Originally published in two parts in Aural Innovations #2 (April 1998) and #3 (July 1998)
As with any other kind of progressive music, SpaceRock is an enigma that defies all attempts at succinct classification. Born out of an extension of late 60's psychedelia, it took on an evolution of its own, primarily in Europe with the seminal works being offered forth by groups such as Hawkwind in the UK, Gong in France, and numerous bands in W. Germany. Like any healthy new creation, artists experimented with many new sounds and instrumentation, leading ultimately to a number of sub-genres that all share a common ancestry.
In this article, I intend to present a microcosm of the SpaceRock universe, a 30-year long trip that has taken us to places previously unknown, and perhaps to different times as well. So Welcome to the Future.....
Following is a list of twenty albums that I believe would constitute a small, but representative SpaceRock collection. For the uninitiated, this could act as a guide to new discoveries, and for the veteran cosmic rockers, this may point to those few remaining holes in an otherwise complete collection.
Included in this Quintessential Collection are many works that follow the basic path set forth by Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, but you'll also find a selection of German 'kosmische' music (aka 'krautrock') including some ambient/electronic selections, and some that defy any simple description. Some musicologists could argue that not all of these works lie within the confines of what the term 'SpaceRock' should encompass. But one thing is certain - all of these artists were endeavoring to take listeners on an astral journey each in their own way. With these masterpieces in hand, there should be no need for 'chemical enhancement'. So hop on board, it's time for takeoff.
PINK FLOYD (UK) - A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS (1968) EMI/Capitol (US) CDP 7 46383
Well, if I was asked 'When was SpaceRock born?', this album would be my answer. Syd Barrett may have been the one to start the ball rolling with song titles like 'Astronomy Domine' and 'Interstellar Overdrive' on Floyd's first release The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, but it was really here on Saucerful that the full SpaceRock sound was spawned. Classic anthems like 'Let there be more light', 'Remember a Day' and the understated 'Set the controls...' taught all of us how rock music could be merged with science fiction. Dave Gilmour's soaring guitar creates the ambiance that lifts Roger Waters' astral imagery to new heights. Future works (including the ultra-famous Dark Side of the Moon) solidified Pink Floyd's place in SpaceRock history, but then you already knew that. (For this reason, you won't be seeing them appear on this list, so don't think I've been remiss.)
AMON DÜÜL II (GR) - WOLF CITY (1972) Mantra (FR) 013; Repertoire (GR) REP 4596-WY; Captain Trip (JP) CTCD-034
Charter members of the German 'kosmische' movement, Amon Düül II challenged the boundaries of experimental and space music like no others. Their earliest works were full of improvised freakouts and long-winded pieces that would often take 90 degree turns at the drop of a hat. With Wolf City, they put together a collection of actual songs, but kept them as inventive as ever - no formulaic song structure here! Guitarist extraordinaire John Weinzierl and versatile multi-instrumentalist Chris Karrer provided most of the songwriting, although bassist Lothar Meid contributed the timeless krautrock anthem 'Deutsch Nepal', complete with its heavy-handed, almost evil overtones. Enigmatic vocalist Renate Knaup is once again fearless as she counters strong lower-register singing with frequent ultra-feminine falsetto. With AD2, you may have difficulty understanding the crazy lyrics (e.g., Green-bubble-raincoated Man), but be assured that on Wolf City you'll be 'Surrounded by the Stars.'
NEKTAR (UK/GR) - JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EYE (1972) Bellaphon (GR) 289.09.007
Comprised of British musicians living in W. Germany, Nektar began as honorary krautrockers, although their sound later diverged somewhat. The interplay of Taff Freeman's mellotron and band-leader Roye Albrighton's crisp leads gave them a progrock sound that they explored more deeply on future works. However, on Journey, their first (and best) effort, outer (and inner) space was purely the canvas over which they painted this album-long composition of other-worldly soundscapes, complete in 13 parts. With 'The Dream Nebula' segued into 'It's All in the Mind', they teleport the listener into nirvana, ending only with 'Death of the Mind', presumably from sensory overload. Amazingly, after a hiatus of 18 years, Roye and Nektar are alive again, and promise to start a new journey...let's all jump on board, shall we?
NEU! (GR) - NEU! (1972) Germanofon (GR) 941025 (bootleg)
Neu! was the duo of multi-instrumentalist Klaus Dinger and guitarist/bassist Michael Rother. Along with Dinger's other entity, La Dhsseldorf (also including brother Thomas on drums), this camp produced timeless electronic works that were not diminished by the repetition and simplicity of the writing style. Accordingly, their genius was in the subtle manipulation of soundbites, that always appeared electronic in nature, but were most often produced on guitar. (On the latter group's albums, these were set against a backdrop of Thomas' 4/4 thud-thud-thudding on the toms.) The 10-minute ambient classic 'Hallo Gallo' opens Neu!'s eponymous debut, which is then superseded by the even more stylish 'Weissensee,' or 'White Lake.' Neu!'s music contains all the elements of techno/dance music, but it is presented in a way that soothes the senses instead of overwhelming them. Those who are too impatient to wait for a legitimate CD version of this classic might want to check out either of the first two La Dhsseldorf albums, available on Japan's Captain Trip label.
AGITATION FREE (GR) - 2ND (1973) Spalax (FR) 14228
Lesser-known krautrockers, Agitation Free quietly produced some of the finest space jams on record. Their first, Malesch, a very fine album in its own right, pursued middle eastern stylings, but on 2nd, it was pure space. 'Laila', a composition in two parts that bears no resemblance to a certain Clapton tune, builds upon a up-tempo jazzy beat with deft guitar licks from Stefan Diez and Lutz Ulbrich. Synth handler Michael Hoenig contributes the more experimental passages that show up throughout the album. This music has the same kind of feel as some of the spacier 'Canterbury' bands, say Steve Hillage and his cohorts. It really grows on you, I tell you. Agitation Free produced four wonderful albums, and Spalax (like a few other visionary labels) has done a great service in making these long-forgotten gems available in digital format, so get out there and track them down.
FAUST (GR) - IV (Four) (1973) Virgin/Caroline (US) 1885
Opening up with the 10-minute plus track entitled simply 'Krautrock', it's not hard to figure out where these enigmatic German experimentalists were coming from on IV. One of their more conventional releases (if that's possible), Faust still challenged every standard form set forth by their predecessors and what fun it is to listen to something so progressive! From the reggae beat of 'The Sad Skinhead' to the droll Donovan-esque tune 'Jennifer' and then to the crazy fun of 'Giggy Smile,' Faust are all over the place with their inventions. Quiet acoustic numbers are juxtaposed with electronic carnival music and brash fuzzed-out guitar noise. It's hard to argue that Faust were a SpaceRock group per se, but if we didn't categorize them as something, they'd never get into anyone's Top Twenty list, and that would be an oversight. This is the album that Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa fans should turn to as an introduction to the wonderful world of krautrock.
HAWKWIND (UK) - SPACE RITUAL ALIVE dbl (1973) One Way (US) 57659, EMI remaster (UK) 8 35487
Building upon the momentum of three consistently-improving studio albums, as well as the financial windfall of the UK hit single 'Silver Machine', space rock pioneers Hawkwind set out in 1973 on their most ambitious live tour. Well-known for their erratic live performances (some would say Hawkwind is both the best AND worst band they'd ever seen), the recording of Space Ritual caught them on their highest high (in a manner of speaking). All kinds of freaky sounds, from synths and audio generators to Nik Turner's sax, embellish the solid footing of Dave Brock's signature riffs and wah-wah guitar, as well as the wandering basslines of madman Lemmy Kilmister (later of Motorhead fame). The only reprieve from the 'sonic attack' that typified the Hawks of this era was the frequent contributions of sci-fi poetry that the eccentric Robert Calvert dramatically cited, amidst spacey synth accompaniment (of course). Space Ritual is the epitome of classic 70's spacerock, and in its newly-remastered form, it is simply the finest live album ever made.
