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A Rare 1975 Concert Recording Captures Can at Their Psychedelic Peak

On one hand, the latest Can archival concert release, Live in Brighton 1975 – streaming at Bandcamp – is a time capsule, right down to the heckler singing a snippet of Jigsaw’s glam-pop hit Sky High. On the other, there was no other band, nor has there been one in the time since, who sound anything like Can. And that’s even more surprising, considering how many different styles they shifted through. Vastly influential on both new wave and no wave, they were widely credited with spearheading the German motorik movement despite being a very organic, primarily guitar-driven band.

This smoking, haphazardly improvised, untitled seven-part suite captures them at their most psychedelic. It sounds like a good-quality digitized field recording. Holger Czukay’s bass is in and out of the mix. We’re reminded how much the European drummers of the psychedelic era could really swing, and the generous amount of reverb on Jaki Liebezeit’s kit underscores that.

The show begins with a steady, practically fourteen-minute one-chord stoner-disco instrumental jam, the Isley Brothers on the Berlin subway before the wall came down. You can practically smell the hash smoke wafting through the club. Organist Irmin Schmidt ranges from sinuous and resonant to blippy as Michael Karoli’s guitar alternates between minor-key chopping, sunbaked leads and lowdown, gritty noise. They drift into feedback at the end and stop cold.

Guitars waft in with the keys, drums flicker and then disappear early on in the second number: in retrospect it’s the missing link between Isaac Hayes stoner funk and Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead, with a little Interstellar Overdrive and Sympathy For the Devil as the rhythm picks up. Swaying, careening Karoli leads fly overhead, and then suddenly Czukay takes it out steadily and somberly.

They segue into segment number three, an anxiously swinging death disco vamp with more of that resonantly flaring guitar: the ending will give you chills. There’s a sad little solo piano intro, a wry drum solo, even sillier surf rock references, shrieking guitar and even a little theremin in the almost fifteen-minute fourth song.

The early part of the similarly long-scale fifth tune could be a primitive version of New Order, if that band hadn’t been Joy Division before. With sparks trailing from the organ amp, they motor further into space, drift toward a black hole but make a scampering getaway: it’s the high point of the set, energetically at least.

The band really take their time easing into interlude six, through ambience and skronk to what could be a parody of Booker T & the MGs. But they get serious and finally set the controls for the heart of the sun in the concluding number, building from somberly minimalist guitar and organ to the most uneasy yet catchiest point of the night. Shrieking, sinuous Karoli guitar work, endlessly tumbling drums, melodic bass slinking and piercing the washes of organ, and playful pointillisms contrasting with sirens will lure you into this strange and irresistible galaxy. Is it fair to include an iconic band along with this year’s releases on the best albums of 2021 page at the end of the year? That’s a dilemma worth considering.

A New Vinyl Box Set For Lovers of 70s Psychedelia, Mystical Indian and Middle Eastern Sounds

It may seem strange that an Indian-influenced German jamband would name themselves after a Mayan creation myth. But Popol Vuh’s influences, and the scope of their music, were vast. Bandleader and keyboardist Florian Fricke came out of the minimalist side of the German avant garde, but by the time the band were through, they’d taken successful plunges into ornate, High Romantic orchestral rock, psychedelia, ambient music and movie scores. Much of it is unselfconsciously beautiful.

Werner Herzog asserts that without Popul Vuh’s soundtracks, several of his best films never would have existed: endorsements don’t get better than that. This year saw the reissue of four of the band’s best-loved albums – 1973’s Seligpreisung, 1979’s Coeur de Verre, 1983’s Agape-Agape Love-Love and the 1987 score to Herzog’s film Cobra Verde – as a lavish vinyl box set complete with original artwork, posters and expanded liner notes. Considering that Popul Vuh’s albums were European imports, expensive to begin with and now command daunting prices on the collector market, this is a goldmine for 70s art-rock fans. Each of the records is streaming at Spotify (click the links in the titles below).

There’s a verdant Moody Blues Romanticism to much of Seligpreisung, fueled by Robert Eliscu’s soaring, expressive oboe over Fricke’s bright but often hypnotic, mantra-like piano and synth work. With the addition of guitarists Conny Veit and Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher, this was the group’s first real rock record, veering suddenly from moody Pink Floyd interludes to the careening Grateful Dead-influenced jams that would pervade much of the rest of their rock material. Selig sind die, die da hungem (Blessed Are Those Who Are Hungry), with a long, bluesy, Gilmouresque guitar solo from Fichelscher, perfectly encapsulates all that. As with all these records, there’s a bonus track, in this case the rare single Be in Love, a sunny chamber pop ballad.

Fricke and Fichelscher switch out the second guitar for Al Gromer’s sitar, adding both lush texture and curlicuing mystery to the Coeur de Verre soundtrack, incorporating more of the incantatory instrumental raga-rock sound of the band’s 1973 Hosianna Mantra album. Blatter aus dem Buch der Kuhnheit (Pages From the Book of Fearlessness) sounds like the Dead taking on a Scottish air with Indian tinges, while Der Ruf (The Call) comes across as a soaring, loopy three-man Dead jam. Rising from anxious minimalism to a crescendoing, clanging triumph, the big epic here is Engel de Gegenwart (Today’s Angel). There’s also a deliciously dark, chromatic interlude, Huter der Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold). The bonus track is Earth View, a spare, sober 1977 Fricke solo piano piece.

Veit’s guitar returns on the harder-rocking Agape-Agape Love-Love, which foreshadows King Gizzard’s uneasy, chromatic Turkish trance-rock by almost forty years. Singer Renate Knaup’s crystalline, sepulchral vocalese sails over a similarly haunting Middle Eastern-inflected backdrop in the Rumi-inspired Behold, the Drover Summons. Circledance, the bonus track, fades up and eventually out like a second-set interlude by the Dead, who were arguably at their peak as a live band at the time Popul Vuh recorded this. Interestingly, the only piano-driven track is the starry closing nocturne Why Do I Sleep.

The Cobra Verde soundtrack is even more Indian-inflected and lushly symphonic, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus serving as kirtan choir in a theme and variations that hark back to Fricke’s beginnings. He reaches for the orchestra’s ominously drifting ambience in the marketplace scene with a couple of subsequent solo synthscapes. It’s a well-chosen way to bring the box set full circle.

Smartly Crafted, Anthemic, Beatlesque Art-Rock From Laura Mihalka

Laura Mihalka‘s moody keyboard ballads draw a straight line back to the Beatles as well as Pink Floyd and ELO. She also plays cello on her new album Feels Electric, streaming at Spotify. Producer Jesse Siebenberg plays the David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Nick Mason instrumental roles, filling in the sound with a symphonic understatement.

The album opens with Falling Apart, a gospel-tinted piano ballad with some unexpectedly creepy chromatics and a big, bombastic, Floydian guitar interlude that Mihalka follows with a gorgeously neoromantic solo of her own. The title track begins more enigmatic and hypnotic before she shifts it into elegant late Beatles territory.

Mihalka sticks with the Fab Four influence in Stumble Upon, a steady, swaying, Lennonesque number. She switches to electric piano for Pineapple Man, an Elliott Smith-ish trip-hop song with more than a hint of Indian music at the end. Then she goes back to the grand piano and adds spare cello accents to Forgiven: it’s her Great Gig in the Sky.

David Levita contributes flangey 70s guitar to Out for the Night, an aptly wafting nocturne. Mihalka goes straight back to the Beatles for Paradise, goo goo ga joob. Lennon meets Lucinda Williams – more or less – in Battleground. Then Mihalka strips things down to a simple early 90s pop sound with Sacred Sky, Siebenberg raising the energy with a crackling solo.

“We could all use you right now,” she intones in the elegaic ballad She’s Everything. She closes the album with Looking Back, adrift in wafting orchestration and twinkling, Hawaiian-flavored steel guitar. Beyond Mihalka’s stoic, impassive vocals, this could be a first-class Jeff Lynne orchestral pop production from the late 70s. That good.

An Epic, Visionary Reflection on Lockdown-Era Horror and Resistance From Mostly Autumn

On one hand, it’s bizarre that there hasn’t been more music about the lockdown. On the other hand, studio time was hard to find for awhile, and many musicians are playing their cards close to the vest, fearing that they’ll lose part of their audience if they dare question the brainwashing and fear propaganda that the corporate media unleashed on us in the spring of last year.

British band Mostly Autumn are one of the few and the brave. Their new album Graveyard Star – streaming at youtube – is a throwback to ornately catchy 70s bands like Renaissance and Supertramp, and most obviously, Pink Floyd. The lyrics are straightforward and thoughtful: the characters in these songs long to be free, under the sun, out in the fields, and hold their ground as the walls crush in against them. The melodies here rise from a somber restraint, through dirges and black-sky ambience to a thunderous, stadium-worthy stomp. And ultimately, the band’s message is optimistic, notwithstanding the visceral pain and longing that pervades this vast and in many ways visionary album,

The group comprises Olivia Sparnenn-Josh and guitarist Bryan Josh sharing lead vocals, with Iain Jennings on keys, Angela Gordon on flute, keys and vocals, Chris Johnson on guitars, Andy Smith on bass and Henry Rogers on drums.

Solemn synth chromatics give way to a baroque-tinged, gothic organ melody as the album’s epic, twelve-minute title track gets underway. A Floydian spacerock tableau unfolds into a steady anthem, then the guitars kick in: it’s a metal symphony but with a more focused, Gilmouresque attack.

“I hedge my bets on stormy seas, it’s a long way home tonight,” Josh sings grimly over looming, cumulo-nimbus orchestration in The Plague Bell. The loping, moody spaghetti western rock of Skin of Mankind, an existentialist lament, comes as a real surprise: these guys are a great surf band! Guest Chris Leslie’s violin solo peaking out in tandem with Sparnenn-Josh’s vocals is one of the album’s most spine-tingling moments.

“Voices like a ghost calling history up again, if I wasn’t growing up I sure as hell am now,” Josh reflects over a lush bed of acoustic guitars before the electrics kick in mightily in Shadows, a bristling commentary on lockdown alienation and solitude.

“The deeper that you bleed, the further you will reach…the harder you love, the harder that you hurt,” Sparnenn-Josh muses in the stately, jangly ballad The Harder That You Hurt, but even here, she refuses to concede to despair.

She reflects on escape throughout a long, desolate drive in Razor Blade, the music lifting from a piano-based dirge to Floydian majesty and wrath as Josh moves to the mic. When Sparnenn-Josh intones “Hang me on a satellite,” the irony is crushing – as is the desperate coda.

Sparnenn-Josh speaks to the interminable hopelessness of the early months of 2020 in This Endless War, as the music slowly reaches up from a dirge to a shrieking, vengeful Gilmouresque guitar solo.

The border closure and “x-ray town” in Spirit of Mankind raise the ugly specter of what we’ve been battling since the spring of 2020, but the song is a tribute to the indomitability of the resistance against it, “A phoenix rising through these flames.”

Back in These Arms starts out with allusions to a famously mechanical Pink Floyd theme and morphs into a Celtic-tinged stadium rock anthem. Josh sings defiantly of how, if we all join forces, we can reclaim our world from fascist domination: “Freedom’s burning in our veins, never let it go!”

Sparnenn-Josh sings Free to Fly with a delicate, restrained hope over Jennings’ gentle piano lullaby and eventually a web of synth that reaches orchestral heights. The Diamond is the most opaque song on the album, but paradoxically one of its catchiest, a wistful reflection of rebirth from a bankrupt system “pre-designed to fall apart.”

Josh sings Turn Around Slowly, an endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda:

Is there any danger when love blows a fuse
There’s a clown in the looking glass, a world full of fools…
We’ve been locking down, slow, too far, too long

In its meticulously composed, breathtaking and sometimes charmingly retro way, this might be the best rock record of 2021.

A Hauntingly Relevant World War I Concept Album From Bare Wire Son

Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz records under the name Bare Wire Son. Whether kinetic or atmospheric, his music has a relentlessly bleak intensity. One obvious comparison is the gloomy, cinematic processionals of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Other dark postrock acts, from Mogwai to Swans come to mind. His latest album Off Black – streaming at Bandcamp – is a World War I song cycle, often utilizing texts from journals by mothers who lost their sons. Janusz is a one-man, lo-fi orchestra here: everything is awash in reverb, vocals often buried deep in these slow but turbulent rivers of sound.

The parallels between the Great War and the lockdown are stunning, making this album all the more relevant. Chemical warfare played a major role: poison gas in 1918, deadly hypodermics 103 years later. Propaganda campaigns of unprecedented proportions are central to both events. The drive to get the British and the US involved in the war was inflamed by stories of hideous atrocities on the part of the “Huns,” as the Germans were rebranded. The ubiquitous, multibillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the needle of death also relies on many fictions, from grotesquely inaccurate computer models, to blood tests rigged to generate false positives.

The album’s opening track, Involuntary is a crescendoing conflagration, possibly a parody of a Catholic hymn, with a cruelly cynical coda. Percussion flails out a sadistic lash beat over the organ textures in Cenotaph, struggling to rise against a merciless march that finally hits a murderous peak.

Janusz assembles Saved Alone around a series of menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs and whispered vocals, shifting from a lulling organ interlude to a roughhewn crescendo. From there he segues into CSD, a brief, portentous, organ-infused tone poem.

Simple, ominous guitar arpeggios linger over an industrial backdrop of cello, percussion and organ in Ends Below: the visceral shock about two thirds of the way in is too good to give away. The Gore is portrayed more minimalistically and enigmatically than you would probably expect, resonant washes of slide guitar and organ behind a crashing guitar loop

Close-harmonied organ textures and cello drift through Antiphon, joined by guitar clangs and slashes in The Bellows and extending through the dissociative flutters and funereal angst of Kampus. Spare, Lynchian guitar figures return in Fingernest, an emphatic, pulsing dirge rising to Comfortably Numb proportions.

Heavy Grey is the closest thing to indie rock here, although it reaches an anthemic vastness at the end. Janusz trudges to the end of the narrative with the hypnotic Red Glass and then a quasi-baroque organ theme cynically titled Voluntary, This is one of the best albums of 2021 and arguably the most haunting one so far.

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

Warmly Drifting, Epically Atmospheric Instrumentals From Numun

Atmospheric instrumentalists Numun comprises members of cinematic, pastoral noir band Suss as well as New York’s most popular Balinese bell orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara.  Multi-instrumentalists Joel Mellin and Bob Holmes’ new album Voyage au Soleil – streaming at Bandcamp – is pretty much what you would expect from those influences: vast, slowly hovering tableaux with the occasional Asian tinge.

The opening track, Tranceport rises from slowly shifting atmospherics and the occsional boom of what could be a gong, to a swaying, gorgeously lush acoustic guitar groove spiced with cumbus lute and airy, tremoloing keys. First Steps starts with wry, robotic keys over a trip-hop beat, percolating organ and menacing reverb guitar, then rises to a darker but equally sweeping crescendo.

With its keening, tinkling synth lines and surreal spoken-word vocals half-buried in the mix, Tranquility Base is a hyperactive stab at a nocturne: the slow acoustic guitar-based sway returns, more loopy this time. The alarm motif that kicks off Mission Loss could have been faded down more mercifully for the listener, as a thicket of short pulses and then the warmly predictable acoustic guitar vmp takes over.

Expanse is the one track that begins with guitars and then drifts into an echoey vortex with dubwise bass anchoring starry keys: it’s the album’s most interesting and psychedelic number. The final cut is the title track, which with the cumbus could be an Asian-tinged outtake of an interlude from Pink Floyd’s Animals. Cue this up and set the controls for the heart of the…

Guitarist Kurt Leege Reinvents Jazz Classics As Envelopingly Ambient, Richly Psychedelic Soundscapes

There’s considerable irony in that Kurt Leege, one of the most interesting guitarists in all of ambient music, first made his mark as a feral lead player, beginning with Curdlefur, then Noxes Pond and finally System Noise, New York’s best art-rock band of the zeros. Leege’s new album Sleepytime Jazz – streaming at Bandcamp – is his second solo release, a similarly celestial follow-up to his 2018 record Sleepytime Guitar, where he reinvented old folk tunes and spirituals as lullabies.

This one is calm, elegant, drifty music with a subtle, soulful edge, a mix of jazz classics from John Coltrane, to Miles Davis, to Herbie Hancock and Louis Armstrong. Leege layers these tracks meticulously, typically using his ebow to build a deep-space wash and then adding terse, thoughtful, often strikingly dynamic multitracks overhead. This may be on the quiet side, but it’s also incredibly psychedelic. Play it at low volume if you feel like drifting off; crank it and discover the beast lurking deep within.

Blue in Green has spiky, starry chords and resonant David Gilmour-like phrases fading deep into spacious, hypnotically echoing ebow vastness. Leege has always been a connoisseur of the blues, and that cuts through – literally – in At Last, his spare, gentle but incisive single-note lines over the starry resonance behind him. And Coltrane’s Spiritual is much the same, and even more starkly bluesy: shine on you distant diamond.

Georgia on My Mind comes across as opiated Wes Montgomery with distant Memphis soul echoes. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage could be a particularly immersive, atmospheric interlude by 70s art-rock cult favorites Nektar.

Leege reinvents My Funny Valentine, artfully shifting up the metrics with equal parts Pink Floyd grandeur and Bill Frisell tenderness. He hits waltz time even more head-on in his version of Naima, the fastest and most hauntingly direct of all these slow numbers.

Neferititi, appropriately, is the album’s most delicate and hypnotic piece. The echoes come in waves most noticeably throughout Tenderly, tersely layered from top to bottom. And Leege’s take of What a Wonderful World is as anthemic as it is warmly enveloping. What a gorgeous record. It’s a real find for fans of jazz, ambient music, psychedelic rock, or for that matter anyone who just wants to escape to a comforting sonic cocoon

A Trippy, Labyrinthine New Album From Popular Psychedelic Rockers Theusaisamonster

Theusaisamonster are well established in the world of newschool psychedelic rock. Until we can manage to get our world back to normal and enjoy them live, we have their latest album Amikwag – streaming at Bandcamp – to trip out with.

Lyrics and vocals are not their thing, but their upbeat, crazyquilt songs and long trails of catchy melody over strange time signatures will keep you entranced. The labyrinthine opening track, Permaculture’s Promise has tricky tempos and more than a hint of bracing Middle Eastern chromatics over math-y tempos, like a mashup of Love Camp 7, peak-era 70s King Crimson and the Grateful Dead. Sounds incongruous, but it works.

With its skittishly syncopated changes and alternately burning and jangly layers of guitar, the second track, Rapido Amigo, is much the same minus the King Crimson and the chromatics. Loopy Terry Riley-ish organ swirls and leaps over weird, similarly leaping rhythms in 8 Years Old, a dead ringer for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band keep that vibe going throughout Verbs, an encouragement to use an economy of words. There’s considerable irony voicing that opinion in a song more than eight minutes long, the group jamming it out with layers of keys, tumbling drums, fuzzy bass and a stomping guitar-fueled peak at the end.

The only slightly shorter Side of the Road begins noisily, then the band channel Genesis and the Dead with uneasy hints of King Gizzard. We Are Not Alone, a goofy conversation between aliens, has the closest thing to a straight-up guitar drive here.

The band wind up the album with its trippiest number, Nothing and Everything, a wryly suspenseful, distantly classically-tinged intro morphing into a hypnotic Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd march, then more Genesis. These guys’ record collections must be amazing. And as much fun as these songs are, what would be even better would be to see the band kick them around onstage.

Flickering Nocturnes and Big Sky Atmospherics From Suss

Back in 2018, this blog called New York cinematic instrumenalists Suss “the missing link beween Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone.” Their debut album was aptly titled Ghost; the release show, at a black-box theatre in Long Island City, was magically sepulchral and unexpectedly energetic, the band taking their time expanding on the record’s distantly Lynchian themes. Their new vinyl album Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more vast and atmospheric. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole – with a pause to flip the record over.

The opening number, Midnight is a characteristic, glacially unwinding big-sky tableau, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg’s minimalist lines washing over the ambience from guitarists Pat Irwin, Bob Holmes and keyboardist Gary Lieb.

Drift, the second cut, is exactly that, a flicker of low, twangy reverb guitar finally puncturing the enveloping, misty layers. Individual instruments become more distinct in Home, a minimistically folksy Great Plains nocturne.

The guitars get a little grittier and starrier in No Man’s Land – and is that a harmonium shadowing them? Mission is Pink Floyd spacerock with half the notes and layers of guitar, while  Echo Lake is a clever study in sound bouncing off one distant surface back to another.

Pensively strummed acoustic chords and the occasional troubled, watery electric guitar phrase linger beneath the hovering atmospherics in Winter Light, the album’s most ominous and memorable interlude. They close with the hypnotically twinkling Nightlight.