Monday, May 14, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Krautrock and Its Descendants Pt. I

There’s a scene in Portlandia where a mom stands up at a PTA meeting in the library of a fancy pre-school and demands better music in the school’s record collection. The discussion gets heated, and the school principal admits that she doesn’t know what Krautrock is. The mom fills with rage and says, “I am getting very stressed out that the head of our school does not know about NEU! These are the people teaching our kids!” The skit hit close to home. I was a college professor before I’d heard of them. I somehow missed out on Krautrock completely, despite a lifelong love of freaky music.
My introduction to NEU! was their first album, NEU!, which I picked up with a whole bunch of other Krautrock classics. It’s a very wide-ranging genre—from the guitar-heavy darkness of Amon Duul to the quiet, icy space sounds of Edgar Froese and Cluster and Tangerine Dream to the computer weirdness of Kraftwerk to the drum-centered jams of Can and NEU!. I wanted to check it out because a lot of the new bands I’m into—Woods, Wet Hair, Herbcraft—are admitted Krautrock freaks. You can really hear the connection in NEU!’s self-titled debut. It came out in 1972 and it’s mostly instrumentals that center on simple but infectious grooves, driving beats that serve as a solid core for cosmic improvisation. As the numbers progress, the guitarists keep adding variations to a central theme, distorting it with space-age swells of feedback and distortion, adding extra beats here and there to quicken the pace, or subtracting to slow it down. It’s like a far-out geometric pattern, like that part at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Dave the astronaut goes through the wormhole.
As I listened, I came to realize that I’d enjoyed this sound already. It’s obvious to me, for example, that Krautrock has had a strong influence on Phish and the way they approach psychedelic improvisation. It’s not sprawling improv like the Grateful Dead or Miles Davis of the late 60s and early 70s; it’s more contained, like a mandala or a kaleidoscope, but it suggests infinity just as ably as music that seems to spread out through space. And a couple of the songs sound a lot like numbers on recent Woods and Jovontaes records. First track on NEU!, “Hallogallo” has chicka-chocka rhythm guitar riff running through it that’s reminiscent of “Out of the Eye,” a long instrumental on Woods’ Sun and Shade, my favorite album from last year. And the last song on side one, “Weisseusee,” a wonderfully slow and spacy tune, is almost a dead ringer for a long track on Jovontaes’ debut LP, Things Are Different Here.
The Jovontaes’ record was my favorite sleeper release from last year. They’re a band of young skate freaks from Lexington, Kentucky, and they had previously only released a few sloppy sounding cassettes that offered no indication of what they had up their sleeves for their jump up to vinyl. The record is entirely instrumental and it’s very chill and smoky; I like to play it when my wife and I have another couple over and we open up a second bottle of wine and settle in for a long night of conversation and spacing out. It unfolds nicely in the background, but it’s not background music; though relatively quiet and slow, it’s got enough freaky sounds to keep it interesting and compelling for those moments when the conversation dies down and the mind yearns for something to focus on.
Woods’ latest release, a split LP with Amps for Christ, has a more wide-ranging sound, with strands of 60s pop and raga and noise woven through it, but their side closes with a long instrumental called “September Saturn” that’s got a real Krautrock feel. A simple four-beat bass line lays the foundation, and it stays steady throughout as threads of strange sounds are added to it, first some shaky tambourine and symbol, then a few layers of guitar, some fuzzed out, others bright and clear. All together, it forms a kind of aural environment, like some crazy jungle on a Star Trek planet, and it keeps getting stranger and more interesting the more sounds are added in. The Amps for Christ side is interesting, too, rooted more in the noise tradition, but it’s rarely abrasive or grating, and it has a lovely traditional-style song in the middle. But for me, the Woods side is the real reason for picking up this release. They just keep getting better and better, and the fact that this split was a little side project, that the songs here are ones that didn’t make it on the LP they’ll be releasing this fall, indicates to me that they gearing up for a big breakthrough release. And for the sake of our children, I hope that the Shooting Star pre-school on Portlandia picks up a copy for their library collection.

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