Tag Archive | space rock

“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.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Seventeen: Amon Duul UK Reviews

After 1981, “Amon Duul II” finally broke up and stayed that way for nearly two decades. Different band members went on to a variety of projects, some more successful than others. Original founding guitarist, John Weinzierl eventually moved to England and met up with a group of like-minded musicians. First and perhaps foremost was British bassist Dave Anderson. Anderson had briefly played with “Amon Duul II” but also made a name with “Hawkwind.”

The band then scooped up drummer Guy Evans from Van Der Graaf Generator, who were also broken up at the time. For a vocalist, they scooped up a woman named Julie Waring. The band started to rehearse and Weinzierl felt that the music was sufficiently “Amon Duul”ish. He named the band “Amon Duul” and nobody seemed to care. Later on, the band was called “Amon Duul UK” or even “Amon Duul III” by fans.

And when I say nobody cared, I mean it: this line-up made nowhere near the splash brought on by “Amon Duul II” or even the original “Amon Duul.” This may be due to changing times: it was the 80’s, and the type of heavily improvised music the band was practicing here wasn’t exactly in favor.

Another major problem has to do with the frankly half assed nature of many of the group’s recordings. The original line-up recorded only two albums, one heavily improvised the other more song based (both of which were derided by Weinzierl as little more than rehearsal tapes). Eventually, “Hawkwind” guru, lyricist and nut job vocalist Bob Calvert joined and recorded two albums with the band, one of which was heavily improvised, the other of which was more song based (both of which were derided by Weinzierl as little more than rehearsal tapes).

Note the repetition there? It should be telling that Weinzierl, one of the main men behind “Bee As Such” was so harsh on these albums. Frankly, only two of them are really all that worthy. The other two are little more than fairly uneventful improvisations, poorly written and arranged pop songs and Bob Calvert wailings that are out of tune, out of time and not all that provocative.

So, is this version worse than “Amon Duul”? In some ways they’re better: the music is more listenable and more professional. The albums will get higher grades than those Diaster-pieces. However, in some ways they are more disappointing as there was some serious talent here. Weinzierl is, songwriting talent aside, a hell of a guitarist. Dave Anderson was a monster on bass with “Hawkwind” while Guy Evans was always an underrated drummer. Warring and Calvert both have unique voices which should have set the band apart.

And yet, the band never really takes off the ground or generates true excitement. Their two “good” albums won’t get any more than eight out of ten stars. Their worse albums will get no more than five or six. They are neither as trance enduing as early “Amon Duul” or as pitiful as that band at their worst.

Essentially, they were a mediocre band made out of excellent musicians that didn’t have the focus or professionalism to sit down, work through their better ideas, craft better arrangements and elaborate on their (at times nursery rhyme level) melodies. Like “Amon Duul” these guys are really only of interest to historians or “Amon Duul II” completists. Tread lightly folks. I’m covering all the albums in one article as there isn’t a whole lot to say about them: I surely can’t go off into a three page rant about a single album.

Hawk Meets Penguin 1982

 

Hawk Meets Penguin cover.

1) One Moment’s Anger Is Two Pints Of Blood; 2) Meditative Music From The Third O Before The Producers Part 1; 3) Meditative Music From The Third O Before The Producers Part 2

7 out of 8 stars

The debut album by “Amon Duul UK” came out only a year after the original band shat out “Vortex.” Unlike that album, it is somewhat provocative and a bit more interesting than the rather dull “vortex” of sound that “Amon Duul II” attempted to make into art.

You may be wondering (and even if you’re not pretend you are so this sentence has meaning) what the band thinks of as “art” music? Well, the original “Amon Duul II” had really long songs that often took up complete sides of an album. Got that here: there are only two songs, one of which is broken up into two pieces.

Catchy riffs and melodies are also a bit too passe for true art. So, the band naturally forgoes traditional songwriting for a more atmospheric, soundscape approach. In fact, the band usually seems to improvising or jamming in the classic “Amon Duul II” style. So, there’s another check mark on the “art” list.

Also, there should be some wild woman singer wailing insanely over the top of it. That’s pretty much as art as it gets so it makes sense the band had Warring going all Renate on our asses. Warring is nowhere near as operatic as Renate and is in fact a bit more high pitched. But the aural effect is the same: pure art.

Oh and the album should be called “Hawk Meets Penguin.” Art with a capital “A.”

Joking aside, the band is obviously attempting to go in a more “prog rock/kraut rock” direction. Each side is a sprawling suite of half riffs, improvised bass runs, wild drum rolls, screams, simple synthesizer lines (perhaps Weinzierl? There is no full time keyboardist) with a complete abandonment of structure.

Perhaps not completely. “One Moment’s Anger is Two Pints of Blood” starts out fairly simple but gradually builds up into a stately, slow paced, sci-fi prog rock near-masterpiece. After only (ONLY!) six minutes, the band begins to really work their way into an impressive song. It all slowly builds to a gentle climax in an impressive manner. No masterpiece, perhaps but a nice piece of work.

The second song then is just a “piece of work.” This one is completely improvisation based and its much more difficult to take. It’s also 23 minutes long. It simply lacks direction for most of the piece until it starts to lightly groove several minutes before the song ends. It’s not evocative, like classic “Amon Duul II” albums nor is it unprofessional. It’s simply anachronistic and not entirely successful.

It’s a shame because if the second half was as strong as the first, this could have been an eight. If a little bit more care and work had been done into both pieces (increasing their depth of the pieces and sonic presence) it could have been a late period masterpiece. As it is, it’s a highly flawed, yet still worthy work that is as generic as possible but still fun for the hardcore “Amon Duul II” fan.

Meetings with Menmachines, Unremarkable Heroes of the Past 1985

 

Meetings with Menmachines album cover.

1) Pioneer; 2) The Old One; 3) Marcus Lead; 4) The Song; 5) Things Aren’t Always What They Seem; 6) Burundi Drummer’s Nightmare

Eight out of Ten

After going a bit nutty with “Hawk Versus Penguin” “Amon Duul UK” took a nearly four year break before releasing their next album. Or before the record company released rehearsal tapes without the band’s permission. It’s really hard to tell what was going on with this band: their history is weirdly shrouded and conflicted.

Anyways, any fans the band may have picked up with the formally avant guardisms of “Hawk Versus Penguin” must have been incredibly disappointed when they picked up this formally pretentiously named follow up album four years later. However, this is an example of an album title that simply doesn’t match its contents (such as ‘Grand Funk’s’ “Good Singing, Good Playing, Good Laying” or whatever the hell it was called).

Because this album is actually, for all intents and purposes, a pop album. Yes, it’s a highly arty pop album made by some of Britain and Germany’s wildest musicians. But the approach, the melodies, the arrangements and the song lengths are all so thoroughly pop that hardcore fans must have collectively puked into their prog rock hats in protest.

However, this album ended up being the best this line-up ever did. There are a few reasons I believe that this is the case. One: nobody in the band was a true “long form genius.” Yes, the band did well with parts of “Hawk Versus Penguin” but it’s obvious they struggled in the format. By pulling back and focusing on simpler melodies and song structures they could focus their talents a bit more successfully.

There’s also the fact that the band is simply not selling out here. The sound is never a “1985” sound. Yes, there are a lot of keyboards and synthesizers (and each song starts with a completely unrelated keyboard introduction which makes this something of a “keyboard introduction” concept album) but the sound is driven by sharply defined guitar lines, crisp drumming, busy bass and wild vocalizations.

If Weinzierl is to be believed, these songs weren’t done when they were released. I’m not sure what he would have added to perfectly solid pop songs like “Pioneer” or to folk ballads such as “Marcus Leid.” Sure, the melodies are simple and the chords few but each of these songs is instantly catchy and almost memorable.

In fact, the album is almost shockingly good in its approach. The band never really trips up over themselves to catch up with the times or to sound cool. Instead, they focus on creating well crafted, diverse art pop tunes that stick in the head and which are different than any songs you’ve heard your life. The low ambition level of this album means it cannot get more than eight stars. But this is a pretty high eight stars. If you get nothing else by this band, scoop up this album. It’s so much better than 99% of “Amon Duul II’s” late 70’s sell out albums that it beggars believe.

Fool Moon 1989

 

Fool Moon album cover.

