I'll be honest here - I know next to nothing about Sly & The Family Stone. I own this album, which I bought purely on the recommendation of Q's Top 100 Albums Ever (published December 2002). I clocked in to that list at #91. The now infamous Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums Ever has it at #99. All I know about it is what I read in Q, and what I hear when I listen to it. So, for cultural context, I'm afraid I can only repeat what Q has told me.
This album was released in 1971, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This had a devastating effect on the band's unique selling point - their reputation as a celebration of inter-racial harmony through the power of soul music (as enormously pretentious as that sounds!).
The music within There's A Riot Goin' On reflects this. For such a unique album, this can be described in a way that - hopefully - everybody will understand. If Radiohead's Kid A was re-made by Andre 3000 (The Love Below half of OutKast), this would be the result. It's utterly bewildering, bleak, and possessed of an inspired murkiness not far removed from doom metal. It's still, however, unmistakeably 'soul'. There's a funkiness to it, but it's a lazy, unsettling one. You could conceivably dance to a few of these tracks, but that's doesn't stop them sounding like they were dragged from the recessess of a deeply troubled mind. It's as if the heart of soul music has been possessed. The amount of cocaine Sly Stone was taking at the time will tell you the culprit.
The choir on Africa Talks To You "The Asphalt Jungle" sings 'Timber! All falls down!', and it sounds like Satan's little helpers welcoming an unusually funky apocalypse. Even this album's 'happiest' track, Family Affair, is sung in a disturbingly bassy, bummed-out voice. Soul was never meant to be this way. Soul is music to be played in the bedroom, music to swing and dance to....not here, though. Sly completely ripped up the rulebook. It's a feat that has gone completely unmatched - Kid A is the only album that springs to mind for a comparison. They're borne of the same dark heart and the same spirit of shocking the audience, and both leave you with the same feeling. A feeling I'm not even going to attempt to put into words.
I wouldn't be able to tell you how good the lyrics to this album are. You can't hear them. You can hear a melody, you can hear what the voice is trying to convey, but you can only hear snippets of words, emerging from the swamp. Again, Kid A springs to mind. I'd bet my house on Thom Yorke owning and loving this record! The usual soul vocalist's trick of wailing like a preacher features here, but it suggests somebody trapped, desperate to escape a horrible prison. Every time it happens, and the music starts to peak (heard excellently on Time) you almost recoil, expecting something to happen. There are also several examples of double-tracked vocals singing out of time with each other, and at seperate pitches. If you've played System Shock and heard SHODAN, you'll know just how scary this can be!
The musicianship leaves you with a feeling of improvisation. Rather than each instrument having a definite melody, and role, you are confronted throughout with instruments seemingly appearing out of nowhere with little riffs. There's no instrument that you can focus on throughout a song to give it structure. That's not to say the songs do not have structure, because they do. It's organized chaos - often a meaningless phrase, but not so here. The drums are low in the mix, for this precise reason. Overall the effect of the musicianship comes more from the presentation and arrangement rather than the players themselves, but they are certainly a solid band. I'd single out the bassist as the best in the group - there's just something about the bass on this album that grabs me. The guitar is also very nice - it's always played clean, with a wah. Nothing especially taxing, but it does stand out and is perhaps the most disconcerting instrument, simply as it's the most normal!
The main fault with this album is it's more of a mood piece than a collection of songs. The album could easily be just one song, and it wouldn't change much. The quality is consistently high, and the mood doesn't diversify much (Runnin' Away is chirpier, but that's about it). As such, it's the feeling the music gives you, rather than the music itself, that stays with you. Some people, myself included, like impenetrable albums like this. Some don't, and if you're one of the latter, you probably won't like this. The production is also quite muddy, though this contributes to the music and is nowhere near as bad as St. Anger! Listening to it is certainly an experience though. It may not be one you'd like to repeat, but I'd certainly recommend it for that reason.
Recommended Download -
Luv N' Haight.
A great opener, which sets the tone perfectly for the album. This track gives the best example of the devices I've talked about, and features some very nice guitar too.
PS - I should probably add that, in reading other reviews of this album, it's been made pretty clear by several people that if you want this album, you should buy the European edition. The American edition has poor liners, different artwork, and a worse sound. I don't know how true this is, but consider it a heads-up.