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Kraftwerk “Kraftwerk” (Philips, 1970)

Musicians sometimes have very poor insight into what constitutes their best work. Bob Seger and Alex Chilton come to mind. One of the most extreme cases of this unfortunate phenomenon is Kraftwerk. The legendary German group’s founders—Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider-Esleben—are/were undoubtedly intelligent people, but for baffling reasons, they refuse(d) to acknowledge the existence of their pre-Autobahn releases. It’s a shame, because Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk II, and Ralf & Florian represent some of their greatest, most adventurous creations.

Like many of their early ’70s Deutschland compatriots (Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Faust, Popol Vuh, Et Cetera, etc.), Kraftwerk were both striving to distinguish themselves from post-WWII German culture and not simply imitate the era’s dominant Anglo-American rock paradigms. Operating under this liberating notion, Kraftwerk created some of the most revolutionary experimental rock and electronic music of all time. Most heads still aren’t ready to absorb the genius percolating on these early records (plus that of Tone Float by Organisation, Ralf and Florian’s pre-Kraftwerk band).

The sounds on Kraftwerk et al. diametrically oppose the precise, linear driving musik and robotic electro-funk that marked their work from the mid-’70s onward. No doubt, all of that stuff should be revered, too, and its influence is staggering. But it’s so frustrating that the creators of those early releases disown them, making the LPs ripe for bootlegging and gray-area reissues. I normally don’t condone buying those, but in this case, do what you gotta do to get ’em.

So, finally, to Kraftwerk’s debut album. Produced by the studio wizard Conny Plank, it consists of four long tracks, each a mind-blower. Opener “Ruckzuck” (translation: Right Now) is the pinnacle of flute-centric avant-rock. Schneider’s electronically treated instrument stutters and splutters with contrapuntal ingenuity, forming a mesmerizing motif over Andreas Hohmann’s motorik drums and Hütter’s guitar stabs and organ whorls. An interlude of cymbal and warped-to-hell flute crescendos will shock you with a horror-film force. That rupture is indicative of a piece that keeps regenerating, changing tempo, accruing strange textures, ebbing and flowing, and throwing surprises at your ears at a frantic rate. “Ruckzuck” is nightmarish yet euphoric psychedelic music as you’ve never heard it before. Schneider proves himself to be the Sonny Sharrock of the flute, a mad genius who took his instrument’s timbres to heretofore unexplored and untamed realms..

Stratovarius” (Schneider plays violin, too) resembles Can’s “Aumgn,” emitting several minutes of maleficent squall and alienating drones. Eventually, a slack, quasi-funky rhythm emerges along with cantankerous guitar feedback and squawks. When the song shifts into a freak-rock rave-up à la Can’s “Outside My Door,” it reveals Kraftwerk deconstructing rock into fascinating shapes while ratcheting up the intensity to horrifying dimensions. “Megaherz” is an electronic experiment in extreme dynamics and tonalities, but it’s not without its tender, beautiful passages. The one in which Schneider’s flute and Hütter’s organ and triangle cohere into a meditative respite is exemplary.

Von Himmel Hoch” (From Heaven Above in English) remains one of history’s maddest album-finales. It begins with a series of otherworldly aircraft noises, explosions, and alarms. Gradually, a menagerie of bizarre animal growls generated with a modified organ called a “tubon” coheres into a powerful rhythm, underscored by future Neu! member Klaus Dinger’s pugilistic drums. As some of the most fucked-up borborygmus/stomach gurgles ever laid to tape ensue, you think, “It’s too bad Roger Waters and Ron Geesin didn’t conceive these sounds for their Music From The Body LP.” Unexpectedly, the track gets urgently funky near the end, before finishing with a bass frequency explosion. WOWOW.

To reiterate, it’s shameful that Kraftwerk is out-of-print. Instead, it deserves a reissue with liner notes, previously unseen photos, bonus tracks, the works. Come on, Ralf. Quit being such a Scheisskopf. -Buckley Mayfield

Jon Hassell “Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)” (Ndeya, 2020)

I don’t usually review new albums here, but this one by a world-class innovator, 83-year-old American trumpeter/keyboardist Jon Hassell, deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

With Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two), he has found new ways to elaborate on his distinctive sound. Dubbed by Hassell as Fourth World Music, it’s a hybrid of Asian and African styles tempered by minimalist compositional strategies influenced by Terry Riley and Kiranic-singing guru Pandit Pran Nath, and is distinguished by Hassell’s electronically treated horn. It’s tempting to call Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) and its 2018 companion Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) as late-career resurgences, but Hassell has never fallen off in over 40 years as a bandleader.

