Out Of Time (OOT) is a series of reviews that blithely ignores consumer dictates and release schedules. This time, Gary Steel looks at the so-called new Pink Floyd album, which is mostly going on 20 years old.
I LIKE TO think that my mind is always open to a “legacy” group like Pink Floyd reanimating itself and releasing a record that’s vital, full of surprises, characteristic of their best work yet seething with new ideas.
But The Endless River isn’t that record, and instead, I’m duty bound to conform to the Floyd-slagging paradigm. Sorry.
I do feel kind of bad, because “the Floyd” have been one of the most critically reviled bands in the Western world for oh, at least 40 years. It’s not that they never got effusive or glowing reviews, it’s just that since the enormous success of Dark Side Of The Moon way back in 1973, there’s been a cabal of freethinking reviewers who have singled them out as not worthy. The main vein of criticism went something like this: since their original wayward genius Syd Barrett flew off his rocker, Pink Floyd had always been a hollow bodied vessel, a bunch of comfortably middle class lads without the psychedelic credentials of poor mad Syd. And that with Dark Side Of The Moon, they had lucked on the kind of success many of their more talented brethren couldn’t dream of.
There’s a conversation to be had about that, but not here, not now. But it’s true that as they became increasingly rich, playing to huge stadiums of stoned youths, their music followed a predictable course, and by the time the “punk revolution” occurred just a few years later in ’76, Floyd were seen as one of the most reprehensible of the dinosaur bands: pompous, ponderous, indulgent, and the biggest crime of all: BORING!
Why do I feel kind of bad for symbolically defecating all over The Endless River, then? Because, despite the group’s obvious flaws, the Barrett-deprived Floyd still made some rich, painterly, wonderfully impressionistic rock music. There are some genuine gems on the albums leading up to Dark Side Of The Moon, and that record is held in such reverence by bogans everywhere for good reason. Okay, so it’s a really easy, simplistic piece of music that any stoned half-wit could get off on, but it’s also one of the most perfectly realised, perfectly executed concept album projects of all time, and there’s the rub. When I bought DSOTM in ’73, I thrashed it to death and was all over it in a week. Perfection comes at a price: art needs to stare us in the face with its imperfections, its raw truths. That album was like a sealed tomb containing a mummified sarcophagus: a thing of beauty and awe, but also something that was already dead, leaving nowhere to go, no way for the group to keep growing.
But even as over subsequent albums they raced towards flatulence and irrelevance, they were still capable of churning out the odd worthwhile piece, and even the Wagnerian conceit of Roger Waters’ The Wall wasn’t entirely without merit, you just had to look at the cracks in the mausoleum to find signs of life.
I never found any of their albums after DSOTM cherishable enough to hold onto, but even the two post-Waters Floyd albums had moments that resonated, hints of the psycho-spatial wonder of those early recordings.
That’s why I thought I’d give The Endless River a fair go. Promoted as an instrumental excursion using unfinished snippets of 1993 material by their late keyboardist Rick Wright, and therefore dedicated to him, it was easy to imagine that it may have been expertly fashioned into a worthy bookend to the Pink Floyd saga. Wright’s contributions to the Floyd sound were immense, and in the immediate post-Barrett era, his excellent compositions were even allowed to grace their albums.
But it’s hard to listen to what purports to be the last Pink Floyd album without thinking about how, in his last years with the group, Rick Wright was reduced to being a hired hand; that he wasn’t even considered a proper member of the group he’d been integral to. And it’s worth noting that there are few of Wright’s classic touches on an album that is accurately described as an attempt at salvaging of scraps.
Although the album has in post-production been structured as a continuous piece, the reality is that it’s a patchwork affair; that each too-short piece is an indeterminate, ill-defined fragment that is presented as though it’s all part of an overall composition, when in fact, they remain fragments, there is no progression or development.
It seems to have taken guitarist David Gilmour, engineer Damon Iddins, former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, dance music producer Youth and a few others to forge this “ambient epic”, and it’s a flop, a big damp squib, a flapping fish expiring slowly on wet concrete.
Which doesn’t mean it’s totally devoid of pleasant moments. Occasionally they reach right back to ’68 to get a bit of Wright’s organ at its warmest (he’s even captured on Farfisa at one point, while Gilmour encores with the VCS3 synth), and at other times the floating ambience together with Gilmour’s creamy-toned guitar solos (and there are quite a lot of them) hint seductively of something. But then there’s just more floating ambience, and more creamy-toned guitar soloing.
There’s rather a lot of quiet, percussion-free passages, where Gilmour can be found picking away on acoustic, then adding some of his patented slo-mo slide guitar. That’s fine, as far as it goes – it’s actually Wright who commits the worst crimes against good taste. Just when it sounds like it might degenerate into a demo-version of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds shorn of its memorable melodies, Wright goes all Richard Clayderman on us. Worse still, they add clarinetist Gilad Atzmann to tootle away like Acker Bilk over Wright’s acrid Piano By Candlelight moves.
Every time it looks like there might be some fun up ahead (one brief track features the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ, another Gilmour doing his best ‘Layla’ impression, yet another actually has them kicking into what could have been a decent psych wig-out if it had been of more than two minutes’ duration), the track’s over and it’s onto another that’s segued together like it belongs, but with little thought to mood or what Zappa would call “conceptual continuity”.
It’s almost a relief on a track featuring the computer voice of Stephen Hawking (aren’t we all just a bit tired of that voice by now?) when sound-alike massed voices, ala DSOTM, are brought in for dramatic effect. And sandwiched right at the end like a carrot on a stick is an ACTUAL SONG, a track staged to sound like Floyd in its most popular incarnation. By this point, you’re so desperate for anything but more ambient noodling that you think: fantastic! But when you listen to the piece on its own merits: blah!
The Endless River? It’s more like a series of small ponds with all their tiny inhabitants gasping for air as it dries up. It’s literally an album of interludes and introductions to a main event that never happens. And when it draws to a close, it’s like a partial resolution to a story that never, in fact, happened. GARY STEEL
Music Rating = 2.5/5
Sound Rating = 3.5/5