Monday, March 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #92 - Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine (1978)

In many ways, The Man-Machne is the synthesis of everything Kraftwerk had been doing musically for the preceding decade. Having played around with vocoders, mechanical rhythms, songs about the soullessness of the modern world, and making synthesizers sound as remote from anything human as possible, the band now embrace the stereotypes of what everyone imagines them to be, and actually portray themselves as robots.

This is not my favorite Kraftwerk album (that title belonging to the earlier Radio-Activity) but I certainly think it's their tightest, most consistent, and most fully realized in its concept. From the Soviet-Constructivist artwork to the assembly line synth rhythms that open the record, everything here is steeped in futurism and automation.

What separates this album from earlier Kraftwerk records is the clean production. They’ve figured out how to transform their early synth experiments into tight, catchy, dancefloor anthems. It's hard to believe this is the same band that, a few years earlier, used gentle flute melodies in songs about going for a morning walk (Autobahn).

As ever, the band seems to have an ambivalent relationship with technology. It's hard to see a track like Spacelab as anything but optimistic in it's cheerful and soaring protrayal of science and exploration, despite the absence of lyrics, and it's clear that the band has embraced new technology in music making with both love and devotion. On the other hand, Metropolis is the dark, pessimistic counterpart to Spacelab, painting a picture of a grim and impersonal city of the future.

This dichotomy is summed up in the track The Model. At first, it seems out of place. After all, it's about an actual human being, and it's sung without the usual robotic vocoders, omnipresent elsewhere on the album. But in fact, the song fits in perfectly. It's fundamentally about objectification and the substitution for an impersonal, glamorized image for real humanity. Yet at the same time, it glorifies the subject for her beauty and style. Two sides of the same coin, progress and the sense of leaving something behind, are captured here as well as anywhere else on the record.

The penultimate track on the album is the gently drifting Neon Lights, which again seems to celebrate the wonders of the modern age while at the same time expressing a sense of loneliness. After the vocals fade away, the track continues as an instrumental of lovely, melancholy melodies, drifting effortlessly into the title track, in which man's transformation into machine is finally complete. Honestly, it's the final track that impresses me most every time I hear the album. More than anything else they’ve ever done, it sounds like it was made by robots for robots. Robots who want to dance.

Not too many people listen to Kraftwerk these days, which is a shame because few bands have had a greater influence on electronic music. Without Kraftwerk, there would be no techno, and while other acts like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze where plenty adventurous with analogue synths, none of them displayed the same commitment to tight rhythms and a compressed pop structure. It's hard to imagine what modern, mainstream electronica would look like had The Man-Machine never been released.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #93 - Jimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys (1970)

I've never thought Jimi Hendrix was a particularly good songwriter. He certainly wasn't a great singer. But, to quote another guitar hero now gone, he could play a guitar just like ringin' a bell. I've always believed that there were three great masters who revolutionized electric guitar playing. The first was Chuck Berry, who developed a distinctly electric vocabulary for the guitar. The third was Eddie Van Halen, whose use of two hand tapping and whammy bars opened up new possibilities for the instrument. Jimi Hendrix was the second, and arguably most important, combining virtuosity, soul, and extended techniques to give the guitar possibilities unavailable to any other instrument.

Band of Gypsys is the last album Hendrix released in his lifetime. It's a live record covering two consecutive gigs, one on New Year's Eve and the other on New Year's Day, together ushering in the new decade. The sixties were over, the seventies were just beginning. Sadly, Hendrix would not be around for the decade, or who knows what kind of mischief he would have gotten up to, or what new innovations he would have explored on his instrument?

Already, in his short career, we can hear Hendrix conquering and subsequently getting bored with a number of genres. He played around with blues and ballads, embraced more straightforward soul and rock, and spent most of Electric Ladyland deep in a exotic realms of jam-based psychedelia.  With band of Gypsys, he stretches himself still further, starting to play around with jazzier and funkier textures than we have heard from him before. 

On this outing, he is backed by the stripped down lineup of Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, having fallen out one too many times with the Jimi Hendrix Experience backing band. Hendrix generously lets Miles share vocal duties and sing a few of his own songs, which is nice for Buddy but frankly the least interesting parts of the record. Elsewhere though, the musicianship of the sidemen is excellent, particularly Miles' snare drum contributions to Machine Gun, which imitates the sound of the title weapon.

Speaking of Machine Gun, it's undoubtedly the centerpiece of the album, being both the longest and most musically adventurous track here. For almost 13 minutes, Hendrix sings an indictment of violence while illustrating his point with his snarling, howling guitar antics, which mimic both sirens and screams while Miles rat-a-tats away. Apparently unable to find sufficient challenge in the fretboard itself, Hendrix resorts to playing the feedback from his amplifier in a way that anticipates Robert Fripp's solo on David Bowie's "Heroes" seven years later. It's pretty thrilling to listen to, not to mention innovative.

Lyrically, Hendrix seems to be in a reflective, almost meditative frame of mind, with the songs dominated by themes of peace, love, and lamenting violence. There's a sadness in the material that, in retrospect, seems appropriate given how short the remainder of Jimi's life would be. It's also reminiscent of some of the political work of bands like Parliament and Funkadelic, with whom Hendrix seems to be in sympathy on parts of this record. Power to Love in particular bears distinctive traces of funk influence.

We'll never know what would have happened if Hendrix had continued his career throughout the seventies. Maybe he would have explored new forms, created new innovations, bounced through jazz, funk, and fusion, and improved on an already enormous legacy. Maybe he would have fizzled out and become just another irrelevant relic of the past. In any case, rock guitar's debt to his playing cannot be overstated, and although his style of music is not something I'm personally drawn to too often, as a technician and innovator, it's impossible not to be amazed by him.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #94 - King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (1974)

King Crimson is one of my favorite bands, and I've always felt that Starless and Bible Black was unjustly overlooked, sandwiched as it was between the more popular Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Red. I'm pleased to see it getting the credit it deserves here, as a thrilling statement of experimentalism and virtuosity. No other band sounds like this, and certainly no band playing in 1974.

First, a little background. King Crimson has always had a turbulent existence. In 1969, their stunning debut shattered accepted notions of what rock music could be, but constant lineup changes threatened to tear the group apart multiple times in just a few years. After a handful of followups that managed to be great despite the inner turmoil, guitarist and group leader Robert Fripp pulled together a new lineup that included John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on Violin, and Bill Bruford, fresh from his tenure with fellow progressive rockers Yes, on drums. There was also a short lived contribution from percussionist Jamie Muir, but that was aborted by the time of Starless and Bible Black when he went to go live in a monastery or something. 

This lineup made three excellent albums, of which Starless is the middle one. What's interesting about the record is that it is drawn largely from material recorded live, cleaned up with a few studio overdubs, and features far more improvisation than most other rock records.

Until this point, improvisation in rock music had typically been relegated to extended stoner jams and self-indulgent solos, exhibited by psychedelic mainstays like In a Gadda-Da-Vida. King Crimson's improvisations are nothing like this. They more closely resemble jazz, feature thoughtful erudition, and focus simultaneously on structure and texture, transversing complex harmonic territory and creating an actual complex piece of music instead of just rocking back and forth between two chords.

This only works because all four of the musicians are at the very top of their game. Fripp's guitar technique is right up there with the greats, and Bruford remains one of rock's very finest drummers, employing subtlety and finesse as well as perfect timing and technical mastery. Particularly remarkable is his contribution to the track Trio, a live improvisation for mellotron, violin, and bass in which he elected not to play at all, allowing the other three musicians to finish their thoughts uninterrupted by the clattering of his kit. This may not sound like much, but trust me, a drummer choosing not to play when given the opportunity is beyond rare.

The centerpiece of the album is Fracture, the eleven minute instrumental that closes Side 2. It's a masterpiece of composition, establishing a handful of themes early on an developing slowly in a variety of forms as the piece progresses, each time growing in energy tension until at last resolution is delivered. It's also brimming with technical challenges, and it's a treat to here Fripp pushed to the limits of his abilities with his urgent, rapid-fire guitar lines.

In many ways, it would be fair to say that this is an album by musicians, for musicians. There is no doubt that people with more than a casual understanding of harmonic theory will get more out of it than a layperson. Nevertheless, I don't think that means that others can't enjoy the album as well. The group succeeds in building tension like no other, and there are great melodies here as well. If nothing else, you'd be hard pressed to find any band as consistently willing to push the boundaries of rock as King Crimson, and Starless and Bible Black is a snapshot of them at their finest.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #95 - Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (1975)

The first of several double albums on this list, which is nice because it gives me an opportunity to talk about double albums. There's something about double albums that I absolutely love. They are very rarely perfect records, but they are always overflowing with creativity, passion, and enthusiasm. Double albums are what result when a band is cooking so hot that it simply can't contain all its ideas in a single disc, and whether or not the final product is tight, or even advisable, that's exciting.

Physical Graffiti is no exception. I admit that I have been a reluctant convert to Led Zeppelin. Perhaps a victim of their own over the top hype, I spent years struggling to understand why this band is spoken of in such exalted tones, Physical Graffiti may finally be the record that's converted me to their cause.

On Disc One, things just click. From the blistering country-blues of Custard Pie to the Faulknerian southern Gothic of In My Time of Dying, a sinister 11 minutes workout for slide guitar, this is Led Zeppelin at its most epic and most adventurous. The riffs are untouchable, as in the monumental Kashmir, and the melodies are generally stronger than in the past. The Rover might be the best actual song the band ever wrote, and Houses of the Holy, taken its title from the previous album, is downright singable.

If Zeppelin had stopped at the end of Disc One, they would have produced the best album of their career, and one of the best albums of any decade. But they didn't, a fact which is simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.

Disc Two of Physical Graffiti is something altogether different and unexpected. Rather than continue the epic rocking, Middle Eastern -tinged riffage, and the Celtic mysticism that has always been part of the band's style, Page, Plant and Co. take advantage of the extra space to stretch out, arguably beyond their comfort zone.

The tracks on the second half of Physical Graffiti are mainly genre experiments. There is a short, bucolic instrumental, a boogie-woogie breakdown, a lilting Neil Young-esque ballad, and a healthy helping of the country stylings with which Page was so enamored. It's comparatively lightweight stuff that, although often fun and enjoyable, seems a little redundant in the wake of what precedes it.

All four band members are in exquisite form throughout, though, and it's a treat to hear so much energy, bolstered by a clear love for the material, coming through the speakers.  Physical Graffiti is the lowest ranking of four Led Zeppelin albums on this list, but I think it might be my favorite.