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Instrumental Music - 3. page

HELDON: ALLEZ-TEIA

(SUPERIOR VIADUCT/URUS RECORDS/DISJUNCTA RECORDS; vinyl only reissue, 2014; original release, 1975)

HELDON cover

No matter how much you follow music, no matter how well you think you know a certain genre, you can always be surprised by something previously unfamiliar. I am a long-time devotee of ambient and electronica, always have been, but somehow Heldon escaped my notice. The French prog-tronica pioneers made a clutch of well-received discs in the ’70s, and founder Richard Pinhas has released a ton of discs under his own name since then, as well as various collaborations with Merzbow, Pascal Comelade, John Livengood and others. But until this reissue of their amazing 1975 album, ALLEZ-TEIA (their second effort), I’d never heard of either Heldon or Richard Pinhas. That’s a shame, ’cause this is amazing, hypnotic stuff. In the early to mid-’70s, new and powerful sounds were beginning to permeate the fields of prog and electronica. With European artists such as Can, Neu, Kraftwerk and Cluster changing the sonic landscape, the possibilities for modern music expanded a hundredfold. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp blew more than a few minds with their static early ambient explorations on NO PUSSYFOOTING and EVENING STAR, and that’s a good starting point to talk about the music on ALLEZ-TEIA. The opening track is even called “In the Wake of King Fripp,” showing the group’s reverence not only for Fripp’s early innovations on guitar, but his continuing sojourns with King Crimson, obviously one of the most important progressive bands of that era. Another track,”Moebius,” is undoubtedly named after Dieter Moebius, one of the founding members of German electronic pioneers Cluster.

Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)
Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)

That Fripp and Eno sound, particularly as heard on EVENING STAR, is overtly referenced here; no attempt is made to hide how much Heldon loves the evocative but sometimes brittle sound Fripp conjured, especially when Eno got ahold of those repetitive tape loops and put entrancing layers of twinkly synths below them. In “Omar Diop Blondin,” anyone but the most avid Fripp connossieur would guess it was the maestro himself playing here, so close is the patented Frippertronic sound to what’s going on; the song, in fact, is dedicated to the pioneering ambient duo. But Pinhas starts playing this hypnotic little 5 or 6-note repeating sequence that the showier electric guitar glides and buzzes above in flashy style, and then something genuinely unique results. I’m surprised by how nostalgic this stuff makes me for an era long gone. The 12-minute “Fluence,” a slowly building classic of ’70s sequencer/synth trance, has an organic purity to it that sucks you right in; it never calls too much attention to any of its components the way a lot of overproduced similar stuff of later decades tended to do. And “Saint-Mikael… ” (the title is actually much longer than that, but I’ll spare you from the unwieldiness of it), probably the penultimate track here, is just smashing, an intimate close dance between guitar and ambient synth that truly wants to make you float away in relaxed ecstasy. The surprising switch to dual acoustic guitars at roughly the 7-minute mark is wondrous; in fact, Heldon’s use of acoustic guitars on a few tracks is evidently something of a rarity in their early recorded work.

Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)
Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)

One thing’s for sure; this music deserves to be heard. Pinhas and company had not only the chops, but the understanding of what makes trancey instrumental music work: the mood created, the graceful interplay of the instruments (so important when you’re dealing with technology that can be cold or overly detached sounding), and good editing instincts. This isn’t a long album, and it’s actually quite a breezy listen; even non prog-tronica fans could enjoy it. Nor does it sound dated, even though its references are mostly from decades past. ALLEZ-TEIA is highly recommended for any fans of that early ’70s electronic music genre; it’s a work of great, to use a word King Crimson loves, discipline. And for me, an Eno and ambient fanatic, this disc was a genuine revelation. It’s something I look forward to hearing multiple times, and I definitely don’t always say that about reissues like this.

THREE LEGGED RACE: ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE

(UNDERWATER PEOPLES RECORDS EP; 2014)

Three Legged Race cover

Three Legged Race has been the recording project of artist and former Hair Police member, Robert Beatty, since 2002; ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE is his first since 2012’s PERSUASIVE BARRIER and the first in a proposed series of EPs. Beatty has also upped his game for this release, adding acoustic instruments to the mix and warping and processing everything to the point of nearly total inarticulation from the original source. There are certain aspects of the forward-thinking pieces that similarly hearken back to some of my favorite outre noise projects of the ’80s and ’90s, to wit: Skeleton Key’s clanky, creepy debut, FANTASTIC SPIKES THROUGH BALLOON; the industrial sounds of Wisdom Tooth; COMPASS (KUM’PAS) from Dalek I (later, Dalek I Love You).

Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (publicity photo)
Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (photo credit: JAIME LAZICH)

All Ajax Dial” is a discordant, clangorous metallic cacophony of noise, quite reminiscent of the previously name-checked Wisdom Tooth and Skeleton Key (without the vocals). Things are definitely off to a great start! After the first track, “Aside From Each Other and Together Overnight” is almost calming… almost. It features so many different textures and sounds, that it is impossible to compartmentalize. It has what sounds like distorted bells and a toy piano with some otherworldly synthesized howls, shifts to a science-fiction like soundtrack (or maybe something from THE EXORCIST, with all the bells) before it takes on an aquatic sound, almost like an exhausted swimmer sinking to a watery grave. As the howls come back in, they’re joined by some indecipherable babbling, sounding like a transmission from another dimension… all in right around six minutes. “New Government” is the sound that you hear when the record’s groove runs the needle into the center label. Add a few little Dalek I like noises bubbling just under the surface to the implied percussive impetus of that needle run out thing (and the return of the piano forcing its way to the fore toward the end of the piece) and it turns into an utterly creepy and highly listenable affair. “The Humidity Mascot” is a collection of computer blips and skrees and odd modulations over the top of a backward tape loop that sounds like a train or heavy city traffic. Beatty saves the most “musical” piece for last. “Rope Commercial” has an Indian percussion sort of thing happening, with weird, cartoony music and sound effects running over the top. The whole record is over in 18 minutes, leaving me wanting more and craving the second installment of the ROPE COMMERCIAL series. The EP is available only as a 12” picture disc; for this and more incredible music, visit the label website at underwaterpeoples.com.

AMON DUUL II: DUULIRIUM

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; reissue 2014, original digital release 2010)

1808

Approximately a decade-and-a-half after their last true record (new material, rather than collected works or decades-old live tapes), and even longer since the involvement of a majority of the original driving forces within the group, Amon Duul II returned in 2010 with BEE AS SUCH, a self-released downloadable album harkening back to the beginning… experimental and trippy sound pastiches with transcendently hippie-chic lyricism. The original plans for the album included a physical release shortly after the digital files were posted; that scenario never materialized… until now, as the Purple Pyramid arm of Cleopatra Records has finally released the retitled DUULIRIUM on vinyl and CD. Rather like the debut of their forebears (the communal-minded Amon Duul), BEE AS SUCH seemed to be recorded as one long jam session and then edited and cut down into four separate and highly distinct tunes. I mention that because the individual tracks tend to start and end either in the middle of a note or a piece of lyric; even if it appears that the splices fit together seamlessly (as with the first two cuts), when you try to edit the two songs together, it just doesn’t work.

Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)
Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)

The disjointedness starts at point zero of the first track, “On the Highway” (originally called “Mambo La Libertad”), as the track seems to pick up right in the middle of a lyric. The song itself is all weird, hippie redux, but is not unappealing in the least. The vocals, which I assume are by Chris Karrer and Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, comes across as a rather sloppy (though, again, not unappealing) duet between Don Van Vliet and Edith Bunker (the character, not Jean Stapleton, who actually had a great voice). As off-kilter as this assessment makes it sound, “Mambo La Libertad” gets the record off to a great start. The track ends mid-drumbeat, with the second cut picking up somewhere later in the same beat; “Du Kommst Ins Heim” is total mind-warping Krautrock of the highest order. Continuing to mine a plethora of vocal styles, the (again, an assumption on my part) male part comes across as David Byrne, circa early Talking Heads. The same vocals that sounded like Edith are here, too, but much more… in tune, while spastic yodeling, operatic yowls and squalling cat mewls mingle with the odd violin scrape. We actually dig this one muchly as it totally epitomizes the word “trippy.”

Standing In the Shadow” finds Nina Hagen and Mac Rebennack vamping their way through a wicked, groove-based improvisation, fronting a Germanic Funkadelic with Lothar Meid (in the role of Bootsy) funkin’ things up on the bass guitar, while John Weinzierl adds some insane Bernie Worrell style synthesizer effects. At less than eight-and-a-half minutes, “Stil Standing” (the cut’s original title) is the shortest track on DUULIRIUM/BEE AS SUCH. In contrast, the final piece clocks in at nearly thirty minutes; listed on DUULIRIUM as two separate entities, “Back To the Rules” and “Walking To the Park,” the songs were presented under the title “Psychedelic Suite” on the original digital files of BEE AS SUCH. A mindnumbing crawl of a slow tune, “Back To the Rules” occupies the first ten-and-a-half minutes of this musical beast. Standing as a stark example of gaunt minimalism, the oddly languid pace manifests itself as a definite plus rather than a minus; the musicians almost break free at the 8:45 mark only to be reined back in by the burdensome art-damage of the whole thing. The final minutes of the piece does pick up the pace, though not much, as bassist Meid and percussionists Danny Fichelscher and Jan Kahlert drive the tune toward a real psychedelic work-out leading into a bizarre little interlude before heading full-bore into “Walking To the Park” at around the 18:30 mark. Suddenly, a leisurely stroll (a virtual Thorazine shuffle) becomes a frenzied run, perhaps as the couple in the narrative realizes that the park may not be the safest place to be. There are some great guitar runs during this section of the track, really the first time either Weinzierl or Karrer have exploited the instrument to its fullest extent on the entire record. Likewise, Knaup-Krotenschwanz delivers the album’s best performance here, falling somewhere between early Toyah Willcox, mid-period Kate Bush and latter day Marianne Faithfull. Twenty-six minutes may seem a tad like overkill but, if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with what is an epic masterpiece of the genre that has come to be known as “Krautrock.”

MUSK OX: WOODFALL

(SELF-RELEASED; 2014)

Album Cover

Musk Ox is a three-piece from Canada, fronted by classically trained guitarist and unrepentant metal-head, Nathanael Larochette. Nothing spectacular about that, right? I’m sure that you can name at least one other Canadian three-piece (Rush, anyone?) Well, how’s this for spectacular, then? The trio also features cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist – and newest member – Evan Runge and they perform chamber music with the musical passion and emotional heft of metal. The group’s second full-length release (to go along with three EPs), WOODFALL is a suite in five parts, evoking the peace and serenity of beautiful and untouched Canadian landscapes. The piece runs approximately an hour in length and features some of the most breathtaking original chamber music that I’ve heard in a very long time.

Musk Ox (Evan Runge, Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Nathanael Larochette) (publicity photo)
Musk Ox (Evan Runge, Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Nathanael Larochette) (publicity photo)

The pastoral “Earthrise” gives way to an impression that, viscerally, feels like its title: “Windswept.” With the violin and classical guitar taking the lead, separately and in tandem, the cello holds the bottom end, acting as much as a percussive instrument as a stringed one. When Weinroth-Browne does bring his instrument to the fore, it is amazingly effective. “Arcanum” is quite a powerful piece and it’s here that Larochette’s metal upbringing truly shines through. I think, that in his utter arrogance, this is the kind of guitarist that Yngwie Malmsteen fancies himself to be. Yngwie would shove his head through a wall trying to play this stuff! An unbridled sense of serenity ushers in “Above the Clouds,” alternating with a charging cello, possibly indicative of storm clouds brewing. Again, there is a very metallic sturm und drang emotional roller coaster ride going on here and features some of my favorite moments of the entire suite. As night falls, it is time to “Serenade the Constellations.” Runge and Weinroth-Browne play harmonics for much of the first piece, with a lilting Larochette guitar part playing over that bed. Runge occasionally steps out for a solo part or joining the guitar for more harmony playing, creating a nice Celtic folk ambiance. Though the album filled with great, heart-stopping moments throughout, this final 17-plus minute piece is probably my favorite overall. The five separate impressions of WOODFALL has taken us full circle, from pastoral morning to beautiful night and back again. Okay, Canada… I guess this makes up for Celine Dion and Loverboy… but just barely, eh?