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Pink Floyd - Ummagumma CD (album) cover

UMMAGUMMA

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.47 | 1130 ratings

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Einsetumadur
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 12/15P.: Pink Floyd's first huge statement in their band history. A groundbreaking live album, the first of its kind in its energetic sound, in a bundle with a dazzling studio album in which liberating pieces of beauty follow bits of total madness. A problem occurs only when the pastoral and avantgarde parts run simultaneously, but this merely applies to a few minutes.

THE STUDIO ALBUM

Let's face it. Many people who praise this album, or who at least come to its defense, whitewash it quite a lot. "A band must be allowed to experiment", "a Floyd album with a high Schoenbergian demand" or "it's a good album to trip on", the reviews often say. I've always loved the live record, but I have to admit that I too had lots of problems with the studio record.

For me, the key to understanding this complicated album was understanding The Grand Vizier's Garden Party. The flute intro and outro, in fact composed by Ron Geesin and performed by Nick Mason's wife, are beautiful pieces of classical music with fairly stiff and serious melodics. At the first listens it sounds like a pretty chaotic arrangement of sound effects, but soon you realize that the Entertainment part itself consists of four different movements. The first one is minimalist in the gradual adding of different percussion samples (a gong, a triangle, a wood block and a snare drum) on a tape loop of Mason tuning a timpani. Now why is this experiment successful? It's one of the few percussion solos which are really atmospheric. Movement one adds an eerie melody on top of the carefully orchestrated percussion tapes, and movement two consists of xylophone, (supposably) Mellotron and timpani which together form surreal, but completely harmonious chords in the vein of Saint-Saens' post-romantic works (I think of The Swan, in particular). In the end Mason constructs an unexpectedly tribal and grumpy drum solo which rises and rumbles on top of a partly-erased tape loop of wood blocks and cymbals. The drum sound is similar to Ginger Baker's, but Mason is more deeply rooted in jazz music, hence working a lot with subtle timing differences between the overdubbed drum takes. Many rock musicians were experimenting with avant-garde around the year 1970, but only few were successful. And Nick Mason is one of the few who makes it, thanks to an accomodation of classical structures to jazz-influenced drum music instead of really free-form noodling.

David Gilmour's The Narrow Way is to me the most impressive work on the studio album - not only because he's the only one to record a piece of rock music playing all instruments himself, but also because The Narrow Way, especially Part Three, is the musical blueprint of the characteristic Pink Floyd sound of the 1970s. Add Rick Wright's ambient keyboard playing and Roger Waters' philosophy and you are closer to the spirit of Dark Side of the Moon than on any previous Pink Floyd recording. In the acoustic guitar-dominated Part One Gilmour transforms his country finger-picking influences to something bigger, into Gilmour's typical peaceful sound which totally sets your mind at ease if you just listen to what he plays. You cannot discern which genre of music Gilmour borrows from, you cannot determine what kind of music it really is or what it's about, but the clean slide guitars and the constantly flowing acoustic guitars lead you into a sonic ground which, being neither real nor surreal, you need to have listened to. Weird swirling tape effects mark the beginning of the more sombre Part Two, consisting of more stirring tape effects on top of a menacing guitar riff. A loud siren's sound leads you into Part Three which brings all of the previous elements together in a majestic piece of psychedelic rock. It's got a heavenly chorus of Gilmour's overdubbed falsetto voices with lots of swirling guitars flying around in every direction, Gilmour's distinctly chunky bass guitar playing, the floating drum rhythm (played by Gilmour as well) which is surprisingly stable in its timing and sounds a lot like Mason. The lyrics might not mean anything concrete, but they manage to create a never-changing movie in my mind, a movie similar to what the lyrics of Yes' South Side of the Sky express in a clearer fashion. I cannot point out how much I like this particular piece of music, and it's barely understandable that Gilmour today is that dissatisfied with this work of his. Still I have to admit that the tape effects in Part One do overshoot the mark a wee bit.

