TC MATIC – L’Apache (1982)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

I’m always down for post-punk, so this album was a good recommendation for me. I’m so married to that school of sound that I knew that I’d be keeping this album for my collection after only listening to the first three tracks.

The sound here is reminiscent of Ian Dury, in that they’re a very tight funk-influenced band backing up an eccentric-sounding vocalist. The music is less diverse and inventive than Dury’s, however. Nonetheless, their music still has a certain cleverness to it that makes it attractive to me.

The English language lyrics were unexpected, but are a pleasant surprise. Considering that and the accessible (by the standards of the time) sound, it’s a wonder that these guys didn’t make any waves anywhere outside of Belgium. I fully expect them to become more well-known on an international scale after one of the members dies, like what happened with Soda Stereo (who I still have to listen to in full sometime).
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THE YOUNG GODS – L’Eau Rouge (1989)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: A.A

The Young Gods are an industrial rock band from Switzerland that was formed in 1987. In 1989 they released “L’Eau Rouge”. Which is a delicious album. A rock album. ‘Rock’ as in ‘Adrenaline Music for the Young, Courageous and Romantic’. And it kicks ass, as the saying goes.
 
Though not revolutionary in any sense it offers it’s very own and well balanced mixture of elements already known in industrial music.
 
The album is stitched together from samples. Sampled metal guitars (Motörhead meets Killing Joke meets Anthrax), Front 242 style pulsating beats, samples of various styles of classical music and, most uniquely, samples of fairground organs and accordeons as used in musette, middle European cabaret music and french chansons.
 
The album is extremely tastefully produced by fellow switzer Roli Mosimann, collaborator with Foetus in his cockrock-parody Wiseblood project and former drummer of the Swans. Both influences are quite obvious in their music. From Foetus they borrowed the samples of classical music, – in the vein of Stravinsky and Wagner & horror movie soundtracks strings. From the Swans the extremely heavy drum sound and sonic clarity. Traces of vintage NDW acts like Grauzone (also from Switzerland) and Palais Schaumburg can be heard too. And Laibach, by the way, a band that has the use of classical samples in common with Foetus. Also a band that never eschewed a martial drum beat when one was called for.
 
But The Young Gods didn’t inherit the brutality and atonality that made the industrial predecessors mentioned at times so harsh and to some ears unlistenable. L’Eau Rouge is a very accessible album in which the various elements come together in a logical and organic manner. It is true that none of the elements mentioned are unique. The Beatles sampled fairground organs on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and Foetus did the same on “Finely Honed Machine”. Pig also used that sound on Hildelinde. Ah, and not to mention Tom Waits. Samples from classical music and horror movie soundtracks were, by the 1980’s, all over the place of course. What sets the Young Gods apart though is the effectivity with which the band uses these elements in a heavy rock context. Without sounding overwrought or willfully experimental. And pretty much sounding like a missing link between Laibach and Rammstein, come to think of it.
 
Without sounding morbid too. Though I can’t comment on the lyrics. My french is not good enough for that. I read somewhere that the title “L’Eau Rouge” refers to menstruation and I think that the track “Charlotte” is about female masturbation. But that’s as far is my interpretation of the lyrics goes. However, “L’Eau Rouge” does not sound like it was created by a bunch of sickos. It just sounds too light, too accessible for that (but not quite Right Said Fred yet).
 
The album is consistent all the way. But there are some favorite tracks: the first track; the title song “L’Eau Rouge” opens in waltz time signature with the fairground organs and chansonesque vocals in place. Then it gets sprinkled with drops of classical sounding strings and just when you think it’ll explode in a relentless 4/4 beat something completely different happens. That’s a perfect opener. The second song, “Rue des Tempêtes” is a breakneck speed metal song, the best Ministry song the Ministry never did. “Charlotte” too uses the fairground organs in 2/4 time signature and with bits of accordeon actually develops into a very pretty song. And on “Les Enfants” the band uses the classical samples in an oragstic manner and to such a great effect that it has Laibach flat on it’s back.
 
I have one complaint. The singer, Franz Treichler, is trying very hard to bellow and growl in the customary Foetus/Michael Gira/Nick Cave-in-his-Birthday-Suit manner and his voice is just not forceful and expressive enough to pull it off. So he relies on layers of echo but still doesn’t really convince me that he’s not a nice college-educated boy. Roli Mosimann should have advised him to develop his own style.
 
But all in all it was a pleasure to meet “L’Eau Rouge”.

MANASSAS – Manassas (1972)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Jonathan Birch

By the time he left home in 1975, when I was seven, my brother Fred must have had about fifty rock albums. There are three categories: in the first are the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember liking the music (for example Relics, After the Goldrush and Full House). In the second the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember disliking the music (for example Tommy, Fragile and Okie). In the third are those of which I only remember the cover. Stephen Stills Manassas is in the third. And it’s the only one in that category, now that I think of it.

I must have been unimpressed with the music and impressed with the cover. I still think it has a very good cover. That’s one of the assets of the album; if you don’t like the music you can always hang it on your wall. It is that good.

Manassas is very much a product of the early seventies when rock musicians operated under the general assumption that they had created, in Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury mainly but in other places as well, a revolution of peace and love. A chain of events that became known, simplified, as the sixties, or the Sexual Revolution or the Age of Aquarius. You know, man!.. Most, if not all, of the “rock music” in the seventies was inspired by those events. The inspiration could take the form of retreat, (Dylan becoming a family man and joyfully singing about the joy of bundles of joy and spreading the joy of country music) or the inspiration could be a counter reaction (anyone from Lou Reed to Bowie to Black Sabbath embracing Satan and sarcasm). And by the time Manassas came out some of the more intelligent rock stars had second thoughts about it (like John Lennon, Neil Young and Jackson Browne). But many rock musicians weren’t that perceptive and were not too modest to proclaim themselves the Gods of the new revolution and spread it’s euphoria through words and music. A euphoria that now, to my ears, sounds false and stale.

Stephen Stills was one of the latter. No wonder, he was one of the chief perpetrators in Woodstock.(So was Neil Young, by the way, but he may have written the song about Stills but it really is he: The Loner.)

And so it’s Post-Woodstock Euphoria that you are served on Manassas. And I do have the impression it is served at least routinely, almost against the will of the servers. Reluctantly. Because in spite of all the pomp and circumstance, all the professionalism and all the self congratulatory swagger I miss the spirit the sincerity and energy of rock and roll in most of the music on Manassas. And to be honest, I miss it in a lot of music from that era.There’s been a trade in; youthful exuberance for stale, routine euphoria. And self-importance.

That you can hear on Manassas. Mainly in the rock songs. It’s in the wide-eyed, over-emoting “sincere”, “soulfull” singing style of Stills. It’s in the arrangements, stuffed to the brim with embellishments; leaving the songs no room to breathe. It’s in the hooks of said songs; there aren’t any. And it’s in the pretentious but meaningless lyrics like:

“A superb point of reference detected
becomes absurd with a moment’s reflection
leaves one a passage of simple thought
not sagging with excess weight of excess baggage
and we move around
We move around “

Manassas was an attempt of Stephen Stills to break away from the dependance on Crosby and Nash and finally Young. So he recruited a number of usual suspects of which Chris Hillman is the most wellknown. But it never really became a functioning unit because of various members joining all kinds of other timely outfits, not rarely with the already mentioned Young, Crosby and Nash in different constellations. It is fun reading up on the history of Manassas, I think they call it incestuous?

Actually, I have the impression that being a rock star was an ordeal for Stills et al. Much of the album sounds like hard labor and mostly so the rock songs. I feel pity for them; to be a major figurehead of such a sea of hair and remain godlike about it must be hard. (By the way; there are two songs with lyrics dedicated to the life and loves of a rock’n’roll star so Stills must have been reflecting on that subject a lot. Unfortunately the lyrics are very shallow and clichéd.)

So that’s my main impression of the album; that it sounds tired and it’s energy sounds second-handed and artificial. And in that it is symptomatic of a lot of classic rock. It is probably needless to say that I’m not a big fan of classic rock, so there you have it.

But Manassas does have a lot of redeeming qualities. It is a double album of which side 1 (The Raven) and side 4 (Rock & Roll is Here to Stay) consist mainly of rock songs (sometimes more bluesy and sometimes a bit funky). Side 1 is arranged like a suite,with rapid transitions from one song to another so that you don’t get bored and almost fail to notice there are no actual songs. Side 4 offers no such pleasure; the songs sound obstipated and overlong. It closes with a bluesy acoustic solo song “Blues Man” on which Stills ruminates about the deaths of Al Wilson, Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix. Unfortunately the song is unremarkable and it’s lyrics so bad that it’s truly an embarrassment. Both sides mentioned are at some points livened up by Latin percussion. Which is welcome.

Side 3 (“Consider”) is also quite unremarkable; it is filled with folk rock songs and none of them stand out in any way except the hippy-sentimental “Johnny’s Garden”. Funny lyrics that one has, too:

“There’s a place
I can get to
Where I’m safe
From the city blues
And its green
And its quiet
Only trouble was
I had to buy it
And I’ll do anything
I got to do
Cut my hair and
Shine my shoes”

Now at least we know that Stills cut his own hair, quite unlike his fellow golden retriever Crosby who would rather die than do any such thing because he felt like he owed it someone, which explains why Stills looks better in photographs. And the moustache, or rather: absence thereof, of course.

Where was I? Oh yes: redeeming qualities. There are six, apart from those already mentioned. Six splendid, yes fantastic country-rock songs on the second side of the album (“The Wilderness”). Oh, maybe five and a half, because I find “Don’t look at my shadow” a bit corny. But the other ones are really great, heartfelt and not mangled by rock star posturing. Of these the break-up song “So Begins the Task” is the best; easily one of the best songs I heard for months.

Conclusion: Manassas is an album that’s seriously flawed by the stylistics of the era in which it was created and the position the creator had in that era. But it still has a lot going for it. And if you wish to demonstrate how country rock offered an escape from the deathtrap of rock goddism for rock stars in the early 70’s Manassas is extremely useful. & do listen to the Wilderness!

COLD SPECKS – Neuroplasticity (2014)

Review by: Lex Alfonso
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Jangly guitar leads. Take a shot.
 
After over half a decade of listening to albums as intently as a guy with no life might, I’ve developed certain Pavlovian responses to things. To wit, a lot of Neuroplasticity triggered an immediate and inexplicable sense of dread and exasperation. I slumped into my seat, blew out a short puff of air and my eyes rolled right around my head as if independently. This record is so ‘2010s indie’ that it is destined to age poorly. Every aspect of it feels like it was taken from another, more successful record. Post-rock guitar leads introduce the lion’s share of the tracks here. Bright synths chug away behind the mix. Vocalist Ladan Hussein croons away, fighting against a beating war drum. By 2014 these traits have been used and re-used so often they’re starting to look like Bill Buckner in the tenth inning. However, like Bill Buckner, it could just be that they’re misunderstood.
 
The real tragedy of Cold Specks is that, for all her unoriginality and for all the routine of it it’s not a bad record. Misguided? Sure. But through its faults it’s actually incredibly difficult to dislike. Be disappointed in, perhaps, but not dislike. It’s the consistency, partially. Consistency is the one trait it chose to be contrary to its predecessors. It’s short, for a start. That’s not the snooty “self-important-critic-who-has-given-up” critique it sounds like, either. I’m not sure when the world collectively decided to shun any LP that dropped below the arbitrary length of 45 minutes, but can we get over it, already? The album is paced brilliantly, each idea and concept present just as long as it needs to before gracefully segueing into the next song.  There is an attention to detail in the way these songs fade in and out that demonstrates a commendable commitment to the LP format. Each song concludes as if momentum is taking its course. Instrument after instrument stripping itself away until the song’s core essence is all that remains, lingering long enough on the palette to make its point before coming to a complete stop. The next track will, invariably, begin in a similar way, layers and depth added as your palette acclimates to it.
 
The record seeks to evoke an atmosphere more purposeful and paced than most of its contemporaries. Cold Specks describes herself as “doom-soul” and it fits. I’m hardly going to lobby for it to be a legitimate genre (I’m looking at you RateYourMusic.com) but when it works it works. The most direct comparison one could make (outside of the 2010s indie canon, at least) is Scott Walker’s pop opus Scott 3 for the kindred intent to favour atmosphere over melody. Neuroplasticity’s compositions seem almost secondary to the production and I can respect that. The melody only exists for the soundscapes to canvas themselves on and to give the voice a purpose. A proper balance might be appreciated by some but in a full length format Cold Specks’ priorities function perfectly well. Long story short, you won’t ever remember a tune from Neuroplasticity but you won’t mind.

Similar apathy cannot be lent to the production, sadly. The mixing is a bit all over the place. Its sole constant is, regrettably, the ear splitting favouritism it shows its rhythm section. If there’s one ongoing downfall to Neuroplasticity, it’s that. The rhythm section is garbage. It does everything it can to sabotage the atmosphere the record attempts to cultivate. It mostly succeeds, tragically. Each snare and each cymbal and each kick screams over the mix like it has something to prove. It shouldn’t be so proud of itself. The drumming is very rigid and awkward and feels purposefully contrary to the music. One would think a producer would want to hide that but, alas, here it is for all to see. It gets to be that in some tracks it’s the only thing you can hear. The only other instrument that even compares in terms of volume is Cold Specks’ voice itself. Certainly more understandable, but so many songs feel like adequate instrumental sections whispering meekly behind a duelling cacophony of soul crooning and drum rolls. The balance isn’t there. For something priding itself on atmosphere there’s really no excuse.
 
In the bigger picture, however, Neuroplasticity fails simply for its lack of ambition. It squanders a perfectly good vocalist and a perfectly good concept on being just more milquetoast indie malaise. Everything about it seems design-by-committee, born not out of a desire to be compelling or progressive, but out of determined artistic counterfeiting. “Post-rock is popular”, it seems to say, “let’s have post-rock instrumental sections.” “Synth-pop is coming back”, it continues, “How about we lead Let Loose the Dogs with some of that?” It’s a shame, too. It’s a perfectly functional record. But that’s just it. Far and away the best track is the last one, because it’s the only one that threatens to have a contrary idea. It becomes comatose, static, foreboding and it’s really rather thrilling. The rest of the album never comes anywhere close to that level of intimacy or depth. It never has an idea as big as “intimacy”. So while you can concede that the craft and workmanship put into it is perfectly fine, you must also acknowledge that it’s also the album’s biggest fault. Maybe it shouldn’t have been “fine”. Maybe it should have had the ambition to alienate or progress or do something that suggests it has humanity. What we’re left with is a beautifully written, beautifully composed, beautifully performed, beautifully sung carbon brick.
 
You might admire a carbon brick, but you’ll never love it.

XHOL CARAVAN – Electrip (1969)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: A.A

You have to listen to it four times.
Some days ago I listened to this album three times and after that I had pretty much figured out what to write about it:
  • That it’s supposed to be krautrock though I wouldn’t know what’s so kraut about it. Except for the fact that it’s German.
  • That to my ears it sounded more like generic early 70’s jazzy and proggy rock with touches of canterbury style psychedelica.
  • That I’m not qualified to make comments on the quality of the album is this is the genre I have the least affinity with.
  • That all in all it sounds competent and original enough for a recommendation to those that love the genre.
  • Just not for me.
But tonight I happened to listen to the damn thing for a fourth time on my bike on the way from work and heard quite a few pleasant and groovy instrumental passages. I don’t have the time nor the patience to go for a fifth helping of Electrip though.
So you have to listen to it yourself. Me, I’m all confused. I’m not gonna listen to any music for at least a week.

MATERIAL – Memory Serves (1981)

Review by: Ed Luo
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

So this was a wonderfully weird, groovy album. Material is basically one of the many vehicles for the great jazz bassist Bill Laswell and some other jazzy jazz friends of his, Michael Beihorn on synths and occasional pleasant vocals and Fred Maher on drums and percussion. There’s also some guest musicians as well, most notably the late, greater than great guitar maniac Sonny Sharrock and the avant-out-the-ass guitarist/violinist Fred Frith. The music of Memory Serves can basically be called a very wigged-out take on jazz-funk. Playful, funky basslines and jazzy, funky drumming and guitar playing is juxtaposed with all sort of weirdo sound effects throughout, sometimes for weirdo, nigh-nightmarish effect (“Metal Test”, “Silent Land”), but mostly to make things goofy and engaging throughout (the occasional ass-kicking Sharrock guitar playing helps as well). Oh, and there’s a bonus track on recent editions of the album, a really, really goofy electro take on Morricone’s theme for For a Few Dollars More, probably to end the album on a lighter note after “Silent Land”.

EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN – Perpetuum Mobile (2004)

Review by: A.A
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

For the ever-adventurous (and the occasionally-unsettling – but I’d say that depends more on your constitution) Einstürzende Neubauten, air compressors, car tyres and dried leaves are as good instruments as any to feature on an album. And 2004’s Perpetuum Mobile – released almost a quarter century since the band’s formation – certainly features a diverse range of them. A mere look at the album credits shows, in addition to the usual rock music mundanities, such delights as Hammond organ, clavichord, pianos of various varieties, radios, loops, plastic tubes, metal sheets, pedal steel guitar, accordion, vibraphone, euphonium, trombone, tuba (played by one Natascha Zickerick – totally digging that name), viola, violin, cello, and bells & whistles (literally). And yes, compressed air, tyres and the crunchy sonic textures produced using dried leaves certainly have their place too in the whole scheme of things here.

Intrigued as you are, you hit the Play button, to be instantaneously greeted by lethargic drones coaxed out of the aforementioned air compressor against a chugging rhythm with Blixa Bargeld’s distinctive later-era half-raconteur, half-hypnotist vocals. So it’s been decades since the days of stealing construction site equipment to craft dissonant punk-industrial pieces fraught with searing vocal angst à la Kollaps, and we now have a sophisticated, clinically charming storyteller backed by a post-postmodern orchestra. But what story are they trying to tell? Lyrically the album offers us some cues, though the details are sketchy: cold, permafrost, planets, air travel & intergalactic journeys, tsunamis, tornadoes, storms and floods. Often it seems to be about the very real struggles and experiences faced by the refugees to an unknown planet. Maybe the album name Perpetuum Mobile (meaning “continuous motion”, but also the continuous rapid succession of notes in a piece of music) is a reference to this continuous struggle as well? Indeed the first track Iche gehe jetzt though heavy on drones and percussions, has also subtle clavichord and organ touches (a technique also used on some other tracks with various keyboard instruments for a similar effect); another allusion to that bittersweet struggle for life on remote galactic habitats perhaps?

The namesake title track is where Einstürzende Neubauten pay homage to their more primal past with metal-sheet banging and a raucous shrill leading to blips and beeps of a possibly last transmission by people trapped inside a space shuttle going awry. And right next up is the Ein leichtes leises Säuseln, which could – with its melancholic pianos, sombre autumn vibe produced using crunching dried leaves, and gentle vocals – very well be an obituary of the previous track’s demised as a storm slowly gathers around the lonely survivor-narrator (role-played by Blixa) on the run from an unseen menace. Easily the most heart-touching track on the album.

Selbstportrait mit Kater continues lyrically with the ordeal of the protagonist, with its nonchalant play of bass and rattles (as if the intergalactic gods don’t care what becomes of poor Blixa), some Kraftwerk-reminiscent moments, and a hard percussion pattern recurring now and again – and here’s when Blixa candidly admits: “Life on other planets is difficult!”. Though things look bleak, a glimmer of hope is on the galactic horizon with Boreas. Maybe the other survivors have eventually reunited with Blixa, and now they travel across an icy wasteland looking for the asteroid that will take them to a safer haven. The cold Arctic ambiance and Blixa’s semi-hopeful vocals convey this desperation well. Ein seltener Vogel follows with its drony backdrop and cymbal percussion and seems to be about a rare bird – perhaps a phoenix – a sign of some hope to the weary narrator after his comrades seem to have disappeared in the wake of a torrential downpour.

Ozean und Brandung is the nondescript odd-one-out here. It just drones on and on for almost four minutes with seemingly no other purpose than to callously induce in the mind of the listener the empathy for the suffering and uncertainly faced by our friend the protagonist. Thankfully its successor Paradiesseits is aglow with an almost cheery Alpine beauty. Also Blixa seems happy at the relief he’s found from his troubles in some kind of a paradise or oasis and is finally enjoying the warmth of the sun by the water and feasting on fishes while his mentor the bird offers him instruction and advice in his dreams about the course he should pursue to describe his experiences in form of the very album we have before us. Lyrics I must admit I never expected to find on an industrial album!

The lyrical gears shift into English for Youme & Meyou (oh, did I mention they were predominantly German except for an English line here and there till now?) So the survivors have come together and cultivated an urban civilization modeled as best they could after Earth – with such familiar things as Starbucks, hotels, laptops and tangerines, though there’s some danger from radioactivity and natural calamities. And as Blixa says, if the future isn’t bright at least it’s colorful. Musically, however, the track is rather plain and lackluster with drawn-out synth passages over subdued tribal rhythms.

I would venture on to describe Der Weg ins Freie as an octane-fueled EBM (Electro Body Music) track reminiscent somewhat of Front 242. But the piano flourishes give it a rather gravely soulful touch – a counterpoint to the catchy beats and blithe vocals. The lyrics seemingly allude to the routine experiences of exploration and travels conducted by the now-settled narrator. Perhaps this is what these settlers dance to on the galactic electro-industrial clubs on their alien planet when they get bored with the rut. For me, easily a standout track.

Though their colony is firmly established, they haven’t yet found a sure, complete remedy for death and consequently Dead Friends (Around the Corner) is about venturing into some sort of technological limbo where your dead friends are preserved and maybe even artificially reanimated. Musically the track is not anything out of the ordinary, though it does have some moments of interesting percussion work. The album comes to an end with Grundstück – an almost clockwork-like piece chronicling some mechanized Buddhist ritual in a strange temple on our alien planet, with lyrical themes of putting up with a hazy, distant past.

Earlier I mentioned the sheer amount and diversity of the instrumentation but the band manages to successfully combine them organically and thankfully it does not lead to a tasteless sonic hotchpotch. And so ends this review bidding farewell to our alien colonist friends with some lines from the album:

Ich treibe Inzest mit den Sternen!
Ich treibe Inzest mit den Sternen!
Life on other planets is difficult!

68 / 100