By the way, which one’s Pink?
I’ve long considered myself a Pink Floyd fan, Dark Side of the Moon was the first vinyl record I ever purchased; Wish You Were here ranks among my favorite records of all time; Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut are all in regular rotation on my turn table; Hell, it was Piper at the Gates of Dawn that introduced me to psychedelic rock. Still, Pink Floyd after the departure of their original band leader, Syd Barret, and before Dark Side of the Moon is kind of a blind spot for me.
The records on that I’ve heard between Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Dark Side of the Moon are all respectable albums. I enjoy Meddle and Atom Heart Mother. I’ve heard Ummagumma and Saucerful of Secrets, and I don’t have an aversion to them, but I rarely seek them out. There is no real reason for it, and I kind of feel bad about it from time to time (which is dumb. Don’t feel bad because you don’t love an album.)
Obscured By Clouds
A few weeks ago, Ryan and I were discussing Pink Floyd. He handed Obscured by Clouds to me, and told me to listen to it. I was a bit taken aback that there was a Pink Floyd album that I had never listened to, and that I didn’t even know existed. In years past, I would have been embarrassed. I might have even lied about having listened to the record. Thankfully, I have moved passed that kind of silliness. I borrowed the album from him with an incredible eagerness.
He told me that it was the album before Dark Side, and that it was really good.
I have since discovered that it was the soundtrack to a film that no one liked, and that work on Dark Side of the Moon had already begun when this record was recorded. The whole album was completed in twelve days (compared to the 8+ months that it took for DSotM). The album produced one US single, and has generally been met by negative reviews since it’s initial release in 1972.
This is the 7th studio album by Pink Floyd. That seems impossible, but it’s true. Seven was a good number, musically, for the band. After several listens I have decided that it will become one of my essential records, a Go-To album for when I’m feeling down.
The track by track overview that follows is compiled from the notes I took during my first several listens.
1. “Obscured by Clouds”
The album opens with a droning, industrial introduction. It sounds like something from Nine Inch Nails, or even Deerhunter. This is a startlingly modern way to introduce the album.
When the lead guitar comes in, it is impossibly old sounding; it feels almost as if someone took the guitar line from one song and put it on top of the backing track from another song, and discovered that it sounded good.
And it does.
It’s awesome. The lead guitar wails, the backing track is a cohesive whole. I know, intellectually, that the backing track is composed of a bass, percussion, and who knows what else, but it sounds like it’s all coming from the same thing. Something almost organic. I notice the lack of vocals, but I’m not bothered by it. My anticipation for the rest of the album grows.
2. “When You’re In”
My notes from my first play through for this track just say “forgettable instrumental.”
It has an interesting, textured sound, with a bit of nuance behind the very powerful guitar work. It is not flawed in any way, and enjoyable enough to listen to but my first impression is that it is a bit boring.
I find myself longing for some vocals, and I am really beginning to hope that this album picks up.
3. “Burning Bridges”
The introduction to this song sounds very Floydian, and I am relieved. I can imagine Rodger Waters singing the first few lines from comfortably numb, and when the vocals actually do come in, they aren’t far off, stylistically. A bit more complex even, thanks to the harmonies. This is, in many ways, what I hoped I’d be getting out of this record.
This is one of the earliest glimpses I’ve found of the slow, melodic, almost ambient music style that Pink Floyd has perfected over the years. They lull you in to a false sense of safety before slowly slipping in through your ears and strangling your soul. But in the best way possible.
4. “The Gold It’s in the…”
My first time through, I remember thinking that this track might as well be straight off The Who’s “Tommy” or some other British power-pop/rock outing of the early 70s. It’s good. It’s well done. The instrumentation is tight, the lyrics are interesting. But it just doesn’t feel like Pink Floyd, and coming off of the previous track, it’s a bit of a let down.
On subsequent listens, my original animosity toward this track softened. I have come to enjoy it. It’s still not what I want when I think of Pink Floyd, but it works out well on this record.
