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Formed by Andrew Latimer, Doug Ferguson, Andy Ward and Peter Bardens in 1971, Camel was an essential part of the ‘70s progressive movement, although not one of its more famous components. Overshadowed by the likes of Genesis, King Crimson and Yes, the group was nevertheless extraordinarily talented and most definitely unique in the genre. With their first and finest formation, they would release a streak of four outstanding albums before moving on with different line-ups and creating mostly inferior works. The latter three of these albums, Mirage, The Snow Goose and Moonmadness, are regarded as the real Camel classics, but their 1973 debut is almost as compelling.
What makes Camel stand out next to their contemporaries is their style of playing and composing. Latimer leads the band with his distinctive guitar sound: choosing mood and emotion over showmanship, his very melodic riffs are as powerful as they are meaningful. This also had a direct influence of the band’s manner of writing. Despite composing songs that could range up to 12 minutes in length, Camel was never as stubbornly avant-garde as King Crimson, overambitious as Yes, or strongly theatrical like Genesis. While keeping the ground rules of progressive rock intact, the songs that this group produced were far more focused, which also makes them far more accessible. Latimer and his company really tell a story with their music, and such is Camel’s greatest strength.
We have revisited the band’s discography and ranked their 14 albums. More about it below.
14. The Single Factor (1982)
Following the ambitious song cycle Nude, Camel attempted their version of an Alan Parsons Project album with The Single Factor. Considering that Parsons was having hits that year with songs like “Eye in the Sky,” it’s not surprising that Camel tried to capture the same audience, yet their talent didn’t lay with pop music—it lay with atmospheric instrumentals and creating detailed soundscapes. Consequently, The Single Factor sounds a little forced and often fails to capture the group’s magic, even though there a few strong moments on the record.
13. I Can See Your House from Here (1979)
Another round of lineup changes leads to another shift in Camel‘s sound. The departure of Richard Sinclair halted the jazzy Canterbury dabblings of the previous two albums, whilst Peter Bardens‘ leaving might have deprived the band of one of the talents who had made their early albums so essential, but at least meant the band could proceed without clashes over musical direction between Latimer and Bardens compromising the recording process.
The arrival of Happy the Man‘s Kit Watkins on keyboards results in the presence of “Eye of the Storm”—and if it sounds like a leftover Happy the Man track, that’s because it is—but otherwise the album sees Camel continuing its quest for an accessible, commercial style unhindered by Canterbury affectations or qualms from Bardens about the new direction. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this if it resulted in a high-quality pop album, but as it is the pop songs on here are rather soulless soft rock affairs with little to recommend them. The closing “Ice” brings the prog back but doesn’t hold a candle to the band’s illustrious past, and on the whole the album finds Camel a creatively bankrupt force.
12. Stationary Traveller (1982)
Although Stationary Traveller is a concept album, it musically falls into line with its predecessor The Single Factor, which found Camel trying to refashion themselves as the Alan Parsons Project. Where The Single Factor suffered from Camel‘s attempts to write pop hooks, Stationary Traveller finds the band breaking down the barriers, opening up their relatively concise songs with long, atmospheric instrumental passages. The album’s lyrics, which were written by Susan Hoover, is about the divided Berlin and its political, emotional and physical divides. Often, the lyrics and music—which work as individual entities—don’t quite work together, since they follow different emotional directions, yet the record remains a worthwhile listen, especially since it features Andy Latimer on pan flute.
11. Breathless (1978)
With Rain Dances, Camel began exploring shorter, more concise songs, but it wasn’t until its follow-up, Breathless, that they truly made a stab at writing pop songs. Although they didn’t completely abandon improvisational prog rock—there are several fine, jazzy interludes—most of the record is comprised of shorter songs designed for radio play. While the group didn’t quite achieve that goal, Breathless is nevertheless a more accessible record than Camel‘s other albums, which tend to focus on instrumentals. Here, they try to be a straightforward prog rock band, and while the results are occasionally a little muddled, it is on the whole surprisingly successful.
10. Nude (1981)
Based on a true story, the idea behind Nude can be a bit exhausting with all the little touches thrown upon the album’s central theme. It’s interesting to say the least, with lead guitarist/lead vocalist (and Camel founder) Andy Latimer’s delicate music building a fitting atmosphere to accompany it. The tracks are best if not separated, but rather left to fade into each other and let the story flow freely. This isn’t to say that the entire album consists of key moments though, as there are definitely some standouts and some not so special tracks.
Opening with one of it’s high-notes, Nude begins with “City Life,” which lyrically appears as sort of an epilogue for the album’s story. Here we find the main character speaking of adjustment to the New World around him and how he is different from those around him. This one’s nice because it’s packed with a lot of vocal harmonies and a lush arrangement of keyboards, saxophones, and multi-tracked guitar lines; given these qualities, the song retains a rather upbeat sound throughout. Nude uses smaller tracks (ranging from 22 seconds to 2 and a half minutes) to bridge spaces between tracks, much in the tradition of the concept album. After the aforementioned 22 second “Nude,” the story switches to the past, with “Drafted” and the feelings of “Nude” (the characters name) about his upcoming experiences and what he’ll be leaving behind when going to war. The story continues from this point to “Nude’s” rescue from the island.
The first couple tracks on the album really set the tone musically for the rest of the record, though not all songs have the same quality and replay value. Still, the general musical theme remains ever present and much of the guitar, keyboard, bass and drum tones stay their respective courses. The ‘80s sound plays a role here, but it’s not strong enough to become over the top or annoyingly synthed-out. There’s almost an ethereal feeling to the record, though the sound is still forceful enough to make a statement. It’s almost as if Andy Latimer has tried to synch the album’s story with the instrumentation put forth to support it.
09. Dust and Dreams (1991)
Camel packed up their bags and moved to California, with the dust of a seven-years span of quiet on their backs, and the dream of creative freedom through their own label, Camel Productions, ahead of them. Inspired by the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (and one can only hope that Camel‘s westward move went smoother), Dust and Dreams is exactly the sort of labor of love that makes a private label worth having. Elegiac, literate, largely instrumental in spots, this stuff would make most label executives’ eyes glaze over. It’s also the sort of finely wrought music that will delight Camel fans who still fondly imagine their band in the Nude.
Despite the long absence since Stationary Traveller, many familiar faces return to Camel‘s ranks: Susan Hoover, Ton Scherpenzeel, Colin Bass, David Paton, and Paul Burgess. Andy Latimer, of course, remains the pivotal figure, writing the songs, taking the vocal leads (his sleepy, deep delivery suggesting a Watersed-down version of Pink Floyd), driving the music with his masterful guitar work. This last point is worth resting at a moment, since Latimer‘s guitar has grown audibly since we last heard him. While some of the guitar passages are classic Camel (e.g., “Cotton Camp”), Latimer is just as likely to invoke the image of David Gilmour (“End of the Line”) and Steve Hackett (“Broken Banks,” “Hopeless Anger”).
Like Nude, Dust and Dreams initially divides its time between songs and instrumentals before ceding halfway through to purely instrumental music. The 18 tracks are interconnected, separated only by a four-second delay before “End of the Line,” effectively marking a first and second act. The introductory “Dust Bowl” is a quiet overture reminiscent of Brian Eno, the closing “Whispers in the Rain” is actually an epilogue (the real curtain comes crashing down on “Hopeless Anger”). If it all sounds like a structured play, that’s because Dust and Dreams is. The disc exists as a single work broken into two sections, inextricably bound together in the composer’s mind (themes return, specific points of action take place). In retrospect, it’s probably a wonder that Nude ever got off the ground, and few studios would have taken a flyer on the equally ambitious Dust and Dreams. Thank goodness Andy Latimer had the fortitude to see this through to completion; it is the mature work of an indomitable dreamer, if a little downbeat. It lacks the immediate melodies of Nude (which many would concede is the better album), but the victories here are harder won and thus to be prized by fans who were still scanning the horizon for the shadow of Camel‘s tall spirit.
08. Rain Dances (1977)
1977’s Rain Dances, is a record often hailed by critics as a reformation of the band’s early sound, with a more commercially accepted tinge. Not long into the album’s opener, “First Light,” the jazzy, free-flowing compositions of the band’s first pair of releases can be heard. It’s unfortunate that the prog-rockers didn’t let the spirits of music past dominate the overall scope of the recording—the addition of Caravan bassist Richard Sinclair and former King Crimson saxophonist Mel Collins could’ve seen limitless potential. Instead, while striving for radio acceptance, Camel seems to lack elements of their classic sound, further forgoing a progressive jazzy sound for prog-tinged rock numbers. In a sad twist for the unit, Rain Dances did little for Camel’s commercial appeal, and continued the band down a path of alienation of their early fan-base.
Beginning the disc with a pair of instrumental tracks isn’t the best way to help a band receive more air-play; though these songs are probably the most reminiscent of Camel’s past, they don’t do much in terms of kicking off the record. The songs are fun to listen to and littered with little bits of trademark Camel, but the lack of cohesion between them makes for a scattered listen. This trend continues with the third track, similarly instrumentally rooted, with minimal vocals added. By this point, however, the meandering tendencies of Rain Dances start to grow a little frustrating. The record does have a handful of good songs—hear “Highways of the Sun” and “Uneven Song.” These are probably the most reminiscent of the band’s early work, as well as crafting themselves with radio-playability. It’s a shame that the lack of focus on the rest of Rain Dances clouds the disc’s potential. Songs like “Elke” and “Skylines” throw off any bid at accessibility, while the disc’s title-track is a decent throwback, but a little too short to come off as memorable. The closer feels a little bit like a rip-off, taking the form of a single-version of “Highways of the Sun.” While the band tried to capitalise off the tracks hooks, the revamped version comes up stale in comparison to the original.
Camel’s attempt at a commercial record unfortunately fall pretty flat with Rain Dances, continuing a string of albums that seem to lie short of the output of Camel and Mirage. The wandering ways of the album make for a confusing feel for radio-play, leaving front-man Andrew Latimer’s motives a little unclear. There are definitely good tracks here, but the album yields nothing special enough to leave a lasting impression on the listener. Considering the band’s past and future output, a few hiccups in their discography is forgivable, and Rain Dances can undoubtedly still find praise amongst Camel’s fan-base.
07. Harbour of Tears (1996)
It would be fair to say that Camel had a rather tough time of it after the arrival of the punk rock scene and the onset of the 1980s. The band kept plugging away in a world that had turned generally hostile towards the dinosaurs of the ‘70s prog movement and although they have to be admired for their stoicism their albums from the ‘80s were by far the weakest of their discography and found them unsuccessfully trying to incorporate the musical sensibilities of the times. At the start of the ‘90s however Camel had recovered some of their integrity and came out with Dust and Dreams which marked a partial return to former glories. After a subsequent hiatus of five years they released Harbour of Tears.
This is a concept album based upon the imagined experiences of an Irish family emigrating to the USA to start a new life. Without even listening to the album one might suppose that the music would be influenced by Celtic folk melodies and this is indeed the case. “Irish Air/Irish Air (instrumental)” sets the scene for what is to come with some delicate female cappella vocals and Latimer’s trademark melodic lead guitar lines backed by flute, oboe and strings. The title track itself is a beautiful slow folky number with Latimer’s tasteful tone carrying the song to it’s conclusion. As with the classic Snow Goose the structure takes the form of more substantial pieces syncopated with small musical interludes.
“Send Home the Slates” is composed as a letter home from an Irish immigrant working for the railway company and conjures up images of the protagonist swinging his pick on the line with his work crew. The Irish folk influence manifests itself most prominently on “Eyes of Ireland” which takes the form of a simple acoustic folk song lightly touched with Camel’s trademark sound. One of the real highlights is one of the more progressive pieces, an instrumental “Running From Paradise” which recalls Camel‘s past glories with its meandering structure. Album closer “Coming of Age” is also reminiscent of ‘70s Camel and does away with much of the Celtic folk influence prevalent throughout the album. There is really not a weak track on the whole album. However, sampling this music in small doses really doesn’t do it justice. Just like the classic Snow Goose from all those years before this is an album to be enjoyed in it’s entirety without any interruptions from start to finish.
This was their best release since Moonmadness way back in ’76 and finally wiped away the memory of the forgettable and sometimes cringeworthy material that the band had put out in the ‘80s. If you are a fan of early period Camel there is a good chance you will take to this album. The infusion of Celtic folk melodies lend the music a beautifully ethereal air. An album to savour.
06. Rajaz (1999)
Rajaz gets my vote as the second-strongest Camel record since the 1970s. After a string of instrumentally-dominated concept albums and poppier “’80s sounding” releases, it largely represents a return to the band’s original symphonic prog sound. There’s still an overarching “concept” here in that many of the tracks feature Andy Latimer’s so-called “walking metre” (as well as a vaguely Middle-Eastern vibe), but Rajaz is a collection of independent tracks with no symphonic interludes. So if you’re a fan of classic ‘70s prog in the vein of Mirage or Moonmadness, Rajaz might be the best place to start with latter-day Camel. I will add that guitar playing here is absolutely gorgeous—amongst the most gorgeous of Mr. Latimer’s storied career.
The one caveat with here is that Rajaz is an almost uniformly subdued release. All of the vocal melodies are of the dreamy, understated variety, while many of the tracks drift into extended laid-back instrumentals. If you’re looking for “punchier” symph prog with complexly-layered arrangements, you might find this record a bit tame. As with many Camel albums, Rajaz is far greater than the sum of its parts and is best listened to in its entirety.
05. A Nod and a Wink (2002)
A Nod and a Wink has absolutely nothing to do with camels/Egyptian mysticism/concepts based around novels at all, as many of the band’s albums have done. Instead, and this is purely justified by the magical music and excellently written lyrics, the concept here is based around a boy who one day travels via a magic carpet to various places (“Fox Hill” and “Squigely Fair”), and meets up with a very brief character called “The Miller.” Just knowing this automatically tells everyone that Camel have tried to make everyone interested in their presence, and it’s certainly worked.
Musically, every song here, bar the awkward monotonousness of melancholic tracks “Simple Pleasures” and “The Miller’s Tale,” goes off in every single direction possible. This is most notable on the title track, which, even in it’s first minute, develops into something truly magnificent. The sounds of tweeting birds, whistling trains and breezy winds give way to sparkling keyboards that wouldn’t sound out of place on a children’s TV programme. That’s not all. Andrew Latimer has brought the flute back where it belongs, and on “A Nod and a Wink,” I couldn’t welcome it any more if I tried. In particular the flute solos are placed here, there and everywhere throughout each of the album’s songs, and every time it makes the songs themselves come to life-so much, that lyrics aren’t even needed, thus giving off the effect that the music actually speaks for itself. So far all this has happened and not even five minutes has passed. What’s that you say? Camel couldn’t possibly make music this inspiring at their age? How very, very wrong you are indeed.
To go on and look at the title track from every perspective and explain every one of its little details would take the length of an English dictionary. The two other similarly experimental tracks, “Fox Hill” and “Squigely Fair,” also take the listener on a wishful journey full of surprises nobody could even imagine. “Fox Hill” in particular presents the more exciting, perky side of Camel’s modern sound, and as flutes, keyboards, guitars, vocals that could have been spoken by a rural villager from Yorkshire, it almost makes you want to repeat the song again just to make sure you haven’t missed a second. Granted, some may be put off slightly by the way that Latimer’s voice is so different from his sweet, soft tones, but you probably wouldn’t be surprised if you looked at the nature of the lyrics. Even the drums, which admittedly aren’t used that much on the album for any sort of effect, have their own brief bit of stardom, as midway through the song a drum solo occurs and eventually becomes as rapid as that of John Bonham on “Moby Dick.” The progression of the guitar and bass work also become part of the magical atmosphere created, as solos and rumbling bass lines manage to keep up with the perky pace of the band’s collective sounds. “Squigely Fair,” whilst it’s overall impression isn’t one as enticing as “Fox Hill” or indeed the title track, it still develops into something naturally and differently progressive. In particular the transitions from soft, melancholic music to fast-paced, rhythmic structures are pretty much spot on, as each instrument never seems to overstay its welcome. It is an instrumental song, but with actual lyrics you can’t help but feel that the magical effect of the music might be taken away. There is a brief narrative spoken by Latimer, but this, once again, contributes to how natural and pastoral the concept of the album is.
However, not everything here is as good or indeed unmistakeably talented as it seems. As mentioned before, the so-so symphonic boredom of “Simple Pleasures” and “The Miller’s tale” really cut the flow of the album’s natural significance, and although this isn’t that big an issue, as the album’s two shorter songs, they really should have been cut from the album had the band any intentions of making A Nod and a Wink the best album ever of their career. As well as this, and perhaps not as frustratingly obvious, is the absence of the lyrical content. At times, the music seems to go on forever, and then, just as you think the song is going to be an instrumental one, Latimer sings in a slightly weak voice (although not ignoring his major health problems either). Mind you, what he slightly lacks in vocals, he much more than makes up for in the use of flutes, keyboards and guitar work.
Apparently this album was dedicated to the untimely death of Peter Bardens, which happened six months before this album’s release. If indeed it was dedicated to him, he most definitely will be nodding in appreciation.
04. Camel (1973)
Though underdeveloped as many debuts are, the band’s first album gives a strong hint of what’s to come with seven very worthy tracks. If you compare it to Camel’s three classics, something immediately notable is how confident the boys became from Mirage onwards. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing for the album, which sound positively laid-back and welcoming; don’t expect anything of the “Freefall” calibre (if you’ve heard Mirage). The hard-rocking closer “Arubaluba” is the only real moment you’ll find to the band going all out, more of these energetic moments being spread throughout the record in only a modest sense.
“Slow Yourself Down” is pretty indicative of the album’s main sound. Going through several mood changes, it first welcomes you with Latimer’s relaxed vocals (he’s a far better guitar player than he is a singer, but luckily seemed aware of this and used his voice little but effectively), but progresses into a brilliant instrumental display that leaves no doubt to the talents of the musicians that stand behind Latimer. Especially Bardens proves his mastery of the organ, bearing no shame to the Jon Lords of his generation, and Ferguson’s bass and Ward’s drums have absolutely no intention of going by unheard either.
“Separation” and “Curiosity” feature similar moments of such energetic virtuosity, but “Mystic Queen” and “Six Ate” float along like a pleasant dream. The real highlight of the album comes with “Never Let Go,” which acoustic opening was actually the basis for Opeth’s “Benighted” (Camel being one of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s major influences). Latimer’s vocals are at his strongest here, the instrumentation is beautifully moody, and the song concludes with an excellent guitar solo. A track that best shows the enormous potential Camel had in 1973.
Because yes, in the three years that followed, the band would release their three most acclaimed albums, realizing that potential they had going. This debut is not just another example of a stepping stone, but an accomplished work in its own right. While not as good as the group’s later albums, it is a most excellent start and an essential Camel release, as well as a very good starting point to get into their wonderful music.
03. The Snow Goose (1975)
Possibly the most appealing quality of this record is the amorphous atmosphere and use of themes. Throughout the record, the moods change very often and still retain the same overall ambience, one of nature, all her seasons, and all the fog, wind, and oak that goes with it. The atmosphere is able to do this because the band implements a lot of woodwind instruments and, thankfully, restrain from doing any senseless prog jams. There’s hardly any room to do so what with each song being no less than two to five minutes, hence the sixteen tracks. The use of themes is also important to this conception because, like any good concept piece, the multiple themes are malleable enough to be used more than once and employ alterations of how the theme is emotionally presented as illustrated by the mad happiness of “Rhyadar” compared to “Rhyadar Alone.”
Because the album is based on a book, you will find no lyrics whatsoever. This instrumental record does contain a very small handful of vocals but are merely performing na na na’s, and truthfully this record would be terrible with vocals as the music does a breathtakingly good job at storytelling, which works well since you can either read the book or create your own story. The title track is a good example of how the album paints images with incredibly inspired guitar leads and dual drawbar organs, and soon enough you will be questioning whether Koji Kondo was inspired by this record due to tracks like “Friendship” (Kolkiri Forest soundtrack anyone?). It flows straight into “Migration,” probably the one “progressive” sounding track with poppy organ chords and freeform jazz drums. “Flight Of The Snow Goose” defines layers with fast piano movements, very upbeat drums, octave guitar leads, “Dunkirk” shines above the rest with its characteristic composition with walking basses, prominent horns, a signature guitar line, and marching snares acting as a crescendo with the organ’s volume, and “Epitaph’s” drone of strange percussive sounds and low rumbles flows seamlessly into the beautiful piano solo of “Fritha Alone.” The album covers so many sounds it’s ridiculous.
With the grand closing of “La Princesse Perdue” and “The Great Marsh,” within the frantically excited violins a nostalgic organ solo preceding a slower tempo for a bittersweet, almost orchestral finale and the surprisingly dark texture to silence the record, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer audacity and creativity you have just been subjected to, but honestly there’s no real way of describing this record in words. Words are the biggest barrier in the world, and because of this I can only implore that you let the album speak for itself.
02. Moonmadness (1976)
Camel’s fourth LP Moonmadness closely rivals their second one Mirage: they are similar in the fact that they both feature some of the most energetic, original and awe-inspiring compositions the group ever created, and of course both appear in their classic era. Despite the obvious similarity in the overall vibe though, Moonmadness is also quite different. Mirage contained three vocal tracks, two of which were epics, woven around two instrumentals. This album is spread out a great deal more, the average song length being about five and a half minutes, and that makes it a smoother experience altogether.
The short “Aristillus” will, as is the sworn duty of any good opener, grab your attention immediately. The bumpy tune is heavy on synthesizers, creating a spacey sound that works very well and shows a new side of Camel; one that shows throughout the rest of the album as well. Another feature that starkly contrasts Mirage is the inclusion of several gorgeous melancholic tracks. The soothing flute and voice of the first part of “Song Within a Song”; the short and mystical “Spirit of the Water”; the floating atmosphere of “Air Born”: Camel once again takes you places.
For those looking for the more vibrant type of progressive, however, worry not. “Chord Change” is another classic Camel mood-changer (as its title already implies), and goes through some rockin’ passages. “Another Night” is even better, featuring a main riff closely bordering on hard rock, some of the best vocals on the album, and, top really top things off, both a guitar and organ solo near the end of the track. The best moment is however the instrumental closer “Lunar Sea” (also known as “Lunacy”), using whacky synthesizers, aggressive bass playing and the sound of blowing wind in its last minute to wrap things up in a truly unique manner.
Without a doubt, Moonmadness is one hell of an essential progressive album, very closely rivalling Mirage for Camel’s magnum opus. The group’s sound is not a bit outdated, still able to amaze the ears of new listeners today. The record has a strong sense of energy, melancholy, and a unique atmosphere that truly makes it stand out, not only amongst the band’s own other works, but the works of other artists in general.
01. Mirage (1974)
Probably Camel’s most popular album and their best work, the group’s second effort Mirage both expanded and improved upon their self-titled début. Having truly found their sound and gained incredible confidence and daring in their writing and playing, this progressive classic opens strong and ends even stronger. “Freefall,” with its booming opening, outstanding guitar lines, seemingly effortless mood –and tempo changes and fitting vocals, is a definite statement about what Camel could unleash. Which, when listening to Mirage, was something quite astounding.
Split between the three vocal tracks that make up the beginning, middle and end of the album are two superb instrumentals. The shorter, more laid-back and playful “Supertwister” features a first appearance of Latimer’s abilities on the flute, introducing a new element that would play a part in Camel’s sound on many subsequent albums. The longer “Earthrise” is a free-flowing jam that features some fantastic interplay abilities between the quartet and is a perfect example of their strong chemistry.
Mirage’s most compelling moments are however its two epics. The middle track “Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider,” is once again full of signature Camel moments: Latimer’s gorgeous melodic guitar lines, relaxed vocals, Ferguson’s typical deep bass sound, and a smooth flow that makes it seem shorter than the nine minutes it actually takes. The group’s storytelling ability is most prominent here. Latimer wrote the song about the Gandalf character from The Lord of the Rings (those fantastical kind of themes were really hip among the rock bands of the era, after all), which is easily derived from the lyrics: “Once he wore grey/he fell and slipped away/From everybody’s sight/The wizard of them all/came back from his fall/This time wearing white.”
In traditional manner, the best epic is of course saved for last. Lady Fantasy, written together by the entire band (most of the band’s compositions were written by Latimer and Bardens), is one of the true highlights of Camel’s career. The lyrical content may actually be a little cheesy, but flows wonderfully with the music. Each section is extremely well though-out and Latimer’s playing, especially his highly emotional lead that recurs throughout the song, is to die for. These 12 minutes top off the accomplishment that is this record with proud determination, and are a reminder why it is held in such high regard. Mirage is a definite progressive classic, and should be owned by anyone who pronounces himself a fan of the genre.