Rick Wright's Sysyphus is the most difficult piece on Ummagumma. It ventures a lot into atonal and avantgardistic realms, and at some places it is recklessly shocking and expressionistic - something which you might not expect from Rick Wright who otherwise was responsible for the quieter moments on the Pink Floyd albums. Not only once I feel reminded of what King Crimson did around that time and also a bit later. Part One is a pretty mindblowing starter to this album with the huge Mellotron overdubs, the sophisticated leitmotif and Wright's mighty timpani overdubs. King Crimson's Mars, the precursor of The Devil's Triangle, which they performed in 1969 with Ian McDonald on Mellotron, springs to my mind in special. Parts Two & Three are fractured and atonal piano pieces with rhythmically unsteady percussion work, the former actually beginning quite neatly with sensitive impressionistic grand piano playing. But during the following four minutes Wright bashes the piano as heavily as Keith Tippett on Cat Food and parts of Lizard, but still ties it together with his characteristic harmonic concept of layering perfect and augmented fourths. As soon as Wright adds sped-up tapes of him wailing and singing on top of this nearly industrial beat the music cuts totally loose - and this is where Wright carries on with a most beautiful keyboard solo of 3 minutes: bird sounds, organ, some spot-on bass guitar tuning and a bit of slide guitar, and interestingly he uses the Mellotron strings again, augmenting his typical Farfisa organ sound considerably. Then comes the moment which supposedly gave many intoxicated listeners a bad trip: an unexpected and frighteningly loud cluster chord shakes you up from the previous sweet sounds and begins a tour de force of accumulating sound effects and keyboard chords, including fading slide guitars, merging into an even more majestic reprise of the main theme with Rick Wright providing harmony vocals to accompany the Mellotron. A good key to approaching this work is making oneself familiar with the Greek Sisyphos myth. Contrary to, for instance, Anthony Phillips' interpretation of Orwell's 1984 which doesn't bear any relationship to the original book, Rick Wright stays quite close to his literary topic. Reprising the main theme in the end after an excruciating central part of cacophonic sounds is a striking interpretation of the futility of Sisyphos' work.

Roger Waters' part might be the one which leaves the biggest question marks in my head. Grantchester Meadows is basically an acoustic blues piece (in terms of chord progression) which feels absolutely like British folk due to its metre and melody. The song is calm, it profits a lot from Waters' warm vocal timbre (even though he doesn't hit all the notes perfectly) and is beautifully arranged for two acoustic guitars and, but after all there's not a lot happening during the 7 minutes. In live performances Rick Wright performed a lovely organ solo in the middle of the song with a tone similar to an English horn, and I miss this solo a lot in the studio version. The little acoustic guitar solo which Waters performs here doesn't attract any attention, after all he isn't a really inventive lead guitarist. But nonetheless there's too much atmosphere and too good lyrics to be bothered by this piece, and after the maelstrom Sysyphus this piece is located at a very good position. The legendary fly chase in the end of the piece is one of the first inventive sound effect ideas by Roger Waters and serves as a suitable introduction to Pink Floyd's most unorthodox piece, Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict. The title itself reminds me of a Joseph Beuys artwork (cf. Beuys' sculpture Backrest of a slender human (hare type) from the 20th century p.chr.), and the sounds confirm this presumption. In fact Roger Waters merely beatboxes, sings, speaks and thumps on a table in different tape speeds, ending up in a manic speech in a mock-Scots accent. Strictly no instruments used here! Interestingly the whole track is absolutely rhythmic since there's always a tape which is looped at one place or another. Even though you cannot evaluate such a mad piece of music I find it absolutely impressing, specifically because it allows Waters to practise the impersonation of a dictator for the first time, speaking most meaningless sentences with maximum conviction. The way from that speech to the more operatic stuff on The Wall isn't too far!

THE LIVE ALBUM

Pink Floyd always were a difficult live band, actually from the late 1960s until their last concerts in 1981. They could easily reproduce the magic of their studio recordings live and enhance them with their quadrophonic Azimuth Coordinator system, but quite frequently the concerts suffered a lot from sloppy playing, wrong singing, strange setlists and technical dropouts. Many concerts, however, shall never be forgotten. For instance, the groundbreaking Man And The Journey concert in Amsterdam on September 17 1969 during which they rearranged their material as two song cycles about life and a strange journey, featuring one part where the band were served tea on stage and - amongst other great moments - a storming version of the last part of Saucerful of Secrets with Wright playing a giant church organ. I still don't know why the band didn't release one of these concerts as a live album, but the Ummagumma live album has the big advantage of being more of a piece and less fragmentary. The band presents an authentic summary of their live show, focussing mainly on material conceived without Syd Barrett's participation. The band is in perfect form, gliding through 40 mind-expanding minutes, and especially the dynamically varied moments work out extremely well.

Astronomy Domine and Set The Controls for the Heart of The Sun are doubtless 5 star moments of first-class psychedelic rock. The Farfisa organ wafts and quivers, David Gilmour - although he still hasn't found his distinct guitar tone - bends and strums himself impressively through the material and Roger Waters drives the band further with some competently played bass lines. While Gilmour's and Wright's playing style doesn't differ a lot from their studio playing (which I do not critize at all!), it's Waters (frequently playing the Rickenbacker bass) and Mason who energize the performance just like Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream did as well. Astronomy Domine is enhanced by a really beautiful organ solo in the middle with minor, but substantial sonic dabs added by the band, leading back into the well-known vocal part again. The band acts in concert, Gilmour and Wright provide a fittingly dusky vocal performance and Barrett's gritty rhythm guitar playing is recreated faithfully by David Gilmour, although hints of his own playing style are already listenable (e.g. the slide guitar playing which is unusually creamy compared with other slide guitarists). Set The Controls for the Heart of The Sun floats in its own sonic space, the Farfisa organ swells up and down and Waters chants his captivating lyrics perfectly in tune. A previously unlistened feature is the ambient part in the second third in which Gilmour (on slide guitar) and Wright (on organ) create an echoed soundscape with two Binson Echorec tape delay machines before Waters and Mason enter again. The big advantage: while Hawkwind and other space rock bands often sounded a bit stoned and too far-out, the jazz and avantgarde background of Wright and the sublimity of Gilmour's playing give this kind of psychedelic rock an elegance, structure and respectability rarely found in this genre.

I agree that I always have had slight problems with Careful With That Axe, Eugene, neither with the first part, nor with the scream, but with the lengthy ending part which - possibly deliberately - lacks the cohesiveness of the beginning. But when you try to switch off your brain and stop thinking about cohesiveness, simply letting yourself go and float in the sounds, things turn out alright. Pink Floyd teach you to avoid analytics and rather feel the music, which is hard if you're used to jazz fusion and polyphonic stuff. This particular version is blessed with a perfectly balanced organ beginning, the shimmering ride cymbals and Gilmour's falsetto wailing which is totally in tune; a lot of bootleg recordings are proof of that this wasn't always the case. Anyway, this version is the most atmospheric one which has been released officially and I enjoy it quite a lot. Yet still I think that I haven't fully got what the track really is about. (Curiously, the first measures of the track were - in the school subject of music - an important topic of the German A-levels/school-departure-exams in 2011; the precise task was to compare the studio version to the live version. As anticipated, things turned out a bit more academic than fruitful, but at least I was glad that Schubert and Vivaldi weren't the only topics to deal with.)

A Saucerful Of Secrets is as reckless as it has always been whilst this version replaces the mass of tape effects and sound twiddlings of the studio version with a tighter band sound. My favorite version is doubtlessly the one from Live in Pompeii, thanks to the priceless drum sound and its more condensed form, but it's the Ummagumma version which comes closest to the vandalism of punk music, Rick Wright working around on the Farfisa with his two favorite intervals (the tritone and the major seventh) and Nick Mason playing his signature drum fill balancing between forte and fortissimo (actually adapted in faster speed from the early Pink Floyd recording Nick's Boogie). And again it's the quasi-classical agogic structure this piece is in which makes it so compelling and great - a cacophony without a frame would have been a difficult territory to play in. The first movement creeps broadly like an endless lake of boiling pulp, erupting in the mad slide guitar shredding and the drum rolls of the Syncopated Pandemonium part, calming down for a grievous middle part before the many minutes of atonality lead into the anthemic tonality of the Celestial Voices finale. Instead of the three-part harmony vocals of the studio version, David Gilmour takes over the lead vocals for the final part - a wise decision, particularly if you don't have a Mellotron or - as I stated a few paragraphs above - a church organ on stage. The courage of this piece has often been tried to reproduce by bands of the 1960s and 1970s, but it's damn complicated to construct a functioning avant-garde longtrack from disarranged sounds. This experiment is a real tough listen, but if you're in the mood it's a great and singular listening experience.

A 12-minute version of Interstellar Overdrive was also recorded for the live LP, but there was not enough space to add it. While bearing similarities with the original Barrett version, it is fairly deconstructed and a more academic affair than any of the other four tracks. I like the little surreal parts of plucking and clicking, and I'm sad that the wave of Pink Floyd reissues didn't incorporate recordings such as these, but I think that in 1969 the band threw the right song out of the list - given that they needed to throw one out in order to stay underneath the 50-minute mark.

All in all there's no part on the album which might tear the overall impression down. The whole double album is a huge statement, it's absolutely diversified and it works very well - in most part it works brilliantly, in others it "only" works really well. The actual rating is based only on how I feel about this album and - apart from what I mentioned in the headline of my review - I cannot find a particular point of criticism I could mention. It might as well be 5 stars. Buy it anyway!

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |

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