[Review] Utopia: Ra (1977)

The dawning of the compact and compressed Utopian quartet that marked their best music.

Kronomyth 3.0: Enlightenment for a world of fat men and little boys.

Todd Rundgren re-thought the whole Utopia thing, trimming it down to a quartet (adding bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton in the process) and divining from the band’s edited essence a mix of bombastic rock and Todd’s familiar songcraft. In doing so, Utopia stumbled upon a signature sound in Ra that would be fine-tuned over the years but never really abandoned. Some have suggested that Ra is a concept album, but it’s rather a recurring theme of the sun that gives the impression of a unifying concept; after all, what could a magic theatre, a nuclear bomb and a muse trapped in a glass guitar really have in common?

The album starts off with an “Overture” borrowed from Bernard Herrmann (never heard of him, by the way), which is really just a way to get listeners’ ears wet before launching into “Communion With The Sun.” It’s here that we’re introduced to the new Utopian ideal: cosmic chaos compressed into confining quarters that keeps things moving briskly. The same approach is adopted for “Jealousy” (with its classic claustrophobic sound), “Sunburst Finish” and the overwrought “Hiroshima.” On these tracks, Utopia’s aggressive arrangements invite comparison to Blue Oyster Cult (whose “Godzilla” is oddly complementary to “Hiroshima”). These songs tend to define the album, although “Magic Dragon Theatre” points to Todd’s longstanding affection for musicals and the ballad “Eternal Love” likewise looks to the leader’s oeuvre.

The only apparent holdover from earlier excesses is the 18-minute “Singring and The Glass Guitar,” which might have been subtitled “The hare who lost his spectacles (and couldn’t see how silly he looked).” Although there are sections of “Singring” that work remarkably well, taken in toto it’s a toppled-over wedding cake. Even with a few flaws, Ra shines brightly in the Utopian landscape. As a halfway point between the sometimes sprawling arrangements of earlier Utopia albums and the streamlined pomp of subsequent works, Ra is cause for cheer.

Original LP Version

A1. Overture/(Instrumental) (Bernard Hermann) / Communion With The Sun (Todd Rundgren) (7:15)
A2. Magic Dragon Theatre (Todd Rundgren/Kasim Sulton) (3:28)
A3. Jealousy (Todd Rundgren/John Wilcox) (4:43)
A4. Eternal Love (Roger Powell/Kasim Sulton) (4:51)
A5. Sunburst Finish (Roger Powell/Todd Rundgren) (7:38)
B1. Hiroshima (Roger Powell/Todd Rundgren) (7:16)
B2. Singring And The Glass Guitar (Roger Powell/Todd Rundgren/Kasim Sulton/John Wilcox) (18:24)

Musical arrangements by Utopia.

The Players

Roger Powell (keyboards, synthesizers, vocals), Todd Rundgren (guitar and vocals), Kasim Sulton (bass and vocals), John “Willie” Wilcox (drums, percussion, vocals). Produced by Todd Rundgren; engineered by John Holbrook, Eddie Offord.

The Pictures

Album package concept by Utopia. Album package execution by Gribbit, Ltd. Front and back cover photography by Ron Slenzak. Pyramid insert by Noram Seeff. Calligraphy by Hal Fielder.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette on February 4, 1977 in the US (Bearsville, BR 6965), the UK (Bearsville, K/K4 55514), Germany and the Netherlands (Bearsville, 200 755) and Japan (Warner Bros., P-10251W) with lyrics innersleeve and insert. Reached #79 on the US charts and #27 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee, compact disc and cassette in 1987 in the US (Bearsville/Rhino, RNLP 70869).
  2. Re-released on remastered compact disc in Europe (Essential, ESMCD 757).
  3. Re-released on K2 remastered compact disc on June 25, 2008 in Japan (Bearsville, VICP-64211).
  4. Re-packaged with Oops! Wrong Planet on 2-for-1 2CD on October 3, 2011 in Europe (Edsel).

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