Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Günter Schickert
Samtvogel


Released 1974 on private pressing
Reviewed by achuma, 15/01/2006ce


[Note: I only noticed after writing this that there’s already been a review of this album here, back in 2004, but it’s hardly unknown for different folks to review the same album here and I’d like to add my own perspective to Lugia’s. Reading both reviews back-to-back should give you a pretty good idea of what this album sounds like.]

In the world of experimental echo-guitar music, most of you will know of Manuel Göttsching and latter-day Ash Ra Tempel; if you’re lucky you’ll know the genius of Achim Reichel too. But Günter Schickert should be remembered right up there with them, because his greater obscurity doesn’t at all mean that he had any less creative talent happening. ‘Samtvogel’ was his first album, and probably his best, containing his most out-there and psychically penetrating music. In fact I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece, and although Schickert uses echo guitar as his primary sound generator, he doesn’t really use it in a way similar to the different approaches of Reichel and Göttsching. He produced the album himself, as well as making all the music, and after releasing it as a private pressing, he was picked up by an interested Brain who re-released it in 1975, and again a few years later with a different cover.
Now, this is a highly intriguing and enjoyable tripped-out album regardless of whether you’re out of your tree or not, but to get the most out of it (pun not intended, but worth leaving in!), some kind of psychedelic sacrament will of course make a big difference, and allow you to keep track of more of the multilayered textures and sonic events that will be unravelling across your synapses should you be lucky enough to find a copy of this album. But I wouldn’t tell you to break the law, folks, now would I? All the same, this whole album has the feel of taking acid alone on a rