Robb Kunkel – Abyss
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The following review is taken from The Lama Reviews
“Founded in 1971 by a couple of guys formerly with ABC/Dunhill, Tumbleweed Records went on to see some success with Danny Holien in 1972 and Michael Stanley’s debut LP in 1973. Judging by the talent roster the label was geared towards the rural rock solo artist and singer/songwriter style that was popular at the time, a direction accentuated by being based in Colorado which was a popular hippie musician hot-spot in the early 1970s. Another of Tumbleweed’s artists was transplanted Canadian Arthur Gee, who has received some underground notoriety of late after being linked to a very rare demo LP titled “Arthur” on the Two:Dot label a couple of years earlier. Tumbleweed’s A&R representative in Denver was ROBB KUNKEL, who apart from signing several artists such as Danny Holien, Dewey Terry (of Don & Dewey) and Pete Mccabe to the label also was given the chance to record an album of his own. Titled Abyss and housed in an eerie fantasy cover, an obvious amount of dollars and time went into the LP, which was produced by Ed Michel and features a number of classy session musician names. Recorded over a period of six months in 1972 the LP came out in early 1973 in a pressing of circa 500 copies. As Tumbleweed was falling apart at the time, promotion and distribution suffered and the album vanished with almost no trace. Thirty years later it remains an unknown quantity even among specialists within the field.
Picking this up without any previous knowledge, the opening 10 minutes of Abyss is likely to have any fan of melodic west coast psych foaming at the mouth. Introduced with the sound of breaking waves and seagulls, Eastern-flavored guitars and tamboura set the stage for “You Were The Morning”, a sublime Thomas Stockwell composition that Kunkel had learned in Chicago many years earlier. Rich guitar tapestries and lush female harmonies support a wave-like melodic structure, with a lyrical electric guitar entering as the tension sharpens. No sooner have you said “Relatively Clean Rivers” than the ocean waves and seagulls return, with some wind chimes added, to send you into the hypnotic “Whispermuse”, again with an organic, constantly evolving melodic flow that keeps spiraling upwards round an axis of dreamy California ’68 summer days, violins there just to make you happy. The lyrics are apparently inspired by Baudelaire, which makes for an interesting contrast with musical moods that recall Mu at their most relaxed and oceanic. I have to dig deep into my collection to find an album that opens in such a stunning manner. In an unpredictability typical of the album, Kunkel then decides to break the dreamy psych spell of the two opening tracks with an uptempo Nashville style country number which lasts just long enough for you to wonder what comes next. Answer: “O Light”, a moody piano ballad with excellent string and flute arrangements and an overall feel that reminds me a bit of the Pete Fine LP. The soundscape is so exquisite that it more than compensates for the somewhat strained vocals. “O Light” segues almost unnoticeably into the title track, which step by step picks up the pace and introduces drums and guitars and suddenly you’re inside a great west coast rocker with hooks and guitar figures that hint of the 1970 Bay Area sound of Bob Smith and Terry Dolan. After a glance back at the moody singer/songwriter spot where the suite began side 1 draws to a close; essentially two great 9-minute suites of 1970s psychedelia separated by a 90-second country & western interlude.
The plot thickens over on side 2 with “Monterrey” (with two “r”, meaning Mexico), a breezy country-pop number with melancholy lyrics, remarkable flamenco-jazz guitar and a thoughtful holiday mood not unlike Merkin. Despite its postcard surface it’s as complex as everything else on the album, and benefits from repeated plays with close attention. The childhood memories of “Ten Summers” opens with a piano figure close to the Eagles’ “Desperado” (which had not been released yet) and a few moody singer/songwriter lines before Kunkel pulls out his bag of tricks again, strings and soaring vocals recalling Tim Hardin, then a full west coast rock sound, and then a superb jazzy sax solo, and then the whole cycle is repeated again. While hardly my favorite tune on the LP, you can’t help but being impressed by all the ideas squeezed into a 3-minute song. “Airhammer Eddie” is the token “roots” number with straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions that seem wasted in the hands of a talent such as Kunkel (they fit Elton John just right, though), and here the limited vocal powers are a drawback. Sensing the need for confusion the sound of a power drill enters loud and upfront towards the end of the song, and if nothing else it had me pretty confused the first few spins.
Abyss enters its final lap with the skillful chamber music arrangements of “Playa de Bagdad”, wordless vocal harmonies and cocktail piano figures recalling some of Brian Wilson’s more exotica-flavored moments. A rather splendid tune, but perhaps not strong enough to put the LP back on track after the preceding roots-rocker. The closing “Turn Of The Century” does a better job of that, delivering yet another complex song that shifts from moody singer/songwriter into energetic west coast and back, with some impressive piano soloing in between. Again Robb Kunkel’s vocals sound a lot more at ease with the low-key, introspective passages than the full on rock moments, although it’s no major problem. The album ends on an upbeat note with ringing guitar leads and LA-style vocal harmonies slowly fading out. The few comments I’ve heard on Robb Kunkel’s album all refer to the difficulty in nailing it down in terms of genre, but that’s where the old “eclectic early 1970s” tag comes in handy. The album as a whole is complex yet wholly conscious in structure, and this is also true for the individual songs, apart from the brief intermission type tracks at the middle of each side. Side 1 works brilliantly, and if the material on side 2 had been as strong, Abyss would have been a Colorado-California masterpiece. As it is one could either approach it as a good LP opening with two psych killers, or a well-written, well-arranged and well-played song cycle typical of the early 1970s. Either way, be sure to check this out if you can find it — in fact I recommend a certain amount of effort into tracking it down. You will not regret it. PS: There was a promo sampler from Tumbleweed in 1972, featuring Kunkel and several other of the label’s talent. Prior to Abyss Kunkel was in a local band called Wizard that have no known recordings.” – Patrick The Lama
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