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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Spirit, "Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus"

"Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus"
Epic (1970)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Throughout Spirit's "Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus," I fully expected the band to break into a 12-minute jam. I'm just stereotyping as usual, but when I listen to a band that operates under the genre of "psychedelia," which employs a wide range of instruments, and is just weird in general, I expect instrumental sessions that are both extended and experimental. In The Mothers of Invention tradition, I suppose. But it never happens here. The longest track here is 5:35, but most come in at the 3:30 range. Spun in a positive light, Spirit is among the most accessible of psychedelic bands.

Related to this, the good news for impatient listeners is that Spirit is also one of the catchiest and hook-driven psychedelic bands, a fact that doesn't hurt when factoring in how listenable it is for mainstreamers. "Mr. Skin" and "Animal Zoo," two singles off the record, illustrate just how true this is. Both feature choruses that happen frequently and are easy to sing along with. Perhaps most important in making the band accessible is the songs' use of groove. Both of the aforementioned singles have the sensation of bass-driven funk, a genre that's never struggled to find mass appeal.

Still, the moments of sensational instrumentalism make the rock fan at my core wonder at the potential for extended jams from the band. Guitarist Randy California (given the "California" nickname by former bandmate Jimi Hendrix) shows skill at employing both excess and moderation. On "Mr. Skin," he opens the track with a simple and effective one-note riff, and closes it with a dose of shred. Drummer Ed Cassidy, nicknamed "Mr. Skin" for his shaved head, was a jazz drummer before joining Spirit. Having played with Cannonball Adderly among others, you know he has the potential for improvisation. Spirit was also noted for its incorporation of horn parts, such as the saxophone that duels with California at the end of "Skin." However the band never had a full-time horn player, an addition that would only fueled my desire for jams.

Much of the psychedelic effect can be attributed to instrument experimentation, such as the Moog sythesizer that opens "Love Has Found A Way." It was a relatively new instrument at the time, and you can tell by listening that whomever is operating it (my guess would be keyboardist John Locke, but not for sure) doesn't have any idea what he's doing, but he's having fun doing it. The theremin also makes an appearance, and vocal layering and studio panning of California's guitar are used to creative effect.

Ultimately, you should probably ignore my calls for Spirit to give more. There have been a good amount of bands that have tried to popularize funk and psychedelia, and have created subpar products in the process. Spirit may be a more efficient distributor of the style, but that's nothing to complain about.

INTERESTING FACT: A band called Led Zeppelin toured as the opener for Spirit in 1968. In 1971, Zeppelin released "Stairway to Heaven." In 1968, Spirit released the instrumental track "Taurus," which is essentially the intro guitar to "Stairway." You decide:

Mr. Skin by Spirit on Grooveshark

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