The seminal German outfit had arguably been following their own advice for much of their career: “I programme my home computer, Beam myself into the future”. On two rather prescient albums, they considered what effect technology and innovation would have on society, with conclusions that are relevant today.
In 2007, as an angst-ridden teenager, I would lie in bed on Saturday mornings and put on the title-track of Deerhunter‘s second album, Cryptograms.
This was the era when Bradford Cox’s pop sensibility could still only be described as nascent. The song would hit me like a migraine or a nervous breakdown; Cox’s distorted bark emerging through a tapestry of pulsing one-note bass, coruscating electric guitar, and all manner of weird tape loops. It’s a primal, urgent and terrifying song that’s lost none of its potency even as the gentleman behind it has matured into a compelling ‘popular’ songwriter.
Panda Bear’s “Afterburner”, from last year’s Tomboy, is both immeasurably huge, and outrageously simple. Its efflorescence hinges on predictable but shifting melodic patterns, repeated on guitar and bass, and a clockwork rhythm that is seemingly unaware of the beautiful carnage unfurling above it. Effects wash over the song like tidal waves; the guitar is drenched in painfully beautiful reverb, and all manner of synthetic space-noises eddy and buckle throughout. At the song’s apotheosis, it achieves a chaotic state of bliss, and the listener must surely surrender. One thing that doesn’t give in, however, is that ever-present beat. Occasionally filled out by wooden blocks and pattering hi-hat, it is a rock that can’t be washed away by the powerful ocean around it.
I found a likeness in a song recorded almost forty years prior to “Afterburner”. Nestling in the middle of Bobby Womack’s landmark Understanding LP is a scuzzy pocket-epic called “Simple Man” which, honestly, would not have sounded out of place on a collection of Can B-sides. Atop a krautrocky rhythm rages a dense frenzy of electric piano, guttural machine noises, Womack’s crazed vocals, and his fluid guitar-playing. The beat is unwavering, and holds down all the dizzying madness overhead. It’s a scary cocktail, but appropriately, the song struts and gallops rather than swampily creeping along like a Can cut.
These two songs, so disparate in their origins and creations, can nonetheless be reconciled. They exhibit strong motion where there could so easily be a stodgy mess. The density in both tracks’ production is overwhelming, but not disconcerting—and you can thank their motorik beats for that.
Can have recently delved into their studio archives to assemble The Lost Tapes. It’s not been received as an unqualified success; however, the mere existence of reviews of it in the broadsheets will hopefully serve to remind people of just how great, and important, Can at their prime were. I’ve written previously about Tago Mago, their first album with the deranged vocalist Damo Suzuki; now comes the turn of its follow-up Ege Bamyasi, released in 1972 and also a handy favourite of Nick Kent‘s. Continue reading Okraschoten und kraut
After two more guitar-focused albums, 2007’s Liars and 2010’s Sisterworld, the permafrazzled three-piece Liars return with the largely-electronic WIXIW (pronounced ‘Wish You’, since you ask), to be released this June.
Whetting fans’ appetites is the first single “No. 1 Against The Rush” (see above), which drifts in on a burbling lake of electronics. The beat is dry and motorik, and the usually-scuzzy guitars are limited to textured fills and atmospheric vibes. Frontman Angus Andrew sounds pretty chilled; certainly more so than you would if you had recorded an album directly beneath a Los Angeles freeway, in a grimy, vice-ridden subway. There’s a definite link to The Horrors’ “Sea Within A Sea“—it’s there in the rhythm, and in the graceful array of notes played on an analogue synthesizer. The outro finishes what the intro started: highly resonant, percussive pings rattle between the channels while guitar feedback oscillates wildly, bringing the song to a juddering, but not threatening, close.
Here’s hoping there’s still some room on WIXIW for the bloodsucking yuppy vampires of old.
I won’t forget the first time I heard Can’s seminal krautrock record, Tago Mago. Although history isn’t on my side—I wasn’t in a dingy basement in Berlin, or a warehouse party in New York, or a grotty den in Camden—the setting was so fitting it bears recollection. In the winter of 2008 I travelled across Rajasthan; my soundtrack was a combination of familiar favourites and things I was too young (or not-alive) to have appreciated when they first came out. Jouncing around in the back of an SUV as we journeyed through the desert-and-fortress vista, the album that did the most justice to the surroundings was Tago Mago, whose 40th anniversary is now being celebrated with a commemorative re-release.
Tago Mago is an album of split personalities. The first such division that strikes you is the alternately blissed-out and then frenetic freeform scat of the band’s vocalist Damo Suzuki. He sings and screams in the loosest approximation of English, and sounds perpetually terrified of mankind’s impending doom. The next thing you notice is how keenly the album is halved. The first half is lithely propelled along by Jaki Liebezeit’s instantly recognisable drumming, with subtly tricky polyrhythms coalescing into fragments of funk. Alongside Liebezeit’s continual presence is a palette of strangled electric guitar and limber bass-lines, which continue to crop up through decades of punk, post-punk and disco.
The second half is a freer affair which owes more to improvised jazz and the contemporary experiments in musique concrète. After the relentless eighteen-minutes-plus of “Halleluhwah”, this spacious second half takes you to the other side of the universe, or to another part of your consciousness. Menacing drones and industrial noise collide with Suzuki’s deranged wailing; now and again in drift primitive electronic rhythms. It’s the birth of ambient music, and it makes you realise how derivative all that followed inevitably was.
Of course, I came to love the album having already been a recipient of krautrock’s largesse, in that it had influenced plenty of albums I already knew. Far from diluting the experience, the benefit of hindsight made me appreciate more profoundly the sheer volume of different movements, aesthetics and genres that splintered out from this very special album. And I’m sure that when we consider the music that may emerge in the next forty years, a fair share of it will still be traceable to these seven sprawling, entangled pieces of music.
UPDATE: Grab a convenient playlist featuring two key tracks from (almost) all of the albums featured here.
2009 has been a year when I’ve taken stock of a fair bit of older music – thank Spotify for that! – which might explain my profligacy in terms of listening to some really highly-regarded new albums. Nonetheless, in the last few weeks I’ve clawed back lost ground and taken the opportunity to investigate the hype surrounding some of this year’s gems.
In the interests of economy, I’m only listing my fifteen favourite albums; there were plenty of others that I enjoyed, but couldn’t justify adding to this list. So, as well as the albums listed below, do please go and have a listen to wonderful albums like Doves‘ triumphant Kingdom Of Rust, The Cribs‘ Johnny Marr-enhanced Ignore The Ignorant, and Atlas Sound‘s mesmerising Logos. But without further ado, and a bit more explanation where necessary, here are my offerings: Continue reading Albums of 2009 – Lis(z)tomania!
Doves make music that’s very soulful and stirring, but whenever I think of their albums in the abstract i.e. without actually listening to them, I always feel like they’re strangely hollow, as if all the bluster is just for dramatic effect, without actually meaning anything. Luckily, when I put the record on, my fears are put to rest. Not only is their sonic palette diverse yet consistently moody, but their lyrics are also deeply ingrained in their roots – Manchester, Britain, nostalgia, industry. As their career has progressed, these lyrical themes have become more and more personal and intimate, as has the music – I can’t quite imagine them writing another “There Goes The Fear”. Their previous album, Some Cities, gained unusually high levels of popularity owing to the catchy Motown-esque lead single, “Black And White Town”, and, on the evidence of their new single, “Kingdom Of Rust”, taken from the forthcoming album of the same name, I’m hoping they can repeat their previous success, and hopefully gain more of a respected position. Their fans adore them, but I can’t think why they don’t capture a wider audience. Songs like “Snowden” and “Friday’s Dust” may be somewhat mournful and echoey, but they speak volumes of the thematic context and – interestingly – their hooks pervade.
This new album has been gestating for a considerable length of time, and the band have reportedly taken on Krautrock influences, alongside possibly more of a country tinge. While their songwriting capability is never doubted, I just hope the lyrics don’t get more *universal*, and that they remain attached to a particular geographical landscape that has given so much to England, and yet has also suffered greatly in terms of social breakdown and industrial decay. Doves write such elegiac tributes to their hometown. For sure, the album opener “Jetstream”, released in January as a free taster, packs in a lot of varied musical flourishes – think Vangelis meets Elbow! – but I’m hoping that, on deeper inspection, it reveals similarly thought-provoking lyrical details. I’m definitely very excited about Kingdom Of Rust. I’ll be even more excited come April 6.
People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.
Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.
Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.