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This one is considered the best of the first 3 albums of the infamous Eric Bell years, although it doesn’t make any difference from the other 2. Actually, the band is still as mediocre and unispired as before, and there’s nothing remarkable in these 8 tracks. The huge failure of the unsuccessful previous releases made clear the need to change the group’s sound at once, specially in a year like 1973 with so many rivals making memorable no. 1 albums and reaching their culmination. The Irish trio went to the A.I.R. studios in London to record this stuff in a crucial moment for Lizzy: another lame long-play would mean the end of their record deal with Decca and the departure of one of them, who was already tired and dissatisfied with the lack of results. Well, it wasn’t hard to guess it’d happen exactly that way: another record – another wreck.
“The Rocker”, “Mama Nature Said” and “Vagabonds Of The Western World” show certain maturity and progression, leaving behind the blues, Irish folk, acid rock and funk influence for a second. The sound of these tracks is more vigorous and loose, hard and dynamic. I highlight particularly the splendid guitar work of Eric Bell: those rough riffs, slide guitar madness, wah-wah pedal textures, the very coherent lenghty pickin’ parts...this guy was motivated! And Lynott forgot about his childish stories and sung something much more interesting and funny on those; his omnipresent powerful bass lines define the rhythm perfectly too. No doubt about it, those are the greatest moments of the album and the most fresh and exciting cuts in many years from this band. “Gonna Creep Up On You” and “Slow Blues” are bluesy (obviously) and casual, featuring some repetitive distorted guitar lines and an astonishing bass work, along with deep tortured dramatic vocals, with Lynott’s voice at its best. However, the verses are repeated so much that after a couple of minutes listening to them, you will feel the irresistible temptation to skip those tracks immediately. I’m not sure if the group is taking their job very seriously sometimes, they seem to have fun performing sloppy poor naughty songs like those 2, I wouldn’t mind that if the result was fine, but sadly it’s far from good. Too many fillers in a long play with only 8 numbers in total is a stupid risk, unless if you’re Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the opening track is 25 minute long, this is not the case obviously. “The Hero And The Madman” is the weirdest experiment these guys ever made, completely different from the rest of numbers; Lynott starts to tell a childish tale about the typical topics (good guy, bad guy, chick, happy ending), speaking not singing of course during the whole composition, with the instruments used as background noise. The most pathetic ridiculous idea in the history of rock, I guess that’s enough said. This is a Thin Lizzy record so there has to be love, romance and kisses, you will find that in the comical “A Song For While I’m Away” and “Little Girl In Bloom”, absolutely simple ballads based on a couple of chords with humble contribution from the instruments and vocal supremacy. The words are extremely mellow, sweet and cheesy once again (surprised?), nothing you could take seriously, and the structure of those cuts primitive and easy, pure mediocrity and tediousness. Probably the only listenable parts are the Eric Bell solos, quite skilled and very melodic, with some soft guitar harmonies that might remind you of the distinctive future Lizzy sound.
Once again, the same problems and mistakes: too many comical slow love tunes and lack of direction, confused intentions and absence of originality. Simple predictable ideas, failed experiments and too much blues. I’m not surprised Bell had enough of this so he left after this record. 3 albums, 1 EP and some singles weren’t enough for the band to find their own sound, attitude and style, everything they did from 1971 to 1973 was done and heard before from much more talented artists, so they didn’t get far. If there were more tunes like “The Rocker” in the pack, I’m sure we would be talking about a completely different result. At least, they forget completely here about the annoying regional Irish folk acoustic unplugged songs, Lynott doesn’t emulate Dickens in his words anymore, and guitars are stronger and more technical, those are the few positive facts. I think it’s time to give Mr. Bell the credits he deserves for his stunning contribution, virtuosism and talent. His work is marvelous during the whole long-play, in particular his long solos are spectacular and immense at times, sad he’s wasting his potential and possibilities in too many quiet ballads and silly bizarre cuts that don’t lead nowhere. The improvement of Lynott’s skills and charisma is not that notable, but it’s clear he leaves his old ways for a second this time. Yes, the lyrics are still plenty of soapbox opera lines, but he also speaks about pollution, sorrow and other decent issues. His bass is impressive in some moments, very loud and clear in the final mix, better-executed than ever before, giving the guitars the best support, he defines the rhythm ideally along with Brian Downey’s usual efficience. So one thing is clear: right musicians - wrong songs, that had always been the biggest problem for the early 70’s Lizzy sound. I’m sure if Bell didn’t leave, they would have made more and more lame records again and again during the whole decade with no progression...
Unless you are a diehard fan of the Irish rockers like me, you’d better not pay many attention to the hard beginnigs of these guys. They would forget completely about what they did in the early 70’s during the later glorious days of the Gorham-Robertson combo, so we should do the same. With one and only exception though, they performed on stage one number from this record very often, you all know which I mean; but apart from that, their old legacy is left behind and ignored. This third long-play was luckily the end of the Bell era, the last time Lizzy featured 1 guitarist in their line-up (with the exception of the temporary departure of Robbo in 1977), but not the end of their mediocrity and incompetence. The new splendorous sound that made them become rock & roll stars was not achieved in 1 album, it took a tremendous effort and hard work, many drastic changes and failed experiments as we all know. But in 1973, after they put out this album, they said goodbye to Decca and hello to Vertigo. Gary Moore for a short period and a couple of new guitarists later would join the band to face the uncertain mid-70’s, the adventures of Thin Lizzy had just begun.
The singles preceding this set the foundation for this album, and in turn this album set the foundation for future albums and for Phil Lynott to shine musically, lyrically, and as a frontman. The variety on here dunks the variety from the last album, and each member shows progression in skill with their instruments. It really feels like different members playing this time, and the slightly lopsided mixing of the last full-length meets the cleansed warmth of Vagabonds…. It didn’t solve the band’s identity crisis, but still made it out on top.
Off the bat Bell hits us with a harmonic lead tune, bending the strings and warping the melody alongside Lynott’s low, grainy singing. The track isn’t hard hitting, but it can be heavy when compared to past full-lengths; Downey hits the kit louder than before, and nothing on it is hollow or frail, either. The following track, “The Hero And The Madman,” is one out of left field: Bell continually warping the melody, the atmosphere becoming arid, Lynott singing a story / doing some really dramatic spoken word, and Downey hammering away like a true jazz club drummer. Oh yeah, this album has blues, jazz, and funk, with hard rock primarily in “The Rocker” – the tune that broke Eric Bell out of his shell completely. Bell literally plays as if he was future Lizzy guitarists Gorham or Moore; just pure aggressiveness and showmanship in speed and character.
Otherwise, the album is still a warm, soft-hearted affair that doesn’t intend to hurt anyone or anything. Unlike Shades Of A Blue Orphanage however, Vagabonds… plants itself in the guitar and in Lynott’s enhanced influence on the mic. Lynott is a man that challenges himself with a strong lead, and Bell accomplishes that in numbers with frilling riffs like on the aforementioned “The Rocker” or bass-heavy monsters like “Gonna Creep Up On You”. That’s where the creativity comes from for Lynott, and it’s with these songs that we see all three members show their capabilities in skill and cohesiveness. Since this formula is more apparent on this album, consistency is improved and the memorability factor goes up, as well as the enjoyment all around.
Fans that want balmy, slick hard rock would do well giving this one a try. It’s a great album to hear for those wanting a lighter Lizzy or one that has less straightforwardness. Vagabonds… is a jam album by a bunch of guys during an era of discovery, and for the original pressing this clocks in at around forty minutes. Other pressings include plenty of material from the singles surrounding this release, and I’d recommend getting whatever version includes those since they’re very good: “Whisky In The Jar”, “Randolph’s Tango”, “Broken Dreams” and whatever else I’m missing - they’re all worthy of your time.