Review Summary: Breathless from Camel gives the listener a wide range of styles and sounds: a combination of commercial pop noise and jazzy progressive rock produce good but not flawless songwriting.
Some bands are extremely overrated and receive far more media attention than they actually deserve as the things that they do are far from original and lack emotion. Cameras drown these superstars in fame that eventually just gets them more attention and sheepish fans who are truly unsure why they even listen to that music. Luckily, Camel is completely the opposite of this idea. Since the very beginning, Camel has delivered the goods and has received almost no credit for being such an amazing ensemble. Admittedly I had not even heard of Camel until Mikael Åkerfeldt mentioned them as an influence. After getting more into Camel though, I don’t see why the limelight hasn’t shone on them a little more.
With Breathless Camel defines many avenues of their sound: poppy and commercially, jazzy and progressive, happy and upbeat, traditional but unique. Some songs have become masterpieces of the band, while others have fallen by the wayside. Either way, Breathless is multi-dimensional and should be sure to please some part of everyone in my opinion. Breathless is not a progressive rock masterpiece, but it is definitely a strong record to have in your catalogue.
As soon as the album opened with the title track, I was extremely aware that Camel was going for a significantly more commercial approach with this record. Either way, the uplifting guitar work and falsetto vocals make this listing happy-go-lucky. Oboe makes its first appearance on the album with this track and adds flavor to the otherwise predictable sound. Great balance throughout the ensemble! One thing I have to take the time to say is that many modern records have extremely poor balance as usually on a rock album you hear overpowering guitar, loud vocals, unfitting, loud drums, a hint of keyboard, and a bass that has been completely mixed out of the record. This music is great from the whole musical pyramid standpoint with enough bass that you can even tell what notes are being played! And of course enough keyboard to actually add to the sound of the band. Yay for being able to hear all four (sometimes five) people!
Echoes. If any Camel fan gave you a list of signature songs from the band, this song would definitely be toward the top of that list. As soon as it begins that is easy to see: jazz-influenced, lead-style playing from all instruments is heard in this fantastic opening in ¾. Great melody from the guitar, good contrapunctal lines from the keys, and great feel from the bass and skins. Eventually the group settles into a common 4/4 pattern and becomes keyboard driven. Spacey and ambient effects play around the sound for a while. After a bit, the band plays a chord progression based on a two bar phrase made of a bar in three and a bar of four with one chord played three times on the off-beats of the first bar and a second chord on the downbeat of the next bar. Vocals make one of the most awaited and called-for entrances in rock music. The group then slips into a faster two feel. It ends with a reprise of the vox melody and then the chord progression. The lyrics actually reference Native Americans but the song is virtually instrumental. Amazing song and completely worth a listen regardless of your genre preference in music.
“Wing and a Prayer” is another happy-go-lucky song but in my opinion much better than the opener. Regardless of the commercial-ness of this track, maybe just because it is after echoes, I still find it easy to get into and find enjoyable. It begins with bass hits followed by a light keyboard riff. Acoustic guitar explodes into a building sound that would be fitting in a movie segment where everything is okay because that’s exactly the feeling I get from this song. The vocals, like many commercial songs, simply scream for you to sing along with their infectious melodies. This song is about holding on to important things, in my opinion. However, Camel’s lyrics are great because they allow multiple, personalized interpretations.
“Down on the Farm” is the odd, comic relief to the rest of the album. For some this track may show a steer (no pun intended) away from commercial sounds, yet for others I could see an argument that the overly fun nature of the song and its numerous sound effects and somewhat immature ideas is ridiculous in the prog world. For theory nerds, the progression is borrowed from Pachelbel’s Kanon in D. Despite a couple good licks here and there, the song is average at best. It is dotted by animal noises or gun noises or etc. that accentuate what the lyrics say. Really not the best track, just for fun.
“Starlight Ride” blends Camel’s natural ability to produce heartfelt prog rock with a somewhat intriguing classical music influence. It begins very flowing and ambient with beautiful flute playing and then vocals enter in a restrained, yet effective way. Clean guitar can be heard in the back of the sound, adding texture along with bass that is very smooth. In fact the bass here is almost felt more than heard as a stand-out instrument. In some of the extremely classically influenced passages in here with the oboe, flute, and classical guitar doing runs I’m rather unsure if it is really fitting here; definitely progressive, but maybe slightly unsettling. Just be prepared for a “Holy Mozart!” feeling when listening to those segments of this track.
“Summer Lightning” is a somewhat commercial track with a groovy disco feel. However, I still like this track and sometimes the steady, well-done groove is really what matters in music. Some of the vocal and keyboard effects are incredibly cheesey and give the song an undeniable, were-almost-to-the-80’s sound. Thankfully, the vocal melodies in the middle of the song, although cheese, are much better than the first few fragments earlier in the track. Andrew Latimer delivers a great solo in the last third of this track and definitely deserves some praise. Many greats of prog rock in the time overshadow his immense skills and emotional playing. Very few of his solos aren’t worth hearing, and many contain something good even if they aren’t totally amazing. Therefore… check out the solo.
“You Make Me Smile” is definitely my one example of a ‘forgettable’ track from Breathless. All the way through, it just seems rather ordinary and boring especially in contrast to the great other tracks. Rather generic lyrics…repetitive wah bass line…moderate groove…nothing super special. This song contains kind of what I would call a keyboard solo. Don’t waste all of your time on this track though, as the album holds much better.
The next track demonstrates the dexterity of the group’s instrumental capabilities. Slow, atmospheric keyboard and guitar open “The Sleeper” which happens to be the only instrumental track on the album. Camel brings back more of their older, more jazz-influenced sound here. Eventually a keyboard driven section breaks out of the placid environment in some great multiple time signatures. These transitions are so well-written and played so well that the listener is taken on a surprise ride of rhythmic feel. The middle of the track contains great work from saxophones by Mel Collins (also the flute player). Great intonation from that soprano saxophone! Wow is it hard to have multiple saxophones in flawless intonation consistently while moving in melodies. Although some would say that’s just the studio, it’s still worth congratulation. Great tone and time from the bass in this track. Then the guitarist takes off with the chord progression from the multiple time signature section and does a fantastic solo. It’s obvious in soloing when someone has a grasp of the technique or if they only know a few licks and Latimer knows his stuff. A reprise of previous melodies, plus the sax section, ends the track as it fades out.
Concluding Breathless is closer in a traditionally fitting style: “Rainbow’s End.” Quietly and smoothly beginning this track, the oboe sound enters with a melody, followed by vocals. Lovely piano gives this chart a classic feel of a ballad, yet I really wouldn’t call it that. Definitely some focus on emotion and chords versus the horrid focus on raw technicality that many musicians rely on. Harmonized woodwinds add an interesting color to the piece. Harmonically this piece is very driven but rhythmically it seems nonexistent without the drums. This is good though because the effect of perpetual motion is created, aided by the felt-more-than-heard bass. When listening to this song I often think of the guitarist/bandleader and how now he has fatigue complications or how the keyboard player on this album has passed away. I think that this track is worth listening to just to help find a little extra meaning in the way life works. “Rainbow’s End” is about hard, but necessary changes.
That is really the way that progressive music works: after a group finally finds the sound that really is honest, the group is propelled to go and change for the sake of forward motion. Breathless is a great album, even with some songs that would be better left out. So briefly Breathless is:
Three great songs
Three pretty good songs
Two average songs and
One kinda dumb Song
I definitely recommend “Echoes”, “The Sleeper”, and “Rainbow’s End” for the jazzier audience and either “Wing and a Prayer” or “Starlight Ride” for the poppy prog fans. Though ultimately getting a 3.5 it is worth checking out.