World Music

Minoru Muraoka “Bamboo” (United Artists, 1970)

Recent years have seen several labels—Light In The Attic, Palto Flats, Jazzman, We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, et al.—reissuing obscure gems from Japan. England’s great Mr Bongo imprint also has gotten into the act, most recently with jazz shakuhachi player Minoru Muraoka’s Bamboo coming out this summer. That’s a relief, as original copies of this idiosyncratic 1970 crate-digger’s classic go for hundreds of dollars.

Six of Bamboo‘s nine tracks are covers, and the quality varies among them. Jazz musicians covering Beatles songs was practically law in the ’60s and ’70s, but few artists have attempted to interpret the sentimental 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” Minoru exoticizes the somewhat sappy melody and takes this middling cut from A Hard Day’s Night to a higher level. Similarly, Minoru does interesting things with the oft-covered folk ballad “The House Of The Rising Sun.” His is probably my favorite rendition—partially because there are no overbearing vocals, just four or five instruments burnishing a poignant melody that, it turns out, is ideal for the shakuhachi’s timbre.

Minoru also excels at archetypal lightweight mid-’60s pop such as Bacharach/David’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and Tony Hatch’s “Call Me,” an EZ-listening standard made famous by Chris Montez and Petula Clark. Minoru transforms these overfamiliar melodies into something more touching through his serene blowing. The latter is the epitome of suave coolness in Minoru’s hands and mouth. These covers display Minoru’s instinct for tackling songs that have been frequently interpreted and injecting them with elements of distinctiveness. You can also hear this when he bathes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a holy penumbra; it’s unbearably touching and somehow more powerful for not having a singer, even one as gifted as Art Garfunkel.

Perhaps Bamboo’s finest cover is that of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” It’s a fantastic version that illuminates and slightly accelerates Dave Brubeck’s famous, sprightly rendition. Like every song here, “Take Five” gains a sheen of freshness thanks to the airy coolness of the shakuhachi, a flute-like instrument popular in Japan. The unexpected robust and rapid drum solo three-fifths of the way in is a nice homage to Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.

Minoru’s originals rule, too. “Nogamigawa Funauta” is a gorgeous, courtly piece in which Minoru’s shakuhachi wafts and spirals into sacred space, twining around some phenomenal koto ornamentation. (The koto sounds like some magnificent compromise between a banjo and a harp.) “The Positive And The Negative” bears incredibly funky drum and bass breaks, which have made this track a holy grail for hip-hop producers. Lord have mercy, the beats are rotund on this one. Above the irrepressible grooves, shakuhachi and koto engage in a celestial dance, a mellifluous dream soundtrack. The other original, “Soul Bamboo,” sounds like one of the inspirations for DJ Shadow’s mystical-funk masterpiece, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

It’s so great to have Bamboo back in circulation at a reasonable price. Don’t sleep. -Buckley Mayfield

Earth, Wind & Fire “Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974)

The first popular Earth, Wind & Fire album, Open Our Eyes went gold and topped the R&B charts, but Maurice White and company still hadn’t made the leap to superstardom. That would come in 1975 with That’s The Way Of The World, with its hit singles “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” and the title track. But the Chicago group’s fifth LP, Open Our Eyes, represents their last stand of stripped-down funk and R&B before their act inflated to a soul revue for stadia. As such, it’s an interesting transitional work and a solid entry point into the EW&F universe.

White front-loaded the LP with two hits. “Mighty Mighty” is the better of the two: fleet, flinty, feel-good funk that hints at the supernova soul to come soon after. Very much in the vein of early-career Kool & The Gang, the song boasts a chorus (“We are people of the party/party people of the sun.”) that can’t help lifting your spirits. It reached #4 on the US R&B chart, #29 on the singles chart. “Devotion” is a silky Commodores-like ballad that verges on innocuous, although Philip Bailey’s supple falsetto and equally smooth backing falsettos are undeniably sweet. This one reached #33 on the singles chart.

Co-written by Rotary Connection mastermind Charles Stepney, “Fair But So Uncool” rolls out some bittersweet midtempo funk that could’ve comfortably slotted onto Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh, while “Kalimba Story”’s strutting, coiled funk showcases the titular instrument’s enchantingly wonky metallic timbre. The album’s zenith comes on “Drum Song,” a deep, sinuous, kalimba-enhanced afro-funk jam that sounds nothing like future big-budget EW&F smash “September.” The slow, sleazy funk of “Tee Nine Chee Bit” is the closest EW&F ever came to emulating early Funkadelic and Ohio Players, and therefore is great. The closing title track surprises with its slick, Latin soul-jazz and bubbly scat singing, somehow bringing to mind Santana and early Chicago.

Obviously, Earth, Wind & Fire released a lot of amazing music after Open Our Eyes, but they definitely lost some of the gritty charm exemplified by the best moments of this important 1974 record. -Buckley Mayfield

The Ceyleib People “Tanyet” (Vault, 1968)

Here it is, the greatest raga-rock record that was ever jammed out by a bunch of session players in LA. Ry Cooder is the Ceyleib People’s best-known member, but the ad-hoc group also included guitarist/sitarist Mike Deasy (aka Lybuk Hyd), bassist/keyboardist Larry Knechtel, and drummer Jim Gordon, all of whose long lists of credits include plenty of Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, even if they themselves largely have toiled in obscurity.

This is a short concept album with copious liner notes by Deasy. These notes drift into some prime late-’60s hippie mythos about peace and love and gods and goddesses, all of which coalesces into a sort of cosmic cautionary tale. Thankfully, the 12 brief songs are all instrumental, so you can simply immerse yourself in the music, if you so desire. But if you want to get a sense of the sensibility here, the title, Tanyet, is described as “Mother of all things. Natural essence of love and beauty. Captured in the meadows through the trees of life’s forest, like a ray of sunlight, giving life to the inner breath of all creatures.” I remember my first acid trip too…

The first side exudes paradisiacal vibes, almost like a white-male-rocker take on Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda. Blissed-out sitar mellifluity and tamboura drones give way to some gnarled guitar riffing that sounds like Cooder repurposing some of the Safe As Milk ideas he spooled out for Captain Beefheart. Jim Horn’s lilting woodwinds lend things some warped Peter And The Wolf melodic motifs.

But the second side is where shit gets really deep. You can hear Gordon’s funky drumming coming to the fore while over the top the sitar and the guitars start to spangle and jangle to the heavens, eastward. There’s one passage in particular—during the tracks “Tygstl” and “Pendyl”—where the Ceyleib People lock in on a groove so funky and hypnotic it could almost be a foreshadowing of Miles Davis’ On The Corner—but sounding as if powered by ayahuasca rather than coke. It might be my favorite single moment in all of music, the quintessence of psychedelic rock in its full-blooming 1968ness. The band’s record company had the good sense to isolate this part of Tanyet for a 7-inch single, which you can currently find on Discogs for hundreds of dollars. Hurry while supplies last…

Thankfully, you can obtain Tanyet for far less than that sum, as it’s been reissued a handful of times in the 50 years since it blew open minds even farther open. -Buckley Mayfield

Ananda Shankar “Ananda Shankar” (Reprise, 1970)

East-West musical fusions proliferated like mad in the ’60s and ’70s—hell, they’re still happening, if not as frequently as they used to when society as a whole was more open-minded and psychedelically inclined. Most of these efforts stem from Western musicians dabbling with Eastern forms. Indian sitarist/composer Ananda Shankar’s self-titled 1970 debut LP is the rare record where an Eastern musician tries his fleet-fingered hands at rock, and the result is fabulous.

For this album, Shankar only used one other Indian musician: tabla specialist Pranish Khan. The rest of the pick-up band included bassists Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley, the Doors’ L.A. Woman) and Mark Tulin (Electric Prunes); drummer Michael Botts (Bread); guitarists Drake Levin (Paul Revere & The Raiders, Friendsound) and Dick Rosmini (Van Dyke Parks, Phil Ochs); and keyboardist/Moog savant Paul Lewinson. They serve him well.

