Review Summary: Daevid Allen is out, full-on groovy jazz fusion and elegant progressive rock is in. With a few very special guests as well...
There have always been two sides to the legacy of Gong. The most obvious and well-known one, of course, was the Daevid Allen-led incarnation. The slightly more underrated era of the band's career was when Allen left, which led to a transition release in 1976's Shamal
, pointing towards a more progressive rock/jazz fusion-influenced future for Gong. However, some believe this was Gong in name only, as the musical direction was almost completely different on Shamal
, even compared to the relatively prog-tinged trilogy closer You
. This last album to feature Daevid Allen (before re-uniting with Gong in the early 90s) did actually hint at a more instrumental approach to songwriting, but with Shamal
this was fully realized. And so begins the second era of Gong...
is one of the most important and relevant records of Gong's history, whichever line-up you think was better for the band's career. It serves as something of a transition record, because there are still psychedelic touches here and there, but in a more progressive, controlled format. The album is also very "busy". Tightly packed into a mere 40 minutes is a selection of nine different musicians offering their talented performances with a multitide of different instruments. Not that different to Daevid Allen's future vision for Gong, of course, but Shamal
was definitely where this idea of multi-dimensional instrumentation started to form into one of the most prominent aspects of Gong's musicianship. Three members provided vocal abilities (the most prominent of which being Sandy Colley), including the (then) partner of Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy, two of which also opted to multi-task with their respective instrumental talents. Put simply, Shamal
is one of those "all hands on deck" records.
The greatest thing about Shamal
is that it's so versatile. There are only six tracks here, but each one seems to explore a different tone and aspect of musical experimentation. The softer tracks such as opener "Wingful of Eyes" and beautiful, elegant flute-led "Bambooji" are complementary to the album's quirkier tracks, such as the almost Frank Zappa-inspired "Cat in Clark's Shoes" and eccentric closing title track. Yet what really glues all these songs together is the absence of self-indulgent musicianship and a definite knowledge of perfect instrumental placements. This is also why Shamal
is more suitable to the progressive rock style, because each song seems like it builds up to a magnificent outro. "Cat in Clark's Shoes", for example, begins with a groovy bass and drum interplay before tenor saxophone, flute and xylophone/glockenspiel rhythms all appear at once, hitting the listener with this wave of multi-dimensional sound. Then after the first minute (!), the rest of the song is left to simply flow throughout many of the band's signature influences and talents. This song is but one of many which proves Gong were heading in a beautiful musical direction, showing no signs of stagnation on the way.
is also helped by the "little" things. What I mean by this is those little touches to a song which can provide the necessary extra icing on the proverbial cake, and on this album they are fully prominent but also never seem hidden beneath the production. Take "Bambooji" and "Mandrake" for example, which are both dreamy, inspirational pieces of flute-led music you can softly sleep to or fall in love with. The former has added female vocal delivery, courtesy of Giraud's soft, dulcet tones to complement the wispy flute delivery, whereas the latter actually takes on more of a multi-cultural task, seamlessly flowing from oriental sound to a jazzy rhythm which has one foot nailed in flamenco-inspired fervour. The title track also uses these softer, finer elements but only in conjunction with the more prominent instruments. The tenor saxophone usage makes its stamp on the the album's closing song, but listening to the musicianship a bit closer you can neatly identify every instrument used, because they are all there-just with different levels of intensity.
If there's a minor annoyance in the album, it's in the first two songs for sure. Whilst both opener "Wingful of Eyes" and its successor "Chandra" are both beautiful musically, the vocal side of things is nowhere near as high in quality. Sandy Colley and Mike Howlett seem to ruin the instrumental gusto a little bit, but not for long, because the rest of the album continues in a more confident way. And despite these vocal flaws, the album is a stunning introduction-or transition, if you like-to Gong's venture into jazz fusion/progressive rock territory. With that, Shamal
is an excellent record in its own right. You may be put off it if you favour Daevid Allen's musical incarnations with Gong, but even then the record still has its perks.