“SPECULATOR” (WRITER: MICHAEL LOBEL)
ARTIST: THE SPLIT LEVEL
RELEASED 1968 ON THE SPLIT LEVEL LP
Here we have a special track from an utterly obscure quartet’s utterly obscure album.
The Split Level—Michael Lobel, Liz Seneff, Al Dana, and Lenny Roberts—came together in 1967, some members migrating from the world of folk music. This makes sense, as the group’s sound is best defined as sophisticated chamber pop with traces of folk, adult contemporary, and rock, decorated with a creative progressive/psychedelic frisson.
Following the issue of a late 1967 single, “I Don’t Know Where You Are,” which only a little bit of radio play on the East Coast, Dot Records put out the Split Level’s self-titled collection of songs the following spring. The album made no noise on the charts, however, and the foursome was never heard from again.
The second track on the album is “Speculator,” a clever mix of madrigal harmonies, a pulsing and tense guitar figure, sound effects, and the Agnus Dei prayer. Written by Lobel, the group’s rhythm guitarist, it ranks with the most affecting anti-war pieces of the era.
Like Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” and even Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Lobel’s lyric takes to task those who profit from wars that poor people are sent to fight and die in.
Unlike in those other songs, however, Lobel adds a distinctly Christian sense of muted outrage by including the Agnus Dei, which in English reads something like this:
Lamb of God, you who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.