RODRIGUEZ – Cold Fact (1970)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Ah, 1970! Right in the middle of the golden age of rock music, amidst such epically successful records like Paranoid, After the Gold Rush, Led Zeppelin III or Cosmo’s Factory, comes this effort by initially little-known singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. Who is this Detroit-born Mexican-American with cool shades and a weird first name (given to him because he was the sixth child in his family)? Is he another Dylan-Donovan-Cat Stevens rip-off or the great forgotten hero of the hippie generation, overlooked in every country but South Africa and Australia? Yeah I’m serious, look it up if you don’t believe me – in South Africa they even thought he was dead at some point, with his fans considering him a great tragic artist akin to Morrison or Hendrix. Then a couple of decades later they found out he was alive and revived his career, but that’s another story… So who is this Sugar Man of rock music after all?

It turns out that he is just a very good songwriter and a pretty idiosyncratic singer who was merely unlucky to finish his recording career too early (after exactly two albums). Cold Fact is his debut and frankly it doesn’t feel much like a debut album – Rodriguez appears here already as an accomplished musician who has enough great material for a brilliant 30+ minutes LP. 

And it is partly true as well – he polished his songs by performing them in bars and clubs for several years before releasing this album, so Cold Fact is a result of a lot of hard work that somehow still feels almost effortless. Of course, “Sugar Man” is his calling card, his most famous and memorable song, but this is not the case of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” at all, because the other tracks are in fact worthy of your attention as well. My particular favourites include the raunchy guitar-driven “Only Good for Conversation”, the lyrically bitter “Hate Street Dialogue” and the light-heartedly melodic “I Wonder”. I would also love to praise the hell out of playing and singing but I’m afraid this review will get overlong and boring if I start describing it in too much detail. So I’ll just say that the eclectic instrumentation is a delight to my ears, and Sixto’s singing breathes personality and gives off a shining charisma – I mean you can actually FEEL what kind of a man he is merely from the way he delivers these verses. He’s obviously a swell guy, this Rodriguez, though slightly disillusioned by the world around him. And have I already mentioned his cool shades? Well they are cool enough to mention them twice, and when you hear these songs you can almost see them in front of your eyes. And that calm and collected fella behind them, too.

So, long story short, this album rules, it might actually become one of my favourite albums of 1970. That’s a cold fact for you. Take care.

RAGNARÖK – Ragnarök (1976)

Review by: B. B. Fultz
Album assigned by: A.A

Ragnarök is a Swedish band from the seventies. A number of sources list them as “progressive folk” in the vein of Jethro Tull. For me, this distinction is clear for Tull because I’m familiar with the textures of medieval English folk music, but I have little idea how Swedish folk/traditional music sounds, so I’ll have to take their word for it. From what I remember of Nordic mythology, Ragnarök roughly translates to “Twilight of the Gods” — the final war that heralds the end of the old gods and the old world. The album cover does indeed depict a Twilight sky, but no apocalyptic battles … just a shadowy figure on a bicycle riding down a winding country road toward an oncoming bus. I do not know who is riding the bike or who is driving the bus, and there is no clear indication whether the two will pass one another or collide head on, so the message is unclear. On the cover, the umlaut-dots in “Ragnarök” look like two more stars in the night sky. Who knows, maybe they are? In stark contrast to the name, the cover is very pastoral, almost idyllic. The looming black cloud seems to be the only hint that something ominous could be on the way.
The reason I’ve tried to decipher the album cover is because the music itself has no lyrics, so it doesn’t explain what any of this has to do with the end of the world. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool name for a band?
The music itself is essentially an acoustic tapestry of different moods and textures. The “progressive folk” label is misleading because it has none of the trademark elements of Prog. No futuristic sound effects or Keith Emerson synth solos here. In fact I don’t think there ARE any synthesizers on this album, and very little keyboards. About the only real connection to Prog is an occasional jazz influence on the guitar solos and some tricky drum syncopations. It’s a lot closer to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull than it is to ELP or Yes. The song titles are in Swedish, but I listened to the songs before I deciphered the titles, to absorb the various moods neutrally. The album mostly follows a folk pattern, yet there are a variety of subtle nuances here.
Färval Köpenhamn (translated to “Father Choice in Dubai?” … I split up Farval syllabically, so I’m not sure of the accuracy here) begins the album on a simple folk pattern of interwoven acoustic guitars in the style of David Gilmour (both the early and latter days of Pink Floyd) crossed with something else I can’t recall. It’s wistful sounding in that way a good Gilmour acoustic track is. This Pink Floydish quality recurs in several songs, including the very next song, called Promenader (“Walks”) … a longer and more complex song with an attractive guitar melody and spacey/dreamy solos laid atop a mellow jazzy background. Stoner rock of sorts, but of very high quality.
Nybakat bröd (“Freshly Baked Bread”) shifts gears into a mid-tempo medieval ballad. As soon as I heard the opening notes, I thought Jethro Tull … amusingly, a few seconds later a flute made its first appearance on the album, and I had to smile (did I call it, or what?). If you heard this without knowing all of Tull’s back catalogue you could easily confuse it for one of Ian Anderson’s Elizabethan forays. Purposeful and meticulous minstrel-strumming with a sense of forward motion. Yet ere you climb on your steed and make haste, it is over, and we’re falling into the Dagarnas Skum (“Days of Foam”) and another Pink Floydian fugue state. The longest song on the album, it begins almost too softly to be heard, climbing out of the gloom in a way reminiscent of “Echoes.” It has some VERY Gilmour-sounding guitar playing, and all of these surreal little background chirps and chimes that make the whole thing sound somewhere halfway between dreaming and waking. When the flute comes in, it sounds so right it seems almost preordained. Soft sibilant percussion appears and intertwines with the rest, sometimes steadily, sometimes in convoluted little syncopations. The whole thing is amazing — if I didn’t know the band I would swear I was listening to early 70s Pink Floyd at the top of their game. I can only assume the Foam in the title is sea-foam … it’s a dreamy undersea world, like Echoes, where “everything is green and submarine.” The finale of Side One, beautiful and sad and deep, a song where everything flows together just so, like some fable that gets better with each retelling. Simply a great piece of music.
Side Two begins with a return to the land of Tull, and Ragnarök’s answer to Bouree’ … a super-short (44 seconds) flute solo called Polska fran Kalmar (“Polish From Kalmar”) and essentially the prelude Fabriksfunky (“Factory Funky?” Not sure on this one). Fabriksfunky is an interesting one, another smooth jazz-rocker reminiscent of Robin Trower. The rhythm section as well as the tone of the guitar solos all remind me of the Trower song “Somebody’s Calling” — one of his best, by the way. Then things slow down a little again with Tatanga mani (“Walking Buffalo” and the only non-Swedish title, apparently it’s borrowed from Amerindian dialects). This is the one that most reminds me of a Yes song, at least in the beginning. The tumbling acoustic runs are reminiscent of Steve Howe’s better moments. The first half of the song consists of these noodling little acoustic fingerings, almost like it’s looking for direction. Partway through it turns into something quite different, a kind of Flamenco lounge number on the acoustic with nifty little bass runs. Somehow they bring the flute into it toward the end. And somehow it works. Don’t ask me how though. It’s really more like “aimlessly wandering buffalo” or maybe “schizophrenic buffalo looking for its medication” because it never sounds like the same song for long. It gets a little disorienting at times, but at least it’s never dull.
The last few songs don’t cover much new ground — Fjottot (no idea what it means) brings us back to ELP. It has a bouncy circus-like sound with an almost hurdy-gurdy style background, like you caught Keith Emerson in a playful mood and then he realized you were there and abruptly stopped playing after a minute and a half of noodling around. It’s a little too short, but it’s fun while it lasts. Stiltje-uppbrott (“Lull Breakup”) returns to a solemn introspective mood, at least at first, then breaks into a rousing medieval-esque acoustic barrage complete with a very emphatic flute (back to Tull again). I’m guessing it’s about the lonely period after a romantic break-up (the “lull” between partners) where one is in a numb lethargy and then suddenly snaps out of it. The closing song Vattenpussar (“Water Kisses”) starts very softly with wistful sounding little chiming keyboard notes weaving with a lonely and bluesy electric guitar, building into a strange kind of jazz-rock-blues thing that I can’t exactly describe, with a horns section (at least they sound like horns) that verges on something from Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, or almost … then dwindles back to its soft beginnings … then ends. It was a good song to end the album on because somehow it just SOUNDS like a coda. But don’t ask me exactly how or why.
For an album where most of the songs follow a similar theme, I’m a little surprised this review turned out so long. These are all basically guitar-based folk songs, aside from the one flute solo (which was basically a prologue to a guitar song). But there’s so much going on, so many different moods and textures and shadings of meaning, that it seems impossible to do it justice with a brief review. George might be able to pull that off, but I don’t think I can. This music was nothing totally new or unique, not even back in 1976, and they seem to borrow from a lot of other, more famous bands. Yet they mix these elements in a novel way, making it all somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what freshly-baked bread or sea foam or buffalos have to do with the end of the world, but even if I don’t understand it, I still feel like I “get” it. This is not an album of certainties, it’s an album of nuances. In fact it’s so nuanced I think adding lyrics would just have been a distraction. It’s an amazing rainbow of moods and emotions and whimseys, and an ideal example of what a few competent musicians are capable of when they stop trying to explain life and the world and everything, and simply concentrate on making good music. This is an album of contemporary folk rock and that’s about it, so I suppose it’s nothing special. But not being special is what makes it so special. Thumbs up, 4 or 5 stars, whatever … just go listen to it. This is an album that should be heard, and heard often.

GROVER WASHINGTON JR. – Mister Magic (1975)

Review by: Syd Spence

Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I’ve always loved the idea of jazz fusion. Take the blistering Coltrane style sax solo, slap it over a thick diamond hard funk groove, and you’d be nearing audio perfection. Yet, barring a few Miles Davis albums, I’ve been perennially disappointed by it and I think I’ve figured out why. See most of the Jazz Fusion artists are old bop pros, far from their experimental youth. They reach the ‘70s and go, “the kids are diggin this funk stuff, with its simple rhythms and electric bass. Hey, why don’t we combine smooth jazz melodies with these popular rhythms. Then we will make so much dough we can start buying smack again.” Essentially, a lot of jazz fusion like Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, etc sounds to my ears like proto Kenny G. It’s a little more academic (with it’s weird time signatures), but in the end it’s generally easy listening, and lacking that Coltrane edge. It’s like the Jazz equivalent of AOR, it’s not quite adult contemporary but it’s getting there. 

Anyways, that leaves us to this album, Mr. Magic, which exudes literally all those qualities. Its melodies are smooth, the instrumentation is tight, the arrangements are a little quirky (to a non jazz ear). But the whole thing is so damn safe that it’s just ready made for a some adventurous elevator. 

Case in point, the star of the show, the 12 minute long centerpiece, “Earth Tones.” The track starts with the band creating a tremendous near psychedelic ambience with it’s mix of electric piano, animal sounds and bass noodling. And then horns and drums, bass come in and it sounds great, just thick and awesome, but then your mind focuses on the melody and … it’s just, well it sounds like music used for scene changes in a ‘70s made for tv movie. Then they mess with the time signature and Grover comes in does some jazz soloing business and it sounds great again, and then it’s time for another scene change in The Young and the Restless. And this happens throughout the 12 minutes, cool jazz funkery, periodicly being interupted by that all too friendly melody. And this is the most adventurous and interesting track of the bunch, completely ruined by such a conventional melody. 

The rest of the album varies’ from smooth jazz meets hollywood strings to limp funk tunes. The best of which is probably Black Frost. It’s pretty much a straight funk tune that’s just missing that James Brown spark. It’s not bad, but not really something you need either. 

Overall, I don’t like jazz fusion but if you do, you’d probably love this record. Just go in expecting that cool smooth academic jazz fusion like the Weather Report. Me, I’ll continue fantasizing about John Coltrane joining Parliament. 

RICHARD WAHNFRIED – Time Actor – Pop Meets Art (1979)

Review by: Michael Strait

Album assigned by: Alex Alex

1. Review the lazy pile of half-assed New Age dogshit called “Time Actor – Pop Meets Art” in your own words.

Wompleplomb flamblefree gonkreelablymp, fuhreezuhraahmooraamaramp truhjaeon cloegaienity. Yggyssill, graeik hoawoar buhfbleex. Furgur wemp, fleemin’ huemp, treemin’ guemp. Howizzle flowizzle dreemtin barowgn glief. Hue juer guerk muerkc, uert fluert blluert. Agomanie flogomanie trigonometry, yut brutaus plusbauf monasteriére. Och, gob niven aouah, jyrael pirouous fligounous. Compend twend im deef drizzle, heef blizzie gish wiq twred. Blwed. Flouyer boyer ges ferail. Nef zeem hef dweem. Kim dwim babadabahabanompliand. Ees! Grewn lichd jin kyriou. Nyriou fyriou. Loumba nervinenan jewgynian Kheiffleferph. Fronz. Minur. Jawspoke. Nape ig tynga. Kouranime.

Ib fluxing wucks. Rittums teknu, maim nou aeia. Vax roiiunous ej waylye. Sintik raeyl, obverm troump. Enkire flurm bebsting webstire. Vout yek, koup vek. Woxkindon. Loir foir doir moir hoir indescellent maim sarve. Verm cykillac, skwerm fibrillosac. Naie! Hordigaldiganees imfrexnesh impwort habextually ravert. Kyro kiro niro eero. Mongwellpasaik hwim ingrix tred breathalyzik. Hua! Bem trompleflump.

(Apologies to Bill Watterson.)

JEAN MICHEL JARRE – Équinoxe (1978)

Review by: Ed Luo
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

The second of French composer Jean Michel Jarre’s string of progressive electronic albums that gained him mainstream success in the late 1970s, after 1976’s Oxygène. I really liked Oxygène when I first listened to it a couple months back, and Équinoxe is a fine follow-up to that. The composition throughout stays at a moderately uptempo pace, with the dynamics and different themes shifting consistently so it doesn’t become too monotonous while still keeping you in a trance.

And then it ends with a bit of what sounds like street organ music, which is a hoot.

Anyways, if you’re a fan of other progressive electronic composers like Vangelis, Klaus Schulze and the like, listening to Équinoxe (and Oxygène) is well worth your time.

AKSAK MABOUL – Un Peu de l’Âme des Bandits (1980)

Review by: Dominic Linde
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Aksak Maboul’s Un Peu De L’Ame Des Bandits starts strongly with a Bo Diddley beat punctuated by agonized singing/screaming and instrumental passages sounding like a cross between Faust and klezmer. And though the album continues to be filled with strong moments throughout, it really meanders as a whole. Avant jam after another make up the bulk of the album (though I can’t really say what is jamming here and what was written) culminating with the impressive “Bosses De Crosses.” Countermelodies and much of the guitar work sounds like it’s straight from the Residents and Snakefinger, but this collective is comprised of much better musicians than the earlier avant group.

I feel guilty for reducing the group to a bunch of comparisons, though those other bands came to mind pretty frequently upon listen. However, I do want to make it clear that this is interesting, enjoyable music. Dissonant, yet melodic. Saxophones burst into counterpoints that rub and run away. The electric violin is always a welcome addition. There are sound effects galore (I think I hear a toilet flushing in the final track?) and grunts and groans sneak their way into the mix. It’s avant-garde. It’s good.

DEATH IN JUNE – But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? (1992)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Jonathan Moss

When I was assigned this album, I was told it was by “possibly Nazi neo-folk band” Death in June. That’s one hell of an opener.

Fortunately for this reviewer, if the band does indeed have Nazi sympathies they weren’t especially prevalent throughout this album. Unfortunately, the quality of Symbols Shatter’s lyrics isn’t matched by its music; it may not be obviously neo-fascist neo-folk, but neither is it particularly interesting neo-folk.

Lyrically, this is an mostly fantastic collection of songs. Black imagery and ironic travesties of religious messages abound (four of the tracks are reworkings of ditties by Jim Jones—yes, that Jim Jones), painting sardonically nightmarish visions of a world on the brink of Armageddon. The overall sentiment does fall victim to the same problem I have with the Manic Street Preachers—the sheer determination to wallow in pessimism can come off as juvenile—but there’s enough craft to the songs’ wordsmithery that that can be overlooked.

Alas, the musical accompaniment isn’t equal to the text—it’s hard to distinguish one song from another in my memory because of a relative genericism. There’s an echoey, spacey quality to the production that actively works against it in the worst possible way, taking all the intimacy of the recordings and sucking it away. Combine this washed-out production with a consistent lack of melodicism and preponderance of samey arrangements—lazily strummed acoustic guitar with occasional flourishes of brass—and the songs become obscured by haze. If Douglas P.’s vocals were suitably arresting this could have been overcome, but they like his music are flat and droning. Thus what’s arresting on the page becomes a struggle to pay attention to in one’s ears.

And so, to my most alas, I set aside Symbols Shatter in all likelihood never to return. When it comes to neo-Nazis and music, I’ll settle for a rewatch of Green Room.