Album Reviews

Richard Pinhas “Chronolyse” (Cobra, 1978)

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Throughout the ’70s, the French group Heldon forged one of one of progressive music’s most fascinating discographies. Their seven albums never wavered from greatness. The first few largely featured somber takes on languid, Robert Fripp-ian guitar meditativeness and drone tapestries while the last four found the music morphing into a more percussive, infernally throbbing brand of electronic space-rock that sounds like the ultimate score for a harrowing acid trip. (Hear Interface‘s title track for the peak of the latter style.) Heldon were led by Richard Pinhas, a guitarist and synth player enamored of dystopian science fiction and French philosophers. These interests fed into compositions that radiate an intense existential dread, albeit sometimes tempered by passages of eerie serenity and even pastoral bliss.

In Pinhas’ solo career, he muted some of the more horrific elements of Heldon’s output, but in his first LP under his own name (recorded in 1976), Chronolyse, you can still hear the mad scientist in thrall to Frank Herbert’s Dune in its nine tracks, which were done in one take, with Pinhas using Moog 55 modular synth in addition to his trademark guitar and Mellotron. The first seven pieces are relatively short and bear the title “Variations I Sur Le Thème Des Bene Gesserit.” (Wikipedia informs me that Bene Gesserit are “an exclusive sisterhood [in Dune] whose members train their bodies and minds through years of phyiscal and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.”) They consist of insistent, repetitive pulsations that build a sense of great expectation. Think a more primitive and darker-hued version of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack for an idea of the mantric zones explored here.

The 98-second “III” is particularly manic, threatening to spiral out of control, but never doing so. The bedazzled “IV” is a mere 1:45 long, but its momentous, interstellar theme—which many ’90s techno producers replicated, consciously or not—makes you wish it were 10 times longer. “V” also sounds like an embryonic attempt at techno; if its tempo were increased by 30 bpm, it could’ve thrilled the masses at raves worldwide. “VII” would make an ideal score for a sci-fi thriller flick directed by a Stanley Kubrick disciple.

“Duncan Idaho” combines the compressed-air ominousness of “Interface” with the Autobahn-jaunty synths of Kraftwerk and Cluster ca. Sowiesoso—which makes it godly. Last but certainly not least, the 30-minute “Paul Atreïdes” begins with repeated modulated blurts of Moog that recall the pew pews of futuristic weapons in loads of sci-fi movies. These are overlaid with ominous drones that foreshadow some sort of incomprehensible catastrophe. About six minutes in, Pinhas finesses some King Crimson-oid guitar filigrees that arc and wail in great anguish. Then around the 15-minute mark, Heldon drummer François Auger’s odd, quasi-funk rhythm enters earshot, while Pinhas continues soloing on guitar with increasing fierceness and complexity. Toward the end, the piece cycles around to the opening theme, but now with a sense of resignation to accompany the dread.

Of the many records inspired by Dune (which I haven’t read nor have I seen David Lynch’s film, sorry to say), Chronolyse ranks way up there with Bernard Szajner’s Visions Of Dune (recorded under the name Zed). Such is its malevolent power, Chronolyse makes me want to investigate a genre I normally don’t enjoy. -Buckley Mayfield

Gábor Szabó “Mizrab” (CTI, 1973)

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Good lord, did Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó have a distinctive and utterly sweet tone, albeit one imbued with deep sadness when the occasion called for it. After issuing some great records for Impulse!, Skye, and Blue Thumb in the ’60s and ’70s, he moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI label and smoothed out a bit, as per that company’s overriding aesthetic. But with Mizrab, Szabó cut the definitive version of the title track. You need this LP for that dazzling cut alone, but there are other delights here, too, even though this isn’t the man’s best full-length. (Still trying to decide if it’s SpellbinderBacchanal, or Sorcerer.)

Recorded in the Van Gelder Studio with CTI all-stars like Bob James (electric organ), Ron Carter (bass), Hubert Laws (flute), plus fusion drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette (playing in a much mellower style than they did with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, to say the least), Mizrab boasts an odd mélange of material. It starts with “Mizrab,” which is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Szabó and company find the sweet spot among free-flowing raga rock, Central European folk, and pop jazz. Cobham’s drumming is agile and busy, touching on Latin shuffle and funk, while Szabó’s tone is crystalline and loaded with pathos. This tune never fails to trigger watery eyes and throat lumps.

