Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Krautrock: The Cosmic Jokers, The Cosmic Jokers (1974)

The Krautrock genre is an eclectic one, covering such a wide range of styles it’s really misleading to consider it a homogeneous category. That said, there was a lot of collaboration between individuals and groups to whom the label has been applied, including among those appearing on Julian Cope’s list of “50 Kosmische Classics.”

The high frequency of such get-togethers predictably led to some blending of styles and influences among the category’s members. It also makes those Krautrock “family tree” diagrams such as this one pretty damned complicated.

Probably the most famous example of such collaboration was the Cosmic Jokers, a Krautrock “supergroup” comprised of...

  • Klaus Schulze (Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, solo) -- electronics, synths
  • Harald Grosskopf (Ash Ra Tempel, Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- drums, percussion
  • Manuel Gōttsching (Ash Ra Tempel, solo) -- guitars
  • Jürgen Dollase (Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- keyboards
  • Dieter Derks -- bass

    Derks produced and/or engineereed a lot of Krautrock bands, including Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Witthüser & Westrupp, and Popol Vuh. (Later on he famously produced the Scorpions and Twisted Sister as well.)

    The story goes that another famous producer of Krautrock acts, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser (founder of the Ohr label on which many such acts appeared), and his girlfriend-partner Gille Lettmann staged a series of “acid parties” at Derks’s studio during early 1973, giving the musicians free drugs and inviting them to jam while recording everything.

    From these sessions came many hours of recordings, eventually edited down and produced as five LPs all released during 1974 (and all of which are included on Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”). The records’ release was met by varying degrees of animosity by those involved, none of whom had given permission for the music to be made public. All of it ended badly in lawsuits, fights over unpaid royalties, and eventually Kaiser and Lettmann ignominiously disappearing from the Krautrock scene altogether.

    All of which is to say, the “band” Cosmic Jokers was never really a band per se. Even if the musicians weren’t generally pleased with the Jokers’ recorded output, the LPs have grown to be regarded as important contributions to prog rock, with their reputations each enhanced somewhat by their participation.

    The self-titled debut consists of two side-long jams, the first suitably titled “Galactic Joke.” The side is divided into three parts separated by whooshy effects that give the impression of floating in space.

    The first part is an earnest, forward-looking rocker highlighted by Göttsching’s inspired soloing. The second part starts out with a slower, more sinister vibe, then eventually builds into a sparse, rhythmic pulsation. The third part also begins gently then picks up momentum, keyboard riffs and pounding percussion eventually pushing the collective forward as though marching through the credits of some obscure ‘70s sci-fi flick.

    The second side -- called “Cosmic Joy” -- is split into two parts and is more meditative on the whole, the musicians separately floating in and out of Schulze’s quivering synths as though sending signals across the universe in the hopes of establishing some sort of interstellar contact.

    Though obviously improvised, the editing and production lends a very studious, polished quality to the proceedings, making for an enjoyable session of listening that’s more controlled than chaotic -- not at all like the less disciplined Timothy Leary-Ash Ra Tempel joint venture Seven Up in which the lysergic search for inspiration yielded less satisfying results for those of us listening in.

  • Friday, March 31, 2017

    Krautrock: Tony Conrad with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973)

    Faust, the band from Wümme in northern Germany outside of Hamburg, is one of a handful of Krautrock acts invariably named whenever the genre is considered.

    We’ll discuss the curious circumstances of their formation and initial marketing soon enough when the time arrives to consider the four Faust LPs included among Julian Cope’s list of “50 Kosmische Classics.” Today Faust gets to make an early, cameo appearance in our survey, though, as part of a discussion of one other record on which they appeared, one for which they played a supporting role to Tony Conrad, the avant-garde filmmaker, musical and artist from New Hampshire.

    As a filmmaker and later video artist, Conrad earned significant renown for his various formal experiments during the 1960s and after. His first film, The Flicker (1966), consists primarily of just solid black and white frames alternating in an intermittent sequence for a half-hour. Some walked out of screenings, while others endured headaches or nausea (take a look at excerpts on YouTube, if you dare).

