The In-Between States
Last night, attempting to adjust to waking up at 5:30 a.m. after a week straight of night shifts, I fell into a strange form of REM sleep that occurred while I was physically aware of my lying in bed while tossing and turning. As I felt the back of the pillow on my head, I also was trying in vain to fix broken furniture for the television character Maude, or stumbling into a murder scene that gets quickly hushed-up in an intricate conspiracy. It was a strange encounter with the liminal state between the conscious and the subconscious. I mention this because Gong, the highly experimental progressive rock/jazz-rock band formed by ex-Soft Machine member Daevid Allen, spent its early years in this same realm. Angel’s Egg, the second part of the thoroughly oblique Radio Gnome Invisible saga, is one of the best explorations of the tenuous connection between waking logic and internal, dreamlike logic.
Angel’s Egg, in some respects, is the result of highly talented musicians playing complex and difficult music. This is not the sound of, say, the modern day Olivia Tremor Control, where the experimentation is somewhat loose and disorganized (with mostly beautiful and powerful results). Each of these tracks feature solid melodic structure, downright catchy vocal numbers, and intricate jazz improvisation. The record is structured quite well; it almost convinces the listener that they are actually listening to a genuine “rock opera” in terms of momentum. It begins with a lengthy quasi-spiritual instrumental, in the vein of “Maggot Brain”, which is suddenly interrupted by a very clear pop-rock number, “Sold to the Highest Buddha”. Longer songs are connected with brief instrumental bridges and brief solos, and the album proper concludes with a trio of authentic pop numbers that seem to mark the emergence of the album from sort of a freeform collage into a solid, if eccentric, rock and roll album. It holds together quite well as a listening experience.
However, looking at the individual parts, one realizes that the album is not very coherent at all. It merely takes on the appearance of coherence. The album reflects the fractured, indeed incomprehensible narrative that the liner notes promise the album is about. (Here’s an excerpt, to get a sense of the kind of classic British nonsense literature that fuels this album’s story: “Zero flops on to a handy waterbed and as if through rising water he sees his head coming out of his navel on the end of a long silver neck”.) Songs will break out into random bunches of noises. Songs are often followed by entirely inappropriate follow-ups. For instance, the calm reverie of the quasi-mythical “Prostitute Poem” is suddenly followed by a burst of beer hall sing-a-long (“Givin My Luv to You”). Other songs hardly seem connected to themselves, as solid melodies fall apart into chaos and back again. The mood is either druggy and slow, or chipper and fast, giving the listener little chance to settle down. Angel’s Egg somehow combines the tranquil spirituality of, say, Tangerine Dream, with the raucous satire and unpredictable nature of the Mothers of Invention. The album tip-toes between that thin line that separates the sacred and the profane.
What keeps the album from being an indulgent mess is the sheer quality of music. Gong, despite the silliness and unpredictability, was a collective that featured some phenomenal musicians. Daevid Allen was the mad pied piper who provided the inspiration (later Gong albums suffered from his absence), and on this outing he is joined by the legendary Steve Hillage, who provides some frighteningly savage riffs that help break up Allen’s occasional sidesteps into pure hippy-dippiness. The rest of this incarnation of Gong is not as famous, but they each have their turn to shine throughout the album. Multi-instrumentalist Didier Malherbe, in particular, provides countless highlights with his almost free-form explorations of the saxophone, flute, and other assorted wind instruments. Tracks like the gorgeous “Flute Salad” prove that Gong never needed to rely on strict song structures to succeed.
However, Gong does follow strict song structures on the concluding three songs: “Love Is How Y Make It”, “I Never Glid Before”, and the Zappa-esque titled “Eat That Phone Book Coda”. “Love Is How Y Make It” relies on a childlike melody, echoed on a toy-like xylophone, and a simple hummable tune. In the midst of all the instrumental madness that graces the rest of Angel’s Egg, “Love Is How Y Make It” finds a moment of simple grace (the track is repeated on the bonus tracks in an a capella version, showing that the song works even without the band’s virtuoso performance). The woozy “I Never Glid Before” manages somehow to create the illusion of a hard rock performance using, of all things, multi-layered woodwinds. The concluding “Eat That Phone Book Coda” is kind of like a collage of discarded songs that also works as a unified whole, sort of like Angel’s Egg in miniature.
Gong was rarely better than it was on Angel’s Egg, where Allen’s whimsy was tempered by the band’s professionalism, and vice-versa. This is progressive rock for those with a sense of the absurd. With new remastering, worthwhile bonus tracks, and expanded (yet still quite oblique) liner notes, the latest reissue of Angel’s Egg is the best possible version of one of the lost classics of the 1970’s.