Pentimento means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.” This suggests that Hassell is renovating previous innovations. While that’s partially true, long-time fans will hear new facets. Hassell suffused Listening to Pictures with eerie mists of trumpet and grounded it with thick, tumid rhythms of hazy origins, qualities evident on his luminous 1978 debut LP, Vernal Equinox. Listening to Pictures intensifies his music’s patented meditative and predatory elements while adding new textures and rhythms to his adventurous repertoire.

Seeing Through Sound continues down that path, swirling both minor and major gestures into a rich mosaic. “Fearless” sojourns through Stygian miasmas of smeared keyboard shrieks à la Miles Davis’s “Rated X,” bass smudges, slack funk beats, and eldritch plumes of trumpet. Disorientation reigns from the start. Hassell’s most famous collaborator, Brian Eno, singled out “Unknown Wish” for being “one of the most mysterious, seductive and enchanting things” Hassell has done, adding that he’d never heard anything like it. It’s a highlight, for sure, its twitchy guitar and keyboard interplay giving way to unsettling sighs recalling Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack and the panther-like stealth of Davis’s In a Silent Way, courtesy of Peter Freeman’s electric-bass pulsations. “Delicado” also pushes into new territory, as slabs of low-end frequencies shunt ominously, forming an intrusive yet oblong rhythm more likely to get you moving toward the exits than the dance floor. The contrast between this and the icy keyboard drones and plaintive wisps of trumpet exemplify Hassell’s paradoxical inventiveness.

Drifting in on a morose, majestic drone, “Timeless” closes Seeing Through Sound on an aptly oblique note. With bass that’s more like pressure fluctuations than chord progressions, spare keyboard dabs, and scuttling crab noises, “Timeless” has too much happening for it to be deemed ambient, but its amorphousness and strange amalgam of elements make it hard to slot into any genre. The track’s yet another paragon of Hassell’s shape-shifting uniqueness. -Buckley Mayfield

Swell Maps “Jane From Occupied Europe” (Rather/Rough Trade, 1980)

I’m not sure enough people are realizing how great and distinctive Birmingham, England’s Swell Maps were. Their ramshackle, exploratory post-punk songs have influenced hundreds of musicians since their dissolution in 1980, yet they still seem under-recognized in the grand scheme of things.

On their two studio albums—1979’s A Trip To Marineville and 1980’s Jane From Occupied Europe—Swell Maps fused unschooled musique-concrète strategies with garage-rock energy, krautrock hypnosis, and the occasional poppy melody. Although they emerged from Great Britain’s fecund post-punk scene, Swell Maps often had more in common with German improvisational geniuses Can and America’s home of willfully weird unrock, Ralph Records.

Jane From Occupied Europe‘s tracks were recorded from 1977-1980 and they display the idiosyncratic aesthetics of members Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, and Golden Cockrill. (Those aliases are as quirky as the music.) The album starts oddly with “Robot Factory,” which features eerie, radiant keyboard drone, wind-up toys, and rudimentary, quasi-funky beats that sometimes slip out of time. It sounds like a post-punk Joe Meek production, endearingly lo-fi and otherworldly. “Let’s Buy A Bridge” is definitive hurly-burly post-punk pop, bolstered by chaotic drum clatter and Jowe’s ultra-wonky sax solo. Sudden’s imploring, whiny vocals full of youthful discontent here became one of post-punk’s most recognizable sounds.

“Border Country”’s tight, torqued rock comes off like a sloppier, less funky Gang Of Four or early Mekons while “Cake Shop Girl”’s weirdly morose pop recalls a less refined version of Ralph acts such as Snakefinger and Renaldo & The Loaf. The mutedly euphoric “The Helicopter Spies” proved Swell Maps could write a catchy melody, even if they festooned it with janky squalls that rival Velvet Underground’s on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The pell-mell, enigmatic jam “Big Maz In The Desert” aspires to Can’s metronomic mesmerism, but Swell Maps don’t have that German group’s skill level. Still, it’s a weird and wired epic.

