Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Yeti" by Amon Düül II



'Kosmische' is what they'll have you call it if they want you to be politically correct. 'Krautrock' is what they'll refer to it as if they don't care about that. Both terms are pretty stupid, and in any case the music that was coming out of Germany in the late sixties and the seventies didn't necessarily have a distinct 'sound' to it, not enough to merit the creation of a new genre label, anyway.

Or is that really true? You'll never hear of a person who, say, loves Can but has nothing to say about Faust. If someone happens to know who Ash Ra Tempel are, you can safely bet they've heard of Neu! as well. This group of musical acts, which also feature a healthy amount of cross-pollination between them, are always mentioned in the same breath. And, more critically, never mentioned otherwise. I mean, this is pretty damned obscure stuff, stuff you'll never stumble across on a radio dial or while surfing YouTube. Not if you're not specifically looking for it.

Which is a damned shame, because much of the 'Krautrock' canon is pretty incredible music. Having first heard the name associated with Kraftwerk and with David Bowie's Berlin era, I presumed the genre to consist primarily of clinical, efficient synthesiser-based pieces: German engineering applied to vinyl.

That could really not be further from the case, especially not in the case of this double-album and the band that created it, Amon Düül II. Yes, that's II as in 'two', and there is also an Amon Düül I, a different band (who guest on the final track of this album) borne of the same hippie-era commune as this band (and also, as fate would have it, of the insurrectionist Baader-Meinhof Gang). The shorthand on Krautrock is that post-war Germans were seeking to create a native form of musical expression indebted neither to the schlocky Bierhaus music of German AM radio nor the blues-based 'Anglo-Saxon' idioms of American and English FM radio. Yet most of Yeti sounds perfectly in keeping with what long-haired hippies of England were producing at the time, be that stoned mantra-rock or gnomic heavy metal; it's more than a little derivative, but that's only an insult inasmuch as 'derivative' is a bad thing to be, and it's really not: I would say that a lot of this album improves on the acid-casualty music is seems to ape. A lot, I stress, but not all. Some of this album isn't very good.

Well, what is it? It's ten songs over four sides, though that actually breaks down as 2, 5, 1 and 2 per side. The second disc is given over to 'free-form' improvisation, while the first disc consists of more structured compositions (the reason why side one has only two tracks is that the first one, 'Soap Shop Rock', can more accurately be described as a 'suite').

Given my personal musical tastes, you might guess that my single-disc version of this project would take more from the first disc than from the second disc. It would be deceptive, though not actually untrue to say 'I merely removed one song from each side of the disc' - but a simple application of math will reveal that that means my six-song single-length takes five of its tracks from the first disc of the double and only one from the second. Why? Well, I'm not averse to improvisation. But it seems to me that if I'm listening to a band 'jamming', I need to hear, well, I need to hear something that stands out, that distinguishes the end product from any of a million other moments of collective improvisation regularly performed and recorded in all corners of the world; something to make me say, 'wow, the band gelled in a truly unique way right there'. And while the jam segments aren't by any means bad, they're generally quite listenable, those particular moments are rare indeed. There's little on disc two that you sense Amon Düül II couldn't have pulled off pretty much any time they pressed 'record' in the studio.

On the other hand, disc one is overflowing with creativity, inspiration, and - yes - embarrassment as well. Where a lot of Krautrock is rather amazingly timeless, this particular album could have been produced in no year but 1970, and has aged as well as the era's bell-bottomed jeans have. That's not a bad thing; it just means the music needs to be approached as a period-piece more than as a living, breathing thing.

It's been this 'Better as a Single' project that has brought me into the below-the-radar world of Krautrock, and I must admit I'm quite enjoying the discovery. A lot of pretty amazing stuff came out of Germany in the late sixties and early seventies. Here's a particularly interesting slice of it.

