Ambient

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

Led by guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smyth, Gong perfectly threaded the needle between prog rock and psychedelia during their early-/mid-’70s peak. The group’s ability to blend the whimsical, the absurd, and the cosmic culminated in their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). Composed of British and French musicians, Gong combined some of the most interesting traits of both countries’ progressive scenes, creating fetching melodies, funky and jazzy grooves, and deep space excursions. One can hear these elements and more coalesce into a stunning zenith on You.

The album flows like a brilliant DJ set on purest LSD. After two short, inconsequential pieces of goofy space-out and zany prog shenanigans, You really kicks into gear with “Magick Mother Invocation.” With its gong hit, calming “om”s, Smyth’s beatific sighs, and Tim Blake’s arcing, lysergic synth ripples, the song creates the sensation of flipping end over end in space. And how often does that happen?

This heavenly drift sets the scene for “Master Builder”; everything’s been, uh, building to this masterpiece. It’s a tom-tom-heavy astral-jazz-funk mega jam of monumental dimensions, with Allen’s Leslie-speakered vocals adding tasty frosting. Drummer Pierre Moerlen, bassist Mike Howlett, guitarist Steve Hillage, synthesist Blake, and saxophonist Didier Malherbe are all on peak form. A flaming wig-out for the ages, “Master Builder” makes you feel as if you’re on all of the drugs at once. The beneficent comedown after that mindfuck is “A Sprinkling Of Clouds,” a methodical, burbling-synth explosion. This one merely makes you feel as if you’re on most of the drugs and foreshadows chillout-room ambient music by about 16 years, before the beats and bass lines start punching out the stars and the music starts to emulate early Pink Floyd in their most aggressively extraterrestrial zones. An abrupt mood shift occurs on “Perfect Mystery,” which twirls into jaunty, Zappa-esque prog territory, as Allen and Smyth natter on about “cops at the door” and “octave doctors” and “middle eyes.” The xylophone work here is bonkers.

Side 2 goes deep, y’all. One of Gong’s most adventurous tracks, the 10-plus-minute “The Isle Of Everywhere” is totally devoid of the wackiness that occasionally mars their music. Smyth’s opiated chants and murmurs intertwine with Blake’s synths while Howlett’s and Moerlen’s suavely funky groove never stops ascending. Malherbe’s sax solo is one of the most flavorful and sophisticated in rock annals; Hillage’s guitar solo is a serpentine wonder that would make Larry Coryell and Peter Green jealous. I’m high as fuck just listening to this on my headphones on a Tuesday night in the middle of a pandemic.

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” is a jolly continuation of “Isle”’s interstellar trek. Allen jibber-jabbers as if he’s auditioning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus before settling into more conventional space-rock vocal mode. The band locks into a centrifugal groove that morphs into a zonked waltz, then downshifts into a “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” creep, filigreed with poignant, trilling flute. Contrary to the title, I think I did blow my trip forever.

In the end, Gong are You, and you are Gong. -Buckley Mayfield

The Art Of Noise “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” (ZTT, 1984)

The Art Of Noise’s debut album has the air of a Dadaist art prank (orchestrated by NME journalist and propaganda minister Paul Morley) mixed with the savvy production of a prog-rock/synth-pop genius (Trevor Horn of Yes and Buggles fame), bolstered by the keyboard mastery of composer Anne Dudley and the studio ingenuity of programmer J.J. Jeczalik and engineer Gary Langan. Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? Is not great all the way through, but at its best, the album’s a brash exhibition of sonic collage and complex mood conjuring.

“A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)” establishes the Art Of Noise’s exceptional affinity for brutalist beat science, ominous synthetic orchestrations and atmospheres, and deeply poignant melodies. It’s this contrast of extremes that makes AON’s music so tantalizing. The group’s first single, “Beat Box (Diversion One),” gets reprised here, and it’s simply one of the most clever minimalist-maximalist dance tracks ever, powered by some of the smashingest beats ever conceived (samples of Yes’ Alan White) all the while keeping the funk factor Empire State Building high. It almost sounds like a novelty tune, but the few well-chosen elements cohere into club classic that’s more Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” on steroids than Laibach. Maybe best of all, it ends on a languorous soul-jazz piano motif that no one saw coming. This is an exemplary use of typically non-musical elements to build memorable sonic collage.

“Close (To The Edit)” stands as the more exciting twin of “Beat Box”; it slams even harder and grooves even funkier, if you can believe it. Seriously, this must have caused beat envy in producers worldwide. Inspired by the spirit of Dada and musique concrète (stuttering car ignition, power saw revving, etc.) and fueled by an unbelievably studly bass line, “Close (To The Edit)” might be Trevor Horn’s crowing achievement in the studio.

I’ll skip over the filler tracks, but note that the other good but lesser cuts include “Who’s Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise)” and “Snapshot.” The former is disorienting, industrial anti-disco, like Swiss electro pranksters Yello with stronger beats and less whimsy while the latter consists of a minute of perky, Buggles-like synth pop.

On “Moments In Love,” AON dispense with the junkyard/factory-floor tomfoolery and get down to the important business of creating a soft, shimmering electro-pop reverie that exquisitely evokes the title over its 10-minute duration. This is Dudley’s shining moment.. Deemed a classic by the Art Of Noise’s most ardent fans, this song’s a cross between 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” It really is that special. -Buckley Mayfield

Tangerine Dream “Phaedra” (Virgin, 1974)

A lot of smart people—and yours truly, too—think Phaedra represents peak Tangerine Dream. With a catalog as vast as this German electronic group’s, you’ll never get a consensus on said peak, but for this blog’s purpose, let’s go with Phaedra.

While I dig the four preceding Tangerine Dream opuses, it always seems like I need stronger drugs to truly understand what the hell’s going on with albums such as Electronic MeditationZeitAtem, and Alpha Centauri. Not so with Phaedra. It’s as if Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann clarified what the group does best and then magnified it to infinity.

The opening sidelong title track is a case in point. It’s a 17-minute masterstroke of oscillations, arpeggios, fibrillations, whooshes, woobs, whistles, and phantom choirs criss-crossing and intertwining across the firmament in dramatic arcs. Ever so subtly, Tangerine Dream’s three VCS 3 synth and Mellotron maestros modulate the sounds to optimize tension and release. I once played “Phaedra” in a large club where I was DJing, and it might’ve been the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a god.

Side 2—which reputedly was accidentally mastered backward—isn’t quite as momentous, but it is great. The Froese composition “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares” exudes an enigmatic orchestral grandeur—which explains why it was used in the 2018 film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Sounding like a harsh meteorological event transpiring in an aviary by the sea, “Mysterious Semblance” is pretty dang disorienting. “Movements Of A Visionary” offers a menagerie of tantalizing tones and timbres—icicle-tinkling, motorized twittering, Doppler effect arpeggios and drones, etc.—to which any sensible person would want to dose. Finally, Baumann’s piece “Sequent ‘C’” closes the record on an elegiac, haunting note.

Tangerine Dream would go on to do a lot more good work—Rubycon, Sorcerer, Thief, Exit, etc.—but none as stunning as Phaedra. -Buckley Mayfield

Edgar Froese “Aqua” (Brain, 1974)

Edgar Froese was on fire in the mid ’70s, both as leader of Tangerine Dream and as a solo artist. For the former, he helmed the super-deep kosmische space-outs of Phaedra and Rubycon, while under his own name he released the ambient classics Aqua and Epsilon In Malaysian Pale. For many people, Aqua was the best work out of all of those classics.

Herr Froese sure knows how to start an album. The 17-minute title track begins with the sound of burbling water, aptly enough, followed soon by a rippling, chirping synth that sounds like a bird panicking in a submarine engine. Right from the get-go it becomes apparent that Aqua is one of those archetypal headphone albums. You need the cans to capture every frosty, frothy detail Froese generates with his keyboard arsenal. (As a bonus, Günther Brunschen applies effects through the “artificial head system.” I don’t know what that is exactly, but it sounds cool as fuck.) As “Aqua” progresses, it really does feel as if you’re floating in gently turbulent waters. Are there planetariums, but for oceans? Well, if there are, “Aqua” needs to be in heavy rotation there. The effect is simultaneously tranquil and troubling—a rare feat.

Things get really deep and ominous with “Panorphelia,” with its bassy synth oscillations pulsing like the vein on a blue whale’s head throughout the whole track, topped by a swirling, Mellotron-like motif that recalls the dramatic tenor of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home,” of all things. (Did you know that a blue whale’s veins are big enough to allow a small child to pass through them? Just don’t let your kids near them, okay?) Where were we? Oh, yeah, “Panorphelia”: If you want to get the crowd moving (toward the exits, in fear), play this killer jam.

For the 15-minute “NGC 891,” Tangerine Dream member Chris Franke provides Moog accompaniment on this weird, imaginary sci-fi soundtrack that’s somewhere between Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Jetsex” and Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain OST. Album-closer “Upland” is a liturgical spasm, sacred music besieged by fibrillating synths that sound like the emissions of grotesque sea life. It’s at once grandiose and unsettling—a hell of a way to peace out of an album.

