Hawkwind once sang enthusiastically that, indeed, ‘Space Is Deep’ on their 1972 progressive nebula traveling album Doremi Fasol Latido. Unfortunately for all the postulations and far out oscillating effects they failed to launch us further than our own stratosphere.
Interstellar overdrive and the promise of a journey beyond the stars never quite managed to leave behind the familiar sounding musical structures and instruments of Earthly genres, such as rock or jazz. Even Sun-Ra for all his visitor from another world talk, was still to a point chained to classicism, those outbursts of improvisation never quite soared to the dizzying celestial heights that we were promised.
Which leads me to CAN and their sixth studio album Soon Over Babaluma, a genuine bold attempt to lavish the cosmos with a fitting soundtrack, delivered by Cologne’s very own branch of NASA.
Previously on the 1973 heavenly diaphanous hymn Future Days, CAN had scaled new empyrean heights of excellence. Now they sat in the very lap of the Gods themselves, the only logical next step being outer space.
It helped of course that the injection of funds, acquired by Hildergaard, now paid for some new equipment, namely the futuristic sounding Alpha 77, a serious piece of kit that interrupts the sounds emanating from a keyboard to produce some startling effects and sound-scapes. Looking like some kind of radioactive scanner and housed in a bog-standard clunky metal box, the Alpha 77 could have fallen off the back of truck bound for some nuclear science facility. The flight deck controls and rather old-fashioned register dials don’t quite reflect the abundance of sounds that can be created and fooled around with; Irmin Schmidt teases a vast array of ethereal sweeping sound collages from this box of tricks, that coats every part of this album.
Irmin wasn’t the only one to receive some new equipment, the band as a whole upgraded their sound desk, for the first time being able to record straight onto stereo. Also editing and overdubbing became a lot easier, benefiting the overall quality of sound and mixing.
Technology always played its part but now it would direct the proceedings in 1974, as they began to lay down what would be the forthcoming Soon Over Babaluma.
December 1973 saw the departure of Japanese troubadour Damo Suzuki. A heated confrontation during a session for a TV soundtrack resulted in Damo snatching up his mike and a pre-amp, exclaiming, “That’s mine!” before skulking off in a strop.
The gear was returned in due course but Damo remained aloof, never to return, the recent marriage into and conversion over to the Jehovah’s Witness religion playing a major part in his decision making. He may as well joined the Quakers, as hanging out with avant-garde rock stars was now frowned upon and discouraged to the point where life must have become quite square.
An empty vacuum emerged at first, the rest of the band feeling left in the lurch, the upcoming album deadline and tour commitments placing intense pressure on the group to find a replacement.
Unfortunately finding a new singer/front man wasn’t easy, either due to unsuitability or previous prior engagements no one was found. In the end it was their own transcendental guitar genius Michael Karoli who stepped up to take on the vocal duties, with Irmin Schmidt lending his support and backing.
For the record Karoli does a pretty good job of it, sounding like a cross between a Germanic Syd Barret and even at times evoking the dreamy quality of Suzuki himself. Schmidt on the other hand comes across all creepy and crazed.
With emphasis on the pursuit of other worldly experiments and space exploration, Soon Over Babaluma sports a suitable cover. Graphics artist Ulli Eichberger delivers a shinning reflective moonscape, with the song titles and personal etched over the lunar terrain as though they were the names of craters and the barren lands features, though it also resembles some Alps type snowbound mountain scape.
The album title itself is claimed to be a parody type anagram of the old Wiemar Republic era show tune ‘Moon Over Alabama’, made famous in renditions by Nina Simone and even David Bowie. Originally written by Bertolt Brecht, the genius German poet and playwright, and put to music by fellow countryman Kurt Weil for the 1930 satirical opera ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany’, the song was made even more controversial when the Nazis banned it three years later. Maybe it reeked too much of Cabaret and the savage biting social depictions of George Grosz, who painted grotesque images of the obscene decadence taking part in German society. The surge of the far right encroaching on what they saw as bedlam with their even worse replacement ideology, turning on the social commentary of Brecht and Weil with vengeance.
Whether or not this is indeed the reason behind the moniker, there is no real reference to historical context; rather the mood is entirely directed towards space. Track titles such as ‘Come Sta, La Luna’, closest translation being ‘as it is, the moon’, and the scientific in nature ‘Chain Reaction’ and ‘Quantum Physics’, CAN certainly laid down enough signs of their new found commitment to the course.
A move towards the more technological progressive and experimental ethos mixed with the jazz boundary defining pronunciations made by Ornatte Coleman, Miles Davis and the already mentioned ex-resident of Saturn, Sun-Ra, CAN’s sound managed to surpass the previous journey men as they now set out to tip toe across Orion and penetrate deep space.
This wasn’t the only album released by CAN in the 1974, oh no! A collection of studio off cuts and even further out there avant-garde sound collages entitled Limited Edition, so called as it was limited to only 15,000 copies, though only two years later it was released as a double album with 5 extra tracks.
Both versions include the Ethnological Forgery Series and the scraps and fragments of sound pieces and obscure sound cluttered impromptu jams that littered their back catalog. The stand out track is the ambient moving viscerally inspired ‘Gomorrha’, one of the most ethereal quality pieces they ever recorded and possibly the track that Damo walked out on. Its science fiction searching and hearts of darkness espionage drama evoking atmosphere perfectly encapsulates the sea change taking place, having been recorded only months before work started on Soon Over Babaluma.
United Artists 1974
Recorded at Inner Space Studios during early 1974.
1. Dizzy Dizzy (5:40)
2. Come Sta, La Luna (5:44)
3. Splash (7:47)
1. Chain Reaction (11:12)
2. Quantum Physics (8:33)
Holger Czukay – Bass
Michael Karoli – Guitar, Violin, Lead vocals on ‘Dizzy Dizzy’, ‘Chain Reaction’ and ‘Quantum Physics’.
Jaki Liebeziet – Drums and Percussion
Irmin Schmidt – Organ, Electric Piano, Alpha 77, Percussion, Lead Vocals on ‘Come Sta, La Luna’
Ulli Eichberger – Artwork
The sound of a small leap across the surface of the Moon, whose gravity has been swallowed by the Alpha 77 and re-directed into one illuminating bended note, this is how ‘Dizzy Dizzy’ begins.
Karoli floats in on a passing solar wind, floating above the rim shots and deeply reverberated bass like a lurking rock astronaut ready to pounce with his introduction gambit “rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat” vocal scat.
A sultry Afro-beat enriched beat bounces along as twangs of guitar mark the way, all the while Schmidt strokes his alluring array of space organs, fermenting some lofty aspiring effects with which the groove can walk on.
Soon the violin strikes up a haunting weeping melody that cuts through the expansive air, exquisite emotive strains from the stringed solo stir up a certain amount of pulchritude.
Soft brush strokes and heavily comatose cymbals make contact with Czukay’s one note comfort blanket warm bass, rich in rebounded echo.
Karoli breathlessly sings such wise pronunciations as,
“I know, I don’t smoke with the angels, I know
Don’t throw ashtrays at me”
I think we know what kind of brand of choice he’s more then hinting at!
He goes onto lay his soul bare with the romantic gestured lines,
“I’m not made out of mature,
But I’m something out of the heart.
Throwing on you a kiss, kiss”
Almost jumbled around or miss-translated, these lyrics read like a cut and paste experiment.
Dizzy in love or dizzy due to the air being so thin up here in the upper echelons of space, Karoli seems to levitate on his whispered sonnet to some higher beings.
Schmidt eventually takes over draining the vocals to a mere trace, that Alpha 77 synth manipulator now warming up and taking on a life of its own, becoming like a fifth member of the group. But it will be those felicities violins that have the last word, ending on a majestic dueling climax.
‘Come Sat, La Luna’ opens with a field trip recording of some stroll alongside the canal, the occasional croaking from some walk on part crow, interrupts the serene ambience. Karoli then rumbles in with a pleading dramatic rendition of the title off the back of some heavy duty compressed reverb, that makes it sound like the band are playing in an diving bell chamber.
The sense of entrapment and struggle to breathe in this now thick atmosphere, a morphine induced state is evoked in this dense sounding eulogy to some far off planetary dimension.
Schmidt more or less recites rather then sings his lines, which are deep in creepy effects and delivered through some unsettling eerie cadenced nonsense.
These vocals are more like riddles or cryptic announcements of foresight, such as the lines,
“I am not fighting, but I’m the night,
I am not dying and I’m not hurt.
I am the right or the wrong, your hope,
I am the dancer on the tender road”
He goes on to express,
“I am the water and how I can flow”
Schmidt seems to be angling at some descriptive analogy, continuing with more caustic questioning,
“And why don’t you call me Sta?
Flowing over Babaluma,
It ain’t your friend.
You can do it alone,
And you don’t have to pay”
The song picks up some pace, almost swinging along in a jaunty motion, Liebeziet taps his way through, giving a special decompressed bass drum and kick drum solo, losing himself in a sudden joyful upturn.
From out of the mire approaches a grand piano and squalling guitar, both lost in a mini battling concerto, which grows towards an almost full on avant-garde free for all before calm is restored with the last warbling chorus from Karoli. Almost sorrowful in manner, the finale words almost trapped as though Karoli is zapped of his strength.
Side one ends on the all out galactic jazz ensemble instrumental ‘Splash’.
Sun-Ra, Miles Davies, Ornette Coleman bump into each other on the set of Mission Impossible, all vying for elbowroom and paranoid up to the eyeballs.
Squawking, hooting sousaphone and grumbling thunder striking bass are met with fret board scrapping and incessant scratching, Liebezeit rattling off a series of rolling drums and double kicks, booting his kit round the room.
Just as a certain rhythm is broken in, cowbells and trinket percussion enter the alarming fray, bringing with them the black box recorder omnipresence of Schmidt’s 77, a glorious sound track to the stars is eminent.
Karoli begins a dystopian guitar solo from on top of some desolate mountainous range or Olympus Mons itself, melancholy wines and strains of harrowing pleads echo round the empty immense affinity of space.
An excitement of sorts starts to boil over as a barracking charge from the drums now piles in to the accompaniment of strangled brass and eastern harem sounding oboes, which pursue a deconstructed noisy voyage of discovery, wrestling control of this nine headed monster jam.
Once you’ve had time to calm down from the audio assault of ‘Splash’, side two awaits your attention with the doubled up ambient suite of ‘Chain Reaction’ and ‘Quantum Physics’, the energy and matter evoking scientific epic.
Beginning with the now familiar sound of the 77 revving up like some organic spacecraft dreamed up by Frank Herbert, in fact reminding me of the special effects from Dune the movie.
Drums and bass slowly fade in with a soul shaking tambourine, shimmering and arousing r’n’b, before Karoli slides and rides all over his guitar, the celestial conductor.
The brewing accompaniment runs riot until fitting into a assured stride, the low plains pan out in front of us as the beat remains steady and ambitious in outlook.
Schmidt unveils grand gestures of melody from his very own inter-galactic flight deck, painting multiple soaring swathes of astrological envy for Karoli to now glide over with his best Damo evoking vocals.
Surreal imagery is conjured up and uttered with breathless enthusiasm; analogies of a Soviet flavor are transcribed thus,
“Elephant dominating Russian,
Don’t be running hurt.
Dominating the deep”
The attitudes change with the take it or leave it gay abandon of the chorus,
“Chain reaction incoming when you get so small,
I said chain reaction incoming when you get so rushed”
Probing, encroaching guitar searches roam the moonscape, taking part in a call and response with Schmidt’s now crescendo illuminating collage of sound.
Liebezeit and Czukay both slump off into solo frenzies, traveling there very own particular rhythmic paths before a giant thunder clap strikes and sends the track towards free-fall.
Tribal beats clatter and clash, whilst haunting encircling brooding organs and ascending synths swoop, then the beats are reigned back in and Karoli recalls the chorus again.
Cyclonic chuggering grooves are interrupted with some unworldly seething effects, that wouldn’t sound out of place in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the ghosts of Mars and the trembling spooky reaches of the far off universe now hang heavily over the space flight.
Rim shots and interplanetary musings seep into the final outro of the track before bleeding over to the second act of ‘Quantum Physics’.
Gentle ramblings and distressing noises unearthed from the science lab, emanate throughout, all the while Liebezeit attempts to keep a groove going, constantly banging away in the background.
From out of nowhere, an unseemly black hole maybe, Schmidt unleashes a brave new world of sublime washes and choral ethereal charm. The sky at night has never sounded so angelic and worth investigating.
No description quite explains the climatic finale that signs of Soon Over Babaluma, invigorating escapism and traveling through the cosmos, in scenes reminiscent of Solaris.
Breathtaking in vision, the perfect emotional drama set in space takes some beating. Perhaps they should include this in any future first contact package shot into the universe; then again any alien life form may just think we’re showing off.