    Other Conrad experiments in cinema included Yellow Movies (1972-73), actually patches of emulsion painted directly on walls inside of painted frames, with the emulsion subsequently reacting (very slowly) over time, and Pickled Film (1974) which involved stuffing film in bottles of vinegar and showing it that way (and not through a projector).

    Conrad passed away at 76 almost a year ago, and not long after his death came the release of an acclaimed documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. The trailer gives you a further idea of his personality and artistic envelope-pushing (while also featuring music from today's album):

    Conrad made a lot of music during his life as well, including belonging to a famous ensemble of experimental musicians known as the Theatre of Eternal Music, a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate. The group included important figures like La Monte Young, Jon Hassell, Angus MacLise, and John Cale, and tended largely toward minimalism and drone music. In other words, as with film, Conrad frequently challenged formal boundaries in music as well.

    Speaking of Cale, Conrad played an important role in the Velvet Underground’s backstory, and in fact with Cale and Lou Reed played in the Primitives, the pre-VU band that only lasted long enough to make one single in 1964. Conrad is in fact credited with having indirectly inspired the name of Reed and Cale’s famous band, the pair having once visited his New York City apartment where Conrad had laying around a copy of Michael Leigh’s 1963 book about sexual perversion, The Velvet Underground.

    During the middle-to-late ’60s Cale oversaw a series of recordings titled “Inside the Dream Syndicate” featuring the collective. The title of Conrad’s 1973 collaboration with Faust thereby casts the LP as a kind of companion work.

    The record came about after a chance meeting in New York between Conrad and a filmmaker from Hamburg. The filmmaker knew Uwe Nettelbeck, Faust’s producer, and suggested he might be interested as well in Conrad’s music. Conrad flew to Germany and met Nettelbeck who took him to a farmhouse.

    “It was these people Faust,” Conrad later explained in an interview. “They had been, to some substantial degree, incarcerated in this farmhouse for months, and they had their partners and sexual liaisons and different social complexities enacted on a long-term basis within this farmhouse. It was a microcosm, where everything seemed to have been evolving in some strange way over the course of months and months.”

    By then Faust had recorded its first two records (Faust and Faust So Far) and were in the midst of a process that would result in their next (and best) two LPs appearing in 1973 (The Faust Tapes and Faust IV).

    “It was no wonder that they really didn't really have a lot of involvement with me,” said Conrad of the group. ”But Uwe said that they wanted to do stuff too, so we did one that was my style, and one that was more like a rock 'n' roll style. That's how there's two sides.”

    Conrad refers to the two side-long tracks that comprised the original LP, culled from three days’ worth of recording at the farmhouse. Conrad plays violin along with Faust’s Werner Diermaier (drums), Jean Hervé Péron (bass), and Rudolf Sosna (guitar/keyboards).

    The song on Side 1, a 27-minute long experiment titled “From the Side Of Man And WomanKind,” is the one Conrad refers to as “my style.”

    “I basically said, ‘Keep an even beat going through the whole thing,’ which is almost impossible,” explained Conrad. The track is a remarkable feat of discipline, the Faust members keeping time and never wavering from their metronome-like march while Conrad’s violin drones overhead. Kind of like The Flicker, it’s a disorienting piece. Some will find it maddening, while others might be tempted to dismiss it as joke art. Meanwhile there are those who sincerely regard it as a powerful, utterly absorbing track.

    Side 2, “From The Side of the Machines,” lasts nearly as long, but features a generally lighter mood. It’s a more dynamic piece, though is still carefully circumscribed within relatively tight parameters of rhythm and melody. The intensity increases as it goes, becoming almost menacing at times. Sosna’s keyboard surfaces about halfway through, mostly mimicking Conrad’s drones while covering everything over with a kind of soft-focus psychedelic patina.

    (Bonus tracks of varying length from the same sessions appear on subsequent reissues but don’t introduce anything particularly distinct.)

    Some describe Outside the Dream Syndicate as “meditative” or “hypnotic,” but that’s not the case for me at all. The record just keeps aggressively demanding our attention, forcing us back time and again to focus on the mechanics of the performance.

