Can – Silent Night

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Can released this twee synthpop version of ‘Silent Night’ as a single in the UK, France and Germany in December 1976.

Whenever Can turned their hand to more ostensibly pop structures, they proved themselves highly capable of pulling it off, and ‘Silent Night’ carries those sensibilities with it. Michael Karoli‘s droning guitar, interlaced with Irmin Schmidt‘s dense synth chords and bells, provides the carol’s instantly recognisable melody, even if it’s played at half the speed of the jaunty rhythm with its typically clever drumming from Jaki Liebezeit (possibly with an early drum machine alongside him) and funky bassline from Holger Czukay. Okay so perhaps it’s a little bit novelty at times, but in its own way it’s pretty cute. It’s also the closest I think Can ever got to the early, pre-Autobahn Kraftwerk sound.

Johnny Mathis secured the UK number one slot in 1976, the year I was born, with ‘When A Star Is Born’ as my parents often remind me; in an alternative universe, Can would take this song to the top of the charts and bring forward the development of synthpop by a couple of years.

The original 7″ single was backed with ‘Cascade Waltz’ from the Flow Motion album. The track ‘Silent Night’ would later appear on the B-side of a single of ‘Spoon’ in 1980, as well as on a couple of Can compilations. Mute issued the track as a free festive download a few years ago.

Originally posted 2012; edited and re-posted 2019 (cos it’s Christmas, innit).

Catref: vs166
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2012 – 2019 Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

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The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Irmin Schmidt – 5 Klavierstücke (Mute / Spoon album, 2018)

5 Klavierstücke is Can co-founder Irmin Schmidt’s first album since 2015’s career-spanning Electro Violet, and finds the composer – ably assisted by Gareth Jones – playing not just one, but two pianos on five spontaneous compositions.

Well, I say spontaneous; one of Schmidt’s pianos, a Pleyel, was prepared following the teachings of his onetime mentor John Cage, whose various prepared piano compositions over a roughly 25 year period are perhaps the best exemplars of adding nuts, bolts and all sorts of contraptions to piano wires to disrupt their typical sound. It is a painstaking approach that few have the energy and artistic vision to undertake, since one needs to almost surrender one’s compositional ideas to the piano before striking a single note; unprepared, a composer may, in their head, create an expectation of what a song might sound like – when prepared, the composer cannot make those assumptions, for the piano will never behave precisely the same each time unless the precise preparations are followed each and every time. It is one manifestation of Cage’s lifelong obsession with chance interventions into the composition process.

Alongside the prepared piano, Schmidt also used a Steinway, his instrument not that much older than the octogenarian composer himself, and the five tracks alternate between both instruments, the Steinway or the prepared Pleyel. Aside from natural studio ambience, no further gimmicky or sonic trickery was employed, even though at times it’s hard to convince your ears that could possibly be the case.

Though I’m generally not a fan of the track-by-track album dissection approach these days, the five pieces here seem to justify individual analysis on this occasion. These are songs that contain a quiet drama, a composer’s natural instinct for melody and the white space in which the notes can float, uninterrupted, unadorned or adorned depending on which piano is being used. They may be formed from complex treatments, but the results are surprisingly sparse, bringing to mind Chopin’s observation that “simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes, and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

I.

Delicate, filigree playing gives way to noisier, percussive sections from the prepared piano. At times, the repeated prepared bass note sounds like a very meditative jazz rhythm section that’s been asked to wait it out in the background, or notes that sound like the extended echoes of a gong.

II.

Rain-like sounds and insistent rumbling infiltrate the natural resonance of the sporadic unprepared piano notes. After a while, the piece opens out into a section that sounds like a clanking Hang pattern, one that is intensely melodic but unrecognisable from a piano.

III.

Percussive, low-register sketches are coupled with high-register sounds not unlike a cymbal. Loud shards of sound arrive without expectation, almost as if someone is driven to emphatically striking the side of the piano.

IV.

Beginning with churning, bass-heavy arpeggios reminiscent of some of Throbbing Gristle or Dome’s most regimented work, the addition of sprinkles of unaltered piano ends up making this sound like some sort of heavily-shrouded exotica or a spontaneous jazz cop theme. ‘IV’ accelerates toward the end into a thunderous, panic-inducing conclusion that leaves nothing but cavernous reverb in its wake.

V.

This is vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Louissier’s interpretations of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes or a Sunday afternoon Bill Evans session, all gentle, delicate melody and harmonics. That’s the case until the very end, when a clangorous discordancy comes to the fore to bring this outstanding, understated album to a conclusion.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Energy: Damo Suzuki (documentary, 2019)

Energy: Damo Suzuki is a documentary by Michelle Heighway scheduled for release in 2019. Heighway’s film follows Can alumnus Damo Suzuki as he confronts his diagnosis with colon cancer in 2014, and tries to continue his neverending tour.

The film is currently seeking crowdfunding, details of which can be found here.

A trailer for the film can be viewed below.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Snapped Ankles cover CAN’s ‘Bel Air’ on Record Store Day Violations EP (The Leaf Label EP, 2018)

“On their sublime debut ‘Come Play The Trees’ you hear the group proffering buzzing drones, the kind of ritualistic psychedelia that future pagans will whirl round sacrificial bonfires to, David Bowie jamming with Neu! on the nihilistic impenetrability of ‘Johnny Guitar Calling Gosta Berlin’, sinewy synth lines gleefully vying with clattering percussion, and a general sense of a group channeling dark impulses through psychic rifts known only to a select few.” – Electronic Sound

Snapped Ankles‘ mysterious debut Come Play The Trees was one of the stranger albums I reviewed for Electronic Sound last year, and in its weird tones I heard something akin to The Residents mixed with a bit of Suicide. Anonymous, urgent, vibrant and one of those drawdropping crossover albums that blends synths and rock together like they always belonged together.

The band have prepped a politicised four-track 12″ EP for Record Store Day that takes tracks by The Fugs, Joey Beltram and overlooked Eighties cult band Comateens and plays freely with the lyrics to make their messages more relevant to a modern world that’s evidently going to – or possibly already gone to – the dogs.

The EP is rounded out with a version of CAN‘s ‘Bel Air’, originally from 1973’s Future Days, which takes the serene, hypnotic Californian chill of the original and adds a sinister edge, its repeated references to dressing gowns jabbing pointedly at Weinstein’s alleged Hollywood misdemeanors.

Check out the video for the band’s blistering take on The Fugs’ ‘CIA Man’ here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Jono Podmore – Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory And Practice Of A Master Drummer (book, 2017)

Jaki Liebezeit, photo courtesy of Jono Podmore

Metamono‘s Jono Podmore (aka Kumo) has arguably done more than anyone else in recent years to keep the legacy of Can alive, whether in groups like Cyclopean with Can members Jaki Liebezeit and Irmin Schmidt, or remastering the Can back catalogue and sundry unreleased cuts with Holger Czukay and long-standing Can supporter Daniel Miller.

To those initiatives can be added a new book that Podmore has assembled with US music journalist John Payne, Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory & Practice Of A Master Drummer, which seeks to document the unique approach practiced by Can’s late drummer, who passed away in January of this year. The book is currently subject to a crowdfunding campaign via Unbound which can be found here.

I wrote a news piece for Clash which explains more about the book and which can be found here.

In the process of putting my news piece together I asked Podmore for his recollections of working with Liebezeit, and that insight can be found in the Clash piece. “While we were having dinner one night, I was putting on some music,” Podmore also recalled. “At one point I put on some Charles Mingus. Without looking up, Jaki said, with a mixture of confusion and disgust, ‘Jazz? Been there. Done that.’ With that in mind I asked him if there were any other drummers that interested him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘808 and 909.'”

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Can – The Singles (Spoon / Mute compilation, 2017)

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Last week Spoon / Mute released The Singles, a collection of all of Can‘s singles and selected B-sides, which serves as a great entry point into the musical genius of this band.

I reviewed the compilation for Clash – read my thoughts here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash