Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vangelis and French prog: January’s 10 must-hear reissues and retrospectives
Thanks to the graft of reissue labels and canny collectors, there’s an embarrassment of neglected, forgotten or misunderstood material being unearthed week by week.
The volume of new-old music doesn’t outpace new-new music, of course, but it’s not too far behind either. With so many more archival releases turning up on shelves, we’ve worked though the stacks to pick our favorite reissues and retrospectives of the last month.
Mikey IQ Jones thumbs through a selection of rediscovered gems, from a lesser-known Vangelis soundtrack to a suite of influential post-punk experiments from This Heat.
10. Jane Birkin
Lolita Go Home
Anglo-French chanteuse Jane Birkin’s 1975 LP Lolita Go Home was an interesting detour in her discography. After Phonogram rushed a full-length from her amid a number of film projects, she and partner Serge Gainsbourg zoomed together this beguiling blend of porno-funk and soft rock. What’s most unusual about the album is that Gainsbourg’s originals — which comprise half of the record’s tracklist — actually feature lyrics by another scribe, that of director, journalist and author Philippe Labro, who was brought in to assist Gainsbourg due to the harsh deadlines Phonogram had laid out.
While these aren’t Serge’s strongest songs by a long shot, the album is nevertheless fun, anchored by the silken grooves of arranger Jean-Pierre Sabar. As well as the Labro/Gainsbourg collaborations, there are a number of covers of Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart standards. It looks odd on paper, and sounds even more intriguing on record; to hear Birkin shakily coo the words to Porter’s ‘Love For Sale’ over beat straight out of a late-night softcore movie is both unexpected and not that shocking at all. What’s most surprising is how well these covers work in a tongue-in-cheek way, and how Birkin sounds just as vulnerable singing in English as she does in French.
The album didn’t make much of a mark in France upon release, but was quite popular in Japan, where its songs have been covered and entered the charts in the years since. Universal Japan now reignites that fire with a legit vinyl reissue, which shines mood lighting though a vaseline-smeared lens and gives this slept-on Birkin platter a chance for further late-night mischief. Of all of Birkin’s LPs, this one takes the crown as the most legitimately naughty — it closes with a great cover of ‘There’s A Small Hotel’ — and any fan of the trashier ends of the Serge & Jane axis needs to give this a spin.
9. Carlos Garnett
Journey To Enlightenment
Panamanian saxophonist Carlos Garnett played with the likes of Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, but his own work as a bandleader has sadly gone unappreciated outside of the most deep-digging soul jazz aficionados. That’s a shame, because his run of mid-70s LPs for the Muse label are all classics of polyrhythmic spiritual island funk, including the recently reissued Journey To Enlightenment, a deep meditation that falls somewhere between Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, electric Miles Davis (whose large ensembles of the period included both Garnett and guitarist Reggie Lucas, who also plays here) and classic Curtis Mayfield.
This is jazz music with dancefloor legs, and rich thickets of Afrocentric rhythms anchoring fiery, impassioned solos. Journey To Enlightenment is also an album that can be judged by its cover; the painting of Garnett and his horn walking through a jungle toward a light-refracting pyramid, amid winged insects and pterodactyls, aptly illustrates the ancient/modern spiritual journey these grooves provide.
8. Video Aventures
Camera (In Focus) Camera (Al Riparo)
(Megaphone/Knock ‘Em Dead)
The lineup on this forgotten 1984 gem reads like a supergroup of the French avant scene. Catalogue’s Jac Berrocal, Gilbert Artman of Lard Free and Urban Sax, Guigou Chennevier of Etron Fou, and Cyril Lefebvre of Mahjun all deliver brain-melting contributions to Video-Aventures’ debut full-length, which juxtaposes freeform synth and saxophone splatter, treated field recordings, primitive machine drum exercises and shards of prog across an album that sounds quite unlike anything other than the sum of its brain-meltingly unique parts.
If you think you know the sounds of the French prog underground, you haven’t heard shit until you’ve heard them all collaborating together. This is a vital document for any and all heads who pride themselves on their weirdo chops, snatching up INA/GRM tape music reissues, forgotten minimal synth platters, and trashy proto-punk gobbledygook — Camera (In Focus) somehow fuses them all together into a breathtaking mutant beast.
In all honesty, this really shouldn’t be here. It’s a straight-up bootleg, folks. That being said, it’s a bootleg with no legit counterpart otherwise, so for now, it’ll have to do. Amore was a 1974 French film that quickly vanished from memory until INA unearthed a print and made it available to screen via its website (itself a vast treasure trove of Francophilic film delights, from interviews and cinema to rare music performances). Upon the “re-release” of this film, some clever bastard (presumably a staffer at INA) managed to get their hands on the WAV files of Vangelis’s score, and uploaded them to the internet; shortly afterward, this grey-area LP emerged from the shadows, and is making waves among collectors.
While the album isn’t as essential as Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, it’s a beautiful document of a period of transition from the post-Aphrodite ambient prog he’d been making on LPs like Earth and Sex Power to the gorgeous vistas he’d soon be crafting into the 1980s. Vangelis relies on an arsenal of electric keys and gauzy organ drones, blending the occasional sitar or percussive rumble underneath. If you dig Vangelis’s prog side and his ambient side, this album ably fuses both.
(Palto Flats/New General Catalogue)
The Palto Flats label delivered one of my personal picks for 2015’s best reissues with their gorgeous new edition of Mariah’s うたかたの日々[Utakata No Hibi], and they follow that up with another unexpected archival treasure: Awaawaa, a new archival collection of previously unreleased early works by British ambient brothers Woo. The material collected on Awaawaa mostly predates that of even their earliest releases, comprised of material crafted between 1975 and 1982.
It’s cut from similar gossamer textures, heavy on their trademark phaseshifting shuffle and analog-filtered bong smoke, but further infused with increased dub effects and some exploratory flights of instrumental soloing. Imagine the Penguin Cafe Orchestra raised on a diet of German kosmische and dusty Jimme Giuffre jazz LPs, and you’ll get an idea of the magic these brothers conjure up together. It’s a lovely addition to the group’s catalogue, and serves as both an entry into their world and a powerful origin story. Woo’s music is warmly familiar, yet not of this world; listen to Awaawaa and you’ll understand why.
5. Chris McGregor & Castle Lager Big Band
Jazz/The African Sound
Chris McGregor was a South African pianist, composer, and bandleader, who stood alongside Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand as one of the most influential figures in the nation’s rich history of jazz music. His bands The Blue Notes and The Brotherhood Of Breath helped to expand knowledge of the region’s township and kwela styles, and to integrate them into more abstract European concepts of free improvisation as practiced by the likes of Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, and Keith Tippett. Though his early music has enjoyed a number of retrospective compilations since his death in 1990, McGregor’s full history has seen little love in the vinyl world outside of rare and prohibitively expensive original pressings.
Jazzman has done us all a solid with their beautiful reissue of McGregor’s 1963 big band classic The African Sound, recorded by The Castle Lager Big Band, a special expanded group featuring members of The Blue Notes as well as a gallery of South Africa’s most talented jazz players. The album stands as one of the most important documents of modern African music, but it has been unavailable (legitimately at least) since before apartheid. Its historical relevance — featuring a politically risky multiracial group, and highlighting compositions solely by South African composers Dollar Brand, saxophonist and clarinet player Kippie Moeketsi, and McGregor himself — is equally matched by the stunning sounds contained within its grooves.
Swinging on a rich bouillabaisse of post-Ellingtonian rhythm and harmony, the album stands the test of time and makes for one of the best jazz reissues of the year, hands down. Put aside your new Miles Davis LPs for a while and discover the true birth of the cool.
4. This Heat
(Light In the Attic)
Much has been said of This Heat’s importance in the era of post-punk, though the influential trio was never truly a part of that scene, more a ragtag bunch of misfits from the tail-end of the prog rock era. Their discography is scant, but damn near every note they recorded was a powerful shot in the arm of anyone fortunate enough to listen. While their discography has in fact been reissued quite a few times before (even on vinyl, contrary to what is being said amidst the release of these new pressings), Light In The Attic has issued a new batch of their three primary documents: their eponymous debut album (featuring the epochal ’24 Track Loop’), the warped dub-concrète pop of their Health & Efficiency EP, and this, their finest standalone work.
Deceit stands as one of the most searing, disorienting, and powerful documents of the Thatcher/Reagan cold war era and its unceasing threat of nuclear war. Seldom has a band sounded so truly tense, afraid, and straight-up pissed off at the follies of the free world, and that anxiety and unease manifests itself in the album’s dense collages of fidelity, binaural environments, and tape experimentation.
Deceit is an album often imitated, but never duplicated. It is as “punk” as can be, yet transcends all rudimentary notions of attitude by displaying a dignity of self that few albums ever manage. If you’re reading FACT with any regularity and have not heard this album, you’d be wise to investigate it as soon as possible, as it contains elements of nearly every strain of music the magazine covers in some aesthetic form. This is as ugly and real as protest music gets.
3. Mikael Tariverdiev
Earth Recordings, a label generally associated with reissues of folk artists like Jackson C Frank and Bert Jansch, has delivered one of the most beautiful box sets I’ve had the pleasure of digesting in recent years, documenting the film music of Russian composer and pianist Mikael Tariverdiev. Tariverdiev was an influential and acclaimed figure in his native land, but practically unknown to the rest of the world, and his music spanned small combo jazz études, somber folk lamentations, and sprightly pop experiments.
Spread across three LPs or three CDs and housed in a stunning package, including a thick book overflowing with photos, essays, and historical context, Film Music provides a crash course in the composer’s rich and rewarding soundworld, crafting evocative moments punctuated by field recordings and sonic snapshots of the cinematic worlds he soundtracked.
The collection is divided between instrumental and vocal pieces, moving from noirish nightclub jazz to wintry interpretations of Argentinian tango and French musette, touching upon lush orchestral cues and some Swingle Singers-inspired vocalese. The set paints Tariverdiev as a sort of Slavic counterpart to Italian maestro Nino Rota; both composers share a penchant for kaleidoscopic pop fragmentations anchored by a deep emotional core, and their ability to bend and fuse disparate styles makes Tariverdiev’s Film Music an indispensable discovery for western ears. This is pure magic: cinema for the ears, and essential listening for soundtrack diggers.
2. Gagarin Kombinaatti (Mika Vainio)
This is one of the month’s biggest surprises. 83-85 collects visceral early recordings by Gagarin Kombinaatti, a Finnish experimental/industrial combo featuring some of the earliest work by producer and sound art pioneer Mika Vainio. Gagarin Kombinaatti had previously appeared via a track on the educational Arctic Hysteria compilation of Finnish sound art, but this collection (released via Sahko) documents 12 gnarly, sooty, serrated blasts of barbed noise and lopsided, mechanized rhythm by the group, recorded in the early 1980s.
There’s a heavy aesthetic debt to similar groups of the era and scene like Die Tödliche Doris and Test Dept, fusing soldiered junkyard percussion to a wry exploration of the Baader-Meinhof wiretap beats first dabbled with by Eno and Snatch on their R.A.F. collaboration. All in all, this is great stuff, and a worthy listen for anyone into the early Industrial Records/Touch material, the Fetish Records and Zickzack catalogues, or those who just want some fucked up noise to piss off the neighbors. You’re not quite getting the roots of Pan(a)Sonic here, as it’s very much of its time, but nevertheless, its visceral power still holds a listener’s attention.
1. Ryuichi Sakamoto
Year Book 1971-1979
While Ryuichi Sakamoto has been getting plenty of attention recently over his recent Golden Globe-nominated score for The Revenant, I’m more excited by this newly issued archival package, which for the first time documents the composer and pianist’s earliest recordings, leading up to the beginnings of his work with Haruomi Hosono and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Year Book 1971-1979 is an invaluable package from Sakamoto’s own label, which features the first recordings (both archival and contemporary) of some of his first compositions, many of which are being debuted here for the first time outside of his own archives. The three-disc set (CD only, sorry kids) starts with piano sonatas and string quartets written during his years as a student at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, moves into a series of early gigs arranging and cowriting more commercially-minded city pop and rock singles, and ends with a long-form abstract work for ARP Odyssey and magnetic tape recorded around the release of his debut solo LP Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto (which itself also receives a new vinyl reissue this month in Japan).
Year Book 1971-1979 comes with a book filled with previously unseen photos and essays by Sakamoto himself (mostly in Japanese) detailing the history of this fertile early creative period. It’s without question the most comprehensive look at the esteemed composer’s beginnings, and the sheer variety of sumptuous sounds contained within make it an absolute treasure.