Monday, November 8, 2010

Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

It's generally deemed that Can's post-United Artist work was less distinguished than pinnacles like Tago Mago, Soon Over Babaluma, and Future Days. Certainly, something
of their telepathic internal combustion was depleted after their switch from two-track to 16-tracks recording. But those later albums, now CD-reissued by Mute, are far from barren of enchantment.

Indeed, Landed (1975) is a bona fide masterpiece and no mistake. From the bluesy, galactic garage rock of "Full Moon On The Highway" (with its weird chorus, like the vocal has been dilated and distended by an expert glassblower)through the musky Middle Eastern tapestry "Half Past One", to the cosmic skank of "Hunters And Collectors", the quartet are in feverishly fecund form. On "Vernal Equinox" and the 16 minute epic "Unfinished" Can return to the unmapped territory of "Quantum Physics" and "Peking O", an omniverse where the normal laws of sound no longer apply. "Unfinished" is a flux of unravelling forms that coalesce into fleeting focus before deliquescing again; a sort of animated mosaic, or abstract expressionist cartoon.

Flow Motion (1976) is more mainstream, the work of a Can who were less self-sufficient, operating with one ear cocked to the new sounds of the day (reggae, disco, even boogie). "I Want More" was their one pop hit - if not a case of Can selling their soul, at least of them mortgaging it. But it's such a joyous disco novelty, it's hard to begrudge them. The main vein of the album is rhapsodic, oceanic fun not far from what was doing John Martyn at the time ("Solid Air", "One World") ; "...And More" and "Smoke" are tribal funk mantras that anticipate 23 Skidoo and Byrne & Eno.

Later that year, Can also released Unlimited Edition, a treasury of tracks from Can's gilded era (1968-75) that never made it onto the albums. It's all superlative stuff, with special honours going to "Cutaway": 19 minutes of Can at their most combustively spontaneous, going through myriad phases, before eventually devolving into a primordial soup of DNA strands, helixes and lattices.

Saw Delight (1977) was where the rot began to set in. Too often, Can cross the thin line between wandering and meandering, nomadism and onanism. New member Rosko Gee's
vocal's on "Call Me" is awfully prog-rock. The 15 minute "Animal Waves" is formula Can (a pan-global, sensurround groove, synths that wax and wane, simmering percussion, an exotic, sampled Arabic vocal) that never ignites into magic. "Don't Say No" bubbles and froths jauntily enough, but its lyric of mystical affirmation must have jarred badly with the negationist mood of punk.

"Can" (1978) was their last studio album (until 1989's "Rite Time") and their first without bassist Holger Czukay (the group's heartbeat). It's not a bad swansong. "All Gates Open" mismatches hokey harmonica with cosmic jaccuzzi synth-whorls, over a crisp-and-spry James Brown pulse. "Sodom" is yet another epic of iridiscent amorphousness, but must have sounded mighty flatulent next to the anorexic, angular demystification rock of the day (Gang Of Four etc). Bizarrely enough, "Aspectacle" - with its boogie guitar, in-the-pocket funk groove, swoogly noises and Michael Karoli's stoned, nonsense vocals - sounds uncannily like Happy Mondays. Even on their last legs, Can were ahead of their time as ever.

Rite Time
The Wire, 1994?

by Simon Reynolds

With Can (see also: Davis, Miles), there's a paradoxical sense that there's nothing left to say, and yet everything left to say. It seems like we've only scratched the surface of this music, and yet it's so hard to get critical purchase on Can's slippery magic.

The idea of a CAN-thology seems faintly sacriligous, so before anything else, let me iterate the bleedin' obvious: you NEED the original albums, yes, ALL of them. That proviso aside, and despite the inevitable dissension over highpoints absent and lowlights mystifyingly included, this double CD is a useful crash-course for the uninitiated and impoverished.

Early Can--examples here include 'Father Cannot Yell' and the awesome 'Mother Sky'--is cosmic garage punk, an acid-singed mantra-minimalism heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground. At this point, Can also went in for noise-swarms like "Soup"
and voodoo catacombs like "Augmn" that recall the Floyd at their most AMM-aleatory or even the Godz' atavistic sound-daubs.

By 'Tago Mago' and 'Ege Bamyasi', the Liebezeit/Czukay rhythm section has completed intensive studies in James Brownian motion, and the Can vibe shifts from motorik throb to fitful phatback shuffle. Hence the simmering pressure-cooker tension of "Mushroom", the succulent pulse-matrix of "One More Night". Magnificent, but these albums merely prepare the hallowed ground for the prehensile, octopoid,
Shiva-limbed ethno-funkadelia of 'Future Days' (1973), 'Soon Over Babaluma' (1974) and 'Landed' (1975): the Gaia trilogy. On tracks like 'Dizzy Dizzy', 'Moonshake' and 'Future Days', Can are making music so tender, tactful, tactile and telepathic it seems to become your bloodstream.

At this exalted point, Can were making the ultimate body'n'soul music, the incarnation of their Zen-tinged creed of mystic-materialism: flow motion, pantheistic awe, melt-your-psychic-defences and take-the-world-in-a-love-embrace,
every day is Mother Earth's Day etc. After "Landed", Can's cosmic libido starts to wane and droop with the later Virgin albums; what was implicit becomes literalised in the New Age affirmation of "Don't Say No". Can disintegrated; a decade-
long diaspora ensued, of interesting but not exactly satisfying solo projects (which are next in line in Mute's reissue/anthology program).

Finally, 1989's "Rite Time": no, there aren't too many examples of reformations that resurrect the original magic, but--unlike Television, Buzzcocks et al--Can's comeback is excellent, if hardly earthshattering. Reunited with original
vocalist Malcolm Mooney (whose parched drivel sounds like a blend of Alex from A.R. Kane, Shaun Ryder and a punch-drunk Ray Charles), Can are still peddling their Zen-funk credo: the 'Rite Time' is Here and Now, if only we could all see 'Like A New Child', et al. The latter is the best track, and possibly their finest since 'Babaluma''s "Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics": a vast, sprawling, panoramic
groovescape, pivoting around Irmin Schmidt's Zawinul-esque synth-helixes and Liebezeit's roaming drums, and punctuated by elephantine blasts of guitarfuzz. Other gems: the moon-skank of "The Withoutlaw Man", the shuffle-funk of "Movin'
Right Along", where Mooney's dubbed up vocal darts amidst Karoli's wah-wah scumbles and plangent Afro-bluesy licks.

'Rite Time' was recorded in Nice, which may explain its sun-baked, easy-rolling nonchalance. Can are just about the only band I know that can make jauntiness and lighthearted whimsy not just tolerable, but aesthetically compelling and even
existensially admirable. But then the miraculous is this band's metier.

CAN discography
Spin Guide to Alternative Rock

by Simon Reynolds

Monster Movie (1969; Spoon/Mute 1990) [7]
Can Delay 68 (rec.1968/9, released 1981; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Soundtracks (1970; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Tago Mago (1971; Spoon/Mute 1990) [9]
Ege Bamyasi (1972; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Future Days (1973; Spoon/Mute 1990) [9]
Soon Over Babaluma (1974; Spoon/Mute 1990) [10]
Landed (1975; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Unlimited Edition (1976; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Flow Motion (1976; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Saw Delight (1977; Spoon/Mute 1990) [2]
Out of Reach (Peters Int'l) [1]
Can (1979; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Rite Time (1989; Spoon/Mute 1994) [7]
Cannibalism 1 (compilation; Spoon/Mute 1990) [7]
Cannibalism 2 (Spoon/Mute 1992) [7]
Anthology -- 25 Years (Spoon/Mute 1994) [8]
Cannibalism 3 (Spoon/Mute 1994) [7]

As creators of a unique sound-world of wanderlust and wonderment, Can are up there with Hendrix and Miles Davis. Each phase of Can's meandering career has opened up vast vistas of fertile terrain for subsequent bands to colonise and cultivate: avant-funk (Talking Heads, PiL, Cabaret Voltaire), trance-rock (Loop, f/i, Cul de Sac), lo-fi (Pavement, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) and post-rock (Bark Psychosis, Laika). As well inspiring solitary eccentrics from Brian Eno to Mark E. Smith to '90s ambient guru Mixmaster Morris, Can also uncannily anticipated many moves made by entire genres of contemporary 'sampladelic' music, such as ethno-techno, jungle and ambient hip hop. Basically, when it comes to psychedelic dance music, those crafty Krauts wrote the goddamn book.

Can's core members--bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli--came from avant-garde and improv-jazz backgrounds; Czukay and Schmidt had both studied with Stockhausen. But instead of exploring aleatory noise or jerky time signatures, Can discovered--through The Velvet Underground, and later via James Brown--the Zen-power of repetition and restriction. Minimalism and mantra-ism were hallmarks of the Krautrock aesthetic, but what set Can apart from their peers was their fervent embrace of groove. Like Miles' early '70s albums ("On The Corner", "Dark Magus" etc), Can's best work fuses 'black' funk with 'white' neo-psych freakitude. Recording in their own studio in a Cologne castle, the band adopted a jam- and-chop methodology similar to that used by Miles and his producer Teo Macero: improvise for hours, then edit the best bits into coherent tracks. As the band's Macero figure, Czukay worked miracles with a handful of mikes and two-track recording. Can's proto-ambient spatiality actually diminished when they went to 16 track in the mid-70s!

Early Can is a sort of kosmik garage-punk that combines the metronomic drive of the Velvets with the abstraction of Barrett-era Pink Floyd: over the throbbing Liebezeit & Czukay rhythm-engine, singer Malcolm Mooney (and later his successor Damo Suzuki) yowl acid-visionary drivel or onomatopeiac nonsense. Highlights of this 1968-69 period include "Father Cannot Yell", "Yoo Doo Right" and the awesome 15 minute rumble of "Mother Sky".

Named after a sorcerer, *Tago Mago* contains Can's most disorientating, shamanic work. Torn between two impulses- James Brownian motion and post-Floyd chromatic flux--the double album ranges from the polyrhythmic roil of "Mushroom" and "Oh Yeah", to "Augmn"'s dub-reverberant catacombs, to the fractal sound-daubings and scat-gibberish of "Peking O". A meisterwerk.

After the tense angst-funk of *Ege Bamyasi*, with its sharply etched guitar and crisp beats, Can's music literally seems to blossom with *Future Days* and *Soon Over Babaluma* (two glorious summers in a row, after the rotten weather that shadowed *Bamyasi*, is the band's own explanation). Can's octopus-limbed ethnofunkadelia is as succulently sensuous and touchy-feely prehensile as a rain forest or coral reef. At once light-hearted and urgent-like-your-life's-breath, the music embodies the band's Zen creed of mystic-materialism: pantheistic awe, take the world in a love embrace, every day is Mother Earth's Day, etc. So *Future Days*'s title track is a shimmering aural vision of Paradise Regained, while the side-long "Bel Air" is as beatific as a sea otter basking off the coast of British Columbia.

On *Babaluma*, the balmy, aromatic "Come Sta La Luna" sways to an undulant, off-kilter tango rhythm, but it's Side Two's sequence of "Chain Reaction"/"Quantum Physics" that is Can's absolute zenith. "Chain" is all flow-motion effervescence and iridescence, sonic hydraulics as ear-baffling as Escher's aquaducts and weirs are eye-confounding; "Quantum Physics" is a chaos theorem, funk translated into abstruse, polydimensional equations. Czukay's percussive/melodic bass and Liebezeit's Morse Code drum resemble the mandible-clicking telecommunication of the insect world.

Can's late '70s albums replay the *Future/Babaluma* phase's mystic and musical motifs, but with steadily diminishing returns and a rising whimsy-quotient. *Landed* is their last great album. Its highlight is the protozoan amorphousness of "Unfinished", 13 minutes of aural paella (looks a mess, tastes great). Other fine collage-tracks and 'musaics', like the 19 minute "Cutaway", appear on *Unlimited Edition*--a grab-bag of unreleased goodies recorded between 1968 and '75, ranging from exquisite addenda to *Babaluma* like "Ibis", to items from the Ethnological Forgery Series (affectionate pastiches of genres like trad jazz).

Back in the studio, Can's muse was ailing. The stylistic puree got lumpy with *Flow Motion*, as reggae and blues entered the mixing bowl. *Saw Delight* is a prog-rock frightmare, probably thanks (no thanks) to newbies Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah (ex-Traffic), who gradually displaced the disenchanted Czukay. *Out of Reach* was so uninspired that it's never been reissued. The band rallied slightly for the sprightly swan-song *Can*, parts of which bizarrely pre-empt Happy Mondays' guttersnipe disco. Ten years later, the band re-united for the surprisingly excellent, if scarcely earthshattering (the world had caught up with them by then) *Rite Time*; the highpoint, "Like A New Child", is possibly Can's most gorgeous groovescape since *Babaluma*.

During the decade-long diaspora between break-up and brief reunion, the Can clan flowed everywhichway; *Cannibalism 3*, a sampler of their solo work and collaborations, will help you navigate the delta of stimulating, if seldom wholly satisfying, music. Czukay's six solo albums and sundry link-ups (with David Sylvian, Jah Wobble et al) are probably the most compelling; *Movies*, with its pioneering shortwave-sample of Iranian pop on "Persian Love", is something of a classic. Schmidt's soundtrack work (reissued on the triple-CD *Anthology*) is always interesting, if lacking Can's rhythmic intensity. As for introductions to Can itself, *Anthology--25 Years* is the most up-to-date selection. It's a comprehensive crash- course for the cash-restricted, that inevitably skips Can's longer--and wilder--excursions.

Future Days
Soon Over Babaluma
Unlimited Edition
Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Among Can-fans, consensus decrees that the seething voodoo-funk of 1971's
Tago Mago represents the German group's zenith. But although the albums that
followed seem light-hearted compared with their earlier
Velvet-Underground-meets-James-Brown hypnogrooves, the playing still roils
with a supple inventiveness verging on supernatural. Their
improvised-in-the-studio, mostly instrumental music was never more cinematic
than on Future Days' 20 minute-long idyll "Bel Air." And it was never more
telepathically uncanny than on Babaluma's "Chain Reaction"/"Quantum
Physics," a song-suite that takes the listener out to the remotest recesses
of the cosmos. Whimsy sets in on Landed, although the musky, violin-laced
exoticism of "Half Past One" is haunting and "Unfinished" intimidates with
its abstract noise. Unlimited Edition, a collection of 1968-75 out-takes,
is a trove of delightful oddities, like "Mother Upduff," which wraps
psycho-jazz squall around a macabre storyline about death during a vacation.
These remasters add no new tracks but vastly improve on the earlier hissy,
drab CD transfers, bringing out the ultra-vivid textures and exquisite
details of Can's playing as never before.

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