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"I am - you are - we are - CRAZY!"
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|Starting Period:||The Artsy/Rootsy Years|
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Before you proceed any further, take a serious look at the photo of the band above (taken from the inlay sleeve of Camembert Electrique). Yeah, I know it's rather poor quality here, but it's still enough to draw conclusions, isn't it? And based on what I've read about Gong, I have every reason to suspect that the way they are captured here is the actual way they always looked.Now let's get to business. Any fan of Syd Barrett should make it his or her duty to add at least a few classic era Gong albums to the collection. Gong originated from the same psychedelic British mid-Sixties scene, but its originators, Australian-born Daevid Allen and his wife and "dream-sharer" Gilli Smyth, were actually closer to the Canterbury scene: in fact, it was Allen who stood behind the creation of Soft Machine in 1966, which he left a year later complaining about the lack of 'vision' among the other band members, who were more inclined to pursue strictly musical means of an avantgarde nature rather than incorporate any kind of bizarre philosophy supported by Allen. It is said that Allen actually had a 'vision' - he was a sincere and utter believer in everything he expressed in his music, which also carries him closer to Syd Barrett. The difference is that Syd had no "philosophy" as such, just a wild fantasy which was further aggravated by his progressing madness and drug addiction, while Allen seems to have always been somewhat more 'rational' in his behaviour. Ironically, Allen's next and most prominent vehicle for the expression of his ideas and beliefs, Gong, would eventually undergo the same fate as Soft Machine - by 1974, Allen's ways would radically part with the more "limited vision" of his bandmates, and Gong in its classic form would be no more. Here, however, we are primarily discussing "classic" Gong, the Gong that belongs to Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth. This was, by all means, one of the most unique bands on the entire musical scene in the early Seventies, and I really mean it: sure, their production can be categorized under the 'avantgarde/weird/bizarre' moniker, but that will mean absolutely nothing to nobody, because if you start thinking Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart or even Soft Machine, I'll only say "no, no, and no". It's weirdness of a different kind. The music of this band is damn near impossible to describe; to summarize even briefly all the achievements, conceptions, theories, mythologies and stylistics of Gong and its offshoots you'd need at least a hundred pages. Hopefully I'll expand on that theme later on, in some of the individual reviews. Here I'll just say that very briefly, the musical philosophy of Gong can be characterized as that of the 'Pothead Pixies' (term supposedly coined by Daevid Allen). Here, 'pothead', of course, refers to a very heavy psychedelic influence, while 'pixies' refers to those folk motives that mainly deal with mystics, medieval imagery, fairy tales and pastoral atmospheres. And, to tell the truth, rarely has the world seen such a weird, "totally spaced out" mixture of the two elements. One shouldn't also forget that Gong life isn't limited to 'psychedelic vision' - on just about every Gong album, apart from maybe the first one, musicianship is in very high esteem, with all the players always knowing what they're doing with their instruments. Allen, in particular, is an excellent jazz-trained guitarist, and the guys he recruited for the sessions were no slouches either. On top of that, perhaps Gilli Smyth doesn't have the sexiest voice in the whole world, but she certainly does her best to produce the sexiest-sounding female sounds ever produced on an album - erotic fantasies actually play quite a huge role in the Gong philosophy, you know. Dunno 'bout the others, but I can hardly resist... So that's the three main ingredients that constitute the Gong pot: heavy psychedelia and acid fantasies, folksy references and mythologic allusions, and a strong band groove. The groove itself, contrary to rumours, was NOT a jazz-fusion groove from the beginning; early (and the best) Gong albums include tracks in every style, from hard rock to folk ballad to innocent popster to, indeed, jazz-rock. As the band progressed, though, it did slowly drift in the jazz-fusion direction, until finally Allen and Smyth found out the sound had metamorphosed so much they couldn't stand it no more - and Allen left the band over personality clashes and everything that goes with 'em, in a certain way similar to Syd Barrett, although, granted, Allen was hardly ever as tripped out and mindless as Syd was around 1968. Since then, Gong has spawned a million offshoots: some band members played under the name 'Pierre Moerlen's Gong' (Moerlen was one of the band's drummers, the one who stood out as the main 'jazzifier'), and numerous "half-Gongs" played under the names of New York Gong, Gongzilla and a million others - see, the problem with Gong was that it was never a stable outfit and even in the classic years, Allen and Smyth would often and easily change players. My advice is: for the first time at least, stick strictly to "classic" releases, the entire sequence from Magick Brother (1970) to You (1974) (although even here, chef-d'oeuvres like Camembert Electrique and Flying Teapot often sit side by side with throwaways like Continental Circus and, well, You). Other than that, the 'classic' Gong sound is said to be preserved on the short 'reunion' live record Vive Gong/Gong Est Mort (1978), and the classic lineup has reconvened for one more album recently, releasing Zero To Infinity (2000). Everything else is a risk, although if you're a jazz-fusion fan and, for instance, like the 'post-classic' Soft Machine output, you'll certainly want to try and pick up a couple dozen more Gong-related albums. But don't make the mistake of NOT buying a Gong album! If you have at least a wee bit tolerance for 'bizarreness', Gong is a must for you! Honour one of the world's greatest underground cult bands! Okay, commercials over, now a few words about the lineup: the most stable lineup (lasted about a year or so, I guess) was around 1970-71: Daevid Allen (Bert Camembert) - guitar, vocals; Gilli Smyth (Shakti Yoni) - vocals, 'space whisper'; Didier Malherbe (Bloomdido Bad de Grasse) - sax & reeds; Pip Pyle (The Heap) - drums; Christian Tritsch (The Submarine Captain) - bass. Pyle and Tritsch left, 1972, replaced by Jaurie Allen and Francois Moze, then by Pierre Moerlen and Mike Howlett; guitar wiz Steve Hillage and synth wiz Tim Blake joined, 1972. The rest, after Allen and Smyth retired in 1974, was history.
Listenability: 2/5. They're
not about hooks, they're about getting you high.
Resonance: 1/5. And when you're high, you don't have time to empathize much.
Originality: 4/5. In a way, they've been redefining the meaning of psychedelia all through the last three decades.
Adequacy: 3/5. Seems appropriate for a band that's ready to try anything, whether it works or no.
Diversity: 3/5. Lots of styles all serving the same purpose.
Overall: 2.6 = C on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
The legacy of Syd Barrett lives on. And thrives.Best song: PRETTY MISS TITTY
Track listing: 1) Mystic Sister/Magic Brother; 2) Glad To Sad To Say; 3) Rational Anthem; 4) Chainstore Chant/Pretty Miss Titty; 5) Hope You Feel OK; 6) Ego; 7) Gongsong; 8) Princess Dreaming; 9) 5 & 20 Schoolgirls; 10) Cos You Got Green Hair.