“Thirteen,” another Szabó composition, is a lovely minor-key lament, as pensive and melancholy as a walk home after being fired from your job. You can hear some of Szabó’s mellifluous picking and piquant tone here in the oeuvre of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop; a high compliment. Unfortunately, that’s it for Szabó material on Mizrab. Next comes Carole King’s “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” a lightweight and syrupy orchestral jazz pop confection. You can feel the heavy hand of Taylor’s commercial directives at work here, although Cobham is always worth hearing, no matter what the context. That fluff is balanced out by a hip, Deodato-esque rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto #2.” It’s a dynamic study in structure and mood, carried aloft by those rich CTI strings and Bob James’ deft arrangement.

The album closes with Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze.” This played-to-death, oft-covered 1972 hit single gets a fairly straightforward treatment, although DeJohnette adds all sorts of tasty accents and fills amid his martial-funk master rhythm and Szabó scrawls delicate calligraphy around the main melody. Again, one wishes Szabó had the clout to include more of his own work on Mizrab. Nevertheless, this is still a cool interpretation of that airiest of psych-pop baubles from the dusk of the hippie era—although I’ll take the Isley Brothers’ version, push comes to shove. As with all CTI LPs, Mizrab is worth buying as much for the cover image and glossy texture as for the music. -Buckley Mayfield

 

 

Pere Ubu “Datapanik In The Year Zero” (Radar, 1978)

 

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This five-track EP is a neat, efficient way to experience epochal Cleveland rock band Pere Ubu’s early material, derived from four singles released before the classic debut LP The Modern Dance exploded in the underground scene. Datapanik In The Year Zero contains some of the group’s greatest songs, plus “Heaven,” a rare descent into mawkish sentimentality. I know some of you dig it, but it strikes me as a misguided attempt at radio airplay, albeit through the unconventional backdoor of American white-boy reggae (that Tim Wright bass line is no joke, Jah bless). Anyway, let’s get to the all-time classics, which appear here in slightly altered form.

Heart Of Darkness” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” of course, stand as canonical slabs of rock existentialism rarely matched in the four decades since their release. The former’s lines “I don’t see anything that I want” and “Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall” compose some of the most shattering lyrics in rock. They remind me of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in their poignant estrangement from societal norms. The whole song’s so fucking ominous and full of unimaginable portent; too bad Joseph Conrad never had the chance to hear this. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” is one of the most chilling pieces of music of the last 41 years. It recalls early Black Sabbath’s churning doom, but ruptured by an instrumental section full of noisy urgency and chaos, depicting the nervous system of a World War II pilot carrying the atomic bomb. By the end, the song appears to be splintering and tearing apart at the seams, which is an ideal way to finish such a harrowing composition. It’s a perfect convergence of the heaviest of subject matter with utterly gut-wrenching sonic abstract expressionism.

Relief comes from “Cloud 149,” one of Ubu’s most frantic and debauched pieces; it’s like a splenetic, sped-up version of ska, albeit sidetracked by a strain of garage-rock rave-up à la the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Yet another peak in Ubu’s bulging catalog. “Untitled” is a rougher, earlier version of “The Modern Dance,” which, of course, appeared on the 1978 LP of the same name. Undulating and angular, the song moves with implacable, subliminal swiftness, until it pauses for a combustible jazz-fusion interlude. Tom Herman’s needling guitar origami nudges this track into a higher echelon of post-punk. And while I badmouthed “Heaven” above, it actually has too much understated weirdness—especially from Allen Ravenstine’s ill synth emissions—to attain hit status. It’s just that compared to everything else on Datapanik, it sounds rather conventional. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Rare Earth “Ma” (Rare Earth, 1973)

 

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One of the first white bands signed to Motown, Detroit’s Rare Earth had a damn good run in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those were peak times for psychedelic soul and R&B in general, and Rare Earth seriously benefited from Motown’s largesse (they even got their own imprint, also called Rare Earth). Oddly, though, Motown boss Berry Gordy often ordered Rare Earth to perform the same Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong compositions that the Temptations and/or Undisputed Truth recorded. The reasoning being, if one of them didn’t hit, well, maybe the other act would, as if each had their own distinct fan bases. As a fan of all three groups, I can’t discern great differences from their respective versions of those stone classic Whitfield/Strong numbers, but I’m of the persuasion to hear ‘em all. That’s how strong my love is for that writing team.

Anyway, Rare Earth’s sixth album, Ma, consists of all Whitfield material, with Strong earning co-writing credits on “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Hum Along And Dance” (the Jackson 5 also covered the latter). Both are incredible jams that you have to go out of your way to mess up, and Rare Earth execute them like the slick professionals they are. Singing drummer Peter Hoorelbeke (aka Rivera) might be the funkiest, most soulful Caucasian dude to hold down those two tasks simultaneously. (I’m willing to be proved wrong, if you have counter examples.)

Talk about balls, though: “Ma” starts the LP with a 17-minute tour de force of stoic, stolid funk and an inspirational tale about a strong, generous mother who raised 13 children, against the odds, and was “stronger than any two men.” Ray Monette lets off some strafing guitar solos and Mark Olson adds percussive, striding piano that ratchets up the drama. As with other Whitfield epics, “Ma” accrues momentum and momentousness as it goes. The man was a songwriting god, and this is yet another masterpiece in his canon.

“Big John Is My Name” is your basic marauding, boastful party-funk anthem, with drum breaks ripe for the sampling, although whosampled.com shockingly reveals that nobody’s done so. That’s just crazy. The Rare Earth rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” differs from Undisputed Truth’s and the Temptations’ in that it’s more rock-oriented and laced with flamboyant keyboard embellishments. It’s probably my least favorite of the three, but it still bears some wicked wah-wah guitar punctuation, and it’s by no means a dud.

For “Hum Along And Dance,” Rare Earth again bring more rock energy—think the Rolling Stones circa “Can You Hear Me Knocking”—to this intense dance cut than do the J5 or the Tempts. Michael Urso kills it on bass, and there’s clenched-fist excitement from start to finish. “Come With Me” bears an acoustic guitar part that paraphrases the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which Rare Earth covered on 1970′s Ecology. It also boast plenty of female groans, a Santana-esque shuffle, and an expressive guitar solo. It’s a mellow denouement to a record that mostly funks festively or furrows brows with earnest platitudes about guarding against deceptiveness and honoring single mothers.

Ma might be the last great Rare Earth album, and I recommend it to anyone who worships Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong—which means all right-thinking people, to be completely honest. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pavement “Perfect Sound Forever” (Drag City, 1990)

 

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For a long time, I was a Slanted & Enchanted guy. I thought that had to be Pavement’s pinnacle… because that was the one that sounded most like the Fall. Impeccable logic, right? When Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, I thought Pavement had gone a bit corny, a bit too R.E.M.ish. Pavement’s difficult third album, Wowee Zowee, restored my faith in Stephen Malkmus and company’s ability to get weird and unpredictable while still keeping things pretty structured. And then, for reasons I can’t really pinpoint, I stopped following Pavement. I just plain ignored Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight. Maybe it was because I got intensely into IDM and drum & bass. One of these years I’ll go back and explore the last two Pavement full-lengths, but right now I have more important matters at hand.

Anyway, this preamble is just a roundabout way to say I’m reassessing my internal Pavement ranking system. I would like to argue that Pavement peaked on Perfect Sound Forever. (It originally came out on 10-inch, the fourth ever release on the esteemed Drag City Records; you can also find it on the compilation Westing [By Musket And Sextant].) Perfect Sound Forever‘s only 12 minutes long, but it epitomizes Pavement’s early phase, and it’s an exemplary bridge between their first couple of scrappy singles and the accomplished indie-rock obscurantism of Slanted & Enchanted.

“Heckler Spray” is one of the most brilliant opening salvos ever, a bravura noise-rock intro that separates the wheat from the boys and the men from the cream. These are the most heroic and needling guitar tones Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg ever wrangled from their axes. Bow down to their majesty. If you want to hear how best to create a subdued rock anthem, study “From Now On.” On “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent,” heavy and jagged guitars menacingly lurch, punctuated by staunch, hard beats. Then cooler heads prevail with the “Mellow Jazz Docent” section, which is still a deceptively scathing yet laid-back rejoinder to the first segment. Malkmus and his cohorts sound so effortlessly assured, blending melodic chops with an exhilaratingly caustic guitar attack.

“Drive-By-Fader” and “Krell Vid-user” form very strange and distorted bookend interludes on the second side. These brief, bizarre noise experiments represent Pavement’s most unhinged moments. By contrast, “Home” is some kind of slacker rock apotheosis. But then comes “Debris Slide,” Pavement’s zenith. It’s the catchiest, most raucous, and coolest song in their canon—like a bubblegum Sonic Youth tune, and perfectly titled.

Speaking of titles, Perfect Sound Forever cleverly deflated the music industry’s laughably overblown compact disc hype while also marking Pavement as world-class wise guys who could pen indelible hooks and blowtorch your ears at the same time. Best. Pavement. Record. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Zapp “Zapp” (Warner Bros., 1980)

 

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Zapp is a landmark of funk, one of the gleaming peaks of future-fucking ’80s R&B. Led by Ohio brothers Roger and Larry Troutman (with two other Troutman bros also contributing), Zapp were a family affair who weren’t as stoned as Sly. Bolstered by their association with P-Funk’s George Clinton and Bootsy Collins—the latter of whom co-produced Zapp with Roger—the Troutmans displayed a genius for minimalist funk jams that often centered Roger’s distinctive and virtuosic use of talk-box, which gave his voice a supernaturally mellow soulfulness.

Recorded at Detroit’s United Sound Studios, Zapp went Gold and reached #19 on the US pop chart and #1 on the R&B chart. If you’re a fan of the ’90s West Coast rap style known as G-Funk, you’ll notice tons of samples originating from the LP’s standout lead-off track “More Bounce To The Ounce” and the slick, midtempo funk ballad “Be Alright.” Yeah, Zapp is foundational in more ways than one.

Let us quickly focus our attention on “More Bounce To The Ounce.” It is, quite simply, the funkiest song of the ’80s—yes, even funkier than George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Prince’s “Head,” or 23 Skidoo’s “Kundalini.” It’s no shocker that “More Bounce” wound up powering many a G-Funk rap track. It’s a masterpiece of minimalism, as the Troutmans et al. conduct a PhD seminar in dynamics; the way the bass chicken struts while the guitar chimes with percussive terseness and the massed claps snap where the kick drum should be, plus Roger’s unparalleled use of talk-box… well, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime coalescence of elements that you never want to end. I’m serious. It’s one of the hottest and coolest grooves humanity has ever conceived. This one song makes Zapp worth whatever price you’ll pay for it (likely around $10-$12, but don’t be surprised to see that rise).

The rest of Zapp doesn’t really approach the towering heights of “More Bounce,” but it’s solid nearly all the way through, in a way that few ’80s funk LPs are. “Freedom” is sly jazz funk with an indelible, thunder-thumbs poppin’ bass motif. “Brand New PPlayer” is a prime example of funk on the prowl, a slinky seducer with jazzy sax and guitar solos, subliminal congas, and clever male/female vocal interplay. It’s probably the most Parliamentarian cut on the album. The low-key trance-funk of “Funky Bounce” features an odd contrapuntal passage between slap bass punctuation and a fluid, bluesy guitar solo. Make no mistake: Zapp consist of musicians with serious chops. Sure, they’re fond of repetition, but they can flex virtuosity, too. An example is the crystalline, Wes Montgomery-like guitar accentuation that threads “Be Alright,” a slick, funky, summery ballad hobbled by boilerplate romantic lyrics—always a Zapp liability. Unfortunately, the album ends on its weakest note; “Coming Home”’s a peppy and schmaltzy R&B ditty that sounds like it should be scoring the end credits of a mediocre made-for-TV movie.

But pay that no never mind. Zapp‘s mostly golden, which in ’80s funk circles means it’s hella exceptional. Ask Dr. Dre and EPMD, among many others. -Buckley Mayfield

 

M|A|R|R|S “Pump Up The Volume” (4AD/4th & B’way, 1987)

 

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Pump Up The Volume” stands as one of the strangest songs ever to chart in America (peaked at #13). The handiwork of British musicians Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox and A.R. Kane [see our Sept. 5 review of their Up Home! EP], this seven-minute sampladelic collage both entranced and discombobulated dance floors in the late ’80s—as did its four-minute edit to radio listeners. M|A|R|R|S loaded the track with an absurd abundance of sonic information; it’s as overwhelming a listening experience as anything concocted by the Bomb Squad for Public Enemy or the what the Dust Brothers stitched together for the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. “Pump Up The Volume” is one of those surreal, action-packed jams that can jolt you out of your doldrums while shopping for cereal at QFC (true story).

The main rhythm of “Pump Up The Volume” is a rolling, punchy house-music amble, spookily accentuated with heavily FX’d vibraphone tintinnabulation (I think). The excitement level seriously spikes when they bring in the monstrously funky, Moog-/timbale-enhanced break from the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost.” Other elements producer John Fryer zooms in and out of the mix include the oddly riveting chorus from George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa,” Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav shouting “You’re gonna get yours!” Washington DC go-go group Trouble Funk chanting “pump pump pump me up!” rapper Rakim intoning “Pump up the volume” (of course), a Last Poets member’s rapid-fire rant from “Mean Machine” (“rhythmatic systematic remote control/magnetic genetic commands your soul”), drums and cowbell from Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Jazz,” and Dunya Yusin’s striking melisma from “Abu Zeluf.” Throw in some scratching by C.J. Mackintosh and you have a recipe for confusion, but the whole thing hangs together splendidly, returning to the original undulating rhythm just when you think it’s going to split at the seams. The US edition of the EP gives you two alternate mixes with slight variations, but both pale before the original epic.

The 12-inch’s other highlight is “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance).” Written by A.R. Kane, “Anitina” is a corrosive slice of the group’s patented, solarized shoegaze, buttressed with a sexily strutting bass line and some pneumatic ’80s drum-machine beats. Rudy Tambala sings to his “little dollies,” “I’ll feed you sugarkane” and “touch me where it’s forbidden,” and the effect is charming rather than creepy due to his vulnerably soulful voice. While “Pump Up The Volume” hogged the lion’s share of the spotlight, “Anitina” is a stunning gem in its own right, one of the most compelling compositions A.R. Kane ever conceived.

Vinyl copies of Pump Up The Volume commonly appear in used sections for prices much lower than the quality of its contents would lead you to expect. It’s bargain-bin gold, and you should cop one the next time you see it. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band “Bongo Rock” (Pride, 1973)

 

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Incredible Bongo Band sure had incredible bongos, but they weren’t really a band, per se. Rather, Pride Records executive Michael Viner coaxed various musicians to record percussion-heavy instrumentals, including covers of many popular songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and pieces for films in order to, uh… make some easy money. Thankfully for posterity (and your posterior), these players ranked among the greatest session studs ever: drummer Jim Gordon, percussionist King Errisson, guitarist Mike Deasy, pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder, and many others—possibly even Ringo Starr. The sessions may have had a loose, mercenary intention to them, but they ultimately yielded some truly enduring cuts.

You surely know the popular tune “Apache,” which the Shadows originally issued in 1960. Well, IBB blew it out and funked it up like nobody’s business. The result is one of the most action-packed jams ever waxed and perhaps the ultimate B-boy anthem, its bongos-and-drums breakbeats forming the perfect bustling soundtrack to busting acrobatic moves. In addition, “Apache” has become one the most sampled tracks in music history, especially appealing to hip-hop and drum & bass producers. If you can’t hear why, you may need therapy.

