Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Pink Floyd - The Endless River
"We certainly had an unspoken understanding… but a lot things were left unsaid," can be discerned in the background as Pink Floyd's unexpected, and first 'new' album for 20 years opens up in classic Floydian fashion; distant voices of the band, within the brooding, effects-laden, gentle washes of synths. Slowly, but emphatically flowering. The reason for it's existence at this late juncture? It's mainly in honour of the deceased and founding member Richard Wright; it's reflective tone carrying the day. I'm sure though as well, remaining members David Gilmour and Nick Mason were just plainly up for it, as any self-regarding musician would be…
The Endless River is not a normal album in the way we know them to be. It's derived mostly from The Division Bell sessions of '93 and '94, recordings dug up by Gilmour and Mason, Richard Wright having shuffled off his mortal coil in 2008. Apparently encouraged by the quality they found, they eventually set about adding guitars, drums, bass, samples and other instrumentation, with the help of post-Waters colleague Guy Pratt, Phil Manzanera, Martin Glover (Youth), Floyd engineer Andy Jackson, and assorted sessioners. It was Jackson who edited down the original recordings, and with a working title of The Big Spliff (indeed!) Gilmour and Mason thought about releasing it as it was, before embarking on a series of recording sessions in order to add, and sometimes re-work, the original source material. Stylistically, the band decided to present the album in four parts, much like a double vinyl album of old. So, within those parts, all the songs, pieces and interludes segue into one.
For Gilmour and Mason, The Endless River is at heart, an epilogue, the final chapter of this most fascinating of musical stories. I doubt no great claims will be made for the quality of the material – half the album is effectively scraps of material subsequently made more listenable and interesting – it's really just a postscript, a love letter of sorts to Richard Wright, the quiet one who contributed vast amounts of music, compositions and creativity to the Floyd project, right from their Syd Barrett days to The Wall. Moreover, it is by far the most unassuming Floyd record. With next to no lyrics throughout, ambient and instrumental passages dominate. Bombast is out of the window, in it's place a generally calm atmosphere, perhaps befitting men in their late 60s.
Although all their albums, up to and including The Wall, are very distinct from one another, the Floyd sound was a highly recognisable one, whatever album or year you are referring. It's as much to do with their omnipotent reach, as the radicalness and brilliance on each and every one of those albums, albeit to varying degrees. That this was as much down to the interactivity of the group and their complex creative chemistry is beyond doubt. What is also beyond doubt is that once Roger Waters reached his peak with The Wall and continued to lead with a dominance that left the rest of the band increasingly used as bit players, the dream was over. From The Wall to The Final Cut, Floyd's last album with Waters at the helm; from the sublime to the depressing. It was a major come down.
Since then Pink Floyd have been a part-time band. They released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in '87 and the The Division Bell, their last work, way back in '94. Gilmour, Wright and Mason got it together for those albums – with the help of additional musicians – and their massively successful world tours ensured that they remained in the public eye, despite Roger Waters obvious disapproval. But while the creative sparks were still there, they only flickered rather than flamed, the music not always gelling or hitting the spot as it used to. They were patently not the same band without Roger Waters, who whilst demonstrating dictatorial and negative egotistical qualities particularly towards the end, was the main creative force from Animals (and maybe before) onwards. However, Gilmour, Mason and Wright were friends and worked well together, something they eventually decided they couldn't do with Waters. And so, comparisons with the previous era are a little unfair. With post-Waters albums you had a different dynamic, a different way of doing things, and operating more as a musical democracy, for better or worse. And it's why they decided to do it one last time, in memory of Richard Wright. For better or worse.
As a whole, the overwhelming sensation of The Endless River is one of Floyd going back to their late 60s and 70s roots. Reminders of almost all their albums from Ummagumma onwards are apparent, blindingly obvious in places, as Gilmour and Mason embark, subconsciously or otherwise, on a little trip down memory lane, revisiting their glory years. After all, the 70s was Floyd's decade. Led Zeppelin, Elton John, David Bowie and the Stones were their peers, but no one outperformed them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the sometimes Wallesque sound of The Division Bell album is almost totally eschewed on The Endless River, in favour of ambient, instrumental pieces, many of which are less than two minutes long. Richard Wright was an innovative keyboardist, who would play and experiment with all sorts of acoustic and synthetic keys and effects, and Gilmour apparently (and sometimes surreptitiously), used to tape Wright while he was playing. Here then are some of the results, although fragments they mostly are, and must be seen as, rather than whole songs. Hence the device of dividing the album in four parts, all passages of each piece segueing into one another. It's headphone music as all Floyd stuff is.
Opening track Things Left Unsaid is a reminder of Breathe (from Dark Side…) and Echoes (from Meddle), as the music crescendos from studio philosophising, and a gentle far off boom, before an eerily similar sound and style to Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Wish You Were Here) wafts in on It's What We Do, on a wave of keyboards, and warped acoustic guitar.
'It's What We Do', is classic mid-70s Floyd, in title and in music, Here, and elsewhere, you get Gilmour's distinctive mix of smooth and taut playing, while Mason does his reliable backbeat thing and the occasional tum-tum tum-tum fills, Wright fills the spaces with his elegant organ, and Guy Pratt does an uncanny imitation of Roger Waters on bass. It really does sound like an outtake from Wish You Were Here rather than The Division Bell. At over 6 minutes it's one of of the few tracks given space and time to roam freely, the band riding the gentle groove for all its worth.
Seguing into the ambient textures of Ebb and Flow – akin to Steve Hillage's ambient forays of the late 70s – Gilmour's warped and disjointed acoustic meets the pulsing synths of Wright, with the closing wind soundscape of Echoes coming to mind, before Sum's spacey textures slowly drifts into view, whence Gilmour lets rip a la Echoes, the drums and keys providing the closest to a head nodding groove you'll get from this album. Late 60s/early Floyd is then revisited for Skins, which of course has Mason belting his drums, the drumming patterns reminiscent of A Saucerful of Secrets from Ummagumma
Part 2 begins with Unsung, a short prelude before Anisina sees Wright get out the acoustic piano for some grand chord work, again circa 1970/71 while a cacophonous and back-in-the-mix saxophone (courtesy of Gilad Atzmon) gives way to classic Floyd lyric-less harmonising and a suddenly more upfront sax, a brass instrument of choice for Floyd ever since they roped in Dick Parry for Us & Them and Money on Dark Side of the Moon. Gilmour then overlays a typically short and sweet guitar solo, thus ending side two.
The Lost Art of Conversation is another short piece with just keys, synth and guitar. It's gentle ambient muzak going nowhere until Wright's piano provides some much needed melody, before cleverly segueing into On Noodle Street, an ambient jazz-funk noodle (of course!) that fails to lift off. Then, following track, Night Night, tempts us to sleep, such is the drowsy and drifting ambience of the music by this point, despite some colourful psychedelic guitar. A wake up call thankfully provided on Allons-y, complete with trademark chugging guitar, perhaps the only clear The Wall stylistic reference on the whole album.
The church organ playing of Wright on Autumn ''68 – a jokey, reference to Wright's magnificent Summer '68 composition on Atom Heart Mother – somewhat interlopes before Allons-y is reprised, while the more fully formed Talkin' Hawkin' features the sampled Stephen Hawking, talking about our greatest hopes becoming a reality, and that all we need to do is keep talking… perhaps a pointed riposte to the sometimes paranoid and dark world that Waters inhabited whilst a band member, and acting as thematic reference point to the album's opening spoken word samples. Whatever the intention, it's good homespun philosophy, Floyd style…
The so-called Side 4 of the album begins where we left off, although the mood darkens somewhat, Wright's warped and scraped piano strings and deep bass notes providing an unsettling atmosphere, much in vein of The Wall. Although as usual with Floyd, the mood lightens, and optimism peeks its head around the corner; Gilmour's repetitive and simple acoustic guitar line, Mason's gentle tom-toms, and Wright's synths break out for Eyes To Pearls, a denser, sound-effects laden track that segues into the much more chilled Surfacing, Floyd sounding like Floyd as they angelically harmonise, Gilmour's guitar once again taking the lead. As the title implies, the optimism is rising, daylight is breaking and all is maybe well…
Finally, we get to the much talked about Louder Than Words, the only song that features lyrics, written by Gilmour's partner of many years, Polly Samson, who had also contributed lyrics to The Division Bell. "We bitch and we fight, diss each other on sight, but this thing we do… it's louder than words." Lyrically, it's a fitting end, with Gilmour playing his most melodic solo of the whole album.
If truth be told, Pink Floyd never really got close to their late 60s and 70s heyday with any post-Waters recordings. And here there is nothing remotely as memorable as any of their work up to and including The Wall. But, perversely, shorn of the normal needs and pressures to make an album with a set of original, freshly minted songs, the cut, paste, re-worked, re-imagined and realisation of having Richard Wright back for one last time, has resulted in a befitting coda, best heard with headphones and maybe a big…

Jeff Hemmings