Steve Reich – “Piano Phase” (1967)
Don’t miss this one. “Piano Phase” is as much an experience as a piece of music, and as an experience it profoundly affected the way I heard music, how I decided what was music. It gave me permission, as it were, to follow an impulse that was already growing in me when I first heard it age 20: to admit I loved sound first and foremost; if sound took a song form, great, but if not, that ruled nothing out. What mattered was the effect it had on my ears themselves, in my mind, in my heart–and a repeating shape could have as much of an effect as painterly ballad.
I still tend to perceive Reich’s music (especially the phase-based work) as shapes, visually as much as sonically, and I think this is because its constituent elements are so simple and laid bare at the very outset. “Piano Phase,” a simple duet run of twelve notes, played in a staccato, unsentimental fashion: clear, precise, perhaps slightly mechanical. And then these simple elements, with very few changes internally over the course of 20 minutes, are ever so slightly shifted: and instantly an ever-changing set of new, far more complex shapes begin to emerge, as the basic parts continue to slide past one another. And these evolving shapes are anything but mechanical, producing emotional reactions in me that are subtle in their nature, but wholly visceral.
It moves me as no other Modern artform can, because music is never primarily functional; more than any medium, a “functional” conceit no matter how austere must take temporal and emotional form, and beauty need not be rejected or destroyed. I find it fascinating that every time I hear the piece, the shapes are different than previous times, based on the volume listened at, the quality of the speakers, with headphones on a loud bus or in a forest–this is music that technically but more importantly musically is reborn each time it’s heard. [Reich is heard in several of my very favorite mixes at Musicophilia, which attempt to mirror Reich’s work in creating near-physical reality from sound.]
Fela Kuti – “Unknown Soldier” (1979)
Make the time for this track, I promise you won’t regret it. “The personal is political/the political is personal” doesn’t even come close to getting it for Fela Kuti. This track has everything that’s great about Fela’s music and Afrobeat–all participants serving the groove in the best JB’s-like way, some playing a repeating, individually tiny sound figure repeatedly for the duration of this 30-minute track in order to create something much larger than the individual, something hypnotic and transcendent.
But this is one instance where I’d insist on paying attention to the lyrics, too: the story Fela tells here is astonishing, and the way he tells it keeps my hair standing on end for the duration. I can think of few moments in music more wrenching, heart-breaking, and astonishing than Fela’s description of the murder of his mother peaking at the pure sound of loss at 22:55-23:05. But the whole thing is the most effective contrast of humanity versus the dehumanising effect of military-minded “order” I’ve ever known, in any medium. This is one of the high achievements of popular music.
This Heat – “Repeat” (1979)
Few one-off experiments are more exciting than This Heat’s “24-Track Loop”. This Heat were an expansive band, but at some level were generally identifiable as a “post-punk” or “rock” act; “24-Track Loop” defied genre at its time, sounding little like any established repetition-based dance or electronic music of the time, though drawing from dub and musique concrete methodology. “Repeat” is an extended mix of the seminal track, allowing each phrase to burrow into the listener’s consciousness before new qualities are slowly introduced; it’s no less stunning than its briefer counterpart.
Digable Planets – “Black Ego” (1994)
I hope by now it’s common knowledge that Digable Planets weren’t the hip-hop-hippies their “one-hit-wonder” single made them seem. Like the best trip-hop, their mellowness (especially on their second album, ‘Blowout Comb’) fronted a complex blend of emotions, telling stories of the personal-as-political and the political-as-personal. Plus, with their Modern Jazz Quartet-like approach to vibes-and-strings and their judicious beat-borrowing (here the eternal Zigaboo), they made hip hop sound as good as their best new-school contemporaries. They tapped a deep well, and another fifteen years on, it’s far from dry.
Iannis Xenakis – “Mélanges” (1979)
As an architect, Xenakis is a sworn enemy of mine, a direct disciple of Jenneret-Gris (aka “Le Corbusier”). Fortunately, unlike the avant-garde Modernists in architecture, their musical equivalents didn’t try to literally destroy what came before (or at least they didn’t succeed). Indeed, this percussion work at times recalls Indonesian gamelan; at other times it brings to mind the push-and-pull of the rhythm elements of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4. Also unlike the blank, indifferent banality of post-war avant-garde architecture, this music is highly visceral, abstract as its highly dynamic progress may be. [Xenakis is incorporated into several experimental-but-visceral mixes at Musicophilia.]
Miles Davis – “He Loved Him Madly” (1974)
Don’t miss this one. This is deep, intense listening, and it won’t grab you if you don’t have the attention (and about half an hour) to devote. But I promise, it rewards the effort. This is beyond the cosmic-exploration of the Germans we love; this is an exploration of the infinite spirit, the depths of mourning, the heights of love. It is minimal, subtle, undulating, meditative, careful, above all beautiful. Anyone who questioned Davis’ motives for “abandoning jazz” and going fusion couldn’t have maintained that incredulity if their ears were open to the sheer expressiveness of this music. This wasn’t booty-funk, this wasn’t stoner-rock, though its elements are guitar, flute, drum kit, keyboards, electric bass, and echo effects: this is simply, utterly human music. Give it the time, give it your ears, and it will build itself slowly through you. [The glory of “Judas” Miles Davis is featured here, here and here at Musicophilia.]
Smashing Pumpkins – “Starla” (1992)
Billy Corgan has grown down, into a pathetic satire of a 15-year-old internet Goth, a 40-something grade-A loser: yeah yeah. But back circa “Drown” and “Glynis” and this track, for a brief couple of years, he really had a fantastic sound going. And I don’t just mean the impressively grand rock styling–I mean the sounds themselves. The phasing, the distortions, the endless-sustain sounds he could create shaped my young ears toward an awareness of production-as-creation as much as ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Sgt. Peppers,” and made me think about dynamics and staging and all the stuff that eventually lead me far, far away from anything one would call “rock music”. But you know–coming back to this epic after many years, I find I actually like it a lot on its own terms. I’m not sure what any of it means, but I think it has an energy that doesn’t boil down to mere “rawk” pyrotechnics–in its own, utterly artless/funkless way it’s actually quite a groove, emphasising the expansion that comes with repetition as much as any disco or Reich.
Curtis Mayfield – “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” (1970)
Curtis Mayfield can have a lot going on in his tracks, but they never feel over-stuffed. Mayfield could absorb larger-scale soundtrack-ready arrangements of brass and strings without losing any of the sharp melodicism or the funk, a balance he was one of the first to master. In that vein, this track has long been one of my favorites–a real gateway drug to the musical joys of the 70s. Here the strings feel especially integral, not aloof in that great Gainsbourg/Vannier way but sharp and directly interacting with the rhythm instruments. But the tops is that fuzz-bass and the dubbed-out echos whenever Mayfield refrains, “don’t worry”.
Yoko Ono – “Mindtrain” (1971)
I’m not even going to address the misconceptions about Ono as a person or re: the Beatles, other than to say they’re nonsense. If the recording personnel on Ono’s early albums are any indication, it’s clear that the Macca killed the Beatles, not this mind-expanding artist. I’ll grant that her vocal approach makes her no Carol King, but she never wanted to go down easy (in art, in life) and I think she gave Lennon balls, not took them. John Lennon never rocked like he did on her first two albums (not to mention Ringo, too) and the album he recorded simultaneously to her first. This track is a Krautrock-or-Fela-level stretch-out, kicking into a fully-fledged-funky groove and never letting up; Klaus Voorman bounces things along nicely on the bass, the drums slowly build the train-like churn from a breakbeat stomp into a Faust-like barrage; and John shreds and shards the guitar like a slightly-more-in-control-than-usual Sonny Sharrock. Ono’s freak-out vocalising (if you can’t call it “singing”) pushes the whole thing into the stratosphere. She’s like nothing you’ve ever heard; unless you’ve heard the stronger and more innovative women in music she surely influenced/freed up from post-punk onward. This is one time to open your ears and pay no mind to the haters. [Yoko Ono appears on a ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia in a singer-songwriter mode, with a track that uncannily anticipates Big Star’s gutting “Holocaust”.]
Faust – “The Lurcher/Krautrock/Do So” (Live, BBC) (1973)
Don’t miss this one. This twenty-minute medley expresses a wide swath of Faust’s power and prescience. The first section, “The Lurcher,” is a drunken Germanic breakbeat-funk with treated saxophone and ethereal guitar that must have seemed to be coming from the future to whoever actually heard this performance in March of 1973. The second section, “Krautrock,” must have sent plenty running, if they hadn’t already; but those who remained in the center of this maelstrom-meditation may have experienced a religious conversion (even though Faust may have been having a pisstake at a nonsensical genre they never really fit, their humor was often sublime). And after all the build up, humor comes to the fore, as Faust reminds everyone not to take it all too seriously with “Do So,” a bent little pop ditty that is subtly as cyclical as their longer works disguised in song-form. If you haven’t heard this performance before–or especially if somehow you haven’t heard Faust before–I envy you the experience. For me, in contrast with Can, Faust took years to fully seep in, but once they did there was no going back–these sounds can reshape your ears. [For more Faust, check Musicophilia for a number of mixes.]
Il Balletto di Bronzo – “Epilogo” (1972)
Prog is a form of music that when I enjoy it, I’m certain I enjoy it from all the “wrong” directions and for all the “wrong” reasons, as I place no intrinsic value of the purported paramount virtues of the genre (virtuosity, speed, complexity-as-an-inherent-good, constant change for its own sake, technicality). I’ve come to appreciate plenty of middle-period King Crimson, but via This Heat; I enjoy post-Wyatt Soft Machine, but through the lense of Miles Davis; I dig Amon Duul II only when they set aside the noodling and get a little Stooges rawness. Il Balletto di Bronzo, described elsewhere as “difficult at first” is an easy fit, coming from my prog-wrong directions. Apparently the album ‘Ys,’ from which this track is culled, represents the pinnacle of something called “Italian symphonic prog,” which had I known would probably have steered me clear of this recent Exiled Records acquisition.
Fortunately, I gave it a blind listen, and found that its stereo-experimentalism and weird choral vocals and moog-and-piano arpeggios work for me entirely against any “symphonic” assessment–this ain’t no Yngwie, thank goodness. The fast parts remind me of Death May Be Your Santa Claus or Burnin Red Ivanhoe or Os Mutantes–they have a sense of humor and psychedelic playfulness, rather than lockstep-prog guitar-faced seriousness. The long slow-burn phased-drums groove of the middle section of this track needs no apologies–it’s just damned spooky, dark-space heavy badassness.
Bill Cosby’s Badfoot Brown & The Bunyon’s Bradford – “Martin’s Funeral” (1971)
Unless you’ve heard other non-standup Bill Cosby records, and maybe even then, I can almost guarantee this is not what you’ll expect. Stewed deep in the heady musical freedoms of 1971, “Martin’s Funeral” is Free Funk, with what sounds like a pretty large group of jazz/soul/funk players stretching out and able to roam and coalesce at will over a strong second-line rythmic foundation, ending up sounding almost like a funk take on Terry Riley’s “In C” (which does exist, and which you’ll hear here soon. . .). It’s emotional and something of a roller-coaster, but it maintains an underlying grace and nobility that befits its namesake and inspiration (Dr. King) via an uplifting four-chord cycle. In print last year on Dusty Groove’s reissue label, you should definitely pick this one up.
Godley & Creme – “This Sporting Life” (1978)
This is a weird one, too be sure–part Sparks, part Roxy Music, part Nietzsche, part circus, part Beach Boys. . . Rarely has such songcraft sophistication (ex TenCC) been put to such bizarre use. I have no idea how this would’ve been classified at the time–prog, but it’s got a sense of humor; post-punk, except it was made by bearded oldsters. Most likely it just sat outside of anything cool, waiting for geeks like us to trickle in over the years. This one is a real epic of which Dominique Leone is almost surely a big fan, rarely resting in one musical place for longer than a minute or two; audio theatre. . . advocating the use of suicide for the entertainment of others. Or something. Like I said, a weird one–but grand. It’s available in a number of worthwhile two-fers, but you can try it out in full at Mutant Sounds.
Peter Zummo (with Arthur Russell) – “Song IV” (1985)
Peter Zummo collaborated with Arthur Russell on seemingly every disco and experimental work Russell headed up. Here trombonist Zummo gets top billing, but it’s clearly a collaboration of equals. This piece was a revalation to me when I first heard it–yet another side to Arthur, a sublimely spiritual instrumental work rooted in his study of Indian music, with Russell on wordless vocals and cello, Zummo on delay-trombone. Simply beautiful–and reissued last year, so pick it up! [Arthur Russell is featured in various incarnations here, here, here, and here. If you don’t know Arthur yet–rent ‘Wild Combination’ and buy ‘World of Echo’ (recently re-pressed) and you’ll never look back.]