Magick Brother is Gong's debut (sometimes it is classified as an Allen/Smyth solo project, but that's pure nonsense) - more correct, though, is the full name Mystic Sister : Magic Brother, which is also the name of the first track and refers to the main creative couple of the album. That would, of course, be guitarist and singer Daevid Allen, and his wife, Gilly Smyth, who's responsible for most of the actual composing work on here. Out of the other musicians, Didier Malherbe, with his astute flute and sax work, is worth mentioning. Oh, yes, this album was recorded in its entirety during Allen's forced stay in Paris (as an Australian, he was by 1970 denied entrance to Britain because of visa expiration). Doesn't sound Parisian all that much, though.Influences? Barrett-era Pink Floyd, of course - as a typical representative of the Canterbury Scene, Gong couldn't but own a lot of their imagery to Mr Barrett; but if Allen's first and most renown brainchild, the Soft Machine, took the "heavier" Floyd vibe and ran forward with it, Gong certainly took the lighter vibe, the one that had to do with scarecrows and gnomes and little children. Not that the lyrical imagery of Smyth and Allen really corresponds a lot to Syd's: most of the lyrics are self-consciously nonsensic and absurdist. But the music certainly does, with endless folkish motives, soft, lulling chants, "fantastic" sound effects and just a general fairy-tale attitude that's hard to define but equally hard to get rid of. It's as if you were actually entering a certain musical variation on Alice in Wonderland, specially destined for serious adults. There's one thing you gotta be prepared for. This thing is the almost hideous looseness of the band. No sane person will appreciate Magick Brother on first listen - the first impression I got was that of a band of paranoid amateurs with shaking fingers and jerkin' knees who can (and will) only play their instruments after a lot of special inhalation or simply in their sleep. But then, on second listen, something begins to click, and as soon as you start actually discerning the tricky, and catchy, little melodies hidden deeply under the messy shaking jello of the arrangements, you come to the understanding that all of this looseness is intentional: they want you to feel this dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere, and it's not an "ambient" kind of atmosphere, more like some weird transition in between the world of total fantasy and the world of absolute reality. Like you're swimming in deep waters and your head keeps bobbing up above the waves and then goes down. Or like the sky seen from under the water. That kind of imagery. I get so caught up in this joyful, delirious mess that sometimes I don't even mind the lack of melodies. Not that the album really lacks melodies. Almost every one of the songs got at least one or two of 'em. The title track, while it begins with the pompous sound of a gong (well, what would you expect?) and some wild hysterical fits of laughter (another essential component in the Gong philosophy - apparently, laughter is a crucial element in our getting away from the corrupted and twisted world of reality), soon turns into a merry little folkish shuffle, with an active acoustic rhythm track, moody descending vocal melodies, ethereal harmonies and a naggin' flute in the background. Dreadful production, but that's the point. 'Glad To Say To Say', on the contrary, has a hard-hittin' electric riff underpinnin' it, but the essentials are still folkish: same soft silky harmonies, same atmosphere of becalmed bliss and separation from the world. 'Pretty Miss Titty' (which begins with a creepy introduction called 'Chainstore Chant', where David and Gilly keep chanting the lines 'working in a chainstore, pockets full of blood' over and over again over an ear-destructive distorted riff) rolls along like some forgotten Scottish ballad, exploding in a powerful chorus, full of energy, despair and, well, feeling. 'Hope You Feel OK' is like a sequel to 'Glad To Say', only the simple electric riff is now replaced by a complex wah-wah enhanced rhythmic pattern with lots of phasing effects over it. 'Ego' is basically just a funny bit of a nursery rhyme frigged up totally beyond recognition. And '5 & 20 Schoolgirls' is... is like a sequel to 'Hope You Feel OK'. No, I really can't describe these songs. It is, in fact, easier to describe the "freak outs" and the mantraic elements on here. Like 'Rational Anthem', for instance, which drags along at a tortoise pace because they want you to relax and chill out at the same time. Is it a dirge? A song of hope? A spookiness demonstration? Who knows. One minute, it reminds me of a boring Grateful Dead confessional (something like 'Attics Of My Life'), the next one, it sends me to the sonic nightmares of Waters-era Floyd. Or 'Princess Dreaming', with its hilarious brass/organ/vocals cacophony that represent the world of dreams. Or 'Gong Song', which is the first number to introduce the fabulous 'Gong Mythology' and the whole 'pothead pixie' and 'planet Gong' concepts. Or the final boring mantraic sonic assault of 'Cos You Got Green Hair' (boring, because it's one of the least developed sonic passages on the entire album, even if it probably makes a nice overall ending to the "suite"). Some of these are nice, particularly 'Gong Song', but it's the actual finished pieces of songmaking that thrill me the most on here. It is, in fact, hard to overestimate the revolutionary - and totally unique - aspects of this record and whatever followed it. Psychedelia was nothing new, of course, in fact, the standard psychedelic train had already run its course by 1970; but taking psychedelia and putting it on the same wagon with "experimental pop" was exclusive for Gong. Well, at the time, at least - as I said, they were the direct inheritors of Mr Barrett. But Mr Barrett had already parted ways with Pink Floyd by that time, and Mr Allen graciously agreed to take the spot. Temporarily.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Racing soundtrack? Were they THAT desperate in the early Seventies?Best song: BLUES FOR FINDLAY
Track listing: 1) Blues For Findlay; 2) Continental Circus; 3) What Do You Want?; 4) Blues For Findlay (instrumental version).
Boy, that's really strange. I mean, every band, at one time or other, chooses some kind of strange decision, but of all things you wouldn't expect a band as hip and eccentric as Gong writing music to a soundtrack about motorcycle races. And yet, that's exactly what happened: Continental Circus is a 'secondary' product, an album designed as musical accompaniment to Jerome Laperrousaz' documentary about ex world motorcycle champion Bruce Findlay. (Note: the main composition on the album is therefore titled 'Blues For Findlay', not 'Blues For Finland' as certain listings mistakenly have it). I don't have the least idea why such an oddity should be sandwiched in between the fairy tale psychoses of Magick Brother and Camembert Electrique. Maybe Allen and Smyth were just trying to prove their abilities in many diverse ways. More probable, the band was so hard up for cash it accepted the offer - although you'd certainly have to be equally eccentric as a movie director to ask a band like Gong to write your soundtrack.Anyway, this is a relatively short album (thirty-four minutes in all, who cares?) with just four compositions on it, and now that I think of it, there are actually just two compositions on it - 'Blues For Findlay', in a vocal and an instrumental version, and 'What Do You Want?'. The title track, mercifully the shortest of all, is essentially just a bike-related collage, replete with predictable noises, announcements, signals, snatches of interviews, and with only a slight musical background - Findlay's interviews are usually taken against the background of the band fiddling around with some instruments, all that stuff. The only cute moment in the track is around 3:25, I think, when the announcer says something like 'You mustn't get off' or 'You mustn't get up' set to a motorcycle roar, and then they loop it so that it almost forms a melody of some sort. That's clever. The rest is useless shit. I mean, the rest of the title track is, because the two compositions are actually nice. It's funny, too, that all the music here in its entirety was supposedly penned by Gilli Smyth - Allen doesn't get a single songwriting credit, the poor guy. Although he does play a lot and he does sing a lot. Anyway, 'What Do You Want?' is a moody, spacey jam based on a steady funky bassline, on one hand, and some loose Mellotron fiddle-dee-dees, on the other, unless that's not a Mellotron but a tampered guitar of some sort. Oh yeah, throw in Gilli's half-veiled erotic moanings in the background, too, and you get something the band would eventually return to on You: a dark and disturbing sound with no sense of humour and pretty monotonous at that, but a sound that seems to know what it's trying to achieve and quite lulling, in a good sense of the word. 'Blues For Findlay' is better, though. I simply prefer to think of both the vocal and the instrumental version as one long masterful jam, where the band is trying to demonstrate its trippy power, rather than a 'song' or a 'soundtrack element'. The chief star is Mr Allen, of course, although for some strange reason, he sings almost drastically offkey; I guess such was his intention? But he delivers some mighty fine guitar chops, and since it's a soundtrack, the casual listener who hasn't yet been immersed in the trickstery of Gong will not find himself spluttering with rage at all those sudden key changes and unsettling dissonant elements of classic Gong works - the jams progress nicely, like a nice progressing jam (not 'progressive jam' - that's a different thing!) is supposed to be progressing, with selected psychedelic elements, moans, groans, curses, and mutterings scattered around, and blistering guitarwork. Allen, in fact, gives it his all on the first track - first he delivers some nice, almost generic, blues riffs, and then ventures into the unknown with all kinds of fast, flashy solos that borrow as much from jazz heroes as they do from Jimi Hendrix. The second, instrumental part, is even scarier, with added synth treatments and all kinds of "astral" effects, and all the time I listen to this I really keep telling myself: 'Hey, I know! That Laperrousaz guy probably thought of that Findlay guy as the protagonist to 'Interstellar Overdrive'. But since he couldn't get Syd Barrett to make him another 'Interstellar Overdrive', he had to settle for the nearest thing available.' In conclusion, one has to note that only a few people took part in the creation of the record, but they all did their job really well. Christian Tisch's funky basslines really help in not letting the 'jams' fall apart; likewise, Pip Pyle keeps all the beats within rational limits; and the few occasions when Malherbe has a chance to step out with his woodwinds are quite treasurable. That said, I certainly cannot give the record more than a six through all of its obvious 'secondarity', and in fact, a six is being quite generous here. Just two compositions, overlong and strangely 'monotonous' for that particular period, and a bunch of stuff we really don't need to be a-hearin' from a pixie band like Gong. Fans of the band's earliest version will still want this, I suppose, if only for some spectacular guitar playing and to catch a few more of the beloved Gilli Smyth's sexy wailings.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
The ultimate in fairy psychosis, completely unstructured, completely on its own, like, totally WOW, man.Best song: YOU CAN'T KILL ME
Track listing: 1) Radio Gnome; 2) You Can't Kill Me; 3) I've Bin Stone Before; 4) Mister Long Shanks: O Mother I Am Your Fantasy; 5) Dynamite: I Am Your Animal; 6) Wet Cheese Delirium; 7) Squeezing Sponges Over Policemens Heads; 8) Fohat Digs Holes In Space; 9) Tried So Hard; 10) Tropical Fish: Selene; 11) Gnome The Second.
Every now and then, any review reader is bound to encounter a phrase of the type: "You think [insert name of an ultra-popular album here] by [insert name of one of the most renowned bands in the world here] is the ultimate in [insert name of a well-defined, well-respected genre here]? Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but in comparison with [insert name of an album nobody ever heard of] by [insert name of a band your favourite rock encyclopaedia doesn't even list], this record is just a piece of [insert favourite expletive here]!". This is usually accompanied by exclamations of utter amazement at the idiocy of people surrounding the reviewer, who can't tell a masterpiece from blatant plagiarism, fervent prayers to your favourite deity about the particular band/album the reviewer is promoting, and a total lack of reader comments along the way.You already get what I'm hinting at, doncha? Listen here, now, you little pipsqueaks: You think Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the ultimate in trippy psychedelia? Well, sorry to slam your innocent little fantasies, but in comparison with Gong's Camembert Electrique, it's nothing but... okay, I'll refrain from following that example to a tee, but the truth and the irony is, I really do believe that. Camembert Electrique is Gong's masterpiece, and more than that: so far, it's the ultimate "bizarre-psycho" album, an absolute and unavoidable must for everybody at least vaguely interested in 'spaced out' music. There's no way this album could be unlikable - take it from me, who always expresses the highest scepticism when it comes to 'freak outs'. It is almost unimaginable, in fact, how an album of such quality could ever appear from such a demented pack-o-whackos. Sure, Pink Floyd did it earlier, but Pink Floyd, in the Barrett-era, only had one significant composing talent, no virtuoso musicianship (Barrett was good at sonic hooliganry but hardly 'classy' when it came around to, say, lead playing), and certainly didn't have such a broad musical vision as Gong demonstrate here. And yet, when it comes to psychosis and bizarreness, Gong are right there on the top as well. Camembert Electrique isn't all that dissimilar to subsequent Gong albums, but it wins over everything else through diversity and playfulness. The songs are all relatively short as well, so any particular groove lasts just as long as is needed to enjoy and evaluate it, never overstaying its welcome. Allen is responsible for most of the composing, but Gilli Smyth and Christian Tritsch offer creative ideas as well, so it's more of a band effort you could imagine. And oh the sounds, oh the sounds. Pure sonic bliss. Just a few nice little facts to brighten your day. The record opens with a greeting from the 'Radio Gnome', introducing himself in French - French exclamations are everywhere, by the way, which is hardly a surprise, considering the location of the recording process. It closes with some farewell words from the Gnome, too. The record includes tracks of collages with titles like 'Wet Cheese Delirium' and 'Squeezing Sponges Over Policemen's Heads' (Allen and Smyth had some real bones to pick with policemen by the time, it seems). It is also, I believe, the first ever recorded album with a woman to use the word 'fuck' in a song ('I am your animal, your head is in my hands, and I'm going to fuck you up, fuck you up!'). Gilli sure took no chances. Musical highlights now. 'You Can't Kill Me' is my favourite - although there's certainly no valid criterion to establish what's best on here and what isn't - I suppose, just because it's the most hard-rocking tune. 'You can kill my family, my family tree, you can kill my body, but you can't kill me'. If Gilli's background vocals won't make you dizzy, nothing probably will; but at least you'll certainly be able to appreciate Allen's frantic guitar solo, a noble cross between Dave Davies' one-note punkish style of 'You Really Got Me' and the most convoluted jazz-fusion soloing of whoever is your favourite jazz-fusion hero. Brilliant sense of paranoia, frenzy and madness, and coupled with the tightest of tightest in riffs, expert sax blowing and all this "astral" production. And what would you say of 'I've Bin Stone Before?'. 'Gentlemen, attention', somebody says ("attention" pronounced in French), and Allen enters with a unique singing/playing style: it's like a hyper-patriotic Anglo-Saxon hymn, with overexaggerated vocals, sung over solemn church organ backing and lazy jazzy sax riffs. The lyrics? "I've been stoned before, in Saint John's Wood crematorium I fell down with boredom knee deep in the snow... I've been stoned before... In the Hague... In Prague, I've bin stoned before...'. Is it just me, or do I sense Dylanish intonations on here? Whatever. All the other tracks kinda mingle together in my head, but for once, I don't consider this a criminy - the song titles hardly mean anything, and all the songs should rather be taken as a single multi-part "symphony" where certain moments stand out and others simply form an atmospheric background. Don't worry, though, there are tons of catchy moments, from the nursery rhyme sequences in the first part of 'Mister Long Shanks: O Mother I Am Your Fantasy' to the martial rhythms of 'Dynamite: I Am Your Animal' to the straightforward, and quite brilliant, pop-rock part of 'Fohat Digs Holes In Space' - you just gotta hear that one, with Allen's catchy singing contrapointed at the end of each line by an obligatory Gilli moan and a comic sax blast. And it all comes together in 'Tropical Fish: Selene', which goes from generic jazz-fusion to astral jamming to an almost mantraic, Eastern-influenced incantation to a section of Gilli's trademark 'Space Whisper'. In other words, Camembert Electrique is one of those - pretty rare, I must say - albums that are ready to try just about anything as long as it's weird, untrivial and mind-boggling. I should hate this album, instead I love it, because that is the exact way these things should be done. Yeah, it's trippy, far-out, and in the end, totally senseless, but it's done so dang well it triggers all kinds of nerves in my organism. Great instrumentation and playing skills, catchy vocal melodies, real live energy, a bottomless sense of humour, classy sexy undertones, and above all, a generous attitude towards the listener's psychology - no unlistenable feedback mess a la King Crimson or dull avantgarde tamperings a la early Pink Floyd. "Electric Cheese" music at its very, very best. I could write a book on the album... but then again, what for? Nobody'll buy it because of the book anyway.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
This is fantasy-world tripping on a superscale, and that's all I can say.Best song: FLYING TEAPOT
Track listing: 1) Radio Gnome Invisible; 2) Flying Teapot; 3) The Pot Head Pixies; 4) The Octave Doctors And The Crystal Machine; 5) Zero The Hero And The Witch's Spell; 6) Witch's Song I Am Your Pussy.
This album sports the subtitle Radio Gnome Invisible Pt. 1 (with invisible pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, i.e. taken as a French word, mind you), because it's actually the first part of a huge fantasy trilogy that was Daevid Allen's last, and arguably, greatest achievement with the band (at least in scale - not that any of the individual albums manage to surpass Camembert in innovation and inventiveness). Not that it's really that much of a trilogy - of course, it is united by the usual 'pothead Pixie' and 'planet Gong' thematics, but then again, so are all of the classic Gong albums. Supposedly there is some kind of story told throughout, in fact, there definitely is a story, since by the end of the trilogy, the band would all but take arms against Allen for "sticking to his story" too much, but it's very hard to notice and I prefer not to concentrate on it anyway.What I do like to concentrate upon is the incredible, imaginative flow of the record. As usual, the shocking/weirdness value wears off after a few listens, and thus, the album gradually becomes a fascinating window into the untrivial universe of Gong. The songs here are mostly long - multi-part, complexly arranged, atmospheric epics, penned by Daevid Allen almost in their entirety; synth player Tim Blake is responsible for one quasi-ambient synthy interlude whose name takes more time to spell than the 'song' actually goes on, and Gilly Smyth is the primary artist behind the defyingly titled 'Witch's Song, I Am Your Pussy' closing the album. And, of course, as usual, trying to describe this record is dang useless. Basically, I'd say that the musicians succeed in the process of a single LP where, for instance, Yes failed on a double LP the next year (you know what I'm talking about). And, in fact, whenever I think of an art-rock band trying to establish a 'fantasy world' of its own, I just can't find any analogies. Rush? ELP? Doesn't work. Nobody but Gong could pull off all these silly, childish conceptions without losing face - and that's because the music is completely adequate to the concept. 'Flying teapot' is supposed to be the analogy of a cosmic ship in which the 'radio gnome' relocates from place to place - again, a brilliant combination of the trippy stuff (cosmic travel) and the fairy-tale stuff (teapot). And there is a certain 'cosmic' feel here, marvelously joined with the 'childish' stuff... the first track, 'Radio Gnome Invisible' itself, for instance, starts with a series of bl-bl-bl-bl-bl noises that can at the same time represent funny noises made by 'pothead pixies' and noises made by the teapot as it travels through the stars. Get it? The songs themseklves are highly memorable, too. 'Radio Gnome Invisible' is essentially a light jazz number with operetta elements, progressing at a nice, steady, self-assured pace and featuring lots of cool vocal melodies. The centerpiece of the record, though, is the title track, a lengthy sonic exploration that very rarely becomes boring, as it first takes you through an ambient-ish introduction, then transforms into an ominous Eastern-stylized poppy shuffle, then goes off into some tepid fusionish wanking (the worst, but also one of the shortest, parts of the track), and finally becomes an atmospheric space rocker a bit in the Hawkwind style, only without the heavy guitar riffage. The arrangement of that 'space jam' is pure joy - you could spend a lifetime trying to pick out all the various synth and sax and bass and drums and guitar sounds. Finally, the track ends in a complex percussion solo that bursts apart in a climactic end. I admit that the track may not really be as gripping as it could seem from my review, but the big wonder is that it's entirely listenable - no true dissonance or ear-destructive sonic experimentation whatsoever, and it's still light years from 'accessible' in the traditional sense. I love that goddamn song. I sometimes question myself, though, if I don't love the follow-up, 'The Pothead Pixies', even more. It's just a three-minute pop song (why didn't Gong release it as a single? Heck, I'd love to see it make the charts), but it's a perfect three-minute pop song. Whoever but Gong could have thought of basing all their verses on the underpinning repetition of the enigmatically chanted line 'I am - you are - we are - CRAZY', supporting them with an excellent brass riff and distorted grumbly wah wah lines, and throwing in a tongue-in-cheek Broadway-stylicized middle-eight? Memorable, well-constructed, and all of it within three minutes. The second side of the album doesn't work that well for me, because the album's second epic, 'Zero The Hero And The Witch's Spell', is slightly inferior - apart from the puzzling, quasi-gothic introduction, it is for the most part dedicated to decent, but uninspired jazzy noodlings, and only catches some steam near the middle, first, with an atmospheric static part, and then with another Hawkwind-ish part ("Hawkwind-ish", if you're not that familiar, means 'tripped-out astral rock supported by a steady and unerring rhythm part, usually with a hard edge'). But then it gives way to 'Witch's Song', Gilly Smyth's hilarious mini-masterpiece that closes this experience with surprisingly sleazy sexy lyrics as Gilly impersonates a... a... a pussycat in heat, it seems. Only sometimes the pussycat metamorphoses into a witch and begins to burst out in uncontrollable laughter. I mean, yeah, the album holds LOTS of surprises. I tell you, it's really refreshing to see a band delve in matters so serious and complex but approach them from the point of view of an innocent (well, maybe not such an innocent, if we consider 'Witch's Song') fantasizing child, and not forgetting about real melodies, either. You can really see that guy, Daevid Allen, believes in all that stuff - there's no way a tricky impersonator could have pulled off such a concept with so few flaws. But if Allen is an impersonator, well, then I gotta say that the borderline between reality and pose is simply non-existent. If this album weren't only available in the US as an expensive Japanese import, I'd recommend it to every fantasy-loving citizen of that fantasy-loving country; as it is, I can only dream of the good old days when the land of Nippon stood isolated from the rest of the world. Ah, those were the days.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
A bit too cluttered with all the things that happen... Still fabulous as a trippy eye-opener.Best song: I NEVER GLID BEFORE
Track listing: 1) Other Side Of The Sky; 2) Sold To The Highest Buddha; 3) Castle In The Clouds; 4) Prostitute Poem; 5) Givin' My Luv To You; 6) Selene; 7) Flute Salad; 8) Oily Way; 9) Outer Temple; 10) Inner Temple; 11) Percolations; 12) Love Is How You Make It; 13) I Never Glid Before; 14) Eat That Phone Book Coda; 15) Ooby-Scooby Doomsday Or The D-Day DJ's Got The DDT Blues.
As unique as the Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy is, I can't say that either its second or its third part can really hope to match the near-perfection of Flying Teapot. In particular, Angel's Egg suffers from being a bit too much over the place even for Gong. Out of the three parts, it is the most 'story-related' - Flying Teapot was supposed to tell us of Zero The Hero's journey to Planet Gong for a meeting with the Pothead Pixies, and Angel's Egg tells us about his actual adventures on that planet, which are just too many to describe.I suppose I should just mention here that the Trilogy comes packed with short sleeve blurbs that are designed to illustrate the storyline - although in reality, the blurbs only serve to mess up your head. Here's a typical example, the beginning of the blurbs on Egg: 'Radio Gnome Part 1 ended with Zero offering Witch Yoni's Pussy some fish & chips. Yoni sees that Zero has gotten almost too cynical to understand his role on this LP, much less her revelations...' That's about the most easily understandable excerpt from the text. Subsequently you'll encounter flying heads, Captain Capricorn, castles in the clouds, Prostitute Princess Whores, Selene, orgies and orgasms, flute salad, wizards of the keys, thirty-two Octave Doctors, a melting feast of freaks, a man with the watering can walking on the rainbow, somebody eating a phonebook, and the ooby-scooby Doomsday. I suppose with a little bit of effort I could try to point out certain relations in between all these elements, but I thought it might be fun to leave it at that, especially since you'll certainly be delighted to figure out these relations by yourselves, unless you're afraid of losing your head just like Zero the Hero. Let's talk a bit about the music itself. The songs, or, well, 'revelations' on here are many and they're relatively short, with only one or two huge sonic panoramas - most of the time, it's just cute little bits and pieces alternating. This is a problem for me: there's not a lot of memorability among the grooves, and for the most part, they change so quickly you don't even have enough time to savour all that stuff. Repeated listens help, of course, but still, Angel's Egg is one album to be soaked in as an entire experience; there are no "perfect songs" that one could extract from the album, like 'The Pothead Pixies', for instance. It is also not very high on perfect instrumental technique - there's not a single "regular" jam to be found on here, and as good a guitarist as Steve Hillage is, he only gets a few chances to shine, most notably on the one-minute instrumental 'Castle In The Clouds' - if not for the number's shortness, this would certainly be posted as 'best song'. Those opening chords are pure guitar perfection, three ecstatic notes, one of which soars right into the sky, the other rebounds back on earth and the third of which nosedives on the ground, after which Hillage plays a blistering lightning-speed set of arpeggios that almost sound like synth loops but are, in fact, all guitar-based. Unfortunately, there's nothing on the album that'd come close. Perhaps the most memorable song on the album, still, is the cool funky tune called 'I Never Glid Before' (also written by Hillage in its entirety). Not just because it also features an excellent guitar solo (and a groovy bassline) - there are some vocal hooks and not too many signs of pure weirdness to distract you from the melody. Of course, some hardcore Gong fans might not like that, what with Daevid Allen's trippiness being their favourite element of the band's sound... but keep in mind that Hillage was quite a fan of Allen's "mythological vision", and 'I Never Glid Before' fully conforms to the Gong spirit. Other essential elements would include Gilli Smyth's shiver-sending ode to a prostitute ('The Prostitute Poem'), which can almost be taken out of context - we know that according to the storyline, the 'prostitute' in question is the 'Prostitute Princess Whore Goddess of Love, Divine Mother of Subconscious Moon', but if you never knew that before, you could interpret the jazzy cabaret-style song with Gilli's sensuous, yet desperate whisperings as a real lament for a whore - and in that case, all the confused whisperings of 'I want your body, I do not want your body... it's night, it's day... Monsieur, tu viens avec moi?... I'm happy, I'm not happy, I'm sad, I'm not sad...' acquire a whole new meaning. Then there are some more or less fully-constructed tunes like 'Oily Way' and 'Love Is How You Want It', and, of course, trippy ambient landscapes like 'Other Side Of The Sky' and Malherbe's flute showcase on 'Flute Salad'. And even if at some point in the story you might become bored, the glorious album closer - 'Ooby-Scooby Doomsday or The D-Day DJ's Got The D.D.T. Blues' - will have you totally annihilated. Martial rhythms, tempo changes, menacing bits of ultra-aggressive guitar chaos, lyrics that are so dang meaningless they aren't even properly 'documented' in the blurbs, and a glorious 'aaaaaa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aa-a CHOOOO!' that brings the album to a close. I dunno, did the review make sense in all? It's so abysmally hard to review all this postmodernistic crap even when you actually like it. And, of course, if you're a normal guy with an opened mind and a sense of humour, you're bound to like this album - sure, no normal guy, not even with an opened mind, should share Allen's vision, but you gotta admire the vastness of the guy's perspective. What a cool fantasy trip... sure beats, say, Rush into the ground.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
The "astral" effect somewhat overshadows the childish fun here - this is a bit more serious than Gong are supposed to be.Best song: YOU NEVER BLOW YR TRIP FOREVER
Track listing: 1) Thoughts For Naught; 2) A P.H.P.'s Advice; 3) Magick Mother Invocation; 4) Master Builder; 5) A Sprinkling Of Clouds; 6) Perfect Mystery; 7) The Isle Of Everywhere; 8) You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever.
