ABBA is one of the most divisive bands on the planet. This is odd considering they are also one of the most successful bands on the planet. The “art loving” crowd, no doubt, considers the band to be the lowest of the low. Nothing but absolute cotton candy fluff material that never once speaks to the higher cause of man. The lyrics are crappy, the music is gasp danceable (and even disco) and the band’s image as smiling, vapid goofballs couldn’t be less attractive to those who care about art.
Of course, defenders of the band may throw the old “these guys sold millions of albums argument” at the art lovers only to be meant with pure contempt. “It doesn’t matter how many records you see,” say these guys, carefully adjusting their dark rim glasses. “The value of a band lies in the artfulness of the band.”
I actually completely agree with both sides but with reservation. Yes, many great acts have sold millions of albums. The Beatles have sold more albums than anybody this side of Elvis and they were the most influential, important and worthy pop rock band of all time. But then again, artists such as Justin Bieber (who I hate to pick on because it’s too easy but whom serves a purpose here) sell just as many millions of albums but whom has no respect or love from critics.
The problem with the “artists that sell millions are worthy” argument is that unworthy artists sometimes sell a lot of albums. However, how long do you remember bands that are unworthy, no matter how many albums they’ve sold? Quick! Anybody raised in the 90’s, I want you to answer this question: who wrote “Closing Time”? What band was that? Or who wrote “The Freshmen”?
I’m sure that many readers could remember the song but not the artist. That’s understandable: those bands had one hit apiece and were absolutely forgotten afterwards. Okay, 90’s kids, tell me who wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Naturally, almost everybody with a brain knows that Nirvana wrote that song. And critics adore Nirvana as does a wide portion of 2000’s kids.
Here’s one for the 70’s and 80’s kids: who wrote “Saturday Night”? I’m sure some of you will remember who that was: it was the Bay City Rollers. However, how many of you had to really think about it before you answered? You had to hum the song, if you could remember it and think of the stupid looking band playing their dumb song live.
Okay, last question before I move on: who wrote “Dancing Queen”? “SOS”? “Knowing Me, Knowing You”? “Fernando”? “Take a Chance On Me”? I’m sure most people from those time periods who listened to pop radio knew immediately the answer: ABBA.
And this is why ABBA was actually an incredible band, a band that I actually think was the best pure pop band of the 70’s, perhaps of all time. In their prime, these four weird Swedes recorded more instantly recognizable songs than any other band during the same time. They basically conquered the world, commercially, becoming one of the biggest bands of all time. They’re still internationally renowned. Musicals get written using only their music and make it big.
There are a few reasons for this: musically, the band was weirdly diverse. Their albums include an odd mix of folk, pop, funk, disco, dance, prog rock, rock and roll, synth pop, classical stylization, vocal jazz, Broadway ballads and more. Benny and Bjorn, the two guys, had an almost unparalleled ability to blend these styles to their will, mix them in a pop and create a cohesive sound that was not only listenable but universally understandable.
The basic gambit of ABBA, musically, was to combine all of these styles with pure pop songwriting sensibilities. And these two guys were untouched in writing pure pop.
Their song structures featured introductions, verses, choruses, bridges, solos and everything else a great song should feature. They were built on instantly memorable guitar and keyboard riffs. Choruses, verses and bridges all had distinctive melodies that fed off of each other and made nearly every song a mini-pop symphony. Keys, rhythms, time signatures and harmonies changed at the drop of a hat but always in the most effective manner. Nothing was arbitrary or pointless. Take a listen to a song like “The Name of the Game” and tell me the band didn’t understand how to string together seemingly unrelated musical phrases seamlessly.
That said, that band would have been nothing without Agnetha and Frida. Benny provided occasional backing voices while Bjorn provided more extensive harmonies and occasional leads. However, their voices are thin and dorky sounding. They were best at writing, playing amazing keyboards (Benny Anderson is an absolutely, criminally underrated keyboard player, coming up with amazing chords, tones, solos and playing in every style), solid guitar work (Bjorn almost always played basic rhythm while the other guitarists in the band played the hard stuff) and lyrics (mostly Bjorn’s aspect in the band).
Agnetha and Frida, simply put, had two of the best singing voices in the business in the 70’s. Agnetha was the blonde with the higher pitched voice who tended to sing lead. Frida was the deeper voiced singer who sang occasional lead. Both had intense power, tenderness, range and stylistic abilities. Sure, their singing often sounded stiff and weird (as they barely spoke English) but they were often able to power through that with raw power.
But the girls were really only at their most effective when they sang in unison. Not normally a fan of unison (or harmonized in this case) singing but there was something close to magic when these two sang together. The slight tonal differences complimented each other perfectly and when the two sang together, they harmonized in such a way that a magical “third voice” often came up out of nowhere. It’s hard to explain, but listen carefully to them again and you’ll hear what I mean.
However, ABBA is not a band without some serious problems. One of these problem is the band’s serious lack of “edge.” True, a band doesn’t need an edge to be good but the band is an incredibly dorky presentation that can be hard to take seriously. And although they do try to “rock out” from time to time, well, those attempts are as poorly realized as you’d expect.
Another serious problem is the band’s lack of emotional depth. Their first six albums lack any serious deep, cutting moments. Yes, the band fakes it well during these albums but always with big, dopey cheery grins. You can never really take these “sincere” moments seriously. The band didn’t really focus on creating solid, emotionally charged music until their last two albums.
