Herbie Mann’s Embryo label may not have had the greatest track record, but it was never less than interesting during its eight-year run, as LPs by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brute Force, Miroslav Vitous, and others, attest. Ol’ Herbie seemingly gave his artists free rein, and most of them took full advantage. One of the Atlantic Records subsidiary’s standout releases is Circles by composer/keyboardist William S. Fischer. Fischer—who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page—plays Moog synthesizer on this very curious record, which boasts Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on bass, vocalist Bill Robinson, no fewer than five cellists, and superstar session guitarists Hugh McCracken (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison et al.) and Eric Weissberg, who played the banjo theme to Deliverance. That’s a helluva lot of firepower for a musician of such (unjust) obscurity. The album’s first track doesn’t really betray how strange Circles will get. “Patience Is A Virtue” is a slow-burning psychedelic-soul number in the vein of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “Message From A Black Man,” and given gravity by Fischer’s cello army. But then, catching you unawares, “Saigon”’s acid rock surges somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson Airplane, Phil Upchurch, and It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Time Is.” If that weren’t enough of a radical juxtaposition, the abstract Moog exploration of “Electrix” sounds as peculiar and disturbing as anything off a Nik Raicevic LP or George Harrison’s Paul Beaver-assisted Electronic Sound. Another 90-degree twist happens with “Chains,” which almost prefigures the nocturnal slowcore rock of bands like Codeine or Low. Nothing on side 1 makes any goddamn sense, and that’s a wonderful thing. Turn the record over for another shocking transition, “There’s A Light That Shines,” a poker-faced pop-gospel ditty sung with utmost sincerity and sweetness by Robinson, but laced with Fischer’s crispy Moog embellishments. It’s the LP’s low point, but its cloyingness is nullified by “Circle.” With its unusual dynamics and dark orchestrations, this song’s excellent funk rock sounds like Chambers Brothers attempting their own Forever Changes. “Green Forever” delivers orchestral funk of David Axelrod-esque complexity, powered by Cobham’s ridiculously mercurial drumming and fiery guitar interplay redolent of Miles Davis’ ’70s-era hired guns like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey. You have to admire someone who ends a debut album with a track like “Capsule”—a cavalcade of chittering and purring Moog blurts. You have to remember, this synth was rather new in 1970 and musicians were eager to explore its outermost capabilities, sometimes for the sheer novelty effect. Fischer does that here, and if you’re of a psychedelic mindset, you’ll gleefully go along for the whole seven-minute tour de force. Like Fischer’s other albums—Akelarre Sorta and Omen, both from 1972—Circles is long out of print on vinyl although in 2003 Water Records re-released it on CD. It’s one of those true oddball records that need to hit more ears ASAP, regardless of format. -Buckley Mayfield
Scottish musician/vocalist Thomas Leer made some of the most interesting song-based electronic music of the original post-punk era, but he’s never achieved much more than cult status. In all honesty, though, he should be as well known as Soft Cell, if not as widely loved as New Order, to name only two contemporaneous UK acts. 4 Movements was the first Leer release I heard, and it remains my favorite to this day, although Private Plane EP and the Contradictions LP are also highly recommended. As another British group, Hot Chocolate put it, every 1’s a winner.
4 Movements‘ opener, “Don’t,” is a gleaming jewel of continental dance music overlaid with Leer’s elegantly pained vocals. It strikes you as accessible and danceable synth pop on one level, but there’s something deceptively complex happening under the surface: a sneakily wiggly bass line, frosty and fibrillating synth whorls, spectral backing vocals… or are they yet more synths? Whatever the case, you’re paying close attention and working up a sweat. “Letter From America” shimmies into earshot with a quasi-cha-cha rhythm and an exotic array of synth tones, which elevate this song into the vicinity of Haruomi Hosono’s all-time stunner, Cochin Moon. Perhaps the EP’s most poppy cut, “Letter From America” finds Leer singing with a seething, Howard Devoto-like suavity.
“Tight As A Drum”—which bears a vague resemblance to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “The Carrier” from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts—is staunch, five-dimensional dub in a hall of illusory synth mirrors—very disorienting. I love to play this track at DJ gigs and watch people try to make sense of it. The final track, “West End,” slithers with a silvery, slick rhythm and bursts with tightly controlled, ecstatic synthetic horns. Again, there’s a lot of subliminal sonic sorcery going on: contrapuntal synth lines, bizarre burbles and ripples. It’s like a new kind of snake-charmer music, and it’s incredibly sensuous.
