Jive Time Turntable
The late German synth master Conrad Schnitzler is one of kosmische electronic music’s most interesting secret weapons. He helped to lay the foundation for deep, spacey, and turbulent soundscapes while playing in the early incarnations of Cluster (then known as Kluster) and Tangerine Dream (Schnitzler only appeared on that popular group’s 1970 debut album, Electronic Meditation), as well as in Eruption. Yet he remained strictly a cult figure and often went ignored in documentaries and histories of German music.
Wriggling free of band settings in the early ’70s, Schnitzler set out on a madly productive solo career that spanned over four decades. You could pick any 30 or so releases by him and discover a panoply of infernal and transcendental sounds illuminating each one. Even near the end of his momentous life, Schnitzler was creating challenging music that put to shame the efforts of those a quarter of his age.
Rot (German for “Red”) is Schnitzler’s first true solo LP, and what a debut it is. Symmetrically divided into 20-minute sidelong jams, it announced the presence of a diabolically talented composer. “Meditation” begins with a keening drone—a demonic busy telephone signal, practically—that portends very bad and very interesting things. Gradually, Schnitzler inserts a menagerie of acutely contoured, haywire synth disruptions to increase the chaos factor and to keep you on the knife-edge of your sanity. The effect over “Meditation”’s duration is that of a civilization incrementally unravelling. The eventful turbulence—and that persistent, penetrating drone—occurring throughout this piece is anything but meditative. Rather, Schnitzler takes the molecular tonal catastrophes of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain soundtrack and magnifies them to madness-inducing intensities.
“Krautrock” resembles some of American Buchla innovator Morton Subotnick’s discombobulating bleepathons, but Schnitzler, as is his wont, generates a more swarming and sinister aura than the creator of Silver Apples Of The Moon. (Trivia: Faust’s “Krautrock” came out in 1973, too.) This “Krautrock” sounds little like that of the genre’s best-known figures, but in its own peculiar, mad-scientist way, the track’s as psychedelic as the first Kraftwerk LP, Organisation’s Tone Float, and Seesselberg’s Synthetik 1. It’s a relentless cascade of metallic, insectoid timbres and nightmarish synth howls and wails. To its core, “Krautrock” is radio-unfriendly and an effective way to make a crowd of normcore folks scatter. But I love it to death.
The craziest thing about Rot is that Schnitzler had to release it himself. Apparently, no record company wanted to take a chance on such bizarre, uncompromising music. Thankfully, a few labels since have had the brains to re-release it and keep it relatively available. You should make it your life’ s mission to obtain this record. The excellent Bureau B imprint reissued Rot in 2012, so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down a vinyl copy. -Buckley Mayfield
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
Laraaji’s rising profile over the last five years offers at least one glimmer of hope in an increasingly bleak world, proof that perhaps we as a species are not doomed yet. The New Age demigod (real name Edward Larry Gordon), who was discovered in the late ’70s playing his custom-built electric zither in Washington Square Park by Brian Eno, has seen several of his classic LPs reissued, embarked on frequent tours, and collaborated with Blues Control for RVNG Intl.’s excellent FRKWYS series, much to the delight of a new generation of sonic questers who crave feathery levitation. Among the stream of re-releases is Essence/Universe, which All Saints reissued in 2013. It is both essential and universal.
Consisting of two sidelong 29-minute pieces, Essence/Universe—which features the co-production and treatments of Richard Ashman—proffers one of the purest expressions of blissful ambient drift humankind has yet conceived. It’s not at all surprising that Eno would champion Laraaji; in fact, one of Eno’s greatest humanitarian deeds might’ve been his production of Day Of Radiance, which the Englishman selected for his Ambient series on Editions E.G. Records in 1980, and which brought deserved attention to his charge.
Back to the matter at hand… “Essence” wafts, drones, and tinkles in gentle fluctuations, occupying a narrow bandwidth within the aural spectrum, yet inhabiting it with an angelic grace that’s positively therapeutic. This is holy minimalism untethered to any belief system. It’s not a million kilometers from Laraaji’s mentor’s Music For Airports or Discreet Music or Fripp & Eno’s Evening Star in its ethereal grandeur. “Universe” continues in a similar vein, cocooning the listener in wisps of cloudstuff. Whereas many New Age artists err on the side of innocuousness and sentimentality, Laraaji soars above such frailties, achieving an atmospheric clarity and tonal nobility that seem to be an infinitely renewable source of holistic wellness.
Essence/Universe really is a special record, and it seemingly has no beginning or end—just an endlessly restorative middle that will keep you balanced for as long as you let it. -Buckley Mayfield
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
The impact this EP had when I first heard it in 1981 was immediate and ecstatic. Made in the Bronx by the four Scroggins sisters and a conga-playing friend named Tito Libran, ESG’s eponymous debut release shot vital energy and joy into the veins of anyone with a mind attuned to fundamental, funky groove science. Music this elemental, earthy, and efficacious should be sold in health-food stores. ESG is a family affair, and it is so righteous.
The music of ESG (stands for Emerald Sapphire & Gold) succeeds through its ruthlessly stripped-down attack that privileges drums, congas, bass and vocals that seduce and sass you with equal measure. The six songs on ESG offer the purest distillation of this influential band’s sound, in which nearly every element strives to get you moving as sexily as possible. You’ve surely heard “UFO” sampled in hundreds of hip-hop and dance-pop tracks, but the funny thing about that is it’s ESG’s least conventionally danceable cut. But producers honed in on that eerie, distorted guitar whorl, surely because it’s redolent of pop culture’s idea of an alien presence. Unsurprisingly, it became the default trope for “woo woo” creepiness in clubland throughout the ’80s.
If you wanna instantly draw in a listener, you could do much worse than “You’re No Good,” a song about conflicted lust whose hip-swiveling beats seem to be tumbling down the stairs, louchely and elegantly. “Moody” conjures hyper, dubbed-out rhythmic legerdemain, with speedy congas contrasting with the trap kit’s stoic funk foundation. Singer Renee Scroggins is in peak coquettish form here. With “UFO,” ESG again forge another downward-sloping rhythm that slaloms with Renee’s guitar feedback sculpted into Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shock-tactic strings. Deborah Scroggins’ bass line is superbly economical in its lugubrious descent, while all around it coheres into an atmosphere of piercing menace. (Note: Factory Records’ studio savant Martin Hannett produced this enchanting trio of songs, as he did Basement 5’s In Dub, which I reviewed last week—coincidence!)
The EP’s B-side consists of three live recordings that prove ESG could slay onstage, too. “Earn It” pushes a staunch work ethic lyrically while purveying the leanest, meanest Liquid Liquid-like rhythm matrix heard outside of a Liquid Liquid record, thanks in part to excellent use of claves. “ESG” boasts yet more manic claves, chants of the title, a snaky bass line, and a full-tilt beat orgy that’ll get your heart bursting. Same goes for “Hey!”—sans the claves. After hearing these skeletal wonders, you’ll likely find all other music needlessly ornate and fussy.
ESG went on to cut some other great records, of course, but they came right out of the gate fully formed as one of history’s most efficient and fun funk units on this initial effort. ESG is proving to be one of life’s simple, eternal pleasures. -Buckley Mayfield
I’ve been frequenting record stores a few times a week for decades, and I’ve noticed that after the early ’80s, records by the British avant-dub group Basement 5 have become super-scarce. Which is a pity. (It’s also a pity that I didn’t have the foresight to grab those B5 releases when I had the chance.) Their idiosyncratic fusion of post-punk, dub, and strident political commentary still sounds vital 37 years after the fact. The only Basement 5 vinyl I’ve found in the wild, In Dub, offers a concise slice of the multi-racial band’s idiosyncratic take on a sound that falls somewhere between African Head Charge and PiL (B5 drummer Richard Dudanski played with the latter).
Produced by the band and Factory Records studio wizard Martin Hannett, In Dub includes studio reconstructions of five B5 tracks from their 1965-1980 LP and various singles. The A1 track, “Paranoiaclaustrophobia: Dub,” represents the EP’s peak. It stands out thanks to its psychedelic-as-hell dispersion of the original version of “No Ball Games”’s woozy, hypnotic skank. On top of that, “Paranoiaclaustrophobia Dub” is threaded with a radiantly crunchy guitar riff that’s mirrored by one of those irrepressible, rubbernecking bass lines. I’ve spun this one out in many a DJ gig, and it always makes heads look pleasantly disoriented. Plus, it sounds killer at 33 or 45. “Work Dub” converts the boisterous ska bruiser “Hard Work” into a peppy stepper with a pneumatic bass figure that’ll get you hoppin’ gleefully.
The jagged, oblongly danceable post-punk of “Games Dub” weirdly evokes a wonkier Liquid Liquid, while “Immigrant Dub” (a reworking of “Immigration”) is a fairly traditional dub, albeit scarred with caustic, Sonny Sharrockian guitar radiation. The EP ends not with a bang, but a winner. There’s nothing horror-streaked about this “Holocaust Dub”; rather, it’s a cyclical wonder that wouldn’t sound out of place on PiL’s Metal Box—right after “Bad Baby,” perhaps.
Given our era’s love of most things post-punk and dub, it’s mystifying why no label’s done a reissue of Basement 5’s small but perfectly proportioned catalog. Let’s hope this review spurs some action on that front. (Hey, a humble blogger can dream…) -Buckley Mayfield
Rip Rig + Panic should be way better known than they are. A British ensemble of wild eccentrics fronted by Don Cherry’s stepdaughter, Neneh Cherry, Rip Rig + Panic named themselves after a Rahsaan Roland Kirk album. And in their own idiosyncratic manner, they carved out as bold an artistic manifesto as the legendary blind jazzman did.
Throughout the first half of the ’80s, RR+P—whose members also played with the Pop Group, New Age Steppers, Slits, African Head Charge, and PiL—overturned the conventions of funk, soul, jazz while fusing them in unconventional ways. Although they released three sporadically brilliant full-lengths, RR+P really flourished on their EPs and singles. Case in point is this crazy 12-inch from the group’s early days. I remember when “Bob Hope Takes Risks” came out, the British weekly music mags lost their shit to it. Then when I copped it, I proceeded to do the same. It was a rare example of extravagant hype being lived up to.
The seven-minute A-side—a paean to some sort of phantasmagorical goddess—gets all your senses tingling from the get-go, with Gareth Sanger scatting and Cherry singing, “She’s got that stuff in her eyes, she’s got it, she’s got it/It’s something you never can buy, she’s got it, she’s got it!” as Sean Oliver’s tunneling bass line and Sanger’s strident string and horn arrangements give the song a strange levitation. It’s a jazz-funk juggernaut with vertiginous dynamics, animated by suspenseful violin/viola/cello motifs that wouldn’t sound out of place in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mark Springer’s mad, quicksilver piano runs and marauding trombone and tenor saxophone create a brassy forcefield that makes you want to overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). It’s a scandal that this track isn’t played at every ’80s DJ night in the world. Hell, maybe heads still ain’t ready for this sort of baffling club-music surrealism.
The B-side can’t help sounding a bit anticlimactic after the ultimate show-stopper, “Bob Hope Takes Risks.” But “Hey Mr. E! A Gran Grin With A Snake Of Smile” ain’t no slouch, either. A much more overtly jazz-oriented piece, “Hey Mr. E!” recalls ethno-jazz trumpeter Don Cherry (who occasionally sat in with RR+P) at his most manic. Bruce Smith’s drums and percussion work shine, as he generates a roiling and tumbling foundation over which the rest of the band stain the stereo field with magmatic Pharoah Sanders-esque sax, snaky, Charlie Haden-like bass, and Sanger’s insane-asylum babble. It’s like a more abstracted take on Pigbag’s “Getting Up,” and therefore very worthwhile. But, as I said, “Bob Hope Takes Risks”—snide title and all—is where the real thrills and spills happen.
(It would be nice if some adventurous label reissued Rip Rig + Panic’s entire catalog on wax. But I’ve been saying that for like two decades, to no avail.) -Buckley Mayfield
With only a little glibness, one could call Terje Rypdal’s second LP as a leader a Scandinavian counterpart to the best electric-era Miles Davis output (On The Corner, Get Up With It, A Tribute To Jack Johnson) And it’s not just me who thinks this. A sage critic at the British magazine Melody Maker suggested that Miles should’ve tapped the Norwegian guitarist to replace the departing John McLaughlin from his band; alas, that never happened, and we are all the poorer for its non-occurrence. Regardless, Rypdal went on to cut some fantastic records with Germany’s revered ECM label, including this phenomenal sophomore effort.
I first heard Terje Rypdal on Kinski guitarist Chris Martin’s KBCS Ampbuzz show in the mid ’00s. Martin played the album’s lead-off track, “Keep It Like That—Tight,” and I was instantly mesmerized. That cut is a highlight, for sure. Rypdal keeps it sparse and suspenseful over its 12 minutes, using wah-wah to accentuate his contemplative guitar epiphanies while the bass and drums form a Cubist strain of funk that’s akin to On The Corner‘s, except much more introverted and subdued. When Jan Garbarek’s saxophone enters the fray, it adds an element of mellifluous hysteria. Near the end, Rypdal jams out a serpentine, Larry Coryell-esque solo that raises the temperature in the room by 20 degrees.
The album then downshifts over the next three tracks, delving into what could be called “chamber-jazz ambient.” “Rainbow” is a beautiful, string-powered sigh that’s tinctured with tantalizing bells while “Lontano II” becomes a slowly revolving vortex of delayed guitar and bass, generating an austere and ominous feeling. The LP’s longest song, the nearly 16-minute “Electric Fantasy,” features the distressingly angelic chants of Inger Lise Rypdal, which cast a spellbinding chill over an space-jazz meditation that anticipates the forlorn atmospheres of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” while also foreshadowing Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack. Rypdal’s crystalline calligraphy and excoriating eruptions à la Lard Free’s Xavier Bauilleret spar with Bobo Stenson’s electric-piano sparkles and Eckehard Fintl’s gorgeous, melancholic oboe lines. A multitude of amazing, intricate gestures pile up in this masterpiece, taking you on a journey to seldom-sojourned realms. “Tough Enough” ends Terje Rypdal with an unexpected deconstruction of early Fleetwood Mac-style blues-rock, before transitioning into a casual homage to Miles’ Tribute To Jack Johnson. Keep ’em guessing, Terje!
For many listeners (including this one), Terje Rypdal represents the peak of the coolly fiery fusion guitarist’s storied career. It also ranks as one of the most enthralling entries in ECM Records’ vast, venerable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield
Minimalist composition seems easy to do, but in actuality it requires a rigorous focusing on only the most crucial notes/tones to achieve that elusive sense of transcendence heard in the genre’s greatest specimens. What constitutes “crucial” varies for everyone, of course, but over the decades a consensus has built up around a coterie of composers who most consistently and rewardingly attain this level of sublimity. Count American keyboardist/composer Charlemagne Palestine among them.
Strumming Music is the eccentric performer’s second album. He recorded it in his New York City loft 43 years ago, and it has retained a timeless allure ever since. (I first heard it in 1995, when Felmay reissued it on CD.) That release bears liner notes describing his methodology: “Strumming Music [utilizes] a note alternation technique with the sustain pedal of the piano constantly depressed. This technique allows the undampened strings to resonate and compound with each other creating complex mixtures of pure strummed sonority and their overtones. No electronics or special tunings are utilized; only the finest instrument available today, the Rolls Royce of pianos, the Bösendorfer of Vienna.”
The 52-minute piece begins with gentle tintinnabulation from Palestine’s beloved Bösendorfer, generating a sound like wind chimes blessed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Gradually, a contrapuntal cluster of chords chop chops over the foundational tolling and then phantom drones start to creep into earshot.
As the album progresses, the music intensifies, accruing tonal girth—the aural equivalent of a snowball rolling down a mountain. What started out as seeming orderly and poised ever so perceptibly morphs into a whirling orb of frantic strumming. The deeper into the composition you get, the more it makes your third ear spin, until around 42 minutes in, it’s completely dizzy. At that point, the music’s forcefulness begins to diminish, although a thrumming kineticism still persists. In the last few minutes, Palestine returns to the beginning’s swift tinkling. Symmetry! Closure!
Any way you slice it, Strumming Music is a stunning physical and mental feat, requiring nearly superhuman concentration, discipline, and stamina. (I wouldn’t be surprised if mercurial Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk took inspiration from it.) Yes, Strumming Music is an exhausting listen, but an extremely stimulating one, too.
(Aguirre Records reissued Strumming Music on vinyl earlier this year. It would be a mistake not to grab it ASAP.)
I’ve heard a lot of mysterious, strange records in my life, but few can surpass Mnemonists’ Horde for sheer baffling otherness. Rarely has the term “nothing is as it seems” been more applicable to a piece of music. An obscure collective of musicians and visual artists in Colorado, Mnemonists—who later morphed into the slightly more comprehensible but still very challenging Biota—conjure a bizarre soundworld in which it’s nearly impossible to discern how the sounds are being generated and what instruments are being deployed. People who care about such things will feel extremely itchy while listening to Horde, but it’s best to just let the underworldly noises wash over you, like silty water from a cave on Mars. Let your subconscious have a terrifying joy ride for once, why don’t you?
Horde contains 10 tracks, but for all practical purposes it’s one monstrous (de)composition. Heard from a certain angle, the album sounds like a riot in an insane asylum or an avian slaughterhouse that somehow has a train running through it. You can understand why Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton would love this album, as it captures the nightmare logic and unsettling surrealism that marked so many of his own releases.
Heard from another angle, Horde seems like the handiwork of a chamber orchestra who appear to be undergoing some sort of mental crisis. Thankfully, the players are all stalwart avant-gardists who know how to contour madness into scintillating torrents of aural legerdemain. (I’m not sure what that means, either, but if you immerse yourself in Horde long enough, that sentence may cohere into comprehensibility.)
The 1998 CD reissue of Horde that I own lists the instruments used. Contrasting with familiar ones like guitar, sax, clarinet, piano, cello, and double bass are shawm, crumhorn, “processing,” and “tape work.” It’s the latter two—guided mainly by Bill Sharp and Mark Derbyshire—that likely have most influenced the primordial soup of disorienting improv brewing on Horde.
This is experimental music at its most gnomic and subtly horrifying. Listening to Horde totally sober is an ordeal; experiencing it under the influence of a hallucinogen could lead to unparalleled revelations or, more likely, a descent into insanity. But what a way to go… -Buckley Mayfield
(Little) Jerry Williams is one of those stalwart R&B/soul songwriters/performers who had some modest success in the ’50s and ’60s with solid but fairly conventional tunes. And then in the late ’60s our hero ingested some LSD, the ’70s commenced, and Williams became Swamp Dogg and took his music into much more eccentric and interesting territory. His debut full-length under that alias announced the arrival of a soul maverick. Total Destruction To Your Mind is a righteous cult classic that’s aged shockingly well.
The record peaks early with the dynamite 1-2 spiked punch of the title track and “Synthetic World.” The former’s an unstoppable burbling funk party jam fueled by liquid wah-wah guitar, bold horn flourishes, and Williams psychedelic-soul vocals redolent of Otis Redding’s Southern-fried throatiness. The latter’s laid-back funk with a country-folk lilt in the swampy (yes!) vein of Tony Joe White.
The two Joe South covers are fab, because Joe South was unfuckwithable in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Williams tackles “Redneck,” a sarcastic dig at bigoted white guys, and he really sinks his fangs into South’s good-ol’-boy chug with rollicking piano and horns that want to get you drunk. “These Are Not My People” is funky folk boasting a vibrant, catchy-as-hell melody; this song should’ve been a hit for both the composer and for Mr. Dogg.
A couple of other highlights: “If I Die Tomorrow (I’ve Lived Tonight)” brings more Redding-style testifying, just oozing real-shit emotion while “Sal-A-Faster” offers lean, menacing funk akin to Whitfield-Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (think the Temptations’ version). And “I Was Born Blue” proves that Williams could render a heart-shattering ballad with one of the greatest key changes in soul music. It’s pathos overload, not unlike that in the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke.” It gave my throat lump goose bumps.
Alive Records reissued Total Destruction To Your Mind in 2013, doing the world a humanitarian service that you’d do well to not let go to waste. -Buckley Mayfield