Welcome to another installation of Deep Dive, where I take a look at the extended studio discographies of some of the biggest names in progressive rock. I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and that is an element often missed in a ranked list.
Today, I’m covering a doozy. Pink Floyd is the most commercially successful progressive rock act by a wide margin. Their global sales tally somewhere between 200 and 250 million records since their debut in 1965, placing them eighth all time among recording artists. The second-most successful prog act is Genesis, with roughly 100 million sales and significant non-prog output.
Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd were my two primary introductions to progressive rock, and those are my second- and third-most-listened-to acts, respectively, according to my Last.fm profile, trailing only The Beatles. I have a deep, intense love of their music, and Richard Wright is probably my single biggest influence as a musician. At the same time, don’t expect this to be a one hundred percent worshipful lovefest, as I have some (strong) opinions which are heterodox among the Pink Floyd fandom.
Unlike other artists I have covered or will cover in this column, Pink Floyd has a huge amount of material which either never saw official release or was released in unusual ways. As such, there is a significant portion of their output which will not be included in the ranking at the end, though I will address it in the body of this essay. Most of this oddball material was recorded 1965-1970 and was released as a part of the 2016 box set The Early Years, 1965-1972.
I will also refrain from ranking Pink Floyd’s live output, as that strays beyond the limitations of this column. That’s unfortunate, too, as Pink Floyd bootlegs from 1968-1972 are something of an addiction for me. Their live performances from this time period are fantastic and deeply interesting, and I really recommend you look into this material yourselves.
Part I: The Barrett Years (1963-1968)
Prior to becoming “Pink Floyd,” Roger Waters (bass), Nick Mason (drums), Richard Wright (keys), Syd Barrett (vocals, guitar), and Bob Klose (guitar) performed rhythm and blues and cut a handful of singles under the name The Tea Set. And immediately upon starting this piece, I’m struck by the issue of Pink Floyd’s massive catalog of unreleased and non-album material.
I grew familiar with most of this early output via low-quality downloads of individual mp3s off LimeWire while I was in high school. Thankfully for my sanity, the aforementioned box set will make referencing this material much easier.
This early material with Klose is fine, as long as you enjoy mid-60s R&B. “Lucy Leave” is the obvious strong point, and “I’m a King Bee” is notable for being the only cover song Pink Floyd ever officially released. Klose quit the band in mid-1965 to continue his university studies, and the remaining quartet rebranded as The Pink Floyd Sound.
After eventually shortening their name, the band began to develop a loyal following on London’s live circuit. They were noteworthy for their lengthy instrumental improvisations, and if you’re interested in this era, I highly recommend the album London, 1966-1967. This collection features a searing, hypnotic, 17-minute rendition of “Interstellar Overdrive” and the never-recorded-in-a-studio “Nick’s Boogie”.
In early 1967, Pink Floyd signed with EMI, and in March of that year, they put out their major-label debut. “Arnold Layne” is a brilliant piece of psychedelic pop, though it was backed with the underwhelming “Candy and a Currant Bun”. (That song was covered in an even more-underwhelming fashion by The Mars Volta in 2008, if you’re interested in TMV ephemera.)
“See Emily Play” was released in June 1967, and this is the clear high-point of Syd Barrett as a pop writer. The melody is infectious, and Rick Wright’s organ solo is vastly different from what most acts were doing at that time.
In August of 1967, the band released their first full-length album: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Even if this had been the only album Pink Floyd ever released, they would still be remembered as psychedelic royalty. The kaleidoscopic cover art only hints at what’s held within the grooves of the record.
“Astronomy Domine” is my favorite song that Barrett ever wrote. It is mind-boggling how far ahead its time it sounds to the modern ear. The guitars are jagged and angular in a way I’d describe as post-punk, if post-punk weren’t more than a decade away from existing. The melody is stranger and more complex than almost anything else that existed in the contemporary psych scene. The chromatic, descending organ and guitar duets make this song feel weird and off-kilter, and Nick Mason’s tom-heavy drumming adds serious weight.
“Lucifer Sam” has a groovy, bluesy backbone with a bizarre, Dick Dale-sounding guitar solo. “Matilda Mother”, in contrast, has a dreamy, childlike feel to the verses, undercut by sinister minor-key lines. The organ solo is notable for utilizing the Phrygian mode, which lends an unusual, Eastern Mediterranean flair. Also aiding in this regard is the fact that Wright played a Farfisa organ, which has a distinct sound from other organs, such as the omnipresent prog standard, the Hammond organ. (Wright would later deploy a Hammond as his primary organ, but these early recordings prominently feature the Farfisa.)
“Flaming” is the weakest song on Side 1, but its wide-eyed innocence is a fascinating time capsule of the late ‘60s. It’s not a bad song, either; it simply pales against most of the other songs here.
“Pow R. Toc H.” was a full-band effort, and it shows some of their earliest jazz influences, as well as some of Roger Waters’s earliest weird-ass screeches. Side 1 ends on the one song without a Barrett writing credit, the Waters-penned “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”. This is a manic, anxious piece that skitters along without any breathing room. Barrett’s jittery guitar is key to this song’s success, and Wright’s organ solo is as inspired as anywhere.
Side 2 opens with the seminal “Interstellar Overdrive”. Comprised of nearly ten minutes of psychedelic freakiness, this is one of Pink Floyd’s defining pieces. The downward riff which opens this song never fails to grab me, and its rapid dissolution into echoing, meditative, brain-melting glory could be seen as a direct precursor to subgenres like zeuhl and krautrock. The rapid panning between audio channels in the song’s final minute is disorienting in the best way, and my memories of the first time I heard this piece stick with me to this day.
Unfortunately, Side 2 isn’t nearly as strong as Side 1. “The Gnome” is fucking insufferable, and “Chapter 24” is just boring. “Scarecrow” has some interesting folk touches, but it fails to make much impact.
Piper closes strong, though. “Bike” is another slice of madcap psychedelia. The music is dense, and Barret’s simple melody and silly lyrics only serve to complement the more complex elements of the composition.
Sadly, by the time Piper was released, Syd Barrett’s mental state was in rapid decline. Underlying mental health issues were aggravated by excessive LSD consumption. Barrett’s condition deteriorated enough that in December 1967, David Gilmour was brought on to help fill the void. The band had initially hoped to retain Barrett as a composer, with Gilmour covering live guitar duties. But by early 1968, it became increasingly clear that Barrett was not cooperating with the band. He introduced a song called “Have You Got It Yet?” but changed the structure every time the band tried to play it in order to troll them.
Part II: The Weird, Transitional Years (1968-1972)
(Note: Strap in for a lengthy section. This portion is nearly half the length of this essay, as it is my favorite era of Pink Floyd. This is the period during which most of their unreleased material was recorded, and despite only covering five years, this section addresses seven albums and numerous oddball releases.)
Following Barrett’s firing from the band, Pink Floyd released A Saucerful of Secrets in June of 1968. ASoS contains some small Syd Barrett contributions. Most notable among these is the song which closes the album, “Jugband Blues”. It is a bizarre acoustic piece filled with odd sound effects. The closing is comparable to the swirling oddness in the final minute of “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” has a mantra-like atmosphere and is rumored to be the only Pink Floyd song to feature all five members of the band. Nick Mason once again demonstrates his ability to craft unique textures with his tom-focused style. This song is one of many that would achieve new heights in live recordings.
The other five songs on this album are something of a mixed bag. “Let There Be More Light” opens with one of Roger Waters’s most distinct basslines. It has a churning, tumbling quality to it, complemented by Richard Wright’s murky organ and Nick Mason’s deft drumming. Unfortunately, the band are unable to keep this up during the body of the song. Neither the verses nor the chorus are particularly noteworthy.
“Corporal Clegg” is notable for being one of only four songs to feature Nick Mason on vocals (alongside Waters and Wright). It’s a jagged, disjointed song. Between the three vocalists, the kazoo solo, and unnatural melody, it is more notable as an oddity than a highlight in Pink Floyd’s oeuvre.
ASoS’s title track is my go-to example for Pink Floyd songs which are outshined by their live versions. This studio version is muddy, unfocused, and needlessly chaotic. Gilmour’s guitar and Waters’s bass are almost inaudible in this version, and Wright’s many keyboard effects feel tedious and grating by the song’s end. The choral arrangement in the final movement feels particularly anemic and wasted on Wright’s gorgeous organ chords.
This is as good a point as any to discuss Pink Floyd’s many weird outtakes, singles, and unreleased bits ‘n’ bobs. Hell, there’s a whole damn Wikipedia article on the topic. There’s a lot of unspectacular stuff which deserved to remain unreleased. I’ve listened to all that I could find, and much of it isn’t worth writing about, but there are some buried gems:
- “Scream Thy Last Scream” is a Barrett-era piece that features a sinister melody and solos. Unfortunately, it also features Chipmunk-like pitch-shifted vocals which detract heavily from the listening experience.
- “Vegetable Man” also dates from the Barrett era. It’s rough around the edges, but there’s a degree of menace in this song rarely heard elsewhere in the band’s early years.
- “One in a Million” is a lo-fi recording that can be tough to deal with if you don’t like things with rough production. Still, this is some of their best Barrett-era jamming. The main riff is dark and evil, and the atonal soloing over the hypnotic rhythm is noteworthy.
- “Moonhead” is a fittingly spacy jam that was played on the BBC during the Apollo 11 moon landing.
- The full version of “In the Beechwoods” was a new experience for me. I had previously only known a sub-2-minute excerpt I’d downloaded off LimeWire long ago, but this rendition adds an entirely new character. It’s lighter than what I was familiar with while also being more engaging. This piano-led instrumental blends psych, jazz, and pop influences.
- “Point Me at the Sky” was a single that featured some early sci-fi themes. The chorus has always felt oddly forced to me, but the verses and pre-chorus are quite strong.
- In 1968, the band recorded roughly 15 minutes of music for the independent film The Committee. Four-and-a-half minutes of this was released on the Early Years box set, but the full recording can be found on YouTube. It strongly hints at the future direction taken by the band on More and Ummagumma. The music is consistently brooding and organ-focused, with frequent, irregular guitar embellishments. This recording is more an interesting evolutionary footnote than anything else. The Zabriskie Point soundtrack is a more refined version of what’s heard here.
- “Seabirds” is a song from the More soundtrack that was never released. A song called “Seabirds” was released on the Early Years box set, but this number is actually an alternate take of “Quicksilver”. The “Seabirds” I’m discussing can only be heard with the film’s dialog on top of it, which is a real shame. It sounds like a driving, hard rocking piece, somewhere between “The Nile Song” and “The Gold It’s in The…”
- The studio version of “Embryo” is eminently skippable. Don’t miss out on live versions, though!
- “Hollywood” is a pretty cool 80-second instrumental that sounds like it could have been on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack.
- Pink Floyd recorded a few songs for the soundtrack to the hippie film Zabriskie Point. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the soundtrack is far better and more noteworthy than the film. In addition to Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead made significant contributions.
- “Heart Beat, Pig Meat” is an eerie instrumental led by a tribal rhythm and spooky organ licks, augmented by audio samples.
- “Crumbling Land” is one of the band’s folky moments, and this particular example is one of the band’s best songs.
- “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up” is a rerecording of “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” (discussed later in this section).
- “Unknown Song” is a folky instrumental that features a bassline which would be revisited in “Atom Heart Mother”.
- “Country Song” has jazzy flavors and sounds like something off Obscured by Clouds.
- It never led to any recordings, but filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky planned for Pink Floyd and Magma to provide the soundtrack to his abortive attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune in the mid 70s. Magma would have provided harsh, martial music for the Harkonnens, whereas Floyd would have provided lusher tones for the Atreides family.
There was no clean way to fit that stuff in. Sorry about that.
Pink Floyd released two albums in 1969. The first of these was More, the soundtrack to the motion picture of the same name. More is an unfocused album that caught Pink Floyd deep in the throes of a transitional period. They had fired their bandleader and lacked clear direction. It doesn’t help that More is a soundtrack, which by their very nature tend to be relatively scattered.
In the creative vacuum left by Barrett, Roger Waters contributed the most to this record. Five of the thirteen songs list him as the sole composer, and another six have him as a cowriter.
“Cirrus Minor” opens the album with a bit of a dirge. Richard Wright’s distinctive Farfisa organ is the central focus, with acoustic guitar embellishments, and the vocals are delivered in a sleepy manner. In an immense and jarring tonal shift, though, the second song is “The Nile Song”. This track, as if compensating for the first, contains no keyboards whatsoever. It’s Pink Floyd’s most metallic offering; the guitars bludgeon the listener with far less finesse than Gilmour normally used, and the vocals are delivered in the form of hoarse screaming. Though uncharacteristic of Pink Floyd’s overall sound, this is a favorite of mine, and I consider myself fortunate that I got to hear it live when Nick Mason and his band came through Seattle in 2019.
“Crying Song” dials the intensity from a 10 back down to about a 2. It’s a slow-moving acoustic blues piece and not one of this band’s more memorable recordings. Following this is “Up the Khyber” a Wright and Mason improvisation. This two-minute track has a nervous, chaotic feel to it, which is augmented by the rapid audio panning.
“Green Is the Color” is a sweet acoustic ballad and one of the strongest tracks on More. It would go on to become a staple of Pink Floyd live sets prior to their massive success in the mid-‘70s. “Cymbaline” similarly saw heavy rotation in Pink Floyd’s live shows. Its studio version utilizes jazz and folk touches, and it closes on a two-minute organ improvisation.
Side 2 of More is mostly skippable. “Main Theme” has some interesting ideas and Eastern scales, but it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. This song is recommended for those of you who (like me) love the live disc of Ummagumma. “More Blues” is a dull blues jam that probably worked fine as background music for the film, but it’s not interesting enough to stand on its own. “Quicksilver” meanders in a torpor of aimless organ noodling and tape effects, and “A Spanish Piece” is a jokey piss-take. The album closes on “Dramatic Theme”, a rather undramatic revisitation of “Main Theme”.
Buried in all that aimless slog, though, is one more good song. “Ibiza Bar” shares the heavy atmosphere of “The Nile Song”, though Richard Wright does contribute piano and organ this time around. These two songs are similar, and I prefer “The Nile Song”, but this song is worth a listen too.
