Album Review: CAN's Tago Mago
CAN and Experimental Rock
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a German experimental rock movement emerged. One particularly popular and influential group to be part of this movement was CAN. They sought to push the limits of rock music and bridge the gap between pop and avant-garde through experimentation and their “instant compositions.” CAN's members came from many different backgrounds: their guitarist/violinist had previously been in many jazz and dance bands, their drummer had explored European Free Jazz, and their vocalist had experience busking around Europe.
CAN was a very unique band with an unconventional approach to rock music. Tago Mago features seven to nineteen minute-long psychedelic jams, or as they called them, “instant compositions.” They were made by having bassist Holger Czukay secretly record the band’s jam sessions, which they edited into more cohesive songs. This makes the experimentation on the record feel more authentic and natural than calculated, preplanned ideas made to sound experimental.
One of CAN’s defining features would be the skills of vocalist Damo Suzuki. He uses words not to create any particular meaning, but for use as sounds. Also, his versatility is shown by regularly switching from quiet whispers, to powerful shrieks and shouts. Bassist Holger Czukay’s edits during post-production are also very interesting; he is heard taking Suzuki’s vocal tracks and reversing them, adding sound effects like explosions or barking dogs, creating ambient sounds and drones, making for a fantastic, surreal atmosphere. His bass work also showcases the funk influences.
Drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s forceful, mechanical percussion also manages to hold down a very driving beat during Tago Mago’s runtime. Guitarist Michael Karoli controls the moods on these tracks. At times, he creates offbeat tones, and during others, he displays soulful, energetic moods. His screeching violin creates an eerie atmosphere during a portion of “Halleluhwah,” while drums boom and keyboards swirl around it.
Tago Mago begins with a dark tone on the track "Paperhouse," in which the listener is greeted with slow beats and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s gloomy, menacing voice interacting with the instruments. The drumming and bass patterns are very reminiscent of the funk music coming out at the time, while the abstract lyrics and soulful guitar work add psychedelic elements to the sound. Gentle piano tones are also heard lingering in the background. Although the song introduces itself with a gloomy mood, it is quick to pick up to a more upbeat pace and transition seamlessly into its varying atmospheres.
Like "Paperhouse," each track throughout the album showcases CAN’s ability to make tones switch and fluctuate while maintaining cohesiveness. This opening track is a great introduction to the album, expemplifying Tago Mago's extensive ventures into psychedelic rock.
Aumgn, Peking O, and Halleluhwah
Although the first four tracks might seem long-winded and challenging, the most dissonant, surreal, extreme, noisy, displays of experimental music screech loudly and up-front in the tracks “Aumgn” and “Peking O.” “Halleluhwah,” in a way, foreshadows what would happen on these tracks when it comes to a dizzying level of intensity near the end of the song. Both tracks have extensive use of non-musical sounds that span over ten minutes.
“Aumgn” introduces itself with heavily manipulated guitars that echo against each other and melt together into an eerie, psychedelic mess (in a good way). An unknown voice hums something while strings screech and echoes appear and disappear. Things rattle and clap in the background while a dissonant guitar tune quietly plays. These sounds make for some creepy, ominous sounding music. The part where the drums violently trash and dogs start barking is pretty hair-raising too. It’s one of the most primal, violent songs I know. “Peking O” has similar feel, although Damo Suzuki’s tortured vocals are more prominent. He screeches and shouts on this track, he yells gibberish, he mumbles gibberish, he whispers gibberish, and he does so over some very perplexing music.
Regardless of whether or not you enjoy music like this, it will bring some sort of reaction out of you. These tracks are incredibly intense, violent, and bizarre. Being placed next to some of the more fun, accessible side of experimental rock featured on this album makes this album a great entry point for experimental music (not to mention it is often seen as “essential” listening in its genre).
Coffee or Tea?
Fortunately, after these two tracks we get to hear what might be the calmest song on this release, “Bring Me Coffee or Tea.” This is a great place to put it, because it gives the listener some time to rest their ears after almost thirty minutes of experimentation. One begins to miss less dissonant music after a while, right? This song concludes the album with a fantastic show of how the band members play with each other. Each member is active throughout this track, and it ends with a small climax.
Why You Should Give it a Listen
Despite the long tracks and harsh experimentation, “Tago Mago” is an incredibly engaging piece of music. It’s ambitious, has a lot of variety, and does not take itself too seriously. I personally think it’s fantastic, and that everyone should give this album a chance.
Hans D. sometimes listens to music.