Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Krautrock: Can, Tago Mago (1971)

After original lead singer Malcolm Mooney’s abrupt departure from Can -- and from Germany -- in late 1969, the band continued without a frontman for about six months. Then in May 1970 Holger Czukay met Japanese singer Damo Suzuki performing outside a Munich cafe and invited him to perform with the group at a show that evening.

Soon enough they had a singer, and after recording a few songs with Suzuki that appeared on Soundtracks, they spent the latter part of the year recording in a castle near Cologne, ultimately emerging in early 1971 with their masterpiece of dark psychedelia, the double-LP Tago Mago.

“The music sounds only like itself,” says Julian Cope in Krautrocksampler. “It’s pointless to describe the music, but it’s huge free-rock, as though each member of Can has a field to play in.”

The seven tracks take up the 70-plus minutes, a couple of which occupy entire sides. Unlike what appears on Soundtracks (save “Mother Sky”), here Suzuki’s contributions often function like the addition of another instrument to a fusion-y ensemble, his low mumbles and energetic shouts ably augmenting an increasingly exploratory sound.

“Paperhouse” begins the record in somewhat plodding fashion, with Michael Karoli’s charming jingle-jangle strumming quickly encouraging the listener to nod along. A percusion-and-bass driven middle section suddenly accelerates things considerably before reprising the opening that in turn chorus-pedals the Can machine to the finish.

The apocalyptic and moody “Mushroom” follows (via a clever segue), one my favorite “classic” Can tracks and one that has been covered many times over, most notably by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Suzuki’s vocal conveys tangible dread, alternating between frightened whispers and urgent cries over an eerie soundbed culminating with an explosion. From the smoke and ashes fades up the next track, “Oh Yeah,” a repetitive, hypnotic exercise with backwards vocals and a tribal rhythm that will signal to Radiohead fans an important influence.

Side 2 is covered by “Halleluwah,” powered throughout by a melodious, funky groove with Jaki Liebezeit’s stuttering drum providing a determined backbeat crossing Moe Tucker with Jack DeJohnette. Suzuki’s improvised lyrics include references to the titles of other Tago Mago songs, and the sheer variety of sounds (many of which are likewise unscripted) emanating from the guitars, bass, keyboards, and occasional effects and edits together elevate the track to a kind of comprehensive encyclopedia of Can.

“Augmn” takes up Side 3, the title of which alludes to the meditative “om” and/or evokes the idea of a magic spell. The first two-thirds are a formless, electroacoustic imbroglio of various instruments over which keyboardist Irmin Schmidt moans through heavy reverb and echo. Then the last six minutes feature manic percussive work by Liebezeit careening headlong toward some secret inner space.

I was tempted to call “Augmn” the most experimental track of a double record full of experiments, although the 11-minute “Peking O” that begins the final side aggressively takes that title as a multi-part pastiche of noises and effects approaching “Revolution 9”-level weirdness. Finally the short “Bring Me Coffee or Tea” serves as a mostly calming coda, though again builds to a rousing finish with cymbals crashing like so many waves upon the shore.

Named after Illa de Tagomago, a private island off the coast of Ibiza in the Mediterranean, Tago Mago simliarly stands apart as a strange, small marvel on its own amid the early ’70s musical sea.

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