Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979

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Synapse magazine has been mentioned here before, but only briefly in a weekend post. Looking last week for one of the back issues revealed that the scans of the magazine placed online by the publishers in 2012 have now vanished so this post links to an archive of PDFs at Monoskop. The publishers didn’t have copies of the first two issues so the run begins with issue 3.

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Synapse wasn’t around for very long but it’s of great interest for people like myself who have an enthusiasm for the analogue synthesizer music of the 1970s. The magazine was small but managed to secure interviews with major synthesists of the period (and Stockhausen!), as well as lesser-known figures who you wouldn’t expect to see in the general music press. Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno have never been starved of attention but the interviews with Isao Tomita and Michael Hoenig are valuable ones; the latter discusses his earlier career in the Kosmische band Agitation Free as well as his new album, the very Tangerine Dream-like Departure From The Northern Wasteland.

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Elsewhere in the magazine there are the usual technical articles that were common in journals of this type (the border between art and engineering in the early synthesizer world used to be as permeable as it was in the first decades of science fiction); and the latest synth-related albums receive reviews, many of which are more equivocal than you might expect. It’s a surprise seeing an album such as Ricochet by Tangerine Dream being treated with scepticism but then the reviewer evidently preferred the recordings of the group’s pre-Virgin period. Likewise, Kraftwerk were featured in the third issue but their Man-Machine album is given the same “Is this the future we really want?” appraisal they used to receive from the rock press.

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As always with old magazines, the ads are often as interesting as the editorial, and Synapse is filled with promotional material for a wide range of synth gear, from the major keyboard manufacturers to tiny electronic companies. It’s not every magazine where you can see a full-page command to “Trade in your Mellotron”.

Synapse contents list at Wikipedia

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Continue reading “Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979”

Weekend links 347

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Dream Animal (1903) by Alfred Kubin.

• The week in Finland: A set of Finnish emojis includes icons for notable cultural exports such as Tom of Finland and Moominmamma. Tove Jansson’s creations have received fresh attention this month with the debut release of the electronic soundtrack music for The Moomins, an animated TV series made in Poland in 1977, and first broadcast in the UK in 1983. Andrew Male talked to Graeme Miller and Steve Shill about creating Moomins music with rudimentary instrumentation.

• Russian company Mosfilm has made a new copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction masterpiece, Stalker (1979), available on their YouTube channel. Tarkovsky’s films have been blighted by inexplicable flaws in their home releases, as Stalker was when reissued on a Region B Blu-ray last year. The new Mosfilm upload looks better than my old DVD so for the moment this is the one I’ll be watching.

• Before straight and gay: the discreet, disorienting passions of the Victorian era. Deborah Cohen reviews A Very Queer Family Indeed by Simon Goldhill. Related: Kevin Killian reviews Murder in the Closet: Essays in Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall, edited by Curtis Evans.

• “How many graphic designers owe their introduction to typography to a teenage encounter with the typefaces and lettering found on album covers?” asks Adrian Shaughnessy.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 210 by Ascion, FACT Mix 587 by Seekersinternational, and The Séance, 4th February 2017.

Pankaj Mishra on Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”. Related: The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel.

Hans Corneel de Roos on Dracula‘s lost Icelandic sister text: How a supposed translation proved to be much more.

• “I live outside the world in a universe I myself have created, like a madman or a holy visionary.” — Michel de Ghelderode.

• The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes 375,000 images of public art freely available under Creative Commons Zero.

Richard H. Kirk on Thatcherite pop and why Cabaret Voltaire were like The Velvet Underground.

Emily Gosling on what David Lynch’s use of typography reveals (or doesn’t).

White Noise Sounds of Frozen Arctic Ocean with Polar Icebreaker Idling.

John Gray on what cats can teach us about how to live.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Day of the Mellotron (Restored).

The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

Sastanàqqàm by Tinariwen.

Tanz Der Vampire (1969) by The Vampires of Dartmoore | Dracula (1983) by Dilemma | Vampires At Large (2012) by John Zorn

Directed by Saul Bass

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Phase IV (1974).

It’s been a thrill recently poring over the Saul Bass monograph, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham, a large volume that weighs a ton and is as revelatory about the career of a great designer (and his wife and frequent collaborator, Elaine Bass) as you’d hope. One pleasure was getting to read about Bass’s film work from his own viewpoint for once. The curious science-fiction film he made in 1974, Phase IV, is well-known enough to have a cult reputation but too often his long involvement with Hollywood is passed over as a footnote to the careers of the directors for whom he worked. In addition to his celebrated title sequences, Bass was also a visual consultant responsible for the planning and filming of what used to be called “special sequences” within films, the most notorious of which is the endlessly argued-over shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). (See this authoritative post by Pat Kirkham on Bass’s special sequences, and the disputed history of those few seconds of black-and-white film.)

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Phase IV (1974).

All of which sent me to YouTube looking for some of the shorter films that Bass directed from the mid-60s on. The monograph explores these and Phase IV in some detail, for the latter showing pages of sketches for unfilmed sequences. I’m not sure these would have improved a film which I find flawed and occasionally ludicrous but it’s good to see what the director had in mind. The film on DVD has no extras at all but a trailer can be found on YouTube that shows off some of the startling imagery, and also includes a few shots that were cut by distributors foolishly eager to try and sell it as a horror film. It’s ironic that a man who gained world recognition for his poster designs wasn’t allowed to design the poster for his own film.

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Quest (1984).

Of the short works there’s Why Man Creates (1968) here and here, an examination of the creative impulse that’s been so popular with art teachers over the years that it’s probably been seen by a lot more people than his marauding ants. Both this and The Solar Film (1980), a documentary about solar energy, utilise Bass’s hand-drawn animation. The latter is also of note for its final shot of a baby walking into a sunset, a still of which was turned by Bass into an album cover for Stomu Yamashta in 1984. Also that year, Saul and Elaine produced their strangest work, Quest, a half-hour piece of science fiction based on a Ray Bradbury short story whose quest theme is overly-familiar from a dramatic point-of-view but which typically yields a wealth of memorable visuals. In Phase IV there was a nod to Dalí with the dead man’s hand filled with burrowing ants; in Quest we find imagery borrowed from Magritte (a floating castle-topped mountain) and MC Escher (his Cubic Space Division). The copy on YouTube is rough quality but it’s certainly worth a watch. I’m amused to discover how much Saul & Elaine were prog-rock heads (not that there’s anything wrong with that…): Phase IV has Stomu Yamashta and David Vorhaus from White Noise on its soundtrack, The Solar Film features a dubious cover version of Tubular Bells, while the score for Quest is mostly original music (with some borrowings from Holst) that sounds much of the time like Tangerine Dream when they were leaning on their Mellotrons.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Saul Bass album covers
Pablo Ferro on YouTube

Aguirre by Popol Vuh

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Design by Sawyer Studios, painting by Michael J Deas.

If you’re a music obsessive d’un certain âge it’s a common thing to get bees in your bonnet about the reissues of favourite albums. For Krautrock aficionados the reissues of Popol Vuh‘s releases have been more frustrating than most. Aguirre was the band’s seventh album released in 1976, four years after Werner Herzog’s film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, for which the group provided a score and from which the album borrows its title.

