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Pink Floyd - Ummagumma CD (album) cover

UMMAGUMMA

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.47 | 1152 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars Say what you will about the old record biz monopolies and their power to decide the fate of any particular artist or group due to there being no alternative to getting one's music out to the public but in the 60s some labels' willingness to support a band like Pink Floyd while they matured over time is nonetheless remarkable. That altruistic, nurturing attitude evaporated during the 70s but thank heaven it lingered long enough for progressive rock to cultivate an audience. Otherwise we wouldn't have the works of Yes, Genesis or even Deep Purple to cherish and enjoy today. "Ummagumma" is an example of a record company having the courage to let an entity go through their growing pains, wagering that the ends will justify the means and all parties involved will reap huge benefits further down the line. I'm not convinced a risky, capital-involved investment such as that is even feasible in the 21st century and that's what makes an odd, experimental album like this one such an interesting relic.

The background briefing goes somewhat like this: Syd Barrett's undeniable genius got Pink Floyd a contract. Their debut, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," was a breakthrough recording. Then poor Syd misplaced his marbles, causing their sophomore LP to be a disappointment on many levels. When the trio of Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright realized that brother Barrett was gone and not coming back they promoted stand-in guitarist David Gilmour to full-fledged member and moved gingerly ahead by doing a soundtrack for an art flick, "More." This puts "Ummagumma" into proper perspective as being the initial LP of the 2nd version of Pink Floyd and, therefore, it should be granted a sizeable amount of slack. Even more astounding is that it's a two-disc set! From comments I've read from those who were involved in its conception/assembly the foursome had very little idea about what the hell they were doing and, considering the circumstances, that's understandable. The boat captain jumped ship so the remaining crew had to learn the ropes on the run and steer the vessel as best they could. If not for sheer determination and innate talent, "Ummagumma" would've foundered Pink Floyd on the rocks and the group would've faded like yesterday's daisies but, to the label's credit, the suits didn't give up and continued to believe in their potential. We proggers should be thankful.

One thing the band had going in their favor was they were a damn decent live act so releasing two sides of vinyl culled from taped concerts was a smart move on their part. Their rendition of Syd's "Astronomy Domine" showed their fans that, despite their inner struggles, they had ripened into a tight, confident quartet that could more than hold their own in front of a crowd. Of special note here is the admirable sounds emanating from Wright's keyboards. They aren't tinny or thin but possess rich, thick tones. Next is the band-written "Careful With That Axe, Eugene." I particularly like the jazzy aura that Richard injects into the piece via his Hammond B3. No doubt the startling explosion-of-screams section must've caused a slew of conniptions among the chemically-altered in attendance (Wasn't that the objective, though?). It's pretty much a free-form jam wherein Gilmour gets to experiment with his effects but the controlled fade-out is impressive in and of itself. Waters' "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" follows with its dominant Egyptian vibe. Wright's Mellotron-generated flute is soothing for a while but then it gets buried by the wild cacophony that ensues. The noisy number turns cosmic in a decidedly you-had-to-be-there sort of way before returning to the song's original theme. Disc 1 ends with the collectively-composed "A Saucerful of Secrets," a large slice of dreamy psychedelia fortified with David's demonic slide guitar. Hard on that section's heels is a monotonous drum pattern courtesy of Mason that anchors a genuine "freak out" movement that grates on one's nerves until Richard's organ restores sanity by establishing a repeating chord progression that builds to a crowd-pleasing finale.

Disc 2 was more of a challenge. They chose to let each member contribute their own original stuff to the cause and let the chips fall where they may. What came out of this endeavor is hit and miss, at best. Wright goes first, presenting a 13-minute, four-part epic entitled "Sysyphus." Part 1 sports a Gladiators-entering-the-arena ambiance and Part 2 is a lovely piano etude that gradually turns wonderfully abstract. Part 3 is an arrhythmic din of piano noodling wading amid a host of assorted noises while Part 4 is a serene soundscape that roams aimlessly until it implodes violently and becomes a surreal circus of notes, ending with a hearty bash on the gong. At this juncture of his career, "Sysyphus" highlights Richard's compositional naivetÚ a lot more than his musicianship. The sweet chirpings of various birdies leads to Roger's acoustic guitar-based "Grantchester Meadows." It's an improvement over the previous cut in that it's a bit of relative normalcy but its not exactly memorable fare, either. Waters gets another stab at greatness with his "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict." More fowl utterances are heard shimmering over a fast-paced fingertip rhythm accompanied by a bunch of what I refer to as fun-in-the-studio-with-tape-loops-and-queer-sound-bites shenanigans. Hey, it's fantastic fun if you can get away with it and I don't hold it against him for taking advantage of the opportunity but it's not exactly high art in my book and gets to be tedious quickly.

Gilmour's two cents worth arrives in the form of the three-part, twelve minute "The Narrow Way." Parts 1& 2 are acoustic guitar-driven ditties surrounded by scores of incidental fiddle-faddles wafting around in the background. Part 3 features a slightly metallic electric guitar riff resounding over a pool of echoing weirdness. David has been quoted as saying he didn't have a clue as to what he was up to at the time and it sounds like it. Drummers aren't often permitted to participate in the creative conclave (with good reason) but when he's just as experienced and capable as everyone else in the group his input is equally viable. Nick was given a task and he gave it the old college try by concocting a three-part deal called "The Grand Vizier's Garden." Bringing in Lindy Mason to play some pleasant flute lines turned out to be a positive for Part 1 but closing it with an unadorned snare roll spoils the mood. Part 2 is a tom-tom tuning session layered over ghostly effects followed by strange affectations involving different drums and percussion instruments with Part 3 being a predictable revisit to Part 1. None of it bears repeated listens but I'll give the man an E for effort, at least.

In light of the lofty heights Pink Floyd would eventually attain, listening to "Ummagumma" is akin to gazing through Van Gogh's kindergarten coloring books. You can tell their adventuresome, fearless blend of aural colorings belies incredible potential but they're also having difficulty in staying inside the lines and forming cohesive, comprehensible songs. As examples of psychedelic, acid-drenched eargasms the pieces found on this album are commendable yet still embryonic in nature. (The album elicited a ho-hum reaction amongst my peers, as I recall.) But, as stated earlier, the moneymen who didn't pull the plug when the success of "Ummagumma" in the UK (#5 on the charts) failed to materialize on the other side of the Atlantic (#74 in the US) should be applauded for their patience. A few years later they'd have the biggest group in the world on their hands. 2.5 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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