On Jane From Occupied Europe, Swell Maps generated such great guitar and keyboard sounds—clangorous, radiant, cyclical—and they spilled over the raw clatter of Epic Soundtracks’ drums, finding new ways to make rock surprise, to make sloppiness a virtue, to scramble the DNA of pop melodiousness. They conclusively proved you didn’t need technical prowess to create great, enduring music—just a surplus of interesting, unconventional ideas.

[The big indie label Secretly Canadian reissued Jane on vinyl in 2012 and on CD in 2015 (with bonus tracks). Those are likely the easiest and most affordable ways to score physical copies of this classic LP.] -Buckley Mayfield

Emil Richards & The Microtonal Blues Band “Journey To Bliss” (Impulse!/ABC, 1968)

Sometimes you can judge a record by its cover. Check out Journey To Bliss by Emil Richards & The Microtonal Blues Band. Dig the Sanskrit font on the front cover, as well as the hypnotic patterns in the painting, and Richards wearing a beatific grin and a top native to India. The back cover features a Van Gogh-esque painting of a swami. And though it’s a Bob Thiele production bearing the Impulse! imprint, Journey To Bliss ain’t your father’s typical jazz record… unless your pop is Timothy Leary. This is a venerable jazz label trying to cash in with a psychsploitation elpee. It didn’t quite win over the kids, but heard over 50 years later, Journey To Bliss still has the power to charm.

Impulse! helpfully provides a list of all the instruments used by the Microtonal Blues Band (who include Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco; Richards was a well-connected LA session muso). It runs to 57 items. Some of the more obscure ones include flapamba, tumbeg, crotales, dharma bells, temple blocks, surrogate Kithara (a variation of a Harry Partch invention), and boobams. So there you go. Buckle up for a strange ride the likes of which you likely have never experienced, unless you’re familiar with the catalog of the aforementioned Partch.

“Maharimba” instantly launches into a jaunty jazz-exotica gait in 7/4, piquant percussion timbres flying everywhere; big ups to those tuned wastebaskets. This song could segue nicely out of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” even though it’s in a different time signature. “Bliss” proves that 11/4 is a very good time. It tumbles headlong into the titular state with an array of sublimely slapstick percussion timbres (22 tone xylophone and who knows what else). The peppy and peripatetic “Mantra” (in 5/4) unsurprisingly comes across like Brubeck meeting Partch at the cantina. “Enjoy, Enjoy” is a strangely undulating tune just rippling with extranjero percussion. Periodically you’ll hear Hagan Beggs narrating some mystical mumbo jumbo that was in vogue during the late ’60s over the music. This may be a deal-breaker for some, but I like the dude’s sense of wonder and sonorous delivery.

Side two is dominated by the 18-minute “Journey To Bliss,” and what an oneiric odyssey through intriguing paths of Eastern music it is. “There is a river running through me and sometimes I let it pull me in/it cradles me in its ever-so-gently rocking current and carries me along to bliss,” Beggs intones in a hypnotist’s cadence, not too different from Timothy Leary’s on Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. It works well over the faux-gamelan ritual procession.

The final two parts of the six-part suite build to a tumultuous climax, with scorching sitar riffs and Rashied Ali-esque drum splatter—and loads of dissonant bell tones. If this is bliss, it’s a particularly hectic strain of it. Beggs proclaims, “My heart is the sun/My body is the universe/My soul iiiiiisssssssss” [cacophony engulfs everything] “Jai guru dev.” (Translation: Victory to the Greatness in you.) And scene.

