Countdown To Ecstasy was an album that I initially struggled with. After the radio-friendly songs of their debut, Steely Dan decided to stretch things further, cut a set of longer than average songs (only two tracks on the entire album clock in at under five minutes) and put an increasing amount of focus on the technical ability of the band. I didn’t get it, where were the approachable commercial tunes? Where was the sense of fun that had threaded itself through their debut? Did they feel they had to compete with widdly nonsense that got ‘serious’ music fans scratching their chins and saying “Man, those guys can really play!”?
Then I got it. Even at this early stage in their career, Steely Dan never really enjoyed touring, so the tour that they must have felt obliged to do after their successful debut would have probably wiped them out. Countdown To Ecstasy is the sound of Steely Dan a little out of breath and showing the first signs that they would not be an album / tour / album band for long. The tunes here are approachable, but they aren’t particularly commercial, though that’s more to do with the slightly darker tone of the music. For all their extended song structures, Steely Dan still understood that people preferred quality over quantity, but if they had these fantastic musicians in their band, hell why not put them to good use?
It was after several months of perseverance that I slowly came to appreciate Countdown To Ecstasy and it’s strong tunes. “Bodhisattva” is one of the bands best guitar-heavy material, “Razor Boy” is a charming and relatively short number, while “My Old School” is typical Steely Dan style bitter nostalgia. Best of all though is Super Furry Animals favourite “Show Biz Kids” which doesn’t waste a moment of its five and half minute run time. From the soul-esque backing vocals, to the brilliant guitar feature that plays throughout, to one of Becker and Fagen’s most sarcastic lyics, it’s easy to hear why it would have caught the ear of Wales’ most musically adventurous bands.
Although not the most immediate Steely Dan release, Countdown To Ecstasy is an album worth persevering with as it contains some of their finest moments and some technically brilliant ensemble playing that would leave even the most jaded math rocker with a wry smile on their face.