Monday, September 19, 2016

Krautrock: Reviewing the “50 Kosmische Classics”

Just over 20 years ago, English rocker Julian Cope published a slim volume titled Krautrocksampler: One Head's Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik -- 1968 Onwards. The book presents a mostly thorough overview of the “Krautrock” genre that originated in Germany in the late 1960s, an eclectic category of music including examples of experimental rock, psychedelic rock, the avant-garde, funk, electronic music, minimalism, ambient music, funk, jazz, fusion, blues, and more.

Of course, while Krautrock certainly borrowed elements from these other genres, it was also distinct in its own right -- and highly influential upon many later groups and subgenres. When you hear someone like Thom Yorke championing the ’70s band Neu! and describing their music as sounding “like joy... like a brand-new motorway, and you are the first to drive on it,” he’s just one of a chorus of contemporary artists voicing appreciation for the genre.

There’s a tendency to refer to any album-oriented rock or electronic music emanating from Germany from, say, 1968 through the early 1980s, as “Krautrock,” although doing so doesn’t necessarily help us pinpoint what exactly is meant by the term. To me “Krautrock” most often overlaps with “progressive rock” of that era because of the use of similar instruments (including new-at-the-time synths and electronics) and an inclination toward experimentation and eschewing traditional song structures. But even that is a less than satisfactory way of describing the category, since so many groups similarly included under the heading sound so different from one another.

At the time he published his book, Cope was best known for his stint as the frontman for The Teardrop Explodes and for a solo career marked by memorable, idiosyncratic LPs like Fried and World Shut Your Mouth often considered part of the “neopsychedelic” wave marking the early-to-mid ‘80s. The appearance of Krautrocksampler and other music criticism (a lot of which can be found on his website) would later position Cope as a kind of music “curator” whose critical sensibilities have proven somewhat influential insofar as he’s helped introduce a lot of folks to a ton of great music. He’s certainly knowledgeable about Krautrock’s history and highlights, and while Krautrocksampler often reads as an extended homage of fulsome praise, it’s also a valuable introduction to many of the genre’s best titles.

Part of the book’s original charm was the relative obscurity of the titles Cope discussed, as he wrote during a pre-internet age when many of the albums could only be obtained via mail order (and usually for a hefty price). In fact the book itself became a much sought-after collectible, with Cope choosing not to publish subsequent editions after deciding others were more qualified than he to assess Krautrock. Now, though, you can grab a .pdf of the book online without too much trouble.

The albums have also become much easier to procure, with a lot of them now trivially easy to find on the web (including on YouTube). That means Krautrocksampler readers can now sample the music for themselves and decide whether or not they agree with Cope’s many recommendations. Having spent many years enjoying bands like Neu!, Can, Faust, Kraftwerk, and Popol Vuh, the book introduced me to many more artists who now occupy semi-regular-to-permanent places in my personal rotation.

A big highlight of the book is Cope’s annotated list of “50 Kosmische Classics” that includes LPs from 20 different Krautrock acts. Not long ago I realized I’d actually (finally) heard all 50 of them, and so had an idea to share my own reviews of each which like Cope’s are mostly very positive. I’ll gradually go through the list in alphabetical order (as Cope does) -- from Amon Düül to Witthüser & Westrupp -- then once I’m done I’ll try to rank the 50 from best-to-worst. (I already have in mind which titles are my favorites and which are the ones I listen to the least, but I’ll be better positioned to make such a list after reviewing them all and sharing them here.)

The first review will come next week. Meanwhile, as an appetizer here’s a 12-minute track from one of the genre’s best -- Faust -- which they in fact titled “Krautrock” as a bit of an in-joke. Like some other groups now held up as representative of the genre, Faust wasn’t altogether crazy about the obviously reductionist label. As Cope explains in his book, the idea of a “movement” or consciously-driven “tradition” under the Krautrock heading was something more imposed by others (especially the British musical press) than embraced and/or consciously nurtured by the German groups themselves.

Even so, Faust’s transporting track -- an awesomely dynamic drone highlighting its 1973 LP Faust IV (and one of my favorites, period) -- is a great introduction to the spirit and vibe embodied by many of the artists whose albums comprise Cope’s list.


Phil said...

Looking forward to the series!

Robert Doeckel said...

Great post! Loving this in-depth look at a criminally underrated genre. Close your eyes and picture deep & weird '94 tweezers combined with the slowly-evolving '97/ '98/ '99 type II phish funk vehicles.