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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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” … Read more›
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 Spellbinder, Bacchanal, 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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
“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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›