Unlike a lot of spacey, beatless music, Froese’s flaunts extremely interesting dynamics and timbral fluctuations. On Aqua and many other entries in his catalog, this mensch really takes the listener on a proverbial journey, and it certainly isn’t to anywhere mundane. -Buckley Mayfield

Neu! “Neu! ’75” (Brain, 1975)

Of their indomitable holy trinity of albums, Neu! ’75 tends to be these krautrock legends’ most overlooked full-length. (The less said of their mid-’80s dud, Neu! 4, the better.) Neu! ’75 lacks the first one’s groundbreaking motorik epicness of “Hallogallo” and the grand industrial-rock grind of “Negativland” and the second one’s crazy experiments (out of necessity) and the monster jam “Lila Engel.” But Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger’s third LP has plenty of reasons to stake a claim in the canon—and in your record collection.

“Isi” zippily starts ’75 with one of Rother’s most uplifting guitar and keyboard figures while Dinger smacks out Autobahn-cruising beats that metronomically turn over with engineering-major elegance. While this song’s playing, you will sense that all is right with the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. “Seeland” has the distinction of being culture-jamming group Negativland’s label name and of evoking an absolutely aching strain of melodic gorgeousness, a sundown resignation of existential gravitas. Dig how Rother’s guitar eloquently wails with a Robert Fripp-in-Düsseldorf grandeur. However, “Leb’Wohl” might be Neu!’s dullest moment. It’s the aural equivalent of sleepy-time tea; the musicians seem to be nodding off in the studio while waves lap in the background.

But don’t fret. “Hero” comes barging in with some of Neu!’s most conventionally hard-rocking bravado, as Dinger snarls proto-punk vocals about a hero riding through the city after his honey went to Norway, new drummer Hans Lampe chops out a staunch “Apache” beat, and Rother kerrangs heroically, as it were. In a better world, “Hero” would’ve been a hit on rock radio. “E-Musik” continues the band’s irresistible, ascending chug to the heavens, coming off like a more conflicted, less streamlined version of “Hallogallo.” It’s a 10-minute tribute to relentless forward motion, with Rother sending arcs of golden six-string light over the choppy rhythm. The coda is baffling, though: a grotesquely slowed voice literally evincing a snore, followed by Rother’s guitar part from “Seeland” entering, backward. “After Eight” closes the album with an anthemic gush of mercurial motorik pummeling. I’ve never in my life more wanted to floor it down the highway on a Harley-Davidson… okay, except for Can’s “Full Moon On The Highway.”

’75 should’ve been the record that broke Neu! Into mass consciousness, but alas, they remained a cult act—albeit one of the most influential ever in underground rock. -Buckley Mayfield

Takehisa Kosugi “Catch-Wave” (CBS/Sony, 1975)

It was only five months ago when I reviewed Taj Mahal Travellers’ August 1974 in this space, and sadly, on October 12, that group’s leader, Takehisa Kosugi, passed away at age 80. So, this seems like an opportune time to review the violinist/composer’s best-known solo work, Catch-Wave.

Consisting of two sidelong tracks, Catch-Wave is not a million kilometers from what Taj Mahal Travellers were doing. To recap: In my review, I wrote, “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.” Here, Kosugi improvises solo on violin and electronics to similar trance-inducing effect.

In the 26-minute “Mano-Dharma ’74,” Kosugi manifests a fantastically desolate and gently fried sound that falls somewhere among rarefied realms of Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogoods All Night Flight,” Fripp/Eno’s “Swastika Girls,” and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack. The fibrillations and oscillations wax and wane with hallucinogenic force and logic while a steadfast drone woo-whoas in the middle distance. After a while, you begin to think of this track not so much as music as it is the alien babbling of a mysterious organism that’s eluded scientific study. This is very bizarre psychedelic minimalism, and I love it.

“Wave Code #E-1” clocks in at a mere 22 minutes, and features Kosugi’s deep, ominous voicings, in addition to a modulating drone that almost sounds like Tuvan throat-singing. Heard from one angle, it may seem like Kosugi is merely fucking around with the cavern of his thorax, like a child in front of the rotating blades of an air-conditioner. Heard from another angle, though, this piece comes off like the Doppler Effected groans of a woozy and weaving deity hell-bent on scaring the bejesus out of you. Somehow, this cut is even stranger than the very weird A-side… and I love it.

Besides helming Taj Mahal Travellers, Kosugi played in Group Ongaku, was part of the Fluxus movement, and acted as music director for Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1995-2011. He was one out-there cat, and he created some timeless music, of which Catch-Wave is a prime example. Rest easy, master musician.

