Electronic

Billy Cobham “Inner Conflicts” (Atlantic, 1978)

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Conventional wisdom says that you should be leery of most jazz LPs from the late ’70s onward, but Inner Conflicts by ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham is an exception to that rule. Not that Inner Conflicts is a traditional jazz record. Nope. It’s actually a left-of-center fusion work with loads of Latin percussion and inflections—plus a mammoth electronic experiment that’s a phenomenal anomaly in Cobham’s catalog. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Inner Conflicts‘ title track is by far the most impressive Heldon homage ever conceived by a jazz artist. (Google “Heldon/Richard Pinhas” and prepare to have your life changed for the better, if you’re not already familiar.) This beastly alien cut sounds like it could fit right in on Heldon’s infernal classic Interface, which came out in 1977. It finds Cobham drumming up a turbulent solar storm while also generating—with Moog Modular 55 programming help from John Bowen—a bizarre mélange of bleepy, gurgly synth emissions fit to score that mythical sequel to The Andromeda Strain. At almost 11 minutes, “Inner Conflicts” is a war of attrition on your nervous system, but totally worth the extreme exertion.

Inner Conflicts‘ remaining four songs are much more conventional, but interesting in their own right. “The Muffin Talks Back” is a flamboyant, eventful Latin jazz-funk fusion that hints at the gluttonous percussion fiesta—featuring Prince protégé Sheila Escovedo and her father Pete—to come on side two. “Nickels And Dimes” could be a rollicking, TV-cop-show theme in waiting, all blustery brass and woodwinds and frantic xylophone and marimba by Frank Zappa cohort Ruth Underwood. “El Barrio” starts as a lurching, heavily percussive, festive jam powered by whistles, congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments, before smoothing out into a undulating throb of Latin jazz marked by Cobham’s busy, potent kit work. The coolly burbling “Arroyo” showcases John Scofield’s well-modulated, Santana-esque shrieking guitar calligraphy.

Throughout the album, Cobham of course acquits himself as a powerful, kinetic, and inventive leader, asserting the world-class rhythmic skills that have made him desirable to so many musicians, including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, and Deodato. But it’s that cataclysmic wonder, “Inner Conflicts,” that remains most vivid in your shattered mind afterward. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Beaver & Krause “Ragnarök (Electronic Funk)” (Limelight, 1969)

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Back in 1997, I spotted a tattered copy of Ragnarök in a New Orleans used-record shop. The sexuagenarian owner had carefully wrapped the entire cover with clear tape, as it was eroded and moldy with water damage. Intrigued, I asked the proprietor to play the record so I could determine if I wanted to drop the $34 he was asking for it. (At the time, that was a very large amount for me to spend on a used LP.) From the first seconds of the title track, I knew I had to have it, astronomical sum be damned. It sounded like the most sinister and strange dystopian-sci-fi-film theme this side of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain score. Years later, I found a clean copy, but I’ve always kept the original to remind myself of that magical moment in NOLA that turned me on to the peculiar genius of synthesizer maestros Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause.

Before they cut Ragnarök, Beaver & Krause had put together the synth-demonstration box set The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It’s good for a listen or two, and then you put it on your shelf to impress collectors. In 1967, Beaver wilded out on a Moog in the Monkees’ “Star Collector.” And Krause played a key role in helping George Harrison record his 1969 Moog-powered LP Electronic Sound; side two was essentially Krause giving Harrison a synth tutorial, which Krause had no idea would be released and with which he wasn’t pleased. Around the same time, Krause and Beaver cut Ragnarök, their masterpiece—and, maddeningly, their hardest release to obtain. On the back cover, Beatles producer George Martin rhapsodizes about B&K’s Moog prowess: “Among the earliest to realize the potential of the instrument, their knowledge and technique of its use are unsurpassed.” The late studio wizard was on point.