But these emotionally charged moments are highly sabotaged by the lyrics. On one hand, I don’t want to be too hard on ABBA because they were a Swedish band writing and singing lyrics in a language they barely understood. In fact, the band had to get serious help from manager Stig Anderson in this department for most of their career.
On the other hand, bad translations can’t be blamed for the triteness of 99% of ABBA’s lyrical messages. Songs like “King Kong Song” are so batshit stupid that it’s hard to believe the band took them seriously. As poetic texts, most of them get F’s and earlier lyrics sometimes get no higher than C- or D+ as pop lyrics. The band’s lyrics did get better on their last two albums (Bjorn seemed to finally get the knack for expressing himself in the English language) but that isn’t saying much. Both of those albums get C+’s at most as albums, sometimes a bit higher but never getting above a B-.
That said, the band does get extra points for consistency: all but their first two albums are among the highest quality pop in the world during the 70’s and a few are some of the best pop (pure pop, remember) albums ever recorded. The band’s trademark care for their singles actually extends to album tracks. Sure, there can be cheesy moments or slightly less engaging songs, but the band seemed to do their best to pack each song with as many instantly memorable hooks as possible.
I honestly believe that anybody who is serious about pop music should consider checking out or re-evaluating ABBA’s worth. Yes, you might not need EVERY album the band wrote. None of their albums are absolutely essential (although you’d miss a few gems by skipping out on their best albums). A casual fan could pick up the classic “ABBA Gold” or even the slightly bulkier “Essential Collection” or even the “Thank You For the Music” box set. On to the reviews!
After 1981, “Amon Duul II” finally broke up and stayed that way for nearly two decades. Different band members went on to a variety of projects, some more successful than others. Original founding guitarist, John Weinzierl eventually moved to England and met up with a group of like-minded musicians. First and perhaps foremost was British bassist Dave Anderson. Anderson had briefly played with “Amon Duul II” but also made a name with “Hawkwind.”
The band then scooped up drummer Guy Evans from Van Der Graaf Generator, who were also broken up at the time. For a vocalist, they scooped up a woman named Julie Waring. The band started to rehearse and Weinzierl felt that the music was sufficiently “Amon Duul”ish. He named the band “Amon Duul” and nobody seemed to care. Later on, the band was called “Amon Duul UK” or even “Amon Duul III” by fans.
And when I say nobody cared, I mean it: this line-up made nowhere near the splash brought on by “Amon Duul II” or even the original “Amon Duul.” This may be due to changing times: it was the 80’s, and the type of heavily improvised music the band was practicing here wasn’t exactly in favor.
Another major problem has to do with the frankly half assed nature of many of the group’s recordings. The original line-up recorded only two albums, one heavily improvised the other more song based (both of which were derided by Weinzierl as little more than rehearsal tapes). Eventually, “Hawkwind” guru, lyricist and nut job vocalist Bob Calvert joined and recorded two albums with the band, one of which was heavily improvised, the other of which was more song based (both of which were derided by Weinzierl as little more than rehearsal tapes).
Note the repetition there? It should be telling that Weinzierl, one of the main men behind “Bee As Such” was so harsh on these albums. Frankly, only two of them are really all that worthy. The other two are little more than fairly uneventful improvisations, poorly written and arranged pop songs and Bob Calvert wailings that are out of tune, out of time and not all that provocative.
So, is this version worse than “Amon Duul”? In some ways they’re better: the music is more listenable and more professional. The albums will get higher grades than those Diaster-pieces. However, in some ways they are more disappointing as there was some serious talent here. Weinzierl is, songwriting talent aside, a hell of a guitarist. Dave Anderson was a monster on bass with “Hawkwind” while Guy Evans was always an underrated drummer. Warring and Calvert both have unique voices which should have set the band apart.
And yet, the band never really takes off the ground or generates true excitement. Their two “good” albums won’t get any more than eight out of ten stars. Their worse albums will get no more than five or six. They are neither as trance enduing as early “Amon Duul” or as pitiful as that band at their worst.
Essentially, they were a mediocre band made out of excellent musicians that didn’t have the focus or professionalism to sit down, work through their better ideas, craft better arrangements and elaborate on their (at times nursery rhyme level) melodies. Like “Amon Duul” these guys are really only of interest to historians or “Amon Duul II” completists. Tread lightly folks. I’m covering all the albums in one article as there isn’t a whole lot to say about them: I surely can’t go off into a three page rant about a single album.
Hawk Meets Penguin 1982
1) One Moment’s Anger Is Two Pints Of Blood; 2) Meditative Music From The Third O Before The Producers Part 1; 3) Meditative Music From The Third O Before The Producers Part 2
7 out of 8 stars
The debut album by “Amon Duul UK” came out only a year after the original band shat out “Vortex.” Unlike that album, it is somewhat provocative and a bit more interesting than the rather dull “vortex” of sound that “Amon Duul II” attempted to make into art.
You may be wondering (and even if you’re not pretend you are so this sentence has meaning) what the band thinks of as “art” music? Well, the original “Amon Duul II” had really long songs that often took up complete sides of an album. Got that here: there are only two songs, one of which is broken up into two pieces.
Catchy riffs and melodies are also a bit too passe for true art. So, the band naturally forgoes traditional songwriting for a more atmospheric, soundscape approach. In fact, the band usually seems to improvising or jamming in the classic “Amon Duul II” style. So, there’s another check mark on the “art” list.
