Though Utopia isn’t quite to Todd Rundgren what Tin Machine was to David Bowie, there are definitely some parallels that can be drawn between the two projects. Both represented an already established artist subverting their egos to pursue a completely different musical path within a band framework, essentially giving them the freedom to establish a separate identity without the high expectations that would have been attached to their own material. Rundgren started Utopia in the early 70s as a response to all the progressive rock bands he saw getting popular at the time, and made them the over-the-top, theatrical flip side to his highly personal, quietly eccentric pop style. What’s interesting, though, is the way Utopia actually evolved over time, quickly becoming more and more commercial as Rundgren’s own material become more and more esoteric. That said, Utopia was still every bit as unpredictable as Todd Rundgren’s own career. The upside to this is that they eventually grew into being a bona fide band as opposed to a mere vanity project, but taking advantage of the freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted meant they never kept a solid audience for too long, outside of the already-devoted Rundgren aficionados. A damn shame, if you ask me, but that’s what the Popdose Guides are for, I suppose. And on that note…
Though many categorize this album as Todd Rundgren’s big leap into progressive rock, I actually hear a pretty big jazz-fusion influence here as well (Áƒ la Return to Forever and the like). Frank Zappa also casts a mighty shadow over the proceedings, “Freak Parade” being more or less a 10-minute Zappa pastiche. To sum it up briefly: this album is a perfectly valid exercise in prog-jazz-rock-fusion-whatever-you-wanna-call-it, mainly because the band is full of first-rate players and Rundgren makes sure to throw in some actual song-like parts amidst all the noodling. However, unless I start investing in a serious psychedelic drug habit, I can’t see this ever entering heavy rotation on my personal playlist. It’s not every day that I’ll want to sit down and listen to a half-hour piece of music, regardless of how good it is (this would be “The Ikon”), and the shortest track on the album (“Freedom Fighters”) is also the least memorable. In spite of my nitpicking, however, this is still a fascinating curio in Todd Rundgren’s discography, and definitely worth at least a cursory listen (though it takes a lot of patience to get to the good stuff). Here’s my favorite track, “Utopia Theme”.
More tightly wound proggery, this time condensing the lengthy suites into the more easily digestible format known as “songs.” Unfortunately, the material itself is fairly uneven. The best of it finds the band sounding like a friendlier, happier counterpart to Frank Zappa’s mid-’70s work or even a slightly more unhinged Chicago Transit Authority — “Another Life” and “The Seven Rays”, in particular, are standouts. But the worst material… well, some might disagree with me on this, but I find “The Wheel” to be the kind of embarrassingly insipid hippie sing-along crap that I usually associate more with bad open mic nights than good Todd Rundgren albums. They also throw in covers and Todd Rundgren solo songs, to varying degrees of success. If you’re curious about early Utopia, you’d do better to get the debut instead, but as with most Todd Rundgren projects, there’s still enough interesting material here to warrant a listen.
From this point onwards, Utopia now consisted of Todd Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on keyboards, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and new kid Kasim Sulton on bass, all of whom took turns singing (though Todd and Kasim were essentially the main vocalists). This album is also notable in that it represents Utopia’s first conscious move away from prog and into the arena-ready rock sound that would mark it’s next couple of albums. This is probably due to the fact that, with two of the three keyboardists gone, there’s more emphasis on Todd’s guitarwork in the songs, and Willie seems to have gotten a lot more comfortable in the drummer’s seat. It’s also worth noting that, though there’s less of an emphasis on technical virtuosity this time around, the band actually sounds a lot tighter by virtue of the fact that they’re playing in the context of more compact, fully fleshed-out songs. Well, except for that 18-minute fairy tale suite on side two. No, I don’t wanna talk about it. Highlights include the absolutely thunderous opener, “Communion with the Sun,” and the quirky, almost Brian Wilson-esque “Magic Dragon Theater.” There’s also the mildly controversial “Hiroshima,” a clumsily arranged yet passionately angry seven-minute dirge that’s either one of the best tracks on the album or a bit of an embarrassment, depending on who you ask. I’ll reserve my judgement and let you decide for yourself.
So prog is out, arena rock is in, and if the lyrics are any indication, Todd is very pissed off. Take the opener, “Trapped,” for instance, easily the loudest, angriest song the band ever wrote:
You’ve got to break out, you’ve got to prove you’re alive
What makes you think that the weak survive?
And if you don’t have the stomach for all this radical crap
Then have the guts to stand for something or you’re gonna be trapped
Hell yeah! The rest of the album veers between militant rockers like these and sweet ballads like Willie’s underrated “Crazy Lady Blue” and the now-classic “Love Is the Answer.” The major exceptions to this rule are the gloomy funk of “Abandon City” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a schizophrenic, three-part mini-suite that manages to cleverly disguise itself as a straight rock song. This track is key, as it shows how the band had managed to rein in their excesses without compromising their more ambitious side. This isn’t a perfect album by any means (there are a few songs here and there that seem a bit undercooked), but it’s definitely one of their most solid outings.