My biggest complaint, and one that hasn’t disappeared with repeated listens, is that the song ends just as I’m getting used to it. The transition between this track and the next is abrupt. But that is, on the whole, the story of this album. It teeters on the brink between brilliant and forgettable. It consistently and frustratingly fails to be as good as it could be.
5. “Wot’s… Uh the Deal?”
This track is light and airy. Venturing even further in to pop territories than the previous track. Lyrically, it’s certainly Pink Floyd, but it sounds even less like what I expect from them than “The Gold it’s in the…”.
I hear traces of The Who, Crosby Stills and Nash, hell there is even a bit of George Harrison in the mix. As the track plays on, the fact that it is a Pink Floyd song, and not something by a pop outfit, begins to assert itself in spurts. A guitar lick here, a production technique there. It’s subtle, but it’s Pink Floyd.
The track is great, the piano sounds wonderful. I could get used to this pop-y direction for the band.
This transition was much smoother. The track starts off very mellow, coming in with a subdued piano/percussion bit, growing to include an organ that would not sound out of place on a Procol Harum album.
It opens up in the middle (that seems to be a bit of a trend on this album) with a soulful and emotive guitar line, the organ sound has been replaced by an almost space-rock sounding synth. This is the kind of soundscape that you could lose yourself in.
And then the bottom falls out. All traces of the previous mellowness are gone. Everything gets louder, bigger, and more like the Pink Floyd that we know and love. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
With this album, especially my first time through, I often found myself longing for a bit more vocal work. This track, as an entirely instrumental affair, risked venturing in to that territory. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I didn’t miss the vocals. This track works as an instrumental, and works very well.
It is an excellent track, and a fitting end to side one. Without this track I might have been reluctant to flip the disc over and listen to side two. Thankfully, after hearing this, I was excited.
[Sidebar: Mudmen and Burning Bridges are very similar songs. Is it possible that they were intended to be parts of the same song? I don’t know, but it makes for interesting speculation in articles like this. After you’ve listened to the album, go back and try these two side by side. It’s practically impossible to notice until you know about it.]
7. “Childhood’s End”
Clear poetic vocals with very Floyd-y lyrics and delivery. That’s a good thing. the track works on several levels and continues to deliver on the promise of the earlier tracks on the album. This song, stylistically, would not sound out of place on Dark Side of the Moon.
8. “Free Four”
“One two free four”
The track opens with a count off. This is followed by a buzzing, almost droning, crunchy, chord. This chord, and the progress that follows immediately after it, could have easily been played by Neutral Milk Hotel or the Apples in Stereo in the mid 90s, or on an upcoming release by Deerhunter. If I didn’t know better It would be easy to mistake for one of these modern bands.
As I was trying to come to terms with hearing such a modern sound, I got vocals. Folky vocals. Old vocals. No effects. Happy voices singing about death and the futility of life.
And behind it continues the ridiculously modern sounding, over-driven, droning, buzzing noise.
It does not sound like Pink Floyd. Honestly, it kind of sounds like the Beachboys.
I love it.
And then the lead guitars scream, and this guitar is wholly and almost unmistakably Pink Floyd. No one but David Gilmour could have done that.
The way the folky vocals are perfectly intertwined with the ridiculously modern sounding drones (that totally resemble something off next week’s Skrillex release) and the perfectly Pink Floydian guitar work- and lyrics- make me wonder how I could have possibly gone so long without hearing this. It is everything I want out of a song, and it keeps getting bigger.
If this was a track indicative of the style of a new band, a band to which I was being exposed to for the first time, that band would probably go on to become a favorite of mine.
Instead, this is an interesting footnote in the history of a band that already ranks among my favorites. I’m not sure how to feel about this.
I can’t stop listening to this track. I’ve started it over three times. The album would be worth hunting down for this alone.
