Utopia - Ra

Year of Release: 1990
Label: Rhino
Catalog Number: RNCD-70869
Format: CD
Total Time: 53:19:00

Before we get down to talking about the music of Ra (Bearsville, 1977 (BR6965)), let's just get a few things straight right from the beginning, ok? Utopia was a "band," yes. But the band was the sole property, shall we say, of Todd Rundgren. When Todd was no longer interested in the Utopia format, Utopia ceased to exist. Utopia was no more a band that stood on its own than King Crimson was, or is, a band that has any identity apart from Robert Fripp. I think we can all agree that neither band is anything more than a project wholly controlled by either Rundgren or Fripp. Ok? Lets move on then.

I think it is clear to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the recorded works of Todd Rundgren that the man has talents and interests that go far beyond any one style or genre of music. He is equally at home writing and recording blue eyed soul, Beatle-esque rock, hard rock, electronic and progressive rock, and more. No release by Rundgren or Utopia that I have ever heard sticks wholly to any one of these styles. Nevertheless, I consider Ra to be an album of progressive rock. It does have a few tracks that cross over boundaries, but the great majority of this release is prog, and pretty good prog at that.

This release begins in true progressive fashion with two pieces that segue into one track. The first, "Overture: Mountaintop And Sunrise," is a piece of film music written by Bernard Hermann for the 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451. It has all the pomp and grandeur that symphonic progressive rock requires, and it fits perfectly with the Rundgren composition that follows, "Communion With The Sun." "Communion" is a glorious work, with Todd's guitar providing the power and Roger Powell's synthesizers giving us the glory. You are unlikely to find any better examples of better group vocals no matter how hard you look. The band, all of whom have at least one lead vocal on this release, combine their voices to produce heavenly four part harmonies, with layers of multi-tracked, overlapping harmonies that make this track a standout piece of brilliant progressive rock. The guitar and keyboards join up for some wonderful harmonized lead lines as the track nears its conclusion and this tune ends with more of the band's unique vocals.

I think we might have to invent a new genre for the next tune, "Magic Dragon Theatre." How about "progressive show tunes"? This was written by Todd and Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton, but I suspect that it was mainly Todd's work, as this is similar to some of Todd's other very theatrical efforts, a blend of Broadway and The Beatles. I could easily imagine this being on Magical Mystery Tour, and it is full of Todd and company's quirky, showoff-y touches. We have oom-pah-pah background music and goofy lines of dialogue from the imaginary play. Stuff like this is an acquired taste, but I love it.

The next track, "Jealousy" is a throwaway, and even a Rundgren and Utopia fan such as I will usually skip over this tune. I suggest that you do the same. The great majority of Todd's releases are, in my opinion, made up of only about 50% good material and that leaves Ra a step ahead of most.

Moving on to track four, we have what sounds to be one of Todd's trademark Philly-soul numbers, "Eternal Love." What is surprising is that this cut was written not by Todd, but by synthesist Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton. It is so close to the style of many of Todd's numbers like "Love Is The Answer" or "Can We Still Be Friends?" that it seems clear that the two writers were attempting a homage to their legendary band leader. Kasim's lead vocal finds him occasionally straining to reach the highest notes, but the song works nonetheless.

The next cut, "Sunburst Finish," finds the band moving back to a more progressive style, blending their hard rock with a vocal based fusion sound. This mixture again works well. Drummer Willie Wilcox nearly steals the show here, but runs into stiff competition from the three way vocal split, as Todd, Roger and Kasim share the lead vocals. This tune ends with more of the bands beautiful harmony vocals, vocals that only Rundgren and Co. can provide. The songs difficult syncopated riffs and god-like vocals make this one of this releases highlights.

The next number, "Hiroshima" is another highlight of this set. This is a perfect example of what I will call progressive hard rock, and if today's progressive metal bands would attempt to take a lesson from this piece then I might consider listening to some of their output. This is a powerful and gut wrenching experience with more of the bands four part vocal harmonies that will take you by the throat and shake you silly. Roger Powell's short, but devastating synthesizer solo (representing the cries of Hiroshima's dying populace) will choke you up. Well, it did so to me, but I may just be an old sap. Nevertheless, this is as good and powerful as music gets. As hard as I may try, this is one of a few songs that I cannot get through without getting tears in my eyes. This is a great example of progressive rocks ability to grab your emotions and heavy rocks power to knock you off your feet. I would recommend that everyone listen to this song at least once and see what it will do to you.

Thankfully, the final, and longest track of this release takes us far away from the agony of conflict and brings us to a far more gentle place. Titled "Singring And The Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)," this eighteen plus minute track brings this release to a suitably progressive ending. Complete with a narrator tying all the parts of this epic together, this has everything a true progressive suite needs. We have a mythical tale, brilliant solos from all the band members, themes that repeat subtly and solo parts that, when finished, reveal themselves to be parts of another theme that contains all the solo parts together in a counterpoint section. The solo sections demand more than just that one mention, representing the quest by each member for a key to unlock a chest that imprisons the muse "Singring". The drum solo is a trip through a raging river, the bass solo a trek through desert winds, the synthesizer solo a frenzied battle against a dragon and the guitar solo a desperate trip to the peak of a mountain. All are excellent, and the track as a whole is a wonderful and, most of all, fun, ending to this classic release, the best that Utopia would produce.

Over The course of his long career, Todd has been involved in many bands and produced a number of fine releases, but this is his best. I hope you will all take a chance with this release, and I think a lot of you will hold it in the same high esteem that I do. This release, though unique in its own identity, shares the best traits of good progressive rock, that being fine songwriting, gorgeous vocals and jaw-dropping musicianship. Please give this a listen, and I think it will grab you just as it has taken hold of me.

Overture: Mountaintop And Sunrise: Communion With The Sun / Magic Dragon Theatre / Jealousy / Eternal Love / Sunburst Finish / Hiroshima / Singring And The Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)

Todd Rundgren ? guitar, vocals
Roger Powell ? keyboards, synthesizers, vocals
Kasim Sulton ? bass, vocals

Todd Rundgren's Utopia (1974)
Another Live (1975)
Ra (1977/1990) Oops, Wrong Planet (1977)
Adventures In Utopia (1980)
Deface The Music (1980)
Swing To The Right (1982)
Utopia (1982)
Oblivion (1984)
POV (1985)
Redux '92: Live In Japan (1992)
City In My Head (1999)
Official Bootleg, Vol. 9: Oblivion Tour (2001)
Bootleg Series, Vol. 2: KSAN 95FM, Live '79 (2002)
Disco Jets (2002)
Official Bootleg, Vol. 2: Live In Tokyo '79 (2002)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin US

Added: August 8th 2004
Reviewer: Tom Karr
Artist website: www.tr-i.com/
Hits: 959
Language: english


[ Back to Reviews Index | Post Comment ]