Review Summary: IN THE WHITE ROOM, WITH BLACK CURTAINS, NEAR THE STAAAATION...
Cream reached their peak early with Disraeli Gears
, but it’s follow-up Wheels of Fire
is still a unique piece in their discography. More ambitious than its predecessor, it is a double album, one half being studio tracks and the other live ones. Obviously, there is a lot of material to offer, but this also results in some slight inconsistencies. Nevertheless, the group is still creatively at their best, and the album turns out to be their second (and last) essential work.
Take opener White Room
, which leaves no doubt as to whether Cream have kept things up. In fact, it may be the best track the trio has ever written. Jack Bruce puts down his best vocal performance of his time with the band, combining it smoothly with lyrics that actually make no sense, but then again they do because he’s singing them. Clapton puts so much emphasis on the wah-pedal that even Jimi Hendrix may have found that he was overdoing it, but it turns out to be the very hook of the song. The solo, following in the same vein, is one of the guitarist's most tasteful yet.
The point about Wheels of Fire
is that while some of its tracks rise above the very best moments on Disraeli Gears
, it is by far not as consistent. Concluding the studio half of the record, Those Were the Days
, Born Under a Bad Sign
and especially Deserted Cities of the Heart
are all amongst the best Cream material ever. Before getting to those, you can’t help to be just a bit disappointed by the middle part of the album. Sitting On Top of the World
is quite slow and pleasant but too long, Passing the Time
doesn’t really go anywhere, As You Said
is quite repetitive, and Baker’s contribution Pressed Rat and Warthog
is just as silly as his others. Be not too worried though: while each of these songs is flawed in some sense, they are in no way poor. The unique Cream feel never disappears.
It is justified to be initially sceptic about extra live parts to an album. Mostly, the bonus feels redundant, boring and does not warrant more than one listen, but I’m glad to say Wheels of Fire
is somewhat of an exception. This was an era in which rock bands still knew how to jam live, and that is made very evident in the four tracks, counting up together to a lengthy 44 minutes. The 16-minute rendition of Toad
is too long for a drum solo, but Willie Dixon cover Spoonful
(both are found in a shorter version on Fresh Cream
), which is about the same length, manages to be surprisingly captivating throughout. You can picture the three musicians rivalling vividly without actually seeing them, and that is an accomplishment. The shorter Crossroads
(suprisingly Clapton's only moment on lead vocals on the entire album) and Traintime
(great use of the harmonica by Bruce here) are also highly enjoyable, and the live section ends up counterbalancing the few boring moments in the studio part of the album. How long their value really lasts is debatable, but the second disc is very much worth hearing.
It leaves the judgement on Wheels of Fire
mostly positive. While definitely not as consistent as Disraeli Gears
, some of the finest Cream tunes are featured here, and the live section is far from disappointing. Songwriting-wise, Cream were never the strongest, and it gets them into just some minor trouble here, but overall, the album is another excellent accomplishment and a must-have for any rock fan still into the oldies. Get this, and put it next to Disraeli Gears
The Wonderful Trippy Experience Known as Cream Was:
- Eric Patrick ‘Slowhand’ Clapton ~ Guitar, Backing Vocals, Lead Vocals
- John Symon Asher ‘Jack’ Bruce ~ Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Cello, Harmonica, Calliope, Acoustic Guitar, Recorder
- Peter Edward ‘Ginger’ Baker ~ Drums, Percussion, Bells, Glockenspiel, Vocals
Those Were the Days
Born Under A Bad Sign
Deserted Cities of the Heart