Pink Floyd’s second album of 1969 was even more acutely aimless. Ummagumma is a sprawling double album of immense contrasts. Disc 1—the live disc—is absolutely fantastic. It features reworkings of four songs: “Astronomy Domine”, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”, and “A Saucerful of Secrets”. That fourth song, in particular, is one of Pink Floyd’s top live moments, and that is a title with stiff competition.
Disc 2—the studio disc—in contrast, is an absolute mess. The four members of the band split up song writing duties, so each would get between 9 and 14 minutes of time. The band members had to play all the instruments on their tracks, much to the record’s detriment. This disc is a trudge, but it’s also the weirdest studio material they ever put out.
This disc opens with Richard Wright’s four-part “Sisyphus” suite. Part 1 has a promising opening, full of looming Mellotron and dramatic tympani and cymbals. Part 2 is piano-focused with a lot of jazzy dissonance which reminds me of the weakest parts of the studio version of “A Saucerful of Secrets”. Part 3 dives even deeper down the disjointed, atonal weirdness hole, to the point that it is almost unlistenable, especially with all its high-pitched squealing. Part 4 is as long as the other three parts combined and thankfully is the best of the bunch. It opens on a quiet and meditative note before some brief bombast leads into dull improv. It closes by revisiting Part 1’s theme. With the help of the rest of the band and a bit of workshopping, this piece may have been salvageable.
The same cannot be said of Roger Waters’s two compositions. “Grantchester Meadows” is an abusively dull seven-and-a-half minutes of floundering folk. Live renditions would be improved slightly, but not by much. The annoyingly-titled and entirely unlistenable “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” follows. Only Roger Waters’s voice is featured on this track, often manipulated in some way.
Side 2 of Disc 2 starts with David Gilmour’s three-part “The Narrow Way”, which is hands-down the best composition on the studio disc. Part 1 is a folky idyll, and Part 2 is centered around an off-kilter, slithering guitar riff. Part 3 is the best of the three parts and feels the most like an actual song, though Gilmour’s unsteadiness on the piano and drums is evident. (But kudos to him for branching out.)
In order to prepare for this review, this was the first time I’d listened to Nick Mason’s three-part “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” since high school. It’s not as awful as I remembered, but it’s mostly unfocused percussion and weird tape effects. If you’re into musique concrète, you may like this. Otherwise, skip it.
On the band’s 1969 tours, Pink Floyd performed a conceptual piece called The Man and the Journey, consisting of songs which would appear on More and Ummagumma, as well as excerpts from A Saucerful of Secrets and assorted unreleased tracks. Bootlegs of this tour are widely available, and a recording is included on The Early Years box set. This collection is one of the best works Pink Floyd ever made, and I highly recommend it.
In 1970, Roger Waters collaborated with composer Ron Geesin to score a documentary film called The Body. One of the songs, “Give Birth to a Smile”, features all four members of Pink Floyd. It’s a short track, but it’s strong. It hints at the direction the band would eventually go on The Dark Side of the Moon with its soul-tinged background vocals.
Ron Geesin would also go on to work with the full band on their 1970 album, Atom Heart Mother. Featuring the iconic Holstein cow album cover, this record bears structural similarities to Ummagumma. Atom Heart Mother opens and closes on full-band suites, while Waters, Wright, and Gilmour each have one solo song in the middle (with the full band’s backing).
Atom Heart Mother is also the first album where Pink Floyd unambiguously stepped into the emerging field of progressive rock. Prior to this point, they were primarily a psychedelic band with some experimental and space rock leanings. However, they didn’t fully abandon their psychedelic past, and they would remain somewhat semi-prog up until the mid-70s. It wouldn’t be until Wish You Were Here that I would say they released an unquestionably prog album, with all interceding records having significant psychedelic and space rock substrates.
The song “Atom Heart Mother” is the longest studio recording Pink Floyd ever made, clocking in at 13 seconds longer than “Echoes”. (That is assuming you don’t count the two pieces of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” as one song.) It’s also one of the rare Pink Floyd songs to credit a non-band member, as writing is attributed to the band’s four members, plus Ron Geesin who arranged the strings, brass, and choir.
Roger Waters and Nick Mason recorded the rhythm section part in one massive take, resulting in an inconsistent tempo throughout, but that doesn’t hamper the song. Geesin’s brass arrangements add a spooky, circus-like feel to this song. Upon hearing this song for the first time, my wife referred to it as “haunted carnival music.”
Though some bandmembers have expressed distaste for this song since its release, I think it’s one of their seminal pieces. Nick Mason’s drumming is especially noteworthy for the power he gives to the song’s more bombastic moments. The choir arrangements add a haunting quality, and Gilmour’s soloing is shockingly un-Gilmour-like. The vocal arrangements feel like an earthier counterpart to Magma’s celestial chants.
Stanley Kubrick asked to use “Atom Heart Mother” in A Clockwork Orange, but the band refused permission. As much as I love this song, I’m glad they didn’t allow Kubrick to use it; I would not want this piece associated with that stupid, boring, nigh-unwatchable film. (I’ll save the rest of my anti-Kubrick sentiments for another essay.)
Side 2 of Atom Heart Mother sees Waters, Wright, and Gilmour contribute one song apiece. This experiment turns out stronger than Ummagumma’s solo-writing experiment, as the members of the band weren’t required to play all the instruments.
The Waters-penned “If” begins side 2 and is the weakest of the tracks. It’s a slow, acoustic piece that features some languid soloing from Gilmour. Wright’s “Summer ‘68” follows. It’s reminiscent of the songs he contributed to A Saucerful of Secrets—relatively light, piano-led psychedelia. The chorus has a great punchiness to it, and the inclusion of a brass section was a smart move. David Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun” is the strongest of these three songs. It’s slow-moving, gentle, and sweet. The closing guitar solo is among the best he ever recorded. In live settings, this song would get stretched out to nearly 15 minutes and feature some truly dramatic interplay between Gilmour and Wright.
Atom Heart Mother closes on the weird, three-part instrumental “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, another group effort (though primarily written by Nick Mason). The three segments are intercut with audio of Pink Floyd roadie Alan Styles making breakfast for himself. The first section is centered primarily around piano and organ, and the second is a folky acoustic guitar fugue. Part three features the full band and acts as a strong closer. Piano is the lead instrument here, and a relaxed but purposeful feel drives this piece along.
In mid-1971, Pink Floyd released Relics, an album which collected some non-album singles, B-sides, and unreleased songs. However, five of the eleven songs had already been released on other records. I was conflicted over whether or not to include this release in this article, but if I addressed Living in the Past in my Jethro Tull piece, I’d argue that this falls in the same category.
In addition to the five album tracks, I’ve already discussed “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, but there are four more cuts to cover here.
“Paintbox” was originally released as a B-side to the disjointed, less-than-stellar “Apples and Oranges”, and it far outshines its A-side. It’s a Richard Wright composition and features his usual light, jazzy compositional tendencies, intercut with some sinister minor-key moments. “Julia Dream” is another B-side I prefer over its A-side, “It Would Be So Nice”. (Though it was stronger than “Apples and Oranges”, this single’s verses are a bit too childlike for my taste.) “Julia Dream” is a spooky, simple acoustic piece that utilizes Wright’s organ excellently.
