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Sparks - Halfnelson [Aka: Sparks] CD (album) cover

HALFNELSON [AKA: SPARKS]

Sparks

 

Crossover Prog

4.25 | 40 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
5 stars The first new wave album? Maybe not quite but a prototype of what was to come.

The creative and spastic team of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as SPARKS has become notorious for being one of the quirkiest progressive art pop zolo glam rock artists in the last half century and are still going strong to this day. This Los Angeles duo decided to create their first band all the way back in 1968 when they teamed up under the name HALFNELSON. Having rejected the hippie folk and rock that was en vogue in the late 60s California scene, Ron on keyboards and Russell as vocalist would turn many a head when they performed completely off-kilter art pop that exhibited sophisticated Baroque pop, intelligently designed lyrics and quirky left field constructs that were made all the more strange by the duo's unique theatrical stage presence that found Russell displaying hyperactive performances with a distinctly idiosyncratic falsetto while Ron playing keys in a detached and stoic manner.

While distancing themselves from their LA contemporaries, the duo looked eastward towards the British scene where they found more inspiration from disparate acts such as The Who, The Kinks, The Move and Pink Floyd. It didn't take long after their formation in 1968 that they caught the attention of Todd Rundgren who immediately signed them to his Bearsville label. While the duo would be the focal point of attention, the band was rounded off with Earle Manley on guitar and his brother James on bass and released the eponymously titled debut HALFNELSON in 1971 to little fanfare. After a little changing things up which included the band name becoming SPARKS and a new album cover, the HALFNELSON debut become the first self-titled SPARKS album when re-released in 1972 which proved to be the magic bullet. The same album retitled as SPARKS ushered in the band's first minor hit in the form of "Wonder Girl."

While still HALFNELSON, Ron and Russell were well ahead of their time as they crafted a distinct sound that would blend glam rock, progressive art pop and a hyper spastic feel that would eventually become known as zolo. This amalgamation of ideas would become the staple for bands like Roxy Music, Split Enz, XTC, Devo and countless others as the 70s ceded into the 80s. The HALFNELSON / SPARKS debut is a powerhouse of ideas that range from the prognosticating "Fa La Fa Lee" which sounds a lot like the synthpop that would emerge at the end of the decade and a major ingredient of the new wave that swept the late 70s and early 80s, to the bizarre early indie pop weirdness of "Biology 2" which sounds a lot like the brain melting helium voiced weirdness that Ween would capture and bring to the limelight in the 90s. Tracks like "Roger" are quirky little numbers that mix a heavy classical piano influence with bubblegum pop hooks but corrupt them into a crazed mix of time signature liberties that jitter around the main beat.

"High C" which sounds like a David Bowie on acid type of track displays a basic glam rock groove that intertwines country slide guitar, new wave type of synthpop hooks and the ultimate vocal weirdness that displays Russell's eccentric abilities that make Freddie Mercury sound like an amateur as he whizzes up and down the scale. "Simple Ballet" shows an explorative show tune sort of proclivity while "Slowboat" proves that the duo aren't just about weirdness but that they can also write beautiful ballads that don't resort to extremes yet even here they think out of the box with a Baroque piano solo and ends with an energetic guitar performance. "Saccharin And The War" is the most rockin' and also most progressive track on the album as it ramps up the guitar heft and adds some time sig deviations as Russell wails away sounding like he's a cross between the singers of Gnidrolog and Pavlov's Dog. "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys" sounds somewhat like the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show" which wouldn't come out until 1975.

The first SPARKS album which began as a HALFNELSON album is a true freak of nature that must've come as a complete shock to anyone who would've experienced it at the time. It was so different than virtually anything else that existed and an obvious influence for much of the glam rock and indie pop of the future. While clearly more pop than rock, SPARKS were about as creatively experimental as you could get back in the early 70s within that world. This is a brilliant album as it shows the two brothers pretty much doing things exactly as they wanted and the album is all the better for it. While SPARKS wouldn't hit it big until their third album "Kimono In The House" which would become an international hit after they relocated to England, their first two albums are excellent slices of quirky, slightly progressive pop as well with the eponymous debut being the better of the two. While these early albums are precursors of the new wave movement that emerged towards the end of the decade in which SPARKS would be a key player in as well, on the first album it's obvious that they were the progenitors of the quirky zolo art pop turned new wave branch of the post-punk era as well. Not bad guys.

siLLy puPPy | 5/5 |

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