The rest of Bongo Rock is similarly a treasure trove of breakbeats aching to be sampled and instantly catchy, quasi-kitsch instrumentals that want to enliven every party everywhere till the end of time. I mean, check out “Bongolia,” a swerving monster of a tune with flamboyant horn charts, swift bongo patter, and 10 pounds of funk in a 5-pound bag. It’s a veritable godsend for DJs; its only fault that is that it las barely over two minutes. “Last Bongo In Belgium” slurs out some lascivious blues rock with a funky swagger and what sounds like Mike Deasy going off on a third-ear-tickling, psychedelic guitar solo. Yes, the Beastie Boys sampled the drum/bongos break for “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun.” Good catch.

Of course IBB do a truncated but funked-to-heaven and horn-heavy cover of Iron Butterfly’s gothadelic 1968 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” And of course it possesses a very sample-worthy bongo/drum break, replete with flange on the latter. They’re generous like that. The last two tracks—“Raunchy ’73” and “Bongo Rock ’73”—sound like sexed-up, hot-rodding themes to TV game shows that are more risqué than The Dating Game (ask your mom or dad). Once again, there’s a surfeit of funkitude and more fun than should be legal on a 35-minute album. All praises to the visionary Michael Viner and his funky instincts! -Buckley Mayfield

 

 

 

William S. Fischer “Circles” (Embryo, 1970)

r-1921619-1275313594-jpeg Herbie Mann’s Embryo label may not have had the greatest track record, but it was never less than interesting during its eight-year run, as LPs by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brute Force, Miroslav Vitous, and others, attest. Ol’ Herbie seemingly gave his artists free rein, and most of them took full advantage. One of the Atlantic Records subsidiary’s standout releases is Circles by composer/keyboardist William S. Fischer. Fischer—who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page—plays Moog synthesizer on this very curious record, which boasts Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on bass, vocalist Bill Robinson, no fewer than five cellists, and superstar session guitarists Hugh McCracken (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison et al.) and Eric Weissberg, who played the banjo theme to Deliverance. That’s a helluva lot of firepower for a musician of such (unjust) obscurity. The album’s first track doesn’t really betray how strange Circles will get. “Patience Is A Virtue” is a slow-burning psychedelic-soul number in the vein of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “Message From A Black Man,” and given gravity by Fischer’s cello army. But then, catching you unawares, “Saigon”’s acid rock surges somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson Airplane, Phil Upchurch, and It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Time Is.” If that weren’t enough of a radical juxtaposition, the abstract Moog exploration of “Electrix” sounds as peculiar and disturbing as anything off a Nik Raicevic LP or George Harrison’s Paul Beaver-assisted Electronic Sound. Another 90-degree twist happens with “Chains,” which almost prefigures the nocturnal slowcore rock of bands like Codeine or Low. Nothing on side 1 makes any goddamn sense, and that’s a wonderful thing. Turn the record over for another shocking transition, “There’s A Light That Shines,” a poker-faced pop-gospel ditty sung with utmost sincerity and sweetness by Robinson, but laced with Fischer’s crispy Moog embellishments. It’s the LP’s low point, but its cloyingness is nullified by “Circle.” With its unusual dynamics and dark orchestrations, this song’s excellent funk rock sounds like Chambers Brothers attempting their own Forever Changes. “Green Forever” delivers orchestral funk of David Axelrod-esque complexity, powered by Cobham’s ridiculously mercurial drumming and fiery guitar interplay redolent of Miles Davis’ ’70s-era hired guns like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey. You have to admire someone who ends a debut album with a track like “Capsule”—a cavalcade of chittering and purring Moog blurts. You have to remember, this synth was rather new in 1970 and musicians were eager to explore its outermost capabilities, sometimes for the sheer novelty effect. Fischer does that here, and if you’re of a psychedelic mindset, you’ll gleefully go along for the whole seven-minute tour de force. Like Fischer’s other albums—Akelarre Sorta and Omen, both from 1972—Circles is long out of print on vinyl although in 2003 Water Records re-released it on CD. It’s one of those true oddball records that need to hit more ears ASAP, regardless of format. -Buckley Mayfield

Fripp & Eno “Evening Star” (Island, 1975)

