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Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Epic E 30267
Released: December 1970
Chart Peak: #63
Weeks Charted: 14
Certified Gold: 6/18/76

Any illusions that might still be clung to along the order of Spirit's being an Epic house organ anthropomorphization -- of -- eclecticism shuck, complete with baled-pated, cerebral-looking leftover from the bongo drums and black beret era, should be flushed down the old metaphysical crapper as quickly as one would dispose of just so much Nathan's® chicken chow mein sandwich puke, because this here Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (a hep reference to William Castle's great 1963 horror flick Mr. Sardonicus, which was about this mick who had his face paralyzed by banshees into a super-hideous grin when he crashed his father's casket to get a winning lottery ticket out of the old geezer's jacket pocket and then went around wearing this creepy plastic mask and bringing women down his cellar to ball except you should've seen the shit that went down whenever he would take off the mask) lay languidly upon the verie steps to Parnassus.

Sure, this platter has its share of miscarriages: the embarrassing attempt at a 60-second poetico-emotional knockout (in "Why Can't I Be Free?") with the limp, hack-oid quatrain, "I don't know what it means to be free/And I cry when you say that you can't free me/I just can't go on/Why can't I be free?" the modal satire a clef of which hasn't been witnessed since the Vanilla Fudge bared their souls to God on "Season of the Witch"; there's a frail stab at some dumb kind of sincere-indictment-of-society/Brechtian rock contrivance ("Mr. Skin"); and there's a worthless ditty with a lot of dipshit psychedelic oscillations called "Space Child" (which does, however, have a very tuff dispersal of melodic ostinato at the end). Plus your usual quota of random "bay-beeeeeee's" scattered about at your usual supercilious x-y's.

But to badmouth this LP on account of its shortcomings is like chastising the child for watering the rhubarb but forgetting to buy the bacon; such, in sooth, are its apexes.

For this reviewer's money, "Nothin' To Hide" is the real humdinger of the set. A beautiful train of expiation-babble that includes such items as the murky, ambiguous incantation of a refrain, "We've got nothing to hide/Married to the same bride," recurring references to various surreal things lurking "in your pants," Baudclairean imperatives to drink alot of beer, and the totally contextually off-the-wall anal/deadpan "fuck" followed by the equally et cetera "seven o'clock" in kitschy three-part harmony during the fulcrum of a really neat guitar solo. There's even this killer Latin reed cuivre movement at the tag that's one pure shot of God's own medicine. Spirit also does, n this their latest effort, the first up-tempo song about biochemical deformation ("Animal Zoo") since the Fugs' "Mutant Stomp" that you can really cut a rug to ("Something went wrong/Why, you're much too fat and a little too long"). There's also a groovy bossa nova about death ("Nature's Way"). And lots more.

A blockbuster record... one helluva Liederkranz!

- Nick Tosches, Rolling Stone, 3/4/71.

Bonus Reviews!

Both Randy California and the band have their own cool, rich, jazzy style -- a genuine achievement, but that doesn't mean you have to like it. They play better than they write, and since they still play songs, that's a problem. A worse problem is that the lyrics are rarely as cerebral as the music. "Nature's Way," for instance, sounds as if it ought to be sardonicus, but though I'm intrigued by the suggestion that it's about death I still think it's a slightly inarticulate ecology song. Could be covered by Peter, Paul and Mary -- who also have their own style. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

One of Spirit's most successful albums, it contains "Nature's Way" (number 111), "Mr. Skin" (number 92), "Animal Zoo" (number 97) and "Nothin' to Hide." (Also available as a Mobile Fidelity Ultra-disc) * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Further reading on
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The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was Spirit's crowning moment and one of the era's great underrated albums. Loosely conceptual, it housed songs that were Spirit's prettiest ("Nature's Way"), funkiest ("Mr. Skin") and hippest ("Animal Zoo," "Nothin' to Hide"). Rather than dated, it still sounds fresh today. * * * * *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

By 1970 southern California's Spirit had recorded three innovative LPs, but their synthesis of rock, classical, and jazz had thus far awoken little interest. Powerful West Coast impresario Lou Adler, who had signed the band to his label Ode in 1968, abandoned them. To top it all, a split had arisen in the camp, between Spirit's main creative forces -- guitar whiz Randy California (who had played with and learned from Jimi Hendrix when both were in the Blue Flames) and singer Jay Ferguson. California championed experiment; Ferguson was after straightforward commerciality.

Feelings could not have been worse when Spirit recorded Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Luckily, David Briggs, who worked with Neil Young, managed to harness all the animosity into Spirit's masterwork. The album was enriched by meaty horn arrangements ("Morning Will Come"), imaginative vocal harmonies ("Nothin' To Hide"), and a structured approach to psychedelic studio trickery such as stereo panning and tapes run backward. The band experimented with the then new Moog on "Love Has Found A Way" and "Space Child" and unveiled perfect rock singles in "Mr. Skin" and the funky "Animal Zoo" -- still light years ahead of their time. It also spawned a classic FM single, the acoustic treat "Nature's Way."

After a New Year's Eve concert at Fillmore East that year, the band split; the album finally went platinum five years later, a belated reward for the superb job done by Briggs and Spirit's original line-up. Oh, and "Dr. Sardonicus?" It is the nickname Spirit coined for the mixing desk at the studio.

- Jaime Gonzalo, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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