The last record of the "Radio Gnome" trilogy is also Daevid Allen and Gilly Smith's last active participation with their initial project - and from here, the history of Gong more or less matches the history of the Soft Machine after Robert Wyatt left it, i.e. a slow, but consistent drifting towards a less idiosyncratic, jazz-fusion drenched, professional, but sterile and uninventive sound. And it is even obvious here: You is often considered by fans to be one of Gong's best albums, but as nice as overall most of the tracks are, I can't help but feel a crisis of identity rolling on.Primarily, it's because they take themselves in a far more grave and solemn way than usual. Oh, sure there are some short 'playful' tracks on here, mainly the three track sequence in the beginning and 'Perfect Mystery'. But they're not at all good. Just short little sonic collages with half-baked unmemorable melodies and the usual 'spacey' effects that begin to get on my nerves. 'Thoughts For Naught', to me, sounds like routine, generic Frank Zappa with a couple synthesizers thrown in to make room for more 'fantasy'; 'A P.H.P.'s Advice' is pretty nice and funny, with endearing nursery rhyme rhythmics and all, but ends a bit too soon; 'Magick Mother Invocation' is just a gloomy introduction to the Biggies; and only 'Perfect Mystery' really works on some level for me, with the hilarious 'cops at the door - no cops at the door' refrain. The lengthy tracks are significantly better - all four of them are perfectly enjoyable, and as far as sci-fi tripped-out goofiness goes, I've heard much worse. But still, I don't see how anybody could be really rendered ecstatic with this stuff after hearing preceding albums by Amon Düül II, Faust, the Soft Machine, or, of course, Gong themselves. See, the advantage of records like Flying Teapot was their being able to combine pothead goofiness with fairy-tale atmosphere: here, only the goofiness remains. No, don't get me wrong: both 'Master Builder' and 'A Sprinkling Of Clouds' make for excellent background music, and amply display the talents of the musicians involved in full flight, but realize that by 1974 "astral jams" like these were already exploited one hundred percent by just about anybody. Obviously, at this point Allen was losing (or intentionally relaxing) his grip on the band, and the other musicians were taking control, musicians who wanted to play "serious" music and concentrate on the actual playing and professionalism rather than on 'pointless' tripping out. But that's what ruined the Soft Machine, and that's what ruined Gong - professional playing is all very well, but it won't make you unique in your area of experience. Which means that I'd much rather listen to Yeti or to Brian Eno than to You. But supposing that neither are available, You is still quite good - and atmospheric, too, in its special gloomy way. 'Master Builder' is a grim, crunchy jazz-fusion jam with all kinds of astral synths and wild guitar solos in the background. 'A Sprinkling Of Clouds' is somewhat more synth-dominated, with a slow, grinding crescendo throughout all of the song's nine minutes that can certainly take your breath away if you're in the mood to give your breath away. 'The Isle Of Everywhere' is even better, introducing some elements of funk (terrific basslines) and a magnificent, driving guitar solo towards the end - although it, too, lasts for about ten minutes, you can bet your life all of these ten minutes have their purpose, taking you on a solemn musical journey through space. The best track, though, is 'You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever': arguably the most "genuine Gong-ish" number on the tracks, with hilarious vocals, lots of different multi-part sections, an active participation of Daevid and Gilly and a soft, endearing 'fade-away' (not "fade-out"!) ending. Still, it has a bit less interesting things going on for it than earlier Gong albums. It's almost as if the Gong forefathers had drained their fantasy at this point. To tell you the truth, You is not as "worthless" when it comes to originality and innovation as I may have actually made it seem. All these lengthy tracks do play a significant role in the rise and blossoming of ambient/New Age - at least, they could have played such a role, as far as I can guess, if only any classic creators of ambient actually heard this record. Excellent tape loops, crescendos, lengthy monotonous moody passages - apparently, Gong were one of the first English bands, preceded only by the Soft Machine, it seems, to have experimented with the whole bunch of these strategies. Who am I to judge, anyway? It's an important album, and definitely a mustbuy if you're interested in classic Gong (and arguably the last true mustbuy if you're not an alternative freak, aka Gong diehard). It's just that out of all the records performed in a similar style, it's far from the best I've heard. The band might have helped create ambient, but it's not because that was their intent - more probably, it's because they simply ran out of ideas and had no choice but to extend very few ideas over a very large space.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Weird fusion-infested record that's not any more "Gong" than, say, "Soft Machine", but that's not the main problem.Best song: WINGFUL OF EYES
Track listing: 1) Wingful Of Eyes; 2) Chandra; 3) Bombooji; 4) Cat In Clark's Shoes; 5) Mandrake; 6) Shamal.
It's rather strange, indeed, even creepy to think how closely Gong's history at this point reflects the Soft Machine's: with the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of the band gone, nothing but the name remains of the earlier project. And just as the Soft Machine was ultimately taken over by Karl Jenkins, so has Gong been ultimately taken over by Pierre Moerlen. For some reason, Virgin did not want to lose the band (I can't believe Gong was a valid commercial proposition, so maybe some people just liked having the band on their label for, like, aesthetic reasons), and offered Moerlen complete control as the band leader.And Moerlen agreed, and lo and behold, Gong was reborn. Gone are Allen's and Smyth's hilarious or just plain bizarre stories and fantasies; in fact, gone are the lyrics - most of the tunes are purely instrumental, with only 'Wingful Of Eyes' qualifying as a 'song' of some sorts. Gone is the amazing diversity; gone are the psychedelic overtones; gone is the rocking power, as Steve Hillage, the guy who was mayhaps the closest to Allen in spirit, only contributes his guitar parts as a guest star on two of the tracks, otherwise joining Allen and Smyth in "exile" (well, actually, he just left to start his own solo career). Instead, we have six lengthy tracks that can effectively be qualified as 'fusion', although a full transition to jazz-fusion status wouldn't occur until the next album. But I even hesitate to call Shamal a 'transitional' effort, as it is sometimes heralded; 'transitional' means preserving some elements off the former and mixing them with the new ones, but here I'm really hard pressed to find anything in common with, say, Flying Teapot. (There are certain links with You, but, after all, You was a project with very little involvement from Allen and not truly Gong-ian in spirit, so, in fact, it would be better to call You a 'transitional' album instead of Shamal). In any case, right now what is happening is that I shudder at the inevitable prospect of an irate Pierre Moerlen fan ramming up the site and bombarding me with generic messages like 'you can't judge this classic album from the perspective of Allen-era Gong! Take it on its own standards, and you'll see the brilliance'. Well, to cut any such talk short, that's what I'm doing at the moment: trying to evaluate Shamal from a pure 'jazz-fusion plus folk/Eastern elements' perspective. That's supposed to be the right one, hey? Well then, Shamal is simply a boring album. Granted, it's not a bad album, but a good jazz-fusion album needs to (a) establish a particular mood and (b) back it up with exquisite musicianship, otherwise all jazz-fusion albums are similar. And neither of these two conditions are fulfilled in idiotic tracks like 'Cat In Clark's Shoes', which crawls on for seven minutes and does nothing. Looks like a plain pointless jam with Malherbe demonstrating his total incompetence as a decent tunewriter. And his skills at brass - I mean, for Chrissake, when he blew those horns on Gong's early albums, I never noticed that he wasn't a pro because he used an economic approach and all the instruments were always in due places, but here, with all those seemingly improvised passages, I can't see why an average professional trumpetist couldn't have blown Bloomdido Bad de Grasse away in the literal sense. The title track is at least moody, so it satisfies criterion (a). It's one of those echoey, dangerous-sounding funky jams, you know, and it's relatively impressive while it's on (needless to say that nothing on here is memorable, I guess). Still, if you pressed me against the wall with a blade against my throat and threatened me into saying WHAT it is that makes the track so impressive, all I could say would be, 'Ulp!'. So to hell with all that fusion schlock and let's just concentrate on the three half-decent tracks. 'Wingful Of Eyes', written by bass player Mike Howlett, is certainly the best thing on here, and not only because it has vocals (Howlett turns it into quite a lovely psychedelic epic), but also because of outstanding wah-wah soloing from Hillage and a general sense of purpose - the song, albeit it's a bit too "normal" for Allen's criteria, would have definitely fit into Daevid's general conceptions, with all these messages of peace and love and what not. And apart from that, I'm a bit partial towards the gentler, slower, more romantically-tinged tunes like 'Bombooji' and 'Mandrake'. 'Bombooji', in particular, is a blast, with lush vocals from Miquette Giraudy and a beautiful Eastern shingle all around - nothing like a nice flute'n'vibes pairing to make your day, innit? Both tunes actually lift themselves off the ground after some time to become just another bunch of fusionish instrumentals, but that already won't spoil the general peaceful easy feeling. Still, it's all very feeble. I mean, whatever, the record doesn't even fit its cover - the hot desert sand can hardly be found in any representation inside the musical imagery. And while the album in general is far less monotonous than it could be, the lack of memorable melodies and the scarcity of truly atmospheric passages merely reduces it to formalistic exercises, on a large scale. At the very best, it's just a solid, unexceptional bag o' jazzy wankery, except for 'Wingful Of Eyes' and parts of 'Bombooji' and 'Mandrake'. The best thing about the record, then, is Malherbe's naive smile on the back cover, where he alone out of all band members is standing with his trusty herdsman's hat on. The rest look like a pretty scary, morose bunch - miles away from the warm, trippy, childish "group portrait" on the inner sleeve of Camembert Electrique. Sic transit gloria mundi, if you pardon me not refraining from a cliched Latin saying.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
A brilliant live recreation of the band's best potential. Get it, get it, get it!Best song: YOU CAN'T KILL ME
Track listing: 1) You Can't Kill Me; 2) I've Been Stoned Before/Mister Long Shanks O Mother; 3) Radio Gnome Invisible; 4) Zero The Hero & The Witch's Spell; 5) Flute Salad/Oily Way/Outer Temple; 6) Inner Temple (Zero Meets The Octave Doctor); 7) Iao Chant & Master Builder; 8) Sprinkling Of Clouds; 9) From The Isle Of Everywhere To The End Of The Story Of Zero The Hero; 10) You Never Blow Your Trip Forever.
Well, actually, the full name of the album is Gong Est Mort - Vive Gong! (I hope your French is good enough to know what it means without my help). See, while Allen and Smith did leave the band, it's not like they were entirely alienated from it, and this record is the result of the band's first "reunion". This one was a brief reunion, though, just for one show (maybe more, I don't know) that was held at the Hippodrome of Paris on May 28, 1977. The show had been thoroughly taped and this album released - and a priceless album it is, in fact, as; we know that 1977 also had the pleasure of seeing Gong's Live Etc. album, but that was essentially an archive collection of live 'snippets' recorded at different concerts, while Gong Est Mort gives us a fair and coherent perspective on a 'typical' Gong show. You might think the band wouldn't be all that well-oiled after not having played with Allen/Smith for more than two years? Well just hang on!Gong Est Mort was originally a double album, now squeezed onto one CD, and the track listing is essentially a retrospective of the best period of Gong's career; it moves gradually and steadily from Camembert Electrique and through the first, second and third parts of the Radio Gnome trilogy, although, of course, in a very abbreviated manner. Still, since the trilogy was so rambling and bizarre and inaccessible in the first place, it doesn't hurt if a huge part of the songs have been thrown out - it's still perfectly fluent. There are, of course, certain problems with the sound; it's hardly possible to mimick all of Gong's witty studio trickery on stage, even if the band really try to do their best, and I can't say any of the songs exceeds or even matches the studio originals. But just because they cannot do everything that is normally required, it's so dang interesting to actually hear them try... All the synth bleeps, all the ethereal harmony arrangements, all the wild guitar solos, they're a wee bit different, and that really excites me. I just think the sound might have had cleaned up a bit more. This, and the fact that they rely a bit TOO heavily on the songs from You, is the only thing that prevents the record from getting a higher rating. Although, I guess, the latter complaint is explainable - remember that You was the most 'fusion-like' part of the trilogy, and now that the band was essentially a Moerlen-driven outfit and Allen and Smith were more like 'guest stars', they had to compromise. In any case, most of the stuff on here is first-rate, and as diverse as Gong's albums usually were, Gong Est Mort has the advantage of driving us through several periods, thus increasing the diversity and fun factor even more. My favourite part, of course, is the first two tracks, 'You Can't Kill Me', and the 'I've Been Stoned Before/Mister Long Shanks O Mother' medley. Damn, I'd REALLY wish to see Mr Allen at the moment he bawls his 'I've bin stoned before' part... I guess he should have been singing that lying on the floor or something. Meanwhile, the guitar solo in 'You Cant Kill Me' rips as hard as on the original, and Gilli's sexy wails come across as... okay, the mix sucks so bad they sometimes don't come across at all, but they're there, dammit. The audience must have been roaring in support. And don't forget the cute nursery rhymes of 'O Mother', either. The rest of this stuff, hmm... Well, I must say that throughout the band concentrates mainly on the 'spacey' side of the matter, usually omitting all kinds of short cute gags in favour of lengthier instrumental pieces. The emphasis is on "band playing", although Malherbe does get a showcase of his talents on 'Flute Salad'. There's really no reason to discuss individual tracks unless it must become a discussion between, you know, Gong fanatics who are keen on accentuating every little difference in details. The songs are good. 'S all. Can Gong Est Mort function as an introduction for beginners? Hardly. The murkiness of the sound can be really confusing (I mean, you'd hardly be able to dig 'I've Bin Stoned Before' on here so much without hearing the studio version first - all those echoes and delays and the clear shrillness of Allen's whacko tone just get too blurry on here), besides, like I said, the relative lack of 'gags' and an acute concentration on 'psycho jamming' with little of the traditional Gong humour doesn't make the collection as representative as it could potentially be. On the other hand, the album is an absolute must for the seasoned Gong fan, if only to get a perception of how all this stuff sounded without the overdubs and the you-know-what of studio technologies. Plus, of course, it's an important historical landmark - and it has lotsa symbolic importance, if you axe me. See, there's this deceiving Gong Est Mort title, which is pretty appropriate for an album that came out in the year of the punk revolution. On the other hand, just turn the album over and you get the second part of the title (Vive Gong), then put it on and you'll see these guys digging in their style and kicking total stage-ass as fine as ever. Which, apparently, means, to quote Mr Allen, that 'you can kill my family, my family tree, you can kill my body, but you can't kill me'. Get it?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1992
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
An exact recreation of the classic Gong sound if there ever was one. I guess if you're a pothead pixie, it lasts forever...Best song: CAN YOU YOU CAN
Track listing: 1) Gnomerique; 2) Shapeshifter; 3) Hymnalayas; 4) Dog-O-Matic; 5) Spirit With Me; 6) Mr Albert Parkin; 7) Raindrop Tablas; 8) Give My Mother A Soul Call; 9) Heaven's Gate; 10) Snake Tablas; 11) Loli; 12) Can You: You Can; 13) Confiture De Rhubarbier; 14) Parkin Triumphant; 15) Longhaired Tablas; 16) Elephant La Tete; 17) Mother's Gone; 18) Elephant La Cuisse; 19) White Doves; 20) Gnomoutro; 21) Goddess Invocation/Om Riff.
