Archive | August 2012

Amon Duul Reviews Part Eleven: Amon Duul II’s “Pyragony X”

Pyragony X album cover.

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.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Ten: Amon Duul II’s “Made in Germany”

Made in Germany Album Cover.

1) Overture; 2) Wir Wollen; 3) Wilhelm Wilhelm; 4) SM II Peng; 5) Elevators Meet Whispering; 6) Metropolis; 7) Lud­wig; 8) The King’s Chocolate Waltz; 9) Blue Grotto; 10) Mr. Kraut’s Jinx; 11) Wide Angle; 12) Three-Eyed Overdrive; 13) Emigrant Song; 14) Loosey Girls; 15) Top Of The Mud; 16) Dreams; 17) Gala Gnome; 18) 5.5.55; 19) La Krautoma; 20) Excessive Spray.

Ten out of Ten

“Amon Duul II” ends their incredible six year, ten album (including “Live in London”) streak with the finest pop album the band ever made and a fine contender for the best pop album made by a former prog band (and a fine contender for a top ten album of the decade, thought it would be rather low on the list(phew!)).

All of the band’s pop experiments pay off fully with an album that displays a band with incredible songwriting depth, superb arranging abilities, amazing chops and a great sense of humor. The “schizo pop” approach of past albums is still here but it’s propped up by a return of arty textures and expansive arrangements. Most importantly, the schizophrenic approach is fully understandable for the first time as the album is tied together with a concept (a brief history of Germany) that makes the schizophrenic approach actually completely vital to the success of the album.

In fact, this album even has a generally good reputation with the band’s older fans as well as critics in general. While many people believed the band was completely going by the wayside due to their directionless (but hilarious) genre experiments, this album seemed to show that the band was making a superb rebound that would last for years to come.

Unfortunately, that rebound only lasted this album as several vitally important band members evaporated into the mist after the release of this album. No matter: no better swan song for the original group could exist but this album. Nobody but completists need worry about the four albums they released in the late 70’s and early 80’s (however, those fans may want to stick around for the 90’s and 00’s).

So what makes this album so great? Let’s start with the sound: the band is nearly fully in short song format with this album. They fit 20 songs two records and one CD. Sure, many of these are short (but evocative) instrumentals. However, even these instrumentals are interesting. Sure, many of the melodies are simple but they are all well written, catchy and meaningful.

Then, there are the arrangements. The band truly pulled out all the stops with this album: although it can generally be called a “pop” album, the songs have art-rock arrangements that bring them up from “pop” songs to “art pop” songs. While this approach can be very stinky (after all, what is Styx but a simplistic pop band with banal art rock arrangements?) here it works because the arrangements are tasteful, creative and always fit in with the mood of the songs.

That, plus the album can seriously serve as a compendum of all “Amon Duul II”s past styles. Sure, their poppy side is more heavily represented. But there hard rock side, balladering side, vaudeville side and even their arty, jammy elements are in full flight. More amazingly, all of these elements seem completely in place on the album: the band never seems to rock for the sake of rocking or art for the sake of arting.

The concept seems to give the band a renewed sense of purpose and focus that helps avoid making their genre jumping reckless. Instead, it seems like the band is pulling off a true “White Album” within a concept album format.

That said, I don’t want to stress the “concept album” appeal too much. This will give you the idea that the album is much, much more serious than it really is in execution. Sure, I do believe the band is serious in that they want to create a brief, but workable history of Germany for the rock world. And I also think they’re serious in creating an entertaining and engaging record.

However, the band doesn’t approach the creation of the concept album as some type of “sacred duty” or “great artistic moment.” Instead, the band often treats it as a goofy laugh. How can an album with a vaudeville track like “Ludwig” be taken too seriously? There’s no way an album with a vaudeville song that authentic and that incredible could be taken too seriously.

Neither could an album with such goofy (but well written) lyrics or an album with funny string arrangements popping up all over the place every other song. Neither can an album with a penultimate track arranged as an interview between an incredibly annoying DJ and a series of clips from Adolph Hitler’s speeches. Especially when said interview includes such dialogue as “Adolph, baby” followed by the DJ asking him for advice on the entertainment business!

That last bit may be offensive to many Germans and I agree it is pushing some buttons. However, it is so silly and non-threatening that only the most easily offended people would truly find it to be a serious flaw in the album.

