Tag Archive | space rock reviews

“Space Ritual” by Hawkwind

Okay, so here’s an update on the “Savage Hippie” situation: I know I promised that I would have some Hawkwind reviews from Edwin for Thursday but Edwin wrote such a HUGE volume of reviews that it didn’t seem right for me to hoard them for my site. I encouraged him to start his own blog, which you can find here. He will still contribute on Wednesdays but his main focus will be on his own site.

YES!

I mention this to avoid any confusion you may have felt over a lack of reviews and to also apologize to Edwin: I’m somewhat stepping on his toes here by reviewing a Hawkwind album.

But it’s only one album and its the one Hawkwind album I know well as its the only Hawkwind album I own: their first (double) live album and perennial fan favorite “Space Ritual.”

Hawkwind is a band that revels in complete and utter b-level cheesiness: they’re a lot like watching a Roger Corman movie. It’s cheaply made, goofily written and presented and absolutely hilarious.

But, like Corman at his best, there is actual love for the art and actual care taken into the presentation to make it as entertaining and sometimes as “deep” and “artistic” as possible.

To extend the Corman metaphor to its fullest, “Space Ritual” is Hawkwind’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” It’s the band’s peak album that shows off their full potential in a way that they could never possibly top, not even with lame sequels.

Hawkwind’s first three albums were definitely not bad: their first was kind of a hippie jam band thing while the second and third coalesced around the idea of repetitive cosmic metal. However, somewhat crude production values and the occasional acoustic guitar sapped some of the albums of their power.

Don’t get me wrong: I love acoustic guitar. I think it’s a great instrument that is somewhat under utilized or utilized poorly. And Dave Brock (guitar player for Hawkwind) is a solid enough guitar player and songwriter that his could pull off a slower, more ballad oriented song.

But Dave is endlessly more fascinating on distorted, electric guitar. And Hawkwind is at their best bashing out simple but catchy riffs while throwing endless bloops, bleeps, saxophone wails and wild bass from Lemmy.

Ah, Lemmy. What more can you say about the man? I am not the biggest Motorhead fan but I adore the man as an image and as a human being and songwriter. He seems completely down to Earth and normal in a way you don’t get from a lot of heavy metal superstars. And his bass playing gives this album a rock solid beat  from beginning to end.

The most important aspect of this album is its conceptual nature: it’s supposed to represent some sort of trip through space or a…space ritual, if you will, and as such it is to represent a whole sum of the space travel experience.

Did I mention Hawkwind had an over six foot tall exotic dancer who performed with them, often completely nude and painted with wild symbols, interpreting their music through dancer? This was the cleanest image of her I could find.

To that end, they chuck on a lot of weird sonic collages, monologues, weird poems and endless levels of personal insanity from Robert Calvert, part time singer and lyricist and complete lunatic.

I won’t go into great detail on Calvert but he is a complete believer of his sci-fi gibberish and he delivers it with so much conviction it’s kinda scary.

Yes, these monologues and lyrics are sometimes completely inane “in the fifth second of forever…this is what to do during a SONIC ATTACK” etc but they don’t strike me as banal as Graeme Edge’s poems from the Moody Blues albums.

They’re not examples of great poetry. There’s not even examples of “good” poetry. Hell, they’re not even examples of good “rock” poetry. But they’re delivered with such firm seriousness that you start to fall for their charm in spite of their lunacy.

Most importantly, these interludes tear the album from the reigns of a typical live album and create an atmosphere that the band never really replicated on any other album. The album truly FEELS like a space ritual (whatever that means) and it wouldn’t really have that feel without the insanity of Calvert.

The songs on the album are a mix of old and new. The band smartly arranges the old songs with the new in a way that feels natural and helps the album feel more conceptual. Starting with the old chestnut “Born to Go” was a great idea: it feels like the perfect song to launch a space flight. Brock and Lemmy lock into a tight, distorted groove as the drummer bashes about and the “extra” players layer on the sonic “extras” that give Hawkwind a little extra “spark.”