After 1977, let it be said, the story of Gong and its members evolves so rapidly and with such a ton of details it'd take a real whacko to keep track of everything. At certain points, there were bands like Mother Gong, Gongzilla, Pierre Moerlen's Gong, and whatever existing at the same time, so that on certain Gong CDs you can actually find a "Gong Family Tree" to help you keep track of all the proceedings. Apparently, there was no animosity involved or anything, as Gong's parents - Daevid and Gilli - were quite content that their name was used by so many different (and all of them whacky) entities.But anyway, in 1992 the original Gong line-up actually came together to release an actual Gong record. YES! Of course, "original Gong line-up" is a very vague term, because the line-up kept changing even throughout the classic years. So let's just see who's here, making this record. There's Daevid and Gilli, of course; then there's Bloomdido Bad De Grasse, uh, Didier Malherbe, that is; and the band's original drummer Pip Pyle is back with the boys (Pierre Moerlen was absent for some reason, maybe sulking or something or they just put him on probation for violating the original Gong conception). Finally, Mike Howlett is on bass. That's a whoppin' five old members! That's good. The bad thing is that they're missing both Tim Blake and Steve Hillage - instead, a guy called 'Twink' is playing the synths and a guy called 'Steffi Sharpstrings' is playing guitars. Well, they do it all right by me. And so? Shapeshifter is a direct continuation of the classic Gong schizophrenia, picking up right where You left off and skipping all the boring fusion noodling. In fact, not a single song on here gives any indication that it was recorded in the Nineties; well, maybe just one, because 'Dog-O-Matic' unexplainably uses a techno rhythm to apply the standard "Gong hallucination" mechanism. It sounds kinda novel, but not necessarily good - after all, quintessential hippie music like Gong and techno rhythms aren't exactly the best couple in the world. But it's fun to listen to once. And elsewhere, you get the same insane cosmic jamming, the same oddly twisted bizarre folksy melodies, and the same rag-bag of musical influences ranging from avantgarde jazz to Indian motives all over the place. And yes, the classic Gong style is always the same but no classic Gong record sounds like its predecessor, and this one is no exception. Some people call it the "fourth element" of the Radio Gnome trilogy, but I'd have to go along with those who claim Shapeshifter has no direct connection to the story of Zero The Hero (unlike the next Gong reunion record). Rather it's just a "okay boys, let's show 'em we still got it" kind of record, drawing on all of Gong's past inspiration to offer another series of mind-blowing 'cosmic imagery' without actually making it coherent in any way. The album is pretty long, but rarely boring, and it alternates short tunes, long tunes, and brief gimmicky sound collages/dialog pieces in a nice way. The long pieces provide the "musical meat" of the record, because, after all, Gong were always renowned for amazing musicianship, and they never fail to deliver. 'Hymnalayas' is a very uplifting and cheerful folksy jam, highlighted by Didier's sax work and also new contributing member Graham Clark's inspired violin solos. Even better is the live performance of 'Can You You Can', which sounds very close to some of Frank Zappa's late Sixties jamming with the Mothers. It's not often that you hear a violin rock your toes off in the friggin' Nineties for Chrissake, so unplug your ears and listen to this marvelous crap. The shorter songs, then, concentrate on the pothead Gong weirdness, and occasionally (well, more often than not) on hooks and humour. The title track begins with somebody leaving a message to Daevid Allen on his answering machine about Daevid owing money to somebody and then becomes an energetic rocker about, uh, the perils of money. 'Give My Mother A Soul Call' sounds like a good parody on a bad soundtrack to an abysmal Indian flick - I love the hell out of it. The cute jazz-rocker 'Heaven's Gate' will get your foot tapping like in the good old days. The shorter jams ('Elephant La Tete' and 'Elephant La Cuisse') will blow your head off, the first one with the great tablas/sax interplay (sic!), the second one with more furious violin improvisation. And then there's a couple of those really friendly, really moving Allen ballads like 'White Doves' which just radiate with warmth and positive vibes. Well, what else could you expect from the positively best escapist band in the world? The only strange thing is that Madame Smyth is given almost no significant function on the entire album. In fact, I don't notice her presence at all until the last track, an extremely long live rendition of 'Goddess Invocation Om Riff' (the weakest thing on the record, too, at least until the rhythm section actually kicks in). Not that I'm Smyth's biggest fan on the planet, but hey, she was an essential component of the Gong legend, so whassup? Other than that, this is one of the finest comeback albums ever made by a classic prog/avantgarde band. And kudos to Mr Allen for being brave enough to carry his oh-so-Seventies piece of fantasy smack dab into the Nineties not fearing any consequences.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
I do envy the fans. Boy, to have been at this event...Best song: undefinable.
Track listing: 1) Thom Intro; 2) Floating Into A Birthday Gig; 3) You Can't Kill Me; 4) Radio Gnome 25; 5) I Am Your Pussy; 6) Pothead Pixies; 7) Never Glid Before; 8) Sad Street; 9) Eat That Phonebook; 10) Gnomic Address; 11) Flute Salad; 12) Oily Way; 13) Outer Temple-Inner Temple; 14) She Is The Great Goddess; 15) IAOM Riff; 16) Clouds Again; 17) Tri-Cycle Gliss; 18) Get A Dinner; 19) Zero Where Are You?; 20) Be Who You Are My Friends; 21) It's The World Of Illusions; 22) Why Don't You Try; 23) I Am You; 24) Introducing The Musicians.
