Album Reviews

Charanjit Singh “Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat” (His Master’s Voice, 1983)

R-2108668-1460535363-6734.jpeg There’s something to be said about self-explanatory titles. They help the critic and, more importantly, enable the listener to get a grip instantly on what’s happening within the record’s grooves.

That being said, what Indian Bollywood session musician Charanjit Singh achieves on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat is extraordinary, in that nobody had ever attempted to merge those genres. What emerges on this 1983 LP is a primitive form of acid house, a few years before the Chicago pioneers of that club-music style had conceived the Roland TB-303 squelch and TB-808 beats that propelled it into a futuristic phenomenon in the mid ’80s among heads attuned to underground electronic music. Yeah, Mr. Singh beat the Windy City producers to the punch, but it’s only since about 2010—thanks to Bombay Connection’s reissue—that anyone outside a small circle of cognoscenti in his home country had an inkling what the hell was going on in this synth sorcerer’s lab.

All 10 ragas here pump and snake around the 4-on-the-floor 808 beats for about five minutes; they’re at once functional and sui generis, with the ancient melodies of classical Indian music getting synthesized into bizarre, ultra-vivid convolutions that sound so wrong they’re right. Purists will be outraged, but outraging purists is never a bad thing. “Raga Lalit,” for instance, is a gradually accelerating gyroscope of spangly, fibrillating, simulated santoor tones that causes a vertiginous rush. The rest of the album basically wrings subtle variations on this theme. If this is proto-acid house, it’s proto-acid house with a PhD in instrumental virtuosity. The mercurial motifs that swirl around the über-basic rhythms lift this project into utterly sublime, distinctive realms.

Even if you’ve never had the slightest desire to bust a move to acid house or haven’t the slightest clue about raga’s sonic intricacies, you have to respect the ingenuity Singh displays on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. It’s not every decade that you encounter such originality, you know. -Buckley Mayfield

HEAD “HEAD” (Buddah, 1970)

 

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Nik Raicevic (aka Nik Pascal, aka HEAD) is an enigmatic analog-synth maestro who recorded five albums for his own tiny Narco label in the early ’70s. In a very strange turn of events, he somehow found himself in 1973 playing percussion for the Rolling Stones on “Can You Hear The Music,” the most psychedelic song on Goats Head Soup. (I still want to know how the hell this happened.)

Anyway, Raicevic convinced Buddah—a subsidiary of MGM Records—to put out this blatantly pro-drug LP under the alias HEAD. Maybe he had sway because he used a Moog synthesizer, which equalled record-biz gold for a hot minute back in the day. (Nik had recorded this album in 1968 and self-released it under the title of Numbers, using the catchy moniker 107-34-8933.) The Buddah version came with an eight-page coloring book and these notes on the back: “The sound of numbers for soaking in soft dreams. Sweet moments and private notes making a rhyme into a habit. An album that creates the ultimate environment for the smoke generation. Taste it.” Dude…

The year 1970 was a halcyonic time when you could open your debut album on a major-label subsidiary’s dime with a 17-minute tracks called “Cannabis Sativa.” Drop the needle on it and instantly feel like you’re slowly spinning horizontally in the most fucked-up aviary ever conceived. Mechanical bird twitters and what sounds like a pitched-up wind chime flutter over a sonorous, oscillating “woooaaahh” motif. Hypnosis will be yours. “Cannabis Sativa” mixes well with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Riversong” and Conrad Schnitzler’s “Electric Garden.” Try it in your next DJ set.

The Doppler Effected whooshes and disconcerting bleeps on “Methedrine” make it feel as if you’ve been transported to a planetarium in which—despite the track’s title—it feels as if the air vents are pumping out DMT. This is severe, depopulated synth sorcery, geared to disorient and alienate. That Raicevic was doing this in 1968 testifies to his innovative vision. Musicians today are still trying to achieve this sort of interstellar desolation, but often with computers and software programs, and yet aren’t capturing that sense of chilling menace to the degree that Raicevic did. HEAD ends with “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” (of course it does), which is simply “Cannabis Sativa” played twice as fast while sounding half as trippy. Sort of a bummer, but I can deal with it.