 

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Evening Star‘s cover art—by Oblique Strategies co-creator Peter Schmidt—looks like fairly typical New Age LP fare, but the music therein is far from typical in that genre. This meeting of the prog-rock deities—King Crimson leader/guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music synth wizard Brian Eno—resulted in some of the most sublime ambient music this side of Discreet Music For Airports [sic]. Of course, the duo had cut the tape-delay masterpiece No Pussyfooting in 1973, its two sidelong tracks dilating listeners’ sense of time and ensnaring their minds in seemingly infinite loops. So fans were somewhat primed for another deep dose of head music. While not quite as lapel-grabbing as No Pussyfooting, the five tracks on Evening Star do possess a subtly alluring quality.

Opening track “Wind On Water” enters earshot on supremely gentle guitar ululations in the upper register, swathed in ambrosial drones that evaporate all cares and induce a preternatural calm. This makes  “The Heavenly Music Corporation” off No Pussyfooting sound like heavy metal. “Evening Star” deepens the pervasive sense of tranquility. A gorgeous, crystalline three-note keyboard motif that should be your phone’s ringtone forever chimes in the foreground while Fripp launches foghorn-y wails in the background. An acoustic guitar jangles in the slim lacunae between those elements. The whole thing’s ecstatically lugubrious.

“Evensong” is a slight lullaby that pales in comparison to the two classics before it. However, the Eno solo composition “Wind On Wind” sounds like a benevolent god murmuring “there there” to you as she caresses your forehead. It’s a one-way ticket to Cloud 9, the key to absolute mental peace. Thus side one ends.

For side two, Fripp & Eno have something completely different in mind. Where side one floated in utmost placidity, the 28-minute “An Index Of Metals” tolls like an Emergency Alert System alarm. The tension is palpable from the start, and it only gets more ominous as it goes. The plot thickens with each passing minute, as Fripp’s guitar starts rolling in ever-larger waves, crashing on the shore of your ears with greater intensity and inhabiting more foreboding atmospheres. By the end of “An Index Of Metals,” you’re convinced it belongs in the pantheon of darkest music you’ve ever cowered to.

I’d wager it was Fripp who steered the ship into possibly the creepiest waters either musician had ever plunged. I keep thinking about the hilariously shocking transition that occurs on King Crimson’s debut LP, where the diabolical climax of “21st Century Schizoid Man” smacks abruptly against the utterly pacific “I Talk The Wind.” Fripp loves to subvert expectations. Your puffy-cloud fantasia’s been subsumed by a sinister undertow. Who is Eno to get in the way of that? -Buckley Mayfield

 

Opal “Happy Nightmare Baby” (SST, 1987)

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Like many releases from SST’s incredible run in the ’80s, Happy Nightmare Baby languishes out of print. Opal’s only studio LP proper is a fabulous, valuable record, and in a just world, it would not be as scarce as it is. In a just world, SST—which is run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn—or a label specializing in reissues would have kept the lovely masterpiece in print perpetually. But no. Ginn seems not interested in keeping his label’s greatest titles available to the general public. Only tenacious bands with top-flight lawyers have managed to get the rights to their SST output for legit reissues. Sorry to bog you down with this minutiae, but if you want a vinyl copy of Happy Nightmare Baby, you’ll likely have to shell out major coin; I paid $40 for an original last year. Even the used CD I bought eight years ago cost $12, which is kind of scandalous.

Anyway, to the music, which was created by Rain Parade guitarist/vocalist David Roback and Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith. Their combined discographies reveal them to be songwriters whose work is built to last. And so it goes here. “Rocket Machine” launches Happy Nightmare Baby into T.Rextacy from the get-go, its slowed-down Bolan-esque boogie an instant initiation into Opal’s psychedelicized recontextualization of ’60s and ’70s classic rock moves. “Magick Power” uncoils like a serpentine Doors epic, but it’s infused with Smith’s sly feminine charms instead of Jim Morrison’s macho bravado. And that makes all the difference. (I’m a Doors fan, by the way, so hold your hate mail.)

