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Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Prog Rock, Lush Pop
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Kayak fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Kayak fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1973
Overall rating = 12

A magnificent, if at times TOO subtle, prog-pop marriage.

Best song: SEE SEE THE SUN

Track listing: 1) Reason For It All; 2) Lyrics; 3) Mouldy Wood; 4) Lovely Luna; 5) Hope For A Life; 6) Ballet Of The Cripple; 7) Forever Is A Lonely Thought; 8) Mammoth; 9) See See The Sun; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) Still Try To Write A Book; 11) Give It A Name.

Kayak's debut is often hailed as the band's best offering, and it might as well be so - but that doesn't mean this album doesn't have its own problems. It can be clearly seen that the Dutch guys didn't have any particular "progressive vision" of their own; none of the songs on here betray any particularly amazing or unique 'personality', none of the band members are virtuosos, and even the vocals are totally uncool - I was at least hoping for a quirky Dutch accent or something, but for the most part, the lead vocals on these tracks are bland and "un-devoted", if I might say so, and considering that there are at least two alternating lead vocalists (drummer Pim Koopman and frontman/Mellotronist Max Werner), plus other members chime in with backing harmonies all the time, this really doesn't sound all that promising. Basically, it's just not the kind of album that could shock you or totally amaze you if you've heard at least a wee bit progressive rock before (or unless you're the kind of prog-minded religiously-inclined kind of guy, you know, the kind that isn't able to perceive 'Dust In The Wind' as an abominable violation of everything that foes under "good taste", 'scuse me a bit while I get off the topic and then get back again).

Another problem is the one rather typical of 'second generation prog bands' - the debut album is just a bit too "packed", if you get my drift. Short songs, long songs, throwaways and epics, and an overall overestimation of their own capacities. Granted, they don't suffer from it as much as Camel, for instance, but still, this makes me look fondly at older bands like Yes or Genesis who were taking risks at grand, overtly serious canvases only after some 'humble' beginnings.

That said, all of these problems may be overcome with time, and essentially, they didn't as much influence the rating as they simply prevented me from assessing the album positively on first listen. In fact, that first listen actually left the impression of "oh, not again" - another Yes/Genesis-wannabe with mediocre melodies and pathetic "epic" ambitions. Nice diversity level and nothing that really offends the taste too much (and a spark of humour occasionally), but nothing that sticks out, either. It was only on subsequent listens that Mother Truth spoke out: hello? Sorry for being rude, but ALL of these songs have well-written melodies. Yeah well, not all of them resonate all that sharply, and they're nowhere near as catchy as 'em Beatles, but many of them are catchier than Genesis, actually. There are quite a few poppy moments on here, too - don't believe those who put a rigid dividing line between early Kayak and late Kayak, such a line doesn't exist. But both the poppy and the proggy moments are really well done. There's absolutely no reason to put this album into your Top 20 Prog Necessities, but no fan of the genre should be without this record, and that's understood.

I'll just give a brief rundown track-by-track here, if you don't mind - I really hate doing this, but what else can you do if the particular album has to be understood and enjoyed on a song-by-song level, not on its whole? That's what happens when you put most of the emphasis on melodicity and hooks rather than on general conception and innovativeness. 'Reason For It All' is a smooth pretty pop-rocker with great harpsichord work from Tom Scherpenzeel and Camel-esque guitar solos, although the mid-section is a bit too drawn out. 'Lyrics' introduces the first really catchy vocal melody backed by beautiful sprinkling piano work (actually, I could probably say Kayak is the most heavily piano-based prog band I've heard), and reminds me of Supertramp a bit - at their best, I mean. At Supertramp's best, I mean. Now you know what I mean, don't you?

'Mouldy Wood' is the album's first rocker, with the harpsichord battling the guitar this time, and although the main vocal melody might seem a bit straightforward and dumb to some, I personally enjoy it - at the least, it ain't generic (but they really could have employed a better vocalist than Werner!). Then comes the record's eight-minute epic, 'Lovely Luna', which I have mixed feelings about... the atmospheric sung parts sound a bit like Acquiring The Taste-era Gentle Giant and are quite lovely, but the instrumental parts go for this heavy symphonic universalist feel, pretending for a 'Firth Of Fifth'-like effect with its minimalistic, deeply depressing fuzz bass riff at the core, and it kinda walks the line between beautiful and cheesy in a very hard-to-judge manner. Perhaps it's just a bit too repetitive to win the 'beautiful' tag... then again, the riff IS really cool, so guess we'll just leave it in its suspended state.