“Careful with That Axe, Eugene” opens as a slow organ-based jam, featuring some noodling in an uncommon mode. After the title is whispered, there’s a shriek, followed by an extended, dark solo. This is one of many songs in Pink Floyd’s early repertoire that was vastly improved in live settings. The shriek and opening of the solo were given much greater impact during live performances, resulting in a more effective, arresting experience. The version on Ummagumma is especially noteworthy.
The final song on Relics to be discussed is the previously-unreleased “Biding My Time”. This song was performed live as a part of The Man and the Journey, but Relics was the first time the studio version was heard. Jazz and blues are the primary influences displayed here, with warm piano and guitar tones taking the lead during the first part of the song. This song features prominent trombone, played by Rick Wright, and the final two-plus minutes are an enthralling blues jam. It’s clear why this wasn’t previously released—it would have sounded odd on any album Pink Floyd had put out up to this point—but it’s a solid piece overall.
Note: The above-discussed deep cuts are now available elsewhere, making Relics something of a superfluous, unfocused collection.
Meddle, released in late 1971, saw Pink Floyd’s best-known sound taking shape. The instrumental “One of These Days” opens the album. The powerful, reverberating bassline propels the song as stabs of organ, twisting guitar, and the odd strike of percussion continue to build. The unusual effect on the bass acts as an instrument unto itself, particularly in the slower midsection. The song’s final two minutes explode with searing guitar and warbling organ.
“A Pillow of Winds” follows this striking opener. While I’d argue that this song fits into the overall flow of the record, its slow, folky composition pales in comparison to the highlights on Meddle. “Fearless” maintains a similar sound palette, but the melody is more engaging, and the inclusion of drumming keeps the momentum up.
What everyone knows Meddle for, though, is the closing opus: “Echoes”. Covering all of side 2 and clocking in at over 23 minutes, this is one of Pink Floyd’s indisputable masterpieces. From the opening pinging piano notes, which evoke a satellite calling out from the icy void of space, the song gradually builds while Nick Mason’s drums complement the grand-sounding organ.
Gilmour and Wright harmonize their vocals on this song, giving a gentle, dreamy atmosphere. The chorus swells gracefully before dissolving into a dramatic, downward guitar riff. Following the second verse, the song enters an extended instrumental period. At first, it’s a natural extension of the post-chorus guitar solo, but the structure shifts, subtly at first, as the solo builds in intensity.
Around the 7-minute mark, “Echoes” enters a funkier, groovier movement. The irregular stabs of Hammond organ add depth behind Gilmour’s bend-filled, bluesy soloing. After a few minutes, the song enters its well-known “whale song” section. Amid a sparse and ominous backdrop, Gilmour’s guitar wails and squeals sharply.
These few minutes of eerie atmospherics gradually give way to an extended crescendo. Farfisa organ and a few more piano pings reestablish the opening atmosphere. Light cymbals and muted guitar and bass propel the movement as Rick Wright plays an organ solo over top of it. At 18 minutes, this section reaches its climax. David Gilmour unleashes a magnificent, glimmering arpeggio before dissolving into a third verse. The final few minutes feature one more masterful guitar solo before the song quietly fades out.
In 1972, Pink Floyd recorded the soundtrack for the French film La Vallée, a project of director Barbet Schroeder, who had been the driving force behind More. After scoring More, Pink Floyd had agreed to score his next film, as well. Recording had already begun for The Dark Side of the Moon, but the band temporarily paused that work in order to conduct some hurried sessions for the film. Some underlying DNA of Dark Side can be detected here, especially in Rick Wright’s VCS 3 synthesizer, shorter song structures, and jazzy inclusions. The rushed nature of the recording is obvious, though, as this record feels scattershot and inconsistent to a degree which cannot be easily explained away by dint of it being a soundtrack. Obscured by Clouds contains no bad songs, but it feels notably incoherent when digested as a single work.
“Obscured by Clouds” is a moody, droning instrumental track which segues seamlessly into the bombastic “When You’re In”. The latter song is enjoyable, but it feels awfully long considering it two-and-a-half minute runtime. This isn’t helped by the song’s minute-long fade-out.
“Burning Bridges” is, funnily enough, a bridge between Pink Floyd’s past and future sounds. Dreamy, late ‘60s psychedelic flavors blend with smart, jazzy influences, and this song is yet another example of how Wright’s and Gilmour’s voices worked so well together. Many of the instrumental motifs present here are also utilized in the instrumental “Mudmen”.
“The Gold It’s in The…” is atypical of Pink Floyd’s sound. It’s almost as if “The Nile Song” had been written more like a pop song. It’s hard-rocking, groovy, and guitar-centric. While enjoyable, it doesn’t feel much like a Pink Floyd song. In contrast to this high energy piece, the next cut is “Wot’s…Uh the Deal?”. It’s a slow-moving folky piece and one of the strongest on the record.
Side 2 opens with “Childhood’s End”, which sounds like a rough draft of “Time”. Had I heard this back when it was initially released in 1972, I’m positive I would have adored it. But having heard “Time” first, this track feels like a demo. This reverse-self-rip-off is followed by the most unique track on the album. “Free Four” is downright jaunty and features significant folk and country influences. The lyrics are strongly reminiscent of what would be addressed on Dark Side, but the lighter feel is distinct. Rick Wright’s evil-sounding VSC 3 is a sharp contrast to the bouncy acoustic guitar.
“Stay” is Side 2’s answer to “Burning Bridges”. This Wright composition leans heavily on jazz and soul and slinks along smoothly. And much as Side 1 ended on an instrumental, Side 2 closes on “Absolutely Curtains”. This six-minute piece allows organ and synthesizer to build an oppressive atmosphere, complemented by Nick Mason’s spare drumming. It closes with a field recording of the Mapuga people of New Guinea, which was taken from the film.
Part III: The Early Waters Years, aka The Massively Successful Breakthrough Years (1973-1978)
Pink Floyd had started to record The Dark Side of the Moon in mid-1972, and they released it in March 1973. To say this album was a commercial hit would be a gross understatement. It spent seven years on the British charts (despite never hitting number one) and twice as long on the American charts. Depending on the source of the numbers, Dark Side is somewhere between the twelfth- and fourth-best-selling record of all time.
It’s not difficult to see why this record was such an immense hit. Every little aspect of this record works in perfect harmony with everything else. The songs are smooth yet powerful, and the frequent integration of jazz and soul influences are seamless and sublime. This album is right up there with Revolver and Thick as a Brick as contenders for my personal favorite album of all time. I find no flaws in this release.
The Dark Side of the Moon also represented the beginning of Roger Waters’s increasing domination of Pink Floyd’s songwriting. The overarching concept of Dark Side was his idea, and he penned all the lyrics, though the music remained a group effort.
The brief instrumental “Speak to Me” opens Dark Side with a gradually-building collage of sound effects and voice recordings over an insistent rhythm reminiscent of a heartbeat. This resolves in a soulful scream and a segue into the mellow, flowing “Breathe”. “On the Run” follows. It’s a nervous instrumental which highlights the looping sequences of the VCS 3 synthesizer.
“Time” is one of Pink Floyd’s best-known songs for good reason. The opening cacophony of clocks and ensuing slow build to the verse are perfect. The verses have a biting, bitter edge to them, and Rick Wright’s soothing vocals contrast to Gilmour’s harsher tones. This song’s guitar solo is yet another of David Gilmour’s many highlights, and the reincorporation of the theme from “Breathe” is nothing short of masterful.
