Monday, December 17, 2007

Ice Castles

Pink Floyd • Animals
CBS Records/1978

Apologies for breaking this review into two parts - mostly, it's because the first part covering the lyrical content and general album flow was so lengthy that I knew the music part was going to end up getting short-shrifted.

But implied in that is also the other reason - the Pink Floyd that recorded Animals was already two separate and distinct bands living under one name. One band was the actual entity created by the pooled talents of David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright. The other Pink Floyd was simply a vehicle for Roger Waters songwriting. And the lyric review in the first half essentially covers the Roger Waters angle. This part - the music part - will redress that, becuase the Gilmour/Mason/Waters/Wright version of Pink Floyd was firing on all cylinders on this album, and in my reevaluation, I didn't want to make the same mistake that most other reviewers seem to, in treating Animals as the Roger Waters show, or even those who take note of Gilmour's writing and playing contributions.

For starters, that would be chronologically inaccurate: two of the three band songs on Animals pre-date the bulk of Wish You Were Here, having been performed on tour in 1974. Those two would be Dogs (then called "You Gotta Be Crazy") and Sheep (called either "Raving and Drooling" or "I Fell On His Neck With A Scream"). And even though Waters had taken over the lyric writing by '74, the band was still very much a fully-participating and function unit. The two songs were paired in the opening set with Shine On You Crazy Diamond in the middle, which is generally regarded as being the last hurrah for the four-man-band version of the Floyd.

So why do people generally regard Animals as the Waters show? Four reasons:

1) It's easier to plot a direct line for a band's evolution than to try to include the idea that they (in the eyes of a critic) 'regressed' in some fashion,
2) Animals, like Obscured By Clouds, has been eclipsed by the monstrous success of the two albums it's sandwiched between - the aforementioned Wish You Were Here and The Wall - respectively, tough acts to follow or precede,
3) Waters sings leads on every song, with GIlmour just taking the first few verses of Dogs, and
4) The mix.

Animals does occupy a strange place in the Floyd canon, being the only album in their post Dark SIde... string of multi-platinum megaliths that doesn't have a single FM-radio staple on it. It's sort of the last 'fans only' album, the one that delineates the casual fan from the hardcore one. And as far as rock critics were concerned, Floyd was passé by that point, so it's never mentioned in any kind of 'essentials' list.

The Waters vocal abundance is something I talked a little about in previous entries - at this point, I think it had gone too far. It's not to say that he doesn't give good vocal performances, but it was the balance of voices on the previous albums that made them work. Rick Wright is nowhere to be heard vocally, and while I wouldn't suggest that his voice would have been appropriate for any of the tracks on Animals, I could easily see Sheep (the weakest track, let's face it) getting cut (ha!) or shortened to fit a softer band song that Wright could have at least provided backing vocals on. A very strange thing, to completely cut one singer from an album.

But the vocals on the album are strange all around - take the dual lead vocals on Dogs, for example. Gilmour sings (roughly) the first half, and then Waters takes over for the second half. And that even applies to the harmony vocals - in the Gilmour sections, Gilmour doubles his own voice on the harmonies. Ditto Waters for his own section. I'd never noticed before this listening, but it is sort of an odd thing, and it adds greatly to the overall sense of shimmering remoteness that falls over the entire album.

The other thing that adds to the cold and isolated sound of the album - and the last main reason why the album is thought more of as the first Waters album - is the structure of the mix. The vocals and rhythm section approach is the star here, with the drums and bass clear and precise without. Gilmour's leads are brought pretty far forward, but the rhythm guitars have less prominence in both the arrangements and mix, and the keys are definitely given fourth billing.

That's only fractionally due to an evolution in Wright's keyboard arsenal - the addition of the polysynth on Wish You Were Here marked the last big change in his sound, but the Hammond & Wurlitzer are still here. There's even a little true piano on Pigs (Three Different Ones), but it's the definition of 'marginal,' and is so lacking in Wright's style that it could have been played by anyone.

Another small fraction is his streamlined playing - compare the funky midsection of Dogs to the nearly identical section in Echoes, from 1971's Meddle. Given the same backbeat to build on, Wright plays a very subdued rhythm comp on the Wurlitzer for Dogs, whereas on Echoes, he mixes his playing between sympathetic riff in answer to Gilmour's arching solo and a more varied comping, all on an overdriven Hammond B-3, making for a very dynamic section. Note I'm not claiming superiority for one approach over the other, of course.

But not content with having the playing be more subdued, they're pushed further back in the mix than on any other Floyd album. Far from the earlier records where Gilmour's lines and Wright's lines would intermingle to such an extent that you sometimes had to give a song repeated listenings just to figure out who played what, on Animals, the keys and guitar are kept well apart, and Wright mostly plays fill chords on the Hammond or PolyMoog (more likely the Oberheim 8). Even the only true solo he takes on the album (not counting the Wurlitzer intro on Sheep, which is more compositional than solo) - the synth in the long ambient break at the middle of Dogs - is turned way, way, waaaaaay down in the mix, so far that it just becomes one more texture, like the Vocoder dog howls and whistling in the background. Really, the whole section is all background - but if you listen closely, the synth solo is really nice, building on the harsh musical and lyrical themes of the song.

No wonder this album is Rick Wright's last hurrah with the band. And since he was fired during the recording of The Wall, and doesn't contribute anything to Momentary Lapse, that's it for Wright on Floyd for almost sixteen years, with his full return on The Division Bell.

All of this being said, it's an excellent sounding album, intensely well played and recorded (and mixed!). The band is tighter than on any other recording, with Mason in particular playing at peak level. The new drum sound - tight and snappy and dry without being at all small - also is just right, with the cymbals falling perfectly in the mix. The songs flow very well, each one being lengthy and sharing the same structure of building intro, band kick-in for the verses (with nothing like a chorus to speak of, save for Gilmour's beautiful 4/4 guitar break, repeated twice in Dogs) , a drum-less break down then build up for the solo section, followed by a final verse and a big finale - either a higher energy jam, or a big vocal climax.

This was the only album that the Floyd recorded in its entirety at their own Britannia Row studios, and I think this leaner and heavier sound is both a reflection of the music industry of the time (the album is something of a response to the punk explosion of '77) and of a very proprietary approach to the recording. Even the chord changes, with the exception of the acoustic opening section for Dogs, are stripped down and simplified.

Note that I've talked a lot about the music on this album and haven't even gotten into many of the famous bits - the bass lead on the Pigs (Three Different Ones) intro, the pig-like VoiceBox guitar on the same song, etc. Having written two lengthy dissertations on this record, I've realized that I could probably go on for several thousand more words on it. Really, it's a multi-faceted thing, a great band at their peak, also being eclipsed by the power and sound imbalance with the increasing assertion of Roger Waters. Brilliant lyrics and playing, coupled with the Floyd hallmarks of pristine engineering and studio sound effects - long, pulsing and meditative minor key instrumentals with dark undercurrents feeding into bleak observations on human nature.

And if that isn't "Pink Floyd®," I don't know what is.


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