The second side opens with the optimistic rocker 'Hope For A Life', perhaps the most aggressive part of the album - which isn't saying that much, because Kayak are wimps! Ha ha! - due to the abrasive guitar riff, which nevertheless comes in and comes out ceding the space to softer piano-and-chorale-harmony parts and stuff like that, and then gives way to the melancholic Mellotron pounding of 'Ballet Of The Cripple'. The ballad 'Forever Is A Lonely Thought' has perhaps one of the two most gorgeous vocal melodies on the album and is again slightly reminiscent of early medieval-based romantic Gentle Giant stuff, only smoothed and slicked and made a little bit more accessible. Then there's the short rocker 'Mammoth' with a rather complex structure for a three-minute song (managing to alternate rocking guitar bits with Elizabethan-style marches with dreamy Beach Boys-like vocalizing), and finally the climactic title track which, I guess, is these guys' 'Time And A Word' and 'Epitaph' at the same time, but I'll be damned if you won't be tempted to sing along with the chorus - the song really melds together everything, some King Crimson, some Yes, some Caravan, some Beach Boys, and even throws in an accordeon for good measure. And that guy, Max Werner, he gotta sing falsetto more often. If you're high-pitched, high-pitched you go.

So, taken together with the cute two bonus tracks (an early single? they're marked as recorded in 1972 in my liner notes), one of which, 'Give It A Name', has a funny Ray Davies-like vocal delivery, this is really just a handy-dandy listening experience and it's hard to imagine the band coming up with anything better - at least, not if they'd still stay in the same "dependent" mould, which they more or less did.



Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 11

Being derivative actually doesn't hurt as long as you're not thinking of yourself as the Columbus of progression. Whoah. That was clever.


Track listing: 1) Alibi; 2) Wintertime; 3) Mountain Too Rough; 4) They Get To Know Me; 5) Serenades; 6) Woe And Alas; 7) Mireille; 8) Trust In The Machine; 9) His Master's Noise; [BONUS TRACK:] 10) We Are Not Amused.

In 1974 art-rock wasn't exactly the word of day. Or, more exactly, it was doing everything it could so it could quickly cease to be the word of day. The classic vicious circle - progressive rock has to progress and you can only progress that far before people start looking at you funny. What did the world see that year? The Lamb Lies Down? Topographic Oceans? Triple live from ELP? In that respect, it's actually a bit refreshing to see a band like Kayak move back instead of forward and release an album that, while still certainly "art" or "prog" by definition, would rather hearken back to the days when classical influences in rock music were still seen as a spicy ingredient within the accessible pop structures rather than the main course, occasionally (and not very naturally) pushed into the embraces of a stupid pop hook or two. To cut a long story short, Kayak is art-pop, not art-flop.

They certainly had strong going competitors like Styx, but already by 1974 Styx were so goddamn spiritual and bombastic that their ambitions were outgrowing their capacities at a rate of ten to one, so it wouldn't take Kayak long to cross them, once and for all. Tee hee. Kayak cross Styx, get that? Oh, okay, never mind. Fact is, the melodies on Kayak seem a little bit more strained than the ones on See See The Sun, and since they didn't have no lineup changes, all their problems still remain, but in the general way of things, the album doesn't disappoint. Besides, it's got a healthy little dose of cynicism and sarcasm to it - cheesy romance is definitely on its way out (as evidenced by the sneering lyrics of 'Serenades', among others), a bit of social critique and anti-utopianism is in.

Did I say the album is poppier than its predecessor? Yep, which is funny because this time around there are actually two lengthy multi-part epics, and both of them decent. 'They Get To Know Me' goes for the ominous apocalyptic feel, perhaps a bit too obvious but still rather convincingly, aided by a few memorable riffs in the composition's first part and an even more memorable melody that serves as the coda - a powerful guitar-and-keyboards crescendo that could be thought of as a "Yes meets Pink Floyd" kind of thing, with the sonic density and mammoth stomp taken from Yes and the astral guitar tones taken from Floyd. Meanwhile, 'Trust In The Machine' is completely sci-fi in nature, first driven by a very odd, squeaky, repetitive, robotic guitar melody, then metamorphosing into some kind of "Martian Bolero" for those who didn't have enough Syd Barrett in 1967.

