Soundtracks

A prescient band said to have influenced pretty much everything that happened musically since the '70s, Can embodies the sound of krautrock as it's most often assimilated and idealized. The group pulled together in Cologne, Germany in 1968, around a core of hippie rockers who eyed machines with something less than suspicion, found freedom in precision, and sounded more in thrall to the future than to their own zeitgeist. On the surface, early Can sounds like a lot of rock bands of the era: It jams through long songs cut with acid-rock guitar, raw vocals, and psychedelic blasts of noise. Underneath, though, Can focused on details—and most crucially, ways to integrate them as more than just ornament.

Monster Movie, the 1969 debut included in Mute's reissue of the first four classic Can albums, shows the band in good working order from the start. Before leaving the group after a mental breakdown, original frontman Malcolm Mooney (a black American in a band full of Germans) gave Monster Movie a vocal-intensive gravity that pulled in different directions soon thereafter. Songs like "Father Cannot Yell" and "Mary, Mary So Contrary" lift Mooney's spoken-sung wails above churning garage-rock backdrops, spinning psychedelic glimmers against flattened guitar chords and tight bass loops. To that end, "Outside My Door" sounds like a relative of Pink Floyd's Canterbury classic "Interstellar Overdrive," all murky builds and arm-waving guitar gestures. The album-closing "Yoo Doo Right" is where Can really starts being Can: During 20 murky minutes, the band steps back to consider drums as a component no less musical than any other. Melody pours out from guitar and keyboards, but the spotlight shines on the churning meter below, especially during an introductory stretch of the classic Can groove—a mantric march somewhere between jogging robots and Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Released as an in-between project in 1970, Soundtracks finds Can in transition. Mooney appears on two songs, but more notable is the entry of prime vocalist Damo Suzuki, a Japanese weirdo whose whispers and screams spread through the music like contagions and antibodies. Soundtracks is the least essential of the reissues, but its increased electronics and attention to rhythm—especially in the raucous stormer "Mother Sky"—make it more than the footnote it's often regarded as.

There's little question about Tago Mago, the 1971 album around which Can's map gets arranged. Everything the band had been working on sounds more amped-up and agile out of the gate: "Paperhouse" is a centripetal rocker that blurs sharp guitars, rumbling drums, and vocal outbursts into a heated swirl. "Mushroom" and "Oh Yeah" signal Can's growing studio experimentation, with drum fills panned in the distance and sheets of electronic sound stitched purposefully into the mix. Suzuki sifts through the moods, singing, heaving, and chanting like a ceremonial figurehead leading an army of vocalists. He doesn't figure much in the chugging 18-minute centerpiece "Halleluwah," but his presence is strong enough that his absence takes on its own voice.

The 1972 album Ege Bamyasi retains some of Tago Mago's flailing reach, but its spark sounds more muted and foregone. Sharper recording and cleaner arrangements showcase Can's methods as a working band, but that also comes at the expense of Can's standing as a full-blown phenomenon. Like all of Mute's reissues, Ege Bamyasi benefits greatly from its remastering, which restores fuller, more muscle-bound sound to weak prior transfers. And even when that sound burns a little less urgently, it stirs up the deep space that Can tumbled through and danced around like few bands before or since.

More Music Review