The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the debut of British sonic wizards Pink Floyd, is nothing short of a monumental album. It packages expansive sonics and frontman Syd Barrett’s distinctive delivery into an absolute odyssey. It’s a far-out and dynamic palette that evokes images of Lewis Carrol’s Alice saga as well as science fiction, thanks to Barrett’s eclectic and whimsical tales. It also points to the future of rock ‘n’ roll, as the band carve out a space for themselves by tearing up the rulebook.
A narcotic journey through time and space, the music on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is matched by an appropriate and facilitating level of production that brings Barrett’s clear, acid-drenched vision to life. Incredibly exciting, the musical dynamism makes you wonder what direction the psychedelic movement will take next, with the sonics contained on this record as boundary-pushing as anything the scene had ever witnessed.
The ambition on display signifies the album as a luminary work, bucking trends with stylistic dexterity that reveals Pink Floyd to be so much more than simply a psychedelic outfit. There are more tender moments in the mix, such as those found at points on ‘Matilda Mother’ and ‘Pow R. Toc. H’ reinforcing this notion.
It might seem relatively juvenile in some aspects, but this is forgiven, as broadly speaking, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a remarkably mature composition. There is a clear concept underpinning it, woven together with impressive panache. Each member – vocalist and guitarist Barrett, bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason – all work together for the project’s good, with every note and every beat played for a specific and well-considered reason. Through undoubted artistic flamboyance, the band bounces between freak-out psychedelia, surreal experimental turns and more wistful, folk-like flourishes creating a cinematic listening experience that has you on your toes, pushing the traditional understanding of an LP to its limits.
Reflecting the bizarre aspects of the album is that its title was taken from the appearance of Pan, the ancient god, in the 1908 story The Wind in the Willows. Those familiar with the tale will be aware that the pastoral classic has evident psychedelic qualities, with these most apparent in its use of talking animals and wacky settings. Clearly, this had an effect on Barrett, with the stories he spins equally as fantastical. Despite his poetry rarely making much sense, he confirms himself as a tremendous wordsmith on the record.
The album opener ‘Astronomy Domine’ perfectly sets the pace for what’s to come. It is a superb example of the psychedelic rock boom, but it diverges from the norm because it is packaged with a sinister, off-kilter edge that marks the band out from their peers. Sonically, it’s a masterwork. The tension builds, sounding as if the quartet are performing it live from space, transmitting it back to us mere Earthlings, imploring us to leave the humdrum of the day-to-day behind. Thanks to the plinky keys and the group’s commanding choral vocals, it also has a surrealistic B-movie edge that kicks the imagination into gear.
Another highlight is the second exhibit, ‘Lucifer Sam’, which fades in with a spy-movie-like riff. Barrett’s guitar work is exceptional, with his and Waters’ bass dovetailing with intent, as they instil more attitude in this number than on any of the others. Touching on the dark side of the counterculture through Barrett’s discussion of hip cats and more devilish ones, the themes are augmented by the music, with the highlight being the brief, droning solo the frontman provides.
Other highlights from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn include the brilliant single ‘Flaming’, an uptempo track with an otherworldly organ line that sounds like Pan from The Wind in the Willows is playing it himself. This is the most affecting song found on the album, as Barrett and the band flirt with both the ethereal and off-kilter, thanks to his oscillating vocal performance and Richard Wright’s technically astute showing that gives this one its tangibly celestial essence.
‘Interstellar Overdrive’, meanwhile, is another high point and goes down as one of the quartet’s finest compositions. The name itself should be enough to convince you of its character: it is a meandering, noisy instrumental that spans nearly ten minutes of unhinged yet competent musical variation. The gloves are off, and the group let rip. I’d send critics of the band in this song’s direction; they’re not your average hippies.
Other notable moments include the metamorphosing ‘Pow R. Toc H’, the acoustic lullaby of ‘The Gnome’ and the penultimate offering ‘The Scarecrow’, which gradually segues from one of Barrett’s traditionally whimsical numbers into a hypnotic form of folk rock complete with horns and the compact organ which beckon you to leave the ordinary world and enter that of the flowery frontman.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a complete success. Not only does it confirm Pink Floyd as one of the most exciting groups of their generation, but confirms them as the finest sonic world builders music has ever seen.