Can, Future Days (Spoon/Mute) 73
Can, Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon/Mute) 74
Can, Landed (Spoon/Mute) 75
Can, Unlimited Edition 1968-75 (Spoon/Mute) 76
Can are widely considered the leading experimental group of the 70s, even the 20th century. Because of that reputation, their most listenable albums have been undervalued, eclipsed by praise for their most challenging work in 1971’s Tago Mago, all hectic tribal rhythms and shrieking. Like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, it might be too much difficult listening for an introduction to the band’s work. This year’s batch of Can reissues might be the best place to start. Vocalist (can’t really call him a singer) Damo Suzuki’s final album with Can, Future Days (1973) calms down the wild experimentation enough to project a more cohesive sound. It aims to sound otherworldly and futuristic and succeeds, making good on the term “kosmische musik” (cosmic music). The band is locked into a hypnotic groove could be credited as an origin of the Western version of “trance” music, which wouldn’t be explored much more for another 20 years. It also anticipates Brian Eno’s ambient music. “Future Days” sets the pace with Jaki Liebezeit’s drums keeping a steady pulse rather than the usual chaotic eruptions, and Michael Karoli’s guitar floating ethereally in the background. Irmin Schmidt introduces more atmospheric keyboards and electronics on “Spray.” “Bel Air” is the 20 minute centerpiece, featuring several peaks and valleys. On the short “Moonshake,” Suzuki’s vocals play a larger role, at least augmenting the rhythm with his whispers. Overall though, he played a more key role in previous albums as the Wildman. Here, he’s not obtrusive, but certainly inessential. Fanboys like Julian Cope in his book Krautrocksampler dismisses later Can because of this, calling Future Days a “schizophrenic stalemate” and dismissing later albums as “patchy, flawed.”
But just because Can shed a skin and grew a new one doesn’t mean they’re any less groundbreaking or engrossing. Future Days is one of their best, and their next, Soon Over Babaluma is my favorite. Karoli and Schmidt split the vocal duties and do a find job of blending into the music well. Violin is more prominent here, as is Holgar Czukay’s bass. In fact, everything seems to have evolved a step – the guitar playing is nearly Flamenco like in its delicate intricacy, while everything from reggae, Latin and African rhythms are subtly incorporated. There may be few grandstanding moments, but overall the album is even more beautiful sounding than Future Days. “Dizzy Dizzy” and “Come Sta, La Luna” are as pioneering as anything from earlier albums, while they retain a slight intense sense of dread in “Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics.” In The Wire’s 1992 feature, “The 100 Most Important Records Ever Made,” Simon Reynolds wrote, “Humour, poignancy, awe, groove, Dada, intimacy, immensity – sometimes I wonder why I bother listening to anything else. Anticipates (or pre-empts): the Fourth World pan-Globalism of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Byrne/Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Jon Hassell, the avant-funk of PiL and The Pop Group, The Raincoats, 23 Skiddoo, AR Kane’s oceanic rock, even some rap and rave.” I’m glad someone agrees.
On Landed and Unlimited Edition, Can loosens up. While Landed abandons the alien beauty of the previous two albums, it presents yet another side that’s hardly throwaway. Can rocks out more, and tackles more conventionally concise song structures. This time the rhythm takes a back seat to the more upfront vocals (on three tracks), guitar (some of Karoli’s fiercest playing is found here), and electronics. “Full Moon On The Highway” and “Hunters And Collectors” may not have been hits, but they are certainly Can at their catchiest, at least until their later hit with “I Want More.” Yet the album’s highlight is one of Can’s most sonically ambitious pieces. “Vernal Equinox” is like an epic battle between guitars and synths, as if they’re determining the future of music itself. The answer in the end is they sound best together, intertwined like lovers. It’s like King Crimson infused with punk energy, similar to French electro-prog pioneer Richard Pinhas’ work in Heldon. “Red Hot Indians” features a stuttering rhythm with various percussion, actually funky guitar riffs, saxophone and scratchy electronic sound effects that Pere Ubu may very well have plagiarized a couple years later. “Unfinished” sounds just that, 13:20 of incoherent filler. Landed may not be an “important” album, but it sure as heck is fun. Flow Motion should have been the next album to be remastered in this batch, since Unlimited Edition is merely a bunch of outtakes. While some of the songs are part of Can’s Ethnomusicological Forgery Series, most are merely fragments rather than songs, dating back to 1968-71. “Gomorrah” dates from 1973 and may be the best track. But overall, it’s Can’s least essential album. Though its easy to see how, in getting reacquainted with their amazingly rich catalog, one would obsessively want it all.