“The Great Gig in the Sky” closes out Side 1. Richard Wright’s jazzy piano chords and swirling organ provide the instrumental backbone of this track. The true star, though, are the magnificent, wordless vocals provided by Clare Torry. Her wailing is at once soulful and sorrowful. They are some of the most evocative vocals in all of rock music, and this is accomplished with zero actual words.
Torry was initially paid £30 for her contributions (approximately £400/$500 in 2021 money), but she sued for co-authorship credits in 2004. The case was eventually settled out of court, but all pressings of the album since 2005 have listed “The Great Gig in the Sky” as a Wright/Torry co-composition.
Following the one gap in the music on Dark Side, “Money” opens up side two. Likely the best-known song written 7/4 time, this track has a strong blues backbone. The twangy bass, bright electric piano, and striking sax solo all add to this track’s character. Gilmour’s guitar solo is played in the more-straightforward 4/4 time signature, imbuing this section with a more driving, hard-rocking feel. (Gilmour self-deprecatingly jokes that Waters had to “dumb down” the time signature to something easier for him.)
“Us and Them” is a slow-moving, jazzy cut. It’s too densely layered to be described as “airy,” but that descriptor isn’t far off. The chorus is immensely dramatic and dark in sharp opposition to the light verses. The segue into “Any Colour You Like”—a criminally underrated instrumental—is sudden but welcome. Rick Wright’s many layers of delayed synthesizers glimmer and slither over a funky backing beat. All the while, Gilmour’s guitar is somehow both watery and sharp.
The closing “Brain Damage/Eclipse” is six of the strongest minutes in the history of rock music. The guitar in “Brain Damage” is slightly askew, and the gently-uttered lyrics are brilliant. “Eclipse” takes the slightly-off, dreamlike atmosphere of the preceding song and explodes into impactful, tumbling, eruptive climax.
Many consider their 1975 follow-up, Wish You Were Here to be equal to Dark Side, but that’s a point where I disagree. It’s a very strong album, but it does have a few glaring flaws which drag it down.
Roger Waters again penned all the lyrics, and he had a hand in the composition of each song, as well, though songwriting remained an overall collaborative effort. The album’s concept is based on the band’s experience in the music industry, and its quality varies somewhat.
WYWH opens with the first five parts of the 26-minute “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” suite. It begins with droning synths and a delicate, clean guitar solo. This movement dissolves into an expansive, four-note arpeggio which builds into a sinister, psychedelic blues jam. This particular instrumental passage overstays its welcome a little bit, but it eventually does a good job of transitioning into the verses. The verses are some of Waters’s strongest compositions and a loving ode to Syd Barrett. The closing sax solo channels the best moments of Dark Side and is a fitting wrap-up to this first half of the suite.
“Welcome to the Machine” is my favorite song on the album, and it might be my overall favorite song by the band. This menacing, pulsing synthesizer experiment contrasts the harsh sterility of the music against the bitter, plaintive vocals. Acoustic guitar bites brilliantly against the electronic tones, and Nick Mason’s restrained drumming complements it perfectly.
This masterpiece is then followed by “Have a Cigar”, undoubtedly the weakest track on the album. The faux-funkiness of the backing track feels tepid, and guest vocalist Roy Harper sounds strained.
The album’s title track is next, and I’ve got somewhat mixed feelings on it. In isolation, it’s a very good song. The folk and country tones of the main guitar line suit the lyrics and vocal delivery, and the warm synth tones in the outro are very nice. But in the context of this album, it feels out of place. This doesn’t sound like a Pink Floyd song, and this track’s earthiness and rawness clashes against the lusher sound palettes of the other cuts.
The second half of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” wraps up the remainder of the album, and it’s overall stronger than the first half. The introductory movement revisits ideas from the first half, this time with a bit more purpose. It isn’t quite as wandering, and Rick Wright’s synth solo is a highlight. This section feels like a slightly updated version of “One of These Days”, and it’s some of the band’s best in-studio jamming. More funk touches come in after the verse, and these experiments feel less forced than on “Have a Cigar”. The song’s final movement is piano-and-synth-centric, and the very final moments have a rich hopefulness to them.
Animals, Pink Floyd’s 1977 release, saw Roger Waters dominate the songwriting even more than on the previous releases. David Gilmour only co-wrote one of the three big suites, and neither Mason nor Wright received any songwriting credits.
Loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Animals is a concept album about the socio-political state of Britain in the mid-1970s. Waters’s lyrics became increasingly on-the-nose here, but it wasn’t yet distracting. If anything, they work quite well in this instance, and the songs on Animals are some of the band’s best.
Animals is bookended by a pair of brief acoustic pieces titled “Pigs on the Wing”. On the 8-track release of this album, these two cuts were stitched into one piece, with a guitar solo by session musician Snowy White acting as a bridge between the halves.
“Dogs” was cowritten by David Gilmour, the only non-Waters songwriting credit on the album. This song starts off with a dark folk backbone, rolling along steadily. Rapid, acoustic strumming and quiet organ and synth provide a subtle backdrop for Gilmour’s strong vocal performance. After a brief, mildly bluesy instrumental interlude, “Dogs” enters its extended, down-tempo midsection. There’s a signature plaintive Gilmourian guitar solo, and Nick Mason’s drumming is restrained but artful.
It’s around the 8-minute mark of “Dogs” that Animals hits its one big snag. The drawn-out section of synth drone and dog sound effects overstays its welcome by a significant margin, and it could have been significantly shortened. In the final minutes, though, the opening theme is revisited with Waters on vocals and a wonderful twist on the lyrics.
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is the song with lyrics that have aged the worst. They’re unsubtly about mid-’70s British politics. The general sentiment is discernible, but many of the specific details will be lost on listeners who don’t do their reading. It’s also my least favorite of the three opuses on Animals, but being the weakest song on Animals is like being the worst type of non-pineapple pizza. It’s still pretty good.
There’s a laid-back, funky grooviness to much of the song. This is what “Have a Cigar” strove for but failed to deliver on. “Pigs” carries an air of self-satisfied smugness which suits the subject matter so well. Gilmour’s use of a talkbox is handled quite well. That’s a tool which is often mis- and over-used, but it’s deployed tactfully here.
Animals closes on my favorite of the three main tracks. “Sheep” is a snarling, biting cut that was (sadly) Rick Wright’s last huzzah as a soloist. The languid, jazzy opening piano solo is the perfect lead-in to the charging verses. The guitar (played by Waters) slashes aggressively, Wright’s organ swirls like a hurricane, and the bass (played by Gilmour) thumps and pounds.
The midsection of “Sheep” features big, bright synthesizers that complement the other instruments to build an anxious atmosphere. The vocoded pastiche of Psalm 23 is a little silly for my taste and presaged some of Waters’s most brutally unsubtle songwriting tactics which would crest on Pink Floyd’s next two albums. Still, it’s a forgivable sin in this context.
On the tour for Animals, Roger Waters spat at a group of irritating fans in Montreal. This incident highlighted the sense of isolation and alienation which he felt at the time, which leads me quite well into the next segment of this essay.