Dropping the needle on Ragnarök, following the spook-out of “Ragnarök,” you get 180º’d by the folky ballad on Moog and 12-string guitar that is “The Fisherman.” It features Krause’s earnest, not-unpleasant vocals that verge on sentimentality and lyrics that derive from an 8th-century poem by Chinese writer Li Po. “Circle X” is an incredibly ominous and anguished piece of imaginary horror-flick musick that could’ve fit in well on David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack. “Dr. Fox”—featuring kooky lyrics by Leonard Lipton, author of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”—is one of the zaniest electro-pop/pseudo-circus-music jams you (n)ever … Read more›

Spacecraft “Paradoxe” (Wah Wah reissue, 2012; orig. rel. 1978)

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With Spacecraft member John Livengood’s name flung back into consciousness with the Record Store Day vinyl reissue of his and Richard Pinhas’ super-nice 1994 space-rock/ambient album Cyborg Sally, it seems like an opportune time to review Spacecraft’s Paradoxe. Keyboardist Livengood (Red Noise) and guitarist/bassist Ivan Coaquette (Delired Cameleon Family, Musica Elettronica Viva) recorded this deeply underground psych-prog classic in the mid ’70s, and it’s a serious head-bonk. (Spalax reissued it on CD in 1995 with an utterly hypnotic bonus track from 1973, the spaced-out epic “Pays De Glace”; Wah Wah put out a much-needed vinyl edition in 2012.)

One listen to Paradoxe and you wonder why it didn’t make it onto the fabled Nurse With Wound List; perhaps it was too obscure even for Steven Stapleton and company. From the first seconds of the first track, “Lumiere De Lune,” you feel as if you’ve been transported into a much weirder and more interesting sphere, as Spacecraft swathe you in a silvery miasma of interstellar synth and guitar emissions, making gravity seem like an absurd joke. “Cosmic Wheel” really ratchets up the sense of tingling disorientation and intensifies the immersion into alien frequencies. Your DMT trip would be very disconcerting if this were soundtracking it. The synthetic solar winds and chattering guitar pointillism rushing through “Chromatique One’s” sounds like the sort of brain-bending 22nd-century astral jazz that would make Sun Ra squeal with joy.

The cruise-control, star-trekkin’ “Harabizant” could be a higher-altitude Harmonia, while “Surface” writhes and arpeggiates like near-peak Heldon and Lard Free, fellow French explorers of deep space rock and far-out fusion. Coaquette’s guitar solo in the coda is heart-tremblingly gorgeous. Yet for all its sonic treasures, Paradoxe remains largely overlooked. If you’re at all into challenging, instrumental electronic rock, you owe it to yourself to track down this profoundly hallucinogenic zoner. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Cat Stevens “Izitso” (A&M, 1977)

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After he became a folk-pop star but before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and said harsh things about Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, British singer/songwriter/guitarist Cat Stevens released this odd little LP. It’s best known for the chart-dwelling “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard,” a bit of grandiose, schmaltzy synth pop that sounds like Styx crossed with Genesis or something. Most of the rest of Izitso—a keyboard-heavy effort with Chick Corea, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and 11 freakin’ engineers on it—is about as insubstantial and forgettable as its title, a mix of mediocre, commercial rock bluster and effete electro pop. Today you can commonly find copies of it in bargain bins nationwide. You’ve probably passed over this one 17,000 times in your life, give or take a thousand. However, I would like to implore you to grab Izitso next time you see it, if only for the ridiculously named instrumental “Was Dog A Doughnut.”

Well before Herbie Hancock’s similar-sounding “Rockit” and even preceding Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” “Was Dog A Doughnut” effectively created the electro genre. Listen to the spacey array of synth tones hovering, percolating, and plinking around the stuttering, funky beats and that crazy dog-bark punctuation, which was actually a synthesizer setting and not a real or sampled canine. (Big ups to keyboardist Corea and guitarist Ray Gomez for their invaluable contributions.)
The fool who reviewed Izitso for Rolling Stone said “the electronics on ‘Was Dog A Doughnut’ are a bit too robotlike”—like that’s a bad thing. I wonder what the just right amount of “robotlike”ness would be to this critic. On the plus side, though, Roots drummer Questlove told Christine Kakaire of the redbullmusicacademy.com that Stevens was just fucking around “and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world,which he was very shocked to discover.” Kakaire went on to note that DJ Jellybean Benitez used to play it out at the New York club the Funhouse in the early ’80s and he cut a remix of “Dog” that also became a club staple. Rave icon Frankie Bones is also a huge fan of Stevens’ most anomalous song.

The track has rightly become a cult classic, and it’s hilarious to think that an urban, club-oriented genre like electro emerged, willy-nilly, from the same brain as the … Read more›

Joe Gallivan/Charles Austin “Expression To The Winds” (Spitball, 1977)

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Imagine the Sun Ra Arkestra condensed into a duo of one adroit percussionist/synthesizer player (Gallivan) and one versatile saxophonist/flautist/English horn player (Austin). That’s Expression To The Winds, in a nutshell. The twosome immerse you immediately into their unusual, idiosyncratic sound world with an array of rarely heard percussion and keyboard timbres and forlorn yet spiritual wind-instrument arabesques that vaguely recall those on Paul Horn’s proto-New Age Inside LPs. Gallivan and Austin allow lots of space in their fairly brief compositions (the longest is 5:34), creating a sense of intimate immensity, a Saturnian desolation. Gallivan had at his disposal a Moog drum (he was the first recipient of said instrument, along with ELP’s Carl Palmer), and its oddly percolating report ripples throughout Expression To The Winds, lending it alien pulsations.

Listening to the album’s 12 tracks makes you feel as if gravity’s gone AWOL and you’re floating in a mysterious ether, far from earthly concerns. Similar atmospheric qualities to Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch surface in Expression To The Winds, but this is a mid-’70s production, so the delay is thickly applied and the electronics are super-tactile. The musicians are playing tricks with time and with your mind, in a most delicate and austere manner. They overwhelm with understatement.

Both Gallivan and Austin have impressive pedigrees. Austin’s played with Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and others; Gallivan anchored the world-beating Love Cry Want with Larry Young, and drummed in groups featuring Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Gil Evans, and formed Powerfield with Gary Smith and Pat Thomas. You could classify Expression To The Winds as jazz, but its enigmatic allure makes it as much of a natural draw for heads into experimental improv and even ambient electronic music. Forget categories, though: Gallivan and Austin have created a sound that inventively refracts soulful emotion into the most beguiling abstract shapes. No wonder the music industry didn’t know what to do with these mavericks. –Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

The Residents “The Third Reich ‘N Roll” (Ralph, 1976)

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This was my introduction to the Residents and let me tell you, its impact was immediate and powerful. Divided into two sidelong collages of viciously irreverent covers of popular rock songs of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—“Swastikas On Parade” and “Hitler Was A Vegetarian”—The Third Reich ‘N Roll exposed the machinations of radio fodder as banal and manipulative in the extreme. Yet, even if you’re a fan of the songs the Residents mock here, as I am, you may still find yourself reveling in the clever, ludicrously distorted otherness of these versions. What they do with America’s “A Horse With No Name” is haunting as hell, and more poignant than the original. On the other hand, the Resident’s eviscerate the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” with a tip of the top hat to Joe Cocker’s guttural gargle, to boot. Having a very proper-sounding woman operatically sing James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” in German is wrongheaded genius, and those famous horn stabs sound absolutely hilarious in this context. Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” though, is smeared beyond all recognition. Similarly, “Heroes And Villains” sounds nothing at all like the Beach Boys, but rather like a squelched-out warping of a Gershon Kingsley/Jean-Jacques Perrey Moog ditty.

The “Hitler Was A Vegetarian” side takes a while to hit its stride, but when it does, oof. The off-key, out-of-time nightmare of “Yummy Yummy Yummy” might ruin bubblegum pop for you forever. (Nah.) The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” comes off as a brilliant robotic march that foreshadows Cabaret Voltaire’s cover of the Seeds’ “No Escape.” The mangling of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin” is a bloody travesty that inspires deep belly laughs. Elsewhere, Them’s “Gloria” gets desexualized beyond belief while the absurd machismo of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” receives a merciless depantsing. By contrast, the stretch starting with Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and seguing quickly into the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” sounds fucking amazing, as the Residents work wonders out a cheap, out-of-tune synthesizer and shockingly emotive guitar solo, with requisite backing moans. When the “woo woo”s of the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” encroach on “Hey Jude”’s churchy vibes, the album’s relentless deflation unexpectedly turns into inflation. Perverse! Does anyone know Dick Clark’s opinion of this album?

