Thursday, May 30, 2013

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

   Steely Dan was one of most original American bands of 70’s of rock and pop rock genre. According to some critics accurate assessment of the genre should be jazz-rock. And it’s understandably since it was not quite easy task to classify this band’s music. Although it was advanced in harmonic complexity, band arrangements and soloing, it was more rock than jazz. Despite Steely Dan was more ambitious in creative productions than many popular groups, professional aims of this band were reaching the level of artistic music. This attitude should be considered as important element of fusion culture. But the idea of songs designed in details and played by professional and versatile musicians should be considered as the return to the tradition of artistically developed popular songs. The strophic and formal pattern with instrumental solo choruses in place psychedelic jamming, the discipline against freedom, this was like backtrack moving out of dead end.
   Without any doubts this was just one of artistic rock projects. Arrangements were ambitious as much as in many other bands of early seventies. In most progressive rock projects musicians were trying to merge this still best selling genre with different noncommercial traditions. Many musicians were trying to build original song constructions intertwined with jazz, ethnic, traditional, popular or even classical music. And there were dozens of groups, every one developing its original style and seeking means of expression that could attract audiences.

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

   When in August 1973, less than one year after the debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, ABC Records released their second album Countdown to Ecstasy, critical acclaim of this production was great. In fact the enthusiasm of critics was much higher than commercial effect. The Steely Dan’s lineup was almost the same as on debut album, with guitarists and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, bass guitarist Walter Becker, drummer Jim Hodder and Donald Fagen playing pianos and synthesizer. After vocalist David Palmer had quit the band, Donald Fagen main vocalist supported by Becker, Hodder and group of additional background singers. The sound of Steely Dan was also enriched by group of sideman musicians Rick Derringer and Ben Benay on guitars, Victor Feldman on vibes, marimba and percussion instruments, Ray Brown on string bass in Razor Boy. There were also four saxophonists section in My Old School arranged by Jimmie Haskell with Ernie Watts and West Coast veteran Bill Perkins.
   Sound of this album was totally different than older productions. Producer Gary Katz made this album a groundbreaking project. Denny Dias was featured in lineup as Stereo Mixmaster General. Sessions took place in the Village Recorder in Santa Monica and the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado (on original LP cover misspelled as Carabou Ranch). Recording conditions of two modern studios gave stable basis for professional arrangements being some kind of artistic answer for older popular music. No wonder back cover photo shows the band in engineering room centered around the mixing table with ashtrays, catch in hard workers’ resting poses. The sound of Countdown to Ecstasy album shows this was the real space of creative efforts.

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