February 28, 2018 Camel’s Debut Album Turns 45
No music genre has ever escaped the claws and fangs of snobbery (at the least) and derogation (at most) from the tone-deaf ears and wicked hands of scoop-hungry media and only-hits music listeners. Pop, Hip-Hop, Metal, New Wave, and even the grandiose Progressive Rock have all been dissed by these cold-hearted critics. Whatever detractors might have to say against Progressive Rock – that it is overindulgent, contrived, exaggerated, redundant, or any other superlative denigration – it will remain second to Common Practice Period music (better known as Classical music) when it comes to sonic beauty of architectural and cosmic proportions.
Thus, it is understandable why people with short attention span and difficulty in digesting big and elaborate concepts easily get turned off by Progressive Rock. Still, this does not deserve to be berated, nor do any other genre for that matter, for music in all its guises is an emotional or spiritual vessel of the songwriter or composer. Ridicule the composition and you desecrate the soul of the artist who made it. If you could not really dig it, then just simply move on to the next piece without leaving any dirty or muddy footsteps of contempt.
One of the often overlooked purveyors of ’70s Progressive Rock was Camel, whose equally intricate creations were sadly overshadowed by those of some of its contemporaries such as Genesis (Selling England by the Pound), King Crimson (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic), Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans), and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Brain Salad Surgery). Compared with these more prominent bands, Camel’s style was less flashy, acrobatic, cryptic, and theatrical; but that did not mean that it was also less compelling and imaginative. This distinction is well-documented in their fourteen-album discography: from 1973’s self-titled to the last, 2002’s A Nod and a Wink.
Formed in 1971, in Guildford, Surrey, England, Camel was founded by Andrew Latimer (guitar, vocals, flute, recorder, keyboards, bass guitar), Andy Ward (drums, percussion), Peter Bardens (keyboards, vocals), and Doug Ferguson (bass, vocals). Their second to fourth albums were the ones often lauded as their masterpieces, but their debut – which turns forty-five this year – also deserves reassessment. After all, it will always be the sound of the band’s modest beginning.
Released on Wednesday, February 28, 1973, Camel’s first full-length was a fusion of Psychedelic, Folk, Jazz, Rock, and everything else that made late ’60s Alternative music interesting. It opened with the finesse of “Slow Yourself Down,” whose organ drone, jazzy rhythm, scathing interplay of the guitar and the organ, as well as cinematic soundscape definitely defined the Progressive Rock sound of the early ’70s.
The ensuing “Mystic Queen” was a momentary break from the overall driving mode of the entire album, starting with a somber, reflective ambience courtesy of the rustic Psychedelic plucks on the guitar and then moved on initially gracefully and then exploded into a texture of instruments, like a true graceful yet magisterial queen. The instrumental “Six Ate” then picked up its cadence – albeit waltzy this time – from where the album opener had left off, serving up various structural changes in a cool and confident swagger.
Camel accelerated its sonic journey with “Separation,” whose galloping beat and rhythm as well as guitar strums and slashes conjured a sight of feuding nomads on dromedaries in the sweltering Arabian deserts, engaged in a sword duel because of a trade dispute. After a short, folky, and mystical guitar prelude, “Never Let Go” returned the listener to the same sonically progressive expedition and then left him in the end with an epilogue highlighted by an excellent guitar ad-lib. This kind of filmic and ambient instrumentation served as a blueprint for many adventurous Metal bands in the decades that followed, such as In Flames (“The Jester’s Dance”), Death (“Voice of the Soul”), Opeth (“Benighted”), and Mastodon (“The Czar”).
The penultimate track, “Curiosity” was a flight of fancy, lifting the spirits and the imagination of the listener to a distant soundscape; its subtle, cacophonous interludes and cyclical piano flourishes foreshadowed the future excursions of Camel in its subsequent albums. Finally, the then fledgling band finished off its first offering with a rather loose, more experimental, clearly melodic, and more rocking instrumental, “Arubaluba.”
Most bands get to be hailed during the middle part of their respective careers, elevating to stellar heights the outputs from this period but in the excitement burying in oblivion their humble beginnings and the pristine and innocent beauty of their early recordings. Camel was one of these casualties, whose debut album, albeit equally precious and worth investigating, is almost always but understandably overshadowed by the now high-profile status of its immediate follow-ups. After all, the path that Camel had pursued in Mirage, The Snow Goose, and Moonmadness was based more on conceptual themes. In spite of that, Camel will always be the band’s starting point – and an excellent one at that. So, now that it is celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary, Camel, more than ever, deserves a new surge of attention and adulation that it should have gotten a long time ago. So, go on, spin Camel one more time and be one of the pilgrims of the caravan of love even if only for the album’s special moment.