The Soft Boys opened their 1979 debut album, A Can Of Bees, with “Give It To The Soft Boys.” That’s what I’m about to do with this here review… praise, that is. For Underwater Moonlight is a stone-cold classic of neo-retro-psychedelic jangle pop, ablaze with memorable tunes and brilliant lyrics. According to some smart folks, it represents the peak of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career. On certain days, I agree with that observation.
The album kicks off with one of the greatest one-two punches in rock history. “I Wanna Destroy You” might be the ultimate righteous-revenge anthem. Musically, this is one of the most effusive and potent power-pop songs ever, but lyrically it’s utterly sulphuric in its vengefulness—against the media, apparently. And man does it feel good when Hitchcock euphoniously yelps into the chorus; the “I”s here just explode. “The Kingdom Of Love” veers almost 180º in the opposite direction. It’s a cool, cruising rocker that expresses an exalted yet surreal desire, as Hitchcock equates extreme infatuation with insects crawling under his skin. When the song reaches the part where he sings, “You grow out of me like a FLOWER!” it sounds like his heart’s literally bursting in ecstasy and the song ascends to its most heavenly level. If these two cuts were released on a 45, it would represent an all-time Top 20 single.
The jittery, jangly, sitar-spiced power pop of “Positive Vibrations” makes you feel as good as the title would suggest. You’d best believe R.E.M. were taking notes while listening to this song. If you ever wondered what would happen if the Cramps were British absurdists, well, the leering, sleazy “I Got The Hots” would be your answer. “Insanely Jealous” gradually builds into an amphetamine’d blowout redolent of obsessiveness; the music’s a perfect analogue of the titular emotion.
Hitchcock fans may hate me for saying this, but “Tonight” verges on cheesy, sounding like a middling, long-lost radio hit or TV movie theme. It’s really Underwater Moonlight‘s only weak link. But the LP rebounds with two of its toughest pieces: the intriguing and torqued instrumental “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” and “Old Pervert,” the most jagged, vicious, oddly metered song here—almost No Wave-y in its angularity and abrasiveness. Then there’s a weird segue into “Queen Of Eyes,” an amiable, Byrdsy jangle rock bauble, before the title track closes things with an ideal combo of the rousing and the slightly rueful. Hitchcock’s and Kimberly Rew’s guitars shimmer in a vaguely Eastern manner while also slashing and clanging with fervent rock gusto. So much gusto! Roll credits, exit theater feeling exhilarated. Then repeat… over and over.
(In this century, Underwater Moonlight has been reissued on vinyl by Matador in 3XLP form and by Yep Roc. Rykodisc did a CD reissue in 1992 with eight bonus tracks.) -Buckley Mayfield
This may rankle some of his fans, but I’m going to say it anyway: Two of the best albums guitarist Carlos Santana ever played on didn’t come out under the aegis of his most famous band. For certain heads, the LPs the psych-rock deity cut with jazz legends John McLaughlin (1973’s Love Devotion Surrender) and Alice Coltrane (1974’s Illuminations) stand as his creative peaks. That these were released on a major label—good ol’ Columbia—and up until recently have been bargain-bin staples boggles the mind. However, one senses that the general public—and some critics who should know better—still aren’t giving these Eastern-leaning, mystical fusion works their due. I’m here to redress that injustice for the latter overlooked classic; maybe I’ll tackle the former some day.
As the title implies, Illuminations is all about transmitting blazing beams of enlightenment into listeners’ minds. It’s always a great idea to start your album with deep, extended “OOOOOHHHHHMMMMM” chants, especially if you’re a Platinum-selling artist. So listening to “Guru Sri Chinmoy Aphorism,” we gather that this music is going to be about god’s love, which is peachy if you’re into that sort of thing. Honestly, an agnostic like me just cares about the music, but whichever religious route it takes to get to the glory of Illuminations, all should tolerate it.
The one-two feathery punch of “Angel Of Air”/“Angel Of Water” is a profound unfolding of wonderment that preps you for the delights to come. In the former, Turiya and Devadip bestow upon us flute, bass, heavenly strings, pointillistic, crystalline guitar stalagmites, and cymbal splashes. The latter is a glistening pool of almost New Age-y bliss (not a diss, by any means), as these world-class musicians—including Santana electric pianist Tom Coster, and Miles Davis comrades Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland—summon some of the most delicate, celestial aural tapestries in their blessed careers. You know how Kris Kristofferson had a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? Well, this is Sunday morning going up music. You feel like you need more than one heart to appreciate the loving feeling emanating from this song. Side 1 closes with “Bliss: The Eternal Now,” which sounds like something that could’ve appeared on Coltrane’s Lord Of Lords. This is a heroic fanfare of orchestral ambience that portends glimmers of a brilliant new dawn for humankind… but we all know how that turned out.
The album’s peak comes with the 15-minute “Angel Of Sunlight,” the closest thing to Love Devotion Surrender on Illuminations. Elevated by Prabuddha Phil Browne’s cosmic tamboura drones and Phil Ford’s rapid tabla slaps, “Angel Of Sunlight” charges pell-mell into the fiery orb as Santana Santanas at his most Santana-esque. His six-string calligraphy arcs and darts across the sky with grandiloquent fluidity, wailing like some creature beyond any of our thousands of our so-called gods’ imaginations. Then, as if your ears weren’t surfeited enough with pleasure, Coltrane’s Wurlitzer solo flares in delirious, rococo siren tones within the golden-hued tumult. This track is a sonic analogue for the cover, a supernatural lavishment of benedictions from players tilting toward transcendence. What follows can only seem anti-climactic, but “Illuminations” is a denouement of ethereal solemnity and grace. It’s the dignified breather you need after “Angel Of Sunlight”’s ravenous enrapturing.
There’s probably a copy of Illuminations sitting in a used bin near you for under $12. Go forth and grip. -Buckley Mayfield
Throughout the ’70s, the French group Heldon forged one of one of progressive music’s most fascinating discographies. Their seven albums never wavered from greatness. The first few largely featured somber takes on languid, Robert Fripp-ian guitar meditativeness and drone tapestries while the last four found the music morphing into a more percussive, infernally throbbing brand of electronic space-rock that sounds like the ultimate score for a harrowing acid trip. (Hear Interface‘s title track for the peak of the latter style.) Heldon were led by Richard Pinhas, a guitarist and synth player enamored of dystopian science fiction and French philosophers. These interests fed into compositions that radiate an intense existential dread, albeit sometimes tempered by passages of eerie serenity and even pastoral bliss.
In Pinhas’ solo career, he muted some of the more horrific elements of Heldon’s output, but in his first LP under his own name (recorded in 1976), Chronolyse, you can still hear the mad scientist in thrall to Frank Herbert’s Dune in its nine tracks, which were done in one take, with Pinhas using Moog 55 modular synth in addition to his trademark guitar and Mellotron. The first seven pieces are relatively short and bear the title “Variations I Sur Le Thème Des Bene Gesserit.” (Wikipedia informs me that Bene Gesserit are “an exclusive sisterhood [in Dune] whose members train their bodies and minds through years of phyiscal and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.”) They consist of insistent, repetitive pulsations that build a sense of great expectation. Think a more primitive and darker-hued version of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack for an idea of the mantric zones explored here.
The 98-second “III” is particularly manic, threatening to spiral out of control, but never doing so. The bedazzled “IV” is a mere 1:45 long, but its momentous, interstellar theme—which many ’90s techno producers replicated, consciously or not—makes you wish it were 10 times longer. “V” also sounds like an embryonic attempt at techno; if its tempo were increased by 30 bpm, it could’ve thrilled the masses at raves worldwide. “VII” would make an ideal score for a sci-fi thriller flick directed by a Stanley Kubrick disciple.
“Duncan Idaho” combines the compressed-air ominousness of “Interface” with the Autobahn-jaunty synths of Kraftwerk and Cluster ca. Sowiesoso—which makes it godly. Last but certainly not least, the 30-minute “Paul Atreïdes” begins with repeated modulated blurts of Moog that recall the pew pews of futuristic weapons in loads of sci-fi movies. These are overlaid with ominous drones that foreshadow some sort of incomprehensible catastrophe. About six minutes in, Pinhas finesses some King Crimson-oid guitar filigrees that arc and wail in great anguish. Then around the 15-minute mark, Heldon drummer François Auger’s odd, quasi-funk rhythm enters earshot, while Pinhas continues soloing on guitar with increasing fierceness and complexity. Toward the end, the piece cycles around to the opening theme, but now with a sense of resignation to accompany the dread.
Of the many records inspired by Dune (which I haven’t read nor have I seen David Lynch’s film, sorry to say), Chronolyse ranks way up there with Bernard Szajner’s Visions Of Dune (recorded under the name Zed). Such is its malevolent power, Chronolyse makes me want to investigate a genre I normally don’t enjoy. -Buckley Mayfield
Good lord, did Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó have a distinctive and utterly sweet tone, albeit one imbued with deep sadness when the occasion called for it. After issuing some great records for Impulse!, Skye, and Blue Thumb in the ’60s and ’70s, he moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI label and smoothed out a bit, as per that company’s overriding aesthetic. But with Mizrab, Szabó cut the definitive version of the title track. You need this LP for that dazzling cut alone, but there are other delights here, too, even though this isn’t the man’s best full-length. (Still trying to decide if it’s Spellbinder, Bacchanal, or Sorcerer.)
Recorded in the Van Gelder Studio with CTI all-stars like Bob James (electric organ), Ron Carter (bass), Hubert Laws (flute), plus fusion drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette (playing in a much mellower style than they did with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, to say the least), Mizrab boasts an odd mélange of material. It starts with “Mizrab,” which is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Szabó and company find the sweet spot among free-flowing raga rock, Central European folk, and pop jazz. Cobham’s drumming is agile and busy, touching on Latin shuffle and funk, while Szabó’s tone is crystalline and loaded with pathos. This tune never fails to trigger watery eyes and throat lumps.
“Thirteen,” another Szabó composition, is a lovely minor-key lament, as pensive and melancholy as a walk home after being fired from your job. You can hear some of Szabó’s mellifluous picking and piquant tone here in the oeuvre of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop; a high compliment. Unfortunately, that’s it for Szabó material on Mizrab. Next comes Carole King’s “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” a lightweight and syrupy orchestral jazz pop confection. You can feel the heavy hand of Taylor’s commercial directives at work here, although Cobham is always worth hearing, no matter what the context. That fluff is balanced out by a hip, Deodato-esque rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto #2.” It’s a dynamic study in structure and mood, carried aloft by those rich CTI strings and Bob James’ deft arrangement.
The album closes with Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze.” This played-to-death, oft-covered 1972 hit single gets a fairly straightforward treatment, although DeJohnette adds all sorts of tasty accents and fills amid his martial-funk master rhythm and Szabó scrawls delicate calligraphy around the main melody. Again, one wishes Szabó had the clout to include more of his own work on Mizrab. Nevertheless, this is still a cool interpretation of that airiest of psych-pop baubles from the dusk of the hippie era—although I’ll take the Isley Brothers’ version, push comes to shove. As with all CTI LPs, Mizrab is worth buying as much for the cover image and glossy texture as for the music. -Buckley Mayfield
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
Evening Star‘s cover art—by Oblique Strategies co-creator Peter Schmidt—looks like fairly typical New Age LP fare, but the music therein is far from typical in that genre. This meeting of the prog-rock deities—King Crimson leader/guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music synth wizard Brian Eno—resulted in some of the most sublime ambient music this side of Discreet Music For Airports [sic]. Of course, the duo had cut the tape-delay masterpiece No Pussyfooting in 1973, its two sidelong tracks dilating listeners’ sense of time and ensnaring their minds in seemingly infinite loops. So fans were somewhat primed for another deep dose of head music. While not quite as lapel-grabbing as No Pussyfooting, the five tracks on Evening Star do possess a subtly alluring quality.
Opening track “Wind On Water” enters earshot on supremely gentle guitar ululations in the upper register, swathed in ambrosial drones that evaporate all cares and induce a preternatural calm. This makes “The Heavenly Music Corporation” off No Pussyfooting sound like heavy metal. “Evening Star” deepens the pervasive sense of tranquility. A gorgeous, crystalline three-note keyboard motif that should be your phone’s ringtone forever chimes in the foreground while Fripp launches foghorn-y wails in the background. An acoustic guitar jangles in the slim lacunae between those elements. The whole thing’s ecstatically lugubrious.
“Evensong” is a slight lullaby that pales in comparison to the two classics before it. However, the Eno solo composition “Wind On Wind” sounds like a benevolent god murmuring “there there” to you as she caresses your forehead. It’s a one-way ticket to Cloud 9, the key to absolute mental peace. Thus side one ends.
For side two, Fripp & Eno have something completely different in mind. Where side one floated in utmost placidity, the 28-minute “An Index Of Metals” tolls like an Emergency Alert System alarm. The tension is palpable from the start, and it only gets more ominous as it goes. The plot thickens with each passing minute, as Fripp’s guitar starts rolling in ever-larger waves, crashing on the shore of your ears with greater intensity and inhabiting more foreboding atmospheres. By the end of “An Index Of Metals,” you’re convinced it belongs in the pantheon of darkest music you’ve ever cowered to.
I’d wager it was Fripp who steered the ship into possibly the creepiest waters either musician had ever plunged. I keep thinking about the hilariously shocking transition that occurs on King Crimson’s debut LP, where the diabolical climax of “21st Century Schizoid Man” smacks abruptly against the utterly pacific “I Talk The Wind.” Fripp loves to subvert expectations. Your puffy-cloud fantasia’s been subsumed by a sinister undertow. Who is Eno to get in the way of that? -Buckley Mayfield
Like many releases from SST’s incredible run in the ’80s, Happy Nightmare Baby languishes out of print. Opal’s only studio LP proper is a fabulous, valuable record, and in a just world, it would not be as scarce as it is. In a just world, SST—which is run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn—or a label specializing in reissues would have kept the lovely masterpiece in print perpetually. But no. Ginn seems not interested in keeping his label’s greatest titles available to the general public. Only tenacious bands with top-flight lawyers have managed to get the rights to their SST output for legit reissues. Sorry to bog you down with this minutiae, but if you want a vinyl copy of Happy Nightmare Baby, you’ll likely have to shell out major coin; I paid $40 for an original last year. Even the used CD I bought eight years ago cost $12, which is kind of scandalous.
Anyway, to the music, which was created by Rain Parade guitarist/vocalist David Roback and Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith. Their combined discographies reveal them to be songwriters whose work is built to last. And so it goes here. “Rocket Machine” launches Happy Nightmare Baby into T.Rextacy from the get-go, its slowed-down Bolan-esque boogie an instant initiation into Opal’s psychedelicized recontextualization of ’60s and ’70s classic rock moves. “Magick Power” uncoils like a serpentine Doors epic, but it’s infused with Smith’s sly feminine charms instead of Jim Morrison’s macho bravado. And that makes all the difference. (I’m a Doors fan, by the way, so hold your hate mail.)
On “She’s A Diamond,” Opal blow out a bluesy shuffle with fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar and glaze it with glorious, icy female backing vocals behind Smith’s wonderfully opiated drawl. You can hear why Roback picked Hope Sandoval for his next band, Mazzy Star, as she followed in Kendra’s compellingly lackadaisical steps. “Supernova” sounds what I imagine heroin feels like; it’s a languid strut, accentuated by guitars that spray gold glitter, and there’s also what sounds like an electric cello swirling in the background. Seductively stalking keyboard and bass riffs power “Siamese Trap,” augmented by Roback’s articulate guitar love cries. If you haven’t gathered by now, Happy Nightmare Baby possesses some of the most immersive and alluring sex music you’ll ever hear.
The Strange Days-era Doors-y title track casts a spell at once beatific and sinister, which is incredibly hard to do. “Soul Giver” offers the perfect ending to the album, with its methodical, tidal undertow and hypnotic, majestic sweep. Suki Ewers’ snaky, Manzarek-like organ arabesques really elevate the song to the highest echelon of extended psych jams. I used to put this on mixtapes next to Loop’s “Burning World,” and it was a helluva stoned 1-2 punch.
I realize it won’t be easy (thanks, Greg), but you should do whatever it takes to get Happy Nightmare Baby into your life—and, yes, you deserve better than a YouTube rip. -Buckley Mayfield
Following Rain Parade’s extraordinary 1983 debut LP Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Explosions In The Glass Palace couldn’t help sounding like a tiny bit of an anticlimax. But the five-song mini album by the standard-bearers of Los Angeles’ short-lived Paisley Underground scene (a term none of the participants probably ever want to hear or see again; sorry!) stands as a superb little collection of West Coast psychedelia.
Key Rain Parade singer-songwriter David Roback was mostly gone and working on Opal (and then later, the Clay Allison Band and Mazzy Star) by the time the group cut Explosions; he’s only credited on the EP’s last track, “No Easy Way Down.” But Roback’s brother Steven, Matt Piucci, and Will Glenn ably picked up the compositional slack. “You Are My Friend” is a bejangled, tender-hearted slice of mellifluous raga rock that could’ve come from the pen of Roger McGuinn or Lennon-McCartney circa “Rain.” As a homage to psych-rock’s first vital steps, it’s a goddamn beaut. By contrast, eerie waltz-time zoner “Prisoners” creeps in with stealth, bolstered by majestically arcing guitar sighs and moans, evoking those comfortably numb, sublimely ponderous Pink Floyd space-outs.
The blissful, gently rippling midtempo rock of “Blue”—which contains the poignant line “All our tears couldn’t bring her home”—strikes me as ideal for driving the idyllic back roads around Big Sur, California. (You haven’t been to Big Sur? You should try to remedy that soon.) If there’s a lull in Explosions, it occurs on “Broken Horse,” a Steven Roback-penned acoustic-guitar ballad whose slightly melodramatic, melancholic Neil Young vibe breaks the EP’s lysergic spell. But things elevate dramatically on Explosions‘ peak “No Easy Way Down.” It’s one of the deepest, most seductive psychedelic excursions Rain Parade ever made, echoing the Door’s “The End” via the main riff’s spellbinding Eastern lilt and Will Glenn’s rich, sacred Hammond B-3 whorls.
The year after Explosions, Rain Parade created one more very good album on Island, Crashing Dream, before folding, but they still occasionally play out. In fact, in 2014 they headlined Seattle’s Hypnotikon Festival, and revealed flashes of their old selves. Rain Parade’s catalog may be small, but it’s all wonderful, including the exquisite Explosions In The Glass Palace. -Buckley Mayfield
When people talk about the all-time classic shoegaze-rock albums, they often forget about this one. Big mistake. I mean, Star came out on England’s Creation Records, Shoegaze Central, in 19bloody92. It’s hard to get better positioning than that. Plus, it had a fab cover and it was made by Creation boss Alan McGee’s tightest bro from way back when: Ed Ball.
So why has Star virtually vanished into the ether? Why has a work that this writer and a few other friends rank up there with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Isn’t Anything and Ride’s Nowhere eluded the consciousness of the underground-rock cognoscenti? (That shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise didn’t devote a dang minute to Teenage Filmstars.) One theory: Fellow Creationists My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive—and Lush—siphoned so much attention from the music press that they eclipsed almost everyone else. Well, it’s time to atone for mistakes and get familiar with Teenage Filmstars’ fantastic debut full-length. (Props to the infinitesimal minority who already know it by heart.)
From the first seconds of opening song “Kiss Me,” you realize you’re immersed in a special record. Teenage Filmstars fling you into a super-saturated glam-rock alternate universe in which Electric Warrior-era T.Rex is remixed by Kevin Shields. The main riff’s repeated ad nauseam, like an OCD come-on to which you succumb over and over (and over). First song and you’re already spent, but you soldier on because you sense even greater pleasures await you. “Loving” is an idealized simulacrum of Loveless‘ unbearably sensuous, cooing vocals, throbbing guitar miasma, and subliminally thrusting rhythms. It’s a potent aphrodisiac. “Inner Space” out-ethereals those interstitial bits on Loveless and makes Cocteau Twins sound like the Cult. To paraphrase the Jimi Hendrix Experience, it’s got me floating.
“Apple” is a heavenly flange swirl that, if you could condense it into a pill, would erase the world’s pain in four minutes. The gorgeous lysergic reverie “Flashes” boasts the same skittering, funky drums as the intro to MBV’s “Soon,” hilariously rubbing your nose in the Loveless association. The endlessly revving and twittering instrumental “Vibrations” is what I imagine LSD guru Timothy Leary heard as he shuffled off this mortal coil. It always reduces me to acidic tears. The title of “Hallucinations” is a bit too on the nose, but its Möbius-strip synth exhalations and astral turbulence give you what it promises. This cut comes at the part of your trip when you either ascend to a startling peak or descend into a private hell of insanity—those “Time to die” snippets from Blade Runner may make you feel like it actually is. “Moon” closes the album with an end-credits flourish. It’s the most conventional moment on all of Star, and it somehow returns you to a semblance of normality in grand style. Quite considerate of you, Teenage Filmstars.
Cherry Red reissued this shoegaze classic on vinyl in 2010; Artpop! re-released it on CD with three bonus tracks in 2008. In the liner notes to the latter, Ed Ball writes, “Rather than take acid or Ecstasy in the studio, I endeavoured to capture the effect they had on my senses—the misheard, the misunderstood, attention to details in sound not normally given second thought.” Mission accomplished, Ed! -Buckley Mayfield
Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.
My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.
Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield
Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.
But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.
Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.
Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -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