Residents fans probably already know this, but Don Hardy’s documentary Theory Of Obscurity is screening soon in Seattle and elsewhere, and it’s highly recommended. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Einstürzende Neubauten – Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T (Some Bizzare, 1983)

220px-ZeichnungenDesPatientenOTAlbumCoverRight out the grinding gate, Neubauten sound slower paced, more deliberate and focused. While these derelicts still use any and all metallic material they can get their hands on for sounding, they get around to using some primitive samples, and sound bytes too, for a somewhat smoother experience…

With rhythms placed, there is no need to go white-hot in industrial noise. Still not synth-popping or going new wave, Neubauten just get a bit more spacious in their delivery, slowing to a plod or a throb. At this point Blixa and company were really getting out of native Germany, and instead of getting safer in recording they stretched songs out, panned everything to extreme ends and generally made themselves less approachable despite their new use of meter.

What’s the use of inept horn wafts, air conditioner rhythms and muffled vocals backed with skittering cutlery? I guess they were the first to pick it up and take it semi-seriously, before others got into it (industrial) wholesale or whole-sale. And it got less fun. Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F. all soured. SPK or Nurse With Wound? Depends on how serious or how camp you want to take it. Still pretty solid with Throbbing Gristle. Einsturzende? They had quite a few good ones after this. -Wade… Read more›

Gino Soccio “Outline” (Celebration, 1979)

R-610679-1226275879.jpegItalians certainty do it better… Disco so cold and spacious you won’t know when one track ends and the other begins. Bass bloops, bass lines, high hat, hand claps… All sterile, airtight and sealed in grooves ready for play.

Gino was the producer behind this listenable longplayer and he actually came by way of Canada… Montreal. Apparently the disco backlash that occurred in the States didn’t echo up North and they welcomed changes in the dance form, like most of Europe. Opener “Dancer” is a classic that would be played out often in America’s remaining discotheque strongholds, with folks like Larry Levan playing two copies of the track in excess of twenty minutes. That’s a groove that can hold a crowd.

“So Lonely” is a piano/seagull/tone generator sketch, then we get to the other dance floor heavy hitters, “The Visitors” (Donna Summer/Kraftwerk) and “Dance To Dance” (Philly-esque). Five tracks in total, three long players that show icy kinship with Italo, the future of dance music production, and the hidden years of North American disco. Throw it on the table! -Wade… Read more›

Harmonia “Music Von Harmonia” (Brain, 1973)

R-884704-1436562528-2597.jpegNormally the tag of “supergroup” isn’t really all that desirable, but in the world of Krautrock the term is appropriate. Harmonia doesn’t disappoint on their debut, mainly because the combined forces of Neu! and Cluster compliment each other so well. While Neu! chiefly produced driving rhythms with occasional ambient soundscapes, Cluster was always a bit closer to Tangerine Dream atmosphere. Coupled together, their minimal styles stayed stripped down but achieved a fuller effect.

Also, “Music Von Harmonia” is in no way harder or more immediate than the groups they derived from; as a recording it isn’t demanding of your attention. Eno, Brian Eno, still liked it precisely because you can put this on in the background. It’s pieces are playful and curious, and it isn’t until a good quarter of the album is through that you hear pumping drums or anything resembling forward movement… Not a negative critique.

Fun for a home listen, attentive or not, on a cold day with coffee or tea. But then you can do the same in your auto or with earbuds for a good commute. Cosmic synth bloops, sanitary guitar licks and electric drums galore! -Wade… Read more›

James Ferraro “Skid Row” (Break World, 2015)

james-ferraro-announces-new-album-skid-row-body-image-1443106476Take in a steady dose of William Freidkin and John Carpenter flicks. Wash it down with a Starbucks latte. Browse Rodney King and Malcom X clips on the YouTube. Look out your high-rise condo window. Future R&B bass rattles your bones as infomercials play muted in the dark. Ads promote the safe use of fracking while Lockheed Martin toils away at work, unseen.

The audio aural equivalent? James Ferraro’s “Skid Row.” The always prolific, cynical electronic artist has been slowly asserting himself more and more into public consciousness, even recording his own vocals as of late. If his last album was a commentary on 9/11 and it’s New York aftermath, then this is the aftershock here and now in Los Angeles. And while that city is the perfect place to Snapchat police brutality, economic disparity and general moral ruin, we can still hear the crashing of a nation he’s arranging in sound collage for us anywhere.

Despite it’s interview clips, sirens, macbook text speak and Wang Chung samples, “Skid Row” is Ferraro’s most formed work to date. Nothing is wafting, every element is meticulously placed. He’s been on it that way at least since his “Far Side Virtual” release. But if that was mock-ideal of our global State, then this is a stare down at America’s dark heart. -Wade… Read more›

Kraftwerk “Electric Cafe” (EMI, 1986)

R-116061-1221146432.jpegSmaller, kompakt, personal. Non-stop techno-pop tunes on “Electric Cafe;” real earworms. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music altogether, Kraftwerk are in a league of their own, as they typically are.

Industrial rhythms mentioned in early tracks are still prevalent, though more sterilized than “Trans-Europe Express” perhaps? Cleaner, deeper, still sparse. Minimum-Maximum. And non-stop. Techno-pop tunes on Electric Cafe; smaller, kompact, personal. Synthesizer music by Kraftwerk, typically real earworms.

Kraftwerk; smaller, kompact, personal. Minimum Maximum. “Electric Cafe;” industrial rhythms, perhaps cleaner, deeper and sparser than “Trans-Europe Express?” And non-stop! And non-stop!

Typically in a league of their own, Kraftwerk are smaller, kompact, personal on “Electric Cafe.” And non-stop techno-pop tunes are still prevalent; though more sterilized industrial rhythms are cleaner, deeper. And non-stop. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music.

Smaller, kompakt, personal. Non-stop techno-pop tunes on “Electric Cafe;” real earworms. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music altogether, Kraftwerk are in a league of their own, as they typically are.

Industrial rhythms mentioned in early tracks are still prevalent, though more sterilized than “Trans-Europe Express” perhaps? Cleaner, deeper, still sparse. Minimum-Maximum. And non-stop. Techno-pop tunes on Electric Cafe; smaller, kompact, personal. Synthesizer music by Kraftwerk, typically real earworms.

Kraftwerk; smaller, kompact, personal. Minimum Maximum. “Electric Cafe;” industrial rhythms, perhaps cleaner, deeper and sparser than “Trans-Europe Express?” And non-stop! And non-stop!

Typically in a league of their own, Kraftwerk are smaller, kompact, personal on “Electric Cafe.” And non-stop techno-pop tunes are still prevalent; though more sterilized industrial rhythms are cleaner, deeper. And non-stop. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music.

Smaller, kompakt, personal. Non-stop techno-pop tunes on “Electric Cafe;” real earworms. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music altogether, Kraftwerk are in a league of their own, as they typically are.

Industrial rhythms mentioned in early tracks are still prevalent, though more sterilized than “Trans-Europe Express” perhaps? Cleaner, deeper, still sparse. Minimum-Maximum. And non-stop. Techno-pop tunes on Electric Cafe; smaller, kompact, personal. Synthesizer music by Kraftwerk, typically real earworms.

Kraftwerk; smaller, kompact, personal. Minimum Maximum. “Electric Cafe;” industrial rhythms, perhaps cleaner, deeper and sparser than “Trans-Europe Express?” And non-stop! And non-stop!

Typically in a league of their own, Kraftwerk are smaller, kompact, personal on “Electric Cafe.” And non-stop techno-pop tunes are still prevalent; though more sterilized industrial rhythms are cleaner, deeper. And non-stop. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer music.

Smaller, kompakt, personal. Non-stop techno-pop tunes on “Electric Cafe;” real earworms. Set apart from Eighties synthesizer Read more›

Can “Tago Mago” (United Artists, 1971)

Can_-_Tago_MagoOut with Malcolm Mooney and in with Damo Suzuki. At this point, the grooves provided by the most well known forerunners of Krautrock got a whole lot funkier… On “Tago Mago” these composers-turned-avant-rockers set a template that still influences musicians and electronic artists to this day with their strange brew of rhythms and sound collage.

“Paperhouse” and the oft-covered “Mushroom” open the album with more standard pastoral psych numbers and Velvet-drones, but the album turns on it’s head with “Oh Yeah” and “Halleluwah,” tracks that seem to last an eternity with simple relentless grooves and studio trickery (backwards voices, fade ins/outs, on the fly mixing). Mushroom head indeed.

This is Can’s second breath with Damo on the mic, and his style of vocalizing is unique unto himself. A mix of English, German, Japanese and gibberish, it all goes together in seamless coos, belted screams and “uh huh” nonsense. It’s rock, it’s avant, it stands the test of time… And you can dance to much of it. -Wade… Read more›