Psych and Prog

Phil Upchurch “The Way I Feel” (Cadet, 1970)

ORCHESTRA ARRANGED AND CONDUCTED BY CHARLES STEPNEY” it reads under the title of The Way I Feel, and if that doesn’t sell you on this album, then I don’t know what to tell you. Because Stepney, as you should know, was a studio wizard who conjured certified magic for Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton, Marlena Shaw, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other talented musicians in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. But, of course, there’s more to The Way I Feel than Stepney’s exceptional ideas. Phil Upchurch—who also played with Rotary Connection and several other Stepney-associated artists—is a wonderfully expressive, virtuosic guitarist and bassist who issued a grip of very good LPs in the era mentioned above, including this one. (I don’t waste my time with mediocrity, dig?)

It must be said that this album contains its share of fluff—albeit sophisticated, extremely well-played and arranged fluff. Two Gordon Lightfoot covers? Not sure that’s totally necessary. Those E-Z listenin’, airy fantasias plus Quincy Jones/Cynthia Weil’s “Time For Love (Is Any Time)” find Upchurch in restrained, contemplative mode, offering classy dinner music. Similarly, the effervescent soul pop of “Wild Wood,” buoyed by a bevy of female backing vocalists singing “Hey baby, sha la la sha la la la,” is rather lightweight compared to Upchurch’s best material.

Much better is “Peter, Peter,” an Irwin Rosman composition that Upchurch turns into serpentine psychedelia while flaunting his mercurial jamming skills and facility for shifting between phenomenal fuzz and crystalline tones. Other highlights include “I Don’t Know,” a “Willie The Pimp”-style slab of nasty blues rock, and “Pretty Blue,” a laid-back, lascivious instrumental.

But with “Electrik Head,” Upchurch perversely saves the best for last. And, whoa, holy shit! It’s a career-peak song, an effusion of translucent guitar pyrotechnics, a cascade of icy, pointillist, tonal eloquence. I’ve played this psychedelic mind-blower in many a DJ set, and will continue to do so for as long as I can. Because I like to make a room full of people stop their chatter, put down their drinks, and gawk in amazement at the Hendrix-level sorcery going on here. Because it’s one of the greatest pieces of music the 20th century has yielded. Because I’m a sonic philanthropist who wants to take you to (Up)church. -Buckley Mayfield

The Dukes Of Stratosphear “25 O’Clock” (Virgin, 1985)

When 25 O’Clock came out 32 years ago, it sounded at once like a prank and a homage. That it was released on April 1 convinced many that it was indeed more the former. The cover screamed love for Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the pseudonyms hinted at British whimsy, and the music approximated the various permutations of late-’60s psych-rock with a maniacal fan’s ear for detail. When it emerged that the Dukes Of Stratosphear were actually the popular new-wave group XTC and not a forgotten gaggle of acid-gobblers from two decades earlier, some listeners kind of soured on the premise, but many others said fuck it, who cares—this record rules, no matter if it hadn’t been languishing in some vault, unheard and accruing legendary status. Count me in the latter bunch.

A concise, perfectly formed six-song EP, 25 O’Clock begins with the title track, a serpentine stormer in the vein of Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night,” with an organ sound akin to Chick Corea’s on “Imp’s Welcome,” of all things. It’s an obsessive love song about a bond that transcends the ordinary parameters of time, and it’s a sure sign that the Dukes know their ’60s psychedelia over under sideways down. “Bike Ride To The Moon” effervesces in the same sonic playground in which Syd Barrett frolicked, capturing the late Pink Floyd leader’s knack for loony melodies and beautifully chaotic song structure. You can totally imagine this song on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

“My Love Explodes” is simply one of the most exciting songs ever, an adrenalized agglomeration of nearly every trick in the psych-rock playbook. A bonkers rave-up that could singe the hair off the Yardbirds and Count Five, it evokes an LSD trip that’s simultaneously exhilarating and harrowing. Perhaps too predictably, it ends with a “7 And & Is”-like explosion and a recording of a nerd vehemently dissing the song. Talk about a buzzkill… But all returns to bliss with “What In The World??…” an oneiric inversion of’ “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”—two of the Beatles’ greatest compositions.

“Your Gold Dress” offers more Pink Floyd worship; it’s a minor-key, low-slung snake-charmer of a tune bolstered by liberal usage of vocal FX, backward phased guitars, sitar-ized guitar, and harpsichord. The EP’s peak may be “The Mole From The Ministry,” a blatant revamp of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but “Mole”—replete with a Mellotron motif that would make the Moody Blues weep and a false, backward-sucking false ending that summons a phantom “I buried Paul” in your mind’s ear—makes the Beatles’ paragon of creepy psych comedown seem like a bit of teatime frippery.

Yes, 25 O’Clock is pastiche, but it’s the pinnacle of pastiche. It’s my favorite work by XTC, and I’m still not sick of it a hundred listens later. -Buckley Mayfield

Yatha Sidhra “A Meditation Mass” (Brain, 1974)

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The favorite album of no less an authority than Ultima Thule co-owner Alan Freeman (who also wrote the crucial krautrock encyclopedia The Crack In The Cosmic Egg), A Meditation Mass is a German kosmische rock klassik. It’s a product from that insanely fecund time when German freaks sought myriad ways to bust out of Anglo-American rock’s standard operating procedures. Which means that Yatha Sidhra’s Meditation Mass—ushered into existence partially thanks to experimental guitarist Achim Reichel’s publishing company, Gorilla Musik—shrugged off trad rock’s blues roots and explored a looser, more outward-bound strain of sonic journeying.

Led by brothers Rolf and Klaus Fichter, Yatha Sidhra deployed Moog, flute, vibes, electric piano, guitars, drums, and bass to cast their elongated spells over this four-part Meditation Mass. The nearly 18-minute part 1 calmly unfolds electric guitar spirals, peaceful flute wisps, and gently tumbling drums in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun,” but this is even more laid-back. The unhurried pace and contemplative aura thoroughly ease your mind, inducing a heightened sense of well-being.

Part 2—by far the shortest section at three minutes—could be the radio track, ja? It begins as a stolid, melancholy trudge, then shifts into an uptempo Soft Machine-like prog-jazz canter. Sadly, only in a much more enlightened world would this piece enter the earshot of more than the most serious heads. The 12-minute part 3 picks up where part 2 left off. If you’re into serpentine flute flights in a space-rock context (and who in their right mind isn’t?), this movement will give your sweet spot goose bumps. It eventually achieves a fiery, jazzy lift-off into Passport-esque complexity and density. Peak moment, for sure. With part 4, Yatha Sidhra attain a cyclical resolution, as the track reverts to the opening segment’s tranquil trance mode.

While I don’t rate A Meditation Mass as highly as the good Mr. Freeman does, I do think it’s an outstanding record. Listening to its undulant 40-minute trip, I feel as if I’m gliding toward the vanishing point where the sun drops into the sea, cool breeze tickling my neck hairs, not a goddamn worry in my head.

Peace. Out. -Buckley Mayfield

Yoko Ono “Fly” (Apple, 1971)

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This is one of the triptych of records you need to pull out to shoot down the Yoko haters—of whom there are many, because we live in a deeply flawed world. The other two? 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe. Of course, there are other solid Ono releases, but these three make the most persuasive case for Yoko as an important artist.

Let’s be honest: Ono used her connection to husband John Lennon to gain access to the phenomenal musicians who play on Fly (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Joe Jones, and, you bet your ass, Lennon himself) Don’t front: You would, too, if you were in her position. But it’s what she does with the assemblage of massive talent that makes this double LP so righteous.

Ono wrote all 13 tracks on Fly, and if she’d only conceived the 17-minute “Mind Train,” this full-length would still be worth your precious time. “Mind Train” is like Tago Mago/Ege Bamyasi-era Can, with all the loose-limbed, trance-inducing funk and id-mad vocal improv tics that that implies. Lennon seems to be having a ball, unspooling a bunch of weird guitar arabesques and eruptions while Voorman and Keltner do their best Czukay/Liebezeit impressions. All I can say is, “¡Hallelujah!”

As for the other highlights, “Mind Holes” starts almost like a Popol Vuh-/Dzyan-like kosmsiche reverie before shifting into disjointed blues-rock vamping. On “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow),” Clapton, Starr, and Voorman grind out a sick, funky blues-rock groove that would make John Lee Hooker say, “DAMN!” More filthy, stripped-down funk comes with “Hirake,” over which Ono commands listeners to open their box, trousers, legs, thighs, flies, ears, nose, mouth, city, world, etc. with unhinged urgency. Yes, ma’am, whatever you say!

Weirdnesses abound on side 3, as you might expect when Fluxus mischief-maker Joe Jones enters the studio. “Airmale” is enhanced by eight of Jones’ “automatic instruments,” which play themselves with only the turn of a switch, as Ono wails in tongues. If you thought the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” was strange, well, “Airmale” says, “Hold my beer.” With “Don’t Count The Waves,” Ono’s voice gets electronically treated into an eerie, delay-laden shriek as she intones the title, accompanied by a grotesquerie of percussive accents. “You,” the last of the Jones experiments, features lease-breaking metallic percussion splatter and shrill whinnies that will make 98.3 percent of Beatles fans shit twice and die. And let’s not overlook “O’Wind (Body Is The Scar Of Your Mind),” on which Keltner and Gordon slap out rapid beats on tablas while Ono moans with ceremonial gravitas and ululates with anguished ecstasy. It’s a weird standout on an album full of oddities.

Fly‘s not all good, though. “Mrs. Lennon” is a maudlin ballad that’s almost as insufferable as “Imagine.” On “Fly,” the soundtrack to Yoko’s 23-minute film of the same name, Ono shatters preconceptions about the female voice and any attendant decorum associated with it (a good thing); but the piece is worth perhaps one listen in a lifetime, just to revel in the sheer absurdity of millionaires sanctioning such tomfoolery. Even Lennon’s backward-sucking guitar slurs can’t redeem it.

Most humans now lack the attention span and tolerance for strangeness that Fly demands of its listeners. But you, Jive Time blog reader, you’re made of sterner stuff. I think you’re gonna dig a lot of this messterpiece. -Buckley Mayfield

War “The World Is A Ghetto” (United Artists, 1972)

 

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I’m not in the habit of reviewing records that have dwelled on the charts (it went to #1 and was Billboard magazine’s album of the year, selling more copies than anything else in 1973), but War’s The World Is A Ghetto ain’t your typical platinum LP. Sure, smash single “The Cisco Kid” greatly helped its ascension, but when you get beyond that feel-good, heavy-lidded funk shuffle, things get dark, psychedelic, and real as shit.

On this, their fifth full-length, War were really hitting their stride. The large LA ensemble had proved they excelled at funk, rock, Latin, R&B, calypso, and fusions thereof—with and without ex-Animals vocalist Eric Burdon. Their music was geared for outdoor parties and radiated a bonhomie that you sensed aspired to unite racial and social groups—even on ostensibly ominous cuts like surprise radio staple “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”

Still, some critics have lamented the extended length of songs like “City, Country, City,” “Four Cornered Room,” and the title track, but fug these short-attention-spanned busters. If concise songs are more your speed, though, you’ll love the aforementioned “Cisco Kid” and “Where Was You At.” The latter’s a brisk, clipped funk number with gospel call-and-response vocals, with its irresistible groove toggling between tough and breezy. The sub-4-minute “Beetles In The Bog” is one of those let’s-end-the-album-on-a-rousing-note songs, powered by massed “la la la”s, a nimble, strutting bass line, and a martial rhythm.

But the real nitty-gritty of The World Is A Ghetto occurs on its longest tracks. “City, Country, City” is a 13-minute instrumental that vacillates between passages resembling Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and bustling, urban jazz-funk that nearly beats Kool & The Gang at their own game. War seriously stretch out and build up a humid head of steam here. A midnight-blue ballad, “The World Is A Ghetto” is suffused with a sublime malaise over its 10-minute duration, but it possesses enough gumption to keep its chin up in the struggle to survive, despite the pervasive gloom of the song’s sentiment.

With “Four Cornered Room,” Ghetto hits a shocking peak. It starts with one of the starkest, most menacing blues-rock riffs to which you’ve ever trembled (oddly, you can hear its influence in the later work of Seattle drone-metal deities Earth). The massed “ooh”s and “zoom zoom zoom”s add layers of chillingness to the song, while the phased and panned guitar and percussion disperse things into a psychedelic zone of extreme zonkedness. It sounds like War wrote and recorded this tune after smoking some extremely strong ganja, playing as if in a paranoid daze. “Four Cornered Room” puts most stoner rock to shame. Low-key, it’s a career highlight in a catalog loaded with diverse zeniths. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Monster Magnet “25…Tab” (Glitterhouse, 1991)

 

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For a minute in the early ’90s, I thought Monster Magnet were gonna blow the hell up. They had a charismatic, good-looking frontman (Dave Wyndorf), gargantuan riffs, more effects pedals than J Mascis (perhaps), a surprisingly deft way with a hook, and a kickass slogan: “It’s a Satanic drug thing… you wouldn’t understand.” But alas, Monster Magnet never took off like they should have, instead existing for more than a quarter century as a cult psych-rock band with heavy-metal inclinations—or is that a cult heavy-metal band with psych-rock inclinations? Don’t ask me, I’m in terrible sleep debt.

Anyway, Monster Magnet’s early singles and albums like Spine of God placed them in the vanguard of the American hard-rock ghetto. When 25…Tab came out soon after Spine, my circle of friends and I lost our fucking minds… and found nirvana. (Yeah, dude, we loved thi more than Nevermind, which came out the same year.) Mostly we loved the 32-minute “Tab…” a track too mammoth for the overused word “epic.” (A buddy of mine used to listen to this song obsessively while training for a marathon; it helped!) Wyndorf babbles lysergic nothings over a riff that make “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”’s sound like bubblegum pop. A panoply of guitar FX fibrillates like Hawkwind jamming in an insane asylum. A new high in heavy is achieved. Most grunge sounded trés twee compared to this.

The remaining two cuts here can’t help sounding a bit underwhelming after that mantra of destructive distortion. Still, “25/Longhair” is 12.5 minutes of outrageously revved-up, Deep Purple-y rampaging (think Machine Head x In Rock), with Wyndorf croaking like Steppenwolf’s John Kay through a Stephen Hawking voice generator. “Lord 13” downshifts the album into a hard-strumming conclusion, sounding like an Agitation Free or Embryo outtake laced with rueful beauty. Monster Magnet’s gentle comedown is still more fried than most rock bands’ wildest freakouts. With some poignancy, Wyndorf sings “What do I want from me?/A clock that goes 13/A deal with the pyramids/A way to know everything.”

It’s a Satanic drug thing…you wouldn’t understand. I can live—and die—with that. -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

 

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

 

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

 

Richard Pinhas “Chronolyse” (Cobra, 1978)

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

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

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

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

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

Gábor Szabó “Mizrab” (CTI, 1973)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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