Archive | July 2012

Amon Duul Reviews Part Three: Amon Duul II’s “Yeti”

Yeti Album Cover

Record One 1) Soap Shop Rock 2) She Came Through the Chimney 3) Archangel Thunderbird 4) Cerebus 5) The Return of Rübezahl 6) Eye-Shaking King 7) Pale Gallery

Record Two 1) Yeti 2) Yeti Talks to Yogi 3) Sandoz in the Rain

Only the second album by the band and they hit a major, major home run: to many people, this is their absolute best album, a masterpiece that the band never topped. A double album with well arranged, deep and hard hitting songs in a variety of different styles. A second album of brilliant improvisations. It still serves as their most famous album (though not their best selling; oddly, that is “Phallus Dei”) and has become a cornerstone for krautrock and rock and roll in general. In fact, it could be said that the band can be forgiven the last several crappy albums they made on the strength of this album alone.

Do I come across too strongly? Perhaps I do. In fact, I can’t say I fully believe all of this hype when it comes to this record. I don’t think it’s as influential as it has been stated: true, there is a gothic feel to the proceedings that undoubtedly influenced the sonics of various bands in their wake. However, few of these bands handled these atmospheres as effectively as “Amon Duul II” turning in slightly derivative and sometimes laughable works.

However, if you ask the “cool” groups that have been influenced by krautrock, they will usually name “Can” or “Kraftwerk” as influences. This isn’t always the case but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band say they were influenced by “Amon Duul II.”

I’m not sure why this is: the band is certainly as good as “Can” and much better than “Kraftwerk.” I think the problem lies in the fact that the works of “Can” and “Kraftwerk” break more new ground than “Amon Duul II.” As startling as the sound of the band appeared to be, it rarely deviated too far from established patterns of jamming. There was none of the clinical synth work one can associate with “Kraftwerk” and the band’s playing abilities don’t match the impeccable standards set by “Can” and the band’s jam’s rarely become truly exciting in the same way.

Case in point: the second record of “Yeti.” These improvisations are more solid than the improvisations of “Phallus Dei” in many way: the sound is deeper, the playing is more fluid and the band tries many different things. However, they usually fail to set a mood in the same way. Often they seem like directionless ramblings in a way that makes me think that “Phallus Dei” was much better planned than I expected. This is odd considering three guys from “Amon Duul” actually guest on the track.

However, I don’t want to overstate this deficit. The jams are still enjoyable to listen to, especially as background music and can probably hit a lot of emotions for fans of “out there” music. Some fans even prefer the second record to the first. Perhaps the best way to think of this record is as a “bonus” disc, such as the third record to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.”

Looking at it this way helps turn the second record from a failed and dated (though I hate that word) experiment into a fun diversion. Besides, it’s not as if the rest of the album differs greatly from this loose jamming atmosphere: the band is still in full flight. But a sense of focus drives the band to creating the first studio masterpiece they ever managed.

The album starts with “Soap Shop Rock” the first “Amon Duul II” song I ever heard. It starts with a heavy, heavy yet complex riff that repeats a few times, doubled up on two guitars and joined by bass and drums. It pounds up into a crescendo and begins repeating a simpler variation as…one of the guys here sings. Forgive me if I don’t know off hand, but the band’s vocals are so similar and colorless that it’s hard for me to differentiate them. Except for when Renate starts wailing like a wounded opera singer attempting to impress an impatient opera director…

Anyways, the songs moves through various moves including a violin led section with dramatic downward riffs, quieter ominous singing and ending with a repetition of the beginning riff. As you can see, this type of music is hard to describe. The band interacts in various complex and memorable ways. The atmosphere is still more important but it is at least tied to memorable riffs and a structure that makes sense. Themes are repeated at key moments to help keep the song coherent. And it doesn’t ramble all over the place: it carefully works a single mood, a much harder task.

 

A physical embodiment of the album attacking the listener.
Image from “Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon” Property of American World Pictures.

The same rock sensibility is true of the third track, “Archangel Thunderbird” one of the band’s hardest rockers and a highlight of their stage show. It is essentially a more compact version of “Soap Shop Rock” featuring all of the benefits that implies. Similar to this song is the fifth track “Eye Shaking King” which differentiates itself with a slightly middle eastern sounding riff, wild distorted vocals and a wildly panning guitar solo which moves from left to right rapidly.