The band's 25th birthday was held in London on October 8th and 9th, 1994 - and Gong's own set was the final touch to a huge colourful event when over the course of two days all kinds of Gong-related bands goofed out ad infinitum, bands you probably never heard about but supposedly all essential parts of the 'trippy' component of the Canterbury scene. The audience wasn't huge, only about a couple thousand persons, but considering that Gong appealed to only a small 'elitist' group of music listeners even in their prime in the Seventies, that's actually a huge number.The lineup here is pretty much the same as on Shapeshifter, except that the half-anonymous 'Twink' has fortunately given way to Maestro Tim Blake himself, so the only significant loss is Steve Hillage (and Steff Sharpstrings does a magnificent job of replacing him anyway). And over the course of about two hours, Gong produce a magnificent retrospective of the entire classic period - the problem is that a very similar thing already happened eighteen years earlier with Gong Est Mort, but the Birthday Party performance boasts two CDs worth of material, so naturally the musicians are given more room to shine. Unfortunately, the band's masterpiece is only represented by 'You Can't Kill Me', with all the emphasis thrown on the Radio Gnome trilogy as usual, but then again I guess this is more or less understandable. Funny thing is, there ain't a single song from Shapeshifter even if this is pretty much the same lineup that produced that record; I guess they just wanted to stick with the tried and true this time around. Another funny thing is that a lot of the song titles, especially from You, have been changed - thus, 'The Isle Of Everywhere' is now 'Tri-Cycle Gliss', and 'A Sprinkling Of Clouds' becomes 'Clouds Again'; and 'You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever' is actually dissected into as much as five different tracks, all named according to certain lyrical lines. I recall reading somewhere this may have been due to copyright problems (guess even elitist bands like Gong have those). All I can say about the quality of the actual performance is - wow. For everybody gathered at that place, it must have been the show of a lifetime. Of course, you wouldn't want to look at the photos inside; both Daevid and Gilli look like potential zombies, probably due to all the innumerable drugs (and therefore, I can only shudder at the prospect of hearing Gilli coo out her 'I am your pussy...' thing and seeing her at the same time). But clearly, they're all having tremendous fun while playing this stuff, and everybody is in excellent form. As for that Sharpstrings guy, he really jumps out of his skin to prove his worthiness, and turns 'A Sprinkling Of Clouds' into a magnificent head-spinning guitar trip, in particular. And then it all ends with Daevid and Gilli leading the entire audience into chanting 'you are I and I am you' for several minutes. Cool tools. Since I don't really have much to say about the actual performance except that it rocks (I'm not that much of a Gong expert to start noticing all the multiple subtle differences from the studio versions or from those on Gong Est Mort), let me just point out one other thing. And that thing is - how goddamn unpretentious and friendly and cheerful this all is. At the end of the show, after Daevid introduces all the musicians [unrelated question: why does he present Malherbe as Bloomdido Bad de Grasse, but refers to Gilli by her own name? that's inconsistent, isn't it?], the guy who runs the show says something like 'and thanks very much to Daevid for entertaining us for twenty five years with this extremely silly music', and Mr Allen does not actually run the guy down! I mean, didn't he claim that all this pixie stuff was the result of spiritual revelations or anything? Rumours always had it that Allen sincerely believed in what he was doing. It's a wonderful thing, then, to be able to merge this sincere, spiritually influenced artistic work with a sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude to one's own beliefs. This is the ultimate seductive point of Gong - their weird, ridiculous fantasy world is meant to be taken as weird and ridiculous. And all the people are there just to have some fun. To witness a colourful, radiant, positive-vibration show, as colourful as the album cover itself. Of course, you can be a gruff gloomy guy telling everybody to grow up and get serious and throw all that kiddie-hippie crap out of the window (and many people actually do). But if you ask me, I'm absolutely happy that Daevid Allen can be in his late fourties and more and still be singing about Zero the Hero and the pothead pixies with as much dedication as ever. It proves that it is possible to preserve your inner child, no matter what the age involved, and that a colourful fantasy world radiating positive vibration is just as important as your average alternative guy wailing about his down-to-earth problems, and in some ways even more important. It's a tremendous pity the legacy of Gong is so severely elitist - I personally see no unbreakable barrier between the music of Gong and general public taste. They're not unlistenable, they're not dissonant. They're just a little... strange. And very friendly. And very funny. Please buy a Gong record, they really deserve it. And if you're smart enough not to dismiss the band on first listen, they might eventually make you a better person. I'm serious.
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Year Of Release: 2000
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
This is, eh, what, too romantic for a true Gong experience or something?Best song: BODILINGUS
Track listing: 1) Foolefare; 2) Magdalene; 3) The Invisible Temple; 4) Zeroid; 5) Wise Man In Your Heart; 6) The Mad Monk; 7) Yoni On Mars; 8) Damaged Man; 9) Bodilingus; 10) Tali's Song; 11) Infinitea.
The "second" (or much more than second if you count all the live reunions) comeback of the 'classic' Gong is a disappointment to me. Either they're finally getting old (fuck, Allen and Smyth must be close to being seventy at this point!!) or they consciously decided to tweak their priorities a bit, but Zero To Infinity doesn't quite cut it in the same way the old records and even Shapeshifter does. It's still a good record, but it's just not burning with the good old flame.The lineup here includes many of our old friends, including Mike Howlett and Didier Malherbe, but, again, not Steve Hillage or Tim Blake, and even the drummer on here is somebody I'm not all that familiar with. Actually, Malherbe himself only appears on a couple tracks, while most of the brass work is provided by Theo Travis - he's a nice guy, but he just doesn't raise that much excitement. And in fact, nothing on here raises much excitement; it's a very very mellow record, and a surprisingly sad and - oh gosh - humourless record. This one actually keeps more in touch with the Radio Gnome trilogy than Shapeshifter, but it's not much of a relief; again, it mostly concentrates on the You-side of the band, i.e. minor-key "cosmic jamming" - 'The Invisible Temple', in fact, builds up on pretty much the same melody as 'A Sprinkling Of Clouds', and I guess there are multiple other direct nods to past glories. And if you set your expectations low and forget all about classic Gong, it's actually a pretty soothing and tasteful listening experience; very micely played soft-jazz with romantic, "cloudy" synthesizer patterns and lustful sax all over the place. Too bad at times the sax playing is hardly any better than your average Kenny G, but heck, it's still Gong, and that means 'mystery' and 'goofiness'. No, wait, scrap 'goofiness'. About the only truly "goofy" track on the album is Allen's 'Bodilingus' - a hilarious pop-rocker where Daevid keeps trying to get in touch with various parts of his organism, complaining about their current state and all. The echoey effects are awesome, the chorus is actually catchy, and Daevid proves that he can still be a badass if he wants to. But really, 'Bodilingus' comes as a minor, and totally unexpected, revelation in between all the muck. The two songs that come the closest are 'Zeroid', a strange stop-and-start jazz-rocker with plenty of energy, and 'The Mad Monk', where the saxes are molded in an almost Latin way while Daevid recounts the story of a guy who rejected all religions in favour of, well you know... the Gong shenanigan. In fact, if you ask me, I'd say that where Shapeshifter had Allen as the dominant force - which is why it was so good - Zero To Infinity compensates for it by putting way too much emphasis on the "Smyth component". And the Smyth component by this time has been reduced to monotonous 'cosmic whispering'; whether it be 'The Invisible Temple', or 'Yoni On Mars', or 'Infinitea', it's always the same, and it gets really tedious after just a minute of each composition, especially when the musical backing is so close to ordinary soft-jazz. Besides, every time I think about it I just cannot stomach the idea of a seventy-year old lady moaning and groaning like she's oversexed or something. Ugh. And considering that the album goes over an hour, and these three jams occupy a solid chunk of it (more than twenty minutes, to be precise), it hurts. It really hurts. Nevertheless, Allen still saves the day, first with the three songs I've mentioned above, and then with the eight-minute folksy ballad 'Wise Man In Your Heart'. That one just borrows its vocal melody from a generic folk pattern (actually, the lyrics to the song are very old - Allen wrote them in 1969, if I'm not mistaken), but it's still a good vocal melody, and it's refreshing to hear it on a year 2000 record, too. Of course, at eight minutes it's still overlong, but I'd rather listen to eight minutes of pleasing folksy muzak than to twenty-plus minutes of monotonous cosmic wailing. The thing I really don't get is where has all the humour gone. I mean, Shapeshifter had absolutely none of these problems - it had that great 'Gong party' spirit to it, with plenty of hilarious dialog and conversations and all; it was alive and laughing, where Zero To Inifinity is inifinitely morose and uninviting. It's as if they were all burying Zero the Hero deep in the ground or something. Fortunately, the record is just as unpretentious as any classic Gong record; if you're fearing the worst (namely, that they all became very serious and very pompous as they started reaching their seventies), I can reassure you that there's no true pomposity on this record, or "overblownness" or whatever you could call it. But there's still no getting away from the fact that (a) it could use more FUN, (b) it could use some better musicianship, too. Still give it an overall ten because I kinda like it, but if it's a sign that rockers in their seventies really cannot write great music any more, I hope we all die before we get old, then. Like in real old.
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