Thomas Leer was on fire creatively during this period, and you should seek out anything with his name on it from then—especially 4 Movements. (Oh, by the way: Someone should reissue this… perhaps Superior Viaduct or Dark Entries?) -Buckley Mayfield
Conventional wisdom says that you should be leery of most jazz LPs from the late ’70s onward, but Inner Conflicts by ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham is an exception to that rule. Not that Inner Conflicts is a traditional jazz record. Nope. It’s actually a left-of-center fusion work with loads of Latin percussion and inflections—plus a mammoth electronic experiment that’s a phenomenal anomaly in Cobham’s catalog. Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Inner Conflicts‘ title track is by far the most impressive Heldon homage ever conceived by a jazz artist. (Google “Heldon/Richard Pinhas” and prepare to have your life changed for the better, if you’re not already familiar.) This beastly alien cut sounds like it could fit right in on Heldon’s infernal classic Interface, which came out in 1977. It finds Cobham drumming up a turbulent solar storm while also generating—with Moog Modular 55 programming help from John Bowen—a bizarre mélange of bleepy, gurgly synth emissions fit to score that mythical sequel to The Andromeda Strain. At almost 11 minutes, “Inner Conflicts” is a war of attrition on your nervous system, but totally worth the extreme exertion.
Inner Conflicts‘ remaining four songs are much more conventional, but interesting in their own right. “The Muffin Talks Back” is a flamboyant, eventful Latin jazz-funk fusion that hints at the gluttonous percussion fiesta—featuring Prince protégé Sheila Escovedo and her father Pete—to come on side two. “Nickels And Dimes” could be a rollicking, TV-cop-show theme in waiting, all blustery brass and woodwinds and frantic xylophone and marimba by Frank Zappa cohort Ruth Underwood. “El Barrio” starts as a lurching, heavily percussive, festive jam powered by whistles, congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments, before smoothing out into a undulating throb of Latin jazz marked by Cobham’s busy, potent kit work. The coolly burbling “Arroyo” showcases John Scofield’s well-modulated, Santana-esque shrieking guitar calligraphy.
Throughout the album, Cobham of course acquits himself as a powerful, kinetic, and inventive leader, asserting the world-class rhythmic skills that have made him desirable to so many musicians, including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, and Deodato. But it’s that cataclysmic wonder, “Inner Conflicts,” that remains most vivid in your shattered mind afterward. -Buckley Mayfield
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
With Spacecraft member John Livengood’s name flung back into consciousness with the Record Store Day vinyl reissue of his and Richard Pinhas’ super-nice 1994 space-rock/ambient album Cyborg Sally, it seems like an opportune time to review Spacecraft’s Paradoxe. Keyboardist Livengood (Red Noise) and guitarist/bassist Ivan Coaquette (Delired Cameleon Family, Musica Elettronica Viva) recorded this deeply underground psych-prog classic in the mid ’70s, and it’s a serious head-bonk. (Spalax reissued it on CD in 1995 with an utterly hypnotic bonus track from 1973, the spaced-out epic “Pays De Glace”; Wah Wah put out a much-needed vinyl edition in 2012.)
One listen to Paradoxe and you wonder why it didn’t make it onto the fabled Nurse With Wound List; perhaps it was too obscure even for Steven Stapleton and company. From the first seconds of the first track, “Lumiere De Lune,” you feel as if you’ve been transported into a much weirder and more interesting sphere, as Spacecraft swathe you in a silvery miasma of interstellar synth and guitar emissions, making gravity seem like an absurd joke. “Cosmic Wheel” really ratchets up the sense of tingling disorientation and intensifies the immersion into alien frequencies. Your DMT trip would be very disconcerting if this were soundtracking it. The synthetic solar winds and chattering guitar pointillism rushing through “Chromatique One’s” sounds like the sort of brain-bending 22nd-century astral jazz that would make Sun Ra squeal with joy.