[Note: The excellent Superior Viaduct label is reissuing Catch-Wave on Nov. 9] -Buckley Mayfield

Spacemen 3 “Dreamweapon” (Fierce, 1990)

This anomaly in the sublime British space-rock group Spacemen 3’s catalog might be their headiest release, judging by how highly the true heads I know rank it. Inspired by minimalist composer La Monte Young, Dreamweapon is where Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, and company abandon rock and simply space the fuck out—at great length.

The two-part “An Evening Of Contemporary Sitar Music”—recorded live in London in 1988 by a full band—is a 44-minute study in patient, spangly guitar’d minimalism… with (spoiler alert) no sitar. Very little happens, but what does occur takes on a monumental importance. Over a foundation of murmuring oscillations (is it the sound of some god[dess] repeatedly guffawing? At least one acid trip suggested it was.), Pierce or Kember picks out a spidery, raga-like figure on electric guitar with laid-back insistence. As the piece progresses, the motif gains in intensity, and there’s a quote of “Just To See You Smile” from the Recurring LP. Does all this six-string foreplay build to a revelatory climax? No, it does not. However, you have to give “Dreamweapon” credit for this: It’s one helluva way to come down easy from a hallucinogen trip. I have first brain-cell experience with this scenario.

As for “Ecstasy In Slow Motion,” it’s doubtful there’s ever been more truth packed into one song title. This may be hard to believe, but there seems to be a harmonium drone humming underneath a shivering guitar that’s wailing a prayer to the electricity gods and then swirling skyward into a celestial orb of blinding light. This music is the elixir of eternal sonic truth, your most powerful, extended orgasm transferred into sine waves. Whenever I listen to this track, I always feel as if I’m dissolving into some sort of divine essential oil. It really is the best shit ever. “Spacemen Jam,” by contrast, is a desolate, bare-bones blues meditation that comes as something of an anticlimax after unprecedented heights of “Ecstasy In Slow Motion”—but what wouldn’t?

Dreamweapon has had many iterations, most of them on CD. Earlier this year, though, the great Superior Viaduct label reissued Dreamweapon on 2xLP with the two bonus tracks originally found on Space Age Recordings’ 2004 CD re-release and liner notes by Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers. I highly recommend you get the Superior Viaduct version. -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

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

Tomita “Pictures At An Exhibition” (RCA Red Seal, 1975)

How many times have you flipped past this record? Probably dozens of times—or hundreds, if you’re like me. Then one day I said, “Fug it, I’m gonna splurge.” So I dropped the $3 it cost (never pay more than $3 for this) in order to find out what this bargain-bin staple’s all about.

Glad I did, but not happy about all the years I squandered by ignoring it for so long. For Pictures At An Exhibition is probably the strangest interpretation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky 10-track suite for piano, circa 1874. Not that I’ve heard them all, but it’s hard to believe anyone else has surpassed Isao Tomita’s synthesizer-powered rendering. (Although Emerson, Lake & Palmer do get pretty dang freaky on their 1971 effort.)

It’s axiomatic that Pictures At An Exhibition has became a showcase for virtuoso keyboardists. And that Tomita is. But he took the challenge further by deploying Moog, Mellotron, tape recorder, Sony mixer, and loads of effects. In doing so, the Japanese musician blew out the Russian’s classical composure to often grotesque, sci-fi dimensions.

When “The Gnome” kicks in shortly after the rather staid “Promenade,” you realize you’re in a much different century than Mussorgsky’s, as Tomita unleashes a display worthy of Morts Subotnick and Garson with regard to its array of shockingly spasmodic dynamics and spacey tonalities. Aswirl with ill timbres and graced with a powerfully melancholy melody, “The Old Castle” possesses a ruined grandeur. “Ballet Of The Chicks In Their Shells” is as unhinged as anything by Jean-Jacques Perrey & Gershon Kingsley or Cecil Leuter—or even Garson, in his most playful mode. It’s hilarious how impish this “Ballet” is.

The furiously industrious, industrial “Limoges/ Catacombs” manically swerves and ominously drones before “Cum Mortuis In Lingua Mortua” steers things toward an unexpected tangent into lugubrious and wistfully beautiful realms. However, that fosters a false sense of security for the album’s craziest piece, “Baba Yaga (Hut On Fowls’ Legs),” an unnervingly antic, swooping composition that’s like a bizarre collaboration between electronic frogs and metallic avians. “Great Gate Of Kiev” offers an unbelievably grandiose and haunting conclusion, but not without its share of shocking transitions and appeals to conventionality.

One random Discogs commenter said this about Pictures: “The most complex, deepest, grandioso electronic album ever. Nothing come closer technicalwise. Incredible taste and power, unparalelled character.” [sic] I normally don’t place a lot of weight on what Discogs randos with dubious syntax have to say, but in this case I have to cosign. Look for Pictures in your next bargain-bin excursion. -Buckley Mayfield