When it comes to krautrock and other forms of experimental rock, West Germany’s Can etched out one of the most monumental landscapes of sound. From the avant-garde and jazz to minimalistic proto-punk and world music, Can achieved critical acclaim and enlightened the world with psychedelic tones under the balance of rhythm and free time. No band after them has merged the worlds of artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Arthur Brown and smashed it into something all their own the way Can has. Bands such as Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel and so many others of the European movement known as Krautrock that was coined in the British press have embodied modern electronics, a high degree of musicianship and experimentalism under one umbrella. 2011 has seen scores of reissues that have been much needed re-evaluations into the past and the 40 year anniversary release of Can’s 1971 Tago Mago from Spoon Records is the cream of the crop for all of us here at Sound Colour Vibration. When it comes to Can’s prolonged influential and viral legacy, Tago Mago is the most revered, respected sonically diverse and extreme record from the Can catalog. With the addition of a live disc of material sourced from 1972, a year after Tago Mago was unleashed onto the world, it’s an addition to the Can archive well worth owning.
The background behind Can’s Tago Mago is one of the most interesting stories from the German 70′s scene. Recorded by bassist Holger Czukay at Schloss Nörvenich, a castle located near Cologne, Grmany, Tago Mago shows Can in a state of high experimentation with tape looping and other advanced editing techniques artists like Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix had laid out. Can had released a collection of soundtrack music in 1970 that saw the final statement and departure of their first vocalist Malcolm Mooney from New York and the introduction of prolific Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki. Founded by bassist Czukay in the streets of Munich, Damo’s unorthodox vocal musings combine with shifting tone fluctuations and cascading mantras of the aboriginal spirits that arise in his patterns. His sense of space and shapes adds to the timeless legacy that is known as Tago Mago. The contributions of the deep Tibetan reverb chamber induced patterns of Irmin Schmidt’s vocals on the piece ‘Aumgn’ is a perfect counter balance to what Damo brings. It sits perfectly with the small synthesizer swells Irmin injects under his vocals. Tago Mago was the first record I heard from Can and everything about this record really paved the way for how I appreciate this field of music.
Tago Mago was made possible from the hands of art collector Mr. Vohwinkel. Owner of the Schloss Nörvenich castle, he allowed Can to live their for one year rent free. The band set up recording gear inside of this vast space to compose and Tago Mago was the result of this time there. Recorded in the later part of 1970 and the first part of 1971, Tago Mago is one of the most important windows into how music was evolving with electronics and ethnic principles of musical identity. Psychedelic guitar solos, unique synthesizer tones, abstract vocals, conspicuous drop out moments, and bass/drum grooves that could stand up against any Miles Davis or Fela Kuti song. Can took the idea of using the studio as the last member of the group that was bubbling in the pop and avant-garde circles and did something very unique with it. Classically trained pianist and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had formed Can in the mid 60′s with bassist and engineering specialist Holger Czukay. With guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer/pianist Jaki Liebezeit, Can had a core of musicians who could launch into ever territory of sound imaginable and did so on all of the studio albums they put out together. With the addition of Damo Suzuki in full for 1971′s Tago Mago, Can became a very popular live show to see. In the Mark Paytress book I Was There, he states the following about Can’s performance to 10,000 free concert goes at the Sporthalle in Cologne, Germany February 3, 1972. “As the group extended songs such as ‘Spoon’ into labyrinthine, compelling creatons, full of shifting dynamics, jugglers of acrobats waltzed on and off the stage, adding a slightly surreal edge to the proceedings. [...] On this night, as many others, Can proved they were the true rhythm kings.”
Tago Mago is over 70 minutes and broken into 2 LP’s, the first of which shows the conventional style of the songs found in modern song writing while the second LP shows the band diving very deep into their bag of experiments. What is really interesting about this record is Czukay recorded many parts to the album from informal sessions while the band was warming up, jamming and most of the time unaware of the fact they were being recorded. This raw and unorthodox method of recording gives a mysterious aura to the album, with parts that feel logical but are unexplored in much of modern music. Tago Mago feels like it came from a completely different world. The addition of a 15+ page booklet that contains many unpublished photos for the 40th anniversary addition really pushes the presentation of this record to a new level. I had always wanted to see more of the world of Can and this packaging sheds light with respect to that.
‘Paperhouse’, the opening number from Tago Mago is a perfect guitar, bass, keyboard and drum heavy piece to open the album. It shows the bands penchant for elongated grooves and layered harmonies as Damo shouts to the heavens and the band showing cycles through transitional dynamics on the main theme. With small break downs connecting much of the piece, the guitar always carries the song in each dynamic setting. Each song has a member of the band who really pulls the energy towards themselves and by the second number ‘Mushroom’, the deep bass and drums become a big part of the anchor. Keyboard and guitar washes the song over in different colors and the band comes together in the heaviest way. Damo always finds the perfect pockets to pronounce himself and to slide back into the mix, much unlike the veracious and in your face vocal antics of Can’s past vocalist Malcolm Mooney. The first LP from Tago Mago really shows the bands compositional side and it all comes to the apex on the 18 minute extended piece ‘Halleluwah’. Constructed from edits for sessions that reportedly ran over 6 hours, the type of interplay and groove that sets out is unexplainable in word form. The bass parts get raw with live versions showing how this was a perfect vehicle for the band to explode outward. Steeped in deep percussion interludes, monolithic bass lines, manipulation to the highest degree of the guitar and interlocking cosmic synthesizers, this is one of the heaviest cycloratory pieces ever put onto tape. Play this record loud and the feeling of endless groove through celebration will enter your body as this song launches further and further into sonic bliss. The small piano and vocal break down that slams back into the main sequence displays the masterful editing techniques Czukay brought to Tago Mago.
The second LP to Tago Mago shows a very different sonic landscape than the first. Starting with the number ‘Aumgn’, the intro begins with a heavy delay laced intro that adds to the overall aura of mystery that was shown shades and signs of during the first LP. Now we are approaching lift off ladies and gentlemen. With post production devices coming to an apex of access for the musicians who were ready for the technology at the turn of the decade from 1969 into 1970, this song is a perfect representation of the deep experimentations that sprung out of this phase of creation in music. Sun Ra and many others had processed violin in recordings during the 60′s, but the style and setting Can does for ‘Aumgn’ is unlike anything you will ever hear. Tago Mago has now left earth and is in a region unknown. Tangerine Dream would need another few years until they fully dived into this realm of experimentation. ‘Peking O’, the next piece, is the perfect mad house that brings the ride back to a normal state of groove but calls upon the juxtaposed that define this side of the album.
Damo never misses a step in Tago Mago and nails every part, with tones that are unreal and show how lyrics used for sound are just as powerful as those used for concepts or stories. ‘Bring Me Coffee or Tea’ is the perfect ending to a mind blowing and stellar record. Already an hour deep into the album before ’Bring Me Coffee or Tea’ starts, the mystical state of the album now comes to the final apex as all of the modes and ideas merge as one. Bass and guitar provide a garden of beautiful thought as the percussion dilates in every direction, never staying still. Damo Suzuki morphs himself into the tiny unused spots that he seems to always cleverly find. This is one of the most ground breaking albums of our times and a 40th anniversary reissue is one of the most welcomed additions of the year from the Sound Colour Vibration family.
The ethereal, raw and majestic power found in Tago Mago is unparalleled in the German scene of the 70′s. If you are a fan of experimental music and have yet to hear the 3rd album from Can, put this on your list of albums to buy. You will thank us later that you did. If you have heard it and/or own it, it’s about that time for another listen.
Can “Tago Mago”
40th Anniversary Edition
Spoon Records / Mute / Warner Music
- Oh Yeah
- Peking O
- Bring Me Coffee or Tea
- Mushroom (Live 1972)
- Spoon (Live 1972)
- Halleluwah (Live 1972)
Buy the 40th Anniversary 2CD release of Can’s Tago Mago HERE.
Also, of a lot of interest to Can fans, from the official Spoon Records site:
The long awaited box set, The Lost Tapes, will be released in March 2012. Curated by Irmin Schmidt and Daniel Miller, and edited and compiled by Jono Podmore, this will include unreleased studio, soundtrack and live material.