Also, there should be some wild woman singer wailing insanely over the top of it. That’s pretty much as art as it gets so it makes sense the band had Warring going all Renate on our asses. Warring is nowhere near as operatic as Renate and is in fact a bit more high pitched. But the aural effect is the same: pure art.
Oh and the album should be called “Hawk Meets Penguin.” Art with a capital “A.”
Joking aside, the band is obviously attempting to go in a more “prog rock/kraut rock” direction. Each side is a sprawling suite of half riffs, improvised bass runs, wild drum rolls, screams, simple synthesizer lines (perhaps Weinzierl? There is no full time keyboardist) with a complete abandonment of structure.
Perhaps not completely. “One Moment’s Anger is Two Pints of Blood” starts out fairly simple but gradually builds up into a stately, slow paced, sci-fi prog rock near-masterpiece. After only (ONLY!) six minutes, the band begins to really work their way into an impressive song. It all slowly builds to a gentle climax in an impressive manner. No masterpiece, perhaps but a nice piece of work.
The second song then is just a “piece of work.” This one is completely improvisation based and its much more difficult to take. It’s also 23 minutes long. It simply lacks direction for most of the piece until it starts to lightly groove several minutes before the song ends. It’s not evocative, like classic “Amon Duul II” albums nor is it unprofessional. It’s simply anachronistic and not entirely successful.
It’s a shame because if the second half was as strong as the first, this could have been an eight. If a little bit more care and work had been done into both pieces (increasing their depth of the pieces and sonic presence) it could have been a late period masterpiece. As it is, it’s a highly flawed, yet still worthy work that is as generic as possible but still fun for the hardcore “Amon Duul II” fan.
Meetings with Menmachines, Unremarkable Heroes of the Past 1985
1) Pioneer; 2) The Old One; 3) Marcus Lead; 4) The Song; 5) Things Aren’t Always What They Seem; 6) Burundi Drummer’s Nightmare
Eight out of Ten
After going a bit nutty with “Hawk Versus Penguin” “Amon Duul UK” took a nearly four year break before releasing their next album. Or before the record company released rehearsal tapes without the band’s permission. It’s really hard to tell what was going on with this band: their history is weirdly shrouded and conflicted.
Anyways, any fans the band may have picked up with the formally avant guardisms of “Hawk Versus Penguin” must have been incredibly disappointed when they picked up this formally pretentiously named follow up album four years later. However, this is an example of an album title that simply doesn’t match its contents (such as ‘Grand Funk’s’ “Good Singing, Good Playing, Good Laying” or whatever the hell it was called).
Because this album is actually, for all intents and purposes, a pop album. Yes, it’s a highly arty pop album made by some of Britain and Germany’s wildest musicians. But the approach, the melodies, the arrangements and the song lengths are all so thoroughly pop that hardcore fans must have collectively puked into their prog rock hats in protest.
However, this album ended up being the best this line-up ever did. There are a few reasons I believe that this is the case. One: nobody in the band was a true “long form genius.” Yes, the band did well with parts of “Hawk Versus Penguin” but it’s obvious they struggled in the format. By pulling back and focusing on simpler melodies and song structures they could focus their talents a bit more successfully.
There’s also the fact that the band is simply not selling out here. The sound is never a “1985” sound. Yes, there are a lot of keyboards and synthesizers (and each song starts with a completely unrelated keyboard introduction which makes this something of a “keyboard introduction” concept album) but the sound is driven by sharply defined guitar lines, crisp drumming, busy bass and wild vocalizations.
If Weinzierl is to be believed, these songs weren’t done when they were released. I’m not sure what he would have added to perfectly solid pop songs like “Pioneer” or to folk ballads such as “Marcus Leid.” Sure, the melodies are simple and the chords few but each of these songs is instantly catchy and almost memorable.
In fact, the album is almost shockingly good in its approach. The band never really trips up over themselves to catch up with the times or to sound cool. Instead, they focus on creating well crafted, diverse art pop tunes that stick in the head and which are different than any songs you’ve heard your life. The low ambition level of this album means it cannot get more than eight stars. But this is a pretty high eight stars. If you get nothing else by this band, scoop up this album. It’s so much better than 99% of “Amon Duul II’s” late 70’s sell out albums that it beggars believe.
Fool Moon 1989
1) Who Who; 2) The Tribe; 3) Tik Tok; 4) Hauptmotor; 5) Hymn For The Hardcore
4 out of 10
And the band completely loses all momentum gained by past albums by a) waiting another four years to follow up their last album and b) going back to a more “experimental” approach. Again, the story on these last two albums is entirely unclear and muddled: Weinzierl claims they were rush released after the death of Calvert as a sort of tribute. He has complained they weren’t finished but there was nothing the band could do after Bob died. Perhaps that would explain their low quality and why they were released back to back.
But I can’t buy the whole “unfinished” thing. Not entirely. I’m not really sure what more they could have gained from working on these songs any more. The type of half assed experimental bullshit the band tries to pull here is so far out of date with the times and so antiquated, unsuccessful and wasteful that it’s hard not to actually feel a bit angry towards them while listening to the album.
I mean why, WHY would the band suddenly abandon the successful approach of their previous album? Yes, I get the whole “gotta keep changing” thing that drove “Amon Duul II” but why change in this way? Because of Calvert? I find that hard to believe: Calvert actually flourished well in the mid period space-pop setting of “Hawkwind.”
Perhaps it was pure laziness. The effort that went into this album was obviously minimal: it sounds like the band could have bashed this out in an afternoon. The band once again goes for a “jam” based approach but they don’t even approach the density of sound and effectiveness of “Hawk Versus Penguin” let alone “Tanz Der Lemming.” They do integrate more synthesizers and industrial sounding noises but this is no great prize.
I mean, something like nearly 15 minutes of the album are wasted on go-nowhere ideas that took no time to conceive. The clock sounds that start “Tik Tok” are boring, offensively over long and nowhere near as effective as the sounds from “Dark Side of the Moon.” “Hauptmotor” starts with nearly seven minutes of “nature” sounds that set no mood but annoyance and which seem to rip off Wendy Carlos. “Who Who” starts with an annoying, pseudo industrial sounding drum beat that just…never…stops…
And then when the songs do start, the band simply spins its tires. The basic formula is “Calvert-blathers-crap-over-top-over-one-riff.” Sure, the band tries tricks with sound effects and volume levels but these effects are incredibly minimal and pointless. Worst of all, the band ends the album with an India mocking “sitar showcase” which is so painful to listen to and so utterly pointless that it almost seems racist.
Sure, “The Tribe” has a solid hard rock drive to it that makes it stand out a bit while “Tik Tok” has a justifiably famous riff. But there is simply nothing here. The band was completely out of ideas and I can’t even blame Calvert here. After all, he didn’t force the band to “compose” such nonsense.
Die Losung 1989
1) Big Wheel; 2) Urban Indian; 3) Adrenalin Rush; 4) Visions Of Fire; 5) Drawn To The Flame Pt. 1; 6) They Call It Home; 7) Die Lösung; 8) Drawn To The Flame Pt. 2.
4 out of 10
“Die Losung” was released the same year as “Fool Moon” and is basically that albums “Meetings with Menmachines.” The band has once again streamlined its sound into a more pop and rock based format. However, unlike that album, they completely fail to do anything of worth and completely embarrasses themselves again, thankfully for the last time.
In fact, I’d say this album is an even bigger attempt to sell out than previous albums. The tones of each instrument are as commercial as they’ve ever been. The melodies and arrangements are even simpler and the subject matter (especially on the turgid “Urban Indian”) are so grotesque that fans of “Motley Crue” may have due them.
This is not to say that the band sounds like hair metal. They don’t. This is also not to say that the band sounds like synth pop. They sure don’t. Instead, they sound like an out of date, clueless, pointless band that is trying to fit in to the times to sell records but without “selling out.” They stick to their tried and true “arty” methods which are a) completely inappropriate and b) completely unsuccessful. Think of this album as the band’s “Almost Alive” but without the funk influences.
I mean, it’s really hard to figure out the purpose and goals of these albums, as they were recorded and released under such murky circumstances. But whatever the purpose and goals (and whether they are finished or not) they were commercially released as finished albums and must be reviewed as such.
Basically, the band goes for a straightforward rock sound that lacks the charm, wit and intelligence of “Menmachines.” The guitar tones are highly processed in a late 80’s way that removes the charm and “sex” out of the guitar. The synthesizers are so late 80’s you’ll want to cry. Calvert is completely wasted, ranting and raving on top of utterly ugly backing tracks in an utterly ugly and out of tune way.
Luckily, Julie Warring makes a reappearance on the last two tracks. And sure, her pleasant voice helps lift these two tracks above the mark. But barely, just barely and hardly enough to really save the album from utter ruin.
Weinzierl was smart enough to stop the band at this point. What had started as formally exciting and potentially worthwhile idea had de-evolved into an ugly mess of contrasting ideas and poorly thought out conception. Even “Bee As Such” is worthier than these last two albums.
And this is where the story of “Amon Duul” ends for me. Of course, I already covered the band’s late period albums with and without Weinzierl. But I shall no more have to write about this band and for that I’m grateful. It’s time to move on to something a bit easier to manage. A band that is a bit more streamlined, yet worthy. Perhaps a high quality pop-rock band that is highly beloved but sorely misunderstood by many people. Most importantly, a band that doesn’t have so many damn albums.
Stay tuned for my ABBA reviews!
1) Mambo La Libertad; 2) Du Kommst Ins Heim; 3) Still Standing; 4) Psychedelic Suite.
5 out of 10
Just when you thought it was safe to ignore “Amon Duul II”; after a further 14 years had passed, the band finally re-emerges to make a new musical statement. The band is back to four of the most important members (Renate, Karrer, Meid and even Weinzierl this time) and they are ready to prove they still have it. The band released a press release that stated they were ready to go “back to the roots – not in the past, but essentially – seeking the news sounds…of the new millennium.” So, does this band of nearly 60 year olds touch on the new sound of the millennium?
What do you think? Look at the rating: the band utterly fails in their goal. They fall flat on their face, completely embarrassing themselves after the success of “Nada Moonshine #.” It’s sad that this must be considered their swansong instead of that superior album.
A brief bit of background on the album: after releasing “Nada Moonshine #” many band members almost immediately disowned it. Although they played many of the tracks live (as illustrated on “Live at Tokyo” an album I’ve never heard) they simply didn’t believe in the material for some reason. So, after the two sound collage albums in 96 they went their separate ways.
However, late in the 2000’s the band got bit by the nostalgia bug. They started playing together again and even got John Wienzierl to come back. They quickly recorded this album and self released it online. There are no physical copies of this album: it’s a completely mp3 based album. There isn’t even any official album art.
And then the band penned their pretentious press release. It’s hard to get over this release as it’s impossible to reconcile the difference between the album and the difference between what the band publicly stated they were trying to achieve.
The part I quoted above is simply the tip of the iceberg. “This sound painting,” the release continues, “is one more of our unique works, containing the spirit of our time.” What time? Do they mean the late 2000’s? Or do they mean “their” time i.e. the early-to-mid-70’s? Because the latter makes more sense.
This album has nothing to do with the 2000’s. It’s simply an extension of the early, jam based methodology of their earliest albums. For many fans this will be a cause for rejoicing. “Finally!” they say, clutching their tattered, tear covered remains of ‘Tanz Der Lemming,’ “the band is back to jamming and improvising in a wild and exciting way! They quit their 40 year sell out streak and are back to what they do best!”
And yes, the band was definitely best at pure jamming. As enjoyable and as essential as those mid-70’s song-based albums are they aren’t as unique or innovative or effective as their pure jam based albums. Surely, the band must touch on some of the magic they had in the old days, even if on accident.
Honestly, I can say quite sadly, the band doesn’t touch even a quarter of the magic they had in the old days. They don’t even have a tenth of it. Because this isn’t really the same band. Yes, the basic quartet is in place, but Falk Rogner is out of the picture. In fact, there isn’t even a real keyboard player in the band at this point: only Wienzierl is credited with playing a little synthesizer
As much as I respect Wienzierl, Carrer and Meid as instrumentalists (and I really do) they simply don’t really cook up much fire on this album. The lack of keyboards creates a thinner sound that the guitarists simply don’t fill. While earlier albums often sounded like a wild beast rampaging throughout the land, tearing down walls and destroying your sanity, this album simply sounds like a band jamming.
Put it another way: these jams do not create moods. Past jams all had a moody texture or purpose to them that helped elevate them above the average “let’s jam, dude” methodology that many bands had at the time. Yes, Wienzierl, Carrer and Meid are ultra professional in their jamming. But they aren’t virtuosos. You can’t simply let the sonic waves of demonic jam power wash over you like you can with “Can.”
“Amon Duul II” never had the raw chops to carry the listener over based on pure jamming in their prime. What chance do they have 40 years later? None basically. These tracks have the value of “bonus tracks” that you might seen tagged onto the end of a remastered, rereleased CD. They sound like warm ups or rehearsals most of the time.
I wouldn’t be so offended by the album if the band wasn’t so pretentious about it: they didn’t act like they were breaking ground with the much-wilder-and-more-in-tune-with-the-times “Kobe Reconstructions/Flashback” albums.
Are they really that deluded that they think they’re breaking new ground? If so, that’s sad. And it actually costs the album a point in the rating. Does that seem unfair? Hardly: I call this the “Elder” syndrome.
This syndrome, named after Kiss’ “Music from the Elder” album comes when a band pretentiously tries to bite off more than they can chew. They over-estimate their abilities and strengths as a band and fall completely flat on their face trying to be “deep” “original” and “innovative.”
As background music, it works just fine. Wash your dishes to it and you may even give it an extra star or two. At their best, this band was much more than background listening. But the band is getting old and there is no way they are at their best. Making passable background music for fans is not a bad past time for an elder band.
But the band didn’t present it as background music: they presented it as new, groundbreaking music. They presented it as something that could fully compete with their past accomplishments. They want to present themselves as if they are at their best. And argue about this all you want, but I believe that intention and presentation are vital parts to consider about an album.
For example, after ten years of disappointing, “serious minded” albums by Bob Dylan that completely failed in their task, fans and critics reacted positively to the slight, non-serious intended pair of folk cover albums he pressed in the late 80’s. It was the kind of album Dylan could toss of in his sleep but fans and critics loved them.
This is because they knew that Bob wasn’t making a serious statement: he was just having some fun after a long string of failures. He wasn’t at his best, knew it and did a goof off. He never presented those albums as if they were competitive with his best work. And they were great
“Amon Duul II” was obviously just having fun when they recorded this album. But they try to present it as a serious statement. One of the biggest mistakes of their career and one which taints the end of their career slightly. Speaking of “tainting careers” my “Amon Duul UK” reviews are next.
1) Castaneda Da Dream; 2) Nada Moonshine Union; 3) Speed Inside My Shoes; 4) Sirens In Germanistan; 5) Lilac Lillies; 6) Kiss Ma Eee; 7) Carpetride In Velvet Night; 8) Black Pearl Of Wisdom; 9) Ça Va; 10) Guadalquivir.
8 out of 10
All great bands (except for ABBA and the Beatles (and well, countless others (this sentence has been rendered moot by these parentheticals but I’m going to finish it anyways (so there)))) eventually reunite: and so it was, 14 years after their last, rather dull attempt at an album, the “original” line-up of “Amon Duul II” (with no Weinzierl who was off doing who knows what at this time) gets together to show the world they still have it nearly 30 years after their debut and 20 years after their last great album.
Apologies for the lengthy sentence: I was briefly possessed by the spirit of William Faulkner and William Burroughs at the same time. Faulkner was wasted and feebly rejecting the advances of a stoned out of his gourd Burroughs. Faulkner didn’t give in, thankfully, or I’d have an odd literary creature growing in my head: a combination of Faulkner and Burroughs that I could only call: William Burroughs. Or wait no, I’m sorry: William Faulkner.
