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Richard Wright - Broken China Print E-mail

Album Review by Ron Fleischer

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Broken ChinaWith a bit of a lull on the creative Floyd front, the arrival of the new and somewhat unexpected Rick Wright CD is a welcome event. Broken China, released on October 9th 1996 in the UK, was met with much critical applause. To the surprise of many, Wright has created a concept album (go figure) based on a female friend suffering from clinical depression.


Although he himself has never suffered from that malady, Rick apparently felt compelled to express his feelings about her illness and the healing process. “It’s my emotional response to her illness, rather than me talking about the illness, or how to cure it directly,” Wright explained in a recent interview. Rick has just recently revealed that the woman referred to in Broken China is none other than his wife, Millie.

All lyrics were written by Anthony Moore, whose Floydian co-writing credits include Learning To Fly, On The Turning Away, and Wearing The Inside Out, with additional contributions from Gerry Gordon. Accompanying Wright are Manu Katche (from Peter Gabriel’s band) on drums, Pino Palladino on bass (who has played with Gilmour in the past), and Tim Renwick, Dominic Miller (from Sting’s band) and Steve Bolton on guitars. Produced by Wright and Moore, this superb sounding CD was mixed at Astoria (Gilmour’s floating recording studio) in Q Sound. Everything else from remastering to cover art (by Storm and friends) has FLOYD stamped in big pink letters all over it.

Broken China is a dark, richly textured, complex piece of work which takes quite a few listens to settle into. It’s extremely ambitious, even more so due to the fact that Wright’s last solo outting was 1978’s Wet Dream (sorry, I don’t count Identity as a solo album the same way I dismiss The Body as a Waters solo project). Not exactly a prolific solo career. It was 1994’s Division Bell sessions and tour that seemed to spark creative life back into Rick, making his first contribution to a Floyd album since 1977’s Animals! In fact, Broken China was in large part conceived during the 1994 tour.

Written as a four-part suite (each part containing four tracks), Broken China is largely improvised (most of the instrumentals), and masterfully produced. The first part of the first suite begins with the sound of falling rain in the short opening instrumental, Breaking Water. The delicate sound of thunder (pun intended) cracks the sky as synthesized keyboards weave in and out, hovering above a layer of undulating sound effects resembling a repeating sample of echoing thunder. The two and a half minute piece doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s purpose is obvious - that of being a “nice” intro to the album.

Without missing a beat, we segue into Night of a Thousand Furry Toys, a song which grimly welcomes you into this world that “pushes your levers and pulls your strings.” This track is a perfect lead-off for the story and firmly sets the tone for the rest of the album. This mid-tempo piece is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s style of breathless somber vocals. Tim Renwick adds a catchy guitar solo (with a sound uncannily familiar to Gilmour’s on Another Brick Pt.2) to the end of the song. Anthony Moore makes his vocal debut on one of the verses (credited as singing “on the telephone”) with a digitally altered voice. It seems that Rick is doing a remix of this track, so I guess it’s being considered for release as a single. A great song!

Hidden Fear, a dark cry from a child (“Why do we feel this adult pain/And hold these secrets that don't belong”) suffering from some sort of abuse, follows. The pain and guilt are held in and left to ferment in the subject's psyche, contributing to her depression years later. This song, sung with heartfelt passion, plays more like the orchestrated readings you’d find in “Les Miserables”. The obvious intention of the song is to distance it from the traditional pop format. While this may evoke criticism from many people (I could easily see where it might not be everybody’s cup o' tea), it certainly holds true to the concept and integrity of the album. This is a piece whose function is to continue the album’s narrative and ambiance rather than something you’d find yourself humming in the shower. (Hidden Fear is the album's first official single. Its video, upon release in the UK, was immediately banned because it included scenes of a baby being breast fed. Yeah, how offensive. - ed.)

Runaway, a spacey instrumental, closes the first suite. This song begins with a lonely synth layered over a distant ticking sound effect (shades of Barrett’s Bike), slowly building into a brief percussive jam. The jam ends, leading back to the opening atmospheric effects and finally fading out. The first suite deals with the birth and unhappy childhood of Mrs. Wright, laying the foundation for some unspecified trauma, with this last instrumental serving as the epilogue.

Unfair Ground leads off part two representing her troubled teenage years. A disorienting instrumental, this track is spacier than anything the Floyd have attempted in over 25 years! With it’s confused content (from the distant echo of a calliope and disembodied screams from a carnival, to the Jean Luc Pontyesque guitar sounds from Dominic Miller), this tune portrays the heroine’s emerging psychosis during this period of her life.

Satellite is anything but down beat and is in fact downright funky. Although I’m absolutely stumped as to how it fits into the narrative, it’s certainly a welcome reprieve from the world of depression and deep space. Its syncopated percussive backbone underlies Renwick’s brilliant guitar leads (not to mention a few inspired moments from Rick) and the song’s power chord structure. One of the more successful instrumentals on the album.

Satellite segues into Woman of Custom, now reflecting on the sad state of her life, her emotional emptiness, and the hope to feel again (“But now if storms would only blow/She could really feel the roll”). This gentle ballad, expressing signs of optimism, cradles a light melody beautifully sung by Wright. It's also here that Miller displays his able wares with impressive acoustic guitar passages.

Interlude is the album’s fifth instrumental (out of the eight tracks thusfar). This piece begins with a series of melodramatic chords filtering off into a light piano piece underscored by foreboding synths. I guess the title says it all; and with the track clocking in at just over a minute, the second suite concludes.

Beginning the third and focusing on his wife’s struggle with her depression and desperation, Black Cloud starts out with what sounds like the opening music from “A Clockwork Orange” except heavier and more structured. The synths build up grandiosely, almost like an ELP fanfare, but remain a bit empty and directionless. Great head candy nonetheless.

The momentum stirs as the tension-filled Far From The Harbour Wall begins. This atmospheric ditty is definitely one of the album’s highlights, evoking a heightened sense of imminent danger. Basically, our heroine has become comfortably numb as she feels hopelessly trapped in her life. This track was excellently produced and includes a free-style percussive bridge reminiscent of Bill Bruford’s work with King Crimson. It also sounds closer to a classic Pink Floyd song than any others on the album. A haunting song that will stay with you.

Drowning is yet another short instrumental segue clocking in at just over a minute and a half. This moody synth piece begins on a heavy, somber tone and slowly winds down (drowning?) into Reaching For The Rail. Although Rick serves as the story’s narrator, two songs were written from his wife’s point of view and thus needed a female vocalist. Wright asked Sinead O’Connor to sing on these tracks because he liked her delivery on Nothing Compares 2 U (gee, ya mean he wasn’t impressed by her rendition of Mother?!). I’ve never been a fan of hers, but her voice perfectly complements Rick’s whispery delivery in this well-paced, outstanding track.

The lyrics indicate that our heroine is deeply depressed (“I’ll sleep through the day til the daylight ends/Cos it’s all so familiar/As it comes around again”), and contemplates suicide as a possible antidote (“Just take these and you’ll really never feel it”).

Wright’s trickling piano solo counterpoints some incoherent background crowd dialogue during the song’s bridge. Renwick adds a pleasant guitar solo, this time sounding a bit like Marillion guitarist Steven Rothery. Wright delivers vocals for the fourth verse which ends with both Wright and O’Connor sharing the last few desperate lines. The piece meanders for an additional minute and a half with synthesizers (I’m surprised he didn’t credit this as a separate track, probably wanted to keep everything in 4’s), ending part three.

Blue Room In Venice follows along the same lines as Hidden Fear with more “Les Miserables”-esque orchestrated dialogue. With heartfelt pleading, Rick, symbolically offering an outstretched hand of hope and compassion, implores the heroine to let love enter her life again. Once again, a piece designed to advance the narrative and mood of the story. In a recent interview, Rick explained that even after he ditched the concept of an all-instrumental album, both Blue Room In Venice and Hidden Fear remained instrumentals right up to the end.

Sweet July (the album’s final instrumental) is another atmospheric piece featuring more Gilmour-like guitar work (courtesy of Dominic Miller). This track slightly resembles the opening section of Coming Back To Life, stretched out to a four minute piece, and could even be sarcastically referred to as “Son Of Marooned”.

The up-beat Along The Shoreline is my favourite track. Sounding more like Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music than Pink Floyd, this song soars high above the album's overall melancholy. Featuring Renwick’s catchy cascading guitar harmonics, and a killer synth solo from Rick (over a “Run Like Hell” type rhythm guitar), this song glowingly celebrates his wife's emergence from depression (“With the darkness gone/like a distant road”). The production on this track is magnificent, and should be seriously considered for airplay.

The story concludes with Breakthrough, the second to feature vocals by Sinead. This light tune is again told from Millie’s point of view and serves as a recap, caution (“They’re never gonna make it easy/Of this you can be sure”) and moral summary of the story. Gilmour originally recorded a guitar track for this song but persuaded Rick from using it, stating: “This is your album, not a Floyd album.” Instead, Dominic Miller came in and played some acoustic stuff - which seemed to work better for Rick anyway. In fact, I would have liked to hear some more of that acoustic guitar added to the end of Breakthrough (which eventually just fades out), rather than the briefly sustained chord following Sinead’s vocal.

Though slightly yet sometimes very dissimilar to his previous solo work, Broken China is possibly Rick's finest hour as a solo artist. In fact, it's one of my favorite solo Floyd albums. He'll probably not gain many if any new fans from this release, but Rick has delivered something that many Floyd fans will enjoy - while we wait for the rest of the Floyd to finish their nap.

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