Return To Forever – Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy
Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy is the third album by jazz fusion artists Return To Forever. For those unfamiliar with the group, RTF has helped kick start the careers of some of the most acknowledged talents of the genre such as Al Di Meola, Flora Purim & Airto Moreira with the only consistent members being keyboard wizard Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke. Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy is the first non-vocal album by the band, and is unique in the sense that is the only album to feature Bill Connors on electric guitar. It is something of a space-rock opera with a psychedelic latin jazz flavour incorporating funk and avant-garde elements, and as much of a mouthful this mashing of genres sounds for any band to possibly work with the 1973 line-up of Return To Forever handles it impressively.
A distinction should be made between the two most conflicting elements of Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy, and indeed Return To Forever itself. This regards the topic of technical masturbation, how much can an artist show off insane technical ability before sacrificing a good songwriting ethic to do so? To stray from genre for a moment neo-classical guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen is a criminal for this to many, yet he has a legion of fans who masturbate furiously in their own way about how proficient the “swede of speed” is at guitar. The songs may be slight and the rest of the musical arrangements over his lengthy career likened more to a “backing track” for the display of some supremely fast and impressive chops by this fat angry man, but this downside really doesn't matter to his admirers as he is fast and impressive and that is the appeal.
Personally I dislike this attitude and unfortunately, if there is one thing I have found RTF has a number of fans who approach listening to them purely in this fashion. Chick Corea is an undisputed master of his instrument as is Stanley Clarke and the countless musicians they have played with in the past, they don't hold back in spitting out flurries of superfast notes to orgasms of technical ecstasy. It is more then easy to see why people listen to them only for a show of ability but the conflicting distinction here I am trying to make is that despite this it is not the end all of RTF, as a collective whole they have a strong sense of melody and songwriting ethics and where they concentrate on working with it they strike brilliance.
There are only a few tracks to speak of, which average at about the 8 minute mark. The eponymous title track Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy and After The Cosmic Rain open the album with a space age bang beaming in from an exotic bar in some galaxy light years away. The combination of chiming keys and blistering guitar are nothing short of sublime pasted over Clarke's complex basslines and Lenny Whites stylish drumming; a more then solid rhythm section. It is technically astonishing from the get go, but these two songs are handled with a masterful craft that creates a most unique and beautiful set of themes. The call and response style of the musicians interacting with each other is awe inspiring, some amazing emotional moments are touched upon in this manner where it is uplifting, melancholic and exciting all at once with RTF somehow reaching a happy balance between having an impressive technical jam and keeping to a good songwriting ethic.
There are many brilliant textures at work here, Clarkes lone fuzz box bass solo on After The Cosmic Rain just one of many moments that are more a spice to the music then a mere excuse to show off; within the shining production job a real effort is presented at weaving a beautiful tapestry of sound. Captain Senor Mouse has a similar feel but sets a fast paced standard in comparison to the previous two songs, the Latin jazz flavour coming to the fore particularly in its second theme which is truly orgasmic. Space Circus starts off with some keys of melancholic beauty, and builds from a simple funk inspired ostinato into some seriously cool jamming.
These songs mentioned above are the four best on the album, and are an example of RTF in their element and doing it right. Unfortunately there are two subpar songs which upset the the album in the form of Theme to The Mothership and The Game Maker. Great in their own right, the problem is they play like lesser versions of the other songs on the album with a recycled sound that doesn't quite hold up to comparison because it is very much the same but lacking spark. The worst masturbatory elements of RTF are very evident in these two tracks, as there are some cheesy lines and over the top soloing going on that comes off as more irritating then not. This is a shame, because the other songs on this disc are nothing short of perfect.
In summary Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy is an album that features some unique, beautiful music quite unlike much else I have ever heard that I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat. It is technically mind-blowing and sure to turn on those who listen to music purely for this quality, however where it works best is on the tracks where notes are allowed room to breath and shine brightly as a superb example of songwriting. In terms of the RTF discography the album is not quite so blue in tone as Light as a Feather, consistently beautiful as Where Have I Known You Before? or as funky and upbeat as Romantic Warrior but some kind of unique blend of all of these where it works best.