Tag Archive | 70′s rock

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.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Four: Amon Duul II’s “Tanz Der Lemming

Tanz Der Lemminge cover.

Record One: 1) Syntelman’s March of the Roaring Seventies 2) Restless Skylight-Transistor-Child

Record Two: “The Chamsin Soundtrack” 1) The Marilyn Monroe-Memorial-Church 2) Chewing Gum Telegram 3) Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight 4) Toxicological Whispering

10+ out of 10

One year after the breakthrough hard rock/middle eastern/gypsy/jam based breakthrough of “Yeti” “Amon Duul II” released their second double album, “Tanz Der Lemmings” (or “Dance of the Lemmings”). The line up is more or less the same as the previous album. However, this is where all similarities end: the music of this album is completely different from the proceeding two albums.

The title of the album is one of the most appropriate I’ve ever heard: at times it does sound like a particularly energetic and wild animal (such as a lemming) dancing in a forest, surrounded by like minded critters. The party they are having sounds like an incredible blast but (as befits the lemming’s reputation) they often sound as if they are about to fall off a cliff to their death as the band jams in wild and unpredictable ways through four basically side long tracks.

Amazingly, the band never falls of the cliff: in fact, they reach their early, experimental peak with this album. While later albums may be more immediately listenable and enjoyable and may reach different types of peaks (such as the pop music peak of “Made in Germany”) but the band never topped the imagination and atmospheres they set with this album.

The first track “Syntelman’s March of the Roaring Seventies” perfect sets up the mood of the album. It starts out as a mild march, with acoustic guitar replacing the wild electrical outbursts of yesteryear. Flutes, violins, mellotrons, pianos and dozens of overdubs help contribute to a wild, swirling sound that builds and builds. Vocals come in and non-chalantly chant rather dubious lyrics (the band never had a solid lyric writing ability) as the sound swoops and twirls.

Honestly, it’s very hard to describe these songs using traditional reviewing methods. Reviewing pop songs is a much easier task as you can discuss the melodies, the arrangements and the lyrics in a much simpler method. These songs are incredibly long and diverse with multiple crescendos, valleys and arrangement details. It would be impossible to describe these tracks in a concise and coherent way.

Instead, I’ll focus on the way the album makes me feel when I’m listening to it. I feel like I’m being transported into a new realm with each new track. The first track is the most dynamic track, moving through multiple movements, moods and melodies. It is much softer than “Yeti” focusing more on gentle acoustic sounds.

“Restless Skylight-Transistor-Child,” the second track, has a more hard rock oriented set of riffs (a reminder of the hard rock sounds of the last album) with wild ambient synthesized sounds, gentle sitar plucking and bashing drums. It moves through a seemingly endless series of riffs, melodies and ideas. Chris Karrer and John Weinzierl particularly shine on guitar while Renate wails.

The second record is the “Chasim” soundtrack and features four tracks instead of two. “The Marilyn Monroe-Memorial-Church” is the first track and the longest track on the album. It is also easily the noisiest track on the album and in the band’s career. Unlike the first two tracks, which seem relatively composed, this track seems like completely noisy jamming without any structure.

Alternative album art?
Photo courtesy Psygnosis games.

Instead, the band focuses on creating a mood and indeed creates one of their most powerful mood pieces ever composed. The ominous sense of foreboding created in this track has few precedents in rock and roll and is still a harrowing experience after all these years. The synthesizers seem to be the primary noise makers here, creating all sorts of bleeps, blips and whirs that sound unlike any other synthesizer sound I’ve ever heard.

The last side is made up of the last three tracks, “Chewing Gum Telegram,” “Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight” and “Toxicological Whispering.” These shorter tracks focus on creating individual moods, similar to the shorter tracks on “Yeti” and “Phallus Dei.” They are much more composed than the third side of the album and give it a levity that is lacking in the first album and the third track.

To be honest, all of these songs tend to sound similar due to the lengths of the track and their extreme diversity and wild dynamics. They do set different moods but it is hard to memorize or remember any of the melodies of individual songs. As a result, Tanz Der Lemming” cannot be rated as an album of individual songs but as an atmospheric soundtrack of nearly cinematic proportions. It must be listened to in a single sitting to be appreciated properly.

Those interested in “Amon Duul II” often start with this album and “Yeti” as they are (justifiably) the album’s most famous and celebrated albums. However, they actually give the listener a slightly “off” view of the rest of the band’s history. Immediately after these lengthy (although short enough to fit on a single CD) albums, the band started focusing on shorter tracks with less ominous atmospheres and easier to digest melodies.

Many fans of the band actually stop listening to the band at this point. However, these fans will miss out on several albums of excellent progressive rock/progressive pop albums that feature many high quality and memorable moments. Unlike many other progressive and experimental oriented bands, “Amon Duul II” was able to progress into a more streamlined direction without “selling out” or losing their initial appeal in a mistaken attempt at commercial success. This process was to begin immediately with their next album.

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

Yeti Album Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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