I realize I didn’t describe too many of the songs on the album. That’s because a) there’s so damn many b) there’s way too diverse and c) it’s best if this album is discovered in real time. It may take a few listens to sink in but I fully believe that any lover of good, diverse and original rock and roll and krautrock in particular will love this album. It shows a fully competent, determined and focused band ready to survive the musical changes on their own terms.

Of course, half the band had to leave after making the album. After this, the dreaded “suckening” begins. I can barely even call it a sell out: more like a complete loss of purpose, followed by desperation and completely confusion. The following four albums sound nothing alike (which is noble) but add nothing to the band’s immaculate reputation.

Luckily, they are mostly out of print and easy to ignore. And yes, I’m going to review them anyways. Give that man a dollar.

Amon Duul Review Part Nine: Amon Duul II’s “Hijack”

Hijack Album Cover.

1) Can’t Wait (pt. 1 + pt. 2) / Mirror; 2) Traveller; 3) You’re Not Alone; 4) Explode Like A Star; 5) Da Guadeloop; 6) Lonely Woman; 7) Liquid Whisper; 8) Archy The Robot

Eight out of Ten

“Amon Duul II”s arduous “at least one album a year” schedule results in what many people consider the first truly “bad” album the band ever made. 1974’s “Hi Jack” (or “Hi-jack” or “Hijack”; all titles have been used) goes even further into the realm of pop music schizophrenia. It is perhaps the band’s first truly, completely incoherent album.

Not only is the album completely incoherent, but it occasionally crosses the line from “non-trivially accessible” to “generically accessible.” The band was treading this line for their last several albums and never really crossed the line until this album. For Gods, sake, there is a DISCO SONG ON THIS ALBUM. What other proof needs to be shown that the band is now a completely dirty sell out?

Well, in my opinion a lot more: “Da Guadeloop,” the previously mentioned DISCO SONG isn’t actually a bad attempt at trying out funkier pastures. The band adds a touch of artiness to the sound by bringing in damn near psychedelic sounds. Not only that, but the song is actually catchy and memorable (unlike many bad disco songs). Point being, no genre is inherently awful; there are always some good songs that justify a genre’s existence. Besides, the band wouldn’t truly become “Funky Awful” for a few more albums.

Another song which may hardcore fans may bemoan is the acoustic ballad “You’re Not Alone” (shades of Michael Jackson’s mediocre ballad comes to mind). In fact, this might be the one instance on the album where the band’s voracious attempt to branch out, diversify and accessibilize (pardon me for that made up word) really and truly fails.

I have nothing against simplicity. In fact, I think genial simplicity is MUCH harder to achieve than genial complexity as the song has nothing to hide behind. Complexity can often mask a lack of true musical content. And honestly, that’s what happens with this song: the band does throw on strings, horns and various amounts of keyboards to create a climactic feel for the song.

However, it’s truly a “pig with lipstick” deal as the song features two (count em, two) acoustic chords played over and over. The song never branches out, never progresses. Not even James Taylor at his worst (and I don’t think James Taylor is Satanic) wouldn’t pull such a stupid trick.

Now consider the two songs I’ve described so far: one of them could compete with (better) examples of disco. The other is a sub-sub-sub James Taylor acoustic folk ballad. These two songs represent a quarter of the songs on the album. What chance of coherency does this album possess?

 

Hi Jack! Hi!!!

Answer: none. In fact, this might be the band’s mostly wildly diverse album yet. It isn’t even garnered a sense of “false coherency” created by uniform arrangements. For the first time, the band crafts a set of wildly disconnected arrangement ideas. The arrangements now suit the song instead of suiting the band.

Accusations of “White Album”-ish COULD be levied at this album but should be denied for a few reasons. One, the “White Album” for all its diversity still felt unified and like a coherent, logical statement. It felt like the band was doing something of a “parody” album (not an original idea surrounding that album but the most appropriate). Sure, they were showing off but they were doing it with a nudge and a wink.

Here, though, it seems like the band is throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Besides funk and acoustic folk, we have ELO like funky space rock (“Can’t Wait”) odd sci-fi fantasies (the indescribable “Archy the Robot”) and even LOUNGE music with the band’s incredibly bizarre re-arrangement of “Lonely Woman.”

Is this desperation to get a hit (by throwing all sorts of mainstream 70’s genres at the listeners) or is it another example of “Amon Duul II” showing off their ability to entertain with an insanely incoherent, schizophrenic, near pop-masterpiece? I think there’s a bit of truth in both statements: the band was becoming increasingly popular and may have been “giving the listener what they wanted.”

However, I find that hard to believe given that a) these songs are still crafted with the care that “Amon Duul II” had crafted their previous “schizophrenic pop albums” and b) I can’t imagine any of these songs being sizable hits. Sure, most of them hit on basic 70’s genres, but they are tweaked enough to remind the listener that this was the band that released “Tanz Der Lemming” a mere THREE years ago (talk about progress!).

Basically, this comes in the band’s total mastery of arrangement and playing. The arrangements may be more typical of each song’s genre specification but each is still total “Amon Duul.” What other band would record a garage rock tune like “Traveller” to be so spacey? Who in their right mind would consider giving said song to Renate, thereby rendering it completely incompatible with rock radio?

Only “Amon Duul II” of course. Basically, this is another fine album in the band’s “schizophrenic pop” album series. Sure, it’s a bit more “generic” compared to past albums and it enters a level of incoherency the band had only hinted at before. But each song (besides the aforementioned acoustic ballad) are well written, catchy and incredibly memorable (as “catchy” and “memorable” don’t always walk hand in hand, a distinction which separates top rate pop bands such as “ABBA” from mere professionals such as “The Bay City Rollers).

However, it’s not hard to see why many fans and critics consider this such a low point. In a certain sense, it is the band’s low point thus far: the lack of coherency and increasing genericism do reek of desperation. The band had progressed so far in only a few years that they were completely incompatible with their previous sound (incredible considering most of the band members remained from the classic line-up).

Amon Ruul Reviews Part Eight: Amon Duul II’s “Vive La Trance”

Vive La Trance Album Cover.

1) A Morning Excuse; 2) Fly United; 3) Jalousie; 4) Im Krater Blühn Wieder Die Bäume; 5) Mozambique; 6) Apo­ca­lyp­tic Bore; 7) Dr. Jeckyll; 8) Trap; 9) Pig Man; 10) Mañana; 11) Ladies Mimikry.

Eight of Eight

“Amon Duul II”s winning streak continues with 1973’s “Viva Le Trance.” Isn’t it amazing that a band could pump out two high quality albums in one year? Gotta love those times. These days, it takes years and sometimes decades for an artist to come out with a great album.

Take an artist like Fiona Apple (one of my absolute favorite modern artists). Her first album comes out in 1997. Her second is 1999. Pretty normal. However, her next one comes out six years later in 2005. Her latest (and perhaps greatest) comes out in 2012, seven years later! Talk about taking your time.

Anyways, where was I? Right. “Vive La Trance.” It is probably fair to say that most fans of the band ran straight into a serious dilemma with this album. While “Amon Duul II” had been streamlining in a fairly straightforward, honest and understandable way for most of their career, this album takes that streamling to a whole new level. The albums just keep getting more and more accessible, with shorter songs, lighter moods and even more schizophrenic genre jumping.

Here, the band really only pulls out the old “darkness” trip for one song: but what a song! “Mozambique” is the absolute classic of the album: it moves through multiple sections, including doo wop (?!), folk rock and pounding rock of a nearly punk level of intensity. It’s songs like this that really show how good of an idea it was for the band to streamline. They could have perhaps penned a song more diverse in the past but not one without such a solid, logical flow and with real emotional power to boot. In fact, it might be their fastest song ever.

The band then tackles a wide range of genres in a manner that shows off their technical skill withotu showing their grasp of emotionality. Not that “Amon Duul II” ever hit more emotions beyond the “darkness” or “discomfort at weirdness” emotions but the band doesn’t even hit those levels. Instead, they go for a poppy approach that is leavened by their inherent weirdness. As a result, the songs are still generally accessible but non-trivial, making them incredibly entertaining at almost all points.

For example, “Fly United” comes across as an odd, brooding folk rocker in a style the band had never attempted before. The band then tries out other styles and ideas, such as loud garage rock in the song “Dr. Jekyll.” It’s odd to hear a band of great musicians strip back their playing and arrangement ideas to a more basic (but still fully arranged) garage rock song. But it sounds oh so funny.

