Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Melody Maker, July 1996

by Simon Reynolds

The way out sounds of Krautrock are currently way "in". The evidence: a deluge of CD reissues, the publication of Julian Cope's enthralling pocket-size handbook "Krautrocksampler", a comeback LP by Faust, and a legion of contemporary bands, from Stereolab to Tortoise to Mouse On Mars, pledging fealty in word and deed. There's even a Krautrock club in London called Kosmische, which in turn inspired The Face to run a piece--complete with comically contrived and completely bogus photo-tableau of foxy young things grooving to Harmonia--on how the hippest thing in modern music was a bunch of aged German hippies.

So why Krautrock, and why now? Maybe it's simply because contemporary guitarpop on both sides of the Atlantic is unusually lame and conservative, and Krautrock beckons as a beacon indicating just how much can be done with the basic rock format of guitar, bass and drums. Seizing the possibilities of the recording studio, the German kosmische bands of the early '70s produced results as otherworldly and rhythmically sophisticated as today's "sampladelic" music (techno, drum & bass, hip hop, ambient etc). Today's Britpop and American corporate grunge'n' punk are overtly pre-psychedelic and anti-experimental, merging playsafe 1966-meets-1978 power-pop aesthetics with radio-friendly production. Krautrock--as the missing link between the tumult of the late '60s and the anti-rockist vanguard of 1979 (PiL etc)--is therefore a crucial resource for any contemporary band who resists the reductive notion that (pre-psych) Beatles + Buzzcocks *= the Essence, the Way and the Truth, for Ever and Ever.

Immerse yourself in Krautrock--and this is the immersive, engulfing music par excellence--and you'll find a paradox at the music's heart: a combination of absolute freedom and absolute discipline. Krautrock is where the over-reaching ambition and untethered freakitude of late '60s acid rock is checked and galvanised by a proto-punk minimalism. Krautrock bands like Can, Neu! and Faust unleashed music of immense scale that miraculously avoided prog-rock's bombastics, its cult of virtuosity-for-virtuosity's-sake. Where progressive rock boasted "look at me, look how fast my fingers can go", Krautrock beseeched "look! look how VAST we can go'. Or as Can's Michael Karoli put it: "We weren't into impressing people, just caressing them'

Alongside Tim Buckley's "Starsailor", Miles Davis' circa"On The Corner", Yoko Ono circa "Fly", Krautrock was true fusion, merging psychedelic rock with funk groove, jazz improvisation, Stockhausen-style avant-electronics and ethnic flava in a way that avoided the self-congratulatory, dilettante eclecticism that marred even the best of the '70s jazz-rock bands, like Weather Report. Krautrock's primary inputs, and urgency, came from late '60s rock: Velvet Underground's mesmerising mantras, Hendrix's pyrotechnique, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd's chromatic chaos, plus dashes of West Coast folkadelic rock and the studio-centric experiments of Brian Wilson and the later Beatles. Equally significant is what they didn't draw on, namely the blues-bore purism sired by Cream and the Stones.

Tweaking this Anglo-American legacy, the German bands added a vital distance (coming to rock'n'roll as an alien import, they were able to make it even more alien), and they infused it with a German character that's instantly audible but hard to tag. A combination of Dada, LSD and Zen resulted in a dry absurdist humour that could range from zany tomfoolery to a sort of sublime nonchalance, a lightheaded but never lighthearted ease of spirit. Although they occasionally dipped their toes into psychedelia's darkside (the madness that claimed psychonauts such as Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson or Moby Grape's Skip Spence), what's striking about most Krautrock is how affirmative it is, even at its most demented. This peculiar serene joy and aura of pantheistic celebration is nowhere more evident than in the peak work of Can, Faust and Neu!


If the triumvirate of Can/Faust/Neu! has gotten so cliched as a hip reference point, it's for a good reason. Despite being quite dissimilar and lacking any kind of fraternal, comradely feelings towards each other, Can, Faust and Neu! are the unassailable centre of Krautrock's pantheon-- its Dante/Shakespeare/Milton, or Beatles/Stones/Dylan, if you will.

CAN's core was a quartet of lapsed avant-garde and free jazz musicians (bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and drummer Jaki Leibezeit) who--blown away by the VU and the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus"-- decided rock was where it was at. Can were the most funky and improvisational of the Krautrock bands. Recording in their own studio in a Cologne castle, they jammed all day, then edited the juiciest chunks of improv into coherent compositions. This was similar to the methodology used by Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero. As Can's band's resident Macero, Czukay deployed two-track recording and a handful of mikes to achieve wonders of proto-ambient spatiality, shaming today's lo-fi bands. Can's early sound--spartan, crisp-and-dry trance-rock, like the VU circa 'White Light' but with a smokin' rhythm section--peaked with the 15 minute mindquake of "Mother Sky". As the influence of James Brownian motion kicked in, Can began to fuse 'head' and 'booty', atmosphere and groove, like nobody else save Miles Davis. After the shamanic avant-funk of "Tago Mago" and the brittle angst-funk of "Ege Bamyasi", Can's music plunged into the sunshine with "Future Days", "Soon Over Babaluma" and "Landed", their mid-'70s 'Gaia trilogy'. A kind of mystic materialism quivers and pulses inside these ethnofunkadelic groovescapes and ambient oases, from the moon-serenade "Come Sta, La Luna" to the fractal funk and chaos theorems of "Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics". This is music that wordlessly but eloquently rejoices in Mother Nature's bounty and beauty.

Despite an almost utter absence of input from black music, NEU! were probably the closest to Can, in their sheer hypno-groove power and shared belief that "restriction is the mother of invention" (Holger Czukay's minimal-is-maximal credo). Devoid of funk or swing, Neu! is all about compulsive propulsion. Klaus Dinger was an astoundingly inventive, endlessly listenable drummer who worked magic within the confines of a rudimentary four-to-the-floor rock beat. Together with guitarist Michael Rother, he invented motorik, a metronomic, pulsating rhythm that instils a sublime sensation of restrained exhiliration, like gliding cruise-control down the freeway into a future dazzling with promise. That 'dazzle' comes from Rother's awesomely original guitarwork, all chiming radiance and long streaks'n' smears of tone-colour. Something like Germany's very own Television, Neu! bridged Byrdsy psychedelia and punk. They also did ambient texturescapes (e.g. the oceanside idyll "Leb' Wohl") and weird noise (after fucking up their recording budget, they filled the second side of 'Neu! 2" with sped-up and slowed-down versions of an earlier single!). But it's motorik excursions like "Hallogallo", ""Fur Immer" and "Isi" that constitute Neu's great legacy, one that's only now being fully exploited.

FAUST similarly combined proto-punk mess-thetic with acid-rock's galactic grandeur. But instead of Neu! streamlined symmetry, Faust oscillated wildly between filthy, fucked-up noise and gorgeous pastoral melody, between yowling antics and exquisitely-sculpted sonic objets d'art. Above all, Faust were maestros of incongruity; their albums are riddled with jarring juxtapositions and startling jumpcuts between styles. Heterogeneity was their anti-essence. This cut-up Dada side of Faust was explored to the hilt on 'The Faust Tapes', a collage album of some 26 segments, and it's a methodology revisited on their brand-new comeback LP album "Rien", which was assembled by producer Jim O'Rourke using live tapes of the band's recent reunion tour of America. But for all their avant-garde extremities, Faust were also great songwriters, scatttering amid the zany chaos such gems as the bittersweet psychedelic love-song "Jennifer" and the tres third Velvets Album acid blues of "It's A Bit Of A Pain".

Once you've immersed yourself in the best, what about the rest? ASH RA TEMPEL took The Stooges' downered wah-wah rock ("We Will Fall", "Ann', "Dirt") way way out into the mystic (but beware guitarist Manuel Gottsching's subsequent New Age dotage as Ash Ra **). AMON DUUL II were the most baroque and bombastic of the krucial Kraut kontenders: imagine Led Zep produced by John Cale with Nico on vocals and a crate of magic mushrooms to hand. They had a fab line in lysergic song titles too: "Halluzination Guillotine", "Dehypnotised Toothpaste", "A Short Stop At The Transylvanian Brain Surgery". Their estranged sister-band AMON DUUL I pursued a similarly drug-burned rock, but were more primitivistic and sloppy. After Can/Faust/Neu!, CLUSTER were probably the most innovative and ahead-of-their time. After a spell as the purely avant-garde Kluster, the two-man soundlab of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius hit their stride with the mesmeric dronescapes of 'Cluster II' and "Cluster '71". Later, they traded in their armoury of FX-pedals and guitar-loops for synths, knocked out a bunch of bewitching albums with Brian Eno, and chalked up a mammoth oeuvre (as Cluster, but also solo and as Roedelius and Moebius) with the odd gem lurking amid much New Age mush. Hooking up with Neu!'s Michael Rother, the duo also recorded as HARMONIA, producing two albums worth of serene and soul-cleansing proto-electronica. Meanwhile Rother's estranged partner Dinger formed LA DUSSELDORF, peddling a pleasing punk-rock take on the Neu!-rush. POPOL VUH rival Cluster for creative incontinence; their vast, diverse discography ranges from meditational, Mediaevalist reveries to primordial, percussive freak-outs.

Although they were only "rock" for an instant, KRAFTWERK ought to be mentioned around about here. For three fascinating albums (and an interesting prequel as ORGANISATION), Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider jumbled the New York minimalist school (La Monte Young, John Cage, Steve Reich etc) with German avant-electronics (Stockhausen). Then they staked everything on the idea that the synthesiser was the future, and won, becoming godfathers of Eurodisco, New Romanticism, Electro and Techno-Rave, not to mention a big influence on Bowie's "Low" and Spacemen 3's "Playing With Fire". 'Kraftwerk: the most important band of the 1970s' -- Discuss. TANGERINE DREAM followed a similar trajectory, shifting from their early transcendental rock (which produced four terrific albums) to synth-based proto-trance tedium ***. Early T. Dream associate KLAUS SCHULTZE also did a few interesting albums of early electronica noir.

Featuring Schultze and Ash Ra's Gottsching, COSMIC JOKERS/COURIERS were something of a Krautrock supergroup; their six elpees of hallucinogen-addled studio-shenanigans range from Gong-style buffoonery to Hawkind-like hurtles into the remotest reaches of der kosmos. Also treading a tightrope between sublime and ridiculous were BRAINTICKET and GURU GURU; both erred on the side of prog but still afford a fair amount of amusement.


In their own day, the German kosmische bands were hip but not especially influential. Oddballs in Britain and America took similar sources as their launch-pad, but generally ended up in less appealing places (e.g. Henry Cow and the Canterbury school of jerky jazz-influenced art-rock). In the early '70s, only the Eno-era Roxy Music, Stooges' offshoot Destroy All Monsters, and Robert Fripp/Brian Eno's guitar-loop albums ("No Pussyfooting" etc) really picked up on German ideas. But in the immediate aftermath of 1977-and-all-that, bands were looking for ways to expand on punk's sonic fundamentalism without bloating up into prog-rock indulgence, and Krautrock provided a host of pointers for the post-punk vanguard. Can especially offered a fertile source of rhythmic ideas, not just for avant-funkateers like PiL and Pop Group, but also The Fall. Their early anthem "Repetition" ("repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it") expressed Holger Czukay's creed of 'self-restriction" in word and sound; Mark E. Smith would later pen "I Am Damo Suzuki" as a tribute to Can's second and most barmy vocalist.

The pan-global panoramic trance-dance of Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" owed a lot to "Soon Over Babaluma", and yet more sincere flattery came in the form of David Byrne and "Remain" producer Eno's "My Life In The Bush of Ghosts" (1981). Its use of ethnic vocal samples was unfavourably compared with Czukay's recent "Movies", whose "Persian Love" recontextualised an Iranian ballad; in actual fact, Holger had got there 12 years earlier with "Canaxis", which used Vietnamese boat-woman's song! Meanwhile, the then freshly reissued Faust were impacting the burgeoning "industrial" scene (Cabaret Voltaire, Zoviet France, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, etc), their collage aesthetic paralleling the in-vogue cut-up techniques of William Burroughs.

In the late '80s, Krautrock's influence shifted from rhythm & structure, towards texture & sonority. Loop covered "Mother Sky", then mutated into the"Cluster II" tribute band, Main. Spacemen 3 reached Kraftwerk-like Elysian fields on "Playing With Fire", while its sequel bands often have an uncanny resemblance to Neu! (Spiritualized) and Cluster (Spectrum, E.A.R.). A single Neu! track, "Negativland", prophesised Lee Ranaldo & Thurston Moore's "reinvention of the guitar" and harmonic dissonance on "Sister" and "Daydream Nation". Sonic Youth paid homage with the silly filler track "Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu!' on their silly Ciccone Youth side-project.

In the '90s, Krautmania blew up big time. First, there was American lo-fi: Pavement, Thinking Fellers Union, Mercury Rev, F/i, Truman's Water (who covered not one but TWO Faust songs), Soul-Junk. Then came the international drone-rock network (Flying Saucer Attack, Labradford, the Dead C/Gate, Flies Inside The Sun, Third Eye Foundation), and the neo-Neu! motorik maniacs (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Quickspace Supersport), and the nouveau kosmonauts (Sabalon Glitz, Telstar Ponies, Cul De Sac) and the post-rock groove collectives (Laika, Tortoise, Pram, Moonshake, Rome), and even the odd art-tekno outfit (Mouse On Mars). Inevitably, the referencing is getter more arcane: Cluster & Eno with Labradford, Popol Vuh with Flying Saucer and Sabalon, Cosmic Jokers with Telstar....

Why is the Krautrock legacy being embraced so fervently, at this precise point in time? Firstly, Krautrock is one of the great eras of guitar-reinvention. Expanding on the innovations of Hendrix, Syd Barrett, the VU, etc, the Krautrock bands explored the electric guitar's potential as source of sound-in-itself. Fed through effects-pedals and the mixing desk, the guitar ceased to be a riff-machine and verged on an analog synthesiser, i.e. a generator of timbre and tone-colour. As such, the Krauts anticipated the soundpainting and texturology of today's post-rock, while still retaining the rhythmic thrust of rock'n'roll.

Second, Krautrock brought into focus an idea latent in rock, from Bo Diddley to the Stooges to the Modern Lovers: that the rhythmic essence of rock music, what made it different from jazz, was a kind of machinic compulsion. Pitched somewhere between Kraftwerk's man-machine rigour and James Brown's sex-machine sweat, bands like Can and Neu! created grooves that fused the luscious warmth of flesh-and-blood funk with the cold precision of techno. There was a spiritual aspect to all this, sort of Zen and the Art of Motorik Maintenance: the idea that true joy in life isn't liberation from work but exertion, fixation, a trance-like state of immersion in the process itself, regardless of outcome. Holger Czukay declared: "Repetition is like a machine... If you can get aware of the life of a machine then you are definitely a master ... [machines] have a heart and soul... they are living beings'." . Taking this idea of the 'soft machine' or 'desiring machine' even further, Neu! created a new kind of rhythm for rock, bridging the gap between rock'n'roll's syncopation and disco's four-to-the-floor metronomics. As Stereolab's Tim Gane says, "Neu!'s longer tracks are far closer to the nature of house and techno than guitar rock."

Beyond all this, Krautrock is simply fabulous music, a dizzy kaleidoscope of crazily mixed up and incompatible emotions and sensations (wonder, poignancy, nonchalance, tenderness, derangement), an awesome affirmation of possibility that inevitably appeals in an age when guitar-based music appears to be contracting on a weekly basis. Listeners are turning to it, not as a nostalgia-inducing memento of some wilder, more daring golden age they never lived through, but as a treasure trove of hints and clues as to what can be done right here, right now. Krautrock isn't history, but a living testament that there's still so far to go.



* No slight intended to the very wonderful Buzzcocks (whose Shelley was a Krautrock fan and it shows in some of the later B-cocks B-sides, plus Neu-y side project The Tiller Boys w/ Eric Random, plus his pre-Buzz solo album, the all electronic Sky Yen). And no slight to the pre-psych Beatles either. But definite slight to those who think music should have never evolved beyond 1966 and 1978.

**  Come to have quite high regard and fondness for the late Seventies Manuel Gottsching and Ash Ra (had I even heard them properly when I wrote this?), in fact I probably prefer the Inventions for Guitar and New Age of Earth and Belle Alliance etc stuff to Ash Ra Tempel circa Join Inn.... it's on the way to the untouchable sublimity of E2-E4.

***  Again, have a kinder opinion of the Phaedra-onwards Tangerine Dream plus Froese solo albums... and a substantially higher estimation of Klaus Schulze.  The big ommission here is Conrad Schnitzler.  Should also have had more to say about Cluster, especially the sublime Zuckerzeit.  But you know, in those days you had to pay for music, remember? And also, Melody Maker word-counts, which I was pushing to the absolute limit with this double-pager.

****  Originally there was a side-bar with a mini-interview with David Keenan, then of Telstar Ponies, representing current bands influenced by K-rock.  But the MM editor cut it for space. Shame as he had some interesting stuff to say.  

'Silver Surfer' column, Melody Maker, sometime in 1995 or 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Marginal in its own time, Krautrock can now be seen to have invented the future we currently inhabit.  Can's pan-global avant-funk anticipated many of the moves made by sampladelic
dance genres like trip hop, ethnotechno and ambient jungle; Kraftwerk and Neu!'s motorik rhythms paved the way for trance techno and trance rock; Faust and Cluster's drone-ological
experiments contained the germs of lo-fi, post-rock and isolationism. The boom in Krautrock reissues offers a great opportunity to go back and hear this future's birth-pangs. 

Easily the most exciting of the current spate of reissues are the three albums Kraftwerk recorded between 1970-73, prior to their global pop smash "Autobahn". "Kraftwerk 1", "Kraftwerk 2" and "Ralf and Florian" (all Germanofon)  are fascinating because you can hear both where
the band are headed (techno) and the experimental tradition from which they gradually extricated themselves (late '60s New York avant-gardism).  Despite the fact that its robotic riff is played on a flute rather than a synth, "Ruckzuck" prophesises the hypnotic rush of "Trance Europe Express" and
"Tour De France"; the Elysian electro-pastoralism of "Klingklang" looks ahead to the heavenly shimmerscapes of "Neon Lights", or even Spacemen 3's "Playing With Fire". Elsewhere, Kraftwerk's avant-classical and psychedelic roots are showing: there's John Cage-like gamelan chimes, clusters
of woozy guitar-harmonics and droopy, almost Hawaian-souding bottleneck-glissandos, echo-chamber freak-outs, Beach Boys/barbershop harmonies and even Byrdsy backwards-guitar.

 Krautrock's ancestral links (via the Velvet Underground) to New York's school of drone-minimalism were spelled out when Faust hooked up with Tony Conrad, who'd played (alongside John Cale) in La Monte Young's legendary if little heard "dream music" ensemble. The result was the 1972 LP
"Outside The Dream Syndicate", now reissued by Table of The Elements: three twenty-minute-plus tracks of magnificent mantric monotony, with Conrad's severe violin rasping across Faust's strict and symettrical rhythm section.  Don't expect Faust's kooky wit or surreal caprices: "Outside The Dream
Syndicate" is an essay in the Zen-power of repetition and restriction.  If it's Faust's daft side you're after, check  out "The Faust Concerts Vol. 1" and "Vol.  2" (both Table of the Elements), which document the band's '90s reformation, alternating between a pointless 'Greatest Hits' revue and
'old-Dadaist-farts-at-play' cacophony. Still, Faust have a brand new studio LP out later this year, produced by Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke, which should be at very least intriguing.

Anyone interested in tripped-out weirdshit should hunt  down the awesome "Cluster II" (Tempel). Cluster--the two-man sound-laboratory of Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius--
deployed treated, processed and looped guitars to weave drone-tapestries that seem to waver, bucklee and crinkle before your ears, like the sonic equivalent of Op Art. Later, Cluster went synth, collaborated with Brian Eno, and dwindled into sporadically interesting but increasingly New
Agey solo careers. That said, their brand-new, percussion-oriented LP "One Hour" (Gyroscope) is actually well worth a listen.  Back in the mid-70's, Roedelius and Moebius hooked up with Michael Rother of Neu!  to form Harmonia, whose second LP "Deluxe" (Bebe) has just been reissued. Harmonia's aura of serene exultation is actually closer to Neu!'s gliding propulsion than Cluster's locked-groove claustrophobia. With its twinkling Rother guitars and naively pretty, early Orchestral Manoeuvres melodiosness, "Deluxe" is like some weird fusion of kosmic rock and Test Card muzak.

Of the latest bunch of Can-related reissues, the most interesting solo item is "Canaxis" (Spoon/Mute), a 1968/69 collaboration between Holger Czukay and Rolf Dammers that consists of two side-long "acoustic sound-paintings".  The title track and "Boat-Woman Song" (which is based around
tape-loops of haunting Vietnamese folk music) are pioneering examples of ethnological sampling. Much later came Jon Hassell with his "Fourth World" music, Brian Eno and David Byrne's "My Life In The Bush of Ghosts", and contemporary ethnodelic magpies such as Loop Guru, Trans-Global and Jah Wobble.  Once again, those crafty Krauts got there ahead of the rest.


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