Todd Rundgren's Utopia

Utopia

Bearsville Records, 1974

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/07/1998

Back in 1974, the world already had a band mired in wretched excess - they were called Yes. Todd Rundgren should have realized that he didn't have to create an American version of that excess.

While Rundgren had been enjoying success with a solo career, he either felt a need to be part of a band again (instead of being the studio wunderkid doing everything himself), or he wanted to catch the tail end of the progressive rock scene. Whatever the case, the end result was Utopia, and their debut release Todd Rundgren's Utopia is a serious slap in the face to those expecting the happy, poppy sound of Rundgren's solo days. It's a change, all right - and it's not one for the better.

You almost know you're in trouble when you look at the album and see only four songs on the whole platter - including a 30-minute monstrosity called side two. Uh-oh. Funny thing is, during the pompousity of some of these tracks, you hear the undercurrent of the rock-and-roll monster waiting to burst forth and take control of the band. They'd eventually turn to more conventional music, but for now, prog rock was the thing for them, and they make all the same mistakes the big bands of their time did.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In one sense, they do one thing correctly: they don't always take themselves so seriously. Rundgren still knows how to laugh at people, evidenced on "Freak Parade": "In a world full of freaks / You can creep, you can crawl / But the world's biggest freak / Is the one with no balls." Unfortunately, moments like these aren't common on Todd Rundgren's Utopia.

Whether it's the 14-minute birth cry of the band (recorded live in Atlanta) on "Utopia," or the side-long "The Ikon," the greatest limit of progressive rock is plainly heard: the moment you decide the instrumental development is more important than the song, the whole thing falls apart. And at least on "The Ikon," you can still hear glimpses of Rundgren the solo artist in his guitar solos. But frankly, I think they stretched things way too far when they threw in some country-tinged bits at the end. (Mike Oldfield tried this back on Tubular Bells - it didn't work.)

Ironically enough, the one short song on this album, "Freedom Fighters," doesn't work as well as "Freak Parade," which clocks in at 10 minutes. The difference? Song development. "Freak Parade" contains some good performances (such as the work of keyboardist Moogy Klingman and the synthesizers of M. Frog Labat - as well as Kevin Ellman's trap work), and the song is more solidly crafted. Granted, it's not perfect, but it's a far cry better than the orgasmic chord crunching at the beginning of "Utopia".

Of course, I realize that Rundgren's career lends itself to a "love-it-or-hate-it" attitude due to his stylistic changes from album to album, and that what I think is a questionable sidestep might be revered by other people. (Hell, I'm the one that liked No World Order, for Crissakes.) If you like progressive rock, you'll probably be quite intrigued by Todd Rundgren's Utopia, while those looking for another "Bang The Drum All Day" will turn this one off in disgust.

I guess that, in the end, Todd Rundgren's Utopia was an album worth experiencing, but I sure as hell am not looking forward to listening to it again.

 

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Bearsville Records, and is used for informational purposes only.