On “She’s A Diamond,” Opal blow out a bluesy shuffle with fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar and glaze it with glorious, icy female backing vocals behind Smith’s wonderfully opiated drawl. You can hear why Roback picked Hope Sandoval for his next band, Mazzy Star, as she followed in Kendra’s compellingly lackadaisical steps. “Supernova” sounds what I imagine heroin feels like; it’s a languid strut, accentuated by guitars that spray gold glitter, and there’s also what sounds like an electric cello swirling in the background. Seductively stalking keyboard and bass riffs power “Siamese Trap,” augmented by Roback’s articulate guitar love cries. If you haven’t gathered by now, Happy Nightmare Baby possesses some of the most immersive and alluring sex music you’ll ever hear.

The Strange Days-era Doors-y title track casts a spell at once beatific and sinister, which is incredibly hard to do. “Soul Giver” offers the perfect ending to the album, with its methodical, tidal undertow and hypnotic, majestic sweep. Suki Ewers’ snaky, Manzarek-like organ arabesques really elevate the song to the highest echelon of extended psych jams. I used to put this on mixtapes next to Loop’s “Burning World,” and it was a helluva stoned 1-2 punch.

I realize it won’t be easy (thanks, Greg), but you should do whatever it takes to get Happy Nightmare Baby into your life—and, yes, you deserve better than a YouTube rip. -Buckley Mayfield

Bohannon “Dance Your Ass Off” (Dakar, 1975)

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Though he was immortalized in Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love,” Hamilton Bohannon remains somewhat under-recognized as a suave scientist of funk and disco. This despite releasing about a dozen great records throughout the ’70s and ’80s that contained some of the most exciting and irresistible rhythms ever waxed—as well as, it must be admitted, some of the tritest lyrics and most cloying ballads ever conceived. But Bohannon more than made up for these flaws through his ability to lay down chugging dance tracks that you wish lasted for hours rather than minutes.

Maybe Bohannon didn’t earn greater recognition because on his LP covers he usually looked overly formal and a bit geeky, and his speaking voice on record is shockingly square. Further squareness ensues on the Dance Your Ass Off‘s cover, which blurs a profile of an actual woman’s ass and has the admonition, “PLAY THIS RECORD LOUD P.S. Dance Your Ass Off is not used in the sense of profanity.” [Italics mine.] Above this, Bohannon thanks God and Jesus Christ “for giving [him] strength and inspiration to write, arrange, direct, produce and record this Album.” Points deducted for all of this, but I still recommend Dance Your Ass Off as an ultimate party platter, blessedly free of his usual momentum-killing balladry.

Right from the opening title track, drummer/arranger/composer/producer Bohannon and his crack band lock into a crisp, swift disco kick and cymbal-tap rhythm, buttressed by a nasty bass line, handclaps, bongos, and swampy guitar snarls—and surprisingly dark strings. You can safely ignore nearly all Bohannon lyrics, as they’re always boilerplate party exhortations and meta descriptions about the actual music, albeit sung with utmost sincerity. For example: “Wiggle when you dance/Now wiggle when you walk/Let’s dance, let’s dance, let’s dance all night/We’re gonna rock your soul and set your feet on fire.” Not exactly Marvin Gaye- or Eugene McDaniels-caliber verbiage, eh?

The rest of Dance Your Ass Off alternates between freewheeling disco with flamboyant string accompaniment and slightly slower and greasy-as-fuck funk that nods to the Meters (see “The Groove I Feel” and “Zulu”). If you dig chicken-squawk guitar and militaristically precise drumming, then you’ll love these two cuts. The guitar on the former is particularly wicked. For my money, “Trying To Be Slick” is the LP’s highlight. It’s like Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” on speed, but with more mad flute embellishments and much less socially conscious lyrics, of course. Think of it as music to set sprinting world records to. The paradoxical thing about music that inspires hedonism—like Bohannon’s—is that it usually requires incredible discipline and control to create.

Super hypnotic, minimal, and repetitious, Dance Your Ass Off in places could be a blueprint for house music, almost a decade before the fact. Verily, these songs are DJ tools of the highest order. -Buckley Mayfield