1) Who Who; 2) The Tribe; 3) Tik Tok; 4) Hauptmotor; 5) Hymn For The Hardcore

4 out of 10

And the band completely loses all momentum gained by past albums by a) waiting another four years to follow up their last album and b) going back to a more “experimental” approach. Again, the story on these last two albums is entirely unclear and muddled: Weinzierl claims they were rush released after the death of Calvert as a sort of tribute. He has complained they weren’t finished but there was nothing the band could do after Bob died. Perhaps that would explain their low quality and why they were released back to back.

But I can’t buy the whole “unfinished” thing. Not entirely. I’m not really sure what more they could have gained from working on these songs any more. The type of half assed experimental bullshit the band tries to pull here is so far out of date with the times and so antiquated, unsuccessful and wasteful that it’s hard not to actually feel a bit angry towards them while listening to the album.

I mean why, WHY would the band suddenly abandon the successful approach of their previous album? Yes, I get the whole “gotta keep changing” thing that drove “Amon Duul II” but why change in this way? Because of Calvert? I find that hard to believe: Calvert actually flourished well in the mid period space-pop setting of “Hawkwind.”

Perhaps it was pure laziness. The effort that went into this album was obviously minimal: it sounds like the band could have bashed this out in an afternoon. The band once again goes for a “jam” based approach but they don’t even approach the density of sound and effectiveness of “Hawk Versus Penguin” let alone “Tanz Der Lemming.” They do integrate more synthesizers and industrial sounding noises but this is no great prize.

I mean, something like nearly 15 minutes of the album are wasted on go-nowhere ideas that took no time to conceive. The clock sounds that start “Tik Tok” are boring, offensively over long and nowhere near as effective as the sounds from “Dark Side of the Moon.” “Hauptmotor” starts with nearly seven minutes of “nature” sounds that set no mood but annoyance and which seem to rip off Wendy Carlos. “Who Who” starts with an annoying, pseudo industrial sounding drum beat that just…never…stops…

And then when the songs do start, the band simply spins its tires. The basic formula is “Calvert-blathers-crap-over-top-over-one-riff.” Sure, the band tries tricks with sound effects and volume levels but these effects are incredibly minimal and pointless. Worst of all, the band ends the album with an India mocking “sitar showcase” which is so painful to listen to and so utterly pointless that it almost seems racist.

Sure, “The Tribe” has a solid hard rock drive to it that makes it stand out a bit while “Tik Tok” has a justifiably famous riff. But there is simply nothing here. The band was completely out of ideas and I can’t even blame Calvert here. After all, he didn’t force the band to “compose” such nonsense.

Die Losung 1989

Die Losung album cover

1) Big Wheel; 2) Urban Indian; 3) Adrenalin Rush; 4) Visions Of Fire; 5) Drawn To The Flame Pt. 1; 6) They Call It Home; 7) Die Lösung; 8) Drawn To The Flame Pt. 2.

4 out of 10

“Die Losung” was released the same year as “Fool Moon” and is basically that albums “Meetings with Menmachines.” The band has once again streamlined its sound into a more pop and rock based format. However, unlike that album, they completely fail to do anything of worth and completely embarrasses themselves again, thankfully for the last time.

In fact, I’d say this album is an even bigger attempt to sell out than previous albums. The tones of each instrument are as commercial as they’ve ever been. The melodies and arrangements are even simpler and the subject matter (especially on the turgid “Urban Indian”) are so grotesque that fans of “Motley Crue” may have due them.

This is not to say that the band sounds like hair metal. They don’t. This is also not to say that the band sounds like synth pop. They sure don’t. Instead, they sound like an out of date, clueless, pointless band that is trying to fit in to the times to sell records but without “selling out.” They stick to their tried and true “arty” methods which are a) completely inappropriate and b) completely unsuccessful. Think of this album as the band’s “Almost Alive” but without the funk influences.

I mean, it’s really hard to figure out the purpose and goals of these albums, as they were recorded and released under such murky circumstances. But whatever the purpose and goals (and whether they are finished or not) they were commercially released as finished albums and must be reviewed as such.

Basically, the band goes for a straightforward rock sound that lacks the charm, wit and intelligence of “Menmachines.” The guitar tones are highly processed in a late 80’s way that removes the charm and “sex” out of the guitar. The synthesizers are so late 80’s you’ll want to cry. Calvert is completely wasted, ranting and raving on top of utterly ugly backing tracks in an utterly ugly and out of tune way.

Luckily, Julie Warring makes a reappearance on the last two tracks. And sure, her pleasant voice helps lift these two tracks above the mark. But barely, just barely and hardly enough to really save the album from utter ruin.

Weinzierl was smart enough to stop the band at this point. What had started as formally exciting and potentially worthwhile idea had de-evolved into an ugly mess of contrasting ideas and poorly thought out conception. Even “Bee As Such” is worthier than these last two albums.

And this is where the story of “Amon Duul” ends for me. Of course, I already covered the band’s late period albums with and without Weinzierl. But I shall no more have to write about this band and for that I’m grateful. It’s time to move on to something a bit easier to manage. A band that is a bit more streamlined, yet worthy. Perhaps a high quality pop-rock band that is highly beloved but sorely misunderstood by many people. Most importantly, a band that doesn’t have so many damn albums.

Stay tuned for my ABBA reviews!

Oh…my…God…

Amon Duul Reviews Part Sixteen: Amon Duul II’s “Bee as Such”

Unfortunately, “Bee as Such” has no album cover. Here’s an impossible cute cartoon bee to make up for it!

1) Mambo La Libertad; 2) Du Kommst Ins Heim; 3) Still Standing; 4) Psychedelic Suite.

5 out of 10

Just when you thought it was safe to ignore “Amon Duul II”; after a further 14 years had passed, the band finally re-emerges to make a new musical statement. The band is back to four of the most important members (Renate, Karrer, Meid and even Weinzierl this time) and they are ready to prove they still have it. The band released a press release that stated they were ready to go “back to the roots – not in the past, but essentially – seeking the news sounds…of the new millennium.” So, does this band of nearly 60 year olds touch on the new sound of the millennium?

What do you think? Look at the rating: the band utterly fails in their goal. They fall flat on their face, completely embarrassing themselves after the success of “Nada Moonshine #.” It’s sad that this must be considered their swansong instead of that superior album.

A brief bit of background on the album: after releasing “Nada Moonshine #” many band members almost immediately disowned it. Although they played many of the tracks live (as illustrated on “Live at Tokyo” an album I’ve never heard) they simply didn’t believe in the material for some reason. So, after the two sound collage albums in 96 they went their separate ways.

However, late in the 2000’s the band got bit by the nostalgia bug. They started playing together again and even got John Wienzierl to come back. They quickly recorded this album and self released it online. There are no physical copies of this album: it’s a completely mp3 based album. There isn’t even any official album art.

And then the band penned their pretentious press release. It’s hard to get over this release as it’s impossible to reconcile the difference between the album and the difference between what the band publicly stated they were trying to achieve.

The part I quoted above is simply the tip of the iceberg. “This sound painting,” the release continues, “is one more of our unique works, containing the spirit of our time.” What time? Do they mean the late 2000’s? Or do they mean “their” time i.e. the early-to-mid-70’s? Because the latter makes more sense.

This album has nothing to do with the 2000’s. It’s simply an extension of the early, jam based methodology of their earliest albums. For many fans this will be a cause for rejoicing. “Finally!” they say, clutching their tattered, tear covered remains of ‘Tanz Der Lemming,’ “the band is back to jamming and improvising in a wild and exciting way! They quit their 40 year sell out streak and are back to what they do best!”

And yes, the band was definitely best at pure jamming. As enjoyable and as essential as those mid-70’s song-based albums are they aren’t as unique or innovative or effective as their pure jam based albums. Surely, the band must touch on some of the magic they had in the old days, even if on accident.

Honestly, I can say quite sadly, the band doesn’t touch even a quarter of the magic they had in the old days. They don’t even have a tenth of it. Because this isn’t really the same band. Yes, the basic quartet is in place, but Falk Rogner is out of the picture. In fact, there isn’t even a real keyboard player in the band at this point: only Wienzierl is credited with playing a little synthesizer

As much as I respect Wienzierl, Carrer and Meid as instrumentalists (and I really do) they simply don’t really cook up much fire on this album. The lack of keyboards creates a thinner sound that the guitarists simply don’t fill. While earlier albums often sounded like a wild beast rampaging throughout the land, tearing down walls and destroying your sanity, this album simply sounds like a band jamming.

Put it another way: these jams do not create moods. Past jams all had a moody texture or purpose to them that helped elevate them above the average “let’s jam, dude” methodology that many bands had at the time. Yes, Wienzierl, Carrer and Meid are ultra professional in their jamming. But they aren’t virtuosos. You can’t simply let the sonic waves of demonic jam power wash over you like you can with “Can.”

“Amon Duul II” never had the raw chops to carry the listener over based on pure jamming in their prime. What chance do they have 40 years later? None basically. These tracks have the value of “bonus tracks” that you might seen tagged onto the end of a remastered, rereleased CD. They sound like warm ups or rehearsals most of the time.

I wouldn’t be so offended by the album if the band wasn’t so pretentious about it: they didn’t act like they were breaking ground with the much-wilder-and-more-in-tune-with-the-times “Kobe Reconstructions/Flashback” albums.

Are they really that deluded that they think they’re breaking new ground? If so, that’s sad. And it actually costs the album a point in the rating. Does that seem unfair? Hardly: I call this the “Elder” syndrome.

This syndrome, named after Kiss’ “Music from the Elder” album comes when a band pretentiously tries to bite off more than they can chew. They over-estimate their abilities and strengths as a band and fall completely flat on their face trying to be “deep” “original” and “innovative.”

As background music, it works just fine. Wash your dishes to it and you may even give it an extra star or two. At their best, this band was much more than background listening. But the band is getting old and there is no way they are at their best. Making passable background music for fans is not a bad past time for an elder band.

But the band didn’t present it as background music: they presented it as new, groundbreaking music. They presented it as something that could fully compete with their past accomplishments. They want to present themselves as if they are at their best. And argue about this all you want, but I believe that intention and presentation are vital parts to consider about an album.

For example, after ten years of disappointing, “serious minded” albums by Bob Dylan that completely failed in their task, fans and critics reacted positively to the slight, non-serious intended pair of folk cover albums he pressed in the late 80’s. It was the kind of album Dylan could toss of in his sleep but fans and critics loved them.

This is because they knew that Bob wasn’t making a serious statement: he was just having some fun after a long string of failures. He wasn’t at his best, knew it and did a goof off. He never presented those albums as if they were competitive with his best work. And they were great

“Amon Duul II” was obviously just having fun when they recorded this album. But they try to present it as a serious statement. One of the biggest mistakes of their career and one which taints the end of their career slightly. Speaking of “tainting careers” my “Amon Duul UK” reviews are next.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Fifteen: Nada Moonshine # and More

Nada Moonshine # Album Cover

1) Castaneda Da Dream; 2) Nada Moonshine Union; 3) Speed Inside My Shoes; 4) Sirens In Germanistan; 5) Lilac Lil­lies; 6) Kiss Ma Eee; 7) Carpetride In Velvet Night; 8) Black Pearl Of Wisdom; 9) Ça Va; 10) Guadalquivir.

8 out of 10

All great bands (except for ABBA and the Beatles (and well, countless others (this sentence has been rendered moot by these parentheticals but I’m going to finish it anyways (so there)))) eventually reunite: and so it was, 14 years after their last, rather dull attempt at an album, the “original” line-up of “Amon Duul II” (with no Weinzierl who was off doing who knows what at this time) gets together to show the world they still have it nearly 30 years after their debut and 20 years after their last great album.

Apologies for the lengthy sentence: I was briefly possessed by the spirit of William Faulkner and William Burroughs at the same time. Faulkner was wasted and feebly rejecting the advances of a stoned out of his gourd Burroughs. Faulkner didn’t give in, thankfully, or I’d have an odd literary creature growing in my head: a combination of Faulkner and Burroughs that I could only call: William Burroughs. Or wait no, I’m sorry: William Faulkner.

Whoa whoa whoa, time out. Okay, no more of that. I’m sorry for the brief moments of insanity there but it’s hard not to get a bit goofed out when listening to an album like this: any kind of reunion album creates a feeling of foreboding in my mind. Does the band still have it? Can they create an album that stays true to their past but pushes the boundaries forward and which stays current and imaginative?