Goodness gracious. It’s all too much… thankfully. -Buckley Mayfield

Hal Blaine “Psychedelic Percussion” (Dunhill, 1967)

Hal Blaine died of natural causes last month at age 90. A session drummer on 150 top-10 hits and a member of the world-famous Wrecking Crew studio band, he had perhaps the most impressive music career of anyone who isn’t a household name. While the obits reeled off the many chart smashes and TV themes—both sublime and cheesy—to which Blaine contributed his impeccable timing and tone, they failed to mention this wonderful oddity in his discography. And that’s a damn shame…

Psychedelic Percussion is truth in titling. With help from Paul Beaver of Beaver & Krause non-fame on electronics and Emil Richards and Gary Coleman (not the actor) on percussion, Blaine goes wild in the studio with drums, gong, xylophone, organ, bongos, congas, and timpani. Free to follow his own instincts instead of adhere to the whims of other musicians and producers, the legendary sticksman let loose with a freaky panoply of non-4/4 beats and unusual textures and tones. The result is 12 instrumentals that sounds like a combo of Raymond Scott-esque slapstick jazz, ’50s exotica on dexedrine, and an LSD-laced library record. Conservative estimate, Blaine packed 20 pounds of action into a 10-pound bag here. It’s one of the craziest party platters with which you’ll ever have the pleasure of baffling your guests.

Psychedelic Percussion truly is an unclassifiable one-off, obviously unlike anything Blaine did while on the clock during other people’s sessions. Whatever the case, it’s strange that this album’s never received a proper vinyl reissue in the 52 years since its initial release. (Universal Japan re-released it on CD in 2002.) I write this review partially in the hopes that some enterprising label will finally do the deed. In the meantime, you can hear it in its entirety on YouTube… or score it on Discogs for big bucks. -Buckley Mayfield

Nico “The Marble Index” (Elektra, 1968)

When you think about records that could be considered the antithesis of a party album (and who doesn’t, at least weekly?), you have to place Nico’s The Marble Index near the top of the heap. Recorded with fellow former Velvet Underground band mate John Cale, this record stood in stark relief against 1968’s kaleidoscopic array of vibrantly hued psychedelia and rabble-rousing soul like an ice castle in the desert. Anyone expecting another lissome folk-pop gem like Nico’s 1967 debut LP, Chelsea Girl, would have to have been shocked upon hearing The Marble Index. According to interviews, Nico is on record as saying the latter is a more true expression of her art and soul than the former, which abounded with songs written by men. Angst for the memories, Ms. Päffgen.

After the brief “Prelude,” a relatively sprightly glockenspiel and piano reverie that doesn’t prepare you for what’s to follow, things snap into proper foreboding with “Lawns Of Dawns.” The song seems to rise out of a murk, not unlike some of the tracks on Tim Buckley’s Starsailor. Harmonium drones, glockenspiel tintinnabulations, Nico’s stentorian intonations of oblique, personal poetry mark Marble Index‘s dominant mode, and it’s icy, mate. Trivia: “Lawns Of Dawns” reportedly was inspired by peyote visions Nico experienced with paramour Jim Morrison.

No One Is There” is minimalist, Northern European art-folk lieder, as Nico trills morosely over Cale’s saturninely beauteous viola. Written for her son, “Ari’s Song” is a lullaby that probably offered cold comfort, given its frigid atmosphere and piercing bosun’s pipe tonalities. Over a slightly woozy and fragile cacophony, Nico sings, “Sail away, sail away, my little boy/Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy/Sail away, my little boy.” Sweet dreams, child, ha ha. “Facing The Wind” is haunted desolation incarnate. Nico’s waxing and waning harmonium drones slur around banging piano dissonance and random, disconcerting percussion. Our heroine sings through a Leslie speaker for added eeriness about an existential crisis exacerbated by the elements in nature.

Toward Marble Index‘s end, things really get dark. The polar viola drones in “Frozen Warnings” shiver with unbearably poignant forlornness, shrouded by Nico’s pitiless yet dulcet vocals. It’s up there with Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” for tender, heart-shredding sonic beauty. Listen and feel your blood slowly freeze with sympathy. Album-finale “Evening Of Light” features gradually intensifying bell tolling, grim bass groans, and viola drones that overwhelm Nico’s doomed crooning. Nico and Cale are not even trying to make the music and singing sync up, which adds to the sense of menace. The refrain “Midnight winds are landing at the end of time” sums up The Marble Index‘s pervasive mood of crushing bleakness and captures the song’s artfully apocalyptic tenor.

In the liner notes to the deluxe CD reissue of The Marble Index and Desertshore titled The Frozen Borderline: 1968-1970, the LP’s producer, Frazier Mohawk said: “After it was finished, we genuinely thought people might kill themselves. The Marble Index isn’t a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.” The man speaks the truth. Nevertheless, you need to hear it. -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

Lydia Lunch “Queen Of Siam” (ZE, 1980)

Lydia Lunch has a reputation as a provocative, profane No Wave icon and as a spoken-word badass who would just as soon kick you in the ‘nads (with her words) as look at you. Her band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks tore it up on Brian Eno’s No New York comp, and she’s loaned her caustic wit and withering sneer to several other groups (8-Eyed Spy, Harry Crews) and collabs, including a memorable cameo on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69” and a fruitful link-up with Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard that included a gothy stab at Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.”

But Lunch’s debut full-length under her own name shocks by being accessible—relatively speaking. It contains two covers that suggest the range and vibe of Queen Of Siam: “Gloomy Sunday”—made famous by Billie Holiday and Associates (joking about the latter) and “Spooky,” the chill lounge-pop gem from 1967 that Classics IV took to the charts. Lunch imbues the latter with kittenish charm as her band jazzes it up with boozy gusto. The former is a paragon of insular moroseness—so beautifully hopeless.

Opener “Mechanical Flattery” captures the weird balance of song-oriented approach and arty knottiness that appears throughout the album. Lunch’s numbed deadpan somehow approximates the effect of a coquettish diva, but the stilted beats, oblique piano, and melancholy horn thwart any easy commercial pay-off. This sort of tension makes Queen Of Siam a riveting experience that just improves with each listen. The sleepwalking ballad “Tied And Twist” lumbers lithely, a No Wave plaint in slow-motion. Lunch’s sparse, laggard guitar solo is fantastically wonky; Robert Quine would be proud.

“Atomic Bongos” is the closest thing on Queen Of Siam to a hard-rocker, with its maddeningly repetitive and rugged bass riff and scathing, Contortions-esque guitar tang. “Lady Scarface,” by contrast, exudes a cabaret/big-band-jazz aura—shades of Quincy Jones—as Lunch recounts a lurid scenario about seducing a 16-year-old boy. In fact, most of the record bristles with a strange strain of carnality, at once sleazy and classy, edgy and retro. “I’m split and unbled and I’m ripped to the sore/Every man’s madness and I’m hurdling ripped to the core/There’s knives in my drain/Empty splints in my brain” Lunch leers in “Knives In My Drain” as a David Lynchian nightmare jazz tune slinks behind her. It conjures a pleasingly queasy feeling. (It should be noted that multi-instrumentalist Pat Irwin [the Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy] and the Billy Ver Planck Orchestra are the low-key stars here.)

[Note: Amphetamine Reptile Records reissued Queen Of Siam on vinyl and CD in 2017.] -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Can” (Harvest, 1979)

Can’s 11th studio album, Can (aka Inner Space), generally receives less attention and praise than their earlier, better-known full-lengths, but it’s actually a pretty strong record. There are some duds here, to be sure, but when they’re good, they’re very good. Even at this late, these krautrock legends still had mad creative juice.

By 1979, Can were in a weird place. Original bassist Holger Czukay was relegated to editing tape in the studio; Traffic and Stomu Yamash’ta bassist Rosko Gee replaced him, while fellow Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Baah joined the group as a percussionist. Wonderfully idiosyncratic singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki were long gone, so guitarist Michael Karoli assumed vocal duties with a workmanlike blandness. Yet despite this inauspicious situation, Can still delivered five excellent tracks (out of eight), which is quite respectable for a band 11 years into their career.