Part IV: The Later Waters Years, aka The Wall Is a Middling Album, and This Is a Hill I’m Willing to Die On (1979-1984)
This part of the essay is a bit I’ve been eagerly anticipating writing for a long time. And if one were to scroll through my personal Reddit account, one could find embryonic versions of the ensuing discussion.
The title of this section is a thesis I’ve long proclaimed. Setting aside lyrics for the moment—I will get to that—the music on The Wall is woefully inconsistent. There are gems buried in here, but much of the record is plodding and monotonous. There’s a pretty decent 40-minute album buried in this 82-minute slog of bloat and self-indulgence.
I’ve stated many a time on this site that I’m not a lyrically-focused individual. In general, I like the sound of the human voice, and I like the structure of human language, so I prefer music with lyrics to instrumental pieces, all else being equal. However, bad lyrics can hurt otherwise-good music, as can a bad vocal delivery. Roger Waters was never a strong vocalist, and his delivery is especially weak on much of this record.
The lyrics on much of The Wall are bad, and they’re delivered in an impossible-to-ignore way. To start, the main conceit of the album is not a strong concept. “I’m so isolated, I feel like I’m behind a wall,” is not a particularly new or unique idea, and it’s not presented in a very interesting way. It comes off as whiny and full of self-pity. While relatable, this narrative presented in a facile and achingly unoriginal way. The story—adapted from a much more explicitly autobiographical first draft—is overwrought.
The compositions tend to be either blandly spare or needlessly over-orchestrated, and things certainly weren’t helped by the band members’ deteriorating personal relationships during recording. A combination of depression (stemming largely from a failing marriage) and a falling-out with Roger Waters led to Rick Wright being fired from the band. He was hired on as a session musician for the tour, however.
Wright’s reduced input is obvious, as most keyboard parts on The Wall are plain and simplistic. Jazz is noticeably less prominent as well, as Wright often was the one bringing in those uncommon chords on prior compositions. It’s Gilmour who carries the instrumental aspects of this album without Wright. Waters was never a standout bassist, and Mason’s drumming is so restrained that even Ringo could have pulled it off.
The Wall also suffers from an abundance of sound effects. Snippets of conversation are littered throughout the album, and it often stretches decent two-minute songs to interminable four-minute lengths. The constant background chatter becomes draining. Contrast this to Dark Side, where conversational snippets were smoothly integrated into the fabric of the music. On The Wall, these elements feel hastily and thoughtlessly slapped on.
The individual songs were composed almost entirely by Roger Waters, with only four of the 26 tracks having a credited co-writer. And unsurprisingly, those four songs are some of the strongest on the whole record, demonstrating that Waters usually needed outside input.
“In the Flesh?” opens the album, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. If I weren’t told this was a Pink Floyd song, I’d think it was fine. It’s Stygian, prog-ish arena rock, but it’s nothing to write home about. I do like the soulful backing vocals, but everything else here is either way too much or not nearly enough. That is to say, it’s an odd mixture of overblown and unambitious. “The Thin Ice” features an uncharacteristically weak vocal performance from David Gilmour, and the piano-and-synth backing is underbaked, a quality which most of the record suffers from.
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” is the strongest of the three parts of this song. It’s got genuine menace, and the sense of isolation and abandonment is palpable. Unfortunately, this mood isn’t upheld in either of the following tracks. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is a weird, unfocused prelude to what follows. It’s more sound effects than substantive music, and the many ideas jammed into this sub-two-minute cut feel disjointed. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” meanwhile suffers from the irredeemable ill of a child choir and half-assed white-boy faux-funk.
“Mother” is uneven. A not-insignificant portion of this cut is folky, singer-songwriter bullshit that I simply don’t like. Once “Mother” gets going, though, it’s not a bad composition. It’s not great, but this solid-C+ cut is a relative strong point on The Wall.
The Wall has some oddball tracks which I really love. “Goodbye Blue Sky” is one of those. It combines wonky folk motifs with sinister synthesizers and opaque-enough-to-be-good lyrics to make something compelling.
“Empty Spaces” is more notable for its stupid backmasked message than for anything else. It’s an aimless, forgettable interlude which could have been trimmed from two minutes to 30 seconds. (“What Shall We Do Now?” was an inexplicable exclusion. Originally placed after “Empty Spaces”, it was quite a strong 90-second piece, and The Wall would have been stronger to include it.) “Young Lust” also overstays its welcome. Co-written by David Gilmour, this song is a send-up of late-’70s bluesy sex songs. It’s another alright cut, but the premise wears thin by track’s end.
“One of My Turns” is one of the great successes of The Wall. It aptly conveys the sense of desperation and mania the Waters was striving to portray, and though it’s rather unimpressively played, its internal diversity is strong enough to let it stand on its own. Sadly, this is followed by what is likely the worst slog on the album. “Don’t Leave Me Now” has Waters warbling off-key over atonal organ chords in a hazy torpor of uninteresting depression for four punishing minutes.
Disc one of The Wall ends with the perfectly passable duo of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3)” and “Goodbye Cruel World”. Neither is particularly noteworthy: the former is a slightly more energetic rehash of Part 1; the latter is a dull-but-short organ-and-bass dirge.
Thankfully, disc two is markedly stronger than disc one.
“Hey You” is a standout on The Wall, but if it had been on Wish You Were Here, it would have been underwhelming. It isn’t a bad song by any means, but it does fall victim to many traps of late-’70s arena rock which I have a distaste for. In addition to being generically overblown at parts, the production is a bit much for me here. Gilmour’s solo is decent, but its backing track is repetitious and uninteresting. The organ is too dramatic during those moments, as well. This song thrives in its quieter moments.
Unfortunately, Roger Waters can’t let us have two consecutive good songs on this record, it seems. “Is There Anybody Out There?” begins as a dull synth drone, but its second half features more interesting acoustic elements. “Nobody Home” is a track I have an unjustifiable soft spot for. It’s a simple piano-based piece with big, warm swells of string and brass that feel almost embarrassingly earnest.
“Vera” is simply pointless. Let’s skip this one. Y’know what, let’s also skip “Bring the Boys Back Home”. Christ, these two messes made it in but “What Shall We Do Now?” was cut? Revisiting The Wall is simply reinforcing my anti-Roger Waters bias.
Finally, we’re getting to the good part of The Wall. “Comfortably Numb”, on paper, suffers from many of the symptoms of bloat which I’d normally decry on this record. The simple playing and overly lush sound palette would usually be red flags, but the melody has drama to it, and the song has an understandable arc. Gilmour’s masterful closing solo certainly doesn’t hurt either. (For a truly amazing rendition of that solo, listen to the live version of this song from 1994’s Pulse.)
“The Show Must Go On” is nice and warm, if forgettable, and “In the Flesh” is a pointless retread of the album’s opening track.
“Run Like Hell”, however, is an amazing, energetic, anxious track. It’s both claustrophobic in its tight rhythm and wide-open with its guitar tones. It truly evokes the feeling of sprinting from some danger. Waters’s snarled delivery is befitting. This song features Rick Wright’s one solo on the album, but it’s a strong one. Though not particularly technical, the wobbling insecurity of his synth suits the subject matter well.
One of the weirdest tracks on The Wall is “Waiting for the Worms”. It’s full of allusions to the preceding songs, and the oddball vocal deliveries suit everything wonderfully. It’s thumping and lurching and scary, though it’s also got some of the most beat-you-over-the-head obvious lyrics on a famously straightforward record.
After the 30-second piano interlude of “Stop”, “The Trial” is another strong, wonderful oddball cut. There’s a Vaudevillian theatricality here that is absent elsewhere in Floyd’s output. The song’s sheer weirdness is what saves it. The lyrics continue the trend of ditching any semblance of artfulness, but everything is so odd and surprising, I can’t help but love it. “Outside the Wall”, which closes the album, feels like an afterthought and makes no lasting impression.
A few paragraphs ago (or maybe a few dozen, it feels like), I mentioned I felt that there was a decent 40-minute album buried in this unfocused mess. Coming from my lyrically-deemphasized standpoint, here is my proposal for an improved, abbreviated tracklist. Certain songs would need to be trimmed down, and those songs have been noted with asterisks. If they were to be taken as-is, this The Wall would wind up north of 50 minutes. Seeing the tracklist now, I’m not sure I could whittle it down to 40 minutes, but 45 seems totally reasonable.
TEE’s Streamlined Wall
- In the Flesh?*
- Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)*
- Goodbye Blue Sky
- What Shall We Do Now?
- Young Lust*
- One of My Turns
- Hey You*
- Nobody Home
- Comfortably Numb
- Run Like Hell
- Waiting for the Worms
- The Trial
Lyrics would need to be rewritten if you wanted the story to make sense, but unlike my view on films, I don’t need a coherent plot in my music. (And speaking of film, the film version of The Wall sucks way harder than the album. Fuck that movie.)
So, now that we’ve gotten past that big thing, it’s confession time. Prior to writing this retrospective, I’d never heard The Final Cut (Pink Floyd’s 1983 follow-up to The Wall) in its entirety. And after listening to it, I wish I hadn’t.
The album isn’t without its enjoyable moments. “Not Now John” is a pretty good song. “The Hero’s Return” sounds like a weaker sequel to “Run Like Hell”, and…and…and good God, I tried to find a third thing about this album I could give even back-handed praise to, but I couldn’t. This record is one of the worst shit sandwiches I’ve ever heard.
Most of it is like a worse version of the worst parts of The Wall. It’s simultaneously over-orchestrated and thin and weak-sounding. Roger Waters’s vocals are exceptionally strained, and this 43-minute release feels like it’s three times its actual length.
This is the only Pink Floyd album to not feature Rick Wright, and his presence is sorely missed. Nick Mason’s drumming is so anemic he may as well not even be there, and David Gilmour’s guitar parts are uninspired. Longtime Pink Floyd album cover artist Storm Thorgerson hadn’t been utilized on The Wall, but that album has fitting artwork. In contrast, his absence is acutely felt here. This shitty, ugly cover was designed by Waters himself, unsurprisingly.
Gilmour complained that Waters mostly brought material which the band thought was too weak for The Wall to the recording sessions, but he had nothing to contribute either. Thus, Waters was allowed to fully dominate the album. The lyrics on The Final Cut feel genuine, but the music is incredibly half-assed and lazy. It feels as if there was a general who-gives-a-shit malaise over the band.
The Final Cut was originally envisioned as the soundtrack for the film adaptation of The Wall, but the outbreak of the Falklands War prompted Waters to rewrite the material as an anti-war concept album.
Roger Waters is the premier example of a musician whose politics I broadly agree with but who I wish would keep politics out of his music. Animals was an exception, and that was more sociology than politics. Roger Waters’s political music is fucking garbage. Jesus Christ, shut the fuck up, Roger.
The Final Cut is an embarrassing, abject failure. Dr. Zoidberg really summed this album up well when he said, “Your music’s bad, and you should feel bad!”
Let’s move onto Floyd’s other, less-embarrassing failures.
Part V: The Gilmour Years (1985-1995, 2014)
Following the release of The Final Cut, Roger Waters attempted to disband Pink Floyd, but a series of messy legal disputes followed. Waters wound up exiting the band in 1985, leaving Pink Floyd as the duo of David Gilmour and Nick Mason.
Where The Final Cut is often derided as a Roger Waters solo effort, I and others view A Momentary Lapse of Reason as a David Gilmour solo effort. Nick Mason’s contributions to the album were minimal, and multiple outside songwriters were utilized.
Pink Floyd founding member Rick Wright was hired on as a session musician (legal issues blocked him from fully rejoining the band), but he barely did anything. By the time he had been brought on, most keyboard parts had already been recorded.
As I’ve mentioned at least twice now, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, released in 1987, is not a good album. However, it’s stronger by a mile than The Final Cut and only marginally weaker The Wall. It has a few good songs, but its bad points are really, really bad.
AMLOR opens with “Signs of Life”, an unfocused, meandering, but undeniably Floydian instrumental. This is followed by “Learning to Fly”, the big single off the album. I was never the biggest fan of this song, as it feels like a ton of ‘80s cheese, but it’s better than anything other than “Not Now John” off The Final Cut. For as much as I criticize the bluntness of Waters’s lyrics, he’s miles better than Gilmour with words, and even Gilmour’s outside help can’t write much of anything compelling.
Jesus, The Final Cut really set the bar low. At least I can write about the individual tracks on AMLOR.
“The Dogs of War” is one hell of a mixed bag. It’s got a simple but imposing string motif the lends an air of doom and gloom. Gilmour’s vocal performance is strong, and the song’s overall starkness works well in its first half. But then the drums come in, and with them, super cheesy organ, guitar, and saxophone, all of which only cheapen the experience.
“One Slip” starts off as a pretty cool Mike Oldfield song, but it quickly turns into typical late-’80s art-schlock. There are some neat musical ideas here, but there’s too much bloat and gloss to make it worthwhile.
“On the Turning Away” sounds like an outtake from The Wall, and I emphatically do not mean that as a compliment. It’s not bad, but it’s overly sentimental and too long. “Yet Another Movie” contrasts this quality by being needlessly grim and solemn, but I’ll take that as an improvement.
The Vocoded spoken word of “A New Machine” is oddly alluring; it’s disappointing that it doesn’t lead to anything interesting. Gilmour’s got a great voice, and feeding it through this synth makes for a unique atmosphere. But nothing special comes of it.
“Terminal Frost” is pure garbage, but “Sorrow” is pretty cool. Imposing, icy guitar looms over everything, and that harsh sterility is used to build ambiance. Sequenced synthesizers, understated rhythm guitar, and distant vocals are all hallmarks of Gilmour-Floyd (Gilmoyd? Gilmoyd.), and this is one of the highlights of this particular lineup.
The tour for AMLOR was an immense success, and with Roger Waters’s legal failures, Gilmour et al felt more at ease when early jamming sessions took place in 1993. Gilmour, Mason, and Wright were joined by session musician Guy Pratt on bass.
The Division Bell was released in 1994 and is unquestionably the strongest of Floyd’s three post-Waters albums. Rick Wright rejoined the band as a full member, and his contributions are both noticeable and appreciated.
The Division Bell, though, like many albums from the 1990s, is way, way too long. No longer constrained by the roughly 45 minutes you could comfortably fit on an LP, many bands of that era seemed to have been compelled to pump out hour-plus releases simply because they could. Just because a CD can hold 80 minutes, that doesn’t mean you need to put 80 minutes of music on a CD.
This is immediately evident with the opener, “Cluster One”. I get what they were going for, but this five-minute piece could have easily been shortened to one minute.
“What Do You Want from Me” is passable, kinda funkyish, and sorta-prog. (Look, prog was not in good shape in 1994.) The soulful background singers and over-the-top guitar flourishes sound a bit silly now, but in context, it’s not bad.
“Poles Apart” is delightfully varied. The folkiness of the guitar is a nice change of pace, and the lyrics are some of Gilmour’s better work. Bits could be seen as addressing either Roger Waters or Syd Barrett.
“Marooned” won Pink Floyd a Grammy for the first (and only) time, but Rush really should have won that year. The Simpsons was correct in its Grammy commentary. It’s a strong, melodic instrumental, but it suffers from being culturally overhyped. Gilmour’s guitarwork is overdone, and Mason’s drumming is too restrained. The keyboard playing feels just (w)right, though.
Let’s skip “A Great Day for Freedom”. That song sucks. “Wearing the Inside Out” isn’t amazing. It’s a bit slow, and the saxophone is a bit much. However, it’s Rick Wright’s last lead vocal performance, and his first since “Stay” on Obscured by Clouds. (He shared vocal duties on “Time” and provided backing vocals on multiple songs on Wish You Were Here.) All things considered, this bit of melodrama is one of the better cuts on this record.
“Take It Back” should have been taken back, and “Coming Back to Life” should never have been given life in the first place. Both suffer from many late-’80s/early-’90s pop-rock ills and offer nothing new or interesting.
“Keep Talking” is pretty cool, and it features a fitting guest bit from Stephen Hawking‘s vocal synthesizer. It’s jazzy yet spacy, but the soulful backup singers come off as something of a gimmick. “Lost for Words” isn’t very strong, so let’s skip that as well.
The Division Bell closes on “High Hopes”, which was recorded after the rest of the album was completed. It’s an overwrought but enjoyable cut. It makes multiple, conscious allusions to past Pink Floyd songs and albums. I can’t denounce this song, but I can’t fully endorse it either. I like this song, but it feels like it’s trying too hard, it’s too clever for its own good, and it’s too self-aware.
Following the tour in support of The Division Bell, Pink Floyd went on hiatus. There was a one-show reunion in 2005 for the Live 8 charity concert, where Roger Waters joined the other three on stage for the first time since the tour supporting The Wall. Syd Barrett passed away in 2006, and Rick Wright also died in 2008.
In 2014, Pink Floyd announced The Endless River, composed primarily of instrumental outtakes and experiments recorded during the Division Bell sessions. A small number of additions were made in 2013 to complete the album.
When this was announced, I set my expectations low. Gilmour had proven himself to be an inconsistent songwriter, and the prospect of something stitched together from leftover bits did not leave me optimistic.
My initial reaction to The Endless River was, “Wow, this is surprisingly not-shitty!” I then proceeded to not listen to it again until writing this essay six years later. That should tell you all you really need to know. It’s passable instrumental space rock in small doses, but nothing makes this record noteworthy or worth revisiting. The ungainly length of this record is a hindrance, and it truly lives up to the endlessness promised in its name.
“Things Left Unsaid” is emblematic of many of the sins of this era of Pink Floyd. A dull synth drone acts as the backdrop to a slow, languid guitar line for four-and-a-half minutes. It’s “Cluster One” trying to be the closing moments of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. “It’s What We Do” is an improvement, insofar as it has a pulse. This again feels like a weak, sterile attempt to recreate moments off “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. With this being an instrumental album, Roger Waters’s presence isn’t missed. He was never a standout bassist, as I’ve mentioned previously, and his playing almost always bled into the background as Wright and Gilmour took the lead. This album’s flaccid opening movement closes with the brief “Ebb and Flow”, which is all ebb and no flow.
“Sum” is the first place where the album does anything interesting. Wright’s organ stutters in a way which evokes many of Floyd’s best songs, including “Astronomy Domine”. It’s too long and lacks direction, but I’ll take aimless jamming over aimless airiness. “Skins” is a callback to early cuts like “A Saucerful of Secrets” and “Up the Khyber” with Nick Mason’s distinct, tom-heavy drumming style taking the lead. When a drum solo is the strongest cut on an album so far, that’s usually not a good sign. “Anisina” is too sweet, and it feels like generic background music to be used in a heartwarming scene on a made-for-TV movie. I also hate the tone of the saxophone on this song.
Another brief, ambient piece—“The Lost Art of Conversation”—doesn’t do much beyond occupy two minutes of time, but “On Noodle Street” is one of the better tracks on The Endless River. It’s not particularly good in absolute terms, mind you, but enough happens on this brief cut to keep me interested. It’s mellow and jazzy, but my ultimate assessment is simply “inoffensive.”
“Night Light” harbors some darker, minor-key tones, and “Allons-y” finally gets something going with its bouncing rhythm and a guitar line that could have been one of the better songs on The Wall. “Autumn ‘68” is a pointless mini-fugue which leads back into the second half of “Allons-y”. “Talkin’ Hawkin’” features more vocal snippets from Stephen Hawking, and it’s nice that this song has enough percussion to maintain an identifiable beat.
“Calling”, which opens side 4 of this album, is an interesting collection of moody synthesizers. This one could have been workshopped into something better, but there are nuggets of good ideas here. “Eyes to Pearls” stays in the same neighborhood but with a bit more muscle, and “Surfacing” is one of the rare cuts to feel like a real song.
The one song with vocals—“Louder Than Words”—closes out The Endless River. It’s a pretty typical Gilmour-era ballad. Soulful background singers in the chorus feel like a crutch, and the instrumentation doesn’t do much to grab the listener. Giving credit where credit is due, the closing guitar solo is quite good.
Looking on this record with relatively fresh eyes, I find its immense bloat and frequent aimlessness hobble any other redeeming qualities. It isn’t actively bad in most cases, but it’s frequently downright anodyne. Oftentimes, boring is worse than bad. Ummagumma‘s studio disc is an ungodly, unfocused morass, but they at least were trying weird and different things. The Endless River is endlessly safe. It was a disappointing, unnecessary way for Pink Floyd to wrap up their career.
Part VI: TL;DR and Ranking
Oh jeeze, that was a long one.
Pink Floyd is one of my absolute favorite bands. Few musical acts have put out so much high-quality work, and even fewer have had comparable cultural impact. The band experienced astronomical highs and abysmal lows. They never really got their mojo back after Animals (and especially after The Wall), but most releases offer something interesting.
Not included in the ranking below are Pink Floyd’s many weird non-album releases, most Barrett-era singles, or the work they did for Zabriskie Point.
- The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) (100/100)
- Animals (1977) (94/100)
- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) (90/100)
- Wish You Were Here (1975) (85/100)
- Meddle (1971) (82/100)
- Atom Heart Mother (1970) (80/100)
- Obscured by Clouds (1972) (79/100)
- A Saucerful of Secrets (1968) (65/100)
- More (1969) (62/100)
- The Wall (1979) (59/100)
- Relics (1971) (54/100)
- The Division Bell (1994) (51/100)
- A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) (44/100)
- Ummagumma (studio disc) (1969) (38/100)
- The Endless River (2014) (35/100)
- The Final Cut (1983) (12/100)