[and they released this as the single! That’s going in to my digging list.]
The track opens with a soft welcoming piano building to include guitar work that echos of much later Floyd. The whole performance is full of foreshadowing, spelling out the direction that their next album would take with tracks like “Breathe” on Dark Side of the Moon. A bit less polished and produced, perhaps, but it works out very well.
There is an astounding degree of restraint on this particular track. The lyrics are smaller in scope than most Pink Floyd tracks, and feel almost confessional.
This song is a strange experience, sounding entirely familiar and astoundingly new in the same moment.
[I’ve been told that this track is particularly significant as a piece of the soundtrack of the film. This doesn’t impact listening to the song at all, but it’s an interesting fact.]
10. “Absolutely Curtains”
This track opens almost frustratingly slowly, especially coming off of the high from the last two songs. I’m hearing traces of Deerhunter again here (or, I guess I should say that I hear traces of this in Deerhunter.) As the song carries on, I am left feeling less frustrated and more satisfied. This is the albums denouement, the cool down. It is effective at calming me, bringing my senses in to focus.
Eventually, all of the music fades out and we are left with chanting in a language with which I am not familiar. This probably had something to do with the film for which this album is the sound track. Surprisingly, it also works very well in the track. As it carries on I am left with a sense of completion, and when the chanting finally draws to an end there is a sense of fulfillment. Not many albums can do that.
Notes and bits
This album was the fourth film score recorded by Pink Floyd, and the second to be released as an album. All of their previous film scores were also for this director, Barbet Schroeder. It was the last collaboration between the band and Schroeder. The album was called “Obscured By Clouds”, even though the movie was called” “La Vallée”. This was a direct result of the spat, and resulted in the original release of the movie being subtitled “(Obscured By Clouds)”.
The single, Free Four, was the first Pink Floyd song to get airplay in the US.
It would be easy for me to defend the album’s shortcomings. There are a lot of reasons this album isn’t as good as it “could have been.” The album was recorded in two weeks. It was a commission and a film score. The recording process was fraught with issues and high tensions. The tensions ran so high that it ruined the bands relationship with the film’s director, whom they had worked with for three other film scores.
I could take all of these things and more, and weave them in to some kind of a shield that might bare the album from criticism, but that would miss the point of First Listen reviews- which are about the music- and it would paint an unfair picture. This is not an album that needs to be defended. The criticisms lobbed at it have standing, but it is my opinion that the album rises above those criticisms on its own merit.
Obscured by Clouds, far from being the group’s low point, is a standout disc easily surpassing the two albums that preceded it in my mind. In fact, the biggest fault with the album is that it has been obscured by Dark Side of the Moon.
This album took its time with me. It was not until the third time I listened to it all the way through that I really warmed up to it, and started enjoying even the bits that didn’t make any sense (but isn’t that how almost every album goes?). Side two was very solid, even the first time I listened to it, but initially side one was full of contradictions and frustrations. After several play-throughs, even the tracks that I was initially dismayed with have left a mark on me (I caught myself humming a riff from “When You’re In” as I drove home the other day).
In doing some supplemental reading, before I published this article, I happened across a few reviews of Obscured By Clouds. One review claimed that this album represented the lowest point Pink Floyd reached in their career. The others echoed this sentiment, claiming that this album was mostly filler and that it should be avoided.
I find myself sympathizing with these reviewers even as I disagree with them. This album is not as good as it could have been. It is not as good as Dark Side of the Moon, by a long shot. It is, probably, the least cohesive album I’ve ever heard from Pink Floyd (at least it is less coherent than anything that comes after it.)
It is, however, a great record. If it had been released by anyone other than Pink Floyd, it very well might be remembered as visionary (or perhaps only thought about wistfully, as one laments what might have been.) It is Very forward looking; A lot of the ideas and musical themes on this record faded out of the spotlight after this album, many of them not to be fully explored again for 20-30 years.