The album isn’t quite a soundtrack—although it contains a snatch of ethnic music from the film and a recurrent theme—and it’s also less of a whole than the albums which preceded and followed it. The film’s ethereal title theme was played by Florian Fricke on a “choir-organ“, a mysterious Mellotron-like instrument which had previously been employed by Amon Düül II. The rest of the album was fleshed out with variations on tracks from earlier Popol Vuh releases, none of which are used in the film. Side 2 of the vinyl edition featured a single track entitled Vergegenwärtigung (Visualisation) which is also absent from the film and whose doomy ambience would have been more suited to Herzog’s later Nosferatu the Vampyre. This lengthy piece is a drifting slab of drone-werk which would have been recorded in the early 1970s when Florian still had his enormous Moog synth. It’s probably the most minimal thing in the whole Krautrock canon, sounding at times like a lost fifth track from Zeit, Tangerine Dream’s collection of drones which featured Florian as a guest performer. As such Vergegenwärtigung is an overlooked, if minor, piece of Kosmische electronica which has only ever been available on vinyl. And there, dear reader, is the rub.

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No designer credited but it was probably Peter Geitner.

The various CD reissues of the album added and removed tracks from the band’s catalogue seemingly at random. I have the Spalax reissue which featured the film’s title theme then nothing else from the original album, the following tracks being the entirety of Popol Vuh’s second album, In Den Gärten Pharaos, and a beautiful solo piano suite, Spirit of Peace. Yes, it’s nice to have them there but, you know…it’s not Aguirre! When a Japanese edition appeared in 2006 the track they call Vergegenwärtigung turned out to be the errant electronic piece with additional pieces of music layered over it for no apparent reason. The Japanese are usually very good with CD reissues so this was a particular disappointment. After many years of living with a ruined vinyl copy of the album it was gratifying this weekend to find an mp3 of the original of Vergegenwärtigung which can be downloaded here. For the moment you’re unlikely to find it anywhere else.

YouTube has some choice Popol Vuh moments including a Florian Fricke Moog improvisation from 1971 and the band miming to Kyrie from the Hosianna Mantra album. Most fascinating for me has always been this scene from Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser with Florian playing a blind pianist. The music is a variation on his Agnus Dei theme which he obsessively reworked on several Popol Vuh albums and which is also one of the highlights of Aguirre.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A cluster of Cluster

Crush Depth by Chrome Hoof

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Chrome Hoof photographed by Steve Bliss.

How to describe London’s Chrome Hoof? A difficult proposition but that hasn’t stopped people trying. The BBC labels them a “10+ piece glam clad death disco outfit” which isn’t a bad start. Their record label offers more detail:

Cathedral bassist Leo Smee started a bass and drums duo under the moniker Chrome Hoof with his brother Milo at the turn of the millennium to celebrate their shared love of mid-seventies funk and disco. Like sequined pied pipers, they recruited everywhere they played, building an army of multi-instrumentalists, including a full horn and string section, generating a devoted cult following with their legendary live shows. A veritable orchestra of musicians perform, decked out in futuristic monks’ robes, kicking it like some unholy hybrid of Sun Ra, ESG, Goblin, Parliament-Funkadelic and Black Sabbath, complete with choreographed dancers, actors taking vaudeville interludes, and a twelve-foot tall metallic ram dominating the dancefloor.

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Crush Depth (2010). Design by Fergadelic.

Crush Depth is their latest album and the cover graphic here doesn’t convey the mirrored grooviness of the metallic gatefold package. Inside you get thirteen tracks with titles such as Witch’s Instruments and Furnaces and Anorexic Cyclops. Musically it’s like a collision between Magma, Igor Wakhévitch, Acid Mothers Temple and, I dunno…X-Ray Spex? The Androids of Mu? With disco rhythms…and riffs…and Mellotrons…and squalling synths…and harps…and violins…and Cluster! (Yes, Moebius & Roedelius Cluster). The Cluster-embellished track, Deadly Pressure, even manages to make a reference to “Old Ones” waking from their sleep in the depths of the sea, so I suppose we can throw Cthulhu’s squamous bulk into the mix as well. Chrome Hoof are so far beyond the legions of characterless indie clones they’re not even on the same planet. It makes a real change finding a band with this level of musical imagination and the technical authority to deliver the goods. One of the albums of the year, without a doubt.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A cluster of Cluster
Chrome: Perfumed Metal
Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis
The music of Igor Wakhévitch