Here’s a pro tip: Buy any Nic Raicevic album you can find, no matter how pricey it is. They’re all dome-crackers. Despite reissues of obscure electronic opuses flooding bins with increasing frequency over the last decade, it appears with each passing year that such a campaign isn’t going to happen with our man Nik’s catalog. But, you know, if we can get a Bruce Ditmas archival release, perhaps anything is possible. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Terry Riley “Descending Moonshine Dervishes” (Kuckuck, 1982)

 

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If you will allow a controversial opinion, I maintain that nobody’s music embodies pure peace like Terry Riley’s. From In C to A Rainbow In Curved Air to Persian Surgery Dervishes to Shri Camel and beyond, the legendary American composer has forged a body of work that’s established minimalism as an ultimate conduit of sonic transcendence and an overall sense of well-being. If all of your chakras aren’t resonating with utmost harmoniousness while you’re listening to Riley, you may want to schedule a soul-doctor appointment.

Although Descending Moonshine Dervishes isn’t typically rated among Riley’s greatest accomplishments, it should be. Honestly, I’ve always been a Rainbow In Curved Air/Persian Surgery Dervishes/Shri Camel guy, but Portland label Beacon Sound’s fantastic 2016 vinyl reissue—with a strong remastering job done by former Seattle producer Rafael Anton Irisarri—has me reconsidering. The more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced that Moonshine is Riley’s peak, which means that it’s among the loftiest works of art in the Western world. If you will allow another controversial opinion…

It starts with urgent burbles similar to those of one of Riley’s greatest hits, “Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band,” then ascends to an ever-so-dissonant cruise-control drone that pits two competing organ motifs against each other to create a wonderful friction. Sporadic surges in intensity increase the sublimity of the drone, creating the sensation of frantic yet salubrious cellular activity. (I should say that this magnum opus was mostly improvised live at Berlin’s Metamusik Festival in 1975. Terry was on a goddamn roll that night, y’all.)

At times, Descending Moonshine Dervishes is almost too much to handle, as the surfeit of silvery tones gather density and crash against the shore of your consciousness, inundating you with way more pleasure than you deserve in one lifetime, let alone in one sitting with an LP. Such is the man’s benevolence, though, that he keeps bestowing you the godly goods, never really letting up on celestial symphony that emanates from his modified Yamaha YC 45D organ.

Really, Riley? 52 minutes of this? How are we ever gonna deal with the escalating shitshow of reality after such a glut of galactic gloriousness? If god exists, she’s playing this in her lair—and then perhaps seguing into an epic Bösendorfer piano piece by Charlemagne Palestine, for good measure. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Lard Free “Lard Free” (Cobra, 1977)

 

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Disregard the somewhat goofy name: Lard Free were one of the heaviest French rock groups of the ’70s (a decade laden with heavy French rock groups). Led by multi-instrumentalist Gilbert Artman, they cut three great albums, peaking with Lard Free (also known as III and Spirale Malax, in later iterations; the excellent Wah Wah label reissued Lard Free’s catalog on vinyl in 2010). Where Lard Free’s previous two full-lengths fused Miles Davis’ late ’60s/early-’70s electric jazz with outward-bound acid rock, their third LP soared into even headier realms of unprecedented futuristic fusions.

The entire first side is consumed by “Spirale Malax,” which fades in on Yves Lanes’ mutedly radiant synth, which whorl in the vicinity of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, but soon come the shafts of Xavier Baulleret’s molten guitar and Jean-Pierre Thirault’s spectral clarinet filigree. Artman funnels all of these elements into a massive cyclotron, generating a disorienting vortex of highbrow hijinks. It’s like listening to Tangerine Dream’s Zeit and Iannis Xenakis’ La légende d’Eer while on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

“Spirale Malax” really is one of the most stunning pieces of music ever conceived, a surreal, 17-minute acid trip full of phantom, Doppler-effected drones, trance-inducing tom-tom-thumping, and panic-inducing guitar pulsations. Then it fades out as it came in. Utter, terrifying perfection.

The four-part “Synthetic Seasons” suite on the flipside isn’t as mind-boggling as the A-side, but it’s plenty out there and gripping. It begins with eerie synth ectoplasm punctuated by distant, methodically off-kilter drums and guitar and clarinet that seem to be shrieking in the next studio over. By the second section, the drumming comes to the fore, beating out a military tattoo, while the guitar describes a pattern as complicated as a cauliflower and the clarinet drones mournfully.

The weirdness intensifies in the third part, with a swarming synth drone blooming, until the clarinet mournfully surfaces, like Eric Dolphy in a funereal mood. In the final segment, a seductive and menacing funk beat saunters into earshot, while the guitar grunts and the synth twitters in a melancholy mode (Acid Mothers Temple fans will recognize this combo). The track traverses some of prog-rock’s most anguished terrain, replete with Lanes’ wavering wall of synth grotesquerie. “Synthetic Seasons” could soundtrack Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—if it didn’t get so damn funky in places.

With this album, Lard Free entered the pantheon of heaviest, headiest French music, along with Heldon, Magma, Spacecraft, Igor Wakhévitch, and Art Zoyd. -Buckley Mayfield

 

23 Skidoo “Seven Songs” (Fetish, 1982)

 

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Funk got really weird in the UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, Medium Medium, Cabaret Voltaire, Rip Rig + Panic, and, to a lesser degree, Pigbag were all finding interesting ways to mutate the American art form in their own severely agitational, Anglo manner. London’s 23 Skidoo were right in the thick of that heady era of funk reinvention, and Seven Songs was their crowning achievement. Here they mastered a sort of funk concrète and wasteland ambience that suggested a bizarre meeting between the Meters and Throbbing Gristle. (That group’s Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson co-produced the record with Ken Thomas.)

Seven Songs spectacularly launches with “Kundalini,” which starts with what sounds like a Theremin being finger-banged and a rendition of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then comes a mad conflagration of death-march kickdrums, rapid-fire bongos, Tarzan hollers, and dudes grimacing commands like “Move me, get down, spread!” and “Rise!” This is sex music of extreme urgency and chaos. And, as the title indicates, it’s writhing with the sort of primal, libidinous energy that accumulates at the base of the spine… if you believe in Hindu philosophy and that intense branch of yoga. Fuck yeah.

This amazing LP-opener leads into the ultra-tight funk sparkplug “Vegas El Bandito,” which sounds like a lean, late-’60s James Brown instrumental, but Latinized and dubbed out, with Alex Turnbull’s trumpet dispersing into Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis territory. That trumpet part gets delayed and dispersed into a cauldron of heavily FX’d guitar and ghostly drones of unknown origin on “Mary’s Operation.”

The desolate, post-industrial scrapyard dub of “New Testament” recalls “Super 16” on Neu! 2, but in the last minute, it transitions into a distant, Zoviet-France trance-out that sets the scene for “IY,” the album’s most flagrant party jam. This bongos-heavy, pell-mell jazz-funk juggernaut makes you want to have tantric orgasms and overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). The relentless momentum grinds to a near halt with “Porno Base,” in which uptight Englishwoman Diana Mitford natters on about the benefits of young people avoiding pleasure while a reverbed bass plucks and chains rattle in the foreground. It’s an early-’80s British thing; you wouldn’t understand.

The EP closes with“Quiet Pillage,” a sly homage/subversion of Martin Denny’s exotica landmark “Quiet Village,” its idiosyncratic percussive timbres, strange animal and bird sounds, whistles, and thumb piano making the record feel as if it’s staggering to the runoff groove with a dazed expression. What a baffling and oddly satisfying way to finish things.

23 Skidoo went on to cut some other interesting records—1983′s Coup EP (the Chemical Brothers’ pilfered its bass part on “Block Rockin’ Beats”), 1984′s Urban Gamelan, and 2000′s 23 Skidoo—but their best ideas cohered most fortuitously on Seven Songs. There’s nothing else like it. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Les McCann “Invitation To Openness” (Atlantic, 1972)

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You probably know keyboardist Les McCann for his uproarious hit with Eddie Harris, “Compared To What,” but with Invitation To Openness, he occupies a much more chill zone, as exemplified by the 26-minute lead-off track, “The Lovers.” The opening keyboard movement foreshadows a blissful peace, not unlike Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, with Corky Hale’s harp trills adding more timbral tranquility to proceedings. A few minutes in, drums and percussion slide into earshot and a laid-back groove akin to Julian Priester’s sublime “Love, Love” commences, aided by Bill Salter’s stealthy bass. Five minutes in, Yusef Lateef takes the piece to a higher level with snake-charming oboe melismas. Five minutes later, Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza (who’s worked with Paul McCartney and John Lennon) peel off some wah-wah-tinged blaxploitation riffs that seriously enliven the song, inspiring Bernard Purdie (or it Alphonse Mouzon?) to funk up the rhythm to the max. 

“The Lovers” waxes and wanes (but mostly waxes) over its long duration, sounding remarkably composed for an improv jam featuring more than a dozen players. It’s one of the most magical spontaneous-epic recordings in the post-Coltrane world, a cool outpouring of loving spirit by musicians working at the loftiest level of groupmind telepathy. Love, love it. 

By contrast, side two can’t help seeming somewhat less momentous. Nevertheless, the two long cuts on it are worth playing in your next hip lounge DJ set. The 13-minute “Beaux J. Poo Boo” is subtle soul-jazz that, while it’s playing, makes you feel about nine times cooler than you actually are. Its gentle propulsion and Lateef’s fluid, mellow flute arabesques lull you into a state of contentment until close to the end, when nearly all hell breaks loose. But these cats are too cool to ever really go nuclear with the freakouts. 

On the 12-minute “Poo Pye McGoochie (And His Friends),” we hear another pensive beginning before the band heats up with advanced, velvety groove science. McCann’s crispy, spacey Moog motif rears its head periodically to break up the intricate, cerebral passages. Once you hear that Moog brashly flexing, you’ll want to call it up in your mental jukebox every time you need a jolt of adrenaline. Bonus: a badass drum solo near the end by Mouzon (I think). As with the other two pieces, it sounds like all the players amassed in the studio under producer Joel Dorn were simply enjoying the hell out of themselves and reveling in the loose sense of adventurousness McCann had instructed them to strive for.

Invitation To Openness is one of those rare classics you can still find in used-vinyl bins for $1-$5. Snap it up. -Buckley Mayfield

 

The Soft Boys “Underwater Moonlight” (Armageddon, 1980)

 

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The Soft Boys opened their 1979 debut album, A Can Of Bees, with “Give It To The Soft Boys.” That’s what I’m about to do with this here review… praise, that is. For Underwater Moonlight is a stone-cold classic of neo-retro-psychedelic jangle pop, ablaze with memorable tunes and brilliant lyrics. According to some smart folks, it represents the peak of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career. On certain days, I agree with that observation.

The album kicks off with one of the greatest one-two punches in rock history. “I Wanna Destroy You” might be the ultimate righteous-revenge anthem. Musically, this is one of the most effusive and potent power-pop songs ever, but lyrically it’s utterly sulphuric in its vengefulness—against the media, apparently. And man does it feel good when Hitchcock euphoniously yelps into the chorus; the “I”s here just explode. “The Kingdom Of Love” veers almost 180º in the opposite direction. It’s a cool, cruising rocker that expresses an exalted yet surreal desire, as Hitchcock equates extreme infatuation with insects crawling under his skin. When the song reaches the part where he sings, “You grow out of me like a FLOWER!” it sounds like his heart’s literally bursting in ecstasy and the song ascends to its most heavenly level. If these two cuts were released on a 45, it would represent an all-time Top 20 single.

The jittery, jangly, sitar-spiced power pop of “Positive Vibrations” makes you feel as good as the title would suggest. You’d best believe R.E.M. were taking notes while listening to this song. If you ever wondered what would happen if the Cramps were British absurdists, well, the leering, sleazy “I Got The Hots” would be your answer. “Insanely Jealous” gradually builds into an amphetamine’d blowout redolent of obsessiveness; the music’s a perfect analogue of the titular emotion.

Hitchcock fans may hate me for saying this, but “Tonight” verges on cheesy, sounding like a middling, long-lost radio hit or TV movie theme. It’s really Underwater Moonlight‘s only weak link. But the LP rebounds with two of its toughest pieces: the intriguing and torqued instrumental “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” and “Old Pervert,” the most jagged, vicious, oddly metered song here—almost No Wave-y in its angularity and abrasiveness. Then there’s a weird segue into “Queen Of Eyes,” an amiable, Byrdsy jangle rock bauble, before the title track closes things with an ideal combo of the rousing and the slightly rueful. Hitchcock’s and Kimberly Rew’s guitars shimmer in a vaguely Eastern manner while also slashing and clanging with fervent rock gusto. So much gusto! Roll credits, exit theater feeling exhilarated. Then repeat… over and over.

(In this century, Underwater Moonlight has been reissued on vinyl by Matador in 3XLP form and by Yep Roc. Rykodisc did a CD reissue in 1992 with eight bonus tracks.) -Buckley Mayfield

 

Tom Dissevelt & Kid Baltan “Song Of The Second Moon” (1968, Limelight)

 

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Imagine hearing this music when it was created, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Imagine how far-fucking-out it must’ve sounded to people who hadn’t yet experienced the great psychedelic cultural upheaval of 1966, who probably had only the faintest idea of musique concrète and Bebe and Louis Barron’s 1956 soundtrack to Forbidden Planet. Dutch composers Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan (aka Dick Raaijmakers) cracked open a Pandora’s Box of bizarre and breath-taking electronic tones and textures that some of today’s producers are still trying to emulate almost six decades later. Song Of The Second Moon captures the duo at a creative peak, generating compositions that embrace menace and whimsy, as well as order and chaos, with a poise that elevates them to the level of other electronic innovators like the aforementioned Barrons and Raymond Scott.

Baltan’s “Song Of The Second Moon” is the kind of synthesizer opus full of off-kilter jauntiness and mercurial insectoid bleeps that made ’90s IDM stars like Mike “µ-Ziq” Paradinas extol it as a paragon of pioneering electronic music. The beautifully desolate atmospheres and shattered metallic timbres of Tom Dissevelt’s “Moon Maid” evoke a sense of awestruck wonder, of planets tilting off their axes. Baltan’s “The Ray Makers” foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s malfunctioning rocket noises on “Jetsex” [see my review of TEHB’s Zero Time from December 18, 2016] and Gil Mellé’s sinister, microbial ambience in The Andromeda Strain soundtrack. Dissevelt and Baltan were magicking science-fiction sonics that were way ahead of their time.

Song Of The Second Moon ends with a couple of deviations from the rest of the LP and reveal the duo’s facility for jazz maneuvers. On “Twilight Ozone,” Dissevelt offers a witty homage to Bernard Herrmann’s Twilight Zone theme, full of frightful horn fanfares and hurtling, white-knuckle rhythms. On “Pianoforte,” Baltan serves up nerve-jangling, disjunctive spy jazz that predates Ennio Morricone’s work in this vein by a half decade or so. Lordy, how did the squares of the early ’60s deal with this madness? Some heads still ain’t ready for this kind of structural and tonal discombobulation.

