ASHRA: BLACKOUTS (1977)
1) 77 Slightly Delayed; 8) Midnight On Mars; 3) Don't Trust The Kids; 4) Blackouts; 5) Shuttle Cock; 6) Lotus.
The album cover speaks for itself. Göttsching must have received a few death threats in his mailbox, or at least a telegram that went something like this: «Return guitar sound. Join Keith Relf if failure to comply. Acknowledge through photo with guitar on sleeve. Long-time admirer.» Naturally, he would never admit the fact of chickening out to anybody, but hey, this free-form reconstruction of history may be as good as any other.
The critical reputation of Blackouts, as well as all other subsequent Ashra albums, is weaker than that of New Age Of Earth, but this, I'm sure of it, is a technical misunderstanding that will be corrected with time. With the prominent return of Göttsching's guitar playing, superimposed on the same electronic loops in a much more obvious and persistent way than before, this record, unlike its predecessor, regains somewhat of an individual character.
Its nature is still thoroughly «ambient»: development of themes is very limited, and even though all of these themes are rhythmic (each of the tracks is firmly pinned to a repetitive bassline), the basic sensation is still that of running on the spot. But now that Manuel has returned to the practice of multi-instrumental overdubbing, his various ways of soloing over the rhythm tracks not only create entirely different moods, but are also well worth following in regard to what is actually being played. In other words — involving.
On '77 Slightly Delayed', for instance, he returns to a slightly «rootsy» style of playing (remember 'Laughter Loving' from Starring Rosi), taking the lightness and cheerfulness of country-rock and leaving out the redneck flair. 'Midnight On Mars' shifts gears towards a more progressive style, with trebly «cosmic» guitar wailing high over your head. For the 'Don't Trust The Kids / Blackouts' uninterrupted suite, he experiments with various processed tones, taking a cue from Fripp, but playing his notes in a more accessible, «emotional» manner.
'Shuttle Cock' is a very odd combination. The rhythmic base is syncopated, with one guitar playing in an almost reggae manner, and one or two others laying on funky licks and strict «musical-geometric» figures — authentic «math-rock» way before the term was invented, but all the guitar tones still have a spacey feeling to them, so that these complex forms are not totally devoid of spirit. (Then again, neither is modern math-rock at its best).
Only the last and longest track, the four-«movement» suite 'Lotus', cuts down on the explicitness of the guitar sound, and ends up feeling like an outtake from New Age that did not manage to make it there because of the length. It produces more or less the same shiny effect as 'Sunrain', the only difference being that there is a layer of guitars accompanying the electronics: it is more obviously felt than heard, but it still gives the experience a genuinely human stamp, much more to my personal liking but, perhaps, disappointing to electronica buffs.
As far as I'm concerned, Blackouts, far from being the end of Ashra as a significant proposition (although it is, technically, the end of Ashra as a solo Göttsching undertaking — starting from the next LP, Ashra would once again become a real band), is the culmination of Ashra as such a proposition. The merger of guitars and electronics here is unique: nobody did that in the 1970s, with the brief exception of Fripp & Eno, and those two had a radically different approach to the idea. I may not ever listen to this record again, of course, but it's still a big old thumbs up. Would be a hats off, too, except I don't normally wear hats.
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