Being a student of popular music, Todd noticed that for all its bombast and pretension, prog-rock had structure. After all, it wasn’t enough that ELP, Genesis, Yes and their ilk had to play those songs for hours on end; somebody had to write them first, right?
At any rate, he’d already indulged in LSD during the writing/recording of his last three solo albums, and in doing that he saw a vision of a perfect world—a Utopia, if you will. He proceeded to recruit a regular backing band, with three keyboard players (although one, the improbably named M. Frog Labat, didn’t seem to do much more than add Eno-esque whoops and hollers to the proceedings) and a tight rhythm section for a project he named after his vision.
In true Todd fashion their first album ran over an hour on two sides. Todd Rundgren’s Utopia—the title made sure rack jobbers knew what they were selling—is tough going, but there are melodies to be found within the interminable movements.
“Utopia” begins part-way through a live performance and soon escalates into a jazzy shuffle with lots of wah-wah keyboards and guitar flourishes. And just when you think they’re going to wank themselves into a crescendo, a vocal section comes in, a lovely song within a song with a guitar solo to match. A return to the original theme closes the piece, complete with more wanking. “Freak Parade” is tightly constructed, with a stop-time intro and Zappa-style vocal punctuation, followed by a “pretty” section, a return to the intro and more verses that sound like Zappa distilled through, well, Todd Rundgren. “Freedom Fighters” is the most straightforward (read: radio-friendly) song here, and the one that sounds most like what people would expect—and come to expect—from him.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a prog album without a sidelong track, and “The Ikon” delivers thirty minutes crammed onto side two. Many of the same styles exhibited in “Freak Parade” are repeated here, with several rotating solos before the words begin. While the lyrical content is a bit obtuse, there’s no questioning the tightness of this band. A long jam turns into a jazz-funk extension not too far removed from Steely Dan, and there’s even a short burst played on woodblocks that Neil Peart must have heard before recording “Xanadu” with Rush.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia isn’t a bad album, but it requires a lot of time and several listens to appreciate. He was at least providing lots of value for his fans’ money; only a certain breed would be willing to stick it out.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974)—2½