DORIS NORTON: PARAPSYCHO

(BLACK WIDOW RECORDS/DISCO PIU; Italian import; reissue 2013, original release 1981)

Doris Norton cover

Unless you are a truly smug, know-it-all kinda music reviewer, you don’t proceed totally independently in this game. You wanna find other opinions of weird or obscure offerings; you wanna find out WHERE something belongs in the scheme of things, you wanna discern anything you can about the “artistic intent” of an eccentric artist. Doris Norton is not your garden variety composer, though Discogs puts her in the “Electronica” category. At times like this, I like to go to Amazon to see if any fans chimed in, And God bless “Mr. Benac” for writing the single review that appears of this PARAPSYCHO project, a reissue of a recording that first appeared in Italy back in 1981. Benac writes: “Norton is a strange, strange person and there’s a possibility she’s trying to say something here. However, I cannot grasp it.” That kind of sentiment is catnip for me, so I dove right in. After an unrepresentative, caterwauling sort of opening rocker (the title track), what follows is more or less early prog-influenced instrumental music that leans at times in the direction of the kind of film music you hear in low budget ’70s horror films. This is certainly true of “Telepathia” and to a lesser extent, “Psychic Research.”

Doris Norton (photo courtesy: musikresearch.com)

Doris Norton (photo courtesy: musikresearch.com)

It helps to know that Norton was sponsored by Apple Computer in the ’80s, and evidently created a music program for IBM USA. Almost all the music here was made on early synthesizers or keyboard programs, and it has that analogue sound that can sometimes sound quaint or simplistic. However, this is mostly listenable stuff. “Ludus” is a perfectly fine cinematic instrumental just a stone’s throw from MORE-era Pink Floyd, at least until a bit of wah-wah at the end. “Tears” is a straight-up European film music cue (presumably for a non-existent film) that features beguiling wordless female vocals. “Obsession” contains everything both annoying and promising about keyboard-heavy prog in one zippy three-minute burst. And “Precognition,” the last and possibly best track (and a bonus to this 32rd Anniversary Edition), enters Kraftwerk territory, with its forward-thrusting sequencers, occasional robotic vocals, and underlying sense of “something going wrong with machines,” with the ascending alarm-like sound at beginning and end somehow punctuating this. Honestly, this stuff is NOT that strange; Mr. Benac needs to come check out MY record collection sometime. Most of Norton’s stuff sits comfortably at the intersection of European film music and somewhat generic sequencer-based prog. Sure, the curiously titled “Hypnotized By Norton,” at just under 10 minutes, does a mash-up of new age, indie rock and prog that is all-over-the-map kooky, and the previously mentioned title track clubs you over the head in a manner not typical of the rest of what’s here. But I gotta admit, I kinda like most of these tracks. There is purposefulness and, more importantly, a playful, open attitude that comes through in Norton’s performances. I detect, also, a little bit of humor in her attitude towards the vast possibilities of the new technology emerging in music at the time. Come to think of it, most of the titles reflect something having to do with how music and immersion in technology may not always be a good match (“Tears,” “Obsession,” “Parapsycho” “Hypnotized… “

Doris Norton (uncredited photo)

Doris Norton (uncredited photo)

Maybe I’m reaching here, but I’m betting that Norton is not so much “strange” as perhaps a woman who just travels to a different mental and emotional space when she makes music, and determinedly shuts out her husband, kids and everything else that gets in the way until she’s damn well satisfied, sonically. I don’t know her story overall, but she came up with some good stuff, only crossing the line into cloying self-indulgence a few times. Hell, if I were a film director, I’d give her a shot. “Controlled unpredictability” is a good trait in my book.


AMON DUUL II: DUULIRIUM

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

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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.”


BRAINTICKET: COTTONWOODHILL

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

brainticket-cottonwoodhill

A couple of interesting things about Brainticket’s debut album: First, upon its original release in 1971, it was banned in several countries including, incomprehensibely, the United States (where hippie, drugged-out psychedelic music of this variety was born); second, it came with a label warning that you should “Only listen once a day to this record” because “Your brain might be destroyed.” The record’s good, but I’m not sure of the validity of that statement (of course, everybody and their dog – well,at least Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone – will tell you how unbelievably awesome Springsteen is and I know that’s an outright lie). That warning label must be close to the truth, though, because I played COTTONWOODHILL twice a few days back and had to rest for awhile. So, I’m guessing that you guys wanna know what prompted the warning and the bans and why the album still sounds so good today, right?

Okay… let’s start at the beginning then, shall we? “Black Sand” comes off as a funky Yes hoedown with Santana-like leads and a heavier-than-thou Hammond (provided by band leader, Joel Vandroogembroeck) pounding away throughout. At a mere 4 minutes, “Black Sand” is like the preliminary bout before the main event. That remark will make a lot more sense a little further down the page… trust me. “Places of Light,” another prelim (again clocking in around 4 minutes), isn’t as killer heavy as the first tune, but with Vandroo… uh… Joel offering a jazzy flute signature throughout and the introduction of some way trippy processed vocals by Dawn Muir, it still ranks high on the psychedelic Krautrock meter.

Joel Vandroogenbroeck of Brainticket (uncredited photo)

Joel Vandroogenbroeck of Brainticket (uncredited photo)

Now, like most albums of the type back in the embryonic phase of what we’ve come to know as “Krautrock” and the waning years of the psychedelic movement, this album takes a cue from Iron Butterfly and IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA: a few (or in this case, a couple) short songs on one side (we’re talkin’ original vinyl release now, children) with a much longer track of the more experimental variety filling the second half. Brainticket goes the Butterfly one better (well, actually, a half better) as the tune “Brainticket” is broken up into three parts. Finishing out Side One of the album is “Brainticket I (Part 1),” over eight minutes of odd noises (credited to Hillmuth Klobe utilizing “potentiometers, generators and sound effects”), more vocal acrobatics from Dawn Muir, as she whispers, screams, orgasms and talks her way through a seemingly (derailed) train-of-thought set of lyrics and a percussive, rhythmic organ pattern that repeats through the entire song (which includes another four-and-a-half minutes of “Brainticket I (Part 2)” and nearly 13 minutes of “Brainticket II”). This is, indeed, the main event that we were hoping for! As we are discussing a CD reissue here, it should be noted that the fade out/fade in of the original vinyl is not present on “Brainticket I,” which is presented as it was recorded, as one solid 13 minute piece of brain-damaging tunage. My one complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that the two pieces of the 26 minute suite should be presented as one track. There’s a definite end to “Brainticket I” and a definite beginning to “Brainticket II,” but they don’t present (at least to me) as two separate entities… the one should start immediately after the other ends but, on this reissue, there is a several seconds pause which is somewhat distracting to me. COTTONWOODHILL was, for many years, a lost jewel at the crossroads of psychedelia and Krautrock. Now, thanks to the fine folk at Purple Pyramid and Cleopatra Records, it has taken its rightful place in the pantheon of mind-bendingly great albums, something to be revered and listened to over and over again. My sole request of you is this: “Please – listen responsibly!”