Monday, July 27, 2009

Sun Ra - Atlantis (1967)

For those of you who don't know, Sun Ra was a jazz musician from Saturn. At least that's what he claimed, and when you listen to his music it's easy to believe him. Atlantis is a fine example of his eccentric compositions and live improvisations.

The first half of the record is devoted to short pieces in which Ra plays quirky melodies and jagged rhythms on his "Solar Sound Instrument" which turns out to be a Hohner Clavinet. The backing band is subdued, but the percussion and rare splashes of saxophone add a very nice touch of spice to Ra's admittedly impressive keyboard work.

These pieces are all very well crafted and enjoyable, but we all know why we're really here: for the epic twenty-one minute title track on side two. This monster was recorded live and features Ra banging away on an organ like the Phantom of the Opera having a seizure. The track features some truly top notch big band playing, and it's rather a shame that the organ pyrotechnics dominate the proceedings so thoroughly. Nevertheless, it's a wildly engaging, if violently dissonant, romp and certainly a good demonstration of Sun Ra's demented genius.

If there ever was an Atlantis, I imagine the sense of chaotic terror its citizens felt upon sinking into the ocean is well captured here. Definitely worth hearing for fans of free jazz.

Tangerine Dream - Zeit (1972)

When most people think of Space Rock, they think of Pink Floyd style psychedelia, extended jams with trippy melodies and lots of swirly little arpeggios. That is to say, Space Rock designed for tourists. Zip along in your rocket ship, snap a photo of the pretty nebula and wave to the Martians. It's all very fun, but it resembles space about as much as It's A Small World reflects world politics.

Space is dark. Space is cold. Space is mostly empty. Such is the music on Zeit. Yes, that's right; before Tangerine Dream became insipid purveyors of New Age treacle, they made some truly adventurous and influential albums. Zeit is the longest, the strangest and certainly the most sinister record of their career.

At seventy-five minutes long, Zeit (the German word for "time") is certainly an appropriate title for this double album. The music is divided into four sides, but it might as well be one long piece. The music begins with a cluster of cellos slowly fading in, basically the only acoustic sound on the whole album. The following hour is made up of analogue synths droning and shifting very...................very.........................slowly. One can imagine planets forming out of primordial darkness, rivers of magma gradually cooling and hardening into the crusts of what will - in just a few billion years - become mountains and oceans.

Needless to say, Zeit is a difficult listen, particularly if you try to pay attention to the whole thing. However, those fascinated by the infinite mysteries of the cosmos will be hard pressed to find better mood music for contemplation or stargazing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

AMM - AMMMusic (1966)

Even by my standards, this is weird one. It was recorded live in 1966, and consists mainly of very high pitched violin drones, bolstered with feedback, occasional piano stabs and percussion. At least it starts that way. After what seems like a very long time, you begin to realize that development is happening. More sounds begin to enter the mix and the music becomes more complex. You can hear guitars, saxophone, clarinet, cellos and (perhaps most interestingly) snatches of "found" sound coming from a radio.

The cool thing is that all this happens so gradually that you don't even realize it's happening. Suddenly you just notice it. In its own way, the album can be trance inducing, lulling you into subconsciousness with its incessant hum, noisy humming.

AMMMusic probably bears more relation to free jazz than it does to psychedelia or space rock, and it's at times reminiscent of some of Sun Ra's more extreme outings. It should also be noted that in 1966, nothing like this was being done. Even John Cage's contemporary pieces seem tame by comparison. One can only imagine the impact it must have had on its release.

The CD version offers extended performances that were too long to fit on the LP, as well as the original versions, giving us a nice set of listening options. As I said, the music is very high pitched and brittle, but if you can get past that I think you'll find multiple listens to be quite rewarding. Definitely not for beginners, though.

Organisation (Kraftwerk) - Tone Float (1969)

Organisation was the name of Kraftwerk before they were Kraftwerk. My oh my how things change. Here you will find no catchy tunes or lyrics about pocket calculators, no dance anthems about robots or mannequins, indeed not even a single synthesizer!

In contrast to their later all consuming fascination with the future, Tone Float is a downright primordial record. This is bona fide, old school Krautrock; raw, visceral and mostly improvised. The title track is a side long psychedelic trip centered around bells, drums and organ. It starts off very quietly and builds wonderfully into a shrieking Hammond-drenched nightmare. It is a remarkably well composed example of the twenty minute jam, all too common on these early seventies releases,with very focused playing by all involved.

The second half is a bit less organized, consisting of a series of shorter works, still probably improvisations. There's a weird, almost dance-like flute number called Milk Rock and some rather sloppy percussion experiments. We conclude with a nearly eight minute groove that is similar to the first side in its instrumentation and structure, although with strange, jittery amplified violin dominating.

Overall, this record has far more in common with early Amon Düül and Ash Ra Tempel than with the sound Kraftwerk would make famous later in the decade. Nevertheless, it's a charmingly idiosyncratic example of the genre and worth checking out.