Album Review: Ege Bamyasi

"...carrying my own in the afternoon..."
“…carrying my own in the afternoon…”

 

Bizarre aesthetic, chaotic discography, seemingly incalculable influence on later artists, not to mention a sound so forward-thinking, mainstream music still hasn’t caught up with it after four decades—Can is, in nearly all respects, the quintessential cult band. Granted, it’s hard to imagine them ever achieving more commercial success than they currently have; too repetitive, too sprawling, too noisy—in a word, too weird. It’s not as if the band’s inaccessibility was a conscious move—as “Spoon” and “I Want More” show, they could write something that passed for pop—it was just the kind of music they made. And what music. During Can’s peak period (spanning roughly from their debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, to 1974’s Soon Over Babaluna) the band blended everything from psychedelia to world music, with heavy doses of the electronic and avant-garde whenever things got too approachable. The descriptor “futuristic” didn’t do it justice. Can were creating their own musical language, one based equally in Lou Reed and Terry Riley, and they changed up the formula on just about every album.

Selecting any one release as a band’s best is always hard when they’re given to changing their sound on a regular basis; if they’re doing something different on each one, straight comparison can seem pointless. Do you prefer the raw, fuzzed-out rock of Monster Movie, or the smooth ambience of Future Days? Soundtracks’ droning tranquility or Tago Mago’s dark experimentation? Still, while objective quality is basically impossible to determine, accessibility is not—and going off of that metric, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi wins out by a pretty wide margin.

Ege Bamyasi was Can’s follow-up to Tago Mago—their most focused record, coming after their most chaotic—and it’s clearly the point at which they decided to rein things in a bit. Centerpiece “Soup” is the only track that comes close to the insanity of their previous stuff; the rest of the album is easily the tightest collection of songs the band ever released. It sees Can easing up on the tape loops and Stockhausen-inspired musique concrète in favor of more straightforward, world music-influenced songs, usually following traditional verse-chorus structures. Not to call it “poppy,” per se—play this at a party and you’ll probably get some fairly strange looks—but it sounds like it originated on Earth, and that’s more than can be said for some of Can’s other albums.

Opener “Pinch” is a 9-minute descent into a bubbling cauldron of complex rhythms, warped guitar, and electronic effects. It boasts probably the most indecipherable lyrics on the album, stretched around a skeletal drumbeat and underlined every now and then with a sharp whistle like an exclamation point. This is the densest Ege Bamyasi gets, instrumentally; elsewhere on the album, we find fluid, psychedelic balladry (“Sing Swan Song”), jazzy keyboard-pop (“One More Night”) and paranoid, shuffling stutter-funk (“Vitamin C”). Each song has a distinct feel to it, and none of them overstay their welcome—another thing that makes it ideal for people trying to get into Can.

Ege Bamyasi isn’t nearly as avant-garde as Can’s previous work, but it does have its moments—look at how “Vitamin C” disintegrates into the beginning of “Soup”, or the not-quite vocalizations that are subsumed into the rhythm track of “Spoon.” That particular song is a bit of a paradox; building on the band’s earlier work with drum machines, it’s simultaneously their poppiest track and the strangest one in the context of their other work. Still, it’s a great single, one that shows Can genuinely stretching itself, and it provides a relaxing closer to Ege Bamyasi in much the same way that “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea” does for Tago Mago.

Beyond that, it’s a very colorful album, and probably the best produced in Can’s discography. The percussion, on which many of the songs hang, is dry and oddly hollow; its near-continual, insectoid rhythms keep everything chugging along nicely. It’s a cliché to say that someone treats their voice like just another instrument, but it holds true here: Damo Suzuki’s wonderfully off-kilter vocals twist and bend their way through the mix, snapping from a soothing whisper to an unhinged squawk in a matter of seconds. Holger Czukay’s bass adds a badly needed bit of low end to the proceedings, and Michael Karoli caps the whole thing off with his atmospheric, wailing guitar tones. The end result could easily have turned into a clattering, atonal mess, but Can’s rigidly hypnotic approach to building a groove holds strong. (You can attribute that mainly to Jaki Liebezeit’s almost superhuman command of rhythm.) I wouldn’t call Ege Bamyasi “funky,” exactly, but it’s certainly the most danceable Can ever got.

If this album fails in any way, it’s that it all seems fairly second nature to the band. Can were a group that excelled in pushing boundaries, but there’s nothing here that feels like a challenge for them in the same way as, say, “Halleluwah.” This isn’t something that should affect your enjoyment of the album on its own terms, but taken in the larger picture of Can’s career, Ege Bamyasi is merely a very good album —as opposed to some of the truly monumental works that had come before. Think of it as an appetizer—tastefully arranged, impeccably executed, but giving only a hint of what truly lies in store. Consume it, enjoy it, and then move on to Monster Movie or Tago Mago for the full experience.


 

Essential Listening: Pinch, Vitamin C, Spoon

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *