Classic Rock Review

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Spirit Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus (1970)


I don’t quite get the deep hidden secret of this record. It is widely regarded as Spirit’s finest hour before their dissolution, given excellent marks by all the critics and even more, this record was the only testimony to Spirit’s spirit that could be found in print in the US for a long time.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if it was that factor that implicated Sardonicus being hailed as the band’s masterpiece, and not vice versa – people only could get a grasp at Spirit through that one release, and the rest of their career was subconsciously treated as a footnote.

Well then again, maybe not. There is one major advantage to this album: the guys sound completely mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that they have finally developed instead of running all over the place. There is one major flaw to this album, as well: the guys sound way too mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that replaces the diversity of old and makes most of these songs sound the same. No Britpop – jazz – folk – country – blues – psychedelia distinctions any more, just a special little brew of their own: mid-tempo jazz structures with moderately distorted virtuoso guitar and complicated rhythm textures, at times spiced with various psycho effects and gimmicks.

Randy California is now obviously at the forefront, pushing all the other players away, and he now also dominates the songwriting, contributing seven of the twelve numbers; Ferguson throws in another four, and Locke gets to ‘shine’ with a random psychedelic collage (‘Space Child’) that I don’t particularly find very engaging. And not coincidentally, Ferguson’s numbers are once again by far the most effective: ‘Animal Zoo’ is hilarious, a refreshing stab at country-pop that’s one of the very few pieces of ‘diversification’ on the record.

Just one note: the lyrics on the record suck throughout, with the band going for a ‘profound’ conceptual kind of message but failing – well, I suppose they were just pretending. Occasionally they find some pretty simple hippie mini-concept for a song, but much too often they’re just unintelligible. I don’t blame them, though – they were clearly going after the music rather than the words.

Okay, so ‘Animal Zoo’ is a highlight, but Ferguson’s main claim for fame on here is doubtlessly ‘Mr Skin’, one of the band’s best rockers – listen to it begin quite innocently, with quiet organ/guitar interplay and the band’s sly soulful harmonies, but then they go for a rip-roarin’ funk groove with a wonderful call-and-answer vocal arrangement and a brass section that would kick the bottom out of old Sly. Ferguson also contributes ‘Street Worm’, one of the hardest numbers on the album that to me, however, sounds more like a launchpad for these finger-flashing guitar solos from Randy than an actual song.

Randy himself, however, is in a relatively quiet mood: his songs are generally softer and moodier than Ferguson’s, and that’s including ‘Nature’s Way’, the album’s main minor hit single and the best known song from here in general. ‘Moody’ is the best description for the song; its instrumental melody is way too simplistic and repetitive to put it on a pedestal, but it gives a chance for the band to brew up some really powerful, mournful harmonies as they sing about… about… well, about ‘nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong’. Quite emotional, if you ask me.

Other highlights are ‘Life Has Just Begun’, a gorgeous acoustic ballad with some more beautiful harmonies with the band, and especially the upbeat rocker ‘Morning Will Come’: the two songs form a magnificent ‘optimistic anti-dote’ to some of the more gloomy overtones on the record’s first half. But I really can’t say anything else about any other song, because, frankly, I don’t know what to say. I don’t see too many hooks in these songs: I admire the mastery and the perfectionism, and, of course, no California band in 1970 ever sounded like this, but I’d like the songs to have just a wee bit more edge to match the band’s nearly-immaculate debut record.

The four or five classics I have mentioned are all classics, no doubt about that, but the rest of the album is just a bit too sludgey, with instruments buried under each other and rather pedestrian vocal harmonies that don’t seem to go anywhere – and I couldn’t remember how the main melody of ‘Soldier’ or ‘When I Touch You’ goes upon the five hundredth listen. Missing the hooks and the diversity, I can’t but give Sardonicus a wee bit lower rating than Spirit; I seriously think that looking at the band’s output without a bias must lead to the same conclusion from everybody.

Oh, and by the way, this isn’t actually even COMPLEX stuff. At least, it’s by no means more ‘complex’ than their first records, unless ‘boring’ means ‘complex’, of course. It’s far from ordinary and generic, of course, but so was Spirit. And the conceptual elements – the album title, the pretentious lyrics, vocal and instrumental links between the songs, etc. – just don’t make the record any more special than it already is; after all, it’s no Sgt Pepper, even if it’s obvious that the band seriously intended for the record to become one.

That said, the album is still very good – and an easy eleven on the overall rating scale. Consequent listens bring out several interesting musical ideas initially buried down in the depths of sound, and at least half of the songs are extremely well-written, whatever that might actually mean.

Bonus tracks on the recent CD re-issue include a couple alternate mixes, a weak rocker (‘Rough Road’) and a hilarious piece of goofiness in ‘Red Light Roll On’, perhaps the most campy track ever recorded by Spirit – of course, they take that dumb approach completely tongue-in-cheek, and it guarantees you a good healthy laugh to conclude the listening process to. Because, to tell you the truth, a good healthy laugh is what the original release of the album seriously lacked.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Spirit Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus | | Leave a comment