", "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference", and "Hello, It's Me"), look elsewhere. If you want Rundgren at his more prog rock excessive, this is an album worth checking in to.

Proghead | 4/5 |


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