Whoa whoa whoa, time out. Okay, no more of that. I’m sorry for the brief moments of insanity there but it’s hard not to get a bit goofed out when listening to an album like this: any kind of reunion album creates a feeling of foreboding in my mind. Does the band still have it? Can they create an album that stays true to their past but pushes the boundaries forward and which stays current and imaginative?
Most people can’t: “Amon Duul II” basically do. No, the album isn’t perfect but it is a shockingly good return to form from a band that basically nobody cared about anymore. Yes, this album came and went without leaving even a small ripple in the listening world: the only person I’ve ever seen discuss this album is George Starostin. You can’t even read a review at Allmusic but that doesn’t stop them from rating it. Idiots.
So, what does the band achieve on this album? Its simple on paper but complex in execution: the band combines their classic style with a more synthesized, highly studio based production style. And when I say their “old styles” I mean the “everything happening at once” approach of “Yeti” with the more streamlined songwriting styles of their mid-70’s albums.
Basically, a song will start out with a simple idea. Sometimes guitar based but more often synthesizer or keyboard based. The band will then begin layering sounds on top of it, including more synthesizers, guitars, Renate-wailings and vivid soundscapes. Drum machines may jump in and techno rhythms may appear. Basically, it often feels like the band is jumping on that mid-90’s techno band wagon.
However, the band doesn’t let this new sound define who they are or become too repetitive. Songs usually switch sounds quickly (and these are long songs for the most part) building up to new ideas, including operatic arias, faster techno drum beats, wild guitar passages, rhythmic attacks and wild echoing sound effect panoramas.
If the album sounds wild it is: it can be overwhelming to listen to at times. The band doesn’t really let up for a second on the album and is seemingly having as much fun in the studio as they have ever had, if not more. As a result, there isn’t much breathing room on the album: every spare second is stuffed with sound effects, guitars, synthesizers, thick bass lines, wild vocalizing, sampled loops, odd string sections and more.
And this is one reason why the album gets an eight. As impressive of an accomplishment as the album is, technically, it becomes very wearing to listen to for long periods of time. And although there are only 10 songs, this album stretches out to nearly an hour long, if not longer (forgive me if I don’t know the exact running time off the top of my head).
Another reason the album doesn’t get top marks is that the songs start to all sound the same. Yes, there are major differences in the songs but I couldn’t really tell you what they are right now. The arrangements and approaches don’t change drastically between songs, even though the styles and genres tackled often do change (the eternal curse of “Amon Duul II”). This contributes to the feeling of boredom that rears its ugly head by the close of the album.
Lastly, the band isn’t really pushing boundaries that haven’t been pushed before. They are now simply followers instead of leaders. Yes, one cannot hold that against the band as they were getting pretty old by this point in their career. But it hurts parts of the album, especially the ending techno beats of “Lilac Lillies” which really detract from the quality of the song. They are so generic that its sad to see this rampaging, all encompassing beats of a band stoop to that level.
With all those complaints voiced, I can still give this album an easy 8 out of 10 for the balls and talent it took to put it together. While it may not be innovative, it does sound different from all those mid-90’s techno-influenced albums because it is written and recorded by a band of former mad-men-and-women who were literally anarchists at one point in their career. And this wild, careening album reflects that anarchistic spirit perfectly.
5 out of 10 each
Although this was the only album of new material released by the band in the 90’s, they did release two albums of “sound collage” material in 1996. These albums, “Kobe Reconstructions” and “Flashback” were limited release albums released for a singular purpose: “Kobe Reconstructions” was released to raise funds for Kobe, Japan after a hurricane struck while “Flashback” was a gift to members of the “Amon Duul II” fan club.
I’m reviewing both of these albums simultaneously because they sound identical. The band basically took songs from their past albums and used a sampler to reconstruct them into wild sound collages. And instead of separating the albums into individual tracks, they made them all one track.
And the albums basically suck as listening experiences. I love sound collages as much if not more than the average man (my first three albums were nothing but sound collages) but the band doesn’t show a lot of imagination in this style. A great sound collage would feature jarring, yet musical, contrasts and interesting combinations of material.
Instead, these albums often feature a basic guitar line (sometimes from “Amon Duul I”!!!!) repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity. And then they layer a few basic parts over top and let these repeat endlessly. And the albums do feel endless, as they drone on and on for what seems like an eternity.
I can’t really be too hard on the albums though: both were released for nice, charitable purposes and were designed to appeal to hardcore “Amon Duul II” fans (something I am not). Plus, it’s cool to see the band try something new and stretch out their creativity in new directions. Sure, they fail but its better to fail at something new than to fail at something old. Five stars in admiration and under the condition I never have to listen to these albums again.
1) Vortex; 2) Holy West; 3) Die 7 Fetten Jahre; 4) Wings Of The Wind; 5) Mona; 6) We Are Machine; 7) Das Gestern Ist Das Heute Von Morgen; 8) Vibes In The Air.
6 out of 10
A relative rebound. Kind of. Three years after the shattered, tattered remains of the once mighty “Amon Duul II” were promptly buried, never to be unearthed, the original band rose again, one year to each day, resurrected to conquer the world again and to prove that Love really does conquer all.
Or not. Look, that last paragraph may have been needlessly poetic but I want the reader to understand how neat this album could and should have been. Most of the original band members make appearances, including Renate, original organist Falk Rogner (who I’ve always neglected to mention, shame considering his keyboard work helped create a lot of great atmosphere) with John Weinzierl playing a little guitar and Lothar Meid back on a “little” bit of bass.
