F.M. Einheit / Caspar Brötzmann – Merry Christmas (Blast First album, 1994)


You can forget your sleigh bells, your innocent choirs of cherubic children and your saccharine-sweet Christmas tunes; your Ertha Kitts, Noddy Holders and definitely your Cliff Richards; your Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart festive cash-ins. You can forget all of these, because I want my Christmas music to be dominated by distorted guitar manipulations and clanging metallic percussion. Nothing says Christmas like an album of ugly sonic experimentations that straddle the noise and free improvisation worlds, right?

Einstürzende Neubauten‘s F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann collaborated on this album, which was released in Germany by Rough Trade and in the UK by Paul Smith‘s Blast First imprint (the UK edition is essentially the Rough Trade edition with a Blast First catalogue reference on a sticker). The pair would also work together on Brötzmann’s Home, released on Blast First the same year.

Featuring a painted tank on the sleeve, and with its title, I can’t help but think of the front line at Christmas during World War I, where opposing troops would temporarily put aside their own national interests in the far more humane gesture of playing football instead. I’m not a fan of football at all, but I’m a fan of conflict even less, and so it struck me as a beautiful notion to do that.

The concept of violence is clearly closely associated, either deliberately or inadvertently, with Caspar Brötzmann. Not just in the way he tortures his guitar and bass into anguished shapes and textures but also in the name of his group with Eduardo Delgado Lopez and Danny Arnold Lommen, Massaker. If ever the name of a band perfectly captured the dense racket they recorded, Massaker would be it.

There’s also the small detail of Brötzmann’s father, Peter, a giant figure in the realms of jazz, whose 1968 Machine Gun octet recording cemented the saxophonist / clarinetist’s reputation as a fearsome collaborator and threw down a new gauntlet for free jazz expressiveness. And as for Einheit, or Mufti as he was frequently known – any man who regards himself as a ‘street percussionist’ is no stranger to the brutal timbre of non-standard instrumentation, which is why his contribution to both Neubauten and Massaker was so aggressively essential. Oh, and Mufti is military slang for civilian clothes, so there’s another conflict connection. And that’s before we get to track titles like ‘Panzerkette’ (‘Tank Tracks’).

So, without even needing to listen to it, Merry Christmas was always going to have an aggressive sound. Even a tracks ‘Headhunter Song’ and ‘Stück Frau Das Uhr Spiel’, with their nods toward traditional blues riffs, find themselves punctured and infiltrated by clattering sounds and general noisy detritus. Elsewhere, any concession toward what naïve listeners might describe as ‘music’ is over-ridden instead by vague rhythms bashed out on goodness-knows-what piece of junk, guitars subjected to intense distress and duress occasionally at volumes that cause your teeth to vibrate in your skull, at others producing fuzzy scratches and squeals that start to make you itch all over after a while.

There are also moments, like those on ‘Panzerketten’, that sound almost ambient, almost muted, in comparison to other pieces, the effect on that piece being a restrained, reverberating soundfield littered with casual aural notions, until a loud guitar tone at about the five minute thirty second mark ushers in squalls of noise to close out the track. Other favourite subtleties of the noise guitarist are in abundant evidence here, including plucking strings just above the neck, the effect being crystalline structures that evoke icy textures.

Merry Christmas is presented as a single long piece, including three additional untitled pieces on the CD edition. The collaboration was recorded at Conny Plank’s legendary studio on the outskirts of Cologne in January 1993 and was mixed and released the following year.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra – The Conny Plank Session (Grönland EP, 2015)

At least as a concept, the idea of two musical legends – though operating in two vastly different, and arguably incompatible arenas – coming together as on this EP has the capacity to make the hairs on your neck stand to attention.

Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as Duke, was undoubtedly the most famous big band leader. From 1923 until his death In 1974, Ellington presided over a body of work that encompassed so many memorable tunes that it sometimes feels like no-one else ever bothered to write a standard while he was around. Although generally written for his orchestra, it’s remarkable testament to the quality of Ellington’s compositions that they sound just as good performed by a smaller group (see The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Newport Jazz Festival recording from 1959 for proof); heck, even The Wiggles had a crack at an Ellington tune, giving rise to the possibility that a generation of post-millennials might be switched on to swing era influences rather than abysmal pop music.

