Friday, September 4, 2009

September 4: Can, "Tago Mago"

Artist: Can
Album: Tago Mago
Year: 1971
Label: United Artists

As the late 1960's gave way to the 1970's, new sounds abounded throughout the music world, thanks to amazing musicians who turned music making into pure experiment. While bands like The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd gained great notoriety for their blending of rock with jazz and psychedelia, neither can lay claim to the title of "most experimental" band of the era. That title is undoubtedly held by a lesser known German band who simply went by the name Can. The purest example of a band that was lightyears ahead of its time, Can blended nearly every style of music, from classical to punk, from jazz to electronic, and the result is an extraordinary sound that has truly never been heard before or since their time. There are so many bands who have pulled influence from Can's music, and this is largely because the band was so experimental and musically adventurous. There are moments where one can hear sounds of later bands like Talking Heads and Joy Division within the same song, and this is what makes the songs of Can so fascinating. While the band has had a number of lineup changes, it is Can's second lineup, with Kenji "Damo" Suzuki on vocals that is widely considered to be the bands' creative height. Proof to this assertion is the fact that the bands' first album with Suzuki, their 1971 record, Tago Mago, is not only their finest musical effort, but one of the most original, extraordinary, and absolutely stunning albums ever recorded.

Formed in the late 1960's in Cologne, Germany, the influences of Can are very hard to place, as they draw from so many classic and more modern sounds that they truly defy description. At times their music is bright and fresh, while at other times, such as on the song "Aumgn," they are absolutely dark and frightening. Regardless of the mood, the sounds found on Tago Mago are always amazing, and when one considers the time period in which the album was released, the music becomes absolutely genius. Easily one the groups' most stunning compositions, clocking in at over eighteen minutes and taking up an entire side of the double LP, "Halleluwah" is a musical experience like no other ever recorded. Shifting from jazz to rock to truly avant moods and sounds, the song exemplifies everything that makes Can so amazing. While the length of the song, and the "jam" nature make the band sound more like the more psychedelic bands of the era, the music is darker and more experimental sounding, keeping Can in a grouping all of their own. The song grooves in some places, while in others, it stutters, and the overall effect of the song is truly stunning. While "Halleluwah" stands out due to its length and diverse nature, the truth is that every song on Tago Mago is equally brilliant, and this is a record that must be experienced firsthand to truly be understood and appreciated.

Each of Can's five band members are absolutely perfect throughout Tago Mago, and making music that sounds simultaneously primitive and decades ahead of its time is the true genius behind the bands' sound. Can's lead guitarist, Michael Karoli, is in fact the only member of the band who was in every lineup over the years. Though he would later contribute vocals and other instruments, on Tago Mago, he sticks to guitar, and his performance is truly superb. Using tones and loops that had never before been heard, Karoli's influence on musicians after him is absolutely undeniable. By far one of the most innovative and influential drummers in music history, Jaki Liebezeit's contributions to Tago Mago are truly stunning. His playing on "Halleluwah" overshadows everything else, as he perfectly executes so many different styles and tempos, all with equal aptitude. Truly advancing the "metronome" approach and sound, Liebezeit's playing is so amazing, that it is often impossible to distinguish his playing from programmed drums. Liebezeit also contributes double bass, as well as piano on "Peking O." and this further proves his amazing musical talents. Handling engineering and editing duties along with playing bass, Holger Czukay was at one point Michael Karoli's guitar teacher. Czukay is just as fantastic as his bandmates on Tago Mago, and it is largely his musical contributions that give the songs their grooving or dark moods. The final element in the musical picture of Can is keyboard player Irmin Schmidt. Having scored many films as well as conducting full orchestras for years before forming the band, his stylistic influence is quite clear, and it is his work that gives many of Can's songs their cinematic feel. Whether playing brilliant progressions or mood-making chords, Schmidt's contributions are absolutely fantastic throughout the album. The sounds and moods created by all of the musicians on Tago Mago make the record sound like nothing else ever heard, and it is a truly amazing musical experience.

For the early years of Can's career, as well as their debut album the vocals were handled by Malcolm Mooney. Rumor says that in 1970, Mooney was dealing with psychological issues, and his psychiatrist advised him that his mental health would greatly improve if he left the band. Having heard him playing on the streets of Munich, Can quickly recruited Kenji "Damo" Suzuki, and he actually performed with the band on the same night they asked if he wanted to join. Suzuki fits perfectly with the band, with his vocals running from more formal singing to shrieks and yelling on various tracks. He clearly understands the importance of mood over lyrics, and his vocals are often just as stunning as the music itself. There are also moments, such as on "Aumgn" where Suzuki mans and groans in lieu of lyrics, and he blends in perfectly with the soundscape, giving the song a dark, haunting, almost ghostly feel. Suzuki presents yet another side of his vocal abilities on Tago Mago's final track, "Bring Me Coffee or Tea," where his words are largely incoherent, yet they somehow work perfectly with the music and create a completely different, yet equally brilliant mood. It is his ability to adapt to the wide ranging moods and styles found on Tago Mago that make Kenji "Damo" Suzuki such a perfect fit for Can, and his vocal contributions have had just as much influence on later artists as any other aspect of the band.

Defying description and standing as a band that has a sound that has truly never been duplicated, Can remain one of the most original and musically stunning bands in history. Showing that no sound or style was off limits, their music runs from gloomy and spooky to more fast paced, winding moods. With Jaki Liebezeit leading the way, the bands' musicianship remains unrivaled, as each musician is beyond exceptionally talented, and their various musical backgrounds combine to create a sound that is well beyond the term "unique." Far beyond the term experimental or avant, the music of Can is simply like nothing else ever recorded, and the songs found on Tago Mago are clearly at least two decades ahead of their time. This is the genius of the band, and the fact that they still receive little credit for their contributions solidifies the fact that they were so far ahead of their time that an overwhelming majority of people simply could not grasp the musical concepts they were trying to convey. Adding Kenji "Damo" Suzuki as their vocalist takes the bands' songs to another level, and the chemistry he has with the band members is clear, as he brilliantly navigates each musical texture with equal precision, often adding musical touches that are nothing short of perfect. It cannot be overstated how unique the music of Can is, and one simply cannot grasp the bands' greatness without personally experiencing their magnificent and monumental 1971 release, Tago Mago.

Standout tracks: "Paperhouse," "Halleluwah," and "Aumgn."

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