Tago Mago / Ege Bamyasi

Mute / Spoon
B / A

ace it: you like prog. You like progressive rock. Seriously. You’ve been in denial lo these many years, chastising yourself for your descent from The Beatles and the Stones, to Zeppelin and Sabbath, “devolving” (your word, not mine) to King Crimson, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. It was not so long ago that these records were mainstays in your collection, something “cerebral” (again, your aggravating air-quotes) to listen to while studying trigonometry and unraveling metaphysical conceits during your junior year of high school. You wanted something to set you apart from your troglodytic peers whose steady diet of Stone Temple Pilots and Warren G made you retch. Those were fads; you believed in progressive rock as a sophisticated alternative to not only MTV’s pap, but also superior to other classic rock standards. And you were right! Since then you’ve pored over online zines like this one, your mind sifts through the ordinary and the sublime with inscrutable alacrity in an attempt to insulate yourself from popular detritus.

But wait! What about some of those albums you bought this year? Blueberry Boat? That’s prog; it doesn’t matter if they started out playing indie pop, because this album’s a complicated mélange of styles, with twists, turnarounds and changes. And you have the new Comets on Fire? Well, if Brian Wilson’s SMiLE was a teenage symphony to God, then Blue Cathedral is a prayer to Alan Parsons. See? Just the other day you were talking about the fecundity of Wire’s 154; is it starting to come together now? Just because you prefer to talk about Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Faust by subcategorizing them into the more pristine and generally accepted term Krautrock (emphasis mine) doesn’t mean that they are all of a piece with a global musicological phenomenon that serves as the basis for progressive rock, replete with its emphasis on technological depth and instrumental proficiency.

From Chicago Transit Authority’s fusion freakout debut to The United States of America’s peculiar brand of psychedelia, progressive rock has experienced a quiet resurgence, albeit as important (and mutually reinforcing) as that of the current crop of neo-folk acts, but among them Can remain a lodestar for musicological hybridization and a touchstone for the multitudinous diaspora of independent music. As central as they may be to connecting several seemingly incongruent aspects in rock and the avant garde, these reissues come a scant six years after their previous re-release. But thanks to lavish production and brief but authoritative liner notes by Wire editor David Stubbs, one gets a fuller picture of a band whose reputation is difficult to separate from the collective hagiography that clouds critical judgment of their work.

Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi mark the first two albums of Damo Suzuki’s collaboration with Can in the wake of Malcolm Mooney’s nervous breakdown. Suzuki, who remains to this day a vagabond street performer, eludes easy comparison, but he quickly made a spiritual connection with the group’s polyrhythmic polyamory. Tago Mago remains the colossus in their catalogue, originally released as a two LP set, a sprawling epic of flawed brilliance points out that there was plenty of meaningful music being made before 1976, although it might not have reached the ears of those already convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was dead, a mortuary of crooners and wastrels, many of whom were formerly crooners. Neither Bing Crosby nor Elvis could’ve imagined a record like this. If those critics had just peeked over the walls of their Anglophonic citadel and rubbed their eyes, they would have realized that one needn’t consult a philologist to divine rock groups from the Indo-European stem. As much as the emergence of punk rock sought to discredit progressive rock’s decadence, it has a decidedly Freudian tinge—that is, they were killing their fathers. Recently PiL guitarist Keith Levene described his transformation from prog to post-punk, a spiritual difference if nothing else. The CD compares favorably to the reissued LP, except, as Julian Cope pointed out in his review of Sleep’s Dopesmoker, it reserves one obvious advantage: the CD permits the listener to get completely fucked up and remain on the couch, rather than flip intermittently and interrupt the buzz.

Ege Bamyasi is somewhat subtler, and when I first heard it seemed obvious that Radiohead owed them money. The postpartum autopsies performed on Kid A and the placental Amnesiac were like those of OK Computer all over again, which meant that all music history was denied in an effort to make exceptional records even more exceptional. But at their core, Radiohead progressed onto planes that were simultaneously electronic and prog, presumably without any intention of labeling their own music sophisticated; listeners have heard innovative songs on the radio in the past, and will likely continue to appreciate such maneuvers, provided they get airplay. But their unspoken indebtedness to Can endured as every interview flogged Autechre as the fountainhead of the new Radiohead sound. If nothing else “Vitamin C” is a locus of inspiration that went unrecognized, and in so doing, kept Can in the distance as murky, dissonant music that too many people talk about and to which too few listen.

Between these records sounding great and a fair number of extra photos accompanied by concise liner notes, there’s never been a greater impetus for music fans to change that. So please, come on up out of the darkened basement—we know you’ve been listening to Rush down there anyway.

Reviewed by: J T. Ramsay

Reviewed on: 2005-01-07

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