Sunday, September 15, 2013

Living In and Out of Tune

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Can, Ege Bamyasi. The prog rock I loved as a teen was primly abstruse, pretentiously conceived, tightly arranged, and tight-assedly performed--basically, I received it as it was at least partly intended, as a kind of pseudo-neoclassical music with rock instrumentation. I’ve since discovered more to cherish in vintage Yes than ersatz classicism, as well as enough shades and varieties of so-called “classical” music to complicate any childlike notions I may have once had of its epitomizing “proper” culture exclusively made by and intended for grown-ups, so the misbegotten assumptions underpinning my one-time admiration for the likes of Brain Salad Surgery have more or less dissipated.

Probably one thing that helped clear the fog was this unsettling, infectious, utterly sui generis record from 1972. I’m actually not sure if progressive rock is the appropriate label for Can, the oddball German collective that made it, but when I first fell under its occult spell, in my mid-20s, it felt like a full-frontal assault on all the ponderous, literal-minded, twee prog rock I’d once revered. Here were long jams by mad virtuosos rife with harmonic and sonic and metric complexity that nevertheless sounded dangerous, funky, off-the-cuff, like they could fly apart at any moment. It was as if they’d taken the dark, demimonde vibe of the Doors, whom I’ve always found overrated, and the aggressive art-noise deadpan of the Velvet Underground, whom I love unreservedly despite their limitations as players, and hot-wired them to a smoking rhythm section and an erratic-like-a-fox punk-rock vocalist.

It’s an arresting mix, to say the least; when Can does dreamy psychedelia (“Sing Swan Song,” “Spoon”), there are sharp and sour edges to harsh the buzz; when they rock aggressively (“Pinch,” “Vitamin C”), there’s a surprising spareness and skitteriness that keeps you on your toes; when they do gleeful ’60s pop (“I’m So Green”), it takes some weird, dense tangents. In particular, the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit seems central to the Can effect, among many contenders for the ear’s attention (including variously swirling and piercing feedback and synth effects); on “Pinch,” for instance, his drums sounds somehow backward-tracked, while the busy bass-drum tattoo on “Vitamin C” is handled as matter-of-factly as if it were a bongo fill.

Lots of music, including prog rock, is lazily described as “layered,” but Ege Bamyasi showcases music that sounds piled up from so many found objects, selected nearly randomly and barely premeditated, but then in the moment of performance applied with deadly force and furious, single-minded concentration--pretty much the inverse of most prog rock, in other words.

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