The cruise-control, star-trekkin’ “Harabizant” could be a higher-altitude Harmonia, while “Surface” writhes and arpeggiates like near-peak Heldon and Lard Free, fellow French explorers of deep space rock and far-out fusion. Coaquette’s guitar solo in the coda is heart-tremblingly gorgeous. Yet for all its sonic treasures, Paradoxe remains largely overlooked. If you’re at all into challenging, instrumental electronic rock, you owe it to yourself to track down this profoundly hallucinogenic zoner. -Buckley Mayfield
After he became a folk-pop star but before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and said harsh things about Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, British singer/songwriter/guitarist Cat Stevens released this odd little LP. It’s best known for the chart-dwelling “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard,” a bit of grandiose, schmaltzy synth pop that sounds like Styx crossed with Genesis or something. Most of the rest of Izitso—a keyboard-heavy effort with Chick Corea, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and 11 freakin’ engineers on it—is about as insubstantial and forgettable as its title, a mix of mediocre, commercial rock bluster and effete electro pop. Today you can commonly find copies of it in bargain bins nationwide. You’ve probably passed over this one 17,000 times in your life, give or take a thousand. However, I would like to implore you to grab Izitso next time you see it, if only for the ridiculously named instrumental “Was Dog A Doughnut.”
Well before Herbie Hancock’s similar-sounding “Rockit” and even preceding Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” “Was Dog A Doughnut” effectively created the electro genre. Listen to the spacey array of synth tones hovering, percolating, and plinking around the stuttering, funky beats and that crazy dog-bark punctuation, which was actually a synthesizer setting and not a real or sampled canine. (Big ups to keyboardist Corea and guitarist Ray Gomez for their invaluable contributions.)
The fool who reviewed Izitso for Rolling Stone said “the electronics on ‘Was Dog A Doughnut’ are a bit too robotlike”—like that’s a bad thing. I wonder what the just right amount of “robotlike”ness would be to this critic. On the plus side, though, Roots drummer Questlove told Christine Kakaire of the redbullmusicacademy.com that Stevens was just fucking around “and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world,which he was very shocked to discover.” Kakaire went on to note that DJ Jellybean Benitez used to play it out at the New York club the Funhouse in the early ’80s and he cut a remix of “Dog” that also became a club staple. Rave icon Frankie Bones is also a huge fan of Stevens’ most anomalous song.
The track has rightly become a cult classic, and it’s hilarious to think that an urban, club-oriented genre like electro emerged, willy-nilly, from the same brain as the troubadour who penned frilly folk-pop hits like “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Oh Very Young.” This qualifies as one of the music world’s greatest WTF? turn of events. Get thee to a bargain bin, posthaste. -Buckley Mayfield
Imagine the Sun Ra Arkestra condensed into a duo of one adroit percussionist/synthesizer player (Gallivan) and one versatile saxophonist/flautist/English horn player (Austin). That’s Expression To The Winds, in a nutshell. The twosome immerse you immediately into their unusual, idiosyncratic sound world with an array of rarely heard percussion and keyboard timbres and forlorn yet spiritual wind-instrument arabesques that vaguely recall those on Paul Horn’s proto-New Age Inside LPs. Gallivan and Austin allow lots of space in their fairly brief compositions (the longest is 5:34), creating a sense of intimate immensity, a Saturnian desolation. Gallivan had at his disposal a Moog drum (he was the first recipient of said instrument, along with ELP’s Carl Palmer), and its oddly percolating report ripples throughout Expression To The Winds, lending it alien pulsations.
Listening to the album’s 12 tracks makes you feel as if gravity’s gone AWOL and you’re floating in a mysterious ether, far from earthly concerns. Similar atmospheric qualities to Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch surface in Expression To The Winds, but this is a mid-’70s production, so the delay is thickly applied and the electronics are super-tactile. The musicians are playing tricks with time and with your mind, in a most delicate and austere manner. They overwhelm with understatement.
Both Gallivan and Austin have impressive pedigrees. Austin’s played with Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and others; Gallivan anchored the world-beating Love Cry Want with Larry Young, and drummed in groups featuring Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Gil Evans, and formed Powerfield with Gary Smith and Pat Thomas. You could classify Expression To The Winds as jazz, but its enigmatic allure makes it as much of a natural draw for heads into experimental improv and even ambient electronic music. Forget categories, though: Gallivan and Austin have created a sound that inventively refracts soulful emotion into the most beguiling abstract shapes. No wonder the music industry didn’t know what to do with these mavericks. –Buckley Mayfield
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
Right out the grinding gate, Neubauten sound slower paced, more deliberate and focused. While these derelicts still use any and all metallic material they can get their hands on for sounding, they get around to using some primitive samples, and sound bytes too, for a somewhat smoother experience…
With rhythms placed, there is no need to go white-hot in industrial noise. Still not synth-popping or going new wave, Neubauten just get a bit more spacious in their delivery, slowing to a plod or a throb. At this point Blixa and company were really getting out of native Germany, and instead of getting safer in recording they stretched songs out, panned everything to extreme ends and generally made themselves less approachable despite their new use of meter.
What’s the use of inept horn wafts, air conditioner rhythms and muffled vocals backed with skittering cutlery? I guess they were the first to pick it up and take it semi-seriously, before others got into it (industrial) wholesale or whole-sale. And it got less fun. Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F. all soured. SPK or Nurse With Wound? Depends on how serious or how camp you want to take it. Still pretty solid with Throbbing Gristle. Einsturzende? They had quite a few good ones after this. -Wade
Italians certainty do it better… Disco so cold and spacious you won’t know when one track ends and the other begins. Bass bloops, bass lines, high hat, hand claps… All sterile, airtight and sealed in grooves ready for play.
Gino was the producer behind this listenable longplayer and he actually came by way of Canada… Montreal. Apparently the disco backlash that occurred in the States didn’t echo up North and they welcomed changes in the dance form, like most of Europe. Opener “Dancer” is a classic that would be played out often in America’s remaining discotheque strongholds, with folks like Larry Levan playing two copies of the track in excess of twenty minutes. That’s a groove that can hold a crowd.
“So Lonely” is a piano/seagull/tone generator sketch, then we get to the other dance floor heavy hitters, “The Visitors” (Donna Summer/Kraftwerk) and “Dance To Dance” (Philly-esque). Five tracks in total, three long players that show icy kinship with Italo, the future of dance music production, and the hidden years of North American disco. Throw it on the table! -Wade
Normally the tag of “supergroup” isn’t really all that desirable, but in the world of Krautrock the term is appropriate. Harmonia doesn’t disappoint on their debut, mainly because the combined forces of Neu! and Cluster compliment each other so well. While Neu! chiefly produced driving rhythms with occasional ambient soundscapes, Cluster was always a bit closer to Tangerine Dream atmosphere. Coupled together, their minimal styles stayed stripped down but achieved a fuller effect.
Also, “Music Von Harmonia” is in no way harder or more immediate than the groups they derived from; as a recording it isn’t demanding of your attention. Eno, Brian Eno, still liked it precisely because you can put this on in the background. It’s pieces are playful and curious, and it isn’t until a good quarter of the album is through that you hear pumping drums or anything resembling forward movement… Not a negative critique.
Fun for a home listen, attentive or not, on a cold day with coffee or tea. But then you can do the same in your auto or with earbuds for a good commute. Cosmic synth bloops, sanitary guitar licks and electric drums galore! -Wade
Take in a steady dose of William Freidkin and John Carpenter flicks. Wash it down with a Starbucks latte. Browse Rodney King and Malcom X clips on the YouTube. Look out your high-rise condo window. Future R&B bass rattles your bones as infomercials play muted in the dark. Ads promote the safe use of fracking while Lockheed Martin toils away at work, unseen.
The audio aural equivalent? James Ferraro’s “Skid Row.” The always prolific, cynical electronic artist has been slowly asserting himself more and more into public consciousness, even recording his own vocals as of late. If his last album was a commentary on 9/11 and it’s New York aftermath, then this is the aftershock here and now in Los Angeles. And while that city is the perfect place to Snapchat police brutality, economic disparity and general moral ruin, we can still hear the crashing of a nation he’s arranging in sound collage for us anywhere.
Despite it’s interview clips, sirens, macbook text speak and Wang Chung samples, “Skid Row” is Ferraro’s most formed work to date. Nothing is wafting, every element is meticulously placed. He’s been on it that way at least since his “Far Side Virtual” release. But if that was mock-ideal of our global State, then this is a stare down at America’s dark heart. -Wade