    This is one of those records that reminds me of Brian Eno’s quote: “Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.”

    Even so, like some of Conrad’s hard-to-watch films, Outside the Dream Syndicate is often held up as a signal work in minimalism, drone music, and the eclectic Krautrock genre. Check it out, if you dare.

    Wednesday, March 15, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Sowiesoso (1976)

    Cluster’s fourth LP (and third and last included among Julian Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”) is perhaps the duo’s most melodic and pleasant disc, making it a good starting point for those wishing to be introduced to the Berlin-based electronic music pioneers.

    I haven’t delved too deeply into a lot of post-1970s stuff from Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius -- between the two they each appeared either together or separately on more than a hundred records during their long careers. That said, Sowiesoso stands as a favorite Cluster disc for me and the one I dial up most often.

    The seven-plus minute title track (which means “Anyway”) that opens the disc offers a rhythmic, soothing groove with an added fluttering synth that is always welcoming. Though repetitive, there’s an uncanny sense of forward progress evident throughout, and a polish that distinguishes this record from a few of the more slapdash-seeming Zuckerzeit tracks.

    “Halwa” comes next, compiling an moody, effective ensemble of keyboards and synth. “Dem Wanderer” (“the hiker”) then ambles through, circling back to its starting point in a pleasing way. The first side closes with “Umleitung” (“detour”), in which a soft two-note pattern provides a context for some playful percussion and wordless chanting as though we’ve stumbled on a hippies-in-the-woods campfire scene.

    Side 2 opens with the lovely “Zum Wohl” (“for the benefit”), one of those wistful, plaintive tracks Cluster sometimes produces that work both as non-intrusive ambient and as an aural object rewarding close study. Another delicate construction, “Es War Einmal” (“once upon a time”) follows, tiptoeing through a few different synth paths before resolving into a breathing-like pattern of exhaling and inhaling. “In Ewigkeit” (“for eternity”) rounds out the program, its jazzy “afterglow’ like feel like a nice nightcap.

    Following Sowiesoso would come Cluster’s famous get-together with fellow sound explorer Brian Eno, with the collaborations producing two well-liked albums by fans of both -- Cluster & Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978).

    Despite being a dedicated Enophile myself, I only have a modest liking of these two albums, in part because they sound as though Cluster’s identity gets subsumed by Eno, making the records less satisfying (to me) than either Cluster’s own work or Eno’s ambient output from the same period (Discreet Music, Music for Airports, Music for Films).

    Take Sowiesoso for a walk here while you surf or work on other things, and see what you think about this “thinking music”:

    Sunday, February 19, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Zuckerzeit (1974)

    Along with Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze (both of whom appear with entries among Julian Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”), Cluster is part of the so-called “Berlin school” of electronic music also regarded as an important Krautrock offshoot (or interloper, depending on your point of view).

    Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s variety of “space music,” much of which might be classified also as “ambient” or “thinking” music, would directly influence some of Brian Eno’s later experiments, as well as David Bowie’s collaborations with Eno later in the decade. In fact, Eno was in the middle of collaborating with Cluster on two full-length LPs at the time he began working with Bowie on his famed “Berlin” trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger).

    Cluster’s third album Zuckerzeit detours from the duo’s first two records (and the three Kluster LPs that came before), offering a more accessible variety of proto-“synth pop” instrumentals with a greater emphasis on melody and rhythm. The title means “sugar time,” and with Michael Rother of Harmonia helping with production, the sweeter sound contrasts sharply with the darker moods of the earlier discs.

    “Hollywood” is an absorbing opener, immediately rewarding the listener for having set the needle down with a groovy, mellow march. “Caramel” similarly employs programmed percussion while cycling through a slightly more zealous-sounding loop, though the mood remains light.

    That track segues directly into “Rote Riki,” a lengthy collection of electronic buzzes and chirps underpinned by a kind of equestrian-flavored clip-clop percussion (kind of a distant precursor to the goofy “Die Bunge” from Cluser & Eno). “Rosa” then completes the first side with an echoey synth exercise similar to some Kraftwerk and Harmonia.

