Utopia Theme/Freak Parade/Freedom Fighters/The Ikon
Todd Rundgren is an artist that I have never really got to know. My only memory of him is of a minor hit single from 1972 called I Saw The Light, which was sort of George Harrison meets Phil Spector-ish. Rundgren had also been involved in music since the sixties so he had been around a bit without any really notable success. In 1974, however, he decided to board the prog rock train and released this four track album of largely instrumental virtuosity. It will clearly not be to everyone's taste, but whether you can sit through a track lasting thirty minutes or not, there are still some fine passages to be found on the album.
Utopia Theme, a live track, is a mad fifteen minutes of prog rock virtuosity, or gratuitous indulgence, depending on whatever your point of view may be. It includes ELP-style insane classically-influenced keyboards, meandering instrumental passages, occasional vocals and, notably, about five minutes from the end, some superb guitar, piano and drums rock riffage that surely-to-goodness influenced Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell (the song). Of course it did, Rundgren was the producer on that legendary album.
Yes, the track is way, way, way too long and does not beg many listens - that was the problem with much of prog rock, for me, it simply went on way too long, travelling down so many blind alleys. That is what happens here, the track gets precisely nowhere. On the other hand, some of the musicianship is genuinely first class, rendering the album worthy of one’s respect, at least.
Freak Parade also utilises one of prog rock's favourite things - the swirling crazy keyboard sound á la Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Along with that, though, there is some fine slow melodic guitar and some equally appealing bass and drum sounds. As readers of my reviews will know, I have never been a hug prog rock fan, but I am enjoying my journey into its recesses. I'm not sure whether I will return on a regular basis, but there is something strangely addictive about this stuff. The military drum-bass-keyboard interplay on this track is excellent and there is a surprisingly funky, clavinet-driven bit just before five minutes in. A lovely deep bass solo sees the track out. Another good bit - great in isolation.
The riffy, psychedelic-influenced rock of the short (four minutes!) of Freedom Fighters is the closest thing this group came to something that could be played on the radio as a single. It's actually really good, if a little tinny. It was not released as a single but if there was such a thing as a great prog rock single, this would qualify.
Then we get The Ikon - thirty minutes - yes, thirty minutes of wild, solid prog rock noodling - riffs, keyboards, breezy vocals, pounding drums - that will get the nerdy, studious boys and flowing skirt-wearing girls slipping easily into a dream of cheesecloth and incense. One either loves it or hates it. I am somewhere between the two in that I am prepared to give it a chance and, as with so much prog rock, there are so many changes in tempo and style that you are guaranteed to like some of it. Also something prog rock had was that its exponents could play, not half.
Can I sit through this? Not easily, I have to admit, but its multiple changes make it sound like more than its four tracks. At times recently, I have got disturbingly proggy. I guess there is more to music than punk, Motown and Springsteen. A lot more.