CARMEN

OVERVIEW:
The greatest flamenco prog band in the history of rock music. 🙂 That’s right folks – this super weird and obscure Tony Visconti-produced 70s group combined Andalusian sounds with fat juicy prog ones. And apparently they even danced on stage while doing it. Now, that might sound silly to you. And it definitely is silly. And predictably this band runs into lots of problems on its three albums – but it’s mainly in the vocal and lyrics department. As musicians, they completely rock. They’re one of the tightest prog ensembles I’ve ever heard, with a completely incredible rhythm section. And flamenco music is actually a very logical bedfellow for virtuosic prog rock – it’s basically virtuosic folk rock. These guys released one really awesome record – their debut – and two mediocre ones. But I highly recommend the awesome debut to prog fans. I promise you’ll be blown away by some of the playing.

THE ALBUMS:

Fandangos In Space *
Dancing On A Cold Wind
The Gypsies
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FANDANGOS IN SPACE  (1973)

A-

Let’s get something out of way before we go any further: this album is ridiculously cheesy. The vocals are entirely overblown and sometimes remarkably distasteful. The lyrics leave a LOT to be desired, and I’m embarrassed by a great deal of them. If you have even the slightest problem with near-AOR-type vocals or complexity-for-the-sake-of-it, I would stay away from this band. But for the REST of you – and especially for the weathered prog fan who thinks they’ve heard it all – I highly recommend this cheesy record. As a matter of fact, I think this album DESTROYS.  I truly think this is one of the tightest and most rockin’ ensembles from the prog era, challenging even crab’s ass tight units like Yes and Gentle Giant. The Paul Fenton-John Glascock rhythm section sounds like Chris Squire playing with Billy Cobham. It’s just madness how much those two rule on this album. And Tony Visconti’s production has never been better – everything is hot and energetic and in your face. The big sore spot with this band is also it’s main feature in some respects – guitarist/singer/writer David Allen. As a guitarist, he’s fantastic, and I’m very impressed by the way he mixes Flamenco with the more typical prog trappings (though these guys are considerably more muscular and heavy hitting and fusion-y than your average prog band). But as a singer, he almost always over-emotes to the point of Styx-ness, and like I said, he has no concept of subtle or poetic lyrics. Sometimes he’ll come up with an exciting eccentric pop hook, and the band manages some cool harmonies here and there, but my main interest in the group definitely comes from their instrumental virtuosity. And that part of ’em is so stellar that it manages to almost completely stomp out the corny vibe I get from the vocals. This, their debut, is by far their best album – it’s very consistent, and full of spectacular performances. The multi-part “Bulerias” kicks things off, and it’s basically a big juicy mission statement for the band. The band sings in Spanish, then in English, about Gypsies but I could care less what they’re talking about – the band rips it up from every angle. The flamenco elements don’t seem out of place here at all, for it’s a genre that actual fuses quite naturally with prog. They both emphasize frenetic energy grounded by heavy rhythmic density.  The handclaps and foot-stomping add a ton of lift and excitement to the Steve Howe-y guitar lines and powerfully muscular rhythm section. It’s an incredible opener. Next up is the worst lyrical offender – a song I nearly laughed off the stereo when I first heard it. But it grew on me quite a bit, and I can safely call myself a fan of the tune at this point! It’s called “Bullfight,” and it does indeed describe its titular event. “Shouts of Ole” sings David Allen during the “funky” chorus. Whatever – there’s so much awesome playing and prog-grooving on the tune that not even lines like “The Blood Drips From The Bull’s Horns at the end of the Day” can’t turn me off anymore. It’s probably the weakest part of the album, but it’s certainly a lot of fun if you can ride its silly wave. Things pick up immediately with the fantastic moody funk-prog-pop number  “Stepping Stone.” Again, ignore the silly lyrics (and you’re going to have to try REALLY hard on this one with lines like “The Waters Of Hell Run Deep” and “Crocodile Lizards in the Morning Sun”), but the melody and arrangement work great. The title track at the end of the record is probably my favorite song overall – awesome bizarre vocal melody, a ton of insane instrumental passages – again, completely over the top and absurd, but you’d have to be pretty anti-prog to totally dismiss this tune. There are moments on it that sound nearly as bad-ass as the most bad-ass parts of “Close To The Edge.” I haven’t named all the songs (the heavy 7 minute “Looking Outside (My Window)” is another highlight), but the whole album works. Some of the tracks take a little more patience than others, but it’s obvious the band worked their asses off on this entire record. Every note is in place, every moment hits hard, and if it weren’t for the vocal element, I’d consider this a prog classic. In any case, you HAVE to hear to this record if you love that early 70s prog/fusion sound. There are a shitload of obscure prog records masquerading as classics floating around the internet – and they always find a handful of defenders. I generally end up disappointed with those rarities – nothing ever sounds as incredible as the more popular big dogs. But these guys DO. If you don’t believe me, just remember that this album was produced by Tony Visconti right during his Bowie/Bolan/Sparks prime. He must have heard SOMETHING special about these guys.

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DANCING ON A COLD WIND (1974)

B

A bit of a letdown, but not a gigantic one. This is very much a “bits and pieces” sort of album – none of the individual compositions read as fully successful songs, but they’re full of incredible moments. Just when I start losing focus, a completely bad-ass groove will kick in. Or some incredible flamenco interplay and guitar work will chime in for a section. Or perhaps a neat melody will rear it’s brief proggy head before the band pushes off into other territory. The 2nd side of the record highlights this to an even great degree – it’s a song suite broken into little fragments centered around a failed relationship. It doesn’t work nearly as well as the A side, but it has some great moments. As a whole, this record is more of a step down in the writing department than anything else – the playing and production and arranging is still completely impeccable. You might see this is a more “experimental” album than the debut, but I think that’s more due to its more fractured structure and lack of sticky hooks than anything else. Chances are, if you fall in love with the SOUND of the debut, you should check this one out too as it doesn’t really deviate from that sound in any major ways. But I can’t imagine you’ll find it the stronger album. The album starts off incredibly though – the two best overall compositions come right at the top. There’s the near instrumental (always a plus for this band) “Viva Mi Sevill,” with an absurdly bad-ass fuzz bass tone from John Glascock and a series of totally ripping heavy Flamenco prog passages. The brief vocal melody is a riff off a theme from the first record, but the song is more of a killer instrumental suite than anything suite. Then comes the album’s only real “pop” song, “I’ve Been Crying,” which sports a lead vocal from David Allen’s flamenco dancing wife Angela. It’s a solid groovy little prog-pop tune, reminding me a bit of a Savage Rose track. As with nearly all the songs on here, it mixes less exciting passages that push the taste-factor with totally mind-blowing instrumental sections. The other highlight on the A Side is the nearly 7 minute “Purple Flowers,” a proggy epic that I can’t quite get a handle on as a whole. But the main vocal hook is memorable and the band sounds fantastic throughout. The big B side suite is surprisingly weak and way too fractured for me – the only really great moment comes in the middle with two back-to-back pop songs, both under 2 minutes. “The City” sounds a lot like the poppier side of 70s Yes (that swelling mellotron), and “Time (She’s a Lady)” is a total prog-pop tune in the Be Bop Deluxe/Queen style. I’m not too crazy about less distinct material like “People Dressed In Black,” “The Horseman,” and the Angela-sung “Gypsy Girl,” though they all sound nice enough while playing. So get this one if you love the debut – but don’t expect the same roller-coaster ride.

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THE GYPSIES  (1975)

C

Not so good, I’m afraid. The third and final Carmen album is shorter and less conceptual than the first two. It’s also way worse. The band still sounds great, but they’ve pretty obviously put a lot less time into the writing and arranging on this album. Either that or they’ve lost the spark. But whatever the case, I’m not at all surprised they broke up after this one. I can’t say there’s even ONE great track on this, though moments work better than others. The style is essentially the same as before, with the monumentally heavy rhythm section and the crazy flamenco guitars and the over the top vocals. Though to this album’s credit, David Allen does pull back a bit of the vocal histrionics here. But the material sounds so limp and unmemorable – where has the exuberance and energy of the debut gone? Did it run away with a gypsy? So here’s the question: if you love the first two records, or even love the first and sorta like the 2nd like I do…should you even bother with this one? It’s a tough question. There are two decent tracks that get pretty close to the earlier magic – and they’re the two side openers on the original LP, so you have to imagine the band realized they were highlights as well. The album opens with a virtuosic acoustic flamenco passage before breaking into heavy progger “Daylight.” The song sports a hideous vocal melody, so I can’t say I’m putting it on my Carmen mix-tape anytime soon. But it’s a solid and complex arrangement, and parts of the song hit super hard. The other moderate winner, and overall best song on the record, is the epic title track that opens side 2. It’s not particular memorable, but it’s atmospheric and contains some of that jaw-dropping flamenco instrumental prog from the first two records. The vocals are basically irrelevant on that track, which is nice – it’s got a lot of long instrumental passages. The synth/guitar jam at the end might scream “corny Dungeons and Dragons rock” to less discerning ears. But it definitely rocks through the cheese. After those two highlights, only one other track gives me a bit of pleasure without too much apologizing: “Dedicated To Lydia,” a haunting folk song with a pretty melody and tasteful arrangement (for these guys). The rest of the album, sad to say, is almost a total wash. “Shady Lady” has an OK stomping chorus hook, but there’s an AOR quality to the song that totally rubs me the wrong way. “High Time” and “Joy” are both totally unmemorable and indistinct shorter songs. “Sirens of the Sea” has a cool driving riff, and it’s ALMOST a good track – but it’s ruined by the obnoxious lyrics and vocals. At the end of the record we get the dopey sing-along chorus of “Come Back,” which is probably the most generic song Carmen ever produced. And then the album and this band’s career ends with a dull somber synth-acoustic instrumental called “Margarita.’ John Glascock would go off to lay down some bottom with Barrymore Barlow for Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull). Paul Fenton would get into an accident that would take him out of the game for a while (what a bummer! such an amazing drummer) He eventually shows up kicking funky glam ass on the late-70s T.Rex albums. David Allen eventually became a famous photographer – a shame to lose him as a guitar player, but I’m happy he moved away from singing! And that’s all she wrote – another cool band left to the collectors and rock nerds.

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