Mr. B’s Legendary Band Series: Amon Duul (all permeations)
Good morning (or afternoon or evening) kiddies! Mr. B is back with some more legendary band reviews. This series will focus on a rather wild and wooly time and place in rock history: late 60’s through early 70’s Germany. Rock and roll had finally filtered through the lens of European censorship and had begun to influence the lifestyles, opinions and music of the European people.
Now, I won’t pretend to be an expert on the socio-political sensibilities of the time. Frankly, I know very little about the country in that period beyond the music and the unfortunate division of the country that occurred during World War II. I would hazard an educated guess that this division helped contribute to a rather tense, difficult mood that seems to appear in the rock and roll music of the time.
This music, usually called “krautrock” by critics, was some of the most daring, outrageous, innovative and influential music of the period. For example, David Bowie’s “Berlin” trilogy was heavily in debt to various krautrock bands. Kraftwerk essentially invented synth pop out of thin air, while Can mined a “James Brown meets the Velvet Underground meets World Music meets Stockhausen” groove. Even minor bands, such as Popul Vuh, influenced such music as ambient dance, while Tangerine Dream still makes synthetic music.
However, delving into a complete history of krautrock and all its various permutations and influences is frankly, the work of a madman. Such as Julian Cope, who’s writing on krautrock is extensive, engaging, illuminating and essential for any rock fan interested in the fringe areas of rock. This introduction serves only as a basic primer in krautrock, designed to help introduce the rather infamous, legendary, misunderstood and sometimes nearly forgotten “Amon Duul.”
“Amon Duul” (which is was one of the very first groups to start influencing the rock and roll scene in Germany. Bands such as “The Monks” had appeared earlier but “The Monks” were Americans making rock and roll music in Germany. In fact, “Amon Duul” began as a group as early as 1967. However, they weren’t a strictly musical group. They began live as an art commune that delved into performance art, painting, sculpture, communist ranting and various other activities, of which music was just one aspect.
Most of this commune valued the ideals of enthusiasm, excitement, experimentation and exuberance (the four E’s!) over musical structure, composition and ability. Their musical performances usually consisted of day long jams with up to eleven members contributing at any given point. Members of the commune were encouraged to join in on the jam as others left. Most of the commune played various forms of percussion: in fact, the only instruments besides percussion was sloppily rhythm guitar, bass and percussively slammed piano.
Well, such fun certainly couldn’t go undocumented: their infamous jams were usually very roughly recorded with a similarly amateurish enthusiasm, valuing the “heat of the moment” over sound precision. Which is a nice way to sound the recordings sound a bit like crap. But the group waged their art war with the German world for at least a year before some grumblings from certain members of the group lead to dissension in the ranks.
Six members of the group were getting a bit tired of the amateurish rumble of the jam sessions. These six were actually well trained musicians who had ambitions towards making more structured, well produced and more professional sounding music. This is not to say that they didn’t adhere strictly to the “jam” session aesthetic. Instead, they were growing weary of playing with people who simply couldn’t hold up to their standards.
This lead to a serious problem within the commune. In fact, it all came to a head at the “International Essen Song Days” festival. This was Germany’s first underground musical festival. The six more professional musicians wanted to break away and form their own strictly musical group. However, they wanted to use the “Amon Duul” name. Drummer Peter Leopold suggested that they could share the name: the first, amateur group (who were also working in various other forms of art) would be “Amon Duul.” The second group (who would focus mostly on music) would be “Amon Duul II.” Both bands took to the stage separately and jammed away.
This split creates some confusion amongst krautrock fans as nearly two dozen albums have come out with the name “Amon Duul.” In fact, further confusion is sowed by the fact that in the late 80’s, four albums came out under the name “Amon Duul” which only featured one original member of “Amon Duul” and which featured mostly British musicians. This group can be labeled as “Amon Duul III” or “Amon Duul (UK)” to avoid confusion.
The question amongst some fans is how each band differs from the other. What is incredible is how different each group sounds from the other. “Amon Duul” released four albums of heavily percussive jams, which were enhanced and altered in the studio. These four albums are pretty rough sounding, highly amateurish and difficult to discern from each other. In fact, these four albums all come from one of their mammoth, days long jam sessions. They also released a fifth album of more composed music that was separate from the others.
“Amon Duul (UK)” released four albums of various quality that run the range from free associative jams, highly experimental sound collages to tightly wound pop songs. They are highly produced but seem very separate from the sound of the 80’s beyond the crystal clear production qualities of each album. Nearly all of these albums were allegedly based around studio rehearsals and half finished ideas that never entirely pleased the band.
However, both “Amon Duul” and “Amon Duul (UK)” can be considered pleasant, but minor preludes and prologues to the much more engaging “Amon Duul II.” “Amon Duul II” released the rest of the nearly two dozen albums created by these groups and for nearly seven years was one of the best, most innovative and engaging bands in Germany.
