CAN: TAGO MAGO (1971)
1) Paperhouse; 2) Mushroom; 3) Oh Yeah; 4) Halleluwah; 5) Aumgn; 6) Peking O; 7) Bring Me Coffee Or Tea.
Acknowledged almost everywhere as the ultimate Can masterpiece, Tago Mago is indeed the most uncompromising, relentless, brutal exhibition of the Can aesthetics that money can buy, which should also register a warning for the not-so-extreme-minded: four LP sides with but seven tracks worth of material, and two of them with very little rhythm support to speak of, can be quite a heavy burden on the unitiated, who should rather start out with Soundtracks.
As far as kick-ass statements go, I'm pretty sure Can never made a stronger one. Tago Mago is a dark-'n'-brooding piece, exploring the world of insanity and brutality that is so wonderfully encapsulated in the sleeve photo: see how it seems to picture an infra-red portrait of an individual spitting out pieces of his own brain, but that same portrait also has the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud? Well, you could dream of something like that just listening to some of this music, without taking a single look at the cover.
Technically, Tago Mago completes the transformation of Can from a jam-based outfit into a «jam-splice-based» unit: most of the songs here have improvisational studio jams as their foundation, but all of them are then taken by Czukay and «treated» with additional overdubs, shortened and spliced with artistic purposes, as if Holger knew very well which moments of the sessions «meant» something, which ones had to be embellished to mean something, and which ones were senseless and had to be cut. You could, perhaps, call that a waste of time if most of the material did not indeed sound so awesome — a great lesson for so many psychedelic bands who thought that the very fact of a group of free people freely experimenting in the studio should necessarily result in great art. Amazingly, despite all the doctoring, all the tracks still preserve a certain raw, visceral quality to them, which we should ascribe to Czukay's absolute professionalism.
When I'm talking about raw/visceral, I, of course, mean primarily the rhythm section. If ʻMother Skyʼ used a simplistic 4/4 beat and could still put you in a trance any second, then Tago Mago shows how they can do the same thing with slightly trickier means. In particular, ʻHalleluhwahʼ, stretched over the entire second side of the LP, rides on an absolute monster of a groove, captured so brilliantly you can almost feel Liebezeit's entire drumkit rattling and wobbling on its platform, while the bass is pumping up a feeling of inescapable doom. Honestly, the rest does not even matter all that much — there are some fine, diverse guitar solos in all sorts of styles and tonalities, there's Suzuki spewing crazy desperation ("searching for my brother, yes I am!") all over the place, but my attention (and spirit) just remain chained to that groove all the way through (there's a very short bit early on in the song where the groove disappears for a moody piano interlude, and it almost makes me sad — fortunately, it's just a thirty second splice). How the heck is it even humanly possible to play that sort of stuff so unfalteringly for such a long time? Must be far more difficult to get yourself that disciplined than going all-out crazy a la Keith Moon.
The shorter tracks on the first side are not quite that powerful, but they also form the emotional center of the album — the slow, trudging ʻPaperhouseʼ is like the soundtrack to a funeral ceremony in a madhouse; ʻMushroomʼ, naturally referring to a nuclear strike, is particularly poignant given its vocalization by a Japanese singer ("when I saw mushroom head, I was born and I was dead"); and ʻOh Yeahʼ, into which ʻMushroomʼ transitions after an actual nuclear blast, is the album's fastest bit of music, but also one of the most psychedelic, with backward vocals and synth notes that morph into gushing wind as they fade away. This is not «just jamming» — this is every bit the equivalent of the Stooges' Fun House, only substituting a more complex and disciplined approach in the place of Iggy and Co.'s untamed infernal energy. The message is the same, though — music can symbolize and convey the collective madness of humanity better than any other medium.
You have to keep that message very firmly in mind when listening to the second LP, because I vividly remember myself hating ʻAumgnʼ and ʻPeking Oʼ — why on earth, thought I, when we have here easily the best rhythm section of 1971 bar none, do we have to waste so much time on two astral freakouts that feature no rhythm section whatsoever? But even the cavernous echoes and keyboard escapades of ʻAumgnʼ are quite a step up from anything in the same style done by, say, the Grateful Dead — just because there's a fascinating tension to every single bit of the track, and because you can visualize it as a dangerous journey through the corridors, winding paths, and precipices located inside somebody's brain; if the first LP was completely «external», now the sensations are being «internalized», and where you first had access to the outward manifestations of insanity, now you are being put inside, where it sure ain't pretty but sure is suspenseful. ʻPeking Oʼ is not quite as impressive, largely because there's too much emphasis on outdated electronics (the drum machine stuff is particularly flimsy) and because Suzuki's speaking-in-tongues on that particular track veers into the comical; but it is also shorter, and it does actually succeed in bringing the rhythm section back towards the end, so it's not a big problem.
Like Soundtracks, Tago Mago also ends with something relatively close to a «normal» moody tune, the drone-based ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ, where things sort of calm down after the storm, but clearly indicating that this is just a pause, as the madness dies down because the madman has temporarily run out of energy and is now quietly rocking back and forth in a dazed, depressed, zombie-like state, his mind quietly preparing for psychotic phase two. ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ was not exactly a happy song, but it reflected a certain mode of inner peace and quiet; ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ ends Can's alleged masterpiece with a musical cliffhanger, or, at least, a clear indication that this disturbed state of mind is here to stay for a long, long time.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Tago Mago is far from the most «typical» Can album. The band's flirt with musical insanity would go on for a brief while, but overall, future releases would become more and more disciplined, more concentrated on the groove than the atmosphere; and if the atmosphere were still present, it would rather be an otherworldly atmosphere than this horrid feeling of being trapped inside a madman's mind. Since rock music and rock criticism has this long history of flirting with darkness and insanity, it is not surprising that Tago Mago has become, for so many people, the Can album par excellence; yet in reality, it represents but one particular stage of evolution for the band, although for Damo Suzuki, it was certainly his shining hour of glory (his vocal presence on the following two albums being far less important). That said, on the «Great Mad Albums» shelf that was so densely populated in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Tago Mago has itself quite a place of honor — thumbs up, totally.