There are also a few moments where it seems the band is attempting to try out other peoples’ ideas and styles. Of course, they always smash them into their own framework, creating a very odd contrast between the original bands and “Amon Duul II”’s feelings on what makes those band’s styles unique and worthwhile.

For example, “Apocalyptic Bore” finds the lead singer belting out a Bob Dylan impersonation over a rather unfortunately dull attempt to sound menacing. The style of the song brings to mind some of Dylan’s experiments in style and sound, making this sound like an even odder experiment than it would have otherwise.

A sine wave. You’re welcome.

Later on the band seems to mimic “Roxy Music” and even predict “Kate Bush.” This should give you an idea for how disjointed and odd the album truly is the first time you listen to it. In fact, this album is even more disjointed and odd than “Utopia” which was a high point of “musical” and “atmospherical” schizophrenia.

I mean, what other band would have a song called “Apocalyptic Bore” on the same album as “Dr. Jekyll?” The two songs are completely incompatible in focus and mood. Even more ridiculous is the contrast between the epic “Mozambique” with it’s dark brooding mood and the incredibly silly garage rocker “Pig Man” which seems to be the humor piece of the album. It goes without saying, of course, that all four of these songs set entirely different moods.

Basically, this album is an even more streamlined version of “Utopia” with many of the same positives (wildly diverse ideas, well crafted melodies, clever arrangements and great musicianship) with many of the same negatives (complete incoherence, a growing sense of pointlessness and triteness, arrangements that blur the differences between the songs rather accentuate them). However, it cuts away a lot of the experimental fat, such as the three instrumental tunes that end “Utopia.” The band had cut away a lot of the formal, noisy experimentation out of their sound and replaced it with catchy, well written experimentation in different genres.

Which helps explain why many fans (and even silly critics) dismiss these mid-period “Amon Duul II” albums. It is easier to applaud successful noisy experimentation than it is to praise genre experimentation. That’s because it’s easier to make weird noises and to pass it off as art (and to trick those who want to sound smarter into bemoaning those who don’t “understand” this art) than it is to successfully experiment in multiple genres. It takes genius on the level of The Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones or even Bob Dylan to get away with this kind of experimentation and get regularly praised by both critics and fans.

Do “Amon Duul II” fail in their quest? They only fail in the sense that they aren’t geniuses like the aforementioned artists. They are simply incredibly talented players, borderline genius arrangers and highly above average songwriters. It takes true songwriting genius to successfully pull of multiple genres successfully. “Amon Duul II” comes close but doesn’t hit a home run.

However, the album is incredibly, excitably fun. This is mostly due to watching them attempt to hit that home run. It’s kind of like watching a talented batter knock himself on his ass trying to hit a home run every time he’s at bat. His attempts are entertaining and endearing: who doesn’t love somebody shooting for the moon, shooting above their station? We all root for those people and want them to succeed.

But I’d have to say the album is a success, rather than a failure. Sure, a lot of the fun of the album is seeing “Amon Duul II” try to hit the “Great Diverse Album” home run and slightly failing. However, every song has good to great melodies, engaging (it same sounding) arrangements, intriguing performances and diverse moods. Basically, it is a highly entertaining pop album of the highest quality. Only the fact that it isn’t at all groundbreaking keeps it from hitting higher levels of greatness.

Amon Duul Series Part Seven: Amon Duul II’s “Utopia”

Utopia album cover.

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.

A real attempt to make a “Utopia” called New Harmony.

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.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Six: Amon Duul II’s “Wolf City”

Wolf City album cover.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

1) Surrounded by the Stars 2) Green-Bubble-Raincoated-Man 3) Jail-House-Frog 4) Wolf City 5) Wie der Wind am Ende einer Strasse 6) Deutsch Nepal 7) Sleepwalker’s Timeless Bridge

9+ out of 10

After the release of “Carnival in Babylon” in 1972, the band reconvened in their studio in July to record another album. When it was released, the fans of “Amon Duul II” must have shaken their heads in anger, with the word “sell out” hanging even more prominently on their lips. The band they had fallen in love with was falling even further into the depths of commercial clap trap.

This time, the album had NO songs over 10 minutes long! The longest song didn’t even reach eight minutes in length. Not only that, but the album was an incomprehensibly short 35 minutes, making it the band’s shortest effort yet. Yes, the album cover was a disturbing wolf head and the album itself was named “Wolf City” but there was no way possible this could be a good album.

My rating of this album would suggest otherwise. This album is very nearly a masterpiece of short piece German rock and roll. Although the songs may be shorter, they aren’t exactly brimming with catchy pop melodies, the type of melodies that would indicate a sell out. Instead, the band sets their dials back to “dark.”

Again, I want to stress that I’m not some kind of “dark” music fiend. However, “Amon Duul II” simply does dark better than they do light, which is proven by this album. The opener “Surrounded by Stars” is one of their better mid-length epics: the overdubbing is back. The sound is murky, the vocals are a bit off key, the lyrics are odd and the song weaves through multiple sections while retaining a dark, hard hitting atmosphere.

The band quickly moves through a wide variety of different moods and styles. “Green-Bubble Raincoated Man” is an odd, slightly experimental piece with off kilter arrangements and odd melodies. “Jailhouse Frog” storms ahead quickly with a rampaging riff that doesn’t sound a lick like “Jailhouse Rock” but which has a similar hard rocking power.

“Wolf City” follows, which moves through a nearly oppressive, seemingly fatalistic atmosphere. It is the masterpiece of the album: the mood set by this track is one of nearly suicidal gloom. It’s amazing that the band can conjure up these moods with a few well placed chords and melodies. It is even more amazing that the band never seems to fall into self parody or over the top melodrama. Instead, the create realistic dark moods which has the effect of making these moods even more effective than the melodramatic posturings over other, lesser artists.

Another point that falls in “Amon Duul II”’s favor is their sense of humor. “Deutsch Nepal” almost nearly falls into a parodic dark level: the lurching, frightening melody almost seems too exaggerated to be taken seriously. The band does an excellent job of arranging instruments to focus even heavily on the darkness of the tune. Then, a grim narrator comes in and begins reciting a set of lyrics in German.

However, the band enlightens this atmosphere by having the narrator cough at various points throughout the track. These points are almost strategically arranged at the points wherein the track approaches its most ridiculous levels. It is a small touch but it is a saving touch: it shows that the band doesn’t take this darkness 100% seriously. That is to say, they take their job of making great music seriously, but they don’t want us to think of them as Nazi’s (the feel the track honestly creates at times).

Perhaps a bit like this?!
Photo Courtesy Motifake.com

The biggest accomplishment of this album lies not only in the quality of the music (which is amongst their best) but in the way the album fully finishes the band’s “transition” to shorter, more straightforward music. After all, it’s not as if the band truly did only long numbers before: however, even these shorter numbers tended to be jam based and instrumental. These shorter tunes are now arranged in a more classic pop and rock format, making them easier to grasp.

However, making the tunes more streamlined and easier to understand did not actually make the band loses its artsier, more experimental edges. If anything, structuring these experimental tunes in a more straightforward way actually helps enhance the effectiveness of the tunes.

No longer is the band simply lost in an incredible murky, atmospheric haze. Instead, they are creating darkly, incredibly moody songs that can resonate with more people. After all, more people can appreciate a murky mood piece when it has an easier to hum melody and doesn’t top 20 minutes.

This isn’t to disparate their earlier work. In fact, that work is truly their groundbreaking work and should be remembered as their most important work, historically. However, albums of great, short and mid-range songs like this live up to the band’s early legacy. “Wolf City” is more immediately entertaining than their earlier albums while retaining a similar, but slightly reduced edge. As a result, I can’t help but give it as high of a rating as their other albums and consider it another masterpiece.

The band would begin integrating more streamlined song ideas into their work at this point to varying degrees of success. Due to the success in their “shorter song” experiments, the band still created worthy albums of great music for several more years. Perhaps not as experimental, but just as enjoyable. But first, the band took an odd detour…

Amon Duul Reviews Part Five: Amon Duul II’s “Carnival in Babylon”

Carnival in Babylon album cover.

1 ) C.I.D. in Uruk 2) All the Years ‘Round 3) Shimmering Sand 4) Kronwinkl 12 5) Tables Are Turned 6) Hawknose Harlequin

7 out of 10

“Amon Duul II” had unleashed five albums of incredible music in the world from 1970 to 1972, which takes into account the two double albums. The band showed themselves capable of wild eyed improvisation as well as well structured hard rock. The darkness of the band wasn’t completely unprecedented but had rarely been done so intensely and with such outstanding musicianship. “Tanz Der Lemming” showed a band with a nearly limitless imagination that had proved to the world that they were one of the world’s most outstanding and innovative band’s on the marketplace.

The one thing that had yet to prove to the world was their ability to write music that would sell. Yes, “Phallus Dei” sold very well but this may have been due to the outlandish title as opposed to the musical content. The band was seemingly content with going into the wild blue yonder without truly having a great pop hit.

However, by the end of 1972 something must have changed in the band. Maybe they were tired of writing side long symphonies. Maybe they wanted a pop hit. Perhaps they were running low on talent and ideas. Whatever the cause, 1972 saw them releasing “Tanz Der Lemming” and the streamlined “Carnival in Babylon.”

The word “sellout” is a harsh word that can often spell the death knell for a band. Many people would call “Carnival in Babylon” a sellout. The song lengths shortened considerably, with the average song length not venturing much past five minutes with the longest song just barely topping ten minutes. Not that length dictates the worth of a composition (in fact, excessive length often signals a bad composition) but the band had showed that their main strengths lie in creating dark moods over extended periods of time.

Another surefire sign of “sell out” was the fact that the songs were structured a bit more coherently than before. Their were attempts to create a normal pop song structure with verses, choruses, refrains and even catchy melodies. The atmosphere had also been lightened from heavily oppressive to a much lighter, less intense feel. This album has often been compared to “Camel”’s work and for good reason.

So is this album a complete embarrassment for the band? Judging by my rating, you can probably guess “not quite” but you can also see that this album is still a downturn from the previous albums and a bit of a slight “bump” in the band’s growth. There are things to enjoy about this album but there are also things that cause a considerable weakness in the album.

The main problem is with the general approach. It’s not I think that “lighter” music and “pop” melodies aren’t compatible with good music (far from it: my favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney). In fact, I think that “Amon Duul II” needed to progress in a different direction as any attempt to outdo “Tanz Der Lemming” would only cause the band to stagnate and repeat the sound and style of the album. So I applaud their courage in attempting to branch out. It actually boosts the rating for me a little.

Climbing the tower of Babel. Babylon. Get it?!

But the band is really struggling in this direction. The band had never written catchy melodies in their lives at this point and their attempts to do so aren’t exactly convincing. It’s not as if the band is completely failing to create enjoyable music: the melodies are pleasant. But not memorable.

Now, before I’m accused of being a “pop slop lover” (a nonsensical insult in my opinion) let me point out that a melody doesn’t have to be immediately catchy to be good. It can be moody, atmospheric and interesting. The band hits on a few moody, atmospheric and interesting melodies on this album but one can tell it is very difficult for them to find these melodies consistently.

Another major problem is the lightened sound. It’s not that the sound is simply major key instead of minor key. The album is still rather moody and not exactly chipper. When I speak of the “lightened” sound I simply mean that the band isn’t overdubbing as wildly as they had in the past. The songs are less wildly arranged than in the past. The dark, murk of their previous albums has been erased for a clearer, easier to understand and less cluttered sound.

Again, many people may consider this a good thing. In fact, in many ways it is a good thing: you can hear individual instruments better than before. The problem comes with the fact that the band aren’t virtuosos and aren’t likely to knock you over by simply playing. Hearing these parts individually separated is nice but few of these parts are immediately memorable. Basically, the band was better at creating enthralling, murky music at this point in their career.

So why give the album such a high rating if there are so many obvious faults? Easy: the music is still enjoyable and moody. The band was simply too good at this point in their career to make truly bad music. This album, while the worst of their “classic” period is still high quality in many ways.

In fact, fans of “Camel” and early “Pink Floyd” may actually prefer this album. It has that same lighter than air feel to it, that same spacey, airy sound that is so alluring from those bands. “Amon Duul II” holds their own against these bands. However, they no longer sound as intriguing or original as they had before which is a major blow against the album. But for those interested in the band, it is worth getting as it’s light atmosphere is nothing like earlier or later albums and only shows off their abilities in changing with each new album.

The album does serve a very important transitional purpose: it helped inspire the band to focus their efforts on shorter, more concise works while fixing the “atmosphere” mistake by retaining a more arranged and darkly focused atmosphere. This approach would help inspire them to create at least one masterpiece and several excellent albums in the years to come.