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Can “Can” (Harvest, 1979)

Can’s 11th studio album, Can (aka Inner Space), generally receives less attention and praise than their earlier, better-known full-lengths, but it’s actually a pretty strong record. There are some duds here, to be sure, but when they’re good, they’re very good. Even at this late, these krautrock legends still had mad creative juice.

By 1979, Can were in a weird place. Original bassist Holger Czukay was relegated to editing tape in the studio; Traffic and Stomu Yamash’ta bassist Rosko Gee replaced him, while fellow Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Baah joined the group as a percussionist. Wonderfully idiosyncratic singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki were long gone, so guitarist Michael Karoli assumed vocal duties with a workmanlike blandness. Yet despite this inauspicious situation, Can still delivered five excellent tracks (out of eight), which is quite respectable for a band 11 years into their career.

Can opens with one of the unit’s greatest tracks of any period, “All Gates Open.” (Note: The new Can biography by Rob Young and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt uses this phrase as its title.) Jaki Liebezeit kicks out a busted-metronome beat that sort of mocks disco while Czukay ladles in mysterious, menacing noises and Karoli jams out a riff that the Fall stole for “Shoulder Pads 1 & 2.” Eventually and without warning, Schmidt generates a radiant swell of tones that overwhelms you like an orgasmic epiphany. And then there are the bluesy harmonica parts—about the last thing you’d expect in a Can composition. This is an eight-minute epic worth every odd second. Another eight-plus minutes of weirdness, “Safe” finds Karoli channeling Carlos Santana’s rococo, piercing runs and Czukay creating a bizarre, cavernous soundworld as Liebezeit keeps lopsided martial time. “Sunday Jam” offers more Latin-rock lushness with a rhythm that gushes forth with an abundance of “Black Magic Woman” intrigue. Side 1 slays all in its path.

Side 2 starts extremely well, with “Sodom” and “A Spectacle.” The former is a very ominous rock song that bears the gravitas of Goblin or post-Syd Pink Floyd, as Karoli wrenches serpentine, liquid silver from his guitar. The latter is an elegantly spluttering specimen of disco (not disco) that starts startlingly in mid-stride. As Gee’s bass line sends your ears on a thrilling roller-coaster ride, Liebezeit concocts a miracle of stutter-funk footwork and sticksmanship. You need at least three legs to dance to this track properly.

“E.F.S. Nr. 99 (Can Can)” is where things get dicey. This admittedly spirited cover of a piece by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach was seemingly done for its wordplay potential alone. Let us never speak of it again. “Ping Pong” captures 25 seconds of a ping-pong ball bouncing. Why?! Dunno. Because they could? Finally, the flamboyant biker-rock blowout of “Can Be” recalls “Full Moon On The Highway” from Landed, but it’s not as badass.

So, yeah, Can ends bafflingly badly, but its high points are so stratospheric, they’re cancelled out. Don’t pay attention to the fans who say Can didn’t make any great records after Future Days or Soon Over Babaluma. This one’s a stunning sleeper. -Buckley Mayfield

Moebius & Plank “Rastakraut Pasta” (Sky, 1980)

The late Dieter Moebius could do no wrong. A crucial member of Cluster, Harmonia, and Liliental, and a collaborator with Brian Eno, Max Beerbohm, Mani Neumeier, Asmus Tietchnes, Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson, and many other mavericks, Moebius always brought a peculiar tonal vocabulary to any studio situation He never stopped trying new things and maintained high quality control to the very end of this life—a true rarity.

One of his key conspirators was the renowned krautrock producer/engineer Conny Plank. Along with Guru Guru drummer Neumeier, both German geniuses recorded the mind-boggling Zero Set, which was way ahead of its time (and which I hope to review eventually). In the meantime, let’s examine Moebius and Plank’s first full-length, Rastakraut Pasta, which thankfully isn’t quite as goofy as its title.

Moebius met Plank when the latter served as engineer for Cluster 1971. They hit it off and meshed their peculiar sensibilities on Rastakraut, which reveals the more whimsical side of the two musicians’ talents. (CAN’s Holger Czukay plays bass on three tracks here.) The LP title reveals the underlying sonic theme: a bizarre melding of Jamaican and Teutonic musical elements. “News,” the title track, and “Miss Cacadou” dabble with drunken dub and reggae structures, their woozy skank always threatening to capsize into a Caribbean Sea filled with molasses rather than water.

On “Two Oldtimers,” which features Czukay, Dieter and Conny finesse a lollygagging electro-pop that’s as dreamy as these sagacious Germans ever got—until it unexpectedly turns all solemnly neo-classical. “Solar Plexus” is the album’s strangest piece; it seemingly consists of a tuning fork and synth murmurs Doppler effected into a weird splaying of tones and warped mumbles. The main motivation behind it appears to be to fuck with your reality while you’re tripping. Face it: We all could use some tracks like this in our lives.