With this album, Utopia streamlined their sound even further, meaning that they were now a progressive-rock-turned-arena-rock-band disguised as a new wave pop group. They pulled it off pretty well, too, with “You Make Me Crazy” sounding like the best song the Cars never wrote, and Kasim’s goofy, poppy “Set Me Free” providing the closest thing the band ever had to a hit. The flipside is that there’s also some pretty pedestrian material — “Shot in the Dark” has never done anything for me, and “Love Alone” is a pretty song nearly ruined by its all-synth instrumental backing. On the other hand, the album closes with the tongue-in-cheek disco jam “Rock Love”, which is just too much fun to dismiss. So, ultimately, I have conflicted feelings about this album — it’s a good pop record, but too often I find the rough edges of their last two efforts have been sanded down, resulting in an album that has a lot of good attributes, but very little by way of a distinct identity. But hey, most people rank this as their favorite Utopia album, so what do I know?
See, now this was just a bad, bad idea. This is Utopia’s album-length tribute to the Beatles, with the first half being a pastiche of their earlier, poppier material, and the second half being an exercise in smarmy faux-psychedelia. The first half is at least kind of fun, as Todd Rundgren has always had a way with pop hooks (derivative or not) but by the time the music-hall pastiche of “Always Late” rolls around, I’m inclined to either take the record off or punch someone’s lights out. And no, before you ask, I’m not a Beatles purist by any means. It’s just that the Beatles’ sound is aped in the most irritatingly superficial way, reducing what could have been an interesting piss-take on a great band’s career to an entire album’s worth of ’60s-inspired clichÁƒ©s. “I Just Want to Touch You” is the most well-known song here, for what it’s worth. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, go for it. But if that’s the case, can I interest you in a slightly used Rutles album?
I don’t quite know where to start with this one, so I’ll just get my own bias out of the way and say this is my favorite Utopia album, bar none. First of all, the main theme of this album is the rise of the greedy, materialistic mindset that characterized the Reagan era, which means the righteous anger and cynicism of Oops! Wrong Planet has returned with a vengeance. Also, musically speaking, this is probably the most experimental and listener-unfriendly Utopia album since the debut, throwing in everything from jazz rock (the awesome title track) to Tubes-esque new wave (“The Up”) to disco (“Fahrenheit 451”) to… whatever the hell “Junk Rock,” “Shinola,” and “The Last Dollar on Earth” are supposed to be (aside from really, really ugly). They even throw in one of Rundgren’s best-ever ballads, the masterful “Only Human,” as if to prove that they’re not completely devoted to fucking with their audience. Still, this can be tough going, and not everyone’s going to like it. Which, incidentally, is why I love it.
After releasing two of the most alienating albums of their career, Utopia switched labels and suddenly reinvented themselves, once again, as a straight power pop band with new wave affectations. They also came up with what may be their catchiest set of songs ever, unloading hook after hook after hook over a total of 15 tracks, making this paradoxically one of the longest and most consistent Utopia albums ever. Picking highlights in nigh-impossible — there aren’t many instant classics here, but there isn’t a weak track among the bunch. “Libertine” is a hell of an opener, though, while “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” is a Beatles homage that body-slams anything on Deface the Music into submission. Even Roger and Willie’s vocal highlights turn out to be some of the best on the album. Don’t let the stiff, bare-bones production fool you — this is easily one of their best.
I’m probably the only person I know who likes this album so, like my assessment of Adventures in Utopia, there’s a good chance you should disregard everything I say here. However, I do think Oblivion‘s gotten a bit of a bad rap. Most people tend to point out that this is one of Utopia’s more generic-sounding albums, stuffed to the gills with loud guitars, fake drums, and blaring synths. Okay, fine. But taken on its own merits as a slightly derivative ’80s pop album, I’d say it’s actually quite good. “Crybaby” is a shamelessly cheesy (not to mention highly addictive) rocker, “Winston Smith Takes It on the Jaw” suggests a hidden Thomas Dolby influence, and “I Will Wait” is an awesome, heartfelt album-closing ballad. Elsewhere, “Bring Me My Longbow” and “Too Much Water” are paranoid, jittery eco-funk-rants that’ll either make you want to dance around the room or reach for an Advil. Like I said, I’m in the minority on this one, but if you’re looking for a higher caliber of 80s cheese, why not give this album a try?
Aside from a live reunion album from 1992 (which I highly recommend), this is Utopia’s swan song and, unfortunately, it’s not very good. The entire band was experimenting with sequencers this time around, which means pretty much everything but the guitars and vocals sound fake, and the sterile production makes it sound like the band was somehow trapped inside one of their own drum machines and were trying to record as quickly as possible to avoid eating each other for sustenance. Only Roger Powell’s Devo-ish rocker “Zen Machine” (which I’ve presented here in a far superior live version from the aforementioned 1992 reunion) and the closing “Man of Action” raising an appreciable head of steam, but still, you know something’s very wrong when the Rundgren-sung songs are actually the worst. Well, okay, fine, I suppose I should mention “Mated,” a ballad that’s become something of a minor Rundgren classic. Still, though, the emphasis here is on “minor.” This is a sad, sad end to a criminally underrated band.