Most of “Amon Duul II”’s legacy is built around their first three albums: “Phallus Dei” “Yeti” and “Tanz Der Lemmings” the last two of which were double albums. What makes these albums so interesting is their combination of highly experimental jamming with listenability. Frankly, “Amon Duul II” is one of the easiest to listen to krautrock bands for the average fan.
Part of this has to due with their heavy emphasis on rock riffs and folk motives. The band rarely engaged in pure dissonance, even in their most experimental period. They also included a wide range of influences including folk, jazz, country, space rock, classical music and electronic music. All of these elements were throw into the pot in a way that synthesized all of them without drawing attention to any singular aspect. And perhaps most importantly, the band had a sense of humor that complimented a truly dark and surreal sensibility: “Phallus Dei” means exactly what it sounds like, to illustrate just one example.
These three albums form one of the most impressive and engaging trilogy of albums in all of krautrock. “Phallus Dei” is heavily jam based, with a lighter approach: “Yeti” is a dark, heavy album filled with wildly experimental rock riffs and a complete album devoted to pure jamming of the “Amon Duul” variety (and in fact features members of the original group); while “Tanz Der Lemming” features a more complex, heavily overdubbed symphonic approach that has no precedence in rock and roll history.
However, the band began to streamline their sound with their fourth album “Carnival in Babylon.” This is not to say that they “sold out” or “went pop.” In fact, “Carnival in Babylon” sounds very “Pink Floyd” or “Camel” which is to say still experimental. Just a bit lighter in tone and less ambitious. The band continued this streamlining process, including the dark and heavy masterpiece “Wolf City” and the highly diverse but engaging trilogy “Utopia” “Vive Le Trance” and “Hi Jack.
Many fans find these albums to be a betrayal of the bands initial experimental nature. While they do get a bit less essential with each new album, the band showcases an incredible strong writing sensibility that nearly seamlessly includes heavily experimental hard rock, piano ballads, disco elements and pop songs in a highly fun and quick shifting manner.
In fact, this trilogy all leads up to the band’s late period pop masterpiece “Made in Germany.” This double album easily matches their earlier darker masterpieces but in a different realm. The album quickly shifts between a seemingly endless collection of immediately catchy pop tunes in a wide range of genres. Experimental textures easily contrast with a catchy chorus, often within the same song. The band had seemed to master the art of pop songwriting.
However, several band members left after the album was released which resulted in an immediate downturn in quality. The band released three albums before breaking up in the early 80’s and then reuniting to create one more album in the mid 80’s. However, none of these albums hold up to the high quality of their pop trilogy, let alone their classic albums.
After the flame out of “Amon Duul (UK)” the original “Amon Duul II” band reunited for a high quality album in 1995 called “Nada Moonshine #” (the # is not a typo). The band then toured the album and occasionally reunited for a tour. As late as 2007, the band was still releasing music.
So, how much of this music is worth the time of the listener? Sorting through nearly two dozen albums could be a headache for the interested fan. To be honest, one could content themselves with the first album by “Amon Duul” as well as “Pardisewarts Duul” the non-jam based album. The rest of their output is very spotty or too similar sounding to differentiate.
“Amon Duul (UK)” has two albums which can be considered essential: their first two albums, “Hawk Meets Penguin” and “Meetings With Menmachines – Inglorious Heroes of the Past.” The first is a heavily jam based album while the second is a solid pop album. The last two mine similar fields but with decreasing rewards and in fact do seem rather thin and “unfinished” when compared to the first two.
“Amon Duul II” is a much trickier proposition for the collector. Many more of their albums are worth picking up. “Phallus Dei,” “Yeti,” “Tanz Der Lemming,” “Live in London,” “Carnival in Babylon,” “Wolf City,” “Utopia,” “Vive Le Trance,” “Hi Jack” and “Made in Germany” are very solid collections to any krautrock fans collection. Fans that are more interested in the experimental work can subsist on the first three, including the live album. However, “Nada Moonshine #” is a very solid combination of high quality songwriting, experimental tendencies and 90’s production techniques.
However, all of this shall be revealed in my upcoming series of reviews. That’s right, I’m reviewing every single “Amon Duul” album ever released. Basically, I want these reviews to work as “one-stop-Amon Duul-review-shopping” for the uninitiated and curious. Each album rating will reflect what I think of the album’s musical content personally. An “experimental” rating will also apply for those who are interested only in experimental work. I will also include a “listenability” rating which will show how easy each album is to listen to in one sitting.
I will also go over the lineups of the bands before individual album reviews (if necessary) as the band was huge in and of itself (as an earlier photo caption stated) and they went through nearly every musician in Germany during their career. What is interesting is that the band doesn’t seem to have a true “leader” like many groups. There’s no Pete Townsend or Holger Czukay steering the band.As a result, I will go into detail on what I believe certain band members brought to the band (when necessary) and how this influenced the band.
All of this is truly, the work of a madman. I expect this process to last nearly the rest of my life (and I plan on becoming immortal soon). I’d ask for pity, but nobody is forcing me to do this but me.