Can – Ege Bamyasi

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Can’s fourth studio album “Ege Bamyasi” was released in 1972.  Their previous albums had been recorded in Schloss Nörvenich, a 14th century castle near Cologne.   After having a hit single in Germany with “Spoon”, they moved into an old cinema (Inner Space Studio in Weilerswist) and recorded the rest of “Ege Bamyasi” there.

Their early albums, up to “Soon Over Babaluma” (1975), were recorded by bouncing between stereo recorders rather than using a multitrack.  They would jam in the studio for hours, and then Holger Czukay would edit the tape into usable sections.  This would then be played back and recorded onto another machine, whilst the band simultaneously played along to add another layer of instruments and vocals.  The constrictions of this technique defined their music; without multitrack, they couldn’t mix or edit individual instruments after the event.  Each layer had to be mixed as it happened.   Later albums, such as the seventh album “Landed”, were recorded on conventional multitrack gear and sounded much more conventional – and boring.

The line-up for this album is the standard set of instrumentalists who lasted for all the classic Can albums – Holger Czukay (bass, engineering and editing), Michael Karoli (guitar), Jaki Leibezeit (drums), Irmin Schmidt (keyboards) – plus Damo Suzuki on vocals.  Damo joined Can for their second album (“Soundtracks”) and stayed until their fifth album (“Future Days”).  Damo’s singing is integrated into Can’s music; I find it hard to make out what he’s singing (or even what language he’s singing in, though it seems to be mostly English on this album) other than a few random words and phrases, but that doesn’t matter – what he does fits in perfectly.  I’m not going to trot out the usual set of clichés about the band members, ‘cos you already know them…  They revolve round “Stockhausen-trained / more mechanical than a drum machine / Damo was asked to join Can after they heard him busking in the street”.  There you go; I’ve trotted them out after all.

The artwork shows a can of okra shoots – “Ege Bamyasi” apparently means “Aegean okra” in Turkish.  There’s a large Turkish population in Germany; mass migration started in 1961 after the building of the Berlin Wall caused a labour crisis in West Germany.

The first thing you notice about the album is the unusual recorded sound – dry, dead, close-up.  The rhythms are funky, but the sound quality makes it a desiccated, listless funk. It’s one of those albums that have a consistent sound all the way through – and it’s not the same as the sound of any other Can album. Most of the pieces sound like they’ve started off as improvisations, though at least two have a defined song structure to them.

 

Pinch

The album starts with an abrupt fade-up into an improvisation, with Damo muttering and wittering on about God-knows-what.  The piece is dominated by drums, percussion and bass – the guitar and keyboards play lesser roles in the background.  The “chorus” features a strange whooping sound – feedback? Swanee whistle?  Who knows?    Schmidt’s karate-chop organ playing becomes prominent towards the end of the piece.   This is one of the more formless pieces on the album, which makes it an interesting choice as the opener – though it certainly defines the “Ege Bamyasi” sound.

Sing Swan Song

Begins with the sound of water, and then the song starts – and it is a song, with a structure and a chord sequence.  Damo singing delicately over arpeggio guitar, with a fuzz guitar wailing in the distance.   Lovely.  The lyrics are abstract and absurd – “Shaking her cold hand to hear you’ve been just the drunky hot bowls.”     There is something about the lazy, shimmering sound of this piece that reminds me of Pink Floyd, particularly the songs on the second side of “Atom Heart Mother”.

One More Night

A driving, funky track.  Drums and bass right up front, very little reverb on them.   The singing, a whispered repetitive chant, merges into the music.  This is great.

Vitamin C

A wonderful song, really catchy, with hook lines.   “She is stepping on the pigman’s head”- I’m not sure if the transcription of the lyrics (that I found on the internet) is accurate or not, it’s difficult to say.  One of Can’s best songs, and one of Damo’s best performances.  The track ends with a flock of electronic birds, who fly into the next piece:

Soup

I hate this song.  Hate it?  I fear it.  Ten and half minutes of abstract collaging.  After the initial ambient sounds, you hear a band dragging their way through a dreary, listless song in another room.   Then a big, noisy, shouty song bursts into life – I’m reminded of Faust.  This is rock, not funk.  It eventually peters out into some electronic bleeps (more karate-chop organ) and a speeding-up drum pattern.   After a time, this stops.  Now there’s a musique concrète section of overloaded electronic blasts and someone declaiming loudly in the style of Kurt Schwitters’s “Ursonate” sound poetry.  This section reminds me a lot of Frank Zappa’s noisy abstractions (“Lumpy Gravy” and “Uncle Meat”) – in fact, the whole piece is somewhat Zappa-like, and a bit like “The Faust Tapes” too, although Zappa and Faust use abrupt jump-cut editing, whereas the sections of this song just die away.   The track ends with some free-jazz nonsense and more Schwitters-style shouting.

I’m So Green

Light guitar/drums funk song.  Three minutes of pleasantness. Not much more to say.

Spoon

“Ege Bamyasi” ends with the song that financed the album.  “Spoon” was used as the theme of a German TV thriller series called “Das Messer” (The Knife), and subsequently released as a single.  It reached No.6 in the German charts and sold 300,000 copies.  The money from this enabled them to move into Inner Space Studios and record “Ege Bamyasi”.  “Spoon” was patently not recorded at Inner Space; it has a different sound and feel to the rest of the album.  It starts with a clattering drum machine and twiddly organ, and then the singing begins along with a pulsing sound (something through a Leslie cabinet).  This is a proper song, not based on an improvisation.  It’s arranged and constructed like a single (albeit a Can single) – different sections, hooks, lots of guitars, harmony vocals (!).   Again, I am faintly reminded of Pink Floyd in places.

What else to say?  Can were one of the best Krautrock bands.  “Ege Bamyasi” is one of their best albums.  If you’ve not got it already, why not?

review by Colin Robinson

Can – Tago Mago

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As I’m sure you all know, “Tago Mago” is a damn strange album. Strange in context (both then and now), strange in concept and also strange looking.

 

Originally intended to have been a single album, new manager Hildegard negotiated with the record label to expand this into a double album, with the second record containing what was considered more experimental material.

 

Here is where the oddity of “’Tago Mago” really begins. Had the album remained a single album, it would have been the most accessible Can album. I could understand that version of “Tago Mago” becoming classic rock royalty but not the album we know and love.

 

Album opener “Paperhouse” sails pretty close to contemporary psychedelic rock song to begin with. Certainly Damo is in fine melodic fettle, showing a tantalising “what if?” in his craftsmanship. It is only at the two minute mark when suddenly Can really start to be Can and erupt into that furious, sexy, tribal beatdown.

 

Track two “Mushroom”  is one of those songs that probably does not seem anything like as radical today as it did in 1971 because it has been so endlessly ripped off by indie rock bands ever since. The stripping down of the rock song to a vivid vocal, slow bass and fast drum with occasion accompaniments of spectral, chimming guitars was a radical move in 1971 when Western rock was trying to layer everything up as high as possible.

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However the most important part of “Mushroom” today is just how enjoyable it is. Jaki’s ever-reliably inventive drumming demands you tap your toe and Damo sounds like the humble, wise vocal shaman that Jim Morrison failed to be.

 

Side one ends with a sudden rockfall explosion and then Can’s rhythm section charging off into the dawn with Damo’s ghostly backtracked vocals chasing them. We will skip the obligatory mentions of how much influence all this had over various genres of dance music and instead just say, again, what joy this is to listen to. Played through a good hi-fi or pair of headphones, it is still guaranteed to blow your mind every single time. Even poopy mp3 rips and glitchy youtube uploads still have a little power to them, though only a shadow of their former glory.

 

All of side two is taken over with “Halleluwah”, the most intoxicating blend of psychedelic rock and machine funk ever. Not that they are using machines, it is just that here at their peak, the rhythm section of Jaki and Holger is so precise, so open that it sounds like the work of machines. It’s simply a symphony of rhythm where the beat overwhelms the listener and provides a sturdy landscape for the others to improvise over.

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So, there you have what was to be the original third Can album, which contains some of the very best work by Can at their peak. There is nothing strange about that being accepted into the canon of classic rock. If you search the web for “Can Tago Mago”, you will find reviews raving about the album from every conceivable source. The nostalgia reviewers with their classic rock fixation have accepted it into their ranks. The reviewers of modern rock music too have embraced it as their own and rank it on their endless lists.

Which is peculiar, because “Tago Mago” came out as a double LP and there is the small matter of the second LP, which does things very differently. Teasingly, “Aumgn” begins with the same sound as “Paperhouse” but then trips off in a sea of reverb and sound. All the structures of melody and rhythm are cast aside. Damo screams and gibbers. Jaki goes all free jazz on us. Dogs bark. Studio equipment whooshes and whooors. It’s nearly eighteen minutes of free chaos and takes over all of side C, like the evil twin of “Halleluwah”.

To me, it sounds like a high-fidelity recording of really free rock music. Many bands today get as wild and experimental but only with access to basic recording facilities. Can had as advanced a studio set up as you could wish for….and they decided to abandon all the rules.

However, what do our woolly-jumper wearing hippy nostalgists make of it? What about the indie-kids checking out their hero’s heros? Surely it must piss them off? Looking at reviews of the 40th anniversary edition on indie websites that allow user comments shows some of them clearly do not get the wild stuff.

Side D offers them no olive branch, instead “Peking O” serves up atonal keyboards, stuttering drum machines, more goblin jabber from Damo, guitar abuse and piercing noises. There are hints of melody and song structure but they quickly dissolve into the sonic soup.

Perhaps the ending, a brief and beautifully hallucinogenic version of “Bring Me Coffee and Tea” (a different, more spooky version than the one that featured in the Can Free Concert film) assuages those outraged by the rampant experimentalism of the previous tracks.

You will notice throughout this review, I have been talking in terms of side A and side C. I am keen to avoid being seen as a vinyl fascist. If you look at the photos, you will see that I own the album both on vinyl and the hybrid SACD remaster. I don’t own SACD gear, so the album just plays as a regular CD on my kit. The remastering for CD is fantastic, far better than the original CD release (which should be consigned to the history’s trash can).

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Yet, it is hard to think of Tago Mago as anything other than a double album. The tracklisting is informed by the medium. I listen to the remastered cd just as much as my lp but even with the cd you can feel the structure of the lp. There is a nice convenience to the Cd and if you enjoy bonuses, the 40th anniversary edition includes a bonus CD with a complete concert (which a friend insists is at the wrong speed…..its certainly a different speed to the bootleg of the concert).

 

Whatever format you do plump for, I really have to stress what a high fidelity recording this is. Can were not just masterful and innovative musicians but were also master engineers. If you have only heard it on mp3 or the 90s cd version…then you haven’t heard it. “Tago Mago” is not just a classic album but a fantastic recording that will thrill your speakers.

 

This is now the third time I have reviewed it but I would gladly do it thirty times if it encouraged more people to hear it.

Can – Soundtracks

Can fans always seem to arguing over which era was better – the Damo era or the Malcolm era. The Malcolm ones seem to particularly want to state this, often being their second bit of information after telling you they like Can. I guess there has been a tendency in the UK press to focus on Damo-era Can, with “Tago Mago” and “Ege Bam Yasi” always making the classic album lists and “Monster Movie” usually overlooked.  To me, though, both eras are the essential era of Can and “Soundtracks” for me is the perfect Can album because it combines both.

You have what is reputed to be Malcolm’s final recording with Can, “Soul Desert”. His voice sounds stretched to the very edge of its limits. Given Can’s habit of editing down long jams, he could well be at the end of a jam session that has gone on for literally hours. Whatever the reason, his scorched delivery really invokes desert dryness and the sparse tribal groove the band lock into behind him is another classic tight Can groove

“Don’t Turn The Light Off, Leave Me Alone” is purported to be Damo’s debut and sees the band lock into a similar, paranoid rhythmic skitter like “Soul Desert” but the change of vocalist changes everything. It is not a question of “better” because Damo and Malcolm are so different as to make comparisons obsolete. They have such radically different vocal styles then throw into the mix their  equally different cultural background and language.  I would argue the reason for Malcolm’s second position owes more to the fact that there was not even two albums worth of material available by him until 1981’s release of “Delay 1968”.

Can did a lot of soundtrack work, for both film and television, so “Soundtracks” cherry picks the highlights and arranges them in a very intelligent tracklist. Only the opening theme from “Deadlock” and it’s later instrumental reprise really seem like obvious soundtrack compositions. Everything else just feels like a song Can recorded. “Tango Whiskeyman” is an irresistibly charming song with Damo’s gentle vocals at their most poppy and Jaki at his most toe-tapping on drums.

However, the real killing blow for “Soundtracks” is how it all ends.  “Mother Sky” is fourteen and a half minutes of utter devastation. Probably the most scorched, searching guitar work Karoli ever released. Here sounds like he is unpicking the skies with his fingers. Underneath that, Holger and Jaki fuse into an inhuman rhythm machine playing some secret, primal, snapping, tribal stomp. When Jaki begins unleashing drum rolls, it is physically impossible not to move in some way. The whole rhythm insinuates its way into your body and takes over in a manner that would be frightening if it wasn’t so pleasurable. Damo sings softly over the top finding exactly the right words to articulate what is going on, like some gentle shaman. Irmin, sneaks in making his keyboards sound like electric shocks. It is a musical bomb.

After that slab of sonic hyperventilation, “She Brings The Rain” comes in like a hot bath after a long journey. This song is unique in the entire Can catalogue. It is a jazzy little ballad. Holger Czukay plays a mellow jazz bassline while Malcolm Mooney croons a beautiful downer, his words sheer poetry. Karoli starts off playing a similar style and time around Holger’s bass but subtly changes gear as the track progresses, going higher and higher until by the end his reaching for the sky once again but never dominating the song. The result is just sublime melancholia. This is a song for walking by yourself in the rain in a big overcoat.

Although the original sleeve proclaims that “Soundtracks” was not the second Can album, posterity has proved them wrong . Every song on here is an important part of Can’s discography.

Ned