    The second side opens with “Caramba,” another track featuring a repetitive rhythm hammered out on overlapping keyboards. “Fotschi Tong” follows, giving the drum machine prominence while the duo dance up and down the synth in a somewhat claustrophobic way. “James” then incorporates plodding multi-tracked guitars and bass in a manner that might suggest a kind of 25th-century John Lee Hooker if you cup your ears just right.

    “Marzipan” is another bite-sized confection, featuring still more synth noodles tangling with each other. The slight “Rotor” likewise aims for cuteness amid mechanized monotony. Finally the short “Heiße Lippen” saves things by reprising the cool formula “Hollywood” in a merry, head-bobbing way.

    This record starts promisingly for me but trails off, with most of the latter tracks sounding a little too much like inconclusive dabbling with available machinery for my tastes (“Heiße Lippen” being the exception). I mean, I have a sweet tooth and love candy as much as anyone else who does -- but you can’t make a meal out of it.

    I’ll grant the record’s historical significance. I’ll even argue that the best tracks here challenge contemporaries like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia while variously prefiguring the work of later artists like Four Tet, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Bill Nelson, Air, and -- most importantly -- the Eno of Another Green World and certain other ambient outings.

    But for the most part I tend to agree with Julian Cope’s assessment that “the whole album seems like merely snatches of some passing car’s stereo turned up full.” See what you think:

    Monday, February 13, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Cluster II (1972)

    As noted at the start of this series, the category of “Krautrock” is hardly homogeneous. Rather it includes a wide variety of wholly dissimilar artists, many of whom didn’t even care that much to be thought of as belonging to a musical movement (let alone one named after an epithet).

    In any case, within the Krautrock kaleidoscope there’s a subcategory of electronic and/or synth-based music such as represented by groups like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and others. Some prefer to carve these mechanized maestros away and set them outside the Krautrock circle, keeping bands that tend to feature (mostly) prog-rock instrumentation like Amon Düül, Can, Faust, and Neu! positioned at the center.

    I’m not one to fuss too greatly over where the lines are drawn, usually inclined instead just to consider as Krautrock just about any music made in Germany during the late 1960s and 1970s that cannot readily be described as “Schlager” -- that is, the inoffensive, lightweight pop that often filled the German charts during those years.

    Many Krautrock acts had a dim view of Schlager, thinking of it as mindless and redundant, and were thereby motivated to shun the traditional forms and themes exhibited by it. And while some Krautrockers certainly absorbed Anglo and American influences (blues, rock, jazz), others very deliberately eschewed those influences as well, wanting to create something entirely new and seemingly untouched by other influences.

    Worth noting here as well was the country’s troubled, horrific political history which for many young adults discouraged any identification with their own nation’s past. Some of these artists pointed back to Germany’s “stunde null” or “hour zero,” a reference to the moment World War II concluded and the start of an entirely new Germany disconnected from its former Nazi-led state.

    This idea of an absolute break with the past was sometimes reflected in the free-form, experimental music some of these acts created, with the electronic tradition being especially inviting given its relative newness and the lack of history or set of common practices. The band Cluster -- essentially the duo of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius -- is our first example of such technological trailblazers from Germany who helped shape the modern era of electronic music.

    To step back just a bit, we should mention that pair’s earlier work with another important figure in German electronic music, Conrad Schnitzler, in a band similarly (and confusingly) named Kluster. First forming at the short-lived though influential and fertile Zodiac Arts club in Berlin, as a trio they made three LPs in short succession at the start of the ’70s, each of which is innovative and interesting.

    Klopfzeichen (1970), recorded at the same time as Tangerine Dream’s debut Electronic Meditation (on which Schnitzler also appears) emphasizes percussion and voice. Zwei-Osterei (1971) provides an eerie soundtrack to a dramatic reading of a nonsensical text Schnitzler claimed sounded better if you didn’t know German. And finally, Eruption omits the spoken word entirely, instead mixing organ, cello, electric guitar, tape effects, percussion, and feedback in rhythmically pleasing ways.

    All three Kluster LPs originally had very limited pressings (just 200 or 300 copies), though were reissued on CD in the 1990s and found their way online not long after that, making them much more accessible.

    Schnitzler then moved on, leaving Moebius and Roedelius to start afresh as Cluster, with producer Conrad Plank initially listed as a new third member. The debut was released in 1971 by a label run by the Dutch electronics company Philips whose list of acts included early Kraftwerk plus an eclectic variety of pop and classical acts from around the world.

    Cluster (or Cluster ’71, as it sometimes appears) features a more cinematic and expansive sound than is found on the sometimes claustrophobic Kluster LPs, its resonating waves smoothly progressing from one “scene” to the next in intuitive, logical-seeming ways. That the tracks are titled after their lengths (“15:33,” “7:38,” “21:17”) further underscores the tendency toward abstraction.

    Cluster then signed with Brain Records of Hamburg run by a couple of artists & repertoire guys who’d defected from the popular Krautrock label Ohr. Though only active for five years, Brain would issue numerous Krautrock classics including releases by Neu!, Harmonia, Klaus Schulze, all Popol Vuh who all also appear among the “50 Kosmische Classics.”

    For Cluster II, Moebius and Roedelius presented themselves as a duo with Plank being listed as a producer and earning co-writing credits for all six of the tracks.

    The mechanical, ominous “Plas” kicks it off, sounding like a dark, disorienting ride through an underground mine shaft with the mix of sounds disorienting your sense of near and far. The almost 13-minute “Im Süden” follows, featuring distorted, menacing guitars marching through a repetitive though slowly evolving dirge that ultimately resolves into a quiet, industrial wasteland. The first side then ends with the short “Fur die Katz” (“for the cat”), a collage of effects, modulated guitars, and electronic purring.

    The second side begins with the almost 15-minute “Live In Der Fabrik” (“live in the factory”) featuring a rapid rhythm that mimicks some sort of futuristic production line. “Georgel” follows, a spooky experiment with organ and tape manipulation. The noisy cacophony of “Nabitte” (“there you are”) then provides a rapid postlude.

    There something remarkably stimulating -- both intellectually and emotionally -- about both the Kluster records and these early Cluster LPs. It’s all very different from the other Krautrock we’ve covered, and indeed different from much else happening at the time.

    That’s the point, of course, although soon enough many other artists would start to cluster around Moebius and Roedelius and demonstrate their influence for many years to come.

    Friday, February 03, 2017

    Krautrock: Can, Delay 1968 (1981)

    The fifth and final Can album Julian Cope includes among his “50 Kosmische Classics” is one I wouldn’t necessarily insist upon as a must listen for anyone other than the band’s most ardent fanatics.

    Delay 1968 is an unreleased collection of tracks recorded prior to the band’s 1969 debut and released much later in 1981. Intended initially as the band’s first LP, labels shied away, causing Can to shift gears slightly and try again. Some of the record’s seven tracks surfaced here and there on bootlegs, with the best of the bunch -- “The Thief” -- getting an official release on a compilation in 1970.

    The record further establishes Can’s reputation as proto-punksters while also elevating Malcolm Mooney’s importance both to early Can and suggesting even more of an influence by him over the “classic” Damo Suzuki-led lineup that followed his departure.

    “Butterfly” opens with a grungy, droning sound that like other early Can points back to the Velvet Underground and ahead to Metal Box-era Public Image Limited. A modest organ stars during the first half of the tune, then percussion steps up for the latter half while Mooney chants about a dying butterfly.

    “Pnoom” follows, a goofy bit of Beefheart-like sax squonking that got included in the band’s “Ethnological Forgery Series” of odd fragments. “Nineteen Century Man,” a suitably primitive-sounding jam with nonsense lyrics sounding vaguely accusatory (of a “nineteen [sic] century man” who is behind the times?).

    “The Thief” ends the first side, the most melodic and pleasing track on the LP. Has a doom-laden vibe the urgency of which matches the singer’s lament (“why must I be the thief?”). Radiohead spotlighted its debt to Can with intense live performances of “The Thief” (one is included below).

