Ambient

Terry Riley “Shri Camel” (CBS, 1980)

As we round into the most stressful week of the most stressful year in recent memory, we need frequent immersions into the transcendent sonic world of Terry Riley, the greatest living American composer/improviser… if I may be so bold (and I may).

Now, the great thing about this master of minimalism and mesmerism is that you can dip into almost any record in his discography and find succor. I’m partial to anything Riley’s done from the ’60s to the ’80s. And that’s where Shri Camel falls. Commissioned by West Germany’s Radio Bremen in 1975, Riley started composing it that year and performed an early version of Shri Camel in Bremen the following year. In 1977, Riley cut a different iteration of the work, dividing it into four suites at a San Francisco studio. For some reason, CBS didn’t issue the recording until 1980. Better late than never, he understated.

Using a modified Yamaha YC-45D combo organ tuned in just intonation and augmented with digital delay, Riley applied lessons learned from Indian raga guru Pandit Pran Nath, especially regarding “singing in search of swara, or ‘the knowledge of profound pitch relationships which reigns supreme,’” as Hugh Gardner put it in the liner notes. Suffice it to say, Riley synthesized Nath’s ancient wisdom with modern technology and his own spontaneous creativity to summon a zoner for the (s)ages.

Seemingly sputtering out of a golden spigot in the holiest temple, album-opener “Anthem Of The Trinity” is a fanfare for a benevolent god who only wants you to feel buoyant, warm, and loved for eternity. Throughout most of Shri Camel, Riley dazzles up a momentous motif—a bass-y three-chord figure (da da DAAA)—that sounds as if it could be a sperm whale’s mating call. The track ebbs and flows from elation to sternness, with moments of warped turbulence. “Celestial Valley” unspools more introverted fractals of organ drones, spiraling inward to massage all of your chakras. At times, Riley’s organ swells to revelatory dimensions (no double entendre, sorry), generating flurries of vamps geared to excite and exalt your every atom. You wonder how much pleasure your head can endure under such an onslaught of heavenliness.

Obviously, there’s no way to maintain that level of highness, so Riley downshifts on “Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word” into a more somber feel, like the entrance music for the funeral of a benevolent cult leader. Riley embroiders that aforementioned bass-y three-chord motif with frantic bubbles of keyboard spume. It feels like you’re floating in an ocean of champagne. “Desert Of Ice” starts where “Ancient Word” left off, and then intensifies and embellishes it. Riley appears to be playing a vibraphone made out of said ice with an elegant swiftness that seems supra-human, à la Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano works. The bass-y three-chord pattern’s urgency keeps surging into the increasingly ebullient organ carbonation, and Riley begins to improvise variations on the spacey theme, with every tonality contoured to levitate you light years from earthbound reality. This is how you close an album. Bow down to the master of aural transcendence. -Buckley Mayfield

Jon Hassell “Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)” (Ndeya, 2020)

I don’t usually review new albums here, but this one by a world-class innovator, 83-year-old American trumpeter/keyboardist Jon Hassell, deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

With Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two), he has found new ways to elaborate on his distinctive sound. Dubbed by Hassell as Fourth World Music, it’s a hybrid of Asian and African styles tempered by minimalist compositional strategies influenced by Terry Riley and Kiranic-singing guru Pandit Pran Nath, and is distinguished by Hassell’s electronically treated horn. It’s tempting to call Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) and its 2018 companion Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) as late-career resurgences, but Hassell has never fallen off in over 40 years as a bandleader.

Pentimento means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.” This suggests that Hassell is renovating previous innovations. While that’s partially true, long-time fans will hear new facets. Hassell suffused Listening to Pictures with eerie mists of trumpet and grounded it with thick, tumid rhythms of hazy origins, qualities evident on his luminous 1978 debut LP, Vernal Equinox. Listening to Pictures intensifies his music’s patented meditative and predatory elements while adding new textures and rhythms to his adventurous repertoire.

Seeing Through Sound continues down that path, swirling both minor and major gestures into a rich mosaic. “Fearless” sojourns through Stygian miasmas of smeared keyboard shrieks à la Miles Davis’s “Rated X,” bass smudges, slack funk beats, and eldritch plumes of trumpet. Disorientation reigns from the start. Hassell’s most famous collaborator, Brian Eno, singled out “Unknown Wish” for being “one of the most mysterious, seductive and enchanting things” Hassell has done, adding that he’d never heard anything like it. It’s a highlight, for sure, its twitchy guitar and keyboard interplay giving way to unsettling sighs recalling Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack and the panther-like stealth of Davis’s In a Silent Way, courtesy of Peter Freeman’s electric-bass pulsations. “Delicado” also pushes into new territory, as slabs of low-end frequencies shunt ominously, forming an intrusive yet oblong rhythm more likely to get you moving toward the exits than the dance floor. The contrast between this and the icy keyboard drones and plaintive wisps of trumpet exemplify Hassell’s paradoxical inventiveness.

Drifting in on a morose, majestic drone, “Timeless” closes Seeing Through Sound on an aptly oblique note. With bass that’s more like pressure fluctuations than chord progressions, spare keyboard dabs, and scuttling crab noises, “Timeless” has too much happening for it to be deemed ambient, but its amorphousness and strange amalgam of elements make it hard to slot into any genre. The track’s yet another paragon of Hassell’s shape-shifting uniqueness. -Buckley Mayfield

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simple yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -Buckley Mayfield

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

Led by guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smyth, Gong perfectly threaded the needle between prog rock and psychedelia during their early-/mid-’70s peak. The group’s ability to blend the whimsical, the absurd, and the cosmic culminated in their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). Composed of British and French musicians, Gong combined some of the most interesting traits of both countries’ progressive scenes, creating fetching melodies, funky and jazzy grooves, and deep space excursions. One can hear these elements and more coalesce into a stunning zenith on You.

The album flows like a brilliant DJ set on purest LSD. After two short, inconsequential pieces of goofy space-out and zany prog shenanigans, You really kicks into gear with “Magick Mother Invocation.” With its gong hit, calming “om”s, Smyth’s beatific sighs, and Tim Blake’s arcing, lysergic synth ripples, the song creates the sensation of flipping end over end in space. And how often does that happen?

This heavenly drift sets the scene for “Master Builder”; everything’s been, uh, building to this masterpiece. It’s a tom-tom-heavy astral-jazz-funk mega jam of monumental dimensions, with Allen’s Leslie-speakered vocals adding tasty frosting. Drummer Pierre Moerlen, bassist Mike Howlett, guitarist Steve Hillage, synthesist Blake, and saxophonist Didier Malherbe are all on peak form. A flaming wig-out for the ages, “Master Builder” makes you feel as if you’re on all of the drugs at once. The beneficent comedown after that mindfuck is “A Sprinkling Of Clouds,” a methodical, burbling-synth explosion. This one merely makes you feel as if you’re on most of the drugs and foreshadows chillout-room ambient music by about 16 years, before the beats and bass lines start punching out the stars and the music starts to emulate early Pink Floyd in their most aggressively extraterrestrial zones. An abrupt mood shift occurs on “Perfect Mystery,” which twirls into jaunty, Zappa-esque prog territory, as Allen and Smyth natter on about “cops at the door” and “octave doctors” and “middle eyes.” The xylophone work here is bonkers.

Side 2 goes deep, y’all. One of Gong’s most adventurous tracks, the 10-plus-minute “The Isle Of Everywhere” is totally devoid of the wackiness that occasionally mars their music. Smyth’s opiated chants and murmurs intertwine with Blake’s synths while Howlett’s and Moerlen’s suavely funky groove never stops ascending. Malherbe’s sax solo is one of the most flavorful and sophisticated in rock annals; Hillage’s guitar solo is a serpentine wonder that would make Larry Coryell and Peter Green jealous. I’m high as fuck just listening to this on my headphones on a Tuesday night in the middle of a pandemic.

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” is a jolly continuation of “Isle”’s interstellar trek. Allen jibber-jabbers as if he’s auditioning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus before settling into more conventional space-rock vocal mode. The band locks into a centrifugal groove that morphs into a zonked waltz, then downshifts into a “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” creep, filigreed with poignant, trilling flute. Contrary to the title, I think I did blow my trip forever.

In the end, Gong are You, and you are Gong. -Buckley Mayfield

The Art Of Noise “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” (ZTT, 1984)

The Art Of Noise’s debut album has the air of a Dadaist art prank (orchestrated by NME journalist and propaganda minister Paul Morley) mixed with the savvy production of a prog-rock/synth-pop genius (Trevor Horn of Yes and Buggles fame), bolstered by the keyboard mastery of composer Anne Dudley and the studio ingenuity of programmer J.J. Jeczalik and engineer Gary Langan. Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? Is not great all the way through, but at its best, the album’s a brash exhibition of sonic collage and complex mood conjuring.

“A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)” establishes the Art Of Noise’s exceptional affinity for brutalist beat science, ominous synthetic orchestrations and atmospheres, and deeply poignant melodies. It’s this contrast of extremes that makes AON’s music so tantalizing. The group’s first single, “Beat Box (Diversion One),” gets reprised here, and it’s simply one of the most clever minimalist-maximalist dance tracks ever, powered by some of the smashingest beats ever conceived (samples of Yes’ Alan White) all the while keeping the funk factor Empire State Building high. It almost sounds like a novelty tune, but the few well-chosen elements cohere into club classic that’s more Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” on steroids than Laibach. Maybe best of all, it ends on a languorous soul-jazz piano motif that no one saw coming. This is an exemplary use of typically non-musical elements to build memorable sonic collage.

“Close (To The Edit)” stands as the more exciting twin of “Beat Box”; it slams even harder and grooves even funkier, if you can believe it. Seriously, this must have caused beat envy in producers worldwide. Inspired by the spirit of Dada and musique concrète (stuttering car ignition, power saw revving, etc.) and fueled by an unbelievably studly bass line, “Close (To The Edit)” might be Trevor Horn’s crowing achievement in the studio.

I’ll skip over the filler tracks, but note that the other good but lesser cuts include “Who’s Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise)” and “Snapshot.” The former is disorienting, industrial anti-disco, like Swiss electro pranksters Yello with stronger beats and less whimsy while the latter consists of a minute of perky, Buggles-like synth pop.

On “Moments In Love,” AON dispense with the junkyard/factory-floor tomfoolery and get down to the important business of creating a soft, shimmering electro-pop reverie that exquisitely evokes the title over its 10-minute duration. This is Dudley’s shining moment.. Deemed a classic by the Art Of Noise’s most ardent fans, this song’s a cross between 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” It really is that special. -Buckley Mayfield

Tangerine Dream “Phaedra” (Virgin, 1974)

A lot of smart people—and yours truly, too—think Phaedra represents peak Tangerine Dream. With a catalog as vast as this German electronic group’s, you’ll never get a consensus on said peak, but for this blog’s purpose, let’s go with Phaedra.

While I dig the four preceding Tangerine Dream opuses, it always seems like I need stronger drugs to truly understand what the hell’s going on with albums such as Electronic MeditationZeitAtem, and Alpha Centauri. Not so with Phaedra. It’s as if Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann clarified what the group does best and then magnified it to infinity.

The opening sidelong title track is a case in point. It’s a 17-minute masterstroke of oscillations, arpeggios, fibrillations, whooshes, woobs, whistles, and phantom choirs criss-crossing and intertwining across the firmament in dramatic arcs. Ever so subtly, Tangerine Dream’s three VCS 3 synth and Mellotron maestros modulate the sounds to optimize tension and release. I once played “Phaedra” in a large club where I was DJing, and it might’ve been the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a god.

Side 2—which reputedly was accidentally mastered backward—isn’t quite as momentous, but it is great. The Froese composition “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares” exudes an enigmatic orchestral grandeur—which explains why it was used in the 2018 film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Sounding like a harsh meteorological event transpiring in an aviary by the sea, “Mysterious Semblance” is pretty dang disorienting. “Movements Of A Visionary” offers a menagerie of tantalizing tones and timbres—icicle-tinkling, motorized twittering, Doppler effect arpeggios and drones, etc.—to which any sensible person would want to dose. Finally, Baumann’s piece “Sequent ‘C’” closes the record on an elegiac, haunting note.

Tangerine Dream would go on to do a lot more good work—Rubycon, Sorcerer, Thief, Exit, etc.—but none as stunning as Phaedra. -Buckley Mayfield

Edgar Froese “Aqua” (Brain, 1974)

Edgar Froese was on fire in the mid ’70s, both as leader of Tangerine Dream and as a solo artist. For the former, he helmed the super-deep kosmische space-outs of Phaedra and Rubycon, while under his own name he released the ambient classics Aqua and Epsilon In Malaysian Pale. For many people, Aqua was the best work out of all of those classics.

Herr Froese sure knows how to start an album. The 17-minute title track begins with the sound of burbling water, aptly enough, followed soon by a rippling, chirping synth that sounds like a bird panicking in a submarine engine. Right from the get-go it becomes apparent that Aqua is one of those archetypal headphone albums. You need the cans to capture every frosty, frothy detail Froese generates with his keyboard arsenal. (As a bonus, Günther Brunschen applies effects through the “artificial head system.” I don’t know what that is exactly, but it sounds cool as fuck.) As “Aqua” progresses, it really does feel as if you’re floating in gently turbulent waters. Are there planetariums, but for oceans? Well, if there are, “Aqua” needs to be in heavy rotation there. The effect is simultaneously tranquil and troubling—a rare feat.

Things get really deep and ominous with “Panorphelia,” with its bassy synth oscillations pulsing like the vein on a blue whale’s head throughout the whole track, topped by a swirling, Mellotron-like motif that recalls the dramatic tenor of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home,” of all things. (Did you know that a blue whale’s veins are big enough to allow a small child to pass through them? Just don’t let your kids near them, okay?) Where were we? Oh, yeah, “Panorphelia”: If you want to get the crowd moving (toward the exits, in fear), play this killer jam.

For the 15-minute “NGC 891,” Tangerine Dream member Chris Franke provides Moog accompaniment on this weird, imaginary sci-fi soundtrack that’s somewhere between Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Jetsex” and Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain OST. Album-closer “Upland” is a liturgical spasm, sacred music besieged by fibrillating synths that sound like the emissions of grotesque sea life. It’s at once grandiose and unsettling—a hell of a way to peace out of an album.

Unlike a lot of spacey, beatless music, Froese’s flaunts extremely interesting dynamics and timbral fluctuations. On Aqua and many other entries in his catalog, this mensch really takes the listener on a proverbial journey, and it certainly isn’t to anywhere mundane. -Buckley Mayfield

Neu! “Neu! ’75” (Brain, 1975)

Of their indomitable holy trinity of albums, Neu! ’75 tends to be these krautrock legends’ most overlooked full-length. (The less said of their mid-’80s dud, Neu! 4, the better.) Neu! ’75 lacks the first one’s groundbreaking motorik epicness of “Hallogallo” and the grand industrial-rock grind of “Negativland” and the second one’s crazy experiments (out of necessity) and the monster jam “Lila Engel.” But Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger’s third LP has plenty of reasons to stake a claim in the canon—and in your record collection.

“Isi” zippily starts ’75 with one of Rother’s most uplifting guitar and keyboard figures while Dinger smacks out Autobahn-cruising beats that metronomically turn over with engineering-major elegance. While this song’s playing, you will sense that all is right with the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. “Seeland” has the distinction of being culture-jamming group Negativland’s label name and of evoking an absolutely aching strain of melodic gorgeousness, a sundown resignation of existential gravitas. Dig how Rother’s guitar eloquently wails with a Robert Fripp-in-Düsseldorf grandeur. However, “Leb’Wohl” might be Neu!’s dullest moment. It’s the aural equivalent of sleepy-time tea; the musicians seem to be nodding off in the studio while waves lap in the background.

But don’t fret. “Hero” comes barging in with some of Neu!’s most conventionally hard-rocking bravado, as Dinger snarls proto-punk vocals about a hero riding through the city after his honey went to Norway, new drummer Hans Lampe chops out a staunch “Apache” beat, and Rother kerrangs heroically, as it were. In a better world, “Hero” would’ve been a hit on rock radio. “E-Musik” continues the band’s irresistible, ascending chug to the heavens, coming off like a more conflicted, less streamlined version of “Hallogallo.” It’s a 10-minute tribute to relentless forward motion, with Rother sending arcs of golden six-string light over the choppy rhythm. The coda is baffling, though: a grotesquely slowed voice literally evincing a snore, followed by Rother’s guitar part from “Seeland” entering, backward. “After Eight” closes the album with an anthemic gush of mercurial motorik pummeling. I’ve never in my life more wanted to floor it down the highway on a Harley-Davidson… okay, except for Can’s “Full Moon On The Highway.”

’75 should’ve been the record that broke Neu! Into mass consciousness, but alas, they remained a cult act—albeit one of the most influential ever in underground rock. -Buckley Mayfield

Takehisa Kosugi “Catch-Wave” (CBS/Sony, 1975)

It was only five months ago when I reviewed Taj Mahal Travellers’ August 1974 in this space, and sadly, on October 12, that group’s leader, Takehisa Kosugi, passed away at age 80. So, this seems like an opportune time to review the violinist/composer’s best-known solo work, Catch-Wave.

Consisting of two sidelong tracks, Catch-Wave is not a million kilometers from what Taj Mahal Travellers were doing. To recap: In my review, I wrote, “These Travellers sacralize your mind with an array of string instruments, mystical chants, bell-tree shakes, and Doppler-effected electronics that are as disorienting as they are transcendent.” Here, Kosugi improvises solo on violin and electronics to similar trance-inducing effect.

In the 26-minute “Mano-Dharma ’74,” Kosugi manifests a fantastically desolate and gently fried sound that falls somewhere among rarefied realms of Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogoods All Night Flight,” Fripp/Eno’s “Swastika Girls,” and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack. The fibrillations and oscillations wax and wane with hallucinogenic force and logic while a steadfast drone woo-whoas in the middle distance. After a while, you begin to think of this track not so much as music as it is the alien babbling of a mysterious organism that’s eluded scientific study. This is very bizarre psychedelic minimalism, and I love it.

“Wave Code #E-1” clocks in at a mere 22 minutes, and features Kosugi’s deep, ominous voicings, in addition to a modulating drone that almost sounds like Tuvan throat-singing. Heard from one angle, it may seem like Kosugi is merely fucking around with the cavern of his thorax, like a child in front of the rotating blades of an air-conditioner. Heard from another angle, though, this piece comes off like the Doppler Effected groans of a woozy and weaving deity hell-bent on scaring the bejesus out of you. Somehow, this cut is even stranger than the very weird A-side… and I love it.

Besides helming Taj Mahal Travellers, Kosugi played in Group Ongaku, was part of the Fluxus movement, and acted as music director for Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1995-2011. He was one out-there cat, and he created some timeless music, of which Catch-Wave is a prime example. Rest easy, master musician.

[Note: The excellent Superior Viaduct label is reissuing Catch-Wave on Nov. 9] -Buckley Mayfield

Spacemen 3 “Dreamweapon” (Fierce, 1990)

This anomaly in the sublime British space-rock group Spacemen 3’s catalog might be their headiest release, judging by how highly the true heads I know rank it. Inspired by minimalist composer La Monte Young, Dreamweapon is where Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, and company abandon rock and simply space the fuck out—at great length.

The two-part “An Evening Of Contemporary Sitar Music”—recorded live in London in 1988 by a full band—is a 44-minute study in patient, spangly guitar’d minimalism… with (spoiler alert) no sitar. Very little happens, but what does occur takes on a monumental importance. Over a foundation of murmuring oscillations (is it the sound of some god[dess] repeatedly guffawing? At least one acid trip suggested it was.), Pierce or Kember picks out a spidery, raga-like figure on electric guitar with laid-back insistence. As the piece progresses, the motif gains in intensity, and there’s a quote of “Just To See You Smile” from the Recurring LP. Does all this six-string foreplay build to a revelatory climax? No, it does not. However, you have to give “Dreamweapon” credit for this: It’s one helluva way to come down easy from a hallucinogen trip. I have first brain-cell experience with this scenario.

As for “Ecstasy In Slow Motion,” it’s doubtful there’s ever been more truth packed into one song title. This may be hard to believe, but there seems to be a harmonium drone humming underneath a shivering guitar that’s wailing a prayer to the electricity gods and then swirling skyward into a celestial orb of blinding light. This music is the elixir of eternal sonic truth, your most powerful, extended orgasm transferred into sine waves. Whenever I listen to this track, I always feel as if I’m dissolving into some sort of divine essential oil. It really is the best shit ever. “Spacemen Jam,” by contrast, is a desolate, bare-bones blues meditation that comes as something of an anticlimax after unprecedented heights of “Ecstasy In Slow Motion”—but what wouldn’t?

Dreamweapon has had many iterations, most of them on CD. Earlier this year, though, the great Superior Viaduct label reissued Dreamweapon on 2xLP with the two bonus tracks originally found on Space Age Recordings’ 2004 CD re-release and liner notes by Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers. I highly recommend you get the Superior Viaduct version. -Buckley Mayfield

This Heat “Health And Efficiency” (Piano, 1980)

Slotting between the twin towers of This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut LP and 1981’s Deceit, Health And Efficiency is no mere stop-gap release. Rather, it’s a peculiar peak in this short-lived yet crucial experimental/post-punk group’s discography.