The album’s anomaly and peak occurs on “Feedback 66” (which also includes Czukay). This is surf-rock submerged in tar, its rhythm seemingly clipped from that monotonously funky kickdrum from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” and then slowed way down. Again, it’s produced to mess with your mind in an insidious manner, which is why I love to drop it in DJ sets. “Feedback 66” is one of Moebius and Plank’s greatest achievements of their storied careers—and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

Praise Jah that that price of admission won’t be exorbitant, as the excellent Bureau B label reissued Rastakraut Pasta on vinyl in 2010 and again in 2017. -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

Les Vampyrettes, “Les Vampyrettes” (not on label, 1980)

The two tracks that comprise this ultra-obscure EP by Les Vampyrettes (revered krautrock studio wizard Conny Plank and the late, great Holger Czukay of CAN) represent some of the most sinister music ever laid to tape. For decades, however, Les Vampyrettes was strictly the province of the world’s most elite collectors. Thankfully, in 2013 the great Grönland label reissued the record. (You can also find these cuts on Czukay’s just-released 5xLP Cinema box set.)

Pulling off sinister music is more difficult than it may seem, as it’s easy to topple into hokeyness or ham-fisted Hollywood tropes when venturing into hellish sonic miasmas. As you would expect from two masters of sound sorcery such as Plank and Czukay, Les Vampyrettes avoid those pitfalls. Holger proposed to Conny a series of singles with the theme of “horror with comfort,” and Les Vampyrettes resulted. They infuse the music here with a gravity and oppressiveness that are truly remarkable.

“Biomutanten” is a four-minute collage of seemingly random noises, but the way Les Vampyrettes arrange and produce them is chilling. Ominous pulsations and panicky ticking sounds, doom-laden twangs, alarm bells, emergency warning signals, Doppler-effected wails, myriad noises hinting at things going awry, a pitched-down-to-hell (literally, it seems) male voice speaking in German—all of these elements induce a serious dread and a feeling of a tenuous grasp of sanity gradually slipping. Do not listen on hallucinogens… unless you really want to lose your marbles.

“Menetekel” is a slightly shorter minimalist creepscape haunted by insectoid chirps, warped warbles, dripping and splashing water, and those guttural, lower-than-low/slower-than-slow German guy intonations. It’s not quite the mindfuck that “Biomutanten” is, but it’s still the antithesis of party music.

As fantastic and phantasmagorical asConny Plank and Holger Czukay’s discographies are, they may have conjured their most outlandish vibe with this one-off project. At certain times of the night, Les Vampyrettes might be regarded as both geniuses’ peak work. -Buckley Mayfield

Vangelis “Beaubourg” (RCA, 1978)

I’m generally a fan of LPs that feature two sidelong tracks—mainly for the sheer audacity and large-scale ambition it demonstrates. If you’re gonna take up a whole side of wax, you’d damn well better come with the fire, right? And that’s what Vangelis (born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassio in Volos, Greece, 74 years ago) does on Beaubourg, a record that must’ve made the execs at RCA sweat bullets as they tried to figure out how to market this dark beast. Viewed from a certain angle, it could be the Greek composer’s Metal Machine Music (also an RCA release)—but without the hilariously snarky liner notes.

Beaubourg followed some of Vangelis’ most accessible and popular releases in his discography, including Heaven And Hell, Albedo 0.39, and Spiral. So when Beaubourg dropped in 1978, at a time when 69 percent of musicians in the industry were making their disco moves, it must’ve baffled fans. Reportedly inspired by Centre Georges Pompidou’s architecture in Paris, Beaubourg is more Xenakis than Moroder.

The nearly 18-minute “Part I” immediately thrusts you into a state of disorientation and panic, as Vangelis works his synthesizer sorcery toward its most chthonic ends. The opening stretches sounds like Morton Subotnick possessed by demonic forces, as warped, spasmodic bleeps streak across the stereo field like malevolent comets. It sounds as if Vangelis improvised this panoply of bizarre, chaotic, and sometimes eerily beautiful passages while in the throes of an epic DMT bender. As he had nobody in the studio but himself, Vangelis probably said, “Fuck it, I have Chariots Of Fire and Blade Runner soundtracks ahead of me, so I might as well bust out all of my weirdest moves before I rake in my millions.” Or maybe he just wanted to make RCA’s executives, marketing directors, and publicists sweat bullets. Whatever the case, this piece messes with your mind more effectively than even Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze’s mind-altering marathons.

The 21-minute “Part II” traverses some of the same territory as its predecessor, but in a more subdued manner, yet it’s still pretty unnerving in an Andromeda Strain soundtrack way. (Highest praise, by the way; respect to Gil Mellé.) Like Beaubourg‘s A-side, the B-side changes every 10 or 15 seconds, moving from fascinating episode to intriguing development with a rapidity that suggests a genius working at the zenith of his prodigious creative powers.

This may be a minority opinion, but I’ll take Beaubourg over Chariots Of Fire or Blade Runner any day. It’s a bonus that it likely made major-label bigwigs sweat bullets. -Buckley Mayfield

The Red Crayola “The Parable Of Arable Land” (International Artists, 1967)

Newsflash: The most far-out album on Lelan Rogers’ International Artists label was not created by the 13th Floor Elevators. Nope, that honor goes to Houston’s the Red Crayola (later the Red Krayola, because crayon corporations are spoilsports). Fifty years ago, guitarist/vocalist Mayo Thompson, drummer Rick Barthelme, bassist Steve Cunningham, and the Familiar Ugly (you know, those folks) came together to formulate a blueprint for psychedelic music that few—even the band themselves—have matched in structure and ingenious madness. Their debut album, The Parable Of Arable Land, remains a classic that continues to inspire heads who love the sound of confusion.

The album’s unique format spawns six somewhat conventional songs that are surrounded by “Free Form Freak-out”s. The effect is like a bizarre DJ set in which the transitions are ruptured by instrumental and vocal anarchy. These are howling voids, calamitous cacophonies out of which songs escape, like inmates from a burning insane asylum. The Red Crayola shattered rock-song norms, filtering free-jazz and avant-garde composition into their primordial psychedelic ooze. We’re still experiencing flashbacks from it.

“Hurricane Fighter Plane,” the first song proper, soars in on one of the most ominous, driving bass riffs ever conceived. Thompson sarcastically revels in the destructive power of the titular subject while guitar and organ whorl with sinister intent, the vaportrail of exhaust after a strafing sortie. 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson allegedly guests on keys here, as well as on “Transparent Radiation.” Speaking of which, this stands as one of the strangest ballads of all time, a surrealist ecology lament (I think) in which Thompson’s droopy, lachrymose vocals relate the following:

Styrofoam people quite violent

Clear light glowing right out of my tent

Expert men not knowing what they meant

Eating babies for nourishment

A funny bird with forehead bent

Ozone over our continent

Slogans tell me that I can rent

Transparent radiation”

That was one of the more coherent passages. Anyway, you gotta love the beautiful, shambling melodic figure that ekes its way through distant harmonica plumes. Spacemen 3’s 1987 cover extrapolated this lo-fidelity gem into a celestial symphony of tragic grandeur; they really blew it out into an interstellar sprawl.

Its hard to be more explicit than “War Sucks,” an emphatic boot to the balls of the politicians responsible for sending Americans to Southeast Asia to fight an unwinnable war. One consolation prize for such a brutal, massive loss of life is this proto-punk, metallic KO to bellicosity. (Spectrum—led by Red Crayola superfan Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember—covered “War Sucks” in 2009.)

If side 1 flexes raging rock muscles, side 2 explores weirder, more subdued moods. Well, “Pink Stainless Tail” is the exception; it’s an adrenalized analogue to “Hurricane Fighter Plane,” inflated by one of those riffs that you want to punch the sky to for hours. Garage-psych doesn’t get much more potent. “Parable Of Arable Land” sounds like the pitch-shifted quacking of a mechanical duck in the throes of a traumatic trance, while a panoply of percussion toys get a workout. This is a freak-out of a less free-form nature. The LP closes with “Former Reflections Enduring Doubt,” a deeply affecting ballad laced with juddering guitar FX, Thompson’s voice lugubrious and laden with Leonard Cohen-esque desolation. Parable goes out with a whimper, but what an odd whimper it is.

It’s a mystery why Drag City—who has issued several Red Krayola and Mayo Thompson works—isn’t giving Parable a deluxe 50th-anniversary reissue. That being said, this one’s not that hard to find. And find it you should. -Buckley Mayfield

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -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

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

 

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 did hear. Heard while tripping on acid, “Dr. Fox” will reduce you to tears of hysterical laughter, especially the part where Krause sings, “Dr. Fox built the freaking brain box that freaks me out/Every time he plugs me in, I spin, I spin, I spin [chuckle], I spin” over bleeping-and-blorping synth spasms.

Similarly, you will not keep a straight face when hearing “Moogy Blues Funk,” an absurdly jaunty old-time ditty that’s gussied up with thickly distorted Moog belches. By contrast, “As I Hear It” boasts such a beautifully wistful melody that you just know it broke the hearts of Boards Of Canada when they (probably) heard it in the early ’90s. “Fountains Of The Dept. Of Water & Power” is a veritable wonderland of Moog-y ostinatos while “33rd Stanza Of A Hymn To Sancho Panza” conjures vertiginous space-synth menace. “Changes” and “Interplay”—which come from a film score called Breakthrough—are alternately stately and whimsical synthesizer studies, with a rare use of drums on the former.

This very odd LP has never been reissued on vinyl or CD. If there’s a good reason for this, music-industry sages, please inform us. Somebody—legitimately or not—needs to bring Ragnarök back into circulation. -Buckley Mayfield

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