    The second side starts with a noisy one about a “Man Named Joe” that sounds excerpted from a longer jam. “Uphill” comes next, probably the most Velvet-sounding song on the record (that not incidentally sneaks in the adjective “velvet” multiple times modifying various nouns). Finally “Little Star of Bethlehem” recounts a strange, surreal meeting between two characters named Froggy and Toady.

    There’s historical value here, but as I noted in the previous review I’m much more in favor of following Can’s story forward into its “late” era prog masterworks than to forage around too much back here before the beginning.

    Saturday, January 28, 2017

    Krautrock: Can, Ege Bamyasi (1972)

    Ege Bamyasi is the fourth of five Can albums included among Julian Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics,” the fifth (Delay 1968) being a compilation of unreleased material from the band’s “early” period.

    Even the band’s most ardent fans forget (or ignore) the full title of this one -- “Ege Bamyasi Okraschoten.” They also either disagree or never bother to figure out how to pronounce it. As far as I’ve been able to tell, “bamyasi” is Turkish for okra while “ege” alludes to a company from Istanbul that among other things canned vegetables. Whatever you call it, “the one with a can of okra” deserves a spot near the top of any discerning listener’s Krautrock rankings.

    Contrasting with the epic that preceded it (Tago Mago), Ege Bamyasi presents a (relatively) less freaky selection of seven accessible tracks, even producing a top 10 single in Germany. While lead singer Damo Suzuki would stick around for one more album before departing the group, Cope nonetheless regards Ege Bamyasi as “the only true Damo Suzuki/Can album” given the turn toward more instrumental, prog-like music subsequently produced by the band.

    A short burst of feedback heralds the opening track, the nine-plus minute “Pinch.” It’s a highly funky, Electric Miles era-type groove over which Suzuki improvises nonsensical word associations (in English). “Sing Swan Song” follows, the sound of running water giving way to a soft, lullaby-like tune that gradually fades up to reveal what sounds a bit like an incantation amid its many layers of effects-laden guitars. By contrast, the driving “One More Night” closing out the first side features crisper-sounding clarity, with harmonics propelling the tune forward not unlike an Eno-era Talking Heads track.

    Side Two begins with a moody number titled “Vitamin C” in which Suzuki enigmatically croons to someone about losing his or her vitamin C (a symbol for strength?). The track throbs along, giving bassist Holger Czukay lots of room to caper about, before finally resolving into the uncanny electronic warbling that becomes the next dish, the ten-plus minute “Soup.” After a few minutes of percussive head-bopping, “Soup” slips back into the avant-garde, with an extended sequence of weird chirrups, crashes, sirens, and shouting.

    All is made nice again, though, with “I’m So Green,” a track whose super catchy, toe-tapping vibe evokes thoughts of a band of hipsters sneakily sauntering down some trippy sidewalk. The LP then concludes with “Spoon” -- the hit single -- which begins with metronome-like clicking over a vaguely Eastern sounding organ, then builds into yet another fun, trance-like slice of Krautrockin’ pop.

    It’s “the closest to a pop LP that Can ever got” writes Cope, a record full of “clear cut songs with grooves of delightful melody and moment, plus a teen-appeal that still leaves me gasping with love for Damo Suzuki.” Partly for that reason, it’s the Can album I’ll often recommend as a starting place for those new to the group.

    It also culminates the middle “classic” period of Can records, the “late” period commencing with Future Days (1973) and including Soon Over Babaluma (1974), Landed (1975), Flow Motion (1976), Saw Delight (1977), Out of Reach (1978), and Can (1979) -- the discs I probably spin the most from the band. From there the band split, then reunited with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney for a one-off reunion disc, Rite Time (1989).

    Sadly drummer Jaki Liebezeit passed away just last Sunday at age 78. In addition to serving as a core member of Can throughout its run, Liebezeit performed and recorded with numerous other acts over the decades including various side projects by Can members, Jah Wobble, and Michael Rother. He also notably helped percussively-push along the tiny, crowded canoe in Brian Eno’s “Backwater” from Before and After Science.

    Here is a nice remembrance of Liebezeit from The Guardian detailing his achievements and remarking on Can's important place in the larger musical landscape.

    Meanwhile, crack open this Can and enjoy: