Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review of Mountain's "Flowers of Evil"

I posted this one earlier tonight on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Although this isn't Mountain's strongest album, it will give you a decent taste of what this band was all about.

Mountain is a band that doesn't get a lot of attention these days. Although they were one of the groups who played at the original Woodstock Festival, their "classic" lineup of Felix Pappalardi on vocals, bass and keyboards, guitar legend Leslie West on guitar and vocals, Steve Knight on keyboards and Corky Laing on drums was only together from 1969 through 1972. Their special brand of blues-influenced hard rock invites comparisons to other late-sixties-early-seventies bands such as Cream, Cactus, Grand Funk Railroad and Humble Pie. Flowers of Evil was this lineup's third and final studio album, although in truth, it was actually half-studio and half-live -- the first five tracks are studio recordings, while the final two (side two of the original vinyl LP) were recorded at a live concert at New York's Fillmore East in June of 1971.

Flowers of Evil has received mixed reviews over the years, and for good reason. It pales in comparison to Mountain's first two LPs, Climbing! (1970) and Nantucket Sleighride (1971). The popular view has long been that after two years of constant touring, Mountain was somewhat burnt out when it came time to write songs for a new project, which is why only half of the album featured new material. On the other hand, it's generally conceded that these first three LPs (and maybe the 1972 release Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On) comprise the high point of the band's existence. Viewed from this perspective, Flowers of Evil can be seen as the least important original recording of the band's most important period.

I've read many comments on this site and in other places saying that the live portion of Flowers of Evil is the best part. All I can tell you is that I've owned the LP for many years, and I've always gravitated more toward the studio side of the album. I freely grant that none of the new songs on Flowers reach the level of Mountain's three best tracks, "Mississippi Queen" and "Theme for an Imaginary Western" from Climbing! and the title track from Nantucket Sleighride. Taken on their own terms, though, I find each of the five new original tracks on this recording to be pretty decent.

The title track "Flowers of Evil" kicks off the album. It's a mid-tempo rocker with West singing lead on the verses and Pappalardi taking the choruses. A reflection of its time, it's sung from the perspective of a father lamenting that his son has come back from the Vietnam War with a personality-changing drug addiction. This one leaves plenty of room for West's guitar acrobatics, and received some modest airplay on American FM radio.

Next comes "King's Chorale," a short-but-graceful instrumental for piano, organ and guitar penned by Pappalardi. This leads into the album's most controversial track, "One Last Cold Kiss", a song about a pair of swans whose happy life together is tragically altered by the arrow of a thoughtless hunter. The song sounds great and has a bouncy instrumental chorus, but it's marred by cringe worthy lyrics: "Husband come to my side/And with your feathers warm my pain". Yeah, rock in the seventies sometimes got a little pretentious.

The studio portion of the album is rounded out by "Crossroader", a solid, if unexceptional, basic mid-tempo rocker, and "Pride and Passion", a seven-minute-long prog-rock track with a few different movements that mines the same vein as "Theme for an Imaginary Western" in the main body of the song.

The live section of the album begins with a five-part medley, the best portions of which are Mountain's cover of the rock staple "Roll Over Beethoven", and an instrumental segment referred to as "Swan Theme" that allows the band to improvise around the chorus of "One Last Cold Kiss" without getting weighed down by the embarrassing lyrics. The album ends with a welcome concert version of "Mississippi Queen". I suspect that musicians and guitar lovers in particular are more drawn to this live side of the album. There's a lot of musical improvisation and a good energy level throughout. My short attention span, however, is better suited to enjoy the five studio tracks.

In the year 2018, I find Mountain to be a sadly undervalued band. Rock historians credit them with being one of the forerunners of heavy metal, and in 2015, Rolling Stone magazine rated Leslie West as #66 on their list of 100 Greatest GuitaristsFlowers of Evil isn't their best album, or their second best, for that matter. But it's a respectable rock album that will give you a good taste of what 1970s hard rock was all about.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars