Explore the Cosmos With 10 Hidden Krautrock Gems
If you’re worth your weight in kaftans, you more than likely are already turned on to the sounds of Can, Amon Düül, Kraftwerk, Faust, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, Guru Guru and the many other German rock bands from the '60s and '70s that pushed the barriers of the genre into deep, dark territories of inner space via their experimentation with both studio trickery and psychedelic drugs.
But what about all those bands from that time and place who aren’t name-checked by all these supposedly hip musicians and artists? Are the mesmeric sounds from the likes of Agitation Free, Hairy Chapter or Lava lost to the dust-caked annals of time, where only antisocial record collectors know of their existence?
I respond to my own question with a resounding “hell no” as, with this installment of Crash Course, we will present some of the finest hidden gems within the Krautrock music garden that should please both newbies and seasoned, stoned-out veterans alike.
Like many of the obscure units that litter the landscape of Krautrock, rumors abound on Düsseldorf's German Oak. Apparently a group of teenagers who recorded in an abandoned air raid shelter, they delivered rudimentary kinetics with a special, hypnotic lurch and stumble, which will please anyone who relishes go-nowhere jamming of the highest order.
Where Can were taking in the American funk of James Brown and Sly Stone and twisting it into their own Teutonic sound, Bavaria’s Da Capo were looking to the West Coast sounds of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and especially Love (whose second album they took their name from) to do the same sort of trickery. Self-released on their own California label (Jeez! Can it get any more obvious?), Da Capo’s sole LP from 1972 does display a fondness for the aforementioned bands, but their interpretation of the laid-back sounds of the Golden State has enough of that distinctly off-kilter, primitive vibe of Germanic rock to make even the most ardent lovers of heavy, loud, crazy sounds give them the thumbs-up.
In the world of Krautrock, Agitation Free are the closest you'll get to something akin to the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers in the aspect of tingly, loosey-goosey improvisation with a sense of warmth to the proceedings. But what separates them from any other batch of jam-hungry noodlers are the jolting drop-ins of tape manipulation and electronic squiggles, courtesy of Michael Hoenig, who would later go on to join Tangerine Dream.
TWENTY SIXTY SIX AND THEN
There are those who feel the world of German rock can be too cerebral for its own good. To them, I present Mannheim’s Twenty Sixty Six and Then, one of the most dunderheaded and high-octane prog rock bands of all time. Boasting two (count 'em, two!) keyboardists, the band released the heady and hyper-as-hell LP, Reflections on the Future, in 1971 before breaking up — most likely due to the aforementioned piano men contracting carpal tunnel syndrome from their breakneck synth wizardry.
To most, the first incarnation of Amon Düül is the pinnacle for primal, communal psych rock from Deutschland. But there were many other acid heads roaming the countrysides of the country making a fumbly, acoustic racket, such as Kalacakra, Langsyne and the most zonked-out of them all: Siloah. The unit’s self-titled debut LP from 1970 is a stone-cold classic of teetering, hippy-dippy bongo fury, while their second and final full-length, Sukram Gurk, employs electric instrumentation, but is equally as wild as its predecessor.
Still operating under the guidance of founding member Christian Burchard, Embryo might be the most prolific of all the bands from the Krautrock explosion of the early '70s. Over the course of more than 50 releases, the collective has put its own unique spin on sounds from around the globe (but please don’t call it the dreaded “world music”) to create some of the most challenging music you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing.
In the pantheon of bands to emerge from Germany in the dawn of the decade, Hairy Chapter are certainly the heaviest of the lot. In their all-too-brief existence, the quartet laid out some of most excessive guitar rock of the time, on par with anything that came from either the U.K. or the States. For proof, do your damndest to get a hold of either their debut, Eyes (1970), or their absolutely crushing Can’t Get Through (1971).
Where the charm of druggy folk-esque units such as Siloah or Amon Düül was their raw and rather inept musicianship, the allure of the duo known as Emtidi (containing Maik Hirschfeldt and Dolly Holmes) was the magic carpet-like grace they exhibited on their two LPs. Their first, self-titled, all-acoustic album from 1970 is a pleasant enough affair, but it’s their second and final full-length, Saat, that seals their fate in the Krautrock Hall of Fame. Lush synth washes soar around Hirschfeldt’s shimmering 12-string, and Holmes' gorgeous voice makes this a top-notch choice for the soundtrack to a late-night burn session.
Formed in 1969 in Stuttgart, Gila were originally a multimedia collective dealing in film, visual art, poetry and, of course, music. Their first LP from '71, Free Electronic Sound, was a concept record that represented (in the band's words) “their progression from aggression to communication,” and is definitely one of the finest, most seamless psychedelic train rides ever committed to wax. Soon after Free Electronic Sound was recorded, Gila guitarist Conny Veit went off to join Krautrock titans Popul Vuh, and the group disbanded. But in 1973, Viet assembled a new lineup of Gila, consisting of other Popul Vuh members, and recorded Bury Me at Wounded Knee; it's a record that's more in line with the meditative stylings of Popul Vuh than the kaleidoscopic sound of the band's first album, but still pretty damn stunning nonetheless.
Yet another gaggle of commune dwellers who came and went in a cloud of smoke. Lava's sole LP from 1973, Tears Are Goin’ Home (on the much-collected Brain label), for the most part comes off like a more ham-fisted and pharmaceutically wrecked version of Hawkwind, but the record-closing track “Piece of Peace” is the kind of great wandering jam you’d expect from a bunch of hippies sitting around a campfire contemplating the universe trapped inside their fingernails.