Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Pink Floyd Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967, Tower)

A

This disc can be a fairly jarring listen at first if your previous experience with Pink Floyd has been limited to such iconic classic-rock discs as The Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. This is not that Pink Floyd. Although the band lineup is much the same (Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason are all in place here), David Gilmour has yet to join the band at this point and the primary creative force here isn’t Waters but, rather, the band’s founder, Syd Barrett. This isn’t to say that this is at all a bad record (although “The Gnome” is fairly ridiculous) – just a very different one, one more akin to a more cosmic and psychedelic version of the whimsical pop of the Kinks’ Village Green-era period than the piercing, contemplative rock of Animals or The Wall. Mind you, this isn’t exactly commercial music (indeed, the jazzy instrumental “Pow R. Toc H.” is nothing short of otherworldly), but it’s nearly every bit as brilliant in its own weird way as such later epics as Dark Side. While the original British and American releases have largely similar tracklists (including the spacey but engaging instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive,” the groovy “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” and the playful “The Scarecrow”), the British version lacks the hit single “See Emily Play” (which was wisely added to the American edition in an effort to help sell the record) while the American version tragically deletes two of Barrett’s more iconic compositions, the cosmic rock of “Astronomy Domine” and the deliciously off-kilter whimsy of “Bike.”

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A Saucerful of Secrets (1968, Tower)

B –

Barrett’s mental state had already deteriorated dramatically by the band’s second disc, resulting in him being a virtual non-presence here, and his sole lead vocal and songwriting contribution here, “Jugband Blues,” makes his condition painfully obvious, and hearing him sing the line “I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here” is even more chilling if you know the tragic circumstances of his story. Unfortunately, with Syd being largely sidelined, the band is left to figure out how to carry on without him, and they neither have the songwriting chops nor the sense of focus just yet to effectively pick up the slack. Waters seems to be trying to channel Barrett’s sense of whimsy and novelty on the hard-rocking “Corporal Clegg,” but it doesn’t quite work, nor does the near-Moody-Blues-like part-prog, part-baroque-pop of Wright’s “See-Saw.” The odd instrumental twelve-minute title cut is a bit more interesting, but it nonetheless still feels less like a structured composition and more like a random fusing of different experiments. Much more artistically successful are Waters’ psychedelic opener “Let There Be More Light”, the blissed-out tom-tom-heavy hypnotics of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” and  
Wright’s “Remember a Day,” which coasts along nicely on Mason’s insistent, Keith Moon-recalling drumming.  As a bridge between the two distinct versions of the band, the disc does have an important place in the band’s discography, but, examined in isolation, the disc is just ultimately too spotty to feel as rewarding as its predecessor. 

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More (1969, Tower)

C

The band had still yet at this point to quite figure out its new identity in its post-Barrett period, so in hindsight, it’s perhaps not so strange that the band opted to punt for its third album and instead busy itself with working on a movie score. The result, the largely-instrumental More, is only marginally more interesting than your typical film-score disc and never quite feels like a proper Pink Floyd disc, but it’s not without its moments, either (“Cymbaline,” “Cirrus Minor,” and “Green Is the Colour” in particular all warrant repeated listens), and there are hints of the band’s future direction to be sighted, not in the least in the fact that newcomer Gilmour plays a greater role here than he did on Saucerful, handles all the lead vocal duties on the non-instrumental cuts. 

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Ummagumma (1969, Harvest)

B –

An ever-so-slightly overrated record, the double-disc Ummagumma is a half-live/half-studio outing that, like More before it, still feels like an existential holding pattern for the identity-challenged group. On the plus side, the live disc sports extended versions of “Astronomy Domine,” “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “A Saucerful of Secrets” (all surpassing eight minutes) that at least equal – if not better – their studio counterparts, in addition to a rare LP sighting of the terrifying instrumental “Careful with That Axe, Eugene.” The studio disc, on the other hand, is much more incoherent, giving each member half a side to toy around with; Wright’s four-part “Sisyphus” plays like a film score, with movements ranging from the orchestral to avant-garde-style piano to an organ-driven dirge, while Mason’s “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” alternates between flute and percussion solos. Much more successful is the pastoral near-folk of Waters’ “Grantchester Meadows” [his vocal experiment “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” in contrast, is as bizarre an experiment as the band has ever publicly released] and the multi-part Gilmour epic “The Narrow Way,” which veers from an acoustic near-country-styled groove to a guitar-and-synth experiment before culminating in its final section with the album’s most refreshingly conventional song. Even at its most pretentious, the disc never ceases to be interesting at the very least, and it’s arguably their strongest outing since their debut, but there’s also little here beyond the live disc that you’re likely to go back and listen to all that often. 

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Atom Heart Mother (1970, Harvest)

C –

Arguably the low point of the band’s post-Barrett output between Piper and Dark SideAtom Heart Mother finds the band still grasping for an identity. The twenty-four-minute-long instrumental title cut is certainly the band’s most ambitious composition up to this point, but it misfires considerably, in part due to its tendency to meander aimlessly and in larger part due to the heavy orchestration tacked onto the track, which just makes a poor fit for the group. The back half of the disc is a bit more listenable, comprised as it is of warmer and more concise outings like Waters’ acoustic ballad “If” and Wright’s vaguely-baroque-tinged “Summer ’68,” which, with its alternately Procul Harum-like verses and Beatlesque rocking choruses is easily the most commercial thing here. Yet the disc inevitably drifts back into self-indulgence, ending with the strange thirteen-minute instrumental “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” broken up in places by a montage of sound effects.   

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Meddle (1971, Harvest)

A +

A radical improvement on Atom Heart Mother, Meddle thankfully finds the band abandoning the heavily orchestral sounds of its predecessor for a much more streamlined yet no less ambient or hypnotic brand of rock. You could even argue that this underrated disc is the equal of the much-more famous Dark Side of the Moon. [It certainly works in the album’s favor that it hasn’t been nearly as overexposed on the radio dial as the latter record.]  Sure, some could say that the mere presence of the canine-themed acoustic blues throwaway “Seamus” prevents this from being nearly as epic a statement as the band’s later concept discs, but then, how often do we get to see this so typically self-serious a band let its guard down and reveal its more playful side? [The toe-tapping Waters composition “San Tropez” is just as uncharacteristically happy, but it’s an even greater delight.] “Fearless” sports a fabulous guitar lick doubled on acoustic and electric guitar (also cleverly working in a snippet of the Rodgers-Hammerstein standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), while the gentle and pastoral “A Pillow of Winds” sounds exactly like you might hope it to from its title. But these are all merely fun asides to the album’s two legendary bookends: the propulsive, haunting instrumental “One of These Days,” easily Waters’ greatest moment yet as a bassist, and the side-long, nearly-twenty-four-minute long “Echoes,” which distinctly foreshadows the sound of Dark Side (especially “Time”) and The Wall with its insistent chiming isolated guitar notes. Dark Side may get all the attention, but there’d be no Dark Side if not for Meddle having finally given the band both the focus and the distinct style it’d long been striving to find since losing Barrett four years earlier, and Meddle doesn’t feel quite so overly labored or as self-important.    

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Obscured by Clouds (1972, Harvest)

A –

Like More, this oft-overlooked platter is technically a film soundtrack, much of it comprised by incidental instrumental score pieces (like the haunting synth drones of the title cut), so it tends to get ignored by both radio programmers and the band’s more casual fans, but Pink Floyd had grown by leaps and bounds as songwriters in the years since More and had finally developed a coherent identity and consistent sound in the process, all of which helps to make this record feel both more confident than the prior soundtrack and more of a labor of love than a way of stalling for time. The instrumentals are perhaps occasionally more effective onscreen than they are on disc, but any shortcomings in those tracks are more than compensated for by the sheer strength of the vocal cuts included here, highlighted by the pensive “Wots … uh the Deal,” the snarling “Childhood’s End,” the Dark Side-esque “Burning Bridges,” the vaguely Big Star-like up-tempo pop of “The Gold It’s in the …” and, most memorably of all, the lazy, handclap-laden strummer “Free Four.” It may be one of the band’s more – pardon the pun – obscure albums, but there are enough hidden gems here to make it worth the hunt.   

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The Dark Side of the Moon (1973, Harvest)

A +

Its utter ubiquity on classic-rock-radio may make it an easy album for some to deem it overrated, but there’s little denying just what an epic statement the band has made with Dark Side. It’s not simply that the band has written an excellent batch of songs here (and certainly nothing the band had done before had felt quite as easily approachable or commercially accessible as the playful, register-ringing sounds of “Money,” the sheer snarl of “Time,” or the hypnotic breezes of “Us and Them”); it’s that every aspect of the album – from its heavy use of sound effects and found dialogue to the savvy sequencing to its appealing packaging (the original vinyl edition of which generously came with a pair of fold-out posters as well as several stickers) – seems as if it’s been carefully considered with pinpoint precision, while even the guest features (particularly Dick Parry’s sax work on “Money” and “Us and Them” and Clare Torry’s soaring vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky”) leave seismic impressions. Yet for all the album’s ambitions, the band somehow impressively manages to resist the urge to over-produce here, leaving the tracks just open and spacious enough to still feel chilling and powerful, and engineer Alan Parsons (years before he would become well-known in his own right as one-half of the Alan Parsons Project of “Eye in the Sky” fame) works some truly wondrous wizardry on the boards here, making this album sound more crystalline than just about any other disc from the same era, and is nearly every bit as crucial in the artistic success of the disc as any of the band members. Even for those who may not be fans of Pink Floyd’s music, the disc is still a sonic marvel and a must-hear for audiophiles.