GONG (FR/UK) - YOU (1974) Virgin/Caroline (US) 1664
Gong is much more than a band, it's a mythology, religion, philosophy, community, and even a planet! As its most notorious entity, often called 'trilogy Gong' (after the trio of Radio Gnome Invisible albums, culminating in You), Australian (or rather, Astral Alien) Daevid Allen spun his web of quasi-Buddhist gobbledygook and jazzy spacerock. Assisted by a international amalgam of top-notch instrumentalists, including Canterbury veteran Steve Hillage on guitar, synth guru Tim Blake, Fiji-born bassist Mike Howlett, and French jazz musicians Didier Malherbe (sax, flute) and Pierre Moerlen (drums), trilogy Gong had no peer in the area of space jamming (check out 'Fohat' and 'Master Builder' for proof), at least in terms of musical complexity and prowess. What Hawkwind accomplished with a loose mixture of thickly-layered sounds atop crunching riffs, Gong accomplished with finesse and subtlety. There has always been a fine line between being brilliantly artistic and pretentiously weird, but I think trilogy Gong was both. Remember, 'You are I, or I am You.'
HAWKWIND (UK) - WARRIOR ON THE EDGE OF TIME (1975) Dojo (UK) CD084; Griffin (US) 55421 3931
Space Ritual may be the finest ever live recording, but Warrior gets my vote for best album of any kind. Starting off with a full 10 minutes of the two-part masterpiece 'Assault & Battery'/'The Golden Void,' Brock and Company turn out 40-plus minutes of sheer brilliance with top-notch songwriting and rich texturing. There's diversity here as well, with the somber acoustic track 'The Demented Man' and several more 'poetry' tracks (contributed by sci-fi author Michael Moorcock) that are alternately distracting and essential listening (depending upon my mood). Keyboardist/violinist Simon House also offers his signature instrumental in 6/8 time, the wonderful 'Spiral Galaxy 28948,' in the process revealing his birthdate to us (in European format). Along with their previous effort, Hall of the Mountain Grill, Warrior represents the creative apex in the long saga of SpaceRock's Eternal Champions. Absolutely essential.
CLUSTER (GR) - SOWIESOSO (1976) GYROSCOPE/SKY (GR) GYR 6624 Originally a trio under the name Kluster, electronics wizards Moebius and Roedelius parted ways with Conrad Schnitzler (also of Tangerine Dream) and became the anglicized Cluster. Along with contemporaries (and part-time collaborators) Neu!, this duo was largely responsible for elevating the synthesizer from its position as 'fX' or 'musical surrogate' to an instrument capable of its own form of artistic expression. Hence, they wrote the book on 'electronica' decades before it was cool. Sowiesoso is comprised of seven individual works, each based upon similar unsophisticated motifs that seem to appear again and again, and give strong continuity to the whole. It's strongest attribute is the sheer beauty and soothing nature of the all-instrumental music. Perhaps it's not truly SpaceRock (Hell, it's not even rock), but if you close your eyes and just listen, you'll feel like you're anywhere but firmly planted on the Earth.
ELOY (GR) - SILENT CRIES AND MIGHTY ECHOES (1978) EMI/Electrola (GR) CDP 7 92021
Eloy has always been guitarist/vocalist Frank Bornemann's vision, and for this album his sights were set on creating an epic astral journey along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon. However, I don't buy the suggestion some have made that Silent Cries is so Floydian as to be a rip-off. Certainly, Eloy has never been considered revolutionary, sounding at various times like other German spacey prog ensembles Grobschnitt and Nektar, or even Jethro Tull. But what Eloy lack in new ideas they make up for in style and poignancy. The soothing synths of Detlev Schmidtchen and Klaus Peter Matziol's chunky bass lines give volume to Bornemann's subtle and graceful compositions. At a less-than-frenetic pace, Silent Cries drifts through a nebular cloud of colorful sounds. Near the end of our journey, we reach a state of motionless serenity during 'De labore solis,' where the listener is encouraged to lay back and try to absorb the enormity of the cosmos. With this album, Eloy produced a most wonderful listening experience that appeals to 'the trinity of heart, soul, and mind.'
HAWKWIND (UK) - LEVITATION (1980) Griffin (US) GCD230
It's no stretch to acknowledge Hawkwind's contribution to SpaceRock with the inclusion of three works out of only 20. Following several shake-ups that led to near-complete changes in personnel (but always under the watchful eye of Commander Brock) as well as musical style, the band evolved into a short-lived entity that produced this absolutely brilliant studio album. Levitation is like no other Hawkwind album previous or since, with a level of elegance and production quality (digital in 1980) unprecedented from a ragtag bunch of anti-establishment 'sonic assassins.' Guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton had returned to the fold after a long hiatus (giving the group a lead instrument for a change), and Tim Blake and his Crystal Machine had been recruited following his work in Gong. Amazingly, ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker was also brought in to pound the skins in his unique way. Many of the tracks never transformed to the stage well and rarely appear in the Hawks' current live set, so today Levitation stands out as an aspect of SpaceRock that has never really been readressed. 'Motorway City' is still a piece that sounds new and fresh, 18 years hence.
LEVITATION (UK) - COTERIE (1991) EMI/Capitol (US) CDP 7 97959
Levitation was the short-lived brainchild of Terry Bickers (ex-House of Love), which (along with Gary Ramon's SunDial) produced 90's music that hearkened back to the psychedelic 60's. Recorded partly live and partly in the studio, Coterie is full of sensual sounds and exotic imagery, amidst varying degrees of volume and pace. Despite the fact that this band appears to have originated outside the British SpaceRock sub-culture, their music nonetheless has all the same qualities, even without the use of electronics proper. Bickers' guitar effects aptly substitute for this void, between the echoing in 'Nadine' and the layered fuzzy guitars of 'Squirrel.' I purchased this album simply because of the band's name (it being the name of one of my favorite albums...see above), and the cool cover art. It didn't disappoint me. However, their second effort, Need for Not, was truly disappointing, and seemingly led to their quick demise.
OZRIC TENTACLES (UK) - STRANGEITUDE (1991) IRS (US) 7 13215
The Ozrics were spawned from the UK Free Festival scene that Hawkwind were so famous for championing. They derived their name from a fictitious breakfast cereal, but they are far more serious about music-making and it shows on Strangeitude, their first release in the States. Brothers Ed and Roly Wynne are the core instrumentalists on guitar and bass (Roly has since departed), and synth master Joie Hinton provides the obligatory bleeps, whirrs, and gurgles. What little vocals the band has are provided by the eccentric flute-player/frontman John Egan. Normally though, the music is entirely instrumental and is derived from a combination of Caribbean and Middle Eastern rhythms, given a spaced-out electronic treatment. OT have been extremely prolific over the years, perhaps unnecessarily so, as their songwriting is more about 'variations on a theme' rather than multiple discrete ideas. But an album like Strangeitude belongs in every self-respecting SpaceRock fan's collection. And they have the most colorful cover art and adorn your CD cabinet very nicely.
SKY CRIES MARY (US) - A RETURN TO THE INNER EXPERIENCE (1993) EMI/Capitol (US) 7 80136
One of the most innovative 90's space merchants, Sky Cries Mary produces music that encompasses so many elements that it is hard to characterize their sound succinctly. It's almost as if they're completely unaware of the history preceding them (e.g., the first 12 albums of this collection), and have created their art in a vacuum. Whatever the case, it's working. There are elements of folk, jazz, progressive, funk, and techno here, as well as full-blown wall-of-sound rock 'n' roll; all wrapped up and sent off in a space capsule. As a seven-piece combo hailing from Seattle (the band's name derived from that similarly-named tune by compatriot Jimi Hendrix), they've also got that bohemian/communal look, like Amon Düül II and Gong before them. Colorful collages by co-lead vocalist (and part-time artist) Anisa Romero adorn the booklets. Return is the band's first major label release and is a full 70 minutes of new and exciting music. Covers of the Stones' '2000 Light Years from Home' and the Stooges' 'We Will Fall' are included.
THE SPACIOUS MIND (SW) - COSMIC MINDS AT PLAY (1993) Garageland (SW) GRCD 006
The mostly instrumental, four-part debut from this Swedish quartet is a modern exploration of the experimental/improvisational meanderings that began to appear in Germany around 1970. As such, it takes a certain amount of time for this album to grow on you, but with each listen, you discover more-and-more partially-hidden passages embellishing the droning high-end guitars. With subsequent albums, The Spacious Mind began to write actual songs with vocals and often acoustic guitar, a shift that has proved reasonably successful. But Cosmic Minds is exactly like what it sounds, with dual guitarists Henrik Oja and Thomas Br@nnstr`m employing slide and bowed guitar techniques to produce drifting melodies that carry the listener to places unknown.
