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Rock & Roll Goes To Neptune
on 13 January 2003
This must be my sixth attempt to write a review of Tago Mago, Can's third album, which is far and away the most difficult album to write about that I have ever encountered. It's dense and confounding. It profoundly challenges the concept of music. It is the closest one can come to a sound recording of the mental processes of dementia. And it is utter, utter genius.
If Amazon would let me, I would give Tago Mago eleven stars. Never mind the fact that it's not the most accessible of Can's albums (that would be Soundtracks), or the most disciplined (see Ege Bamyasi.) I can't even say with conviction that it's their best work. But what I do know for certain is that Can's reputation for musical radicalism, avant-garde experiments, and free sound structure, is almost entirely based on Tago Mago, on which the German boys take rock music from its bases in Britain and America and launch it to Neptune.
Tago Mago is so daring, imaginative, and downright schizophrenic that it makes everything else that Can ever did seem tame and safe by comparison. It's often seen as a deliberate concept album about the path from sanity to absolute madness; I don't know how deliberate the concept was, but it certainly works. You can hear order and stability be dissected, exploded, and rebuilt completely.
The proceedings start off with "Paperhouse," a hypnotic song in a slow, bluesy groove that builds to a frenetic, almost desperate shout of sound, drums pounding with tremendous insistence, electronics offering bloopy bleeps here and there, and guitar and bass trying to maintain some sense of melody to keep the whole thing from deteriorating into mad chaos. After seven and a half minutes it dissolves into "Mushroom," a funky midtempo that is fairly consistent. It's mostly drums, with the other instruments accentuating the rhythm in patches, and Damo wailing his nonsense with what is, for him, a great deal of restraint. This is rhythmic minimalism in its most radical form, and it's counteracted by "Oh Yeah", another seven-and-a-half-minute epic that sounds this time like a 60s garage rock song gone completely haywire. The band return to the pounding drums and the insistent bass, moving at a running pace with stinging guitar riffs soloing all over the place, the keyboards moving from electronic ambience to white noise at the drop of a hat, and Damo talks without saying anything, often literally: he blabbers syllables that might be Japanese, might be made up on the spot. This is where things really start to teeter at the edge of comprehensibility.
However, the real heart of Tago Mago is in the three long songs that make up sides two, three, and most of four on the original 2-record release. Side 2 is comprised of the 18 minute, 32 second "Halleluwah," a jam that is equal parts psychedelic jam, beat poetry, funk groove, and avant-garde jazz. As always, every piece of sound works together perfectly, this time with a ranting violin floating around in the mix. Damo raves, yells, wails and sputters as usual; occasional fragments of comprehensibility rise to the surface, but the dominating lyrical idea is, and I quote, "Ha-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-lu-WAH! Ha-le-le-le-le-le-le-lu-WAH!"
And then there's "Aumgn." Hard to describe. Take, if you will, the most terrifying piece of music that you've ever heard. Then subtract any discernible patterns or rules. That's "Aumgn." It's silence with frequent interruption: strange atmospheric sounds, random drum licks, a creepy guitar motif, and muffled screamings while a guttural voice moans, "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMGGGGGGGGGGNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN." It's the hardest piece of the album to digest, and the probably the key to the whole thing: everything that came before it is Tago Mago's rising action, and "Aumgn" the sound of all preconceived notions of music exploding, is the climax.
That brings us to side 4: "Peking O" is the falling action, the moment wherein Can picks up the pieces of their dismantled music. It actually sounds as if they are sorting through aural debris, broken shards of sound and arrangements, and trying to identify and fit entirely disjointed bits of noise together. At one point Suzuki simply stops and screams a lightning-fast round of babble, which morphs into some kind of cosmic scat as the bass, drums, guitars, and weird noise start up in separate spheres and slowly coalesce back together into the rhythmic matrix that Can does so well. It's a perfect way to move to the final track, "Bring Me Coffee Or Tea," the resolution to the passage that Can (and we along with them) have taken. Back to melody, back to coherence in one of the most beautiful ballads that Can has ever done. The drums and bass pulse very gently together, with some light organ, tiny snatches of white noise, and delicate guitar layered along with it. The vocals are surprisingly mournful and expressive, and the whole package is simply gorgeous and actually approachable--by Can's standards anyway. The progression of ideas is breathtaking, and brilliant.
What I have just described is an ambitious, complex work, more so than anything else that Can ever attempted. As such it is very likely their masterpiece, but at the same time can be a very awkward place to start. If you've never listened to Can, you will either be absolutely astounded by the accomplishment of Tago Mago, or absolutely repelled by the weirdness of it. I would therefore recommend it, but with major reservations: such things take some serious getting used to. But no matter where else you go with Can, there is no question that Tago Mago is the one place that you absolutely MUST come back to.