1970-73: Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf und Florian
Two years ago Kraftwerk reissued their back catalog, Pitchfork awarded it Best New Reissue, and there was much rejoicing. But three albums from the band’s discography were mysteriously absent. In fact, Kraftwerk considers their catalogue to begin with 1974’s masterwork Autobahn and have disowned the recordings that preceded it. Not only have these LPs never been reissued, Kraftwerk hasn’t even touched the material since 1975. So these things must be complete shit right?
Wrong. While Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian don’t mesh well with um… anything else the band has done, they are all great records in their own right. If nothing else, they show a time before Kraftwerk presented themselves as futuristic robo-musicians and weren’t afraid to play physical instruments, actually perform at their shows, or show themselves at all for that matter.
Krafwerk hasn’t aged as gracefully as its two companion records, but its flute and organ workouts still stack up favorably against other early krautrock LPs and moments of brilliant distorted violin make it well worth a listen. The real reason to hunt down these albums is the extended flute-synth trance of Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian. It’s pretty damn amazing to hear the transition from hippie jam band to a precisely programed computer ensemble that takes place over these records, and many of the resulting tracks (the hauntingly beautiful flute exhibition “Tonbirge,” the propulsive but soothing “KlingKlang,” and the bubbly synth piece “Elektrisches Roulette”) are as strong as anything off Kraftwerk’s better known LPs. It’s a shame they have chosen to hide these records, but I guess it makes sense in the end. Just look at that fucking picture up there. Who wouldn’t want to forget that?
1974-1995: The Reverend Charlie Jackson - You Got to Move: Live Recordings Vol. 1
While the Rev. Charlie Jackson (1932-2006) is rightly considered, along with Elder Utah Smith, one of the primary guitar-evangelist figures in American gospel music, wading into the waters of his work is an all-encompassing proposition. The Louisiana-based Jackson was known for “being able to play his guitar like a drum,” turning down the treble and ramping up the bass in a chunky, rhythmic fashion approaching raga-like hypnosis. Visually, he’d do things like play the instrument behind his head (a sight to imagine in a dimly-lit church), stomping along with a reverent congregation’s claps and sways and spinning personal tales of struggle and salvation. Though it’s hard to imagine this music outside the sanctified realm, a handful of singles and EPs were recorded and released commercially on the Booker label and his own Jackson imprint in the 1970s – these were collected on the 2003 Case Quarter compilation God’s Got It – The Legendary Booker and Jackson Singles. But Jackson recorded many of his sermons on cassette tape and enough of these have survived since his passing that an illuminating series of live recordings is now underway, curated by musicologist and writer Adam Lore on his 50 Miles of Elbow Room imprint. If the first volume is any indication, these will be handsome issues indeed, housed in sturdy jackets with informative booklets and pressed on high-quality vinyl.
Room acoustics and tape hiss give the already-raw Jackson an extra air of immediacy on the opening suite, “What a Time/Morning Train,” recorded in 1974. Shuffling rhythm, syrupy tremolo and dusty slide are wrapped in tape phasing and Jackson’s vocals maintain a gravelly distance as part of a sonic bellows. The Reverend grew up in Mississippi and played the blues as a teenager, so an electrified delta isn’t far from his sacred music – that said, there’s a tumbling whorl that envelops “Morning Train,” something quite far from stark and deliberate secularity. Low, motoring taps and harp-like whine unfurl from the congregation’s ritual movement, making this performance of the gospel standard a rendition for the ages. Though after two strokes it apparently became very hard for him to enunciate (“letting the guitar do the preaching”), one wouldn’t know it from the mid-1990s rendition of “I Read My Letter All Night,” his quavering tenor filling space around nuanced, biting strings, tambourine and a responsive congregation. Jackson accompanies his wife Laura Davis Jackson in a 1982 performance of “May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me/Serving the Lord” that, while perhaps the “straightest” music here, is still powerful in its exploration of masculine-feminine tension. Closing the record is a delicate, hushed, and almost private window on Jackson’s prayer, the unaccompanied “When I’ve done the Best I Can, I Want My Crown.” Hopefully, more volumes of live Rev. Charlie Jackson are forthcoming in short order because this is absolutely wonderful music.
1987: Poison Idea - War All the Time
Mixing metal and punk wasn’t innovative in 1987, but Poison Idea managed a classic album by adding some much needed intensity into the genre. Each song on War All the Time flows into the other in a natural sequence for maximum impact and the whole thing blows over before you know it, but everything stays in your head, banging against the walls of your frontal bone. All this makes a good album, but what turns War All the Time into an amazing album are the lyrics and their delivery.
The title is borrowed from a book of Charles Bukowski poems first published in 1984 (In 2003 it was also used for a different effect to name an album by Thursday) and it couldn’t be more perfect. Poison Idea, along with their Nazi-flirting neighbors in Lockjaw, were nihilist assholes who lived hard and hated virtually everyone who stood in their way. In the formative and proud years of 80s DIY culture they didn’t network, talked shit of other bands, and probably didn’t even share their amps; they have a nasty reputation they haven’t been able to live down or refute (after all, their drummer on WATT, Thee Slayer Hippy, was arrested in 2008 for robbing pharmacies). Bukowski, of course, was a drunken lout who did what he pleased, when he pleased, with whom he pleased, the rest of the world be damned while his typewriter revealed the sensibilities of life turning charcoal black and ashen before his eyes.
Taking malice and ill-will and transforming it into intense art is what Charles taught Poison Idea. Unlike the amateurish finger pointing, sloganeering, and confessional rants of their contemporaries, Jerry A took the negative side of the world around him and expressed it in detail, rendered with words that can be read in a universal manner, expressing everything trivial and worthy of our puke in a language better suited to talk about the beauty of life. It recalled Bukowski’s own work (although not his brilliance), describing the crappy world that went into his eyes. And those words remain as true to this day as the band’s riffs are brutal.
1996: Zubi Zuva - Jehovah
Released in 1996 as part of the New Japan series on NYC avant-garde figurehead John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Zubi Zuva’s Jehovah is one of the most bizarre albums I’ve ever heard. An experimental a cappella album sung by a male Japanese vocal trio in a completely made up language; I’ve kept the album in rotation periodically in the years since I first discovered it. I thought of it the other day and was lucky enough to find this amazing video from a 2006 tour. Singing a medley of songs from the first (and only) Zubi Zuva album, Yoshida Tatsuya is joined by Atsushi Tsuyama and Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple fame.
Tsuyama (in the middle) and Kawabata (on the right, wearing the Degeneration X shirt) weren’t in the group for the 1996 album – Jehovah was the handiwork of Yoshida Tatsuya, leader of seminal Japanese band Ruins. Straddling math rock, free jazz, post-punk, prog-rock, avant-garde music, and bouts of insanity, Tatsuya has been one of the leading figures in the Japanese experimental scene since he started playing music in 1985. Heavily inspired by 70s French prog-rock band Magma and its founder Christen Vander (who also invented his own language and genre), Tatsuya has had too many styles, projects, and collaborators to keep up with. He is mostly known for scraping together an aural mishmash of punk’s high energy performances, jazz’s free improvisational solos, and prog-rock’s elaborate irregular rhythmic structures.
The journey from Magma to Ruins to Zubi Zuva is fascinating to me, but a lot of my appreciation for Tatsuya’s project lies in its humor. While avant-garde music usually evokes laughter by derisively deriding artists’ seriousness, Jehovah evokes laughter because it’s an experimental album that succeeds at being fun (at least to freaks like me). It’s challenging, uneven, and by no means a masterpiece. Still, it’s refreshing to find the stigmas associated with avant-garde music collide with the type of humor associated with a cappella music (see: Glee, Phish’s a capella “Free Bird” cover, and a million college a cappella groups who fight the good fight coming up with quirky band name puns in between covering top 40 songs).
While I certainly think it’s awesome that the most experimental part of this experimental album might be its boldness to embrace its own wackiness, it seems just as important to address a post from one YouTube commenter (penisreference) who labels the music “hilariously random and super (un?)co-ordinatedly genius.” Processing the math behind the madness is part of the excitement inherent in Zubi Zuva. There is a sense of the impossible behind all the zany polyrhythmic vocal chaos. Maybe you can see it in the video easier than you can hear it on the album. While the songs seem silly, they still feel like the work of an expert composer. Shifting freely from one idea to the next, the styles abound: Gregorian chant, Buddhist Shomyo, 90s rap, athletic fight songs, post-punk wailing, hardcore screaming, Indonesian ketjak. Sometimes the structures even incorporate different styles simultaneously; while one vocalist acts out Raymond-Scott-sounding cartoon noises, the other vocalists start to channel 60s Doo-wop groups.
These highly complex, dissonant, difficult, and manic song structures seem common to all of Tatsuya’s projects. Zubi Zuva is no different. It doesn’t matter if the songs are done a cappella and all the words are sung in his usual made up language. There’s just something special and unique at the core of Tatsuya’s overall artistic approach. Cataloging varied styles, deconstructing language, and challenging genre expectations, Jehovah comes off like the audio sketchbook of a mad scientist noodling around with the knobs of truly experimental music.
1998: Merzbow - “Intro”
More than any song in Merzbow’s big-beyond-comprehension discography, “Intro” is special. It is the opener on the John Zorn produced 1930, the closest thing Masami Akita’s project has to a popular album. Record stores that wouldn’t normally carry anything so noisy and abstract usually have the 1930 CD collecting dust somewhere. It’s Akita’s most popular album on Last.fm, rateyourmusic, and iTunes, and “Intro” is almost always the top song. While it may not be his “best” song – or even the album highlight – it is notable for most people as the song that displayed just what Masami Akita was capable of. It was my first exposure with Merzbow and I still remember it fondly.
At just over two and a half minutes, “Intro” is incredibly short by Akita’s standards, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the longer form songs that follow. It plays with the shift between extreme quiet and overwhelming loudness much like the final track, “Iron, Glass, Blocks, and White Lights.” A wobbly keyboard enters near the end of the track, a tactic later taken to the extreme in the brief synth-storm that is “Munchen.” And of course there’s “Intro“‘s final build that abruptly thrusts the listener into the searing title track, easily one of the most memorable moments in Merzbow’s entire discography.
During an interview with Perfect Sound Forever in December 1997 [Word/Full Interview], the very same month 1930 was recorded, Akita claimed to use so much dissonance in his early years as a backlash against the state of conventional music. He went on to say, “now I think the reason I use a lot of noise is because… I just want to use noise for my own pleasure.” This is what you hear on 1930: an orgasmic glee in the mess of loops and sounds. It’s dissonant – that’s obvious – but once you become enveloped in Akita’s ecstatic static it is strangely intoxicating.
To the uninitiated, “Intro” is a perfect place to start. But even if you’re familiar with “all that is Merz,” try for a moment to forget everything you know and listen to the track with a fresh mind, remembering what it was like the first time this crazy bastard taught you what noise was all about.
1995: The Raymond Brake - Piles of Dirty Winters
We’ve definitely segued into a period of 90s revivalism — chances are, if you’re not scouring for a vintage Moog to record that tripped-out space journey, you’ve rediscovered the fuzz pedal. That’s cool and all, but I often wish that bands would reference the dynamic guitar-based scene of Chapel Hill more than, say, the fuzz of the West Coast — that is, to be influenced by the types of bands that were more likely to break guitar strings from bending or detuning, rather than fussing over the maintenance of that correct fuzz setting.
Of course, it’s not just revivalism; many decade-defining indie rock records have recently seen the reissue treatment, which is a nice invitation for re-examination. And while I’m glad to see Merge reissue Superchunk’s Foolish and Archers of Loaf’s Icky Mettle (both archetypal records of 90s Chapel Hill indie rock), there’s still one record from the same area and time period that I doubt will see the proper reissue (and acclaim) it deserves.
The Raymond Brake, from Greensboro, NC (just West of Chapel Hill), released an album in 1995 called Piles of Dirty Winters. To be slightly reductive, this four-piece combined the dynamic, bent guitar style of Polvo with the energetic drive and pop sense of Superchunk. I also hear a vaguely D.C.-ish influence at times, but more on the end of Pitchblende than Fugazi. Hooky, varied, and rewarding to revisit, Piles of Dirty Winters is one of the finest lost albums of the 90s, and is most certainly a discography highlight from the similarly overlooked Arlington, VA label, Simple Machines.
The Raymond Brake’s music can sometimes be reflective of the band members’ ages (at the time they were all 20 and 21, according to Simple Machines), but I don’t mean this to be a slight. Their ideas about guitars, melodic layering, and tempo dynamics often showed considerable confidence, making several of their songs rewarding to figure out. The band was also able to provide variety: “Laying Down” has the nascent drawl of 20-something malaise merged with slow-moving, woozy guitars; “The Long Sleep” is a bedroom-folk song, and “Shooting in the Dark” builds to post-hardcore catharsis.
“Philistine” opens the album with descending guitar interplay that morphs into Superchunk territory, but with a more fractured guitar approach than the ‘chunk tended to engage in. The subtle vocal harmonies and alternately restrained/loose guitar interplay make “Philistine” an effective album opener, essentially introducing the core elements of the band’s sound in a just-ragged-enough package.
“New Wave Dream” was the single — their “Web in Front,” their “Tilebreaker.” Built around start/stop rhythms, dynamic guitars, and a quintessentially 90s guitar break in the bridge, the song is a high point on this lost gem of an album. It’s all inescapably 90s (the embedded video definitely hasn’t aged as well; that hair!) yet it doesn’t strike me as dated or particularly naïve. If anything, it encapsulates a moment in guitar-based indie rock that doesn’t get referenced in quite the same way anymore.
Fans of 90s Chapel Hill — especially Polvo — or indie rock at all should seek out Piles of Dirty Winters. The Raymond Brake were shortlived, releasing only a few singles, Piles of Dirty Winters, and Never Work Ever, a messy EP from 1996. There was an unreleased LP as well, one that sometimes hits the highs of their best work but lacks the front-to-back consistency which makes Piles worth returning to. Frontman Andy Cabic went on to form the folkier Vetiver, and all I can gather about the rest of the band is from last.fm and youtube comments – supposedly, one of the members now teaches high school history. I don’t know how likely it is that The Raymond Brake will see reissue treatment, but I can continue hoping.