United Artists (1971)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
Watching the reaction of your cat is a good way to test just how grating a band’s music is. My cat cowered under the living room chair with eyes wide, looking every which direction in terror when I was listening to CAN’s “Tago Mago.” That is to say, it’s pretty grating stuff. Give my cat a break though; most humans find themselves terribly uncomfortable listening to music like this.
There are two things that can make music, as I describe it, “grating.” For one thing, it tends to ignore common time signatures, producing music that’s far from melodic. An element that drives even more listeners away is the use of instrumentation to create dense bodies of sound, an approach to the “wall of sound” that is intense enough to cause displeasure for the listener.
If it’s so unpleasant, why do people listen to it? Admittedly, it takes some getting used to. Living in a society that demands rhythm or melody, if not both, in its music makes it tough to jump right into CAN.
Fortunately, five of the seven tracks on this album don’t include the aforementioned overwhelming density, including the huge “Halleluwah,” which clocks in at more than 18 minutes. These songs are far from mainstream, but are almost boring in comparison to the 17-minute “Aumgn and the similarly long follow-up, “Peking O.”
“Aumgn” is different than the other six tracks because keyboardist Irmin Schmidt handles the vocals, if that’s what you would call them. He chants eerily during song song, which references Aleister Crowley (nearly everything on the album is, and, much like Crowley himself, the lyrics are both weird and undoubtedly drug-inspired), and his voice, along with every instrument, is echoed, creating a cacophony of vocals, bells, synth and violin.
Although less harsh than “Aumgn,” “Peking O” takes the prize for overall weirdness (which I say in the most complimentary of ways). The song switches directions entirely three minutes in, features vocalist Damo Suzuki speaking gobbledygook for 2.5 minutes over a machine-gun paced drum machine and piano, before wrapping up in a looming sci-fi synthesizer-fueled jam.
It may be tough to comprehend upon first listen, but the band’s influence can be heard in multiple ways in many groups. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has declared his appreciation for the group’s disregard for standard song structure, The Raveonettes’ use of white noise for uncomfortable ambience can be traced back to CAN, The Pixies’ Black Francis mirrors Suzuki’s style of clean-to-rough vocals, and Deerhoof is similar in more ways than just having a Japanese vocalist. If this many quality artists can dig it, so can we.
INTERESTING FACT: Isla de Tagomago, the island that the album is named after, is off of Ibiza, a larger Spanish island in the Mediterranean Sea. Although once a home for Crowley, it is now a game reserve owned by the government.