Monday, June 20, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 111 - Faust

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I believe that the term "krautrock" originated in Britain as a pejorative term for the weird avant-garde stuff going on in Germany in the late 1960s and early 70s. Anglo-American rock critics have always harbored a vague suspicion toward the experimental and those musicians who move too far away from the bluesy template that tends to define the genre. But the German krautrockers didn't just move in a different direction; they abandoned the blues entirely, moving straight into long, meandering instrumental drones, new instruments and weird sounds. There was an appreciation for pure sound that outweighed any sort of worries about song structure, marketability, or whether or not the final product was palatable to listeners. 

For these reasons, krautrock is often lumped in with the bombastic prog rock or the fledging electronic scene. But, listening to krautrockers Faust this week, I was struck by how much the band (and genre) owed to the German classical music scene - perhaps as much, if not more, than they owed to rock music. Faust may have been using drum sets and electric guitars, but a lot of their music falls more in the tradition of the avant-garde classical music that came out of the fifties. 

German composers have always worked under the idea that music history acts in a linear progression. Whether or not this is true is always up for debate, but there's no arguing that many of the most famous German composers see a direct line leading from the classical-era Mozart and Haydn, to the larger, more challenging pieces by Beethoven, to works by Wagner that pushed the limits of standard tonalities, to composers like Mahler and Strauss who pretty much took the last vestiges of the classical tradition to their very limits, to Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, who tried to move beyond even the radical tonalities of late Romanticism by embracing the new "twelve-tone" method that's too complicated to explain here. 

My point in boring you with these Cliff's Notes of musical history is that by the 1950s, German classical music was pretty much building off of Schoenberg and his friends. This is partially because the Nazis ruined Wagner and Beethoven for everyone, partially because this linear view of musical history emphasized building on what came before, and partially because the influential conferences at the Darmstadt School did a good job at introducing a whole generation of composers to these avant-garde techniques and, strangely enough, making them the norm. 

Schoenberg was dead by this point, but Karlheinz Stockhausen (of Sgt. Pepper's fame, and maybe the last composer to be wildly influential in such a way) was taking these ideas and finding new things to do with them - introducing electronic instruments, and emphasizing sound and long-term timbral shifts. Pretty melodies and classical concertos were out, and sound experiments, "pointillistic" noises and electronic effects were in. But it wasn't the rock hippies doing this; it was a bunch of academics trained in the German tradition. If Schoenberg had killed tonality, Stockhausen was trying to find a way to build a post-tonal classical music. 

While still incredibly respected, Stockhausen and his ilk never really caught on with listeners for the obvious reasons. The music simply sounds too academic, too removed from the joy of listening. But if Stockhausen got it wrong, the krautrockers - bands like Can, early Kraftwerk, and, yes, Faust, got it right. Listening to Faust this week, Stockhausen's long pieces, drones, electronics and noises were given new life when combined with Faust's rock pulse and primal energy. Stockhausen's music is primarily humorless, but Faust's tongue is firmly in cheek, and this goes a long way toward making the music more palatable. 

It's strange then, that a lot of post-1960 classical music - minimalism, John Adams, Ellen Zwilich, - is informed by rock and pop music. Bouncy rhythms and short, fast, humorous pieces are in. But a certain segment of post-1970 rock and "popular" music is increasingly informed by the Stockhausen-influenced krautrockers, and thus classical music. Almost no one listened to Faust during their short career - they were dropped from their record label after abysmal singles. But their reputation, along with Can and Kraftwerk, has only grown, and their gigantic song structures, weird noises and sinister, shifting timbres have influential tentacles reaching in a dozen different directions, from techno and prog to indie rock and "post-rock". Most intersections between the realm of "classical" and "rock" have dated badly (see the Moody Blues, for example), but this week I can emphatically state that Faust is a true combination of the two worlds - albeit, in a manner that I didn't really expect. It's not the "classical music" you usually think of, but Faust has been influenced by the academic world of professional composers all the same. 

WEEK 111


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew a little about the krautrock scene from listening to Can and some early Kraftwerk, but I hoped to delve a little deeper with Faust, one of the more mysterious krautrock groups.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Faust So Far (1972) every day this week. I also listened to Faust IV (1973) three times, and Faust (1971) and The Faust Tapes (1973) one time each. 

WHAT I LIKED: Faust's first self-titled album is sort of a sprawling mess (more on that below), but Faust So Far and Faust IV both feature a few cases of tight, economical songwriting that I didn't really expect from this band. The first song on Faust So Far, "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl," is seven minutes long, true, but the improvisational feel of the first album is replaced with a strict, pounding beat and a slow crescendo of instruments. By the time the saxophone is wailing at the end, this band sounds almost fun. Similarly upbeat, happy sounding songs come at "Picnic on a Frozen River" and "The Sad Skinhead." The weirdness is still there, and there's still that obsession with strange sounds popping up in the background, but some of this doesn't sound too bizarre.

But it's not that Faust couldn't make ten-minute long instrumental jams with the best of them. "No Harm" begins deceptively, providing three minutes of serene folk-sounding music, before shifting into a hard rock mode built around the bizarre lyrics, "Daddy, take the banana, tomorrow is Sunday!" It's ridiculous, yes, but Faust is good enough at selling this music that it makes you forget just how ridiculous it really is. "Just A Second (Starts Like That)" is a little shorter, but does a nice transition from rock to electronic beeps and cacophonic drones. If you're looking for some real drone-laden music, look no further than the murky haze of "Mamie is Blue."

Though Faust has a reputation for being really "far-out," even for krautrockers, I think this stems mostly from Faust and The Faust Tapes. But Faust So Far and Faust IV are great introductions to the genre, at least as far as my limited knowledge. They're more palatable than early Kraftwerk, and easier to swallow than some of Can's lengthy jams. They're weird enough to keep you on your toes, but normal enough that you can keep one foot in reality while listening.


Of course, what I mentioned above about Faust being palatable goes out the window with Faust and The Faust Tapes, both of which I can appreciate without actually liking. Faust is an album made up of only three tracks - "Why Don't You Eat Carrots," "Meadow Meal" and "Miss Fortune." The shortest track is eight minutes; the longest over sixteen. Here, the music is devoid of any recognizable structure, veering back and forth from genre to genre, noise to noise, medieval chants to freeform jazz to drones. It's sort of fascinating in a strange way, but it's also the music of a band that has no desire to mold themselves into anything worthwhile. Faust is the sound of some Stockhausen fans throwing a bunch of notes at the wall and seeing what sticks. 

But Faust looks positively tame compared to the schizophrenic majesty of The Faust Tapes, which is one of the strangest albums I have ever heard. With their first two albums not selling very well, Faust convinced Virgin Records to sell them in the UK. In return, Virgin demanded all of Faust's recorded music up to that point for free. What they got was forty minutes of cut-and-paste recording sessions spliced together, and the forty-minute sound collage was released for the price of a single in a desperate attempt to build an audience. The original Faust Tapes had no track titles (or tracks, for that matter), but later CD releases identified twenty-six distinct tracks. 

The Faust Tapes is utterly bizarre, and while there are some good ideas and talented passages in here, the overall concept of the album is so difficult that its really only for die-hard Faust fans. I suppose I should give it another spin at some point, but I preferred Faust's more accessible albums to this mess. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Faust made a soundtrack for the avant-garde film 1973 film Outside the Dream Syndicate, which I might check out. Then, after being dropped from their label, the band disappeared for about twenty years. And I mean literally disappeared; no one seems to know what the members were doing during this time. They reappeared with a somewhat different line-up in 1995 with Rien, and have been relatively busy since then, and I might be curious to see what sort of music new-Faust has come up with, and if they're just riding the coattails of their mythic past. 


Have you heard any Faust? I chose the band's lone single, which is a pretty good example of the tighter, more restrained Faust. Listen to those horns!


Strangely, my favorite Faust song might be the track they recorded to make fun of the krautrock genre. Despite the satirical concept, the music builds something suitably epic out of the drones. I was listening to this on a plane this week, as we descending into black clouds full of lightning. The fact that I thought I was going to die might have something to do with the heavy emotions I have associated with this song; Faust is not necessarily the best music for a bumpy plane ride. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: I've done Fleet Foxes, the Flaming Lips, Faust...and now Franz Ferdinand. This month has been brought to you by the letter "F."