Saturday, February 24, 2018

Tago Mago (1971)

There's no end of informative details and anecdotes about this classic so-called "krautrock" double LP by Can, straight out of the classic rock era. The obvious forebears are Bitches Brew and Ummagumma. Many argue for it as the influential band's best. The webzine Drowned in Sound once hailed it as the single most influential rock album ever made (doubtless aware of the Velvet Underground's banana album and brazenly challenging its accepted supremacy). Bobby Gillespie, of the Jesus and Mary Chain and later Primal Scream, characterized the album as "not American, not rock 'n' roll, but mysterious and European." It was recorded in a castle in Germany where the members of Can were living rent-free for a year. They discovered the first-time vocalist, Japanese national Damo Suzuki, busking on the streets. It's tempting to take it beyond European and label it Axis, but that's not fair. No doubt they are all democrats. Still, Aleister Crowley has something to do with Tago Mago, and the marshalled forces of light and darkness are referred to frequently in descriptions. Dreamy and grinding, with a heavy bottom, an unusual approach to vocals, and much space for air, this music is frankly hard to describe. The mood is stiff, Teutonic, bashing, yet capable of both laying in a groove and of floating free and weightless. There's a lead guitar (Michael Karoli) but it's generally on equal terms with the rhythm section. Off to the side is an erratic vocalist. Tago Mago is often marked by special effects of editing and splicing, Teo Macero style. "Oh Yeah" (7:22) starts with the vocal track running backward, and most of these pieces are stitched together from multiple sessions. There's well over an hour of music spread across seven tracks—two alone are whole album sides each and generally my favorites here because they so generously offer so much space in which to roam. "Halleluhwah" clarifies the powers of redundancy in rhythm, pushing Holger Czukay's bass and Jaki Liebezeit's pounding toms to the front—a piece of funk, studied and leaden in a way that paradoxically makes it work better. The other long one, "Aumgn," is much more instrumental and experimental, mysterious and full of strange sounds on which the mind easily projects: animals, wind, water, heavy machinery. Groaning. It's psychedelic in the dark vein pursued by Acid Mothers Temple—a head trip, sometimes making me slightly uneasy. These are good people, aren't they? They certainly have powers. On the matter of light versus darkness, the prevailing sense for me is that the first half (album/disc) is more of the former and the second more of the latter. Or, this works for me too, the potent churning rhythmic elements represent dark elemental forces of deep woods and jungles (at night with bonfires), with the pieces of melody and arrangements as innocent creatures of the realm in the light of day. Bucolic daytime woods scenes alternating with howling Witches' Sabbath bacchanalias at night. It must be winter in this album because there's generally more dark and it's cold. For all its freewheeling energy, it's clinical. Tago Mago is proof that anything can happen from a castle in Germany where you live rent-free.

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