The second track “She Came Through the Chimney” (potential Beatles associations aside) is a quieter track, filled with gentle guitar melodies, careful violin playing and a less aggressive stance. Kind of the calm after the storm: after the intensity of “Soap Shop Rock” it’s nice to see the band relax and take it easy. Flutes (probably mellotron based) and bongos make heady contributions to this track. An odd, dissonant organ track upsets the simple mood. The organ sounds almost like a violin, quietly making noise in the background. “Cerebeus,” the fourth track, is an acoustic guitar driven piece with a generic “middle eastern” key. Bongos keep the rhythm, giving the piece an ominous feel.

Middle eastern motives pop up regularly on this album. “The Return of Rübezahl” is a slight piece of filler with such an atmosphere: it’s a little too repetitive to be held highly but its theme is memorable and dramatic at times. Same with the concluding track, “Pale Gallery.”

Several words kept popping up in this review: ominous and middle eastern. This was not on accident or due (completely) to lazy writing. The band truly sounds scary on some of these tracks, like the kind of music the devil would hear in hell. Taking on all of these “exotic” (to untrained western ears) keys and melodies helps contribute to that feeling.

The band also overdubs like mad. There are sometimes what feels like dozens of tracks going on in the rockers while the slower “ballad” type songs have weird details that derail their moods (such as the organ in “She Came Through the Window.” On the one hand, the album often sounds all of a piece. For the longest time (and even now) I have a hard time differentiating the songs besides the opening “Soap Shop Rock” which sticks in my mind due to being heard first.

And very few of these melodies will stick in your head forever. They are written well enough that, with the production and arrangements they create a seriously demented and individualistic mood I’ve never heard anywhere else. For that reason alone, the album is worthwhile. However, the music itself (as well as the playing) is good enough to guarantee this album legendary status. The band was to top itself a year later with its next (naturally double) album. But that’s for another day.

 

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Amon Duul Reviews Part Two: Amon Duul II “Phallus Dei.”

Phallus Dei album cover.

1) Kanaan 2) Dem Guten, Schonen 3) Luzifers Ghilom 4) Henriette Krotenschwanz 5) Phallus Dei CD Bonus Tracks 6) Touchmaphal 7) I Want the Sun to Shine

Nine out of Ten Stars

Now that we got the “crap” out of the way, let’s get started into the more interesting, beefier and generally more engaging work of “Amon Duul II.” The group made a pretty big splash artistically with “Phallus Dei” in 1969, technically in the same year as “Amon Duul I.” Don’t get on my case to find out what MONTH they were released in: let’s just say they were released almost simultaneously.

“Phallus Dei” (which means exactly what you think it means and if you aren’t sure, remember that “phallus” refers to something men have that women do not while “dei” is a shortening of “deity”) is the one album that remains closest in spirit to the first incarnation as it consists entirely of mostly improvised, mostly instrumental music that sounds very primal in approach and texture. However, it beats all of those albums handily for reasons I will point out below.

I do want to confess that I tend to enjoy the work of “Amon Duul I” more than I put on in my last review. However, I am rating these albums according to how I think a non-fan might approach the albums. And I am rating them based on what I consider to be their artistic worth. If I’m to be honest, I consider the albums pretty much flops artistically but a lot of fun to listen to as both entertainment and historical artifacts.

With that out of the way, lets get to “Phallus Dei.” On “Phallus “Dei” the line-up for “Amon Duul II” generally focused around these players: Peter Leopold, drums; John Weinzierl, guitar, 12-string bass; Falk Rogner organ, piano, keyboards; Chris Karrer, violin, guitar, twelve-string guitar, soprano saxophone, vocals; and Renate Knaup, vocals, tambourine.

Several percussionists join the band (in the grand “Amon Duul” tradition” as well as an extra bass player, Dave Anderson. Anderson, who later joined “Hawkwind” rejoined the “Amon Duul” family with “Amon Duul UK” but I’m getting ahead of myself. This line-up would adjust, expand and contrast throughout the years but generally featured these basic players.

The basic sound of the album can be summed up in one word: jamming. The album consists of live set pieces that the band had been playing for a year or so. However, this is not the completely aimless jamming of “Amon Duul I”: it is “mood jamming.” So, maybe two words would fit the sound of the album better.

Actually, I take that back: three words would perhaps be better: dark mood jamming. While dozens of bands had jammed much earlier than “Amon Duul II” few bands, German or otherwise, had focused on such moody, brooding textures. Sure, “Pink Floyd” was pretty dark but they were very structured with very little true jamming. This makes the album pretty groundbreaking.