Can opens with one of the unit’s greatest tracks of any period, “All Gates Open.” (Note: The new Can biography by Rob Young and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt uses this phrase as its title.) Jaki Liebezeit kicks out a busted-metronome beat that sort of mocks disco while Czukay ladles in mysterious, menacing noises and Karoli jams out a riff that the Fall stole for “Shoulder Pads 1 & 2.” Eventually and without warning, Schmidt generates a radiant swell of tones that overwhelms you like an orgasmic epiphany. And then there are the bluesy harmonica parts—about the last thing you’d expect in a Can composition. This is an eight-minute epic worth every odd second. Another eight-plus minutes of weirdness, “Safe” finds Karoli channeling Carlos Santana’s rococo, piercing runs and Czukay creating a bizarre, cavernous soundworld as Liebezeit keeps lopsided martial time. “Sunday Jam” offers more Latin-rock lushness with a rhythm that gushes forth with an abundance of “Black Magic Woman” intrigue. Side 1 slays all in its path.

Side 2 starts extremely well, with “Sodom” and “A Spectacle.” The former is a very ominous rock song that bears the gravitas of Goblin or post-Syd Pink Floyd, as Karoli wrenches serpentine, liquid silver from his guitar. The latter is an elegantly spluttering specimen of disco (not disco) that starts startlingly in mid-stride. As Gee’s bass line sends your ears on a thrilling roller-coaster ride, Liebezeit concocts a miracle of stutter-funk footwork and sticksmanship. You need at least three legs to dance to this track properly.

“E.F.S. Nr. 99 (Can Can)” is where things get dicey. This admittedly spirited cover of a piece by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach was seemingly done for its wordplay potential alone. Let us never speak of it again. “Ping Pong” captures 25 seconds of a ping-pong ball bouncing. Why?! Dunno. Because they could? Finally, the flamboyant biker-rock blowout of “Can Be” recalls “Full Moon On The Highway” from Landed, but it’s not as badass.

So, yeah, Can ends bafflingly badly, but its high points are so stratospheric, they’re cancelled out. Don’t pay attention to the fans who say Can didn’t make any great records after Future Days or Soon Over Babaluma. This one’s a stunning sleeper. -Buckley Mayfield

Moebius & Plank “Rastakraut Pasta” (Sky, 1980)

The late Dieter Moebius could do no wrong. A crucial member of Cluster, Harmonia, and Liliental, and a collaborator with Brian Eno, Max Beerbohm, Mani Neumeier, Asmus Tietchnes, Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson, and many other mavericks, Moebius always brought a peculiar tonal vocabulary to any studio situation He never stopped trying new things and maintained high quality control to the very end of this life—a true rarity.

One of his key conspirators was the renowned krautrock producer/engineer Conny Plank. Along with Guru Guru drummer Neumeier, both German geniuses recorded the mind-boggling Zero Set, which was way ahead of its time (and which I hope to review eventually). In the meantime, let’s examine Moebius and Plank’s first full-length, Rastakraut Pasta, which thankfully isn’t quite as goofy as its title.

Moebius met Plank when the latter served as engineer for Cluster 1971. They hit it off and meshed their peculiar sensibilities on Rastakraut, which reveals the more whimsical side of the two musicians’ talents. (CAN’s Holger Czukay plays bass on three tracks here.) The LP title reveals the underlying sonic theme: a bizarre melding of Jamaican and Teutonic musical elements. “News,” the title track, and “Miss Cacadou” dabble with drunken dub and reggae structures, their woozy skank always threatening to capsize into a Caribbean Sea filled with molasses rather than water.

On “Two Oldtimers,” which features Czukay, Dieter and Conny finesse a lollygagging electro-pop that’s as dreamy as these sagacious Germans ever got—until it unexpectedly turns all solemnly neo-classical. “Solar Plexus” is the album’s strangest piece; it seemingly consists of a tuning fork and synth murmurs Doppler effected into a weird splaying of tones and warped mumbles. The main motivation behind it appears to be to fuck with your reality while you’re tripping. Face it: We all could use some tracks like this in our lives.

The album’s anomaly and peak occurs on “Feedback 66” (which also includes Czukay). This is surf-rock submerged in tar, its rhythm seemingly clipped from that monotonously funky kickdrum from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” and then slowed way down. Again, it’s produced to mess with your mind in an insidious manner, which is why I love to drop it in DJ sets. “Feedback 66” is one of Moebius and Plank’s greatest achievements of their storied careers—and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

Praise Jah that that price of admission won’t be exorbitant, as the excellent Bureau B label reissued Rastakraut Pasta on vinyl in 2010 and again in 2017. -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