Review Summary: Probably one of the best Progressive Rock albums of the 21st Century, 'A Nod and a Wink' should make Peter Bardens (RIP), Camel's loyal fan-base and the band themselves proud. This album is a wonder that isn't perfect, but is surely satisfying.
Let's face facts:Few Progressive Rock bands who rose to great heights in the 70's have since managed to so much as produce music even half as good as their first few albums. Camel is one such band. It doesn't take much thinking to work out just how the band has managed to keep their devoted fan-base interested over the past three decades. Funnily enough however, many of the band's devoted fans claim that it was only with the mostly symphonic yet satisfyingly experimental 'Rajaz' that Camel had finally returned to the one thing that made those first four albums so successful: The band's willingness to make each and every song sound completely different to each other. Of course, this isn't fully true, as 'Rajaz' merely experiments with its own sound to some degree, yet is still haunted by the band's obvious reaches into poppier territory-and the period of this style has been staying with the band ever since they released the successful 'Rain dances' record in 1977.
As some of you may know however, things haven't quite turned out well for the band at all since. Two viciously huge problems have happened within the band: 1) Peter Bardens, founder and beloved member of Camel, died from lung cancer at the age of 56-and 2) Andrew Latimer, although he managed to work as hard as possible to make the band's latest album 'A Nod and a Wink' sound exciting, was diagnosed with 'polycythaemia vera' (regarding the bone marrow and red blood cells), later having progressed into 'myelofibrosis' (also regarding bone marrow disorder). But it's okay, because 'A Nod and a Wink' is an excellent album, and Latimer has recovered so much he and Denis Clement have been working on new material ever since September 2010. Progressive Rock fans, please contain your orgasms.
'A Nod and a Wink' has absolutely nothing to do with camels/Egyptian mysticism/concepts based around novels at all, as many of the band's albums have done. Instead, and this is purely justified by the magical music and excellently written lyrics, the concept here is based around a boy who one day travels via a magic carpet to various places ('Fox Hill' and 'Squigely Fair'), and meets up with a very brief character called 'The Miller'. Just knowing this automatically tells everyone that Camel have tried to make everyone interested in their presence, and it's certainly worked.
Musically, every song here, bar the awkward monotonousness of melancholic tracks 'Simple Pleasures' and 'The Miller's Tale', goes off in every single direction possible. This is most notable on the title track, which, even in it's first minute, develops into something truly magnificent. The sounds of tweeting birds, whistling trains and breezy winds give way to sparkling keyboards that wouldn't sound out of place on a children's TV programme. That's not all. Andrew Latimer has brought the flute back where it belongs, and on 'A Nod and a Wink', I couldn't welcome it any more if I tried. In particular the flute solos are placed here, there and everywhere throughout each of the album's songs, and every time it makes the songs themselves come to life-so much, that lyrics aren't even needed, thus giving off the effect that the music actually speaks for itself. So far all this has happened and not even five minutes has passed. What's that you say? Camel couldn't possibly make music this inspiring at their age? How very, very wrong you are indeed.
To go on and look at the title track from every perspective and explain every one of it's little details would take the length of an English dictionary. The two other similarly experimental tracks, 'Fox Hill' and 'Squigely Fair', also take the listener on a wishful journey full of surprises nobody could even imagine. 'Fox Hill' in particular presents the more exciting, perky side of Camel's modern sound, and as flutes, keyboards, guitars, vocals that could have been spoken by a rural villager from Yorkshire, it almost makes you want to repeat the song again just to make sure you haven't missed a second. Granted, some may be put off slightly by the way that Latimer's voice is so different from his sweet, soft tones, but you probably wouldn't be surprised if you looked at the nature of the lyrics. Even the drums, which admittedly aren't used that much on the album for any sort of effect, have their own brief bit of stardom, as midway through the song a drum solo occurs and eventually becomes as rapid as that of John Bonham on 'Moby Dick'. The progression of the guitar and bass work also become part of the magical atmosphere created, as solos and rumbling bass lines manage to keep up with the perky pace of the band's collective sounds. 'Squigely Fair', whilst it's overall impression isn't one as enticing as 'Fox Hill' or indeed the title track, it still develops into something naturally and differently progressive. In particular the transitions from soft, melancholic music to fast-paced, rhythmic structures are pretty much spot on, as each instrument never seems to overstay its welcome. It is an instrumental song, but with actual lyrics you can't help but feel that the magical effect of the music might be taken away. There is a brief narrative spoken by Latimer, but this, once again, contributes to how natural and pastoral the concept of the album is.
However, not everything here is as good or indeed unmistakeably talented as it seems. As mentioned before, the so-so symphonic boredom of 'Simple Pleasures' and 'The Miller's tale' really cut the flow of the album's natural significance, and although this isn't that big an issue, as the album's two shorter songs, they really should have been cut from the album had the band any intentions of making 'A Nod and a Wink' the best album ever of their career. As well as this, and perhaps not as frustratingly obvious, is the absence of the lyrical content. At times, the music seems to go on forever, and then, just as you think the song is going to be an instrumental one, Latimer sings in a slightly weak voice (although not ignoring his major health problems either). Mind you, what he slightly lacks in vocals, he much more than makes up for in the use of flutes, keyboards and guitar work.
Apparently this album was dedicated to the untimely death of Peter Bardens, which happened six months before this album's release. If indeed it was dedicated to him, he most definitely will be nodding in appreciation, and winking at his band mates as if to say 'Well done guys, you've made me proud to have been a member of Camel'. R.I.P. Peter Bardens, but let's also look forward to the next Camel album, because on this note, it may be even better.