Describing individual songs is actually pretty difficult here: their aren’t any really catchy riffs, memorable vocal melodies or coherent song structures. There also isn’t a lot of diversity in arrangement, mood or approach. The sound is also generally thinner than later “Amon Duul II” albums: while later albums featured extensive arrangement and overdubs, this album seems to be purely live in the studio jamming.

Which in some ways makes the album even more impressive: later album may be darker, but they required a careful arrangement process to create their moods. This album does it purely through playing. In fact, I bumped the album up a point from eight to nine while I was writing this review just for that reason. Musically, the album deserves no more than an eight but for audacity, the level of groundbreaking involved as well as the mood, it deserves at least an extra half point. But I don’t do half points. That just gets irritating after awhile.

Now, to describe the sound of the album. Basically, the band is very guitar heavy: John Weinzierl and Chris Karrer are super pros on their instruments and create a wide variety of textures. They aren’t exactly virtuosos but they’re very clever and creative, which is much more important any ways. Karrer expands the sound with solid, but unspectacular violin and saxophone playing. Perhaps these were over dubbed? Perhaps he just let go of his guitar and picked up the other instruments. I’m not sure.

 

Maybe Karrer looked like this in the studio?
Source: Fastest One Man Bad.com

Each groove (again, following “Amon Duul” traditions, these aren’t truly songs) generally starts out in the same way. A solid percussion groove begins and the guitars kick in, playing a wide variety of riffs, solos, chord progressions and generally interact with each other fairly complexly. The band kicks in with vocals sporadically.

These vocals are generally not melodic but textural. The vocals are split between fairly bland male vocals and the rather wild vocalization style of Renate Knauup which sounds like somebody trying to opera without the necessary strength of voice but with lots of vibrator to compensate.

On the sidelong title track, the band moves through several different sections. The shorter songs focus on mood making. The shorter songs range from just over two minutes to over eight and are much more condensed when compared to the wide ranging and rampaging title track.

Nothing is exactly highly memorable. In fact, the first few listens are definitely going to be underwhelming after all of these years and especially when contrasted with later recordings. The album seems almost completely chaotic in many ways, like a mess of guitar, bass, drum, percussion, violin, sax and Renate-wail (my phrase for Renate Kraupp’s vocalization style).

Subsequent listens will prove that the band is actually incredibly accomplished, confident and fully in control of what they are playing. Certain riffs rise out of the mist from time to time and embed themselves in your mind. You may find yourself humming them. More likely, you will find yourself swaying to the heavy grooves and digging the darkness. Besides, all “Amon Duul” albums (even later, more streamlined “Amon Duul II” albums) sound incredibly chaotic at first. It’s kind of their schtick.

The original album starts out with four shorter to medium length tracks. This is the track listing I have placed above. The second side consisted of the side long title track. However, CD reissues have placed “Phallus Dei” first, leaving the shorter tracks for last. They also add two bonus tracks, two lengthy songs from the same sessions that basically create the same mood as the album.

This odd rearrangement is actually a mistake in my opinion. The first four tracks are actually much moodier and thought provoking than the title track. This is because they are shorter and focus on a single mood or groove fully, instead of sprawling all over the place like the title track. However, the title track has more variety and energy. Perhaps this is the reason they put it first on the CD.

Whatever the reason, I insist it was a mistake: the dark moodiness of the first four tracks should definitely come first. “Phallus Dei” takes longer to get going, as it is a longer jam (which usually take awhile to get off the ground) and features far less effective and dark moods when compared to the first four tracks.

Starting with the darker tracks puts you in the mood of the album immediately and following with a side long song helps you relax a little (mood wise) and to get up and boogie (relatively speaking). Program your CD or Mp3’s with the original vinyl track listing and contrast it with the CD running order and tell me I’m not right. Or just listen to the vinyl album.

Final verdict? “Phallus Dei” is a groundbreaking album that any fan of “Amon Duul II” or “krautrock” in general should own. The music isn’t nearly as formed or as exciting as later works by the band. However, it still illustrates a highly confident band that knew what they wanted to do with their music immediately (unlike early Kraftwerk) and who had the professionalism, skill and playing ability to perform it (again, unlike early Kraftwerk. Not to pick on them but they weren’t very good until “Autobahn). Buy it and buy it well.