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Brainticket - Cottonwoodhill CD (album) cover





3.79 | 171 ratings

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4 stars Notorious for being one of the most psychedelic albums of all time, Cottonwoodhill has become synonymous with, and perhaps inseparable from, the concept of drug music. I always believed that music most associated with, erm, the altered state is quite valid and enjoyable upon sober ears if one has a fair degree of musical patience (as many of these kind of releases are repetitive or slow-building), Pink Floyd being a case in point, and that isolating certain releases to the realms of the 'on drugs only' collection is almost underrating them. It portrays the musicians involved as far-out hippies, when they were actually on the very fringes of the musical map, impulsively feeling ahead into new territories with anti-song aesthetics and new concepts of what exactly constituted 'music'. I like to think that it's possible to enjoy this kind of music just as much sober as inebriated, and for the most part it is.

However, with Brainticket's Cottonwoodhill it sort of isn't. Listening to this album through time and time again I fail to see just how it can hold the attention of someone not on drugs, or at least in some sort of atmospheric place. Most psychedelic bands were not quite so overtly aimed at the drug culture as Brainticket - in fact, I don't think they were aimed at anyone. I think they were tripping their nuts off and just happened to find an unlocked recording studio. Seriously, it's that insane.

With other psychedelic or space rock music, there are peaks and troughs, crescendos and some sort of order, which is what makes it listenable, say, in the car or while doing some ironing. Here there is nothing of the sort. Musically it's quite an interesting concoction of the repetitiveness of 'Kraut Rock' (I really hate that term) bands like Faust and the psychedelic sheen of, well, every psychedelic band in existence. This marriage of sub-genres seems mouth-watering on paper, but then one begins to consider that, while the styles themselves could theoretically blend easily, the approach to those styles is so radically different - one precise and rhythmic, the other impulsive and loose - that cross-pollination would be difficult to balance at the very least. But then I doubt any of this ever entered Brainticket's collective head for an instant. They obviously went into the studio with so much gusto, so many drugs and so few coherent ideas that trifling concerns like how to mix an album well and how to sustain a band consisting entirely of lunatics seem to have been brushed off in favour of grabbing the moog and dropping some tabs.

Brainticket's debut, then, manages to be recorded proof of the concept of dumb luck. This simply cannot have been thought through as thoroughly as any subsequent reviews or commentary on it. The levels are uneven, the changes, sporadic as they are, are abrupt and awkward, and the sound effects seem to have been handled in a way akin to a child playing with one of those old interactive books with the little speaker and buttons down the side (water splashing, glass breaking, the 'wah-wah-waaaah' sound of misfortune). But despite all of this, it manages to be a totally challenging piece of music in ways they never even intended. Prog folklore sees this album in such a mystical light that it's impossible to listen to it without having preconceived ideas in your head. Because of this, the first two tracks, 'Black Sand' and 'Pieces Of Light', are disarming. 'Black Sand' is forceful and groove-led with little variation, a decent few minutes of music but nothing eye-opening. 'Pieces Of Light' is more like it. This track is lighter and less blunt than the opener, with a nice flute line courtesy of band mastermind Joel Vandroogenbroeck, but the song is most notable for the introduction of a certain Dawn Muir, an English woman whose vocal input towards Cottonwoodhill is certainly one of the more, er, bizarre events in music history. In this song she tells of spiritual journeys, upended paradigms and shadowy meetings, all fed through what seems like a cross between a Leslie and a fast flanger pedal. At only four minutes in length, this is like a (very very very) lightweight version of the main attraction, which is a sprawling, rambling, disturbing, psychotic track split into three parts for the convenience of vinyl and taking up the remainder of the album, a good twenty-five minutes in length.

The track 'Brainticket' begins with a smashing sound, then what seems like a person running into a car, then an ear-piercing siren, then finally a fuzzed-out organ comes in with a chopping funky riff backed by a perpetually chorded rhythm guitar part. Perhaps there's a tabla drum buried somewhere in the right channel. In all honesty, it doesn't matter. It's based around a repeating keyboard and guitar part, but all the focus is on the aforementioned Miss Muir and the man in charge of the samples and sound effects. From the first word uttered to the last, the vocals on this recording are quite otherworldly. She really lets go, I mean she goes totally doolally. Insane. Crackers. A sandwich short of etc. etc. etc. She gets gradually louder and more anguished as the piece progresses, shifting in such a way from wonder to anger to pain that could only be learned from real experience. A number of sentences are said in a way that could be described as simply disturbing (look out for "But he does believe me" and "Bury them in black sand", and you'll agree she's not joking). The sample-maestro attacks with greatest unsubtlety his arsenal of buzzes, bleeps, fuzzes and electro-screams in the same way a rollercoaster car thrashes around a sharp corner, and with the same effect. Apart from the hard cut at the end of 'Part I Conclusion', there is only one real change of pace, which is towards the end of the third part and consists of a cold and ominous electronic loop evolving into the sound of somebody saying "Brainticket, Brainticket, Brainticket, Brainticket.", then going back under the surface for more pummelling of the distorted organ riff.

The track ends with a big crash, and after half and hour you've become aware that the rhythm of the piece has worked its way into your brain waves. When it's over, you feel like something is now missing from your head. It is unlike anything I've heard before. The more modern equivalent would probably be Monster Magnet's 32-minute freak-out epic 'Tab.25', but even that sounds safe and comfortable compared with Cottonwoodhill. As said before, this is an absolute conquest of drug-addled dumb luck - how a band of European acid freaks can hijack a studio, bash out a few unhinged improvisations and still be referred to thirty-five years later as the makers of the most fucked up album of all time. Sure, there's plenty of newer stuff that sounds creepier or more demented than this, but considering how long ago this was done, and how nobody's really attempted a derivative follow-up, it is an absolute oddity. It is the musical equivalent of the Circus Casino scene in the movie of Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas' - it's made out of things that are familiar and safe (clowns and carousels/organs and guitars) but twisted out of all rational focus.


youllneverbe | 4/5 |


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