Health And Efficiency” itself is simply one of the greatest songs ever, an art-rock tune so grand and uplifting, it deludes us into thinking that humanity is going to continue to evolve into a peaceful, super-intelligent species that values equality and yes, health, over all else. Seriously, its melody and ecstatic vocal arrangements are that powerful. Then, two minutes in, This Heat say, “Fuck it, y’all don’t deserve this much euphoria,” as they slam into one of the nastiest (lock) grooves to which you’ve ever had the good fortune to lose your mind and spastically jack your body. It’s a real bucking mechanical bull of a rhythm, cantilevered to the max and laced with an array of rolling bottles, children’s screams, and enough noisy distortion to start a wildfire in your brain. The freakout near the end will tear your ever-loving head off and punt it into the sun (the star to which “Health And Efficiency” is dedicated).

Health And Efficiency” is a definitive example of what radical explosions can be realized with (mostly) typical rock instruments when the musicians disregard orthodoxy. In the liner notes to the most recent reissue, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward says that the track was “improvised pretty much fully-formed, an 8 minute stretch.” He notes that Charles Bullen plays an electric/upright piano that the Rock In Opposition band Henry Cow left at the Cold Storage Studio through some distortion pedals. Now you know.

On “Graphic/Varispeed,” This Heat revamp “24 Track Loop” from the self-titled 1979 debut album into a supremely resonant, ASMR-inducing drone that the band manipulates ever-so-subtly, so it changes pitch and intensity in minuscule gradations. An early example of remixing and sonic deconstruction, “Graphic/Varispeed” puts a particularly industrial, northern English spin on ambient/drone music.

Originally released on Flying Lizards/General Strike member David Cunningham’s Piano label, Health And Efficiency received a deluxe reissue in 2016 via Light In The Attic subsidiary Modern Classics, with liner notes by Mr. Hayward, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of all right-thinking music fans. -Buckley Mayfield

Taj Mahal Travellers “August 1974” (Columbia Japan, 1975)


When talk turns to ultimate space-out albums, as it inevitably must if you’re living life to the fullest, you have to include this sprawling double album by Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers in the conversation. Recorded live almost 44 years ago, the four sidelong tracks on August 1974 will test most people’s patience, as the album’s 88 minutes dilate time and alter space with no conventional vocals, beats, bass, or even structure, really. Instead, violinist Takehisa Kosugi and his stoic ensemble improvise drones that meander through the cosmos in a state of rigorous wonder. These Travellers sacralize your mind with an array of string instruments, mystical chants, bell-tree shakes, and Doppler-effected electronics that are as disorienting as they are transcendent.

The variations that occur in each of August 1974‘s four untitled tracks are subtle. The pieces toggle between tranquility and chaos with gradual and unpredictable shifts in intensity. The second one for, example, features what seems like some unidentifiable beast’s growl synthesized into an unsettling lament while a mandolin fibrillates with emergency-room adrenaline, before things slide into a bleak vista of woebegone moans, metallic percussion, sporadic timpani hits, and bizarre, electronically treated vocals. The organic and the synthetic elements blend indistinguishably—probably because everything seems as if it’s running through processors that leave an otherworldly sheen on all the elements.

The final cut is an amazing agglomeration of ominous synth pulsations, strafing electric-violin motifs, and a menagerie of strange percussive timbres. It’s here where August 1974 achieves its psychedelic zenith. If you suffer from ADHD and can only handle about a third of an hour of music at a time, go straight for track 4, which packs the most excitement per minute.

Let’s be clear about Taj Mahal Travellers: They’re not for everybody; this may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. They may only be for a few thousand people in the entire world. (The YouTube video of August 1974 stands at 1,501 views as I type.) Nevertheless, the impact that their enigmatic sonic streams of consciousness have made on those folks who do get it is profound. And under the right circumstances—out in nature, in a darkened room while under the influence of your favorite hallucinogen, in a vehicle moving through a mountain range, etc.—this record will put your mind through some uniquely rewarding contortions.

(Good news: Belgium’s Aguirre Records reissued August 1974 on vinyl in 2018.) -Buckley Mayfield