Ananda (who was Ravi Shankar’s nephew) had the audacity to tackle two sacred cows of classic rock—the Rolling Stones and the Doors—and the skills to breathe vital new life into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Light My Fire.” The former is one of the greatest Rolling Stones covers ever. If you’re going to make a concession to rock conventions, this is the way to do it. The rhythm’s funked up to a humid degree, while Shankar leaves out most of the lyrics, with only the chorus chanted by women vocalists. Shankar’s sitar takes the lead and he really psychedelicizes and embellishes the main riff, while Paul Lewinson’s Moog accents contrast wonderfully with the sitar’s sanctified twangs. Even Mick and Keef would have to concur that this version is a gas gas gas. Meanwhile, Shankar’s “Light My Fire”—which is already very well-suited to Indian scales—fits the Doors’ original like a perfectly tailored Nehru jacket.

Shankar’s original compositions peak with “Metamorphosis,” a gorgeous, gradually unfolding, cinematic song that should have classed up a movie in the early ’70s in a montage where a couple grow deeper in love and/or attain a sexual climax. (Whoa, that frenzied ending!) “Sagar (The Ocean)”—the only track here played in the Indian classical style—consists of 13 minutes of glinting sitar spangles and brooding Moog fugues. It’s a totally hypnotic tone poem in Sanskrit and analog circuitry and a soundtrack for your most profound and chillest hallucinogen experience. “Dance Indra” is what you might hear in the hippest Indian restaurant in the Western world: a composition of ceremonial grandeur celebrating humanity’s highest emotions and most harmonious sentiments. The album closes with “Raghupati,” an exultant piece powered by celebratory Hindi chants, allegedly from 10 of Shankar’s friends, in praise of the deity Rama. It induces a glorious sense of well-being, and as a bonus, it’s powered by a funky rhythm.

Ananda Shankar is the rare East-West fusion record that works in the discotheque and in the temple. Bow down to its hedonistic holiness. -Buckley Mayfield

Shocking Blue “At Home” (Pink Elephant, 1969)

In America, Shocking Blue were archetypal one-hit wonders. And that one hit, “Venus,” is a definitive slab of sexy, late-’60s psych-pop that still gets the juices flowing. But you’d best believe these Dutch party-starters had much more to recommend them than that one global smash/ promiscuous chart-topper.

At Home offers a motherlode of instant charmers that encompass the familiar tropes of the era’s accessible end of the trippy-rock spectrum. Robbie van Leeuwen was an expert craftsman of indelible hooks, which he embroidered with acoustic and electric guitars, sitar, bass, and drums that unerringly hit the sweet spot between radiofriendliness and opium-den seductiveness. Vocalist Mariska Veres imbued his catchy-ass compositions with a domineering sensuality that made every listener feel like a lust object.

It would be overstatement to call Shocking Blue an “important” band, but they remain a remarkably durable font of pleasure-inducing songs. “Love Machine” is a deceptively funky, frilly Doors-like ditty that contains the immortal line, “the love machine makes the world turn around.” Truth bomb. “Poor Boy” is the closest SB got to a legit psychedelic freakout, while “Love Buzz” laid the foundation for Nirvana to do a bang-up job with this slinky, lubricious come-on of sike-pop on Bleach, making van Leeuwen an even richer man. Shit, dude deserves all the lucre he can get with tunes as mesmerizingly musky as this.

“Acka Raga” is the album’s peak and my favorite SB song. It’s a sitar-laced instrumental that epitomizes a certain strain of East-West intermingling that was flourishing at the end of the psychedelic ’60s. Shocking Blue pack so much erotic exotica into a little more than three minutes here. You could loop “Acka Raga” for a couple of hours and soundtrack a spectacular orgy with it. (Please invite me to that.)

At Home is a great place to start your Shocking Blue adventure. It’s fairly light entertainment, but damn, does it have staying power. (Trivia: Seattle boasted a Shocking Blue tribute band for many years called the Daemon Lovers. They were fantastic.) -Buckley Mayfield

Secos E Molhados “Secos E Molhados” (Continental, 1973)

Secos E Molhados recorded six albums, but I’ve only heard this one, their 1973 debut. Because Secos E Molahdos is so great, maybe I don’t need to her anything else by this Brazilian group. Oftentimes, bands peak with their first full-length and their discography becomes a case of diminishing returns. I suppose curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll eventually check out later releases. But for now, Secos E Molhados will keep me sated until further notice.

From the first seconds of the opening tune, “Sangue Latino,” you’re struck by the excellent production values here. Willi Verdaguer’s bass tones have the richness of Dave Richmond’s playing on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson (pretty much the gold standard, along with anything massaged or thumbed out by Herbie Flowers and Larry Graham), and it contrasts extremely well with Ney Matogrosso’s countertenor, which initially fooled me into thinking he was a woman. Now that I know his gender, Ney comes across as a Freddie Mercury-esque presence on the mic—and one of the best goddamned singers I’ve ever heard.

More proof comes from Matogrosso’s unbelievably gorgeous lead vocal and from João Ricardo and Gerson Conrad’s dulcet backing vox on the acoustic guitar ballad “O Patrão Nosso De Cada Dia.” Even better is the heartbreakingly pulchritudinous “Rosa De Hiroshima,” a sparse folk-rock ballad whose emotional resonance could make a dictator cry. For variation, there are the strutting, rollicking glam-rock of “O Vira” and “Mulher Barriguda” the latter of which boasts strafing harmonica and manic piano, summoning the over-the-top energy of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”

Secos E Molhados peaks on “Amor” and “Assim Assado.” The former is my go-to Secos E Molhados jam in DJ sets, as it possesses an ascending, sidewinding bass line and vocal harmonies that caress your frontal lobes like the tenderest lover does your nether regions, all while being festively funky. Yes, the erotic imagery is necessary for this almost unbearably sensual song, which stands up to anything by peak-era Os Mutantes. Another DJ favorite, “Assim Assado” is spiced by quirky ocarina motifs (by Zé Rodrix of Som Imaginário), fuzzed-out, Blue Cheer-like guitar soloing, and a melody that arches and curves like a swan’s neck.

Fala” provides an ideal note on which to close the album—a ballad that gathers momentum and orchestral sweep as it goes, soaring to the vanishing point with the grace and grandeur of a bald eagle. That Dick Hyman-esque synth solo that squiggles into earshot, though, steers the piece toward a surprisingly charming and absurd tangent.

Secos E Molhados isn’t as well known as other classic Brazilian albums by Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé, but it deserves to be worshipped just as fervently as those essential documents of South American music. -Buckley Mayfield

Paul Horn “Inside” (Epic, 1968)

Inside is a classic chillout album hiding in plain sight in nearly every bargain bin in America. Recorded in 1968 inside the Taj Mahal while flautist Paul Horn was traveling with the Beatles (nice work if you can get it), Inside sold over a million copies—and it seems as if most of those ended up getting sold back to shops. Idiots…

Regarded as one of the first recordings to combine New Age and world-fusion music, the record is distinguished by its 28-second sustained echo, which lends everything a spaced-out, cavernous feeling that’s supremely calming. You like calm, yeah?

“Prologue/Inside” begins with album with sacred chants before the main flute motif enters, an enchanting filigree that the underground hip-hop collective So-Called Artists sampled for their track “I Don’t Know How To Start This.” (It sounds amazing in that context, too.) “Mantra I/Meditation” combines male chants and tranquil flute figures that gently waft into amorphous formations to evoke profound contemplation and serene isolation. This is music to play when you need to decompress and focus on the essentials in your life—like achieving inner peace, aligning your chakras, or organizing your record collection.

“Agra” was sampled by both Prefuse 73 (“Afternoon Love-In”) and Mr Scruff (“Jazz Potato”)—not a bad feat for a forlorn hymn of ethereal poignancy. “Shah Jahan” is an ideal soundtrack to a gentle massage, as Horn transforms the flute into a conduit to the deepest reservoirs of tabula rasa mind state. He saves his most complex piece, “Ustad Isa/Mantra III,” for last, but it’s still a slow-motion floating dream of a composition that freezes time’s frenetic forward motion to a golden stasis.

In sum, Inside is like a long, easy sigh that you dread to hear end. That it came out on a major label shows you how open-minded big corporations were 50 years ago. Either that or the execs were on much stronger drugs… -Buckley Mayfield

Mustafa Özkent Ve Orkestrasi “Gençlik İle Elele” (Evren, 1973)

After much listening and thought, I have to conclude that Mustafa Özkewnt VE Orkestrasi’s Gençlik İle Elele is a perfect record, a paragon of Turkish funk. Its 10 instrumental tracks average a little over three minutes in length, but they’re so rhythmically tight and tonally and texturally fascinating, that they feel like teases. Every element here—swarming, swirling John Medeski-esque soul-jazz organ, trebly, frilly-tendrilled guitar, in-the-pocket drums, furious bongo- and conga-slapping and other hand-percussion accents—is laser-focused to get your head bobbing, your hips swiveling, and your loins flooded with do-it fluid. So, yeah… a perfect record.

This LP, as you may surmise, contains loads of chunky funk that’s ripe for sampling by enterprising hip-hop producers; it’s a veritable breakbeat orgy. But according to online authority whosampled.com, only four Mustafa Özkent tracks have been sampled. That seems low for an album of such bumpin’ bounty. Not surprisingly, Madlib’s brother Oh No used two songs from Gençlik in his own work; surprisingly, Madlib himself hasn’t plundered it… not yet, anyway.

The concision and airtight beat science displayed by Mustafa Özkent and company recall the Meters’ disciplined approach to funk. Of course, being Turkish, Mustaf Özkent sound a tad more non-Western in their melodies and timbres. (According to Andy Votel’s liner notes in the 2006 B-Music reissue, Özkent modified his guitars with extra frets to make it sound more like a saz or a lute.) And that makes a big difference with regard to the stunning impact this album makes on the Western listener. All that being said, the phenomenal bass solo on “Dolana Dolana” would make Larry Graham give two thwapping thumbs up.

Reissued again by Portland label Jackpot in 2016, Gençlik İle Elele—which means Hand In Hand With Youthshould never fall out of print, nor stray far from your DJ bag, if indeed you DJ. Hell, this record just may inspire to start working the 1s and 2s yourself… -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

Joe Henderson “The Elements” (Milestone, 1974)

 

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Would you look at this lineup renowned jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson assembled here… Alice Coltrane on piano, harp, harmonium, and tamboura; Charlie Haden on bass; Michael White on violin and flutes; Leon Ndugu Chancler on drums; Kenneth Nash on a wide, international array of percussion instruments. All of these badasses converged to create a Henderson’s most rewarding album of the ’70s—if not his entire career.

Divided into the four elements, as it says on the tin, the album possesses four distinct moods on each track, all of them worth their extended durations. “Fire” coasts in on a buoyant Latin shuffle and bop-wise instrumental interplay, occasionally blooming into full-throated ebullience. This is not the fire music you may have been expecting. Yes, it’s pleasant and full of Henderson’s mellifluous blowing, but it’s not the barn-burner at which the title hints. “Air” wafts into the region of Alice Coltrane’s Ptah The El Daoud, on which Henderson also played. This is elegantly turbulent jazz bolstered by the timbres of African percussion, as Henderson, Coltrane, White, and Haden engage in a gregarious conversation in which each makes fascinating assertions.

Side 2 is where things really get interesting. On “Water,” Coltrane’s tamboura purrs ominously and Henderson’s sax seductively warbles warpedly over a gently bubbling percussion foundation. “Water” is—wait for it—fucking deep. Henderson saves the best for last with “Earth,” which is quite simply one of the funkiest cuts ever, as Ndugu and Haden lock into a groove that you never want to end. If that weren’t enough, Alice’s tamboura arcs into a transcendent halo of chakra-vibrating tones while Henderson concocts what may be the most memorable and melismatic motif of his career. At another point, White gets off a mantric violin solo that sounds plucked rather than bowed, while later in the piece, Nash recites a meditation that contends “time is only now” while Henderson intones ultimate peace vibes on flute.

If you need further confirmation that “Earth” is a kozmigroov jam for the ages, note that Four Tet included it in all its 13-minute glory for his 2004 LateNightTales mix. Truth be told, “Earth” should go on every mix ever. It exemplifies a certain mystical strain in jazz while radiating an overwhelming sensuality. You can almost imagine it fitting onto Miles Davis’ On The Corner, but it’s somehow too sexy even for that libidinous masterpiece. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Charanjit Singh “Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat” (His Master’s Voice, 1983)

R-2108668-1460535363-6734.jpeg There’s something to be said about self-explanatory titles. They help the critic and, more importantly, enable the listener to get a grip instantly on what’s happening within the record’s grooves.

That being said, what Indian Bollywood session musician Charanjit Singh achieves on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat is extraordinary, in that nobody had ever attempted to merge those genres. What emerges on this 1983 LP is a primitive form of acid house, a few years before the Chicago pioneers of that club-music style had conceived the Roland TB-303 squelch and TB-808 beats that propelled it into a futuristic phenomenon in the mid ’80s among heads attuned to underground electronic music. Yeah, Mr. Singh beat the Windy City producers to the punch, but it’s only since about 2010—thanks to Bombay Connection’s reissue—that anyone outside a small circle of cognoscenti in his home country had an inkling what the hell was going on in this synth sorcerer’s lab.

All 10 ragas here pump and snake around the 4-on-the-floor 808 beats for about five minutes; they’re at once functional and sui generis, with the ancient melodies of classical Indian music getting synthesized into bizarre, ultra-vivid convolutions that sound so wrong they’re right. Purists will be outraged, but outraging purists is never a bad thing. “Raga Lalit,” for instance, is a gradually accelerating gyroscope of spangly, fibrillating, simulated santoor tones that causes a vertiginous rush. The rest of the album basically wrings subtle variations on this theme. If this is proto-acid house, it’s proto-acid house with a PhD in instrumental virtuosity. The mercurial motifs that swirl around the über-basic rhythms lift this project into utterly sublime, distinctive realms.

Even if you’ve never had the slightest desire to bust a move to acid house or haven’t the slightest clue about raga’s sonic intricacies, you have to respect the ingenuity Singh displays on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. It’s not every decade that you encounter such originality, you know. -Buckley Mayfield

23 Skidoo “Seven Songs” (Fetish, 1982)

 

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Funk got really weird in the UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, Medium Medium, Cabaret Voltaire, Rip Rig + Panic, and, to a lesser degree, Pigbag were all finding interesting ways to mutate the American art form in their own severely agitational, Anglo manner. London’s 23 Skidoo were right in the thick of that heady era of funk reinvention, and Seven Songs was their crowning achievement. Here they mastered a sort of funk concrète and wasteland ambience that suggested a bizarre meeting between the Meters and Throbbing Gristle. (That group’s Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson co-produced the record with Ken Thomas.)

Seven Songs spectacularly launches with “Kundalini,” which starts with what sounds like a Theremin being finger-banged and a rendition of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then comes a mad conflagration of death-march kickdrums, rapid-fire bongos, Tarzan hollers, and dudes grimacing commands like “Move me, get down, spread!” and “Rise!” This is sex music of extreme urgency and chaos. And, as the title indicates, it’s writhing with the sort of primal, libidinous energy that accumulates at the base of the spine… if you believe in Hindu philosophy and that intense branch of yoga. Fuck yeah.

This amazing LP-opener leads into the ultra-tight funk sparkplug “Vegas El Bandito,” which sounds like a lean, late-’60s James Brown instrumental, but Latinized and dubbed out, with Alex Turnbull’s trumpet dispersing into Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis territory. That trumpet part gets delayed and dispersed into a cauldron of heavily FX’d guitar and ghostly drones of unknown origin on “Mary’s Operation.”

The desolate, post-industrial scrapyard dub of “New Testament” recalls “Super 16” on Neu! 2, but in the last minute, it transitions into a distant, Zoviet-France trance-out that sets the scene for “IY,” the album’s most flagrant party jam. This bongos-heavy, pell-mell jazz-funk juggernaut makes you want to have tantric orgasms and overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). The relentless momentum grinds to a near halt with “Porno Base,” in which uptight Englishwoman Diana Mitford natters on about the benefits of young people avoiding pleasure while a reverbed bass plucks and chains rattle in the foreground. It’s an early-’80s British thing; you wouldn’t understand.

The EP closes with“Quiet Pillage,” a sly homage/subversion of Martin Denny’s exotica landmark “Quiet Village,” its idiosyncratic percussive timbres, strange animal and bird sounds, whistles, and thumb piano making the record feel as if it’s staggering to the runoff groove with a dazed expression. What a baffling and oddly satisfying way to finish things.

23 Skidoo went on to cut some other interesting records—1983’s Coup EP (the Chemical Brothers’ pilfered its bass part on “Block Rockin’ Beats”), 1984’s Urban Gamelan, and 2000’s 23 Skidoo—but their best ideas cohered most fortuitously on Seven Songs. There’s nothing else like it. -Buckley Mayfield