DEAD FLOWERS (UK) - ALTERED STATE CIRCUS (1994) Delerium (UK) DELEC CD 022
Sadly now defunct, this wonderful band from the blue collar town of Newcastle in the north of England put out three stellar albums in the early 1990s. Altered State Circus, their finale, is such an awesome recording that I figure they must've called it a day simply because they knew this one couldn't be topped. From beginning to end, this album oozes trippy psychedelia at a level previously never seen. So it's not hard to figure out what they're referring to in tracks like 'Warmth Within (Chemical Binoculars)' and 'Free the Weed.' Guitarist Steev Swayambhunath, who derived his pseudonym from a buddhist temple in Kathmandu, is a master of both heavy, fuzzed-out riffing and light spacey leads and arpeggios. Vocalist Ferank Manseed similarly displays a wide range from whispering to bellowing, and gives the group an extra dimension that the Ozric Tentacles lack. As I like to say, Altered State Circus is the best Ozrics album they never made.
PORCUPINE TREE (UK) - THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS (1995) C&S (US) CS8524; Delerium (UK) DELEC CD 028
This was Porcupine Tree's first album as a proper four-member group, following four previous works with founder Steven Wilson filling nearly all of the vocal and instrumental roles. As one would expect, the sound filled out accordingly and TSMS was a big payoff. The band has often been unfairly pigeonholed as a Pink Floyd clone, and listening to this disc does remind me of the style and format of those early 70's albums. But Wilson effectively employs modern musical techniques such as sampling and sequencing, in a way that haven't appeared in Floyd's music. Also, you'll hear trance rhythms underlying bits and pieces of this epic work, over which the guitar leads and Richard Barbieri's keyboards will float. Wilson's vocals are usually slowly delivered and understated, merging into the backdrop of the music rather than superseding it. Porcupine Tree music is all about style, mood, and dynamics, and they are the modern day masters. Note: The US and UK versions of this album are slightly different, the US one including the excellent track 'Stars Die' and alternate edits of some other tracks.
DARXTAR (SW) - SJU (Seven) (1996) Black Widow (IT) BWRCD 012; Sbm (SW) CDA002 Upon hearing of the untimely death of Hawkwind vocalist/frontman Robert Calvert in 1988, K. Soren Bengtsson felt he needed to do what he could to help fill the void left behind. Founding DarXtar soon thereafter, Bengtsson (now known as the Commander) and his sun-deprived cohorts in Sweden began to bestow their fine music upon the world. After three albums of more-than-credible SpaceRock very much in the Hawkwind vein, DarXtar came through with their strongest effort to date, entitled Sju, the Swedish word for 'seven.' The title track is one of the finest moments in all of SpaceRock history, a 16-minute composition of such depth and emotion that it seems too short when it ends. Following this, there's only room left for four more tracks, but each show a different direction from this ever-diversifying group. 'Obstakel' is a total rave-up, 'This Alien Nation' is a rollicking march, and 'Eastern Wind' is a spacey ballad.
ALIEN PLANETSCAPES (US) - LIFE ON EARTH (1997) Galactus/AP (US) 107
To say that this was a long-awaited CD would be an understatement. AP had existed for well over a decade, gigging around in the NYC area and self-producing cassette after cassette of their special brand of SpaceRock before finally getting around to joining the digital age. Well, it was worth the wait as Life on Earth presents us with seven fine instrumental tracks, which sound anything but Earthly. Band leader Doug Walker, aka Dr. Synth, pulls out all the stops on his massive bank of keyboards throughout these live studio recordings. At some points, the spaced-out noodlings are even a little too thick, if that's possible. Bassist Chris Altenhoff gets his own chance at the limelight in what is my favorite track, 'Chris in Space,' an epic composition of over nine minutes, which is the modus operandi for these space jammers. Occasionally, AP will drift over into a jazzier style, though there's not much of that on this release. Already a veteran band, these musicnauts are definitely ones to watch in the future.