Adventures in Utopia | Review

Classic Albums Todd Rundgren

Utopia ‘Adventures in Utopia’ 1980 Bearsville Records

Calling all Utopians!

That’s the message delivered by Todd Rundgren announcing a USA tour of his band Utopia in 2018, dubbed Live Nation.

With this tour marking 50 years since the release of his first recording with Philadelphia power-poppers Nazz, it’s only appropriate to revisit Todd and his coterie of the Prog Rock gods who made their name back in the 70’s and 80’s.

Formed in the early ’70s for a concert marking Rundgren’s birthday in Central Park New York, Utopia as a working band accrued over 10 studio albums. The first ‘Todd Rundgren’s Utopia’ released in 1974, is still regarded as a Prog classic, and the last Utopia work ‘POV’ was released in 1985.

That’s not discounting ‘Runt’s prolific work as a solo artist, most recently with the 2017 release White Knight. Check out ‘Tin Foil Hat’ featuring Donald Fagen from Steely Dan, a satirical song about, you guessed it, Donald Trump!

Todd Rundgren, the multi instrumentalist, record producer, multimedia pioneer, singer and songwriter could live on the royalties he collects from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album. One of many he produced for a variety of artists including Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, New York Dolls, XTC and Patti Smith Band.
Todd said he took up producing when the average producer he met wouldn’t even know where to place a microphone stand.

He holds the record (sic) for putting the most amount of recorded time onto one piece of vinyl. His 1975 release ‘Initiation’ contains over one hour of music.

We will visit the large trunk of work from Todd’s vault in coming weeks.

The undercurrent of interest in re-forming the heavy rock/prog quartet Utopia has seemingly been bubbling away for years.

The new band is Rundgren, original bassist and singer Kasim Sulton, drummer extraordinaire Willie Wilcox and keyboardist Ralph Schuckett, who had played with Rundgren in the 70’s.

Schuckett replaces longtime Utopian Roger Powell on keyboards. Powell now works as a programmer for Apple and had a solo album ‘Air Pocket’ on Bearsville released in 1980.

‘Adventures in Utopia’ was the second official Utopia release following the eastern inspired RA. Itwas released with a gatefold cover on red vinyl and contained a fusion of progressive rock, dueling solos and quirky pop songs with memorable hooks.

The concept behind ‘Adventures’ is a sequence of video clip soundtracks for an imaginary TV show, which explains the song sub-titles episode 1, 2, and so on.

The band was blessed with Todd’s own recording studio and hence weren’t restricted by time in their creative process. Not always a good thing, but Todd the studio wizard somehow manages to layer on the textures without losing a song’s basic structure.

Forever aware of the pitfalls of being an arena rock band Todd and Utopia tried many different formulas in stage presentation. Utopia was one of the first bands to use video presentations as part of their act.

Also with Roger Powell and his hip swinging clavinet looking like a guitarist with a keyboard slung over the shoulder, and Willie Wilcox’s motorcycle drum set which spun around while he played, Utopia broke new ground in rock ’n’ roll theatrics.
‘Adventures ’ delivered some stage favourites for Utopia: ‘Second Nature’, ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Shot In The Dark’ and kicks off with ‘The Road To Utopia’ in typical Rundgren fashion.

A pompous introduction with a blazing guitar passage sees Rundgren bending the notes in a screaming treble pitch. If you’ve listened to his playing on the intro to ‘Bat Out of Hell’ it’ll sound familiar.

Todd explains on the Live Nation promo that his original catalyst for reforming Utopia was to show off his guitar playing. He felt he had spent too much time learning how to play, yet was consumed with his solo career, playing piano and producing.

The songs are all Group compositions with Todd, Roger, Willie and Kasim sharing vocals. In fact Utopia shared all composing rights.

Side one continues with ‘You Make Me Crazy ‘ sung by Kasim.

Todd takes the reins on the quieter slightly bossa nova inspired ‘Second Nature‘ with Powell dropping in an excellent mellotron solo.  Then ‘Set me Free’ rocks along with a catchy chorus.

Closing side one is the tour de force ‘Caravan’, which is an epic song that delivers on every level. Lyrically it’s about travelling through the desert:

“Roll up your tent whisper your prayers,
are you ready to ride through hell“

Musically it takes the trip with a 30 second drumming blitz by Wilcox backed by Rundgren’s power chords ending in a surging crescendo. Great stuff.

Side 2 opens with the ‘Last of the New Wave Riders’ sub-titled ‘In Service to the Squad’.

“We hit the supreme overload
and the great amplifier began to explode“

An anthem to heavy metal armageddon from Todd’s fertile imagination.

Next is ‘Shot in the Dark’ complete with gunshot sound effects, it’s basically about an office worker waiting for Friday afternoon knock off time.

“I split the scene like a shot in the dark “

The poignant romantic power-ballad ‘The Very Last Time‘ could well be used for avenging contestants on the Bachelor!

”Nobody sees how you treat me like 
Nobody knows how badly a man can hurt“

‘Love Alone‘ is a forgettable lamenting ballad and the closing ‘Rock Love’ is also not a stand out. All in all, a decidedly lovelorn ending.

Love was definitely in the air though with Utopia’s next album ‘Oops Wrong Planet’ delivering the hit single ‘Love is The Answer’.

Does Adventures In Utopia still stand up as a good album? I think so, the material and standard of musicianship was exceptional.

Fifty years down the track Todd Rundgren remains the eternal rocker.

In 2017 as well as releasing ‘White Knight’ in collaboration with Trent Reznor, Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh and Donald Fagen, Todd toured with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, backed up Yes on their Yestival Tour, and collected honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and DePauw University.

In 2018 it’s back on the road with Utopia for a 38-date tour of the USA and maybe then back in the studio with Utopia or a live album?

Harry Steilus

Gallery Page: Utopia

Featured Albums: Utopia

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