ALBUM REVIEW: Camel – Moonmadness (1976)

From Wave Maker Magazine (here).

It is very difficult to select just one record to cover from such a fantastic and underrated band, but we’d be here till the second coming if I were to go through all of Camel’s fourteen studio albums in detail. Instead, I’d have you take a look at the first one I ever picked up, and the one I consider to be the group’s very best.

band4Founded in 1971 (as The Brew) by guitarist Andrew Latimer, bassist Doug Ferguson, and drummer Andy Ward, the band eventually drafted keyboardist Peter Bardens, changed their name to Camel and released their self-titled debut in 1973. Debut albums from this period seem to be bloody solid and Camel was no exception. Bardens shows off his formidable writing (and playing) with cuts like the awesomely gloomy “Mystic Queen,” and Latimer presents his own equally fantastic skills in tunes like “Never Let Go.” The second record, Mirage, was released the following year and saw the band fall steadily into the groove of their own original sound with the addition of Latimer’s flute. A purely instrumental album, inspired by Gallico’s novella The Snow Goose, followed in 1975 and a year after that we arrive at the subject at hand.

The fourth, and final, album to feature Camel’s original line-up of Latimer, Ferguson, Ward, and Bardens, is in this writer’s opinion one of those masterpieces that rarely happens when a band is on the eve of fracture. Allow me to explain. Often times, an educated ear can hear when a band is about to change or loose something. Usually, one or more members of the band develops an idea of what the band should sound like and if they’re loud or influential enough, they dominate and the record careens awkwardly for the transitional record until the rest of the band catches up. If they are one or two of the quiet members, it is done with a less obvious, passive-aggressive approach and the transitional album shows it in their lack of enthusiasm for the old sound. If both sides are loud, you end up with something completely disjointed or over-the-top (methinks maybe Rammstein’s last album Liebe ist für alle da), if both sides are quiet you end up with an uninspired mess that is a rehash of older elements. I feel that 1976′s Moonmadness is more like the band coming together for one final bit of perfect sweetness before things were to change.

The record opens with the short and sweet moog-dominated instrumental track “Aristillus.” This was the first song I ever heard by Camel and I was immediately entranced. From there, we transition to the superb Latimer/Bardens venture “Song Within a Song.” With soaring moog work and epic keys from Bardens, soft and stunning flute from Latimer, and delightfully wistful vocals from Ferguson, this tune is totally a triumph of golden age prog. Latimer’s guitars come in later to shift the mood a little bit before we are treated to a driving moog solo and a softly triumphant coda.

tumblr_m83yje96u71qi75gqo1_500To me, “Chord Change” shows off Andy Ward’s talents behind the drum kit. He frantically keeps pace while Latimer and Ferguson stride all over it with an adeptness that makes it all seem so easy. Bardens comes in during and after the mood change with organ to complete the picture. I must note that the instrumental tracks on the album illustrate well how this configuration of Camel played together. They are as exciting and as breathtaking as any awesome prog jam, but with the skill and hooks that transform a mere jam into a thing of legend. “Spirit of the Water” is a Peter Bardens solo piece, with his sombre vocals bubbling soothingly beneath beautiful piano work. It is a nice, quiet end to the first side of the record.

Side two starts with a bang. The riveting “Another Night” reminds me strongly of Pink Floyd’s most powerful work, or perhaps of the energy of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s “Road to Babylon.” This track features the entire band writing and it shows. It starts of softly enough, but builds into a magnificently gnarly riff. Andrew Latimer’s vocals glide marvellously over top of the grim musical landscape and take us to a charged pre-chorus guitar riff that leads into a soft chorus line eerily reminiscent of some of David Gilmour’s (in style only, nothing is ripped off). Midway through, we get to hear a wonderful coming together of all four players. Ferguson’s bass creeps around beneath Ward’s stready drumming while Bardens’ organ and Latimer’s guitars soar overhead. The song returns to its epic verse before Bardens delivers with a wicked organ solo, and shortly after Latimer whips out a sweet guitar solo of his own before the song fades out, leaving me wishing it had have been a twentyminuter!

“Air Born” begins with a short flute and piano segment before the entire band comes in. More sombre vocals from Latimer follow a gorgeous melody with a sweet hook. A brisk, folky acoustic guitar/flute section follows and takes us into an early Genesis-like pastoral setting (I’m thinking Foxtrot). We return to the sweet vocal section once more before the song comes to its Genesis-like conclusion (now I’m thinking Trespass).

The final track, “Lunar Sea” is a thing of atmospheric beauty. It carries on almost eighites-like until a charged jam with Bardens, Ward, and Ferguson driving and Latimer’s guitar wailing away in all its glory. Ward and Ferguson form up a groovy little rhythm section and pave the way for another great Peter Bardens moog section. We return to the original riff for a heated guitar solo that lasts a glorious amount of time before the band comes together again for paced outro jam. The intro returns for a time but fades into a trippy effect that, if you listen to it on vinyl, carries on forever, thanks to a built-in feature on the record’s groove that kicks the needle back to the beginning of the effect. On CD, it simply fades out after a while.

camel_1977_richard_sinclair_ward_bardens_latimer_collinsFollowing the release of Moonmadness, the great Mel Collins, formerly of King Crimson, joined Camel on tour before joining the band officially. Stylistic disagreements led to Doug Ferguson’s departure. He apparently played in a band called Headwaiter before dropping out of professional music. Peter Bardens left in 1978 and played on Van Morrison’s Wavelength album before going it solo. We unfortunately lost his great talent in 2002 due to cancer. Andy Ward ran into substance abuse problems and parted ways with the band. He did a short stint with Marillion before their Fugazi album. After this, Andrew Latimer became the sole remaining original member of Camel (although he released the album The Single Factor in 1982, which featured Bardens as a guest, as well as Genesis alumnus Ant Phillips) and carried the torch until 1984. Latimer later revived the band in 1991.

Final score: Moonmadness is a must have for any and every progressive rock fan’s collection. It’s one of those solid, magical discs that includes everything that made seventies progressive music so effing incredible! Although I’m sure I’ll anger more than a few people with this, musically I prefer Moonmadness over Dark Side of the Moon (Dark Side is still a technological wonder, however). I guess it’s like this: just as with King Crimson’s Red, I love it when a line-up’s swan song ends up being the biggest and the best – a final, passionate hurrah from extremely talented musicians who would never again record an album together.

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Spirit of the Water Website by Steve Marsden.
Thanks to Ben Bardens, Wikipedia, Ofir Zwebner, Shane Carlson, numerous other fans and of course the Band itself!