At last the eagerly awaited studio album is with us, and as always there is a sense of anticipation with any new release from the Camel camp. Over more recent years it comes with the reassurance that, although the material will be new to the ears, that it will encompass their now customary warm and familiar essence. A Nod and a Wink is no exception to this rule, and confirms once again why Camel have and always will be one of the leading exponents within the progressive rock genre. The tracks may have mellowed over the years, but still they contain those elements that first moulded the Camel sound, perhaps a fitting legacy to all the members, past and present.
So for Camel's first studio album since their 1999 release of Rajaz, Andy Latimer has re-assembled the excellent line-up from their 2000 tour of Guy LeBlanc [keyboards & backing vocals], Denis Clement [drums] and old stalwart friend Colin Bass [bass guitar & backing vocals]. Additional musicians are Terry Carleton [drums 2 & 6 - percussion, backing vocals 7] and J R Johnston [backing vocals 7]. As with the tour and subsequent live album, The Paris Collection, the assembled musicians play cohesively together and are in totally empathy with the music.
The title track opens the album, sound effects setting the scene of a lazy summer evening, a steam train leaving a quiet country station as a hypnotic nursery rhyme tune meters out the time. The melody is carried by the flute in this beautiful opening section and precedes Latimer's dulcet voice. We are told of a small child at bedtime and of thoughts that pass through the subconscious mind during slumber. The tempo is picked up as the band joins in, the song develops through a series of lighter and darker passages. A strongly themic song, characteristically cogent playing from all, and brief solo passages forming the mainstay of the track.
Simple Pleasures, as its title might infer, is a gentle track, the opening section predominantly vocal with the instrumentation fairly subdued. There is an indefinable drive throughout the track, a trademark of Camel - firstly in the early moodier section this is accompanied by some tasteful fretless bass, discreet percussion and an ever present tabla. And secondly, this continues in the more upbeat latter part of the song, with a sort of held back groove, a common trait in some of Camel's later work, and with some fine craftsman-like bluesy guitar from Andy.
The gentle opening section is continued in the next song, on this occasion the accompaniment for the vocals are in the form of acoustic guitars which act as a precursor for the other instruments. The distinct folk rock feel to this track did conjure similarities in the instrumentation to Gordon Giltrap circa the Perilous Journey era. It did seem a little odd to offer any correlation to other material whilst writing this article, as normally the cross reference would be to Camel themselves. It should be noted that any comparison is intended only as a point of interest rather than any direct inference. A Boy's Life continues the underlying theme of the album, reflecting upon our young country lad as he views summers past and present.
We now move onto Fox Hill and I couldn't help thinking by this point in the album, that although Andy Latimer has spent many years now, living in the States, how the typically English notion has never left Camel's material. A jaunty song with a bouncing 12/8 feel, full of voice characterisation, possibly in a Peter Gabriel fashion but more reminiscent of another quintessentially English band from the seventies Stackridge. The subject matter of this ditty being a fox hunt, our boy, high on his horse, and chasing the "Tod" across the meadows - the music captures the mood of the chase superbly. Much to delight of the boy and the fox, no capture is made, the fun is only in the sport itself.
The balmy, late summer, country air, prevalent throughout the album is continued in the next two tracks, firstly with the ballad-like The Miller's Tale. A gentle acoustic guitar and vocal number with carefully chosen string, choral and woodwind sounds from Guy LeBlanc, played towards the close. The orchestration and timbres so aptly depicts the scene of our "two friends" making their way home at the end of the day. Squigely Fair again is set in early autumn (fall) and captures the surroundings of a country fayre. A very Camel-like song with a distinct 6/4 meter to it, harmony themes between guitar and keyboards and some excellent Tullian flute from Andy. Principally an instrumental, however there are some voice characterisations as we are all asked to "board the train".
For Today touches on the tragedy of September 11th last year, opening with an almost hymn like quality, led by piano, voice and light band instrumentation. The piece evolves, gradually unfolding with Andy Latimer's passionate guitar soloing. The first in a more bluesy style very much indicative of Dave Gilmour - I tread lightly here, making comparisons between giants. The second played over an anthemic choral background is more in the traditions of Latimer himself. Although the track contains vocals, constructionally it reminded me very much of Ice. A truly emotive ending to A Nod and a Wink and certainly brought a welling of emotion from me.
It is probably evident by now that Camel rank very highly in my list of esteemed bands. For Today has already become a favourite track, along with The Miller's Tale and Squigely Fair. Andy Latimer is as tasteful as ever and the greater use of the flute within the the tracks was an added bonus. Colin Bass, the backbone of "the beast" for many years now, adds his own inimitable presence to the recording. Denis Clement's playing is crisp and precise throughout and last but not least Guy LeBlanc who follows in the traditions of Camel's previous excellent keyboard players. A DPRP recommended from me.
30 years on and Camel, or better still, Andrew Latimer and Colin Bass, are at it again. Camel have been one of progressive rock's unsung heroes, never actually attaining the heights of many bands of their generation. However, they never sold out and have till this very day maintained a solid fanbase with their professional polished brand of progressive rock. Also aiding Latimer and Bass on this release are Guy LeBlanc (Nathan Mahl) on keyboards and Denis Clement and Terry Carleton on drums.
Musically it seems that with the passage of time, Camel have mellowed out tremendously while their performance has become ever more precise and polished, maybe too much so. Possibly a comparison I could make to the music of the Camel of today would be Pink Floyd on The Division Bell. The music is less adventurous, yet everything is so calculated and smooth that there is little room for improvisation, a factor that does not allow the music to actually break out. On the other hand the album still manages to exude a warmth via the lush keyboard filled production coupled with Latimer's mellow voice and his delicate guitar work, which closely resembles that of David Gilmour (to cite Pink Floyd again!).
A factor which has definitely endeared me to this album is the "Britishness" that surfaces at various intervals throughout the album, something which I felt was missing from the last album, Rajaz. This appears in various guises, possibly most notably with the folk tinges that sprout occasionally. The flute introduction of the title track, A Nod And A Wink immediately sets the tone of the album and what could be described as a return to the roots of the band, which after all is celebrating its 30th Anniversary.
As I already mentioned, the mellow nature of the album is impressive and I feel that this is one of the main reasons why this album should strike a chord with most if not all progressive rock lovers. Simple Pleasures is quite simply one of the most delightful ballads I have come across this year. A Boy's Life has some of the most heartfelt guitar work I have heard in along time and is classic proof that a guitarist does not require a flurry of notes to make a point, when one or two soulful notes can say it all.
With Fox Hill the band, or better still Latimer, betrays his roots with the vocals taking on a strong English accent in the description of a fox hunt, this time from the perspective of a cunning fox who gleefully leads the pack and horse on a wild goose chase. On this track the music attains a strength, and rock nature, which had been missing for some time from the Camel repertoire and acts as a delightful breaker with keyboards and guitar playing off each other impeccably to then join each other in a wistful duet.
With The Miller's Tale, the music returns to the more traditionally melancholic nature of Camel. In fact such is their music that I find it strange that bands such as Coldplay and even Radiohead have never mentioned Camel as being of inspiration to their compositions. Squigely Fair is the only instrumental on the album, with the flute being a mainstay of the proceedings on what is a most pleasant track. Though an instrumental track, it seems that even here the band could not leave out a British touch with a sparse vocal of a ticket seller surfacing midway through the track. The lush orchestration gives this track that something special, though it is the extensive use of woodwind instruments which surfaces on many a track that seems to give an added dimension to the music of Camel.
The events of September 11th (2001) sparked off a reaction in everybody and it was to be expected that a wave of albums released this year would have some form of dedication to those who died in the atrocities. The closing number, For Today, was dedicated to "the courageous spirit of the High Diver" whose actions seem to have affected most artists, together with the heroic action of the firemen (Neil Young also dedicated Let's Roll from his Are You Passionate? album for the same actions). As can be expected the track is a moving one and once again the most likely comparison I can make to Latimer's guitar work is that of David Gilmour. This track is the closest the band come to what some might term as bombastic, though it never goes overboard as the orchestration involved fits in perfectly with the mood to create a fitting closer to an excellent album.
I have always had a soft spot for Camel and thus must admit to being slightly biased when reviewing this album. Critics of the band have many times criticised the band for not being adventurous and bold, especially during the times when progressive rock was being ruled by bands that were taking rock music to the limits of pretentiousness. Camel have always (or at least nearly always!) stuck to a musical formula which has won them numerous fans worldwide. Placid and mellow with the music always moving at a seemingly low pace giving a sense of tranquility and peacefulness to the listener, A Nod And A Wink has maintained this Camel tradition. It might not be their strongest album to have been recorded, yet it comes pretty close. Like good wine, Camel seem to get better with time. Congratulations on your 30th Anniversary, Camel. May there be many more of these!
It is always a thrill to listen to a new album of one of your most admired bands. In this case it was a
special treat, as it is the first time that such a progressive rock institute as Camel had the kindness
to actually provide us with review material, which saved me a trip to the local record store (thanks
Camel Productions!). The first thing one notices when receiving a new release is its cover. I've never
been a great fan of the Camel covers (though some of them are quite stylish, others are a bit kitsch). In
this case, in my opinion, it's plain ugly, I'm sorry to say. The picture on the inside of the jewel-case
and also printed on the CD itself, is much nicer (same style, but with a white background).
Then comes the first listening. I remembered Rajaz: I was a bit disappointed at first listening, but eventually the album grew and grew on me and I rated it with a 9 out of 10. And indeed the same effect occurred with this album. The first time I listened to it, I almost fell asleep. I did notice the excellent recording quality (the CD is recorded with HDCD encoding, as was Rajaz) and the abundant use of flute on this album. The only track that immediately hit me in the guts was the last track, For Today, which is dedicated to "the courageous spirit of the High Diver on 11th September". This is one of those spine-shivering Ice-like tracks.
So then the process of growing and nurturing starts. I mostly listen to review albums when riding my bike
on the way to work and back, which is an hour round-trip, exactly the time of most CD's. Last week, Camel
has not left my player. And slowly, slowly you start to appreciate passages of music that escaped you the
first time you heard the album, like Colin Bass' magic on Simple Pleasures or the end of Squigely Fair, or the guitar melody on A
Boy's Live (which will become a Camel classic again). You start to notice how much further back some of
the melodies go than you suspected at first (the first time I heard the album I found it to be very Dust
and Dreams like, but now the references to Nude, The Snow Goose or The Single Factor become more and more
apparent). As an example: the first time you hear the intro of Fox Hill, you think, has Latimer gone mad?
It's like he is singing a kind of kid's song. But then you notice how he has done melodies like this on
the, let's call it "experimental" tracks on I Can See Your House From Here as well, and actually made
these tracks into a more regular Camel track (with even some Selling England By The Pound references).
Most songs start out slowly but contain a couple of excellent solo's (be it guitar, flute or keyboard), which give the tracks the drive they need. It's like with Nude: the feeling you have is that of an album in which nothing happens, which is very quiet, but each time you play it you are surprised again by the action that is still in there. Maybe it's due to the very small role that drums play in Camel's music. They basically add rhythm, but are not used as a tool to add power to the tracks.
Well, I could now start to do a track-by-track review, and tell you which passage reminds me of which other Camel album, and believe me, that could be a lengthy affair ;-). The album is not called A Nod And A Wink for nothing, it's full of Nods and Winks to Camel's past. Latimer also reflects in the booklet to thirty years of Camel (and take a look at the lyrics of Simple Pleasures...). But I believe that would spoil part of the fun of this album. Let every Camel lover pick out these sections for him or herself. However, the fact that after the last notes of For Today, in which I see in my mind how Latimer plays it, facial muscles in a twist, body shaking, like he played the guitar parts of Ice during the last Camel concert in Utrecht, I find myself slowly waking up from the music with tears in my eyes leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that Camel have created another emotional masterpiece.