This is a very curious album, but every Rundgren album is curious to me. Outside of Neil Young, Rundgren might be the greatest musical chameleon. Particularly during the 1970s, he bounced between musical styles, original verses cover versions, solo verses band, 1960s pop verses 1970s progressive rock. In the decade of his greatest fame, he chose to be hugely experimental – at great risk.
Initiation finds Todd Rundgren rounding the bases, meaning he was giving each of audiences a taste of his various musical passions. When this album came out on vinyl, the very length caused technology and sound issues. Vinyl records typically hold about 45 minutes of total sound, anything longer, causes the grooves to be compressed and likewise causes the sound to have less dynamic quality. Initiation surpassed 67 minutes.
The single and first song on Initiation is “Real Man.” I have always loved the song and it is certainly the most commercial song on the album. While it is a highly polished song and very melodic, it sounds a bit spacey because of the production and heavy use of synthesizers. The 1970s were more guitar-oriented, synthesizers in mainstream rock would come a bit later, but Rundgren was ahead of his time. Rundgren is very fine guitar player, but his signature guitar sound has that clean mid-1960s pop sound or heavily processed, synthesizer effect. You were not going to hear the aggressive feedback of Pete Townshend or Eddie Van Halen.
The album consists of two distinct projects. Side one has five “traditional” songs of which “Real Man” leads off, and then a techno song. “Born to Synthesize” is Rundgren using only his heavily processed voice. He would later record an entire album using just his voice imitating different sounds to accompany his vocals. Here, it is just showing off how he can lengthen, distort and put different effects to his voice. Rundgren relies on Eastern mysticism for much of his motivation for this album, which he blends with the gadgetry or the recording studio, almost sounding futuristic. Techno-rock was more of a European thing in the mid-1970s, “Krautrock” because German bands were getting most of the attention. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dram come to mind.
“The Death of Rock and Roll” is more a guitar-driven rocker, although Rundgren writes non-traditional rock and roll songs. The production is a little gimmicky rather than what you would hear from the Doobie Brothers or The Rolling Stones. Rundgren punches up the song with wizardry and effects. The Eagles and Bob Seger were earthy, Rundgren is cosmic.
“Eastern Intrigue” is a song I’m never sure is serious or a bit of a spoof. I don’t think it’s deep enough to communicate a real message lyrically, but the music and the theatrical production is quite interesting.
“Initiation” is another uptempo rocker with heavily processed guitars, almost futuristic sounding. The song is played at a breakneck speed, I think this was sped up to save time since the album was longer than it should for quality sound. The song does rock and Rundgren’s guitar solos break the sound barrier.
“Fair Warning” concludes the first side and it’s a great bookend to “Real Man”, in fact there is a short reprise of it at the end of “Fair Warning.” This is a spiritual-philosophical message to get our ship in order, or else. Despite the preaching, it a musically, a very powerful song, almost religious with the multi-layered Rundgren vocals and the organ. The style is very blue-eyed soulful, one of his strengths.
Side two is a 35 minute suite of sound elements based around Rundgren’s studio wizardry, the one-man band approach to making records, with assistance from keyboardist Roger Powell.
“A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” (Instrumental) – 35:22
- “Intro – Prana” – 4:21 Arguably the best, rocking piece of music Rundgren has written. A syncopated beat comes in after the blast-off intro, then layered keyboards and throbbing baseline, this is intergalactic space-funk. If you hate the rest of the album, love this.
- “I. The Fire of Mind – or: Solar Fire” – 3:50
- “II. The Fire of Spirit – or: Electric Fire” – 7:33
- “III. The Internal Fire – or Fire By Friction – 19:38