Most people can’t: “Amon Duul II” basically do. No, the album isn’t perfect but it is a shockingly good return to form from a band that basically nobody cared about anymore. Yes, this album came and went without leaving even a small ripple in the listening world: the only person I’ve ever seen discuss this album is George Starostin. You can’t even read a review at Allmusic but that doesn’t stop them from rating it. Idiots.

So, what does the band achieve on this album? Its simple on paper but complex in execution: the band combines their classic style with a more synthesized, highly studio based production style. And when I say their “old styles” I mean the “everything happening at once” approach of “Yeti” with the more streamlined songwriting styles of their mid-70’s albums.

Basically, a song will start out with a simple idea. Sometimes guitar based but more often synthesizer or keyboard based. The band will then begin layering sounds on top of it, including more synthesizers, guitars, Renate-wailings and vivid soundscapes. Drum machines may jump in and techno rhythms may appear. Basically, it often feels like the band is jumping on that mid-90’s techno band wagon.

However, the band doesn’t let this new sound define who they are or become too repetitive. Songs usually switch sounds quickly (and these are long songs for the most part) building up to new ideas, including operatic arias, faster techno drum beats, wild guitar passages, rhythmic attacks and wild echoing sound effect panoramas.

If the album sounds wild it is: it can be overwhelming to listen to at times. The band doesn’t really let up for a second on the album and is seemingly having as much fun in the studio as they have ever had, if not more. As a result, there isn’t much breathing room on the album: every spare second is stuffed with sound effects, guitars, synthesizers, thick bass lines, wild vocalizing, sampled loops, odd string sections and more.

And this is one reason why the album gets an eight. As impressive of an accomplishment as the album is, technically, it becomes very wearing to listen to for long periods of time. And although there are only 10 songs, this album stretches out to nearly an hour long, if not longer (forgive me if I don’t know the exact running time off the top of my head).

Another reason the album doesn’t get top marks is that the songs start to all sound the same. Yes, there are major differences in the songs but I couldn’t really tell you what they are right now. The arrangements and approaches don’t change drastically between songs, even though the styles and genres tackled often do change (the eternal curse of “Amon Duul II”). This contributes to the feeling of boredom that rears its ugly head by the close of the album.

Lastly, the band isn’t really pushing boundaries that haven’t been pushed before. They are now simply followers instead of leaders. Yes, one cannot hold that against the band as they were getting pretty old by this point in their career. But it hurts parts of the album, especially the ending techno beats of “Lilac Lillies” which really detract from the quality of the song. They are so generic that its sad to see this rampaging, all encompassing beats of a band stoop to that level.

With all those complaints voiced, I can still give this album an easy 8 out of 10 for the balls and talent it took to put it together. While it may not be innovative, it does sound different from all those mid-90’s techno-influenced albums because it is written and recorded by a band of former mad-men-and-women who were literally anarchists at one point in their career. And this wild, careening album reflects that anarchistic spirit perfectly.

BONUS REVIEWS

Kobe Reconstructions

Kobe Reconstructions Album Cover.

Eternal Flashback

 

Eternal Flashback Album Cover.

5 out of 10 each

Although this was the only album of new material released by the band in the 90’s, they did release two albums of “sound collage” material in 1996. These albums, “Kobe Reconstructions” and “Flashback” were limited release albums released for a singular purpose: “Kobe Reconstructions” was released to raise funds for Kobe, Japan after a hurricane struck while “Flashback” was a gift to members of the “Amon Duul II” fan club.

I’m reviewing both of these albums simultaneously because they sound identical. The band basically took songs from their past albums and used a sampler to reconstruct them into wild sound collages. And instead of separating the albums into individual tracks, they made them all one track.

And the albums basically suck as listening experiences. I love sound collages as much if not more than the average man (my first three albums were nothing but sound collages) but the band doesn’t show a lot of imagination in this style. A great sound collage would feature jarring, yet musical, contrasts and interesting combinations of material.

Instead, these albums often feature a basic guitar line (sometimes from “Amon Duul I”!!!!) repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity. And then they layer a few basic parts over top and let these repeat endlessly. And the albums do feel endless, as they drone on and on for what seems like an eternity.

I can’t really be too hard on the albums though: both were released for nice, charitable purposes and were designed to appeal to hardcore “Amon Duul II” fans (something I am not). Plus, it’s cool to see the band try something new and stretch out their creativity in new directions. Sure, they fail but its better to fail at something new than to fail at something old. Five stars in admiration and under the condition I never have to listen to these albums again.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Fourteen: Amon Duul II’s “Vortex”

Vortex Album Cover.

1) Vortex; 2) Holy West; 3) Die 7 Fetten Jahre; 4) Wings Of The Wind; 5) Mona; 6) We Are Machine; 7) Das Ges­tern Ist Das Heute Von Morgen; 8) Vibes In The Air.

6 out of 10

A relative rebound. Kind of. Three years after the shattered, tattered remains of the once mighty “Amon Duul II” were promptly buried, never to be unearthed, the original band rose again, one year to each day, resurrected to conquer the world again and to prove that Love really does conquer all.

Or not. Look, that last paragraph may have been needlessly poetic but I want the reader to understand how neat this album could and should have been. Most of the original band members make appearances, including Renate, original organist Falk Rogner (who I’ve always neglected to mention, shame considering his keyboard work helped create a lot of great atmosphere) with John Weinzierl playing a little guitar and Lothar Meid back on a “little” bit of bass.

So with the original band (kind of, at points) back together, it was time to cut the shit. All attempts to streamline and “sell out” have been removed from the band’s vocabulary. No more bland shit like “Only Human” or “Almost Alive” to ruin the band’s reputation. Nope, the band was ready to get back to a denser sound with a more atmospheric feel. Darkness should over take the listener, much like they are being sucked up by the slightly-ridiculous-yet-still-ominious image on the front cover.

But the band more or less blows it: sure, it’s an improvement over the last two records, but it’s basically of the same quality as “Pyragony X.” It is noble that the band would try to come back and regain some of their lost ground. But it’s really their own fault that the album really doesn’t work.

One problem is that most of the major band members really only make guest appearances. Weinzierl and Meid really only guest briefly throughout the album. Jorg Evers plays guitar and he simply doesn’t have the same skill or inventiveness of Weinzierl. Meid does almost no songwriting, simply sticking to bass. This is a major problem, as it was his clever song-writing ideas that kept the band afloat for the three years after they abandoned complete jamming.

Another major problem is the “instrumentation situation.” The album is an official “80’s Album” as it features drum machines, synthesizers and other machines of that ilk. However, the inclusion of these instruments wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in the early 80’s. Remember, it was the era of “Peter Gabriel III” and other creepy, crawlie creative synth albums. Even Genesis’s “Abacab,” while ostensibly pop, had great tones and many creative ideas.

Put it this way: the album sounds more like “Peter Gabriel III” and less like “No Jacket Required.” The band is definitely working their asses off to create an oppressive atmosphere that can crush the listener. They really want to make a heavy return to creative darkness. As a result, the synthesizers croak out unpleasant tones that are not generic. The drum machine stutter and strut, much like Gabriel’s classic programming.

But the album still gets a pretty low rating. Honestly, it’s no better than and sometimes worse than “Pyragony X.” It’s close to being better because the general sound is a bit more interesting than the completely pedestrian and nearly generic sound of “Pyragony X.” It’s closer to being worse because the band fails at their goals here worse than on that unfortunate album.

Basically, the band is trying to be scary and oppressive but they really don’t succeed at achieving that goal. Yes, the songs are dense, heavily arranged and gloomy. But instead of being impressive, they simply stand there and brood. For all the band’s hard work, they are simply doing another make-up job on a rotting corpse of a sow.

It may be worse than “Pyragony X” because at least that album had actual songs. Sure, they were pretty unmemorable and unengaging but they had structure, melodies and diverse arrangements. Here, everything mulls together into a lump with no real melodic strength. Honestly, it feels like the band is trying to make the arrangements into songs themselves. This is an approach which never truly works: it may fool the band’s desperate fans into thinking “they’re back!” but it leaves an album that a) won’t appeal to casual fans and b) won’t even hold up for fans, unless they’re completely self deceiving.

I haven’t even described the tracks yet have I? Well, “Holy West” certainly sounds impressive at first with its wave of synthesizer atmosphere. However, the melody of the song is painfully simple. It also hits no real emotion or meaning. It’s simply there. And the band never develops the melody or the atmosphere they have created. It simply broods there, glowering at you immovably,

Fans of “Kraftwerk” may be excited (or pissed) to see a song called “We Are Machine.” Don’t worry: “Kraftwerk “has nothing to worry about. Why the band tried this approach is beyond me. They were never good at repetitive music ideas. Whereas “Kraftwerk” succeeds by making their repetitive ideas catchy and by adding slight variations, “Amon Duul II” simply pounds a simple idea, throws in simplistic “machine” lyrics and calls it a day.

Going into detail here isn’t exactly necessary. So, why does this album get such a (relatively) high rating when compared to the previous two albums? In spite of the fact that it fails, it shows a band that is trying to do something creative and new. They’re obviously working hard to be new and exciting. They are trying to integrate New Wave ideas and are at least integrating them semi-intelligently.

Simply put: the band is trying to be good. They’re failing, but at least they’re trying. The last two albums featured a band trying but they were trying to sell albums without having the ability to write music that a mainstream audience would want to buy.

Plus, if you’ve never heard much of this style of music, it might be effective. Or if you buy into the mood and atmosphere the band is trying to set (I don’t) it could probably be much more effective. No more than a six worth of effectiveness but much better than the 5 I wanted to give the album.

The band must have seen the writing on the wall though. They split again, this time to stay away for 14 years. However, they’d come back with a strong album, their best in 20 year and which shows a band more successfully navigating unknown waters. Stay tuned.

Amon Duul Reviews Part Thirteen: Amon Duul II’s “Only Human”

Only Human Album Cover.

1) Another Morning; 2) Don’t Turn To Stone; 3) Kirk Morgan; 4) Spaniards And Spacemen; 5) Kismet; 6) Pharao; 7) Ruby Lane.

2 out of 10

As if “Almost Alive” wasn’t embarrassing enough, the band had to make one last stab at commercial relevancy with this 1978 album. Of course, it was artistically, critically and commercially a complete failure. But it did serve a useful purpose: it helped put an end to this ailing band, which had gone from one of the best of the 70’s into one of the most bland and useless.

But what band is this? Is this the same band that recorded “”Phallus Dei” in 1969? Of course not: the only original member was Chris Karrer, never the most prolific of the band’s songwriters. So the rest of the band continues to provide most of the musical content, coming up intensely short once again.

It’s not as if the band didn’t try. They throw in some funkiness, ala “Another Morning.” Spanish motifs are expanded upon at some length, as are middle Eastern styles and even disco. The band also attempts softer and harder rock styles. The band even infuses them with the same type of “arty” arrangements they had attempted on past albums.

One would think with all this work to create an exciting, diverse and rich sonic atmosphere would not have gone to such a complete waste. But the arrangements here simply don’t work. It is, once again, a pig in lipstick situation. The songs are completely unmemorable, non-catchy and borderline completely poorly written. “Another Morning” sounds like the band wanted to be ABBA. But ABBA only worked because they had genius composers: nobody in this band is a genius.

The arrangements also stay stuck in a rather frustratingly early 70’s art rock style that is completely out of place in the era of punk. For God’s sake, the Ramones had been out almost two years by this point! Post punk and new wave bands were already using synthesizers in new and startling ways. The band did wisely avoid trying to adapt to these styles but simply fail in their old styles over and over again.

Basically, the band simply comes up completely short on material that is worth hearing. The album isn’t terrifying to listen to (no THRAKATTAK or Metal Machine Music dissonance here). But it goes in one ear and out the other. If the band was writing good material, catchy, memorable songs their slight “outdatedness” would be compensated by great songs. But the band couldn’t adapt to the time and couldn’t even represent their own time well.

“Only Human” indeed. Only too good the band broke up at this point. Their story doesn’t end here though: poorly thought out reunions await us in the next few reviews.

PS Sorry this album is so short but there’s only so many ways you can write “the songs suck and the band is completely out of date” without repeating yourself. And I insist, an album that is simply one of the blandest albums ever (NOTHING stands out) doesn’t deserve a truly in depth, mocking review.