Amon Duul Series Part Seven: Amon Duul II’s “Utopia”
1) What You Gonna Do?; 2) The Wolfman Jack Show; 3) Alice; 4) Las Vegas; 5) Deutsch Nepal; 6) Utopia No. 1; 7) Nasi Goreng; 8) Jazz Kiste.
Eight out Ten
After the release of “Wolf City,” there was a fall out amongst the members of “Amon Duul II.” Bass player Lothar Meid had become one of the primary songwriters of the band by this point. He had spearheaded many of the highly successful flirtations with more accessible ideas found on “Wolf City.” Lothar wanted to continue pursuing a more commercial direction. Producer Olaf Kubler backed these ideas heavily, seeing as Lothar had become a primary composer.
However, not all of the band were interested in his ideas. Some of them (history has distorted who exactly) wanted to pursue a “freer” approach more in-line with their original ideas. This argument caused Lothar to flee into a separate studio with Olaf to work on his ideas. Lothar hired a group of sessions musicians to flesh out his ideas.
As they began working, the ties between the other members of “Amon Duul II” were healed. The original band came back to help Lothar finish his album, adding their own contributions in songwriting, arrangement and playing. As a result, the album, originally released under the band name “Utopia” has become a long lost “Amon Duul II” album. In fact, it is always credited to the band these days, under the album name “Utopia” where as the original album was simply self titled.
So, did all of this confusion lead to a disappointing album? Hardly: “Amon Duul II” was simply too good at this point to pump out sub-par material. In fact, Lothar had become quite an accomplished composer by this point, writing songs with high quality melodies with diverse arrangements in multiple genres. The only reason this album doesn’t rate higher is because a) it does somewhat betray the “dark” atmosphere of “Wolf City” and “Amon Duul II” in general and b) it’s too wildly diverse to be completely coherent.
These are very minor points (in fact, I love wildly diverse albums) but they do create a distraction principle. The darkness that had defined the band for so long has disappeared, replaced by a more simple, slightly generic air. And the problem with the diversity shown herein is that it doesn’t seem naturally diverse but slightly forced. When one listens to “The White Album” (arguably the most diverse album crafted) one marvels at the band’s natural command of multiple styles. The arrangements are easily modified and the band comes up with great melodies and lyrics that boost the songs up.
Here, the band sticks mostly to writing the same kind of darker melodies they had in the past, but with lighter arrangements. And honestly, as diverse as the approaches are here, the band usually sticks to the same guitar, guitar, bass, drums, violin, keyboard arrangements. It’s a case where a band’s style and arrangements masks the album’s true diversity. So, the album seems simultaneously incoherent (in the sense of mood created by songs) but seems somewhat monolithic in sound due to a coherent arrangement approach.
Confused? I wouldn’t blame you a bit. Really, it’s a lengthy way to say the songs sound simultaneously different while all sounding the same. This problem, combined with the loss of the band’s trademark darkness can’t help but knock this album down a few points in my eyes at least. To be honest, it doesn’t knock it down in my eyes as it does in the eyes of other fans, who begin viewing the band as complete and utter sell outs by this point.
Of course, an album this high can’t be all that bad. That said, in spite of the complaints I have voiced here, the album is actually very good. The band seemingly effortlessly tackles genres as diverse as folk rock; heavy, dark blues rock; piano ballads; jazzy acoustic guitar shuffles with wild brass sections; a re-recording of an earlier song; and three wildly diverse instrumentals to close the album.
The re-recording is of “Deutsch Nepal” from the previous album. This is the only moment of darkness on the album and is an odd low point: the first version was so dark and forbidding that this recreation, which comes across as lighter and less arranged, can’t help but be a disappointment. Besides, what’s the point of re-recording a song as recent as your last album? Imagine if the Beatles had re-recorded “I’m Looking Through You” for “Revolver” with a worsened arrangement. Makes no sense at all.
That said, the songs move through a variety of moods, melodies and styles, all of them pleasant. “What You Gonna Do?” is a huge shock after the previous albums. It’s lighter mood and nearly playful atmosphere seems entirely at odds with the “Lords of Darkness” feel that previous “Amon Duul II” albums possessed. Luckily, the song is catchy, well written and played. It also avoids cheese completely, making it completely adequate and fun.
The next four songs all vary greatly in style and mood, with only “Deutsch Nepal” standing out as a pointless endeavor. The rest are all based on pleasant, accessible but non-trivial music ideas. “Amon Duul II” is too weird to completely sell out just yet, so the songs all have weird twists in arrangement, wild guitar solos or odd vocal approaches to help avoid branding this a sell out. And it’s important to remember that “accessibility” should not be confused with “generic” or awful.
Besides, what kind of “sell out” band includes three high quality, dark, moody instrumentals at the end of their album? “Utopia No. 1” features the band playing in a similar vein to their earlier work. Honestly, it feels slightly out of place here: it seems like it should be on “Tanz Der Lemming” or even “Phallic Dei.”
“Nasi Goreng” (what a title) is an organ dominated, near gospel number that continually builds to an ecstatic climax in a way that “Amon Duul II” hasn’t really tried before. It may seem a bit too “up” for some fans but it’s “differentness” makes it a worthwhile experiment. Finally, “Jazz Kiste” is exactly what it title threatens: some wild jazz fusion. Thankfully, the band understands the genre well and has the chops to pull it off well. No small feat: as George Starostin once put it “…symph-prog will always be bad if you lack the chops to play it, but fusion will simply not exist if you lack the chops to play it…” The fact that the band can pull it off at all (and well) is a testament to their skills.
Basically, the album is essentially slightly less than the sum of its parts simply because the parts themselves are so diverse that they never build up to some ecstatic peak. Unlike earlier albums, a single mood is not sustained for a whole album, creating a feeling more akin to schizophrenia.
Perhaps this was the goal? I highly doubt it, as the album is too accessible to appeal to a true schizophrenic. However, don’t take the fact that the album is less than the sum of its parts indicate that the individual parts themselves are not enjoyable. In fact, each song here, even “Deutsch Nepal” (which is just disappointing because it’s such a pointless retread) is great and worthy listening over and over.
And it is a great indicator of things to come: this “accessibly schizophrenic” style was to serve as their main driving force for the next few years, helping to revitalize their career commercially and artistically. And if some of these albums are better and more coherent, it’s only because the band was only using a refined and perfected version of the formula set here.