Despite learning his chops in venues like Harlem’s Cotton Club, places synonymous with jazz music, Ellington never considered his music jazz – he just thought of it as great American music, and that’s exactly what jazz is.

If the Duke was a compositional genius, Konrad Plank was similarly gifted in the environment of the recording studio. The artists he worked with is nothing short of awe-inspiring, taking in the likes of Kraftwerk, DAF, Brian Eno, Eurythmics, Neu!, Ultravox, Can, Devo and countless others. From 1969 until his untimely demise in 1987, Plank had worked across genres ranging from prog rock, Krautrock, the earliest forays into synth music within popular music, and even developed a type of proto-techno in collaboration with Dieter Moebius. His studio just outside Cologne was legendary, as was his prowess as an engineer.

DAF’s Gabi Delgado, who I interviewed last year for Electronic Sound gave me some insight as to just how important Plank was in the development of the gritty Deutsche Amerikanische Sound. Plank thought that the humble Korg that DAF brought to the studio was far too tinny and plastic-sounding, so he found a way to capture the natural sound of the synth via bass guitar distortion pedal effects, captured live in his studio via normal ambient mics. The result was something more edgy, but also more naturalised. Not quite like the aural fullness from a big band like Ellington’s, but certainly more human than the Korg without any help.

So, two legends, operating in vastly different and seemingly incompatible fields. Aside from working on sax giant Peter – father of Blast First artist Caspar – Brötzmann’s More Nipples album, jazz was notably absent from Plank’s repertoire, and aside from a bit of electric organ, Ellington’s music was pretty pure. The idea of Ellington asking Plank to make his orchestra sound dirty was never going to happen. And yet here we find Ellington, in July 1970 and toward the end of his career, working in the very studio out of which Plank was already carving a very distinct niche.

In truth, it could have been any studio in Cologne. Ellington was a furiously active composer, always trying out new ideas right to the bitter end, and so it wasn’t uncommon for him to usher his band into any available studio to work through new material, typically with little notice. Therefore the recordings of these two pieces – ‘Alerado’ and ‘Afrique’ – at Plank’s place were only made because his studio happened to be free for Ellington to rehearse in, because Plank’s rates were low, or because it was big enough to house Ellington’s band. Studios are commercial enterprises, and Plank was no different in this regard. There’s a fine line between struggling for your art and the breadline.

Critics have commented that the key level of intrigue in this release lies in being able to see Ellington’s compositional methods at close quarter. Both ‘Alerado’ and the drum-heavy ‘Afrique’ have appeared elsewhere on Ellington collections, but here we’re presented with three different takes of each piece, each of which subtly varies in terms of either arrangement, the tempo or duration. That said, to the untrained ear, both sound pretty complete on the first take (with the possible exception of how prominent Wild Bill Davis’s organ is on ‘Alerado’; it’s much less conspicuous by the final take), but when you contrast the third take with the first they sound world’s apart in terms of exactness. Ellington was a perfectionist of the highest order, and this confirms it.

He was also trying out a slightly reconfigured band after the death of his go-to alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and a couple of new recruits, trying out flugelhorn player Fred Stone and putting in a rare flute solo; to an Ellington newcomer it will just sound like a big band going through their paces, but it was in fact Ellington constantly reimagining his orchestra.

Less obvious, but equally important, is that these recordings indicate how naturally accomplished Conny Plank was, even at this early stage in his studio career. Being able to engineer and record a full big band orchestra is a skill usually only reserved for the most specialised studio boffin, usually at cavernous mega-studios like Abbey Road. Assuming that Plank did engineer these sessions rather than just renting out his studio space for another hand to curate proceedings, it shows him to be just as adept at capturing a huge live band as he would do with smaller set-ups or where a lot of the action could be achieved on his side of the mixing desk, or with a recording like Eno’s Music For Airports which was barely there in comparison with the full sound that Ellington bashed out.

There’s undoubted curiosity value here whichever way you look at it. Just don’t go expecting to hear some radical reworking of a trademark sound. This is Ellington doing what he did best, and Plank more than proving his worth in the environment of a studio that would never again see quite so many players arrive en masse.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence