14 February 2013
You could easily confuse this big, black, mysterious artefact with the monolith from "2001", but don't be misled. One of them is a repository of cosmic wisdom which can transform human consciousness, but the other is just a big old rock on the moon.
The Amazon description and some earlier reviews give you the basics: the book collates Cope's "Album of the Month" reviews, produced over 10 years for his Head Heritage website. The reviews sometimes cover familar names but more often the sounds discussed are beneath the beneath of the underground. They're ordered here along the chronology of the music, grouped into the sixties, seventies and so on, followed by a closing section of "samplers" - imaginary compilations devoted to particular themes or styles ("Danskrocksampler", "Post-Punk Sampler", and so forth). Given that this huge body of work (the book clocks in at around 700 double-columned pages) was produced while Cope was engaged in numerous other projects, you have to doff your horned helmet just at the scale of the achievement. For a volubly self-styled Odinist, Cope has one hell of a Protestant work ethic.
That's quantity, and it's admirable. But what makes the difference is quality, and, let's face it, Cope is the best rock writer since Lester Bangs took his forged prescription to the great dodgy pharmacy in the sky, because, as well as being superb entertainers, they're the only two writers on rock music whose prose is itself (in all senses but the boringly literal) magnificient rock music. Cope's writing is by turns enraged, passionate, hilarious, ecstatic, bitchy, perceptive and confrontational. It's always exhilarating and imaginative, it's almost consumed by its own energy, it never takes received wisdom at face value and it's largely untroubled by self-doubt. Frequently, it blazes with insight. Cope sees himself as a shaman, and this book may be the best evidence to date that he's the real deal, and his shamanic talents emerge far more from his writing than his (frequently splendid) music. Because this is a transforming read, taking you to places you've never been and leaving you with a new perspective on the world. Really. It's that good. Case in point: the essay on James Brown's "The Payback", which is written from an avowed "non-soulboy" stance. Because of where it's coming from, it avoids all the usual cliches and hagiography, conveys all the stuff we all already know about Brown in a fresh manner, clarifies and widens his broader cultural significance and also repositions him as an artist of great meditative profundity. It's the best writing on James Brown I've ever read, and can't see it being surpassed.
There are flaws. There are occasional factual inaccuracies. Cope's idiosyncracies can be baffling (he doesn't like jazz because of the instruments they use, and his attachment to Kiss and Van Halen stretches credibility). And, as a reviewer in "Shindig" magazine noted, you could play "Cope Bingo" so frequently does he fall back on references to "Odin", "Ur-" and "m***********s". As flaws go, they're minor and eminently forgivable.
A bigger potential flaw is that Cope's writing may be too good for the music he discusses. I'm not familiar with a lot of the music here, but while I'm loving reading about it, I don't feel particularly hungry to seek it out. The prose is so rich and stimulating, I kind of feel I've already heard the music. I've also been burned by Cope in the past. The justly legendary "Krautrocksampler" was full of praise of the likes of Amon Duul I and the Cosmic Jokers, and made such a strong case for them I ended up splashing out on some of the dullest, most self-indulgent claptrap I've ever had the misfortune to pump down my lugholes. I'm fairly confident that much - most - of the unknown-to-us music Cope discusses here is splendid, but also that a good deal of it is terrible. And there's no way of knowing which is which. Investigating the music here, based just on Cope's prose, could lead you to Hel or Valhalla. Stick with the book, and Valhalla is absolutely guaranteed.