I should start out by saying that I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan. There are many bands that I like who have a big back catalog of albums, but very few who were as consistently good as Pink Floyd. With most other bands I can point out at least an album or two that they've put out that just weren't very good. But Floyd, despite line-up changes and internal squabbling, have always managed to put out good albums. Sure, you can point to one or two here and there and say they're not as strong as the band's best work, but there honestly isn't a single Pink Floyd disc that I'd want to get rid of. I love the 60s psychedelic early singles and debut album led by the mad genius of Syd Barrett. There's a lot of good stuff in the post-Barrett era when Gilmour joined as the guitarist and the band attempted to continue in that psychedelic vein. Some of the movie soundtrack stuff isn't their best, but it has its charms and I'd hold Obscured by Clouds up alongside the band's finest work. Meddle pointed the way towards the band's "classic era" which blossomed into Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. I've listened to Dark Side so many times that I've pretty much got it memorized. I had that album playing in the delivery room when my daughter was born, that's how much I like it (after the delivery, the doctor turned to me and said "that music was nice, what was it?"). I'm also a big fan of the "Waters era" when Roger gradually took over the band - I even love The Final Cut.
And then we come to the acrimonious split, when Waters and Gilmour just couldn't stand each other anymore and spent more time in court battling each other than in a studio making music. Out of that wreckage, Gilmour emerged with the Floyd name and kept making music. As a fan who got into the band in the mid-80s, it was pretty much impossible for me not to like Momentary Lapse of Reason, and even now I still enjoy that one. But for some reason, The Division Bell never really grabbed me - the supporting tour was fantastic, and there are parts of the album that I like, but if I had to pick a least favorite Pink Floyd disc, that might be it (actually it's probably a toss-up between Division Bell and Atom Heart Mother).
When I heard a few months ago that the Gilmour-Floyd was going to release a new album, you can imagine that I was pretty excited about the prospect. But then I heard that it was going to be comprised of outtakes from the Division Bell sessions, and that excitement was quickly dampened.
What I didn't know at the time was that during recording of The Division Bell, the band had recorded over twenty hours of song sketches and jams. The most song-oriented stuff got polished up and became Division Bell. Just for fun, one of the recording engineers edited together an hour of the more atmospheric, instrumental parts of those jam sessions into an "ambient" album that they called The Big Spliff. It turned out so well that there was serious consideration given to releasing it as a companion album to Division Bell, but in the end they decided not to do so. Which is a shame, because I think I would have liked Spliff better than what they did release. If they had somehow edited the two together into a double album, it might have been one of Floyd's better releases.
Instead the "ambient" tapes were shelved and sat in the archives for close to two decades. Then, following the death of keyboardist Rick Wright, Gilmour remembered those tapes. Since Wright had contributed a lot to them, Dave thought it might make for a fitting tribute to Rick if they were to go over those recordings and craft one final Pink Floyd album out of them. As it turned out, Gilmour along with drummer Nick Mason and a handful of session players and producers ended up using those tapes as a starting point but then re-recorded some things, added some new things, edited creatively, tweaked here and there...and the end result was this new album The Endless River.
So how is the album? I've read a bunch of reviews that have ranged from "pointless noodling and a complete waste of time" to "a classic matching the band's best work". I don't know if I'd go as far as the latter, but I think it's easily the best thing the post-Waters version of the band has put out. I wonder if the "pointless noodling" crowd would have liked the album better if it had been presented as four side-long suites instead of 18 short, individually-named tracks arranged in groups as "Sides 1-4". To me, the way this album was constructed isn't that far removed from how they cobbled together the twenty minute "Echoes" (one of my favorite songs) from various unrelated bits they came up with in the studio, or the multi-sectioned "Shine On You Crazy Diamond".
The other criticism that I've seen most often leveled against the album is that doesn't have enough lyrics, and is lacking in melody. Heck, I heard a professional music critic on NPR claim that while the album has all the Floyd trademarks, it "has no melody", which makes me wonder how someone getting paid to talk about music could not know what melody is. He further complained about the lack of lyrics, which seems to be a trend with professional music critics - they just want to tell you what the lyrics mean, they could care less about the actual music. Probably a bunch of frustrated English majors.
I have to admit that if lyrics are high on your priority list, then this probably isn't an album for you. While there's a bit of talking here and there, the only track with any singing is the last one, "Louder Than Words". But if you like Pink Floyd's style of grand, sweeping melodic soundscapes and music that can transport you to another world, then this album is a must have.
As mentioned above, the album is structured as if it were a double vinyl release. Each track on a "side" segues smoothly into the next, with the only breaks coming between sides. Side one contains "Things Left Unsaid", "It's What We Do" and "Ebb and Flow". This group probably sounds the most like old Floyd, specifically the Wish You Were Here album. They could have released this as a long-lost alternate version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", and no one would have questioned it. It starts very, very slowly and atmospherically, with waves of synthesizers overlaid by a clip of Rick Wright talking about communications within the band, making it clear that this is both a tribute to Rick, and a continuation of the lyrical themes of Division Bell. Gilmour chips in with a quote about the band fighting a lot but still working things out. Eventually the music becomes a dead ringer for "Diamond", until it finally glides gracefully to a mellow, ambient conclusion that mirrors how it began. Good, good stuff.
