I want to be clear right up front, I had pretty much zero expectations going into this album. Pre-release reviews let the cat out of the bag early: this is predominantly sourced from 1994’s Division Bell sessions. With that in mind, how could this have any chance of being good? While a nice re-creation of the Floyd sound, Division Bell certainly did not light up the sky as a new benchmark in Pink Floyd excellence. Which leads us back to the original problem-if Division Bell was spotty, what would outtakes from those sessions yield twenty years later?
What it has yielded is an album that is the most satisfying Pink Floyd release since Wish You Were Here. I know that is a bold statement, but let’s backtrack a bit. What on paper seemed to be a release akin to Syd Barrett’s 1988 release Opel-expected to be a great lost album but in reality just outtakes not good enough to pass muster-is not what Endless River is at all. And this is important-most reviewers of this album have absolutely missed the point of this release. Many Pink Floyd fans have had a lingering dissatisfied aftertaste with each post 1975 album. Animals was fairly bleak, and began to show a disproportionate influence from Roger Waters. Songs and rants began to edge out the longer instrumental explorations. In 1977, fans hoped this was an aberration and not a signpost of the future. They were wrong. Waters then took full control, delivering the trilogy of angst ridden and bombastic concept albums: The Wall, The Final Cut and Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. The final album was a Water’s solo album proper, but had originally been proposed as the concept instead of The Wall as the 1979 album, and follows the same general pattern. Histrionically overblown themes outdid themselves in all three albums as the band degenerated into a solo vehicle for the increasingly bitter and alienated Waters’ zeitgeist. The band broke up acrimoniously in 1985, with Waters and Gilmour taking various potshots at each other in the press. The Waters-less reunion in 1987 yielded A Momentary Lapse of Reason, an album that had all of the sounds in place, but little solid songwriting and little heart or substance. Essentially a snapshot of what the general public thought a Floyd album should sound like.
So what comes as a huge surprise is this week’s release, The Endless River. Moody and mostly instrumental, this album has far more in common with Wish You Were Here, Obscured by Clouds and Ummagumma than any of their albums in the last 40 years. Pre release reviews talking points included phrases like “unfinished”, “outtakes” and, gasp! “drum solo”. Translated for a Floyd aficionado, this actually is: “Moody and atmospheric masterpieces”, “demos that exceed the original” and “drum solo? try full on Ummagumma freakout!” I dropped the needle at a listening party (darkened room with laser projections on the ceiling, ya know authenticity required!), and some comments were: ‘this is the first Floyd album in a long time that I’d listen to a lot” and “You would never guess this came out in 2014, this sounds like 1970’s Floyd”. This album should be viewed as a strong return to form, a return to the pure spacey roots that set the controls long ago.
On vinyl, this is something to behold-crisp silent pressing, pristine packaging and suitably obtuse cover imagery. A sixteen page full size booklet shows photos from the original 1994 recording sessions, heavy on the Rick Wright images. Which is no surprise since this album is indirectly designed to be a tribute to Wright, who passed away in 2008 (and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, the creators of all of Floyd’s covers since the early 70’s, who died in 2013). Rough sketches of Wright’s piano form the backbone of more than one song. On vinyl, the whole first side-Things Left Unsaid, It’s What We Do and Ebb and Flow pretty much make up a single song, which is variations on Shine On You Crazy Diamond themes. Flickers of recognizable themes weave into other songs: One of These Days, Us and Them, On the Turning Away all are hinted at in different songs. But pretty much no song in the last 40 years has mined this territory, a huge strength of the Pink Floyd sound from 1969-1975, a strength inexplicably abandoned for far too long. Other highlights are a 1968 Rick Wright organ exercise that has been overdubbed, and all of side four of the album. Side four contains the lone ‘real song’, Louder than Words, a song that makes one realize the band still has the goods, and in abundance. Allons-y parts one and two come close to song-dom, like one of the better instrumentals that never made the Wall. Talkin Hawkin is a version of Keep Talking from Division Bell, but more free flowing. Stripped of the Motown backing vocals and heavy overdubs, this song is far more powerful than it was 20 years ago. Sure there is the occasional clunker: one tune evokes faceless 80’s jazz-rock, another piece echoes early 80’s Kitaro (who had some pretty good stuff now and then) Overall though, it’s back to basics, no frills playing that hearkens back to the days of Meddle and Obscured, just four guys playing sounds of the universe, before the studio became the fifth member circa Dark Side of the Moon. This is true of much of this album-ditch the heavy additions of extra instruments and backing vocals that got slathered on like too much frosting trying to fix a dodgy cake-and the power and the beauty inherent in Gilmour, Wright and Mason’s compositions are allowed to shine.
In short, this is the Pink Floyd album many fans have been waiting decade upon decade for: an introspective, lava lamp melting stoner classic. (Floyd had originally referred to this release as ‘The Big Spliff’) Floyd fans have always had the reputation of sitting motionless in a room watching the walls melt. If you fall into that category, your train has finally arrived. So we finally have the last Pink Floyd album ever, and it certainly succeeds as a final statement of purpose like you cannot imagine. All aboard for the cosmic express kiddies, there will be no more stops for this train! From the first shudders and throbbe of the Binson Echorec as Syd Barrett throttled his guitar and gazed into the maelstrom of melting lighting effects in 1966 to forty eight years later as Gilmour and Mason stare into the event horizon looming ahead as they pass 2014, this truly is the final cut. Highly recommended.