Amon Duul Reviews Part Eleven: Amon Duul II’s “Pyragony X”
1) Flower Of The Orient; 2) Merlin; 3) Crystal Hexagram; 4) Lost In Space; 5) Sally The Seducer; 6) Telly Vision; 7) The Only Thing; 8) Capuccino.
Six Out of Ten
Well, it finally happened: after six incredible years and 10 great albums, “Amon Duul II” finally lost it.: “Pyragony X” (or “Pyr Agony X” as it is sometimes called) is the first bad album by the band. The fact is not shocking in and of itself: with so many great albums under their belt, it’s no surprise that the band would start to lose some quality.
However, after the incredible “Made in Germany” this particular album is an incredible disappointment. It’s not exactly “pure agony” as the title suggests: instead, it continues the streamling of the previous albums but does so in a much less engaging, diverse and unique fashion. They seem to hit on a bit of a roots rock fetishism here. Barroom boogies make a prominent appearance, as does country rock, blues and even southern rock.
True, the band had never really traveled down this road before so it could be considered a positive point in favor of the band’s experimentation and desire to branch out. In fact, this album does sound like nothing else the band did before or later. This fact gives it a sympathy point but no more.
Part of the problem here was a loss of band members: bass player Lothar Meid finally left the group, taking with him several other members including Renate. As much as I believe there was no real “leader” of “Amon Duul II” I think losing Meid crippled the band. He was the closest thing band had to a true musical leader and songwriter.
Many of the great ideas from past albums, including “Made in Germany” (including the basic song structures, basic melodies and all the orchestral, horn and choir arrangements) came from Meid’s mind. Yes, the other band members contributed their own song ideas and helped flesh out Meid’s arrangements with their own clever ideas. However, with Meid gone, many of those great ideas evaporate, leaving a confused and directionless band to grapple in the dark.
Losing Renate may not have been as big of a deal in a songwriting fashion (as she was never prolific in that regard) or even vocally (as she was contributing less and less) but more psychologically. Renate was one of the main founding members of the original band. Her visionary sounding “acid opera” vocal style helped give “Amon Duul II” a signature stamp of uniqueness that, even when they under utilized her talents (which they always did) made them stand out from other krautrock (or rock bands in general) too cowardly to use wild, out of control female singing.
New band members, bass player Klaus Ebert and keyboard player Stefan Zauner are perfectly solid additions to the line up instrumentally. However, they bring with them none of the fire, experimentalism and creative zest of the players they were replacing. New bass player Ebert did bring many new songwriting ideas to the table in a way that made him the new “idea” guy.
Of course, long term members such as Karrer and Weinzierl were contributing their own ideas to this and past albums. They were great as arrangers, players and “idea thickeners.” However, they simply didn’t have the true songwriting genius of Meid. This problem led to them relying more on Ebert and even Zauner to create the backbones for the songs on this and future albums.
This wouldn’t have been a huge, distracting problem if Ebert and Zauner were highly talented. They are, unfortunately, not. It’s not that the songs on this album are truly bad. It’s obvious that a lot of care went into creating them and that they were arranged to the fullest of the band’s capabilities at the time. In fact, the album even tries going for the “schizophrenic pop” sound of past albums by being as diverse as possible with a variety of catchy, memorable and (potentially) wildly original pop tunes.
“Flower of the Orient” lives up to its name with a light oriental sound weaving throughout the piece. “Merlin” is a catchy piece of space blues that somewhat justifies its name. Other genres include hard driving southern rock (with appropriate attempts at trying to out Dickey Betts) and even spacey instrumental work that suggests a more experimental mind set.
Another great is that the album also avoids falling into genres the band had no hope of succeeding in; the band doesn’t try to play like a punk band nor do they de-evolve into generic synthesized disco schlock (emulating ABBA would have been an awful idea for this band as much as I love ABBA). The band understands what they are capable of doing and stick to this (a situation that would disappear in subsequent albums).
The problem with the album doesn’t lie in its intentions (which are not bad) but in the execution. The eastern and oriental elements mentioned in “Flower of the Orient” end up being incredibly trite, contributing very little to the song. “Merlin” features wild solos which are nowhere near as wild and exciting as necessary to enliven such a generic piece of space blues. All of their attempts to be diverse are smothered by lumpy arrangements which are technically thick but which make every song sound the same, regardless of the genre the band is tackling.
Yes, I realize I highly praised albums such as “Viva La Trance” as being highly diverse, unpredictable and entertaining while at the same time lightly complaining about slightly uniform arrangements. That is a problem on all of the band’s “schizophrenic pop” albums. It is incredibly harmful here because a) these songs are a) nowhere near as strong as the songs on those albums b) the arrangements on the past albums were at least unique to the band.
On albums like “Utopia” and “Hi Jack” the band may have used a somewhat uniform arrangement style but it was THEIR arrangement style. It was a style that was uniquely “Amon Duul II” and it helped the material stand out from standard, banal pop songs of the day. Here, the arrangements could have come from any half competent pop rock band with a slight experimental streak. The band has completely lost its original arrangement style.
Again, this wouldn’t be a major problem if the songs were anywhere near as good as past albums. Unfortunately, they are not. The songs are hardly bad (or else this album would get a rating similar to the ratings the next couple are going to get) as they often feature catchy melodic ideas. But, as mentioned in previous albums, there is a huge difference between “catchy” and “memorable.”
“Catchy” song ideas stick in your head while the song plays but slowly fade away. At some point in your life, one of these catchy ideas will emerge from deep within your mind to haunt and torture you until you hear the song again. “Memorable” song ideas are catchy because of an nontrivial melodic approach that takes catchy ideas and twists them in unique ways that can never be forgotten.
The band really never ventures into “memorable” here, except for perhaps with the instrumental “Crystal Hexagram,” the one song that is usually pointed out as a classic. This guitar based instrumental features some of the best dual guitar interplay of the band’s career, building to several moody climaxes in a way that mirrors their best work. I wouldn’t say the album’s worth hunting down for this track alone (as it’s not as good as all of that and these “Amon Duul II” albums are hard to track down and expensive) but it definitely helps gain the album a point.
Low points include song titles such as “Sally the Seducer” (UGH) and “Telly Vision” (seriously?!) two ultra banal songs that feature shallow melodies, arrangements and subjects. Funny how an anti-commercial song like “Telly Vision” would emerge on the band’s least unique, most commercial sounding album yet. Perhaps the band is trying to make up for the album’s commercial nature by showing their fans they are still anti-establishment and edgy. If so, the band is practicing a nearly dangerous level of self deception.
Beyond these absolutely awful songs, the rest of the album is competently written, non-offensive and absolutely boring generic semi-space-pop-rock that aims for a diverse and experimental sound but which fails completely. The band would seemingly have nowhere else to go but up after this album. However, the band completely nose dives into pure shit with the next two albums in a way that makes “Pyragony X” a late career HIGHLIGHT in retrospect. Be afeared kids.