Side two is comprised of "Sum", "Skins", "Unsung" and "Anisina". It starts off fairly mellow, building up into a sequenced-sounding organ riff that will sound very familiar to those who have heard Division Bell. Gilmour's guitar and the drums soon kick in and the song quickly becomes the most energetic thing on the album thus far. The drums take center stage in the "Skins" section, which is practically a drum solo. I've seen a few people comment that they didn't know Mason still had anything like that in him, but if you watch the videos on the blu-ray disc (more on that below), I think Mason had a good bit of help. The closing section, "Anisina", sounds exactly like "Us and Them" at first, and doesn't stray far from that song's chords and melody. The liner notes credit that song to the 2014 sessions, and the blu-ray shows Gilmour playing it on piano, which makes me wonder why they felt the need to include a new song that's so similar to something they've done before. A minor quibble.
"The Lost Art of Conversation", "On Noodle Street", "Night Light", "Allons-y (1)", "Autumn '68", "Allons-y (2)" and "Talkin' Hawkin'" make up side three. They're all fairly brief instrumental sketches, all under two minutes except for the last track which is three and a half minutes long. Of the four sides, this is probably the one that gels together the least, with the exception of the Allons tracks meshing well with "Autumn '68". The Allons pieces sound like an alternate, slightly more relaxed version of "Run Like Hell" from The Wall. I didn't know this while listening to the album, but the keyboard solo piece titled "Autumn '68" was apparently a Rick Wright performance that was actually recorded in 1968 during a soundcheck or something like that. Nice. The side closes with some of Stephen Hawking's digital voice synthesizer discussing the importance of communications. I'm guessing they had those recordings left over from the original Division Bell sessions and didn't go record more in 2014, but who knows.
The album proper concludes with side four's "Calling", "Eyes to Pearls", "Surfacing" and "Louder Than Words". It starts out with, you guessed it, some atmospheric keyboards, over which Gilmour's guitar (I think) makes some scratchy, metallic sounds that remind me of the recent album he collaborated on with the band The Orb. "Eyes to Pearls" is a slow-moving, mellow piece driven by some spaghetti-western sounding acoustic guitar from Gilmour. "Surfacing" is a perfectly named upbeat number that gently pulls the listener up from the mellow space rock that preceded it and gets you ready for the big finale song "Louder Than Words". I have to admit that I'm not that wild about the song, especially coming at the end of such a grandiose Floyd album, but it's not bad. The lyrics could be interpreted as being about a long-married, fighting couple who know that deep down that they're better off together, but I've also seen it attributed to the band themselves, who continue to make great music despite all the fighting they've done over the years. Personally, I like to think it's a commentary on those who complain about the album being mostly instrumental - pointing out that the music itself speaks louder than words.
There are two versions (maybe more) of the album available - I bought the "deluxe" version that comes with a bonus blu-ray disc. That disc includes the full album's audio in higher-than-CD resolution, plus a 5.1 surround sound mix of the album in two different formats (DTS and Dolby Digital). I've only had a chance to listen to the 5.1 mix once so far, but I made the most of it - turned the lights out, put on the lava lamp, centered the couch between the 5 speakers, cranked up the volume and just drifted off while listening. It was fantastic.
The bonus disc also includes six videos of the recording sessions: a different take of "Anisina", a very brief untitled piece, two sections of something called "Evrika" (which eventually became "Wearing the Inside Out" on Division Bell), a piece called "Nervana" and the full six minute performance of "Allons-y" that was excerpted for the two shorter tracks on side three. The Allons track makes the bonus disc worth having all by itself, in my opinion. "Nervana" is also interesting in that it's probably the meanest, heaviest sounding thing Floyd have recorded since "The Nile Song" on the soundtrack to More.
Finally, the bonus disc includes three audio-only tracks. One of them is "Nervana", which I think is exactly the same performance as the video version, which makes its inclusion as an audio-only track seem kind of pointless. The other two are cryptically titled "TBS9" and "TBS14", leading to speculation that they may be excerpts from the original The Big Spliff recording. No one seems to know for sure. Interestingly, before my physical copy of the album arrived in the mail, I used Amazon's auto-rip feature to listen to the album on my Kindle. They tacked the three audio bonus tracks onto the end of the playlist, and I didn't realize until the CD arrived that they weren't actually part of the album. They blend in pretty well, and make a nice "coda" after the lyrical track. I'm not sure why they weren't included on the CD since there's plenty of room for them (the full album only is only about 50 minutes long). The only reason I can think of is that so fans would be forced to buy the more expensive blu-ray set. Curse you, greedy music industry!
All in all, I have to say that I'm very pleasantly surprised by this album. It has all the trademark Floyd trappings - layers of keyboards, soaring guitar, pulsing percussion and great improvisations cobbled together into epic compositions. Pretty much everything but Waters' cynical lyrics (not that there's anything wrong with Waters' cynical lyrics - I love 'em). The Endless River is far better than I had any right to expect from Pink Floyd at this stage of the game, and I'm really happy that there's so much of Wright's playing on this one.
Gilmour has pretty much said that this will be the last Pink Floyd release, apart from any future hits compilations or archival releases (come on guys, I know you've got some pre-Dark Side live recordings hidden away somewhere). If this does turn out to be the final Pink Floyd studio album, I'd say it's a fitting ending. Certainly a better one than Division Bell would have been.