In all honesty, these two bullies had me bored at first, but there's always a big fat borderline between "bored" and "disgusted", and nowhere is it fatter than upon dealing with Seventies' progressive. As much as Max Werner's vocals usually bother me, I'd rather take them for songs like these than pompous arias from some second-hand Greg Lake clone, and besides, he doesn't even sing that much; the instrumental parts are always longer. And these guys are inventive! They know when to stop-and-start. They know exactly when a certain riff or phrase runs out its course, to be replaced by a different one. They like varying the tone of their instruments - so that even if the mid-part synthesizer solo on 'They Get To Know Me' does seem painfully generic for its epoch, you may be sure that it won't crop up in the same way elsewhere. (They're still extensively relying on Mellotrons, which is fine by me). Maybe this is workmanship, rather than revelation, but it's workmanship that's fun to hear.

That said, at heart Kayak are still a pop band. Had they been recording something akin to this album in 1966, they would probably run the chance of being mistaken for the Left Banke. Except they like their guitars more than the Left Banke. At the core of practically every short pop song on here lies Tom Scherpenzeel's grand piano, but that doesn't prevent him from giving guitarist Johan Slager a chance to shine, either. Look, for instance, how nicely the guitar steps in on 'Serenades' to complement the main piano melody. Or, vice versa, how a forceful guitar blast opens 'Alibi', only to give way to the piano as leading instrument several bars later. Throw in extra synthesizer and Mellotron work, and you get an album that's almost always colourful.

My favourite song on here is the tangoish 'Wintertime', although this is where the negative side of the band's lead vocalist fully comes into play - shouldn't pretty songs like these deserve somebody with a pretty voice to sing them? Accordeons and pianos and all? The same applies to 'Serenades' as well. In fact, now that I think of it, the vocals are obviously the main factor that prevents Kayak from being hailed as one of the greatest melodic ensembles of its epoch; had they had a McCartney or an Elton John or at least a reperesentative selection of the Gibb brothers straining their cords for them, it could have been quite a different story.

Fortunately, these acute complaints don't register for the gentle 'Mountain Too Rough', a tune sung in a much prettier manner (by someone else? Or do you wish to tell me that guy can sound charming when he wants to? What's his problem - ants in his pants?). Melodically, it's pretty much in a class of its own, at times reminding me of Yes, Renaissance, Paul McCartney, the Zombies, or the Bee Gees, sometimes several of these at the same time. There's also a cute little coda to 'Trust In The Machine', a piano and soothing falsetto-only ditty called 'His Master's Noise' that shouldn't be missed - it's got that sweet-innocent-inviting McCartney flavour that pop music had pretty much lost by 1974. There's also a two minute instrumental ('Mireille') that starts out like Procol Harum's 'Repent Walpurgis', then goes into big bombast mode, then repents of it, then ends where it begins, looks pretty simple to play, and yet cannot be dismissed because requiem-like organ tones always win.

And if that wasn't enough, the CD edition adds a bonus track: 'We Are Not Amused', yet another excellent pop number (lyrically, again in the anti-utopian vein) that pins a slightly music-hallish verse against a massive glammy anthemic chorus. The seams are a bit too obvious and the chorus might be a bit annoying, but the overall effect is still good.

Looking back at what I wrote here, I'm hardly satisfied, but the thing is, it's just not the kind of album you can usually find a lot of things to write about. Were we living in a better world - more mature, more tasteful, more educated, more sensible, etc. - albums like Kayak would probably take the place of standard "radio fodder", and I, personally, although I'm hardly a dedicated fan of the band, would by all means welcome something like 'Serenades' on classic rock radio rather than getting the umpteenth Foreigner or REO Speedwagon re-run. But we are not, and thus albums like Kayak are stuck in the lifeless middle, somewhat too dull for those who want their senses sharpened to the brink and somewhat too clever for those who want the opposite.


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