Yeti

Side one
  1. Soap Shop Rock (13:47)
  2. Cerberus (4:21)
Side two
  1. Archangels Thunderbird (3:33)
  2. Pale Gallery (2:16)
  3. Sandoz in the Rain (9:00)
  4. The Return of Rübezahl (1:41)
Soap Shop Rock: keep (side one, track one)

Starting and ending with the same catchy electric riff, 'Soap Shop Rock' crams enough musical incident into the thirteen minutes in between to last four different songs - which makes sense, since it's a four-part 'suite' of sorts. With the exception of the third part, which is about a minute's worth of piss-take quasi-operatic vocals, the entire suite seems very much to fall within the 'rock' realm. The first part is a rocking and screaming song structured so tightly it seems to pass in barely a minute. The second part is a bit looser, with a prominent bassline and more 'declaiming' spoken vocals (as occurs throughout the album, the lyrics are in English but are of no real importance to the overall effect of the music). The second part seems to be losing its bearings a bit, devolving into a jam, when the brief 'sonata' segment appears out of nowhere (the component parts of this suite seem cross-faded as opposed to played as a single composition), soon enough giving way to the longer fourth part which features some completely fabulous 'exotica' violin, which is very much the focal point of the final minutes of the suite. The whole thing is wonderfully inventive from start to finish, and even where it doesn't 'make sense' in any conventional way, it is still a real joy to listen to - even if it seems hopelessly self-indulgent on first listen.

With that lapel-grabbing opening riff, this is a great way to introduce the album. Starting with the longest song is a risk (well, it's the longest song on my single-length if not the double), but the fact that it's not really a single piece but a suite makes me not mind. Anyway, what's wrong with a little risk?

She Came In Through the Window: lose

This starts off with a very attractive riff, played 'cleanly' on an electric guitar on an album where the electric guitars otherwise tend to be distorted. Bongos come in and that swirling gypsy violin from the previous track reappears, and by the one-minute point you're ready to declaim 'album highlight'. The problem is that the song doesn't end there - but it doesn't go anywhere either. There is no forward momentum at all. Once the spell has been woven, it merely stays there, content to stay in one plays at the violin and whatever the other lead instrument is get progressively squeakier.

Archangels Thunderbird: keep (side two, track one)

The idea that Krautrock was trying to escape American/English influences is comical in light of this track, a song which, from its crunching guitar riff to its shrieking lead vocals, from its come-from-nowhere organ moments to its Tolkeinesque mood, is as heavy metal as Spinal Tap, and as easy to take seriously as well. I practically burst out laughing the first time I heard this slice of would-be Zeppelin, but somehow it manages to grow on you, for all its preposterousness. Maybe it's the very insincerity of it that is somehow attractive. Who knows?

I had a hard time sequencing my side two, and for a stretch wanted to finish the disc with this OTT monstrosity. But I couldn't make it work, so instead it's the side opener.

Cerberus: keep (side one, track two)

This is the first Amon Düül II track I ever heard, and it really is a great starting point: after a rather pointless slurping sound as an introduction, the song itself comes in, a hippie-era riff evocative of points east played with confidence and no small amount of technical acuity on acoustic guitars and bongos slowly converts itself into a harder piece played on swirling electric guitars and a plodding drum set. It's a pretty amazing piece of work, beautiful and frightening as well, earthy and cosmic at the same time. A true album highlight.

This and 'Soap Shop Rock' are probably the most user-friendly tunes on the disc, so it might make sense to fill side one with the radio-playable stuff. But in fact the main reason I put 'Cerberus' as track two on side one is because only two of the six songs I chose are primarily acoustic, so they needed to be on opposite sides of the disc.

The Return of Rübezahl: keep (side two, track four)

At a mere 100 seconds, 'The Return of Rübezahl' is less a song than a decent collection of catchy electric guitar riffs. The track is certainly memorable, and you imagine most early-seventies prog-rock bands would seize on the riffs here and expand each of them into a ten-minute epic. It's just as well that that's not what Amon Düül II do, as one of the more enjoyable aspects of Yeti is how brief throwaways sit alongside the extended pieces.

I actually conclude the album with this little track. Why? Well, I see it as a bit of a coda after the nine-minute jam that might logically serve as the conclusion. So it's kind of a 'Her Majesty'-style situational prank. But in addition, side two is the nine-minute epic and three briefer tunes; putting those three little bits all side-by-side seemed to diminish their individual charms.

Eye-Shaking King: lose

Though the whole of Yeti is not uniformly 'heavy' in a guitar-bass-drums way, side two certainly stands up with the metal of the day. 'Eye-Shaking King', the longest song on side two, would be a rather conventional piece of plodding metal shrieking and riffing were it not for the curious decision to bury the lead vocals under so much studio manipulation that it seems like another instrument in the mix. An acid-addled guitar solo brings the song through its middle section, but by the end it's all just become a bit silly and tiresome. TIme for a change of pace, I reckon.

Pale Gallery: keep (side two, track two)

A little swamp-like thing, little more than a grungy riff, thumping drums and a few random noises over top. Probably redeemed mostly by its brevity - it has the good sense not to outstay its welcome, and as such intrigues but does not annoy.

This didn't really seem to fit anywhere else. I didn't really even have a compelling reason to include it at all. But... anyway, here it is - track two on side two.

Yeti: lose

Oh boy. Eighteen minutes and twelve seconds. For what it's worth, I want you to know that I didn't just immediately discount the album's title track on seeing its inordinate length. I mean, I get it; Yeti (the Abominable Snowman) is a massive, lumbering, vaguely exotic creature, and Amon Düül II are trying to evoke the creature - or more to the point, like so many early seventies' side-long jams, they're seemingly attempting to soundtrack a drug trip. The track is not without merit - in all probability it coheres and rewards more than, say, (the) Pink Floyd's side-long epics of the same vintage. It takes fully six agonising minutes of dicking around for the ensemble to find a groove, but once they do they ride it as hard as they can for another six minutes or so, an unrelenting rush of excitement and the clear and definite highlight of the jam piece. The groove collapses in the twelfth minute, and the third part of the piece is a simple riff played with a wah petal, competing for attention with various other instruments attempting to maintain the 'trippy' vibe for a few minutes before fading out with no resolution. This third part isn't that bad either, really, but unlike 'Soap Shop Rock', invention is in short order here. Eighteen minutes is almost two percent of a person's entire waking day, and that's way too much to spend on this particular indulgence.

Yeti Talks to Yogi: lose

This particular jam doesn't seem to be a direct continuation of the eighteen minutes of side three, but it might as well be - it starts off by replicating exactly the mood that 'Yeti' fades out on. Pretty soon, though, it's been replaced by a walloping drumbeat over which the other instrumentalists play sustained drones, as if waiting for their chance to break into a melodic groove. Which, needless to say, never really arrives. The male and female vocalists show up about half a kilometre away from their mics and attempt to give the piece a focal point, but they're just buried in the muck by then, and the track comes to a natural conclusion after six-some minutes, having accomplished nothing at all.

Sandoz in the Rain: keep (side two, track three)

Sounding like nothing else on these four sides, this nine-minute improvisation barely even qualifies as an Amon Düül II song, as one of the guitars, the vocals and the bass are performed by members of estranged sister group Amon Düül I, and the flute is also played by a guest musician. No matter, really, as the result is something quite special. It's improvisational, but clearly played from a designed structure. The drums rumble like timpani, the acoustic guitars build to a crescendo, the vocals rise and fall in dramatic fashion, the violin, flute, bongos and whatever else is there all compete for space in the sonic space, and yet the overall feel remains a kind of graceful calm throughout. After the bluster of so much of the previous three-and-a-half sides, this nine-minute comedown feels like watching the sun rise after an all-night party.

This is the double-album's closing track, and it quite obviously seems like a closing track. It's not quite my final track, but as track three of side two, it definitely functions as the 'climax' of the album - before a brief little addendum that follows it. It's interesting that an album filled with bluster should have such as pastoral moment serve as its climax. But hey; 'interesting' is where Amon Düül II live.

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