(Kudos to Fifth Dimension for reissuing this groundbreaking electronic LP. You should also pick up Sonitron’s archival releases of Dissevelt’s Fantasy In Orbit and Dissevelt and Baltan’s El Fascinante Mundo De La Musica Electronica.) -Buckley Mayfield

 

 

Snapper “Snapper” (Flying Nun, 1988)

 

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Snapper came to my attention with their 1988 debut EP; it was awed love at first hear. This was at a time when anything from New Zealand—Snapper hailed from Dunedin—carried a wonderful mystique, but here was a band that didn’t really sound like the other Flying Nun groups whose records somehow made it to the US. They radiated much more sinister vibes than did bands like the Chills, the the Clean, and the Bats.

The four songs on the Snapper EP are Möbius strips of mantric Kiwi surf rock wreathed in barbed-wire guitars and ornery organs. If you care about meticulous, traditional rock songwriting as blueprinted by the Beatles et al., Snapper will frustrate you. However, if you think the idea of British Stooges acolytes Loop jamming with synth-punk innovators Suicide is smashing, you’ll love Snapper to death.

The EP—which Captured Tracks reissued in 2013—kicks off with its best-known track, “Buddy,” which Wooden Shjips have covered live and on record. The number’s all razor-sharp organ ostinato, cut with stinging shoegaze-rock guitar and metronomic drumming, topped with subliminal female/male vocals by Christine Voice and the late Peter Gutteridge. The chorus goes, “No more buddy buddy/No more messsin’ around/I’m not gonna be your, be your fucking clown.” You’d best believe they mean it. “Cause Of You” is a full-on speed-freak rush down death’s highway. You can totally hear how this paved the way for bands like Stereolab, Moon Duo, and Thee Oh Sees.

“Death And Weirdness In The Surfing Zone” offers relentless waves of organ and guitars riding one lethal chord for the song’s duration while drummer Alan Haig does his best Klaus Dinger impression. Like everything here, it induces a kind of adrenalized hypnosis. The grinding throb of “Hang On” sounds like Suicide transposed to Loop’s psychedelic-rock grandeur, then fed a fistful of leapers. If these descriptions are becoming repetitive, well, it’s because repetition is Snapper’s lifeblood. In order to pull off this sort of monomania, you have to zero in on the most compelling chords and timbres; Snapper do that over and over. If your eyes don’t become two kaleidoscopic pinwheels by the end of “Hang On,” I feel bad for you. Gutteridge’s mantra of “You gotta feel good about doing wrong” could be his band’s motto.

Snapper’s brand of minimalist, one-chord jams that have no beginnings, endings, or many variations would sound dull in most other bands’ hands. But they found a way to turn these limitations into assets, injecting an unlikely sort of charisma into monochrome drones. Martin Rev would approve. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Jody Harris/Robert Quine “Escape” (Infidelity, 1981)

 

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Talk about an unheralded masterpiece… Escape is a ludicrously under-acknowledged gem from New York City’s fertile early-’80s sonic crucible. Masterly guitarists Jody Harris and Robert Quine had their tentacles in some of the Big Apple’s most important groups of the ’70s and ’80s, including Contortions, James White & The Blacks, Implog, the Raybeats, and Golden Palominos for the former and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Material, and Lou Reed for the latter. For Escape, Harris and Quine use guitars, bass, and electronic percussion to create a uniquely otherworldly work of rock that has few peers.

The 12-minute “Flagpole Jitters” must’ve boggled freaks’ minds aplenty when it first came out, even among those who traveled in the headiest of No Wave and post-punk circles. Oddly funky electronic percussion pistons nonchalantly while Harris and Quine engage in a frenzied guitar duel that sounds like Television—if Verlaine and Lloyd’s axes were retuned by Harry Partch. The shrill tonalities and frazzling intensity of the playing shove this epic song into a WTF plane of its own, a communiqué from an advanced species recreating rock according to its own utterly bizarre instincts. Seriously, it’s damn near impossible to hear rock the same way after you’ve been exposed to “Flagpole Jitters.”

By comparison, “Don’t Throw That Knife” can’t help seeming a tad anticlimactic; it tones down the extreme timbres and settles into an intoxicating, low-slung cha-cha groove as Quine and Harris brandis pointillist, crystalline six-string origami. The effect is not unlike some of the more tropical cuts on Can’s Ege Bamyasi and, perhaps coincidentally, some of Robert Fripp’s extended and exotic sonorities on King Crimson’s Discipline. Be very excited. On “Up In Daisy’s Penthouse,” relaxed drum-machine rhythms percolate under slanting, clangorous guitar murmurs and enigmatic sighs. It makes me think of Muzak™ that might be heard on Pluto, which is a high compliment.

Escape‘s most urgent, driving rocker, “Termites Of 1938” zips with persistent hi-hat tsss and guitars that bite with the alien causticity of Chrome’s Helios Creed; eventually, said guitars pile up into huge parabolas of barbed wire; voilà, a new kind of raveup. “Pardon My Clutch” ends the album with what sounds like a 11-minute rockabilly pastiche from a couple of futuristic dudes who genuinely respect the style, but can’t help subverting it with slurred slivers of Harvey Mandel-esque guitar ectoplasm that are humorously at odds with the jaunty, canned beats.

I would say seek out Escape ASAP, before mugs read this review and start jacking up the price beyond its current reasonable $10-$15 range. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band “Zero Time” (Embryo, 1971)

 

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This fucking album. You’ve probably seen it in a one of your finer music emporia sometime over the last decade, looking all intriguing and phantasmagorical, whether with its original cover art or the reissue with the man-frogs and tadpoles.

Herbie Mann’s excellent Embryo imprint released Zero Time in 1971, and somehow Stevie Wonder heard it and became enamored of the dazzling constellation of analog-synth sounds created by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s members Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Shortly thereafter, the duo got behind the console for the Motown legend’s strongest run of albums. In a brief period of time, TEHB went from obscure synth geeks to super-rich studio wizards. Boy, did they deserve it.

One listen to Cecil and Margouleff’s debut LP and you can understand why an innovative, intuitive musician like Steveland Hardaway Morris would want to siphon some of that aural magic. Created largely on a massive synth invented by Cecil called TONTO (The Original and New Timbral Orchestra), Zero Time purveys a genuinely futuristic soundworld, albeit one that still carries traces of symphonic richness and grandiose melodies.

Case in point is the opening song, “Cybernaut,” a gorgeously desolate brooder with a momentous bass line. There’s almost a Hollywood lavishness to this track, and it’s a mystery why it’s never appeared in a sci-fi film. Speaking of which, “Jetsex” always causes severe disorientation and creepiness with its metallic termite chittering, Doppler-effected whooshes, ominous bass growls, and proto-industrial-techno timbres. It’s an intensely visceral simulation of mechanical dysfunction and impending doom, and a perennial favorite for my weirder DJ sets. Play it at a party and watch everyone in the room grow extremely uneasy.

Things lighten up a bit with “Timewhys,” which is pretty much the polar opposite of its predecessor. It begins with a fade in of enigmatic whistling ululations before a spacey, awe-struck motif manifests out of the desolation, followed soon by a modified cha-cha beat and a libidinously thrusting bass line. Thence, it morphs into a bizarre species of dance music. This piece just sparkles and throbs with cosmic bonhomie. It’s no surprise why Future Sound Of London would sample it for their track “Her Tongue Is Like A Jellyfish.” Keeping things spacey, “Aurora” coaxes lunar wind storms into a forlorn and anguished symphony.

One of Zero Time‘s highlights, “Riversong” could be a forerunner of New Age—you know, the kind that sounds like it took a proper dosage of lysergic acid before assuming the lotus position. “Riversong” is a glistening wellspring of keening, clear-light tintinnabulation (the sound of angel orgasms?) beamed into your third ear, as a voice somewhere between robot and human eerily intones a poem written by Tama Starr “about the idea that we exist where heaven and earth meet, and that the stream of life flows on endlessly,” as Cecil explained in the liner notes to the CD reissue of Zero Time on Real Gone Music. Listen to “Riversong” next to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Mountain Of Needles” and try to tell me the former didn’t influence the latter. The album’s only real dud is closing cut “Tama,” which is both tonally slight and melodically schmaltzy, which puts it out of alignment with the rest of Zero Time.

Still, five out of six ain’t bad. On Zero Time, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band originated a vivid and variegated vocabulary of timbres and tones that have vastly influenced electronic music… and it still has the power to activate/enhance a drug trip, if you’re into that sort of thing. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Devadip Carlos Santana & Turiya Alice Coltrane “Illuminations” (Columbia, 1974)

 

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This may rankle some of his fans, but I’m going to say it anyway: Two of the best albums guitarist Carlos Santana ever played on didn’t come out under the aegis of his most famous band. For certain heads, the LPs the psych-rock deity cut with jazz legends John McLaughlin (1973′s Love Devotion Surrender) and Alice Coltrane (1974′s Illuminations) stand as his creative peaks. That these were released on a major label—good ol’ Columbia—and up until recently have been bargain-bin staples boggles the mind. However, one senses that the general public—and some critics who should know better—still aren’t giving these Eastern-leaning, mystical fusion works their due. I’m here to redress that injustice for the latter overlooked classic; maybe I’ll tackle the former some day.

As the title implies, Illuminations is all about transmitting blazing beams of enlightenment into listeners’ minds. It’s always a great idea to start your album with deep, extended “OOOOOHHHHHMMMMM” chants, especially if you’re a Platinum-selling artist. So listening to “Guru Sri Chinmoy Aphorism,” we gather that this music is going to be about god’s love, which is peachy if you’re into that sort of thing. Honestly, an agnostic like me just cares about the music, but whichever religious route it takes to get to the glory of Illuminations, all should tolerate it.

The one-two feathery punch of “Angel Of Air”/“Angel Of Water” is a profound unfolding of wonderment that preps you for the delights to come. In the former, Turiya and Devadip bestow upon us flute, bass, heavenly strings, pointillistic, crystalline guitar stalagmites, and cymbal splashes. The latter is a glistening pool of almost New Age-y bliss (not a diss, by any means), as these world-class musicians—including Santana electric pianist Tom Coster, and Miles Davis comrades Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland—summon some of the most delicate, celestial aural tapestries in their blessed careers. You know how Kris Kristofferson had a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? Well, this is Sunday morning going up music. You feel like you need more than one heart to appreciate the loving feeling emanating from this song. Side 1 closes with “Bliss: The Eternal Now,” which sounds like something that could’ve appeared on Coltrane’s Lord Of Lords. This is a heroic fanfare of orchestral ambience that portends glimmers of a brilliant new dawn for humankind… but we all know how that turned out.

The album’s peak comes with the 15-minute “Angel Of Sunlight,” the closest thing to Love Devotion Surrender on Illuminations. Elevated by Prabuddha Phil Browne’s cosmic tamboura drones and Phil Ford’s rapid tabla slaps, “Angel Of Sunlight” charges pell-mell into the fiery orb as Santana Santanas at his most Santana-esque. His six-string calligraphy arcs and darts across the sky with grandiloquent fluidity, wailing like some creature beyond any of our thousands of our so-called gods’ imaginations. Then, as if your ears weren’t surfeited enough with pleasure, Coltrane’s Wurlitzer solo flares in delirious, rococo siren tones within the golden-hued tumult. This track is a sonic analogue for the cover, a supernatural lavishment of benedictions from players tilting toward transcendence. What follows can only seem anti-climactic, but “Illuminations” is a denouement of ethereal solemnity and grace. It’s the dignified breather you need after “Angel Of Sunlight”’s ravenous enrapturing.

There’s probably a copy of Illuminations sitting in a used bin near you for under $12. Go forth and grip. -Buckley Mayfield