CAN – Tago Mago (1971)

Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Francelino de Azevedo

If y’aren’t familiar with them, Can are a German-Japanese attempt at removing all ethnic influences from rock ‘n’ roll (well, OK – there’s a little more to it than that), and they really like jamming. They aren’t purists like Keiji Haino, though – the jams on this record have been edited pretty heavily, as ye can tell by the presence of both a lead and a rhythm guitar on most of them even though they only had one guitarist. I’m not complaining, though – I really like these jams, especially the really long ones. “Halleluwah” is the most famous track here, and it holds the distinction of being the only 18-minute jam my prog-hating, indie-loving friend really likes. Maybe it’s because none of the participants seem overly concerned with showing off – except possibly Jaki Liebezeit, who at one early point manages to fit some insane skittering fills into his drunken-robot rhythms without breaking the flow – or maybe it’s because Damo Suzuki is a vocalist so endearingly unskilled as to make the average indie rocker sound like Freddie Mercury by comparison. He can’t really carry a tune, but the band never really give him any tunes to carry so that’s no problem. This album is about rhythms and adventures – melody ain’t important.

Anyway, “Halleluwah” is good fun the whole way through. There’s some violin playing that sounds like it’s scraping at the edge of the universe and Suzuki gets steadily more off his head as it goes – good for him! Towards the end, some swirling synths come in and the whole edifice sounds like it’s levitating, as if Stonehenge has decided it wants to visit the moon. It’s music that’s having a real good time existing, and by extension I have a damn good time listening to it. It’s a surprisingly accessible track, actually – the guitar solos could, for the most part, fit onto any ol’ rock song (they’d improve the vast majority of them, mind) and the bassist is playing a pretty funky rhythm for most of it. Same goes for most of the songs here – there’s always a lovely contrast between the drumming, keys and rhythm guitar, which are almost invariably of weirdo persuasion, and the fairly ordinary bass and lead.

Mind you, all that normality totally disappears on a couple of these tracks. I love “Aumgn” even more than “Halleluwah”, and that dispenses with all the more accessible elements of “Halleluwah” and just goes full-on freaky. It’s 17 minutes of freeform dark ambience, presumably improvised (‘cos how do you compose something like this?) and named after the only lyric. Suzuki’s not present on this one, and instead it falls to keyboardist Irmin Schmidt to repeatedly intone the sound “AAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMGGGGGGGGGGNNNNNNNNNNNN!” like a God creating the universe as the instruments lurch and slurch along in a glacial fog-sludge behind him. I can scarcely identify any of the instruments beyond the guitar – the rest is a bunch of fear groans and worried scrapes, with the occasional injection of something identifiable like a stumbling zombie bassline or a bat-wing pitter-patter on the drums. It’s all mighty atmospheric and fairly wonderful, and most interestingly of all is that it ain’t remotely corny like a lot of dark and ominous tone pieces. Even the demented church organ that comes in near the end works just fine.

Oh, and then there’s “Peking O”. Liebezeit claimed to hate free jazz, but I’ll claim he’s a fuckin’ poser because this is totally free jazz, at least the middle segment. It’s got Suzuki finally reaching spiritual apotheosis and becoming one with his inner self, speaking (or rather shouting) in tongues while a drum machine suffers a seizure and a keyboard gets drunk behind him. Even in the more held-together parts of this song, all the instruments sound like they’ve been infected with Cordyceps, sort of woozily stammering about in a vaguely coherent fashion before collapsing into freeform ridiculousness. Is it good? Yeah, I think so, but it’s not the sort of thing I can take entirely seriously – I mean, if you didn’t have a good chuckle the first time you heard Suzuki abandon all pretence of sanity and collapse into fits of babbling then I’m not sure I understand you. There’s a really apocalyptic noise-guitar at one point that sort of predicts the stuff experimental rock would start to fully explore in about ten years, and eventually the whole thing just ends when somebody switches off the tape. It’s all a bunch of good fun – just be prepared for some weird looks if you listen to it for the first time in the shower, as I did.

There’s four other songs on here, too. They’re all great, but I don’t really care about ‘em. I mean, how am I meant to when they share an album with those three? “Mushroom” has these really cool laserbeam guitars, “Oh Yeah” runs Suzuki’s vocals backwards for the first half and it sounds great, “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea” has a cool acoustic lead guitar that kinda sounds like a fragmented prism version of the American Western style, and “Paperhouse” sets the whole scene nicely, but in the end they’re all overshadowed by those big centrepieces. It’s a fuckin’ awesome album, though – a titanic edifice honouring the raw power of crazy bullshit. A lot of my favourite underground music wouldn’t exist without it, either. And it’s so much fun! I dunno if these guys took themselves seriously, but the music itself certainly doesn’t – this is a silly romp that also just happens to be total genius. Best album I’ve heard in this game so far, for sure.
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Author: tomymostalas

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