So with the original band (kind of, at points) back together, it was time to cut the shit. All attempts to streamline and “sell out” have been removed from the band’s vocabulary. No more bland shit like “Only Human” or “Almost Alive” to ruin the band’s reputation. Nope, the band was ready to get back to a denser sound with a more atmospheric feel. Darkness should over take the listener, much like they are being sucked up by the slightly-ridiculous-yet-still-ominious image on the front cover.
But the band more or less blows it: sure, it’s an improvement over the last two records, but it’s basically of the same quality as “Pyragony X.” It is noble that the band would try to come back and regain some of their lost ground. But it’s really their own fault that the album really doesn’t work.
One problem is that most of the major band members really only make guest appearances. Weinzierl and Meid really only guest briefly throughout the album. Jorg Evers plays guitar and he simply doesn’t have the same skill or inventiveness of Weinzierl. Meid does almost no songwriting, simply sticking to bass. This is a major problem, as it was his clever song-writing ideas that kept the band afloat for the three years after they abandoned complete jamming.
Another major problem is the “instrumentation situation.” The album is an official “80’s Album” as it features drum machines, synthesizers and other machines of that ilk. However, the inclusion of these instruments wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in the early 80’s. Remember, it was the era of “Peter Gabriel III” and other creepy, crawlie creative synth albums. Even Genesis’s “Abacab,” while ostensibly pop, had great tones and many creative ideas.
Put it this way: the album sounds more like “Peter Gabriel III” and less like “No Jacket Required.” The band is definitely working their asses off to create an oppressive atmosphere that can crush the listener. They really want to make a heavy return to creative darkness. As a result, the synthesizers croak out unpleasant tones that are not generic. The drum machine stutter and strut, much like Gabriel’s classic programming.
But the album still gets a pretty low rating. Honestly, it’s no better than and sometimes worse than “Pyragony X.” It’s close to being better because the general sound is a bit more interesting than the completely pedestrian and nearly generic sound of “Pyragony X.” It’s closer to being worse because the band fails at their goals here worse than on that unfortunate album.
Basically, the band is trying to be scary and oppressive but they really don’t succeed at achieving that goal. Yes, the songs are dense, heavily arranged and gloomy. But instead of being impressive, they simply stand there and brood. For all the band’s hard work, they are simply doing another make-up job on a rotting corpse of a sow.
It may be worse than “Pyragony X” because at least that album had actual songs. Sure, they were pretty unmemorable and unengaging but they had structure, melodies and diverse arrangements. Here, everything mulls together into a lump with no real melodic strength. Honestly, it feels like the band is trying to make the arrangements into songs themselves. This is an approach which never truly works: it may fool the band’s desperate fans into thinking “they’re back!” but it leaves an album that a) won’t appeal to casual fans and b) won’t even hold up for fans, unless they’re completely self deceiving.
I haven’t even described the tracks yet have I? Well, “Holy West” certainly sounds impressive at first with its wave of synthesizer atmosphere. However, the melody of the song is painfully simple. It also hits no real emotion or meaning. It’s simply there. And the band never develops the melody or the atmosphere they have created. It simply broods there, glowering at you immovably,
Fans of “Kraftwerk” may be excited (or pissed) to see a song called “We Are Machine.” Don’t worry: “Kraftwerk “has nothing to worry about. Why the band tried this approach is beyond me. They were never good at repetitive music ideas. Whereas “Kraftwerk” succeeds by making their repetitive ideas catchy and by adding slight variations, “Amon Duul II” simply pounds a simple idea, throws in simplistic “machine” lyrics and calls it a day.
Going into detail here isn’t exactly necessary. So, why does this album get such a (relatively) high rating when compared to the previous two albums? In spite of the fact that it fails, it shows a band that is trying to do something creative and new. They’re obviously working hard to be new and exciting. They are trying to integrate New Wave ideas and are at least integrating them semi-intelligently.
Simply put: the band is trying to be good. They’re failing, but at least they’re trying. The last two albums featured a band trying but they were trying to sell albums without having the ability to write music that a mainstream audience would want to buy.
Plus, if you’ve never heard much of this style of music, it might be effective. Or if you buy into the mood and atmosphere the band is trying to set (I don’t) it could probably be much more effective. No more than a six worth of effectiveness but much better than the 5 I wanted to give the album.
The band must have seen the writing on the wall though. They split again, this time to stay away for 14 years. However, they’d come back with a strong album, their best in 20 year and which shows a band more successfully navigating unknown waters. Stay tuned.
1) Another Morning; 2) Don’t Turn To Stone; 3) Kirk Morgan; 4) Spaniards And Spacemen; 5) Kismet; 6) Pharao; 7) Ruby Lane.
2 out of 10
As if “Almost Alive” wasn’t embarrassing enough, the band had to make one last stab at commercial relevancy with this 1978 album. Of course, it was artistically, critically and commercially a complete failure. But it did serve a useful purpose: it helped put an end to this ailing band, which had gone from one of the best of the 70’s into one of the most bland and useless.
But what band is this? Is this the same band that recorded “”Phallus Dei” in 1969? Of course not: the only original member was Chris Karrer, never the most prolific of the band’s songwriters. So the rest of the band continues to provide most of the musical content, coming up intensely short once again.
It’s not as if the band didn’t try. They throw in some funkiness, ala “Another Morning.” Spanish motifs are expanded upon at some length, as are middle Eastern styles and even disco. The band also attempts softer and harder rock styles. The band even infuses them with the same type of “arty” arrangements they had attempted on past albums.
One would think with all this work to create an exciting, diverse and rich sonic atmosphere would not have gone to such a complete waste. But the arrangements here simply don’t work. It is, once again, a pig in lipstick situation. The songs are completely unmemorable, non-catchy and borderline completely poorly written. “Another Morning” sounds like the band wanted to be ABBA. But ABBA only worked because they had genius composers: nobody in this band is a genius.
The arrangements also stay stuck in a rather frustratingly early 70’s art rock style that is completely out of place in the era of punk. For God’s sake, the Ramones had been out almost two years by this point! Post punk and new wave bands were already using synthesizers in new and startling ways. The band did wisely avoid trying to adapt to these styles but simply fail in their old styles over and over again.
Basically, the band simply comes up completely short on material that is worth hearing. The album isn’t terrifying to listen to (no THRAKATTAK or Metal Machine Music dissonance here). But it goes in one ear and out the other. If the band was writing good material, catchy, memorable songs their slight “outdatedness” would be compensated by great songs. But the band couldn’t adapt to the time and couldn’t even represent their own time well.
“Only Human” indeed. Only too good the band broke up at this point. Their story doesn’t end here though: poorly thought out reunions await us in the next few reviews.
PS Sorry this album is so short but there’s only so many ways you can write “the songs suck and the band is completely out of date” without repeating yourself. And I insist, an album that is simply one of the blandest albums ever (NOTHING stands out) doesn’t deserve a truly in depth, mocking review.
1) One Blue Morning; 2) Good Bye My Love; 3) Ain’t Today Tomorrow’s Yesterday; 4) Hallelujah; 5) Feeling Uneasy; 6) Live In Jericho.
4 out of 10
“Amon Duul II” continue their slide into complete irrelevancy with this album. The line-up had stabilized around the same line-up that produced “Pyragony X” the year before. Naturally, the sound of the album has changed considerably. For that reason, “Amon Dull II” can be slightly praised. But the point they gained for the unpredictable change of their sound is lost by…the change of their sound.
The album brings in a few more outside sources into the band’s sound, none of which are good. Gone are the attempts at boogying and bluesing. Instead, the band seems to want to compete with…Parliament. Yes, the band suddenly decided their new direction was going to include funk. Seriously.
This helps explain the lower number of songs: increased running time. However, this isn’t generally because the band is exploring multiple moods, melodies and complex structures. No, the band is “grooving” as much as it pains me to say it. The band almost becomes disco at various points throughout the album.
A fan of the band (and of art rock in general) may argue “wouldn’t you rather hear Amon Duul II do funk and disco, as opposed to Parliament or the Bee Gees?” No way: the style of funk here is way too stiff, way too “white” (yes, compared even to the Bee Gees) to actually syncopate well enough to be catchy and exciting.
Songs like “Hallelujah,” “One Blue Morning” and “Good Bye My Love” simply don’t work. They last way, way too long and explore too few ideas. To compensate for their lack of funk chops, the band seems to bring in an atmosphere of arena rock (of all things!) instead the sound. Imagine that: combining, say, Foreigner, with the hot new sounds of Donna Summer. Just imagine it. Let it sink in your mind for a few moments before attempting to track down this album.
When the band isn’t trying to make you dance, they’re trying to make you “feel” which may actually be a much scarier proposition for the band with this new sound. “Ain’t Today Tomorrow’s Yesterday,” hideous title aside, is the band trying to create a great progressive rock ballad. In 1977. How embarrassing. And it’s completely a triumph of style of substance: wild pianos, strings, choirs, synthesizers, epic vocals and ecstatic guitar solos are all simply a case of a pig in lipstick of the song’s melodic potential.
“Feeling Uneasy” isn’t nearly as pompous but should hardly be mentioned. In the past, the band could have enlivened the song with a dark atmosphere, odd instrumental textures and a dramatic, operatic performance from Renate. Here, it chumps along until its over, no emotions having been touched and no melodies having been implanted into the brain.
Old school fans may get their rocks off to “Live in Jericho” as it is 12 minutes long and finds the band trying to improvise. However, this version of the band simply lacks the chemistry to make this truly compelling. Would the original band have featured a drum solo in any song (correct me if I’m wrong) let alone START A TRACK WITH ONE? The keyboard and guitar solos are barely worth mentioning; the former masters of atmospheric jamming sound more like a bad jazz fusion group, trying to out Jeff Jeff Beck. Beck was never this self indulgent.
This album is a major drop off from “Pyragony X” in every single way. Sure, the songs are longer and the structures and melodies are more complex and less generic. But the melodies, structures and arrangements aren’t even catchy, let alone memorable. The atmosphere of the album couldn’t sound less artificial if it tried. “Almost Alive” is a perfect title for an album that seems to want to soar but which can’t even get its feet off the ground.
Who in this band thought combining generic arena rock with stiff white funk would help sell more records? I mean at this point that’s really the only goal they could have had right? The band didn’t actually think this junk was artistically valid did they?
I find it hard to believe that the band had released an album as great as “Made in Germany” only two years before this one astonishing. Yes, there were band member changes but the majority of the band stayed. This can only mean the band had suffered a complete loss of taste and decency that was basically permanent.
And you know what? It even gets worse with the next album: say what you will about the last two albums but they were hardly completely generic. The next album goes that route with bad songwriting and embarrassing arrangement atrocities.