Album Review: Camel – The Snow Goose

Or as I like to call it, “One Of The Best Albums You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”

1975.  The last gasp of the Progressive Rock era.   Between 1974 and 1975 King Crimson broke up, Yes released Tales From Topographic Oceans (a disastrous example of the self-indulgence of Progressive Rock),  Peter Gabriel left Genesis, and the Moody Blues went on hiatus.  The genre had clearly passed its peak.  And with Punk Rock gaining steam in New York and London its days were clearly numbered.  Nevertheless, with the movement in its death throes 1975 saw the release of one of the best albums of the Progressive Rock eras, (Music Inspired By) The Snow Goose by British band Camel.

Never heard of them?  I’m not surprised.  They had a small amount of success in the UK, and even less in the United States.  In fact, you can’t even find their first two albums on iTunes.  I haven’t even heard them in their entirety, though I am told they are fairly good. But having heard The Snow Goose I’m not quite sure they could compete.  For one thing, the album is entirely instrumental, whereas the other albums contain (weak) vocals.  Advantage Snow Goose.  And secondly The Snow Goose has a central theme (the album is based on the 1941 novella The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico).  As such it shies away from the usual bombast of six minute Prog Rock explorations and features shorter pieces that follow the plot of the original story (some are barely one minute in length).

While Camel was by no means the first band to base a concept album on a book, piece of art, or classical piece, this is (from all that I’ve heard) the most understated and, as a result, possibly the most effective.  The album contains many of the things we associate with Prog Rock pomposity, such as lead-flute, the mellotron and the mini-moog.  But they are all used sparingly and without drawing too much attention to themselves. Orchestration (oftentimes a third-rail for Progressive Rock albums when used incorrectly) is present, but it is kept to a minimum (and is used quite effectively in the song “Friendship”).  The result is an album which effectively follows the plot of the story by creating musical moods.

In terms of influences the album sounds like “pre-Dark Side of the Moon” Pink Floyd circa 1970-1972 (in my opinion their best period).  But where Pink Floyd released good, but incomplete albums during that period, “The Snow Goose” sounds like the offspring of only the good portions of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Meddle and Obscured By Clouds (and as a complete album is better than each of them).  This is a point worth defending, as Pink Floyd fans will point to the innovation of “Atom Heart Mother Suite” or the power of “Echoes.” I would not necessarily disagree with them.  But those are albums of moments.  Good, often great moments.  But sadly the albums also contained weak material (by their standards) that took away from the album as a complete statement.  In my opinion had a band with Pink Floyd’s reputation released this album it would rank among their very best work.

The following clips provide a good example of the quality of the music, though as with most concept albums the songs work better when heard in order and in the original context.  It does not have the acclaim that, say, Close to the Edge has, or the sales that Dark Side of the Moon garnered.  But behind the pretentiousness of most of the Progressive Rock movement, and despite the fact that you’ve probably never heard of the band (if you’re in the United States) there is a very good, and very well realized album here that is extremely pleasant to listen to.

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