Review Summary: Easily one of the most overlooked albums in the band's catalogue, "Countdown to Ecstasy" is a blast of a record and one with no shortage of raucous jams.
Steely Dan – Countdown to Extinction
You’d be hard pressed to find a band more often overlooked than Steely Dan. While the group has enjoyed a large sum of success throughout their expansive, focused and impressive career they are hardly, if ever placed among the pioneering elites of their time such as Pink Floyd and Yes, an awful disservice when taken into account just how influential they have been not only musically, but from a production, “audiophile” stand-point as well. Indeed, few bands have ever blended smooth progressive jazz, complex yet accessibly pop-oriented song structures and abstract lyrical themes with as much ease as Steely Dan, a feat made only more imposing when taken into consideration the time at which they produced a majority of their work. Steely Dan’s sophomore outing, “Countdown to Ecstasy” finds a truly remarkable and watershed band finding the sweet spot in sound and atmosphere that they would go on to refine and produce arguably some of the most profound work on their decade.
After releasing their debut, “Can’t By A Thrill,” an album in which many consider one of the group’s most accessible and commercially successful records, Steely Dan was at a bit of a crossroads. Primarily a live performance project, Steely Dan was forced to tour constantly after the mainstream success of their debut which yielded such airwave anthems like “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Dirty Work.” After becoming somewhat burnout on a constant touring regime and a developed distaste for the road, Steely Dan front men, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker set out to release an album with sound quality and intricacy in mind, opposed to live performance. Released only a year after it’s successful predecessor, “Countdown To Ecstasy” is a concentrated cluster of jazz-pop fluency, blending all the soulful and stylish instruments, lyrics and vocals one could ask for in a concise, sleek eight-track package.
“Countdown to Ecstasy” kicks off with the up-tempo, swing-styled “Bodhisatva.” The album’s opener pushes forward and bashes pre-conceived notions off the bat with a much more sophisticated groove and chord progression than anything found on the record’s predecessor. This thundering and bewildering opener is one of the band’s most virtuosic instrumental works as it contains two utterly monstrous, finger-lickin’ guitar solos and enough rhythmic variation to give even the most accomplished of percussionist’s a trip to the woodshed. Following is the more vocal oriented Razor Boy, which finds the band going back to their roots with piano focused chords that make way to into a perplexing and sophisticated two part harmony, an idea the band would only perfect on subsequent offerings. Other standout tracks include the head-bob inducing “Show Biz Kids,” which is a raucous minor-voiced vamp that pushes forward with an all encompassing, ever progressing attitude. The album’s closing number is worth mentioning as well, as it ends the record on a thought-provoking, unpredictable manor with its off-kilter progressions and modal-scale voicing’s. The aforementioned track also contains the records most fervent pair of keyboard solos.
While seductively consistent from a glance, “Countdown to Ecstasy” isn’t without its faults. The record can at times feel a bit homogenous as there is little tempo variation throughout and while it is a wildly original follow-up, it will throw off listeners more accustomed to the more Rock N’ Roll focused sound of the band’s debut record. Steely Dan would go on and greatly improve on the sound they discovered on “Countdown to Ecstasy” with what many consider the group’s masterwork “Aja” and the incredible “Pretzel Logic,” and while the records that came before and after often overshadow this underappreciated nugget of jazz-pop bliss it still remains an intriguing turning point for the band and an album with no shortage of raucous jams.