Ra was my initial introduction to eclectic artist Todd Rundgren. It began an ever-lasting love affair with the man’s music, but this remains one of my favorites from his extremely deep catalog of wonderful to slightly sub-par recordings. Many know Todd as a producer Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, The Tubes’ Remote Control, XTC, etc). Many know Todd as a hit maker with songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “Hello It’s Me” and the ubiquitous “Bang On the Drum All Day.” Then there is the prog Rundgren we all know from recordings like 1974’s mind-blowing first group album Utopia, Another Live and this one Ra, where he had finally assembled a group of outstandingly talented players and singers to present his music in concert.
Drummer John “Willie” Wilcox, Bassist Kasim Sulton, and Keys man Roger Powell would join Todd for the next several years as his back-up band for solo shows and in outings as Utopia which initially was a focus for his prog side. It later became more of a vehicle for the individual songwriters in the group and moved away from progressive rock in later years. Todd had his own solo recordings to develop his ideas. It made sense to offer this venue to the rest of the band.
I would say this is the most prog of all Todd’s recordings, due to the musicality and the lyrical nature of the songs. I think the 1977 eponymous record has better prog tendencies and a progressive rock feel, however Ra has some of that fairy tale nonsense that most people associate with progressive rock. You know what I’m talking about.
The album by title reveals an eastern mythology motif and is also represented by their playing of the opening instrumental overture written by Bernardo Herrman for the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth. All the band’s voices are used on “Communion With the Sun,” coming together incredibly like a rock and roll symphony no orchestra or synth could reproduce. Just to show how off the wall they could be, they follow with Beatles meet cabaret on “Magic Dragon Theatre,” to balls out rock and roll on “Jealousy,” and vocal harmonies soaring into the stratosphere ala Queen on “Eternal Love.” I haven’t heard this much variation back to back since the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s!
We now get into some serious prog with “Sunburst Finish,” Roger Powell’s tour de force with ever shifting time signatures and trade off vocal lines between Roger, Todd and Kasim. Side two opener “Hiroshima” still resounds with me today, thirty some years after first hearing it! It is performed with fervor and anger that could go over the top, but in my opinion doesn’t. It’s a well done piece about the horrors of war. If you want to go over the top though, I introduce to you the next piece, the Tolkenesque epic “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale).” “Singring” still holds a place in my heart, but upon retrospect seems a bit silly in it’s story of the quest to free the spirit of harmony. It’s great to hear the uniqueness of the band’s individual voices as so often they sing together and blend impeccably. Some wonderful instrumental solos from each member are here, but the subject material might put some off. I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to see “Singring” reproduced in concert however. I’ve seen video from that tour and it looked amazing.
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on August 7th, 2012