Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4: Earth, Wind, And Fire, "Earth, Wind, And Fire"

Artist: Earth, Wind, And Fire
Album: Earth, Wind, And Fire
Year: 1971
Label: Warner Bros.

As the funk and soul explosion of the late 1960's fused with the psychedelic movement, many of the most innovative and brilliant bands in history were formed. From the mind-bending melodies of Funkadelic to the rebel-rousing of Sly & The Family Stone, countless groups shows the endless ways in which the styles could be blended. Along with these musical giants was a group that took the soul of James Brown, the group harmonies of Sly & The Family Stone, and the funk of Parliament, and created one of the most amazing and original sounds in history. This new sound would be copied and altered by countless bands after, and it is the reason why Chicago's own Earth, Wind, And Fire remain one of the most highly respected bands to this day. A group that ran the musical gamut from slow, smooth soul sounds to high-octane rock-funk classics, there are truly few bands that contained as much musical vision and talent. Blending these varied styles together with an overall positive message, Earth, Wind, And Fire filled a musical void that had been vacant since the philosophical (lyrical) switch of Sly Stone a few years previous. Though their later records would move more into the smooth soul sound, it is the self-titled 1971 debut from Earth, Wind, And Fire that stands today as one of the most influential and eclectic albums ever recorded.

Both the album and the group Earth, Wind, And Fire are almost entirely the creation of band founder and multi-instrumentalist Maurice White. In many ways mirroring the role that George Clinton had with Parliament, White only occasionally takes vocals and is, in many ways, the conductor of his brilliant band. In fact, on Earth, Wind, And Fire, White almost exclusively plays drums, as the other band members freely trade solos and the amazing vocal talent of Wade Flemons is free to shine. This debut record is very distinct from the rest of the bands' catalog as it is far more raw and hard in it's sound, and is in many ways rather distant from the sound that would make the band famous later in the decade. In fact, only this record, and their follow-up released in late 1971 would feature this lineup and understandably, it gives these first records a different perspective on White and his talents. With nearly a dozen different performers on the album, each song has a bright and full sound, and the group-element of the music makes Earth, Wind, And Fire one of the most "welcoming" and easily accessible albums ever recorded. Whether it is the horn-laced, deep grooving funk or the smooth singing, every musician on Earth, Wind, And Fire performs brilliantly, and it is truly a one-of-a-kind musical experience.

While there are a number of different instruments that help to make the sound of Earth, Wind, And Fire so fantastic, it is largely due to the horn section that their music is so amazing. Playing an absolutely brilliant trumpet, as well as leading the horn section is the man who would later gain great respect as a jazz player, Leslie Drayton. Often times bringing a similar musical punch as was made famous by The J.B.'s, it is the way in which Drayton blends together the jazz and funk sounds that makes his playing so unique. Often helping to punctuate the basslines, trombonist Alexander Thomas fits the bands' sound perfectly, and bringing the truly unique sound of the seruling to the group is M. Zulkifli Maulana. These three blend together with the more traditional instruments in a fantastic fashion, and the way in which the group moves as a single unit is what makes Earth, Wind, And Fire such a brilliant band. Bassist Verdine White (Maurice's brother) is easily one of the most underrated players in history, and he shows throughout Earth, Wind, And Fire that he can create the funk grooves with the best players ever. Adding in additional instruments from guitars to electric pianos to an electric kalimba, the band truly presents a full wall of sound. These arrangements, as well as the phenomenal percussion work is all created by the groups' visionary leader, Maurice White. He uses the bands' debut record to firmly establish his place as one of the most talented composers in history, and his work created a sound that would be copied countless times throughout the decade.

With White staying behind the drum kit and only adding his voice on the group harmonies, the lead vocal duties are largely left to Wade Flemons and Sherry Scott. The vocals of Flemons fall somewhere between Sly Stone, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye, as he blends together his smooth voice with the energy and power that is reflected in the music over which he sings. It is very much due to the vocal contributions of Flemons that the songs found on Earth, Wind, And Fire are so motivating and uplifting. The other key element is the truly phenomenal group harmonies that occur on nearly every song. Whether low and smooth or loud and bright, these Motown-esque harmonies are like none other anywhere, and they became the archetype that many of the later funk/disco groups would copy. The songs themselves reflect this positive, group spirit, and with song titles like "Help Somebody" and "Love Is Life," the group made their intentions quite clear. However, the group is also very socially aware, and they make a plea of change when on "Fan The Flame," they sing, "...the flame of love is about to die, somebody fan the fire...violence striking down great men of peace, poverty in the homes and crime in the streets..." Earth, Wind, And Fire's ability to tackle these large issues, whilst simultaneously bringing unparalleled amounts of musical beauty and making every song have a positive mood is what makes their songs so sensational.

While there were a handful of soul-based funk ensembles that emerged in the wake of Sly & The Family Stone, there were few that compared to the stunning sound and talent of Earth, Wind, And Fire. Though the group would find greater success after shifting their sound to a more pop/disco based music, it is their early work that remains a massive influence on music across the world. Fusing together the best elements of soul, funk, gospel, and Motown, and then mixing it with a positive, psychedelic tone, Earth, Wind, And Fire truly created a sound like nothing else in history. Accentuating deep funk grooves with bright horns, band leader Maurice White remains largely unrivaled when it comes to his clear understanding of how to properly intertwine styles that seemed to stand in juxtaposition to one another. It is this strong sense of musicianship and equally powerful lyrics that set Earth, Wind, And Fire apart from their contemporaries, and it is one of the key elements contributing to the groups' continued respect from other musicians. With the overall tone of the record being one of acceptance, love, and peace, the group is not afraid of bluntly calling out the ills of society, but unlike many of their peers, they offer the aforementioned themes as a solution to all of these problems. Remaining today one of the most uniquely brilliant musical efforts in history, the 1971 self-titled debut form Earth, Wind, And Fire is beyond an essential for every music fan and it remains one of the most enjoyable and original works, nearly forty years after its initial release.

Standout tracks: "Help Somebody," "Love Is Life," and "Fan The Flame."

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