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Pink Floyd - The Wall CD (album) cover

THE WALL

Pink Floyd

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

4.08 | 2783 ratings

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Frankingsteins
4 stars ... one of the biggest selling albums in history, and one that still provokes discussion by Pink Floyd fans. Was 'The Wall' the last great Floyd album; the start of their decline; the point of no return; or the band's unsurpassed masterpiece?

Everything about this album smells of ambition. In many ways, it's bass player / new vocalist Roger Waters' personal pet project. From the unusual double album format (a 4-side LP in the olden days, later updated to double CD) to the repetition of themes in the lyrics and melodies to the appropriation of the band's name for the protagonist in the album's storyline, it's almost as if Pink Floyd finally felt ready to record their magnum opus, six years after they'd already accidentally done that with 'Dark Side of the Moon.'

The Pink Floyd sound is intentionally stripped down and simplified for The Wall, a departure from the extended jams and ambient instrumentals that typified their sound through the seventies. This shallow sound can't be blamed on the near-absence of keyboard player Rick Wright (who Waters fired during the making of this album) as the previous release 'Animals' achieved a comparable atmosphere to the synth-heavy 'Wish You Were Here' with only minimal use of keyboards, as did much of their early work. The style would seem to be a combination of Waters' style-over-substance attitude, the focus being on his intelligent concept through the lyrics, and the desire to produce a more profitable and commercial album filled with shorter and simpler radio-friendly material, following the somewhat disappointing sales of 'Animals' with its ten-minute- plus Orwellian rants. The concept of The Wall is intrinsically linked to its sound and overall style, more so perhaps than in any other big-selling album, and as such has to be dealt with in addition to the music itself.

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Disc One

1. In the Flesh? 2. The Thin Ice 3. Another Brick in the Wall part one 4. The Happiest Days of Our Lives 5. Another Brick in the Wall part two 6. Mother 7. Goodbye Blue Sky 8. Empty Spaces 9. Young Lust 10. One of My Turns 11. Don't Leave Me Now 12. Another Brick in the Wall part three 13. Goodbye Cruel World

The first disc is by far the more impressive of the two. The opening is strong, the songs are good and the pace doesn't let up for a long time, only losing my interest in the bleak section at the end. The Wall Disc One stands strong as an independent album, as the repetition of musical themes is successful (namely in the 'Another Brick in the Wall' pieces) and the songs are varied enough in style and mood to make for a successful album. Even the all-important 'Pink Floyd' concept draws to something of a conclusion here, though the existence of the second disc benefits the story greatly by offering solutions to the character's grief and presenting the consequences of his actions, elevating the concept above the cynical, world-weary rant it would have been at forty minutes.

Lyrically, disc one is a speedy scene-by-scene, brick-by-brick overview of Pink's formative years and experiences, the wailing baby's birth immediately preceded by his father's roaring plane crash and the lyrics dealing with school and an over-cautious mother. After track seven the listener (or even reader) is brought back to the 'present': Pink the rock star failing to find contentment living his dream and spiralling deeper into despair. The concept is cool, and it's carried out well by the music, although it's a shame that the brief and intriguing voice samples from early in the album give way to lengthy performance pieces later on, as in the opening to 'One of My Turns' when Pink invites a groupie to his hotel room. The arbitrary, trivial criticisms of the insane headmaster in the early tracks are fun to listen to ('how ken ya hav'any puddeng if ya dorn't eat yer meat???') and there's some nice foreshadowing in the almost inaudible ringing phone.

Musically, disc one is loud, mid-tempo rock music that ranges from the grand opening chords to the anthemic 'Another Brick' hit single to the quiet and reflective 'Mother' and 'Goodbye Blue Sky' to the mellow pop-rock of 'Young Lust' and, finally, the drawn- out bleakness of 'Don't Leave Me Now' and 'Goodbye Cruel World.' The opening song is great and energetic, and although it's a little disappointing that this power fades away so soon with the piano-led 'The Thin Ice,' the Brick sections at least keep things bouncing and plodding along in a relatively satisfying way, even if that infamous school choir on Another Brick part two sounds pretty grating, especially at the high volume that the production of this album demands.

The stripped acoustic style of 'Mother' works incredibly well, and the eruption into to Dave Gilmour's guitar solo works perfectly, a feat that is sadly never achieved again in the course of this disc. Both 'One of My Turns' and 'Don't Leave Me Now' attempt the exact same thing, only the contrast between the quiet body of the song and the electric finale is more pronounced in these latter two, and the resulting solos and melodies are cut off before going anywhere interesting in both instances. This reliance on pointless volume-tinkering and a contrived electric guitar 'wow' factor would later be one of many failings of the follow-up album, 'The Final Cut.' In Gilmour's praise, he makes excellent use of the limited time he's given on these later tracks, no matter how much they clearly demonstrate his losing position in the band's compromise with its control freak of a bass player.

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Disc Two

While some of the second disc's failings are down to loss of the initial enthusiasm listeners may have got a kick out of as they realised disc one was telling a story, there are also clear reasons why it fails in places as a strong album. For a start, the tracklist is deceptive and exaggerated: 'Is There Anybody Out There!,' 'Bring the Boys Back Home' and 'Stop' are all mere interludes with very little merit either on their own or even in their positions on the album, although the first would have seemed more fitting as the opening for disc two, as was originally intended, continuing the hopelessness of disc one's finale rather than seemingly going backwards here after the more optimistic 'Hey You.' It would be unfair to condemn 'Vera,' 'The Show Must Go On' and 'Outside the Wall' as not being 'true songs' just because they're all very short also, but they are eclipsed by the longer and more worthwhile songs, which end up comprising only seven of the thirteen tracks.

The concept of disc two is predominantly routed in the present tense of the character's experiences, as he is forced to continue living and performing under medication, and reacts by abusing his position on stage by turning his concert into a fascist rally. Pink retreats into his own mind once again, this time to confront his demons, the bricks in his symbolic wall personified by the characters whose negligent attitudes were responsible for his descent. The ending is ambiguous: Pink's fate is unknown, but the Wall is audibly demolished and, of course, the CD loops back round to Pink's father's death, the first brick, to begin construction all over again.

The musical style is even more varied than on the first disc, but this isn't necessarily a positive thing. Opener 'Hey You' is my favourite on the album, a short but progressive song with a great rock chorus, effective contrast of moods and even a nice electric reprise of the 'Another Brick' guitar riff for the first of several instances on this disc. The other hit singles are also the most prominent songs on this side, the sombre Gilmour classic 'Comfortably Numb,' proof if any was needed that Pink Floyd was never all about Waters, and the disco beats of 'Run Like Hell,' one that I'm not so fond of. The music once again ties perfectly to the tone of the lyrics, the boost of energy that accompanies the protagonist's performance permitting the sequel / prequel (it depends on your point of view) 'In the Flesh.' It also means that anyone bored by the melancholic sound at the end of disc one can look forward to things improving as the second disc continues, the quieter acoustic pieces sounding more reflective and chilled out than dismal.

My main issue with the second disc is that the story is permitted and encouraged to completely overpower the music on several occasions. While 'Comfortably Numb' is implicitly about injecting the character of Pink with some kind of drug so he's ready to perform, it could be about anything, and that's why people request it for their funerals. By complete contrast, 'The Trial' is a disappointingly melodramatic conclusion to the album that offers very little in the way of musical entertainment and is mainly a chance for Waters to put on an even sillier Irish accent than usual and scream a lot. 'Bring the Boys Back Home' also sounds very out of place, to the extent that I can't see where in music it could possibly have any place, and doesn't even succeed in making the point about cheery wartime propaganda that I guess it's making. The song sounds really obstructive and annoying before 'Comfortably Numb,' and could have been handled differently, in any other way, and been more pleasing. The album's true (but still disputed) finale is nice and pleasant.

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The Wall doesn't match up to Dark Side of the Moon, its immediate rival within the band's discography. In fact, I don't think it matches up to much of their output prior to this, but I also think it's a huge step above the dismal disappointment of the Waters- dominated 'The Final Cut,' and the mediocre albums the band produced after his departure. Dark Side is an incredible listening experience that works from start to finish, while The Wall features too many slip-ups and inconsistencies, not to mention that it's really stretched out at just over 80 minutes. Where Dark Side innovates new ways of sounding, The Wall deliberately rejects them and oversimplifies itself for consumers; unnecessarily, as the record buying public were already eager for anything with the Pink Floyd name.

At least there are some fantastic songs amidst the filler, especially those that are full band collaborations. Sadly, all the band members are restrained and consequently don't get to sound much like themselves, especially notable in Wright's diluted Hammonds (that nevertheless improve the album greatly) and Nick Mason's reduction to time- keeping percussionist. Waters relies too much on understatement in the mistaken belief that low volume is somehow more meaningful than loud rock music (so what are those amps all about?), and this means that only around one-third of the album's softer pieces end up being good songs. The best cuts are 'In the Flesh?' (and its similar, punctationless companion), 'Another Brick in the Wall part 2' (grudgingly), 'Mother,' 'Goodbye Blue Sky,' 'Hey You' and 'Comfortably Numb,' with perhaps 'Run Like Hell' added if you like disco. The rest of the album is mostly nice, but acts as a bridge between the good stuff.

The lasting legacy of The Wall is that it gives attentive listeners a fair amount to think about. It can't all be about the depressed rock star plot, as the music has to back up the story with equal brilliance, and it mostly succeeds. While the jingoistic upbringing, rock star privileges and drug abuse motifs prevent this from being an 'everyman' tale (imagine that. A whole generation of Roger Waterses. Depressing or what?), some aspects of the album are nicely open-ended for interpretation. Watching Alan Parker's 1982 film version of this album would probably help in spoiling it all for you with some kind of definitive message, but luckily I haven't seen that.

Personally, I view some of the album's louder, more typical rock and roll moments such as 'In the Flesh' and the Thin Lizzie esque 'Young Lust' as being songs from the guitar and repertoire of (the fictional character) Pink Floyd, especially as the latter sounds so different and so much more consciously commercial and genre-based than anything else off the album. If 'Young Lust' is indeed an ironic parody of the mellow, gravely voiced, swinging guitars hard rock style, it's a damn good parody. it was even released as a successful single! The album would have been even more impressive if more songs were open to interpretation, and things like the over-exposure of 'The Trial' were watered down.

It's not enough for the album to rely on the merits of its lyrical complexity, as this serves at best, giving a theoretical example (that's not at all based on my own experience.), to immediately wow listeners with its intelligence, have them reading all about it on the internet and then deciding that The Wall is one of their new favourite albums because it's so clever, only to listen to it again at a later date and realise that the music's not actually that revolutionary or inspired at all. And feeling cheated by myself. I mean, themselves. The theoretical people that aren't me. It's a nice gimmick to split a vocal sample over the end and then the beginning of the album, but that alone isn't necessarily enough to encourage cyclical playing.

Of course, this was a massive selling album and not everyone who owns it is going to be interested in burdening themselves with exploration of the concept. They just want good rock songs played by great musicians at their peak, and for this reason The Wall is ...

Frankingsteins | 4/5 |

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