This album contains the first Hawkwind song I ever heard, “Orgone Accumulator” and it remains, for me, the definitive Hawkwind experience. It mixes everything that’s great and goofy about the band in nearly equal measure and is simply a lot of fun.

The track starts out with some sort of synthesizer/oscillator noise that sounds completely dirty and odd, as if it was farting or burping. Awesome. Brock starts playing a simple three chord riff while Lemmy jumps in line behind him. The drums kick in and instantly create a trance-atmosphere.

Calvert then starts singing…and its glorious.

“I got an orgone accumulator…and it makes me feel greater…I’ll see you sometime later…when I’m through with my accumulator…it’s no social integrator…it’s a one man isolator…it’s a back brain stimulator…it’s a cerebral vibrator…”

By the way, an “orgone accumulator” is a device that allegedly collected “orgone energy” from the atmosphere and gathered it in your brain. You wore a kind of hat connected to wires. It was supposed to bring you a new sense of focus, new positive energy and was the invention of a new age nut job.

So yes. It’s obviously a “cerebral vibrator.” And yes, a “back brain stimulator.”

An orgone accumulator. Does it look like he’s feeling greater?

Which is awesome, but not as awesome as the series of saxophone, guitar, bass, and synthesizer solos that follow Calvert’s awesomely catchy vocal renditions of the lyrics. Brock is no pro: he throws on tons of distortion and special effects to match his somewhat limited technique. But somehow his endless wah-wah solos transcend his limitations to become trance enducing.

I don’t know how he does it. I also don’t know how Lemmy gets such an amazing bass sound and I don’t understand how a drummer playing the same simple beat and simple fills could sound so perfect for 10 minutes.

But he does. The only drummer who can play one beat for an entire song and make it a thrilling masterpiece of drumming economy is,  Can’s Jaki Liebezeit but Hawkwind’s drummer…I was going to say “comes close” but no. He doesn’t.

Look: Hawkwind is obviously a second and perhaps even third tier band as far as social import, impact and pure songwriting goes. But there’s just something about what they do that works in spite of the simplicity of it. Nobody is a super pro on their instrument (though Lemmy continues to show great chops) and the whole atmosphere reeks of cheap thrills, bubblegum and buttery popcorn.

But do we always have to be so serious? Yes, most of the time, you’ll want pure poetry (Bob Dylan) psychological thrills (Peter Gabriel) or even pure, incoherent rage (PJ Harvey at her best) in your lyrics.

Sometimes, however, you just need to watch “Godzilla Vs. Biolante” while chugging seven or eight beers and laughing your ass off. Sometimes, you need a bunch of drug addled lunatics trying to take you on a diverse, mind blowing space journey without once changing the time signature.

That’s where Hawkwind come in and why “Space Ritual” is perhaps the greatest musical b-movie style thrill ride you’ll ever experience.

“Ash Ra Tempel” Debut

Walk like an Egyptian.

The world can only contain so much…stuff…there’s only so much room. You cannot cram 50 pounds of horse shit into a 40 pound bag. Buildings can grow taller and we can civilize more and more areas of the world; bulldozing trees, swamps, grasslands, prairies and creating new and bigger parking lots. All our cars need a place to live and all our stuff needs a place to lie.

Sooner, rather than later, we’ll have to ascend into the straosphere and find a place to settle in space. And I know the album I’ll listen to on the way up: Ash Ra Tempel’s debut album.

That’s right: I’m snubbing the obvious choice, Pink Floyd (love them, but too obvious) and even more obscure yet still popular groups like Hawkwind (kick ass but way too cheesy, even if in a good way).

No, I’m sticking with the Ash Ra Tempel debut album. Not because it creates an accurate space sonic sensation (as that would be complete silence so severe your ears would burst) but simply because its one of the best pieces of Early space rock I’ve ever heard.

After all, if one is traveling in space, space rock IS a requirement.

What about this album entices me so much over the non-pedestrian sounds of early Pink Floyd and Hawkwind? Is it simply the fact that is is German?

Not quite though I do obsessively enjoy way too much 70’s German rock. Being German doesn’t automatically make it better but it does serve as a draw for me.

The musicianship on the album is vital to its appeal: the pedigree of the players is unmatched in the space rock genre. I don’t mean to knock early Pink Floyd as Syd Barrett and (eventually) Roger Waters were great songwriters but their musicianship (especially Syd’s) was somewhat…rudimentary sometimes.

Manuel Gottsching is a guitar God (mixing a 70’s hard rock style with near-shred levels of technicality mixed with experimental guitar textures and real emotion) who possesses a nearly unlimited level of intelligence and unmatched imagination.

Drummer Klaus Schulze is another German rock legend, known for his epic synthesizer symphonies that have inspired entire generations of trance and pulse electronic music. Here, he serves primarily as a drummer and he is an even better drummer than he is a synthesist.

The bass player is very solid too (I forget his name) as he holds down the fort, plays Entwistle level runs and who serves as a solid grounding for the rest of the band.

The other reason this stands out so firmly for me is the lack of vocals and vocal melodies. Of course, this is a draw back in many ways: you won’t be singing along to any of the “melodies” on this album. Ever.

But the lack of vocals dehumanizes the music in a way that makes it starker and more alien than the scraping landscapes of early Floyd or the heavy-metal-thunder of Hawkwind.

No vocals also means no lyrics which were always, always incredibly weak in Hawkwind. It never gets much better than “I got an orgone accumulator…and it makes me feel greater!”

Ash Ra Tempel doesn’t annoy you with trite space themed lyrics or inane fantasy poetry: instead, they just play. For 20 minutes at a time.

Starring Rosi.

The epic lengths of the average Ash Ra Tempel composition will be a problem for many listeners but that’s part of the appeal for me: the band explores various textures, melodic ideas and rhythmic motifs throughout each track in a way that is naturally flowing and never, ever seems forced.

It’s always amazing to hear Gottsching and Schulze play together: they seem to have a near-telepathic ability to read each other’s musical thoughts and to predict where the other is going without fail.

There is always the chance, of course, that these tracks are heavily edited and pieced together. It wasn’t above Miles Davis (in fact, it was his whole fusion aesthetic) but somehow I just don’t sense that same kind of editing here.

The album follows a basic format that many “side long track” albums have in the past: the first side is the hard rocking side, while the second side is the “contemplative” side (Terry Riley influence?).

The first side, “Amboss” is a track that Ash Ra Tempel never really beat: they came close on “Freak N’ Roll” on Join Inn but they never matched this track’s dark, pulsing mood.

It starts out slowly, with some guitar drone and light cymbals and a bass moan but gradually builds up as Gottsching starts to solo and riff like a demented (and dangerous) version of Early Clapton. Schulze smashes and bashes like Keith Moon but generally keeps a better beat.

Describing tracks like this is a fruitless, thankless, nearly impossible endeavor: there are countless build-ups, fall downs, moments of climactic ecstasy and impeccable interplay and musicianship. George Starostin astutely compared it to “Live at Leeds” era Who in its interplay and that’s very accurate. There’s just no Roger Daltrey.

However, the second side is something the Who never would have done: a 20+ minute, nearly ambient tune that simmers at a lower level than “Amboss” but which still has its own sense of intensity and purpose.

Beyond the lower tempo, there isn’t any real way to tell apart the two tracks which is fine: it creates a more unified mood of space exploration that no band (including Ash Ra Tempel) ever topped.

After this album, Schulze left and the band floundered through a solid, but more conventional second album and a collaboration with Timothy Leary that never really caught fire.

The Schulze reunion album “Join Inn” (as previously mentioned) has the same structure and the same basic fire and drive of this album but without the carefully created atmosphere. After Gottsching created the fun, diverse and completely out-of-left-field pop-like album “Starring Rosi” he created a solo album, formed “Ashra” and explored more synthetic textures.

As a result, this album stands somewhat apart from the rest of Gottsching and Schulze’s discography, making it an even more worthy addition to your collection.

Songs to YouTube:

There are two songs. Listen to them both.