Pink Floyd – The Endless River
We all have that one band that sums up “good music” in our head. Often they are the first artist that you truly fall in love with, and whose music shapes your tastes for years to come. For me, despite an early fixation with Ronnie James Dio, Pink Floyd epitomise everything great about music. They have an enormous scope throughout their back catalogue, ranging from psychedelic noodling and ambient atmospherics to prog rock epics to pastel folk ballads and pop songs. They have innate instrumental prowess but rarely indulge themselves in pretentiousness and know when to cut a song short and when to let rip. They have some of the best lyrics and concepts in rock music and above all, much like Radiohead in the last decade , they connect to so many people on a personal level and maintain a mass popularity whilst never dumbing down or going for the obvious choices. I love Pink Floyd, unconditionally, and I genuinely wouldn’t be the person that I am today without their madcap influence.
And thus, we come to The Endless River, an album that has its genesis in the unused material of 1994’s The Division Bell. With the help of producers Andy Jackson, Phil Manzanera (of Roxy Music) and Youth (former bassist of Killing Joke) and a raft of additional musicians including long time collaborators Jon Carin and Guy Pratt, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason have combined new passages with those of the late Richard Wright, the keyboard player whose unearthly soundscapes, dreamy organs and jazzy piano accompaniments gave Pink Floyd their distinctive, mellow sound. Missing is Roger Waters, the acebric but brilliant lyricist and bassist whose influence defined albums such as “The Wall” and “Animals”.
The album is divided into four “sides” (literally so in the LP release), each with a continual flow and character a la “Dark Side”. All but one of the eighteen tracks are instrumental, a fact that has somewhat divided reviewers, but for the those of us who have always preferred the more atmospheric, experimental side of Pink Floyd, the elevation of music over lyrics is no bad thing. The result is something more akin to Tangerine Dream than a typical Floyd album, a world building, slow burning collection of tracks that melt into one another and flow like the eponymous river.
Side 1 begins with “Things Left Unsaid”, an atypical Floyd intro with synthesizer burblings, spoken word snippets and a tangible sense of brooding. This flows into the beautiful soft soloing of “It’s What We Do”, which sees some fantastic interplay between Wright’s spectral Hammond organ and brassy synthesizer and Gilmour’s trademark guitar soloing. Nick Mason’s drumming, as ever, is exemplary, with just enough flourishing to show off his skills but never so much as to take space away from his colleagues. The side is rounded off by “Ebb and Flow”, a short piece spotlighting Wright’s electric piano. On the whole this side sounds the most like it’s forebear The Division Bell, with nods to tracks like “Marooned” and “Cluster One”, but it is a good mission statement for the album as a whole and is a natural, if expected, starting point.
The second side, however, has strong echoes (pun intended) of Pink Floyd in their Seventies heyday (despite now in or approaching their seventies). “Sum” sounds rather like “Welocme to the Machine” from “Wish You Were Here”, with a driving synth line, excellent soloing and the sense of direction befitting a conveyor belt. Skins, with its percussion and weird effects, is of similar design to “A Saucerful of Secrets” and parts of the bands legendary Pompeii performance. “Unsung” again sounds somewhat like “Welcome to the Machine”, whilst closing track “Ansina” is an analogue of “Us and Them”. Unfortunately this last track is one of only too not featuring Wright, and despite aping his style stand in pianist Gilmour can’t quite match up to the man himself. It is pleasant enough though and ends the side well, with great sax duelling and guitar soloing galore. Overall a strong side and a welcome return to the sounds that made the band a force in the 1970s.
On side 3, there are immediate comparisons to be made between opener “The Lost Art of Conversation” and the first sections of “Shine On…”, although this time the music resolves itself into something resembling a film score, a very cinematic, rainy track. This morphs into the wonderful, erm, noodling, of “On Noodle Street”, that sounds almost like sunshine peering through the bleak clouds of the previous number. With “Night Light”, we are essentially given a noodle sandwich, as another atmospheric track follows the blueprints laid down in “…Crazy Diamond”. Next, the most catchy track of the album, the “Run Like Hell”-esque “Allons-y (1)”. A driving beat, some funky guitar and some classic soloing from Gilmour, the track is split in two by another standout, “Summer ’68”, a recording of Wright playing the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ in the late 1960s. This is a majestic track, supposedly part of a symphony Wright never quite finished, and showcases what again the talent of a man who helped define the role of keyboards in rock throughout the 20th century and beyond. Aftr another balst of “Allons-y (2)”, we finish with the much talked about “Talkin’ Hawkin”. An obvious call back to “Keep Talking” from “The Division Bell”, with the same Steven Hawking sample in place, it still manages to craft its own melancholy path. Probably the strongest side, side 3 closes to weird, creepy strains of synth atmosphere and guitar that really get under the skin. Overall the most varied and most memorable side, it really is an smorgasbord of styles.
The final side begins with “Calling”, a very similar track to “Signs of Life” from the Floyd’s weakest album, “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. This one is an improvement on the original though, and very effective in establishing the mood of side 4 as a whole. “Eyes to Pearls” is a twangy Gilmour piece that sounds oddly like the theme to a spacey western movie, and is complimented by some of Mason’s signature tribal drumming, reminiscent of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. Acoustic guitars and washes of synthesizer strings are complimented by wordless vocals on “Surfacing”, a track not dissimilar to some of Gilmour’s solo work such as “On an Island”. This track essentially lays the groundwork for the finale and only true song of the album, “Louder than Words”. Taken on its own as a single, it is far from Pink Floyd’s best work, and seems a little limp. However, after the build-up of the album, it is marvellous, even if the lyrics may not be absolutely top notch. It brings the album to a natural end and returns to the 1990s-era styling of side 1. It may not be as strong a final Floyd song as “High Hopes” has been for the last two decades, but it rounds of this album nicely, and this, more than any other Pink Floyd album before it, really must be heard in its entirety.
So, does “The Endless River” stand up to the rest of Pink Floyd’s stellar back catalogue. There really can’t be a straight answer to that, because this album essentially is that back catalogue, reformed, redressed and summarised over the course of an hour. Essentially, it is best thought of as a medley and reprise of the band’s history rather than an entirely new concept, an evaluation of their myriad phases and, most poignantly, a final chance to highlight the departed Richard Wright doing what he did best. It is an album for Pink Floyd fans, an album for the band itself and a celebration, a eulogy and an epitaph. It is a great listen on a rainy day, an album to lose yourself in and in many ways like looking at old photographs, remembering old friends. It is also the most pre-ordered album of all time, removing One Direction from the top-spot, and that, in itself, is a good enough reason to justify its existence.