Rock and Roll Feature: The Umma and the Gumma of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma

This is the twenty-first in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

Perhaps unlike a lot of other rock fans, I've always really liked double albums (or multi disk/mutli CD albums... but I'll continue to use the "double album" term for simplicity). I don't know if it's because I like the breadth of material they contain, the thought of a band writing that much material all contained within one overarching concept, or the fact that the majority of the double albums I own are... well... awesome, (it could be that I just like getting extra music for my money... more bang for the buck too I guess), but I like them. Some double albums immediately became classics in my mind, like Pink Floyd's The Wall. Upon hearing it, there was just no question that it would remain one of my favorites for all time. Others, like the Pink Floyd album I'll be discussing today, took a bit longer to grow on me

You Floyd fans out there probably already guessed today's feature just from that last statement (if for some reason you missed it already being mentioned in the title), but for the rest of you, I speak of 1969's Ummagumma. With it's first half consisting of atmospheric, extended pieces written by each of the band members and the second half containing a sparse 4 songs garnered from the band's live shows (each is over 8 minutes), this album is certainly unique.

When it was released, and probably up until the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Ummagumma was one of the most popular Pink Floyd albums to my knowledge, but I find that amongst the younger generation, it often goes overlooked, even by big "Floydians." I guess I can understand that, as it certainly took me a long time to get into it, but there's definitely some great moments on this one and plenty reasons to add it to your collection.

Although when it was originally released, I think the live disk was disk one, I'm going to rebel and talk about them in the opposite order...just for literary purposes I guess... or something like that.

The studio album contains a total of 12 tracks, but they're really more like 4 pieces with different movements... each of the 4 being penned by a different member of the band. Richard Wright's 4 part "Sysypuhs" starts it off. Massively grandiose and foreboding keyboard lines with huge drums open up part one, before transforming into a very classically tinged piano piece in part two. I'm actually really fond of this second part, especially in the wake of Wright's passing (he unfortunately died this year, just recently, in case you missed the news) because it has some great piano work throughout and although it starts off very classical, it soon descends into a sort of free form, jazzy rumble of experimentalism. Part 3 picks up where part 2 left off with a bit more noisy expression, but this time with a much more percussive and jagged feeling as sounds come from all directions making syncopated rhythms and jarring beats as it builds to another climax. Part 4 returns with atmospheric keyboards again, but lighter and more airy, before returning to the original melody to close. As a complete work, all 4 parts seem both connected and disconnected making for a unique, but also somewhat jarring listening experience that, being completely instrumental can be a little difficult to wrap your brain around. That said though, this piece also speaks highly of a lot of experimental jazz, and rock that has come about in more modern times and the build and release technique fits will with it's title: Sisyphus from Greek mythology being cursed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again... deep.

The album continues with a pair of songs from Roger Waters that although they aren't labeled necessarily as different movements, work well back to back and blending one into the other. "Grantchester Meadows" is a folksy, earthy acoustic piece that sort of floats and sways, reminding me vaguely of "Behind Blue Skies" from The Wall, except predating it by a number of years. This track also has the sounds of nature woven in around the melody with birds tweeting back and forth in the background all over the place, which is what I think connects it so perfectly to the next track. I've talked about "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" as part of one of my "Strangest songs" pieces from the past, and with good reason. Taking the sounds of nature of the previous track to their ultimate conclusion, this track is made up almost entirely of animal noises, creating this dense, percussive soundscape... and probably one of the most creative, amusing and strangest songs of all time... definitely something that needs to be experienced to really be understood.

David Gilmour's three part "The Narrow Way" follows, and just as one would expect, it is the most guitar oriented of the pieces, consisting of layers/combinations of acoustic, electric and slide guitar parts. This piece may be the most accessible to the casual listener to be sure, but there are still plenty of small experimental moments throughout. Part one is airy and folksy, while part two is grinding, dark and haunting. Part three sort of bridges the two, sounding the most like what many people might considered "typical Pink Floyd" with lyrics and everything. As a complete work, these three tracks work well, but don't necessarily blend perfectly as part 3 could easily stand without the other two in any other context. Part three is also one of my favorite tracks from this studio album, up there with both of Water's songs.

This half concludes with Nick Mason's "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party, an atmospheric percussion experimentation that again, speaks great to more modern experimental bands... bands like Tortoise come to mind especially. This one also has some advanced recording techniques where a percussion instrument is recorded, and then the tracks themselves, or the background hiss even, is used to stutter and create this sort of sampled rhythmic style... kinda cool. There are the occasional flutes and other melodic instruments throughout, but in general these pieces are about percussion, and in turn suffer the fate of other percussion driven songs and drum solos: They are interesting and decently compelling when done creatively, but not always the easiest listening... if you're not a drummer. Still, an interesting complete work with part two definitely standing out... and not just because it has the longest running time.

As a studio work, Ummagumma is certainly unlike any other album Pink Floyd has within it's catalog. The studio tracks didn't interest me much at all originally, but have since grown on me. They're quite an eclectic bunch of experimental compositions that completely smashed any remaining boundary of what rock and roll music could be. Still, I'm pretty sure it's the live tracks that made it so popular in the past... and with good reason. The live disk is definitely the feature of this work, showing the band at some of their most experimental and psychedelic on stage.

"Astronomy Domine" starts of this 4 song live snippet, and just like the studio version it is trippy and driving with some great guitar work and pounding drums. This version features a great improvisational section where haunting keyboard melodies ring out until the band builds back in, adding layers of sound till they're driving full force again, guitars ringing out and bass pounding. This is one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs already, but this live version is stellar and powerful.

"Careful with that Axe, Eugene" follows, and it too gets extended into something spacey, psychedelic and complex. Haunting melodies from vocals and keyboards eschew in and out, before the song breaks out with driving guitars and primal screams. This is one where the intensity is really catapulted skyward as the song has a gritty, rough edge along with the expected mystic flavor that I really like and think adds a sense of urgency that the original version lacks slightly.

And then of course there is "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun". I love this song so much. It's simple melody, psychedelic lyrics (appropriately borrowed from the Tibetin Book of the Dead...I think) just create the perfect mystical soundscape on their own, so what could possibly be bad about the band stretching it out into an 8 minute psychedelic jam completely with haunting keyboards and screeching, shrieking, echoing wah guitar? Nothing that's what. This is a killer live track and might just be reason enough to add this album to your collection... to be honest, it was the original reason I picked it up.

An almost 13 minute version of "A Saucerful of Secrets" closes the live in appropriately fashion, starting off with deep rumbling bass and keyboard melody, spacey guitar and crashing, tinkly cymbals. The song's noisy experimentation builds and builds before giving way to even more experimentation before shifting towards grandiose melody. For a band that seems at times so perfectly crafted on their later albums, it's interesting to see them delving into some of there more noisy and free form expression moments from their early days. This version, to me, is everything I would expect from a live version of this song... experimental, but still melodic, haunting, spacey, grandiose and everything else Pink Floyd is known for... good stuff all around.

As someone who really likes the album as a complete multimedia art object with visual art as well as music, I'd like to mention that this one has some great cover art as well. Pink Floyd was known for great artwork from the very beginning and many of it's album covers have become cultural icons, including this one to an extent. The artwork features the band members in various positions... sitting, standing, laying... receding into the background on the right, and then what appears to be a mirror on the left, reflecting back from another mirror (from the perspective of the viewer) creating an infinite set of reflections of the band. At least that's what it appears like on first glance. Closer inspection reveals that each reflection in the "mirror" has the band members exchanging positions. They're all still in one of the same positions, but who is in which one is unique, making for a sweet illusion of infinite reflections that has a little more to it than meets the eye. It may not be as iconic as the DSOTM prism, or the wall from...well you know... but I like this album art a lot and think it is not only one of the cooler covers around, but fits the music, with all it's layers of experimental depth, really well too.

As a complete work, Ummagumma is certainly a varied double album, but also a good one. I can understand that complex, experimental instrumentals and songs made up of animal sounds might not appeal to everyone, but I think the live tracks alone will justify picking this one up for most fans. They show the band in their fiery and experimental early days, creating a live show that would go on to be stuff of legends. Those live tracks, as I mentioned, was precisely what drew me to this album originally, but the studio tracks have grown on me as well, so don't hesitate to pick this one up, even if you're just getting it for the live tracks as the studio half might just grow on you too.

Conclusion: Floyd fans, don't pass up the double album Ummagumma just because it's not one of the classic Pink Floyd albums... there's some great live music on this one, and some of the band's most unique and creative studio tracks as well.

And if you're not a Floyd fan? Well, I wouldn't really recommend this as the best starting album, that's reserved for some of the more famous ones, but after you get through those, this one might be the perfect addition to your collection.

You can pick this album up from Amazon directly here: Ummagumma


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