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Can - Tago Mago CD (album) cover

TAGO MAGO

Can

 

Krautrock

3.93 | 451 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars One of the best and most reverenced albums in the history of "underground" rock music, Tago Mago was my introduction to Can, and I frankly wouldn't have had it any other way. It's an album that can satisfy snooty prog-rock fans and snooty indie-rock fans alike, combining incredible chops and grooves with incredible sounds and textures in a way that must have been beyond mind-blowing back in 1971 (and that's to say nothing about the creepiness factor). In short, this is the ultimate Can experience.

And you know what, that's a pretty remarkable achievement for an album that, for just under thirty minutes, is pretty danged close to unlistenable. This is a seven-track double album (it fits on one CD, though) that, while starting and ending on perfectly solid notes, hits a whole lot of sour notes (when they can even be called notes) in tracks five and six. Track five is a 17:22 sound collage called "Aumgn," and while I'm certainly tolerant of the kinds of noises Schmidt and Czukay (not to mention Damo, though he's not really in the forefront) fill this track with, I'm not all that sold on the seemingly directionless way in which they're presented here. Track six, entitled "Peking O," mainly features a completely unleashed Damo Suzuki, going nuts with some hyperactive verbal assaults that, if nothing else, certainly foreshadow the works of the later infamous abstract vocalization artist, The Great Cornholio. If ever Can could be accused of truly pointless experimentation, it would be in these two tracks.

On the other hand, though, while part of me certainly wants to accuse Can of this, there's also a part of me that doesn't entirely buy that accusation. Call me nuts, but as mind- boggling and even silly as these pieces might get at points, I never really get the feeling that Can are just BS'ing me and hoping to get away with it. "Aumgn," for all of its wandering wailings, has some really lovely, depressing downbeat sounds and vibes to it (listen to that first minute or so and tell me you don't get a chill or two), and while it certainly suffers from not having an underlying Jaki "thunka-thunka" driving it forward, there's at least a brief patch near the end where the drums show up to make things feel better than they had at first. And in "Peking O," well, it would be noteworthy if for no other reason than for that electronic pitter- patter drum sound that sounds exactly like what I've heard in much of the bits and pieces of 90's "electronica" and beyond (which is almost nothing, but my point stands), and anytime you can predate something that closely by 25+ years, you're going to win my respect. And, doggone it, I like hearing Schmidt playing off of Damo's wails with his electric piano, and I like hearing Damo go so wacky that he even ends up making a *bpbpbpbpbpbpbpbpbpbpb* (fingers running over lips) sound at one point. The point is, these tracks are disturbing and uncomfortable and experiments gone horribly horribly wrong, but they also contain a badly required air of competency to them, and given how they accentuate the vibes of going insane that occupy much of the rest of the album, it's hard for me to completely condemn them. I'll probably go back to skipping them when I listen to the album in the future, but I don't completely rue the time I've spent getting seriously reacquainted with them for this review.

That leaves five tracks, which are so mind-bogglingly great that they almost make this a ***** (were there half stars, it would be a ****1/2) in my eyes. I used to slightly overlook the opening "Paperhouse," but I eventually repented of that. The opening, slower section may not be as immediately grabbing as the hyperactive robotic groove that the piece turns into, but it's got some really lovely piano tinklings buried in the mix if you want to listen to them. Plus, the whole track features a guitar attack that I find more and more interesting every time I listen to it; I'm continually amazed at how graceful the parts from Karoli tend to be here. Of course, it's much easier on this track (as on many Can tracks) to pay attention to the drumming and Suzuki's vocals than to anything else, and that does a good job of setting the tone for "Mushroom," which is everything great about Can poured into a single 4:08 burst. The drums sound even more lo-fi than usual, but they're no less powerful or steady or rhythmic than before, and Suzuki's alternations between low mumbling and loud wailing are arguably better structured here than anywhere else. And dig the explosion at the end, which I guess is supposed to be like the mushroom cloud on the cover, unless of course you think it looks more like a skull getting shot through.

Whatever, we then come to the amazing "Oh Yeah," which initially features backwards vocals and cymbals (but forwards driving rhythm from the drums, yessirree), covered in some of the best low key, atmospheric keyboard noises for this kind of music imaginable, before Damo snaps from the rewind button to the play button, not that it makes any difference for figuring out what he's saying. Sheesh, there's more terrific moody, jazzy, gritty guitar parts, some more of Czukay knowing exactly how much to just hold the piece together and how much to step slightly into the spotlight, and everywhere there's those drums that just seem they could go on for eternity without losing the groove. Amazing.

But not as amazing as the behemoth that comes after. I LOVED "Halleluwah" on my very first listen to it, and that initial infatuation hasn't receded one bit. Many years after first listening to this (my first listen was late 2001), I'm still finding new bits to grab my attention. The drumming on here is absolutely transcendant, even by Jaki's standards; just listen to that complicated rhythm that he's keeping so rock-steady and pounding for almost the entirety of the 18+ minutes of this track, and then notice the rolls he's putting underneath it without once losing the beat in the third minute or so of the piece, and then tell me that he wasn't one of the greatest drummers on earth. And everybody else, well, they take full advantage of this foundation, even more than on the amazing "Mother Sky." More jazzy, even Spanishy-in- places guitar parts, more synth and piano breaks, some amazingly creepy violin noises for good measure, and above all there's Damo. Lessee, there's that one bit where I think he's singing about recording the other tracks on the album (the only vaguely rational explanation I can give for the fact that he's reciting titles of other songs); there's that opening "Well has anybody ever seen the snowman *something* *something* ..." bit; and of course there's the climactic wailings of "HALLELELELELELELELUWAH HALLELELELELELELELUWAH." Does this look scary on paper? Well, trust me, it would to me too, but it all sounds ridiculously awesome when you actually hear it, unless having a musical representation of a person going completely nuts can't possibly represent your idea of awesome.

The album then hits "Aumgn" and "Peking O," but just when it seems we're destined to have such a great start tainted by such a bitter taste to finish it, the band is kind enough to finish off with another classic in "Bring Me Coffee or Tea." It's like, I dunno, it's like coming out of the most wicked, nightmarish acid trip imaginable, and waking up and trying to meditate it off in a dark room. The drums here are different from the rest of the album; not hyper-rhythmic, but definitely not chaotic like on much of the last two tracks. Rather, they're just there to help with the general mood, which is primarily set by the guitars (augmented by sitars quite a bit), and Suzuki's Easternish wails in his typical manner. Imagine a slightly more intense version of "Don't Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone," with the trappings I described, and there you go.

And there you have it, one of the most incredibly screwed up, but also one of the most incredible, albums made in the 70's. The most experimental tracks can scare away even the faithful, but if you can't get into "Mushroom," "Oh Yeah" or "Halleluwah," then Can is simply not for you. Any adventerous music lover should have this.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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