Sunday, November 14, 2010

Request, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Guided By Voices offends me. In this age of cultural overload and aesthetic surfeit, GBV is monstrously, disgustingly prolific. The band averages about 24 songs per album; last year, GBV put out a four-CD 'Box' of early, frankly dubious material; singer/songsmith Robert Pollard has a backlog of some 2000 tunes, but is still planning to write a 'Tommy' style rock opera. Who among us has a life empty enough to accomodate such a glut of undistinguished creativity?

GBV is basically America's very own Oasis. Both bands are led by incorrigibly incontinent songwriters who are morbidly obsessed with English rock of the mid-to-late Sixties, and who have nothing to say but insist on saying it. If--in the age of mostly instrumental, studio-warped genres like trip hop, jungle, post-rock, ambient etc--you're gonna stick with a craft as quaint as songsmithery, you should at least make sure you have something compelling or uniquely idiosyncratic to say. Oasis don't, but are at least shameless about it: Noel Gallagher's lyrics are a jumble of doggerel and epic-sounding phrases that allow fans to read whatever they like into them. But with Pollard, you can't be absolutely sure he has nothing to say, because every expression is convoluted and coded; he gets in the way. Titles like "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", "Bright Paper Werewolves" and "Rhine Jive Click" are the most daftly, wilfully oblique titles since Amon Duul II (who at least had LSD as an excuse).

Another similarity with Oasis is GBV's relentlessly upbeat mood: a neo-mod, bright-eyed poptimism that proclaims "it's 1966, the future is wide-open!". In England, such empty triumphalism elevated Oasis into a huge pop phenomenon, by tapping into young kids' desire to fly in the face of grim present reality. In America, GBV's Anglophile/necrophile quasi-anthems make the band a hit only with rockcrits and others steeped in the canon of classic rock (and thus able to appreciate the reverence and the references). Everything on "Under The Bushes" is tuneful in that deja vu, Tom Petty/Sebadoh way, while the riffs trigger your kneejerk-reflexes, conditioned by years of exposure to classic rock. And so the stop-start dynamics of "The Perfect Life" thrill mildly, in a oh-alright-one-more-time-then sort of way; "Underwater Explosions" is the Monkees on downers; "Atom Eyes" is as melodious as an American Squeeze. Can I be the only listener for whom half-liking a GBV song is unavoidably accompanied by shame?

GBV is just one more fat fly crawling over the dungheap of rock history, sucking it up and pooping it out. "Under The Bushes" is just one more dropping in a copious trail of disgrace.
House Arrest
Paw Tracks
Observer Music Monthly,, Sunday 22 January 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Ariel Pink is the perfect antidote to the i-Pod. Instead of Radio Me, an onan-i-verse of sound playlisted for an audience of one, Pink’s music recreates the primal scene of the child falling in love with pop for the first time: ear cupped to an imperfectly-tuned transistor, plugged into an otherworldly beyond and wide open to the ravishment of surprise. The illusion is created partly by Pink’s artfully lo-fi production, out of focus and streaked by sudden leaks of colour-saturated noise, and partly by his stylistic disjointedness, the way an incongruous melody will jut into a song like interference from another station’s signal.

This Los Angeles recluse is driven by contradictory impulses that mesh to make sublime noise-pop. The formalist’s love of songcraft and period stylisation (one minute he’s channeling Hall & Oates, the next Blue Oyster Cult) collides with a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos. As if to signpost the latter, “Trepanated Earth” on last year’s Worn Copy featured a motif from “Eight Miles High” and on House Arrest there’s an actual Byrds sample, a miniscule fragment of “Turn Turn Turn”. Driven by a frazzled riff that recalls the Nazz’s psych classic “Open Your Eyes,” “Getting’ High In the Morning” is a mind-furnace that makes imagery of melted spines, brains dipped in fire, and skin turning to smoke dance before your eyes.

Running through everything on House Arrest-- just one of a horde of albums Pink home-recorded in the early Noughties that are only now getting a proper release--is the man’s religious love for pop. “Hardcore Pops Are Fun” is somewhere between a hymn and a manifesto, its off-the-cuff inanity--“pop music is free/for you and me/pop music’s your wife/have it for life/pop music is wine, it tastes so divine”--masking true devotion.

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.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Observer, November 1992

by Simon Reynolds

In 1992, Heavy Rules. All year, the US alternative scene has been dominated by bands who take their cues from the early Seventies, when groups like groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, etc bastardised and brutalised the blues. And this
nouveau heavy rock carries heavy themes. Soundgarden rage against the impasses of life in "Rusty Cage" and wail about low self-esteem in "Outshined". Pearl Jam mingle melancholy with political awareness: their hit singles "Alive" and "Jeremy" tackle issues like child abuse and child neglect. Members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam collaborated for the one-off project Temple Of The Dog, and broke into the US Top Ten with an album-length elegy to a friend and band mate who died of a drug OD

The most manic-depressive of the lot are Alice In Chains, also in the US Top Ten with their "Dirt" album. The band's name perfectly evokes their sound, whose ponderous riffs and toiling rhythms create an impression of struggle against insuperable obstacles. Listening, you feel like you're sinking into the slough of despond. Typical Alice In Chains songs deal with death ("Them Bones"), heroin ("Godsmack") and despair ("Down In A Hole")

If Black Sabbath are the overwhelming influence on US alternative rock today, it's because the early Nineties feel uncannily like the early Seventies, when Sabbath's doom-laden songs were the soundtrack to getting numbed-out on depressant drug (barbiturates, Quaaludes). So what ails the youth of America? The answer can be found in "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids", by journalist/sociologist Donna Gaines, which has been hailed by Rolling Stone as "the best book on contemporary youth culture"

Gaines' interest was pricked by the teen suicide craze of the late Eighties, and in particular the 1987 case where four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey gassed themselves in a car. Mingling with a segment of US youth universally known as "burn-outs", she won the kids' trust and uncovered the harrowing truth about their lives.

Burn-outs "bomb out" at school, fail to make their grades because they feel they have no future. With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid of union protection or prospects of advancement. Persecuted by teachers and cops and despised by their more aspirational peers, burn-outs express their alienation in their scruffy clothes and long-hair. As on real-life teenager in the book says, "no job is worth cutting your hair for". With no incentive to plan for the future, burn-outs get wasted on drink and dope; some graduate to harder drugs like heroin. They listen to the classic metal of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath or its modern successors, the thrash-metal of Metallica and Slayer. Gaines wrote her book in 1990, so she missed the punchline: the mainstreaming of the burn-out aesthetic with the explosive success of Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle grunge bands.

For these kids, the gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is huge. The escape routes from this dead end include the the anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa here" of suicide. For some, Metallica's ballad "Fade To Black" is a nihilistic anthem. The more optimistic imagine joining the army, or forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and learning a trade. And so you get the paradox of a band like Alice In Chains, who dragged themselves out of the mire of their native Seattle, and turned their loser worldview into massive success. Even after Bill Clinton's victory, things look bleak for American youth. Paying off the deficit will depress the US economy for years. So you can expect to hear US bands singing the "born to lose" blues for a long time to come.
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

At a Megadeth concert, the fact is inescapable. Their audience is a congregation come to worship, and their God is Death. It's as simple as that. Why then does the
unrelenting bombast of "this life-denying nonsense" fascinate? Because it appeals to something deep-rooted and unbudgeable in masculinity, and if some girls can trip out on it, while many boys are repelled by what it stirs in them, then that's because we're all ambi-sexual, all torn inside by Eros and Thanatos.

Megadeth, like those other kings of their scenes (Bad Brains, Public Enemy, Big Black, The Ex) - exceed their own puerility by the extremity with which they're fixated. These fixations produce extreme art, attain a visionary edge. Megadeth's mediaeval, Good/Evil worldview appropriately generates a noise of absolutes - the futurist absolutes of rigour, acceleration and momentum.

Just as you can gasp at the Pyramids (if you choose to forget the immense suffering it required to erect them) or gawp at footage of a mushroom cloud (if you shut from your mind the truth of the specific South Pacific terrain and ecosystem vaporised instantly) so you can abstract elements of the spectacular, of pure form, from Megadeth. But only in clear conscience if you understand (and reject) the psycho-
sexual underpinnings.

At their peaks, Megadeth are all fire and brimstone, a sirocco of scalding ash. The incredibly simple (and similar) riffs sometimes mesh into a frenzied pitch and there's a white frazzle that is brighter than a thousand suns, while the bass chunnels several leagues beneath the crust. "In My Darkest Hour" and "Devil's Island" have colossal riffs that arch and flail like the spine of a whale in a boiling sea. The uncanny combination of ponderousness, agility and speed can decimate. But a lot of material fails to attain sufficient severity of punishment.

Like Reagan and some 61 million fellow Americans (according to Gore Vidal) Megadeth believe nuclear war is inevitable, is God's chosen means of implementing the
Armageddon. Megadeth are maybe more singular in the anticipatory glee ("you'll be the first to die") with which they approach this point finale of History. At least one hopes so.
The Complete 70's Replica CD Collection 1970-78
(Sanctuary Records)
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

The mystery of the riff--so crucial to rock, so oddly neglected by critics. Or perhaps not so strangely, given that riffs are almost impossible to write about: just try explaining why one monster-riff slays you where another one fails to incite. Riffs just seem to bypass the aesthetic faculties altogether and go straight to the gut. A killer riff is by definition simplistic--which is why self-consciously sophisticated rock tends to dispense with them altogether in favor of wispy subtleties. Riff-based music seems lowly, literally "mindless" because it connects with the lower "reptilian" part of the cerebral cortex which governs flight-or-flight responses, the primitive emotions of appetite, aversion, and aggression.

Talking of reptiles, Black Sabbath--perhaps the greatest riff factory in all of rock---irresistibly invite metaphors involving dinosaurs. For a group that wielded such brontosauran bulk, though, Sabbath were surprisingly nimble on their feet. Listening to this box-set, which comprises all eight albums of the classic Ozzy-fronted era, I was surprised how fast many of their songs were, given ver Sabs' reputation as torpid dirgemeisters for the downered-and-out.

Even at their most manic, Sabbath always sound depressed, though. Rhythmically as much as lyrically, Sabbath songs dramatise scenarios of ordeal, entrapment, affliction, perseverance in the face of long odds and insuperable obstacles. Tony Iommi's down-tuned distorto-riffs--essentially the third element of the awesome rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler--create sensations of impedance and drag, like you're struggling through hostile, slightly viscous terrain. Joe Carducci, Sabbath fiend and theorist supreme of rock 's "heavy" aesthetic, analyses about how bass, drums, and guitar converge to produce "powerfully articulated and textured tonal sensations of impact and motion that trigger hefty motor impulses in the listener." But let's not discount Ozzy's role: his piteous wail is one-dimensional, sure, but it sounds utterly righteous in this abject context. And he's effectively touching on forlornly pretty ballads like "Changes" too.

With a few exceptions (Lester Bangs, notably) the first rock-crit generation abhorred Sabbath. Criticism typically lags behind new art forms, appraising it using terminology and techniques more appropriate to earlier genres. So the first rock critics, being postgraduates in literature, philosophy, and politics, treated songs as mini-novels, as poetry or protest tracts with tasteful guitar accompaniment. Expecting rock to get ever more refined, they were hardly gonna embrace Sabbath's crude putsch on Cream, which stripped away all the blues-bore scholarship and revelled in the sheer dynamics of heaviosity. Riff-centered rock--Zep, Mountain, ZZ Top, Aerosmith---was received with incomprehension and condescension. But while Seventies critical faves like Little Feat and Jackson Browne have sired no legacy, over the long haul Sabbath's originality and fertility have been vindicated by the way their chromosones have popped up in US hardcore (Black Flag/Rollins were massively indebted), grunge (Nirvana = Beatles + Sabbath x Pixies), and virtually every key phase of metal from Metallica to Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age to Korn. Sabbath are quite literally seminal.

Sabbath dressed like hippies: check the groovy kaftans and loon pants in the inner sleeve photos of these CDs, which are miniature simulacra of the original gatefold elpees. And they clearly hoped to contribute to the post-Sgt Pepper's progressive tendency: hence pseudo-pastoral interludes like the flute-draped "Solitude," an idyll amidst Master of Reality's sturm und drang. But critics deplored them as a sign of rock's post-Sixties regression , mere lumpen bombast fit only for the moronic inferno of the stadium circuit, and as a symptom of the long lingering death of countercultural dreams. In retrospect, with Sixties idealism seeming like a historical aberration, Sabbath's doom 'n' gloom seems more enduringly resonant, tapping into the perennial frustrations of youth with dead-end jobs from Coventry to New Jersey: headbanging riffs and narcotic noise as a cheap-and-nasty source of oblivion. Sabbath's no-future worldview always becomes extra relevant in times of recession, like the economic down-slope looming ahead of us right now. Looking back, the much-derided Satanist aspects seem relatively peripheral and low-key, especially compared with modern groups like Slipknot. In old TV footage of Sabbath, the group seem almost proto-punk, their sullen, slobby demeanour recalling The Saints on Top of the Pops. There's little theatrics, and the music is remarkably trim and flatulence-free.

But then no one really goes on about Iommi's solos, do they? The riffs are what it's all about, and Sabbath's productivity on that score is rivalled only by AC/DC. "Sweet Leaf", "Iron Man", "Paranoid", "Children of the Grave," "Wheels of Confusion", the list goes on. So we're back with the mystery.... just what is it that makes a great riff? Something to do with the use of silence and spacing, the hesitations that create suspense, a sense of tensed and flexed momentum, of force mass motion held then released. If I had to choose one definitive Sabbath riffscape, I'd be torn between the pummelling ballistic roil of "Supernaut" and "War Pigs", whose stop-start drums are like slow-motion breakbeats, Quaalude-sluggish but devastatingly funky. "War Pigs" is that rare thing, the protest song that doesn't totally suck. Indeed, it's 'Nam era plaint about "generals gathered... like witches at black masses" has a renewed topicality at a time when the military-industrial death-machine is once more flexing its might.