The Division Bell by Pink Floyd (Cassette, Apr-1994, Columbia (USA))
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For Millions Of Years Mankind Lived Just Like The Animals - Then Came Floyd
Apr 11, 2003
Review by headlessparrot
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Solid writing, great guitar, keyboards and overall texture
Cons:Considering its context, none
The Bottom Line: It's no Dark Side Of The Moon, but it doesn't have expectations quite that lofty anyways. A great album despite what critics say.
The tale of Pink Floyd is a biographers wet dream. Drugs, infighting, power struggles, and some of the greatest rock albums in music history would not only provide an excellent read, but Id bet that Sigmund Freud would have a field day with it as well. It is impossible to sum up the career of Pink Floyd in a single sentence or even a paragraph. To truly do justice to the band, one would have to dedicate a several hundred-page book detailing the exploits of rocks most experimental and adventurous troupe. That said, Ill take a stab at things, like Ive already done so many times before.
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As most people already know, the career of Pink Floyd can be split up into three distinct eras in which they were lead by a different persona. The first incarnation of the group was lead by the fanciful and whimsical Syd Barrett, who achieved in creating a distinctly psychedelic sound that was usually quite upbeat, charming, and, well, distinctly British. A reviewer on a different Website described the Barrett era succinctly - The Disney version of an acid trip. Depending on your point of view, it was either a shame or a great stroke of luck that the group only released one full-length LP under Barretts leadership, as he was forced to bow out as a result of the devastating toll that mind-altering substances had on both his body and mind.
Rather than parting ways, the band made a decision to trek onwards with Roger Waters as the new head songwriter and the newly recruited David Gilmour replacing Barrett on guitar. The bands sound radically shifted after that moment, with the group doing an almost completely 180 degree turn from the giddy British silliness of Barretts creation. Waters writing, while relatively unimpressive in its infancy, improved dramatically after the band put a couple of records behind them, with Gilmour helping in the process to lighten the load. Some confusingly experimental albums and soundtrack work was a precursor to what may very well be the greatest single run of albums in rock history for the Waters incarnation. A fascination with humanitys darkness as well as the concept of insanity and world politics were the driving force behind the commentary on four of rocks greatest albums. Waters abandoned the fanciful in favour of dark and biting cynicism, bitterness and pure rage. His humour was often sarcastic and twisted, and it served the group well. David Gilmours ability as a guitarist far surpassed that of Barrett, and this and a combination of other factors resulted in intense, powerful and moving music that had an effect on the world even as the punk movement was doing its best to knock them out of the limelight.
The Waters-led Floyd, however, gradually began to crumble. With each passing album, he exerted more control over the writing and recording, and by the release of The Final Cut in 1983, Pink Floyd had all but become a Roger Waters solo act. The talent, the power and the raw emotion and gorgeously textured music was still there, but Waters alienated the other band members by recording and producing the album from start to finish pretty well by himself with little or no input. The brooding darkness of The Final Cut would be the bands last hurrah, as Waters left and the other group members began pursuing solo projects.
In 1986, the first inklings of a reunion began with Dave Gilmour leading the band himself. In an attempt to squash that idea, Waters sued over the Pink Floyd name but lost, and 1987's A Momentary Lapse Of Reason became the first album of the Gilmour era. Since that time, the Water-less Pink Floyd has continued to write, record and tour as of a couple of years ago. Theyve quieted down, but Dave Gilmour was responsible for adding his own voice to the Floyd legacy.
There are many Pink Floyd fans who will only follow one incarnation of the group, and they do this almost religiously, condemning any of the groups albums that werent recorded without that member in question. By far the most vocal of these fans are those who would love nothing more than Roger Waters to return and take his rightful place at the Pink Floyd throne. Many contend that Gilmours post-Waters vision is that of a dinosaur, producing stale imitations of the Pink Floyd sound and cashing in on the groups success. Both of the Floyd albums after their reunion have been critically panned, and its a general held belief that Gilmour will never be able to live up to the shoes of Roger Waters and Syd Barrett. It is said that A Momentary Lapse Of Reason was essentially a Dave Gilmour solo recorded that was re-recorded and remixed to sound more 'Floydian, and that Gilmour has to rely on others to write his material. Roger Waters himself described the Lapse Of Reason album as quite a facile imitation of the Floyd sound. Much of the identity struggle of a Pink Floyd fan is a result of these factors.
Its true, I suppose, that Pink Floyd will never attain its former glory. Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall were just moments in time that the band managed to capture before they slipped away. That said, I believe that Dave Gilmour has just as much of a right to be leading the band as anyone else. He knows Pink Floyd, and hes one of rocks most brilliant guitarists. He is more than capable of leading the band that he played a supporting role in for almost twenty years. So his girlfriend helped to write a couple of lines - does that really invalidate everything that hes done as a musician. So hes not continuing to expand further and further in the esoteric and experimental. Can we really fault him for continuing a successful formula, as so many other bands have done year-after-year. At their age, the band is lucky to still be making music together, and I think their entire goal is to have fun and make people remember when rock and roll was about the music. Perhaps Im taking a somewhat hypocritical stance here, all things considered, but whats the point in criticizing a band who has managed to stay relevant for five decades.
The Division Bell, released in 1994, while technically the second album from the band with Gilmour at the helm, should perhaps be considered the first. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, in all its inconsistent yet strangely lovable glory, was in truth more of a solo album than a Floyd outing. The album featured few contributions drummer Nick Mason or keyboardist Richard Wright, and perhaps it showed. While I still very much enjoy Lapse Of Reason, it was decidedly unfocused. The Division Bell, in contrast, was a true Pink Floyd album, with all three remaining members contributing their part to the album.
The Division Bell, like the majority of post-Barrett work is rich in human pessimism and bleakness, that is ironically set to incredibly intricate and beautiful music that cant help but draw you in. Whereas Dark Side Of The Moon was an assessment of the evil within the human character and The Wall was a specific, biographical example of the descent into madness, The Division Bell is primarily concerned as a vague sort of concept album with detailing human communication, both good and bad. The towering twin statues on the albums front covers are gorgeously detailed, and each sculpture stares back at the other - but neither of these beings has a set of ears with which to hear or understand the other. More specifically, as the symbolic imagery of the jewel case cover suggests, The Division Bell loosely chronicles the human ability to miscommunicate and miscommunication in general. The frequent allusion to words and speech are no coincidence, as when taken in a whole, The Division Bell is another mark on the human race. For all of our technology and advancements, sometimes we are incapable of performing the most basic of tasks - communication. Speech is what separates us from the animals, or so wed like to think, but Gilmours austere musical imagery makes it clear that thats not the case. We are very much animals, lost in a world that perhaps we dont quite understand. While the conceptual ground is not unfamiliar for Floyd, Gilmour fleshes out his philosophy on the nature of human communication quite powerfully, conveying a vast range of human emotions in the process of telling a story of human shortcomings. One has to ask, maybe, whether Gilmours assessment is too pessimistic. But it is said that art imitates life, and the aging guitarist has seen a lot of strife, both spoken and not in his lifetime. The hypothesis of Division Bell is one that Gilmour may have never been able to explore under the leadership of Roger Waters.
Musically, The Division Bell is a return to form of the Pink Floyd aesthetic. The brief foray into an almost eighties power rock that was much of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason behind them, the group returned here to doing what they know best. And that is creating rich, deeply textured songs that convey potent feelings through the most minute of musical subtleties and intricacies. David Gilmours guitar is just as aurally pleasing as it ever was, maintaining that warm but slightly overdriven tone with such life and vigour that musicians have struggled to capture for years. Keyboardist Richard Wright, aided by the technological advances of the eighties and nineties, is able to do more with synthesizers, loops and his keyboards then ever was possible, while even in his older age, Nick Mason remains one of the finest drummers in rock, keeping time to intricate and wildly fluctuating passages with relative ease and an authoritarian power unknown to musics youth. The tape effects, as are customary, are used at regular intervals to convey the unspeakable emotions, and they do so in an incredibly lifelike manner, leaving the listener with the impression that the sounds jumping forth from the speakers are in fact real. Dick Parry, as always, adds the saxophone to the tracks, and a Michael Kamen-arranged orchestra assists with texture, adding swelling crescendos and ominous horns where necessary. The final piece to the puzzle are the female backing vocalists, who play a role on Division Bell not seen since Dark Side Of The Moon. I hate to use the word gorgeous for the fifth or sixth time, but its really the only way that I can describe the rich, full sounds created on the album. Floyd is in perfect harmony, and they know exactly when and where to speed up, slow down, and become louder or softer. Wrights keyboards and pianos are intricately structured, weaving around the vocals and Gilmours guitars, and the bass - much of it also played by Gilmour - is tasteful, accentuating certain musical point and laying a solid base from which the large number of contributors start. The orchestral arrangements are never too overpowering, always knowing when it is most appropriate. Each of these factors all meld into one solid set of songs, assisted further by the clear and concise mixing and mastering of the record.
The Division Bell finds David Gilmour at a pivotal point in his lyrical output. With the concept already loosely mapped out, he was left with enough room to spread his talents at penning lyrics. And while, like Rogers early lyrics that were sometimes hit and miss, Gilmours shows that hes grown and matured by hitting the mark more often than not. Gilmour layers intricate, detailed stories that unfold not only in the third person but in the first and second as well. He achieves a measure of success, by hitting a nerve on several points with particularly potent lines, and the writing, while thematically analogous, never becomes particularly monotonous or repetitive. Gilmour does an excellent job of encompassing a wide range of emotions with his lyrics, from a resigned melancholic sadness, to anger, to pure hatred - and with his newfound voice, he isnt afraid of taking a couple of shots at the bands former leader with a measured amount of bitterness and sarcasm. Gilmour references moments in time, previous Floyd songs or albums, and seems to create a continuation of them, creating a sort of microcosm where each of the bands song gives a glimpse of something at a moment. While he does stumble occasionally when coming up with rhyming couplets, the contributions of both of the bands other members (something sorely missing when Waters was leader) as well as Gilmours girlfriend and other album contributors. The end product is a tremendous team effort that isnt only a glimpse into the psyche of one band member, but into that of all band members.
The opening moments of the instrumental Cluster One are comprised largely of tape effects. A motor hums quietly and what sounds like a river flows by from one speaker to the other. As the volume gradually begins to increase, a quiet, drawn out synthesizer begins to mingle with the sounds, before Gilmours slow and beautiful guitar tone add to the atmosphere. The pace quickens and the orchestral accompaniment swells gently in the background as the song continues, before immediately segueing into the rhythmic and darkly jazzy instruments of What Do You Want From Me. Masons drums and Wrights psychedelic warbling synthesizer begin the track before Gilmour joins in with a guitar solo. Lyrically, the song sounds like a plea by Dave Gilmour to his fans. As the backing chorus echoes the title line repeatedly and Gilmours voice increases in urgency, theres an undeniable effect. In essence, Gilmour maintains to anyone and everyone who will listen that he is only human and does what he can.
As the last strains of the keyboards fade away, an intricately picked guitar passage gradually arises out of the void, with Gilmour asking a series of unanswerable questions in the second person in Poles Apart, at one point asking, Hey you
Did you ever realise what youd become? as if he were directly referring to Roger Waters. The songs slow, melodic approach is soothing, yet unsettling at the same time because of the keyboard shading and distant sound effects looping in the background. The sound of a rusted swing, and church bells seem to point towards a loss of innocence as the haunting song slows before picking up again.
A Great Day For Freedom references the wall coming down, but whether it was an intended reference towards the album of the same name or the fall of the Berlin Wall is unclear. Dominated almost entirely by a piano and Gilmours warm vocals, he paints a vivid image of beauty before tearing it apart in the final two verses. Wearing The Inside Out is slow and restrained with the saxophone doing much of the work and the rest of the band remaining in the background. Theres a tenderness in the vocals that are effective, as they are traded with the backing singers during the bridge. There is only a brief moment of increased pacing, as the synths pick up and Gilmour reiterates the title before a beautifully arranged solo that fades back out of the picture.
Elsewhere, Keep Talking presents us with the albums centrepiece, and the most literal examination of human communication. World famous physicist Stephen Hawking (or rather, a recreated but approved approximation - Hawking would later attend Floyd concerts) utters the opening stanza of the song, perhaps lending credence to the belief that Pink Floyd is thinking mans music. Hawkings computerized vocals are deliciously appropriate for the lines - For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals/Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination/We learned to talk. He also adds more lines later in the song, which is one of the albums brightest moments both musically and lyrically.
High Hopes is The Division Bells closer, an eight-plus minute long epic that starts with the distant ringing of a church bell. As the bell grows in volume, a simple keyboard riff begins and continues, gradually increasing in volume as drums and other instruments join. The song features virtually no guitar until a tasteful solo begins past the five-minute mark. The song is a lyrical enigma of sorts, using all sorts of metaphorical and symbolic references to arrive at an idea well beyond my grasp. After hearing High Hopes and carefully listening to the lyrics, I was left feeling that perhaps this was a history lesson of Pink Floyd, of a band in their infancy that was still having fun, untainted by what would eventually befall them. That The Division Bell ends in this way is ominous, almost going so far as bordering on chilling, as it may very well have been the last hurrah for one of rocks greatest bands.
Critics despised The Division Bell, panning it for trying to be something that it wasnt. That is, they saw it as an attempt at reclaiming superstardom by covering ground that had been covered before. But critics are far too cynical and overly analytical to truly understand the immense nature of the composition. Itll never be Dark Side Of The Moon, but it isnt trying to be. It is Pink Floyd doing what Pink Floyd does. It is beautiful lyricism, inventive guitar work and haunting atmosphere. It is good songs and it is about the sides of humanity that wed all rather ignore. Pink Floyd may not be breaking new ground here in the way of experimental rock, but with The Division Bell they proved that you didnt have to be young to rock and make a statement. The Division Bell isnt worth the criticism it garners because its a genuinely interesting album that draws you in and uses music as an art.
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