Faust - The Faust Tapes
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
There are many types of strange bands. There’s goofiness, of the relatively benign sort, that runs the continuum from There Might Be Giants to The Moldy Peaches. There’s the ambiguous how-much-of-this-do-they-mean strangeness that permeates The Nation of Ulysses’ liner-notes delirium and in the aura of which a good deal of metal albums (or, at least, lyric sheets) bask. Then,there is the sense of strangeness one gets from listening to artists like Sun City Girls, Jandek, et al., which at times crystallizes as a kind of, well, wrongness to which prolonged exposure could be near-toxic.
Allow me a brief digression, though you could see the direction in which this is headed. I remember listening to the Monkees on my parents’ component stereo system when I was young, and though there were touches of the bizarre that delighted me, then – the globs of Moog synthesizer and sub-Fugs chaos heard on “Auntie Grizelda” (the Michael-Nesmith-sung “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” always irritated the hell out of me, though; my father tells me it used to make me cry), for example. I remember having quite a different, unfavorable reaction to something else I’ll always associate with the Monkees, aside from the aforementioned failed experiment in drugged-out Vaudevillian humor. The turntable belt must have broken, or finally rotted out, as one day my parents and I sat listening to that Rhino greatest-hits comp, and the result – voice cruelly distended and turned to eerie threnody, along guitar, bass, drums, and probably tambourine – freaked the shit out of me. I’d hear echoes of my youthful terror in the slight warp of records I’d purchase at thrift sales, but it wasn’t until hearing The Faust Tapes that I was tossed back into its thrall, that I felt, again, as if the rules that govern the emissions of reproduced sound had been cast aside, and, in the space of a moment, I was listening no longer to a record album but instead eavesdropping in on some alien transmission, some lost vessel sinking into the ether while its passengers and crew abandoned all reason, a nursery Raudive voices crying out in agony as the junction of dimensions was peeled apart like a grilled cheese sandwich, etc., etc. All at once, mind.
This is feverish music. Even if the many movements and sections of this album, which run the gamut of evocations from stately processional march to idiot orgy, to grandeur to full-on degradation to pathos to incomprehensibility, were separated and, so to speak, ironed out – if this beast were dissected – it’d still be awfully weird, but the fact that Faust offer this all up raw and brackish (as opposed to the relatively polished.presentation of the still unpredictable, more subtly bewildering Faust IV) makes it even harder to digest.
Leave your other records next to this one and, given time, they might all end up like this. I’m not sure how I’d feel about that, but I can try to figure out how I feel about this album, which I will now try to provide a capsule summary of for the curious would-be listener.
Things start off with a forbidding deep-space drone, with a rattle of piano somewhere in the distance. Then there’s a “No you don’t! Yes you do!” chant offset against the discomfort of lusty drums, followed by gentle guitar and piano, and some pastoral, perhaps willfully inane lyrics sung in heavily accented English. A delicate chord procession unfolds, tributaries of synthesizer and thoughtful piano flowing throughout; cautiously, the song builds to a climax and withdraws carefully, the last synthesizer note cut off to make for what’s believed to be a parody of Can’s sepulchral “Aumgn” that soon unfolds in an absurd and highly Zappaesque organ and brass fanfare that makes several painful stabs before echoing out in exhaustion. Then we get one of the few songs to have an apocryphal title, “J’ai Mal Aux Dents, J’ai Mal Aux Pieds Aussi,” a garage-meets-motorik stomp perched somewhere between primitivism and futurism, highlighted by zombified chanting, Velvets-inspired guitar and the bleat of a saxophone, which makes its entry after someone cries out, “Rock off!” and a few perfectly-timed comic moments of full-band drumroll ensue. Organ blasts and ranting, then some lovely subdued toms and mangled drone; for a moment, this sounds like the perfect aesthetic hybrid of Beefheart and Autechre circa EP7. A foray into deliberate incoherence follows – weird as that previous track was, it spoiled us, what with its having, y’know, a standard time signature – highlighted by German radio, someone rattling silverware, climbing stairs, and running water, groaning, and going about other domestic business. (Think of it as Krautrock-hippie-commune audio verite, as I do.)
A warped funk bassline cuts through all this, atop which more frenzied organ is overlaid. This section gives up in a gasping ostinato, suddenly intercut with the dippiest, spaciest sci-fi theme music imaginable, which disappears just as suddenly as it entered, replaced with the discordant hum of at least three idling synths, which achieve an almost demure orchestral sensuality before fading out. More “Aumgn” voices, sounding this time wracked with indigestion, fade in. Everything speeds up and suddenly turns into a driving drums-and-hopelessly-out-of-whack cartoon chase-music instrumental. Cut to lush, decadent organ and wah-wah theme unfolding over the smoothest funk drums to appear yet. Cut to hyperbolic, shrieking keyboards that suggest that very comfortable empire’s sudden collapse. Things don’t regain composure for a while: various kitchen-sink echoes and ominous bass sounds dot a sparse landscape, then some bruised saxophone (which heads off, I believe, the LP’s second side) holds a melancholy dialog with its own reverbed ghosts. A swarm of plucked guitar and timorous piano notes come in. A thunderclap, somewhere, is heard. Pianos and rain come in next, at variable speeds; spectral voices and the rattle of scrap-metal follow suit. Out of nowhere there arrives conventional beauty in the form of a near-solemn piano passage. Suddenly we hear an early drum machine and tone-generator, which brings to mind an early computer’s limited understanding of this chaos. It promptly vanishes.
Distant trumpet appears behind a curtain of weighty ambience. A crippled, awkward drumkit comes in, mocked by whistles and chimes. A deranged, near-feral blues figure enters, hinting at some suppressed anger. Then gongs and power drills and hammers, all of which I find especially chilling. A dazed guitar wanders into the fray, suddenly bursting into another near-epic near-pop song, with lyrics from a lobotomized narrator – maybe he’s the man we began the album with, before he was jumped by a horde of escaped inmates eager to carry out some retribution – who I would guess, from the urgency with which he delivers lines about climbing into his mind, that he’s into the transmigration of souls and all that Philip K. Dick stuff. This song somehow ends up portraying a near-beatific portrait of a pair of young parents, until more madness surfaces in protests that the baby’s “crying so loud / he’s breaking my head!” Somehow this narrator, who next explains he’s feeling like a tree, seems ineffective in blaming his distress on an infant’s mere wail. The album’s coda comes in the form of some folk guitar and foreign-language-lab musing which I could never quite make out much of but seemed mischievous, obscene. And with a final arpeggio of notes, one of the stray moments of clarity that stand out in the strangeness, it’s all over.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01