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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Carol Of Harvest: Carol Of Harvest

CAROL OF HARVEST: CAROL OF HARVEST (1978)

1) Put On Your Nightcap; 2) You And Me; 3) Somewhere At The End Of Our Rainbow; 4) Treary Eyes; 5) Try A Little Bit; 6*) River; 7*) Sweet Heroin; 8*) Brickstone.

The short-lived band Carol Of Harvest is frequently listed in catalogs under «Krautrock», which is really a complete mockery of the term — unless we really want to apply it to any band born and raised under the skies of Deutschland. Including The Scorpions, Accept, Rammstein, you name it. If, however, we choose to be reasonable and limit the term to a certain harsh style of avantgarde progressive rock with industrial overtones and a certain morose Teutonic attitude, then even under the most broad definition of the term Carol Of Harvest could never be proper Krautrock. Were we to choose just one band to serve as a role model for these guys, it would most likely be Renaissance — melancholic progressive folk with a fairly traditional approach to sonic beauty, including pretty acoustic guitars and lovely female vocals.

The band was largely the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Axel Schmierer, who is credited for every composition on the album; however, the band's collective sound is just as crucially de­pending on the keyboard tones of cosmic wiz Jürgen Kolb, and, of course, the vocals of Beate Krause — not an exceptional singer, but a very nice one, caught somewhere in the middle be­tween Annie Haslam and Sandy Denny (and, fortunately, singing without much of an accent, be­cause German accents sound sexy on iron-clad femme fatales like Nico, but would be rather ridi­culous on sweet sorrowful ladies in gentle mourning). Although they all came together some­where around Munich, near the birthplace of Amon Düül II, there is really very little on the album that links them to the great Bavarian heroes of prog-rock: instead of blues and jazz, they choose folk as their point of departure, and their message is far less psychedelic and far more, shall we say, serious-tragedy-oriented.

Indeed, the songs written by Schmierer and performed by Krause serve a conceptual purpose, albeit not a highly original one — Carol Of Harvest is a lament for the loss of innocence, a collection of grievous ecological anthems that strike the same artistic blows at technological pro­gress with weeping as Kraftwerk did with irony. The album's subtitle, printed out in large letters and in intentionally not-too-correct English on the back cover, is: «A song of the good green grass, a song no more of the city streets, a song of the soil of the fields», and you have already noticed that the band's name agrees with this. So, the mood of the album is indeed quite akin to that of classic Renaissance, on such records as Ashes Are Burning or Turn Of The Cards, and since by 1978 Renaissance had already begun to evolve in a more overtly pop side, it is nice to see somebody else take their cues from them and give it one more try.

The album's magnum opus is the opening track, the 16-minute long suite ʽPut On Your Nightcapʼ, in which Krause informs us that we are standing "close to the edge", but definitely not in the opti­mistic-idealistic sense of Jon Anderson. Starting out as a dark acoustic ballad with swooshing winds in the background, the song then drifts into the realm of «astral» synth solos and howling guitar workouts, before picking up the pace and guiding us through a climactic finale. It is very easy to spot out all the influences — Renaissance, Sandy Denny, Ash Ra Tempel, Genesis, etc. — but despite the utter lack of originality or even virtuoso musicianship, the song sounds quite convincing to me, as it works on the basic senses in a far more straightforward manner than the majority of neo-prog imitators. Much of this has to do with a specific sense of taste: thus, Kolb's synthesizers are not imitating traditional keyboards, but are really evocating alien sounds (at a couple of points, he lets rip with an almost arcade-like soundtrack of enemy ships attacking the planet), which is a little unexpected on such a supposedly «down-to-earth» record, but somehow makes perfect sense — if, for instance, you think of the synthesizers as symbols of the technolo­gical plague brought upon the planet, and of Schmierer's wailing guitar solos as symbolic of Mother Earth's aching reaction to this horror.

The shorter tracks are almost completely acoustic: ʽYou And Meʼ and ʽTreary Eyesʼ (sic!) are two straightforward laments that could just as well have been played and sung by Joan Baez, and ʽSomewhere At The End Of Our Rainbowʼ starts out in the same manner, before getting augmen­ted by the mighty Mellotron and more tasty guitar bits (this song, in particular, is quite Floydian in its approach to guitar and keyboard tone, clearly influenced by ʽShine On You Crazy Dia­mondʼ above everything else). Meanwhile, ʽTry A Little Bitʼ, whose first few notes will make you think, for about a second and a half, that they have decided to cover ʽStairway To Heavenʼ, goes for a slightly more invocative agenda, moving forward at a faster tempo than everything else and generally expecting us to resort to action rather than just stand moping around as them fields are getting shorn of the good green grass. More of those astral synths mixed in with Haslam-like wordless vocalizing — cool effect.

Naturally, this is not a forgotten masterpiece of prog-folk, as people who like to sound cool as they single-handedly rewrite musical history would have you believe. But neither is it just a gene­ric failure to make something interesting in that genre: behind all the lack of originality lies a good collective Bavarian heart, and there is really not a single band that they directly emulate. For one thing, Renaissance never rocked that hard — their guitar and keyboard players combined the language of classical music, folk, and soft rock, with nothing like the astral keyboard solos of Kolb and the distorted howls of Schmierer's guitar. Floyd, on the other hand, did not have a girl singer, and were never so deeply immersed in the folk tradition. So it's a little bit of this and a large bite of that and a modest chunk of something else, and in the end, it is one of the saddest, yet most accessible records of the year 1978.

The CD reissue of the album throws on three more tracks that were recorded live and actually sound very intriguing, disclosing additional layers of depth that were not at all evident on the album: the short instrumental ʽRiverʼ, riding a mammoth chugging bassline and dominated by Eastern- and avantgarde-influenced organ and synth jamming, sounds far closer to the space-rock jamming of Hawkwind than anything else — and after that, it segues into the brooding, ominous ʽSweet Heroinʼ, which is as close to Goth rock as these guys ever got (and, apart from Krause's vocals, is really reminiscent of Amon Düül II). Unfortunately, the recordings have awful sound quality — most probably taken from audience tapes, since the sound of people chatting over their food or something is often louder than the sound of the music — and it is all over before you can actually get a good understanding of what a typical Carol Of Harvest live show was all about.

Too bad, because the band folded soon after this self-titled debut predictably flopped, and was never heard of again. (I think Beate Krause re-emerges once or twice in the Eighties, singing with some local German jazz combos). With one exception: apparently, in 2009 there was an album called Ty I Ja (ʽYou And Iʼ) released under the name of Carol Of Harvest, with Axel Schmierer as the only original band member, plus a bunch of unknowns, and featuring 15 relatively short songs with Polish titles. Detailed information on this odd surprise is quite hard to find even on the Internet, and I am not in the mood for detective stories here, so let us just leave it at that and remember the true Carol Of Harvest as a brave, short-lived one-album band that deserves its own footnote in prog-rock history; and its own thumbs up, of course.

3 comments:

  1. This is a band I have missed in my quest for forgotten (or at least those bands not often mentioned) 70s proto metal, rock, prog and folk rock. Sounds like it's worth tracking down.

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  2. I listened to Ty I Ja once. It wasn't interesting and it felt like another group

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  3. Apparently the singer was only 16 when they recorded this. It sounds pretty cool, but it is lacking in melodic invention and becomes a bit grating. Compared to some other "forgotten" bands like England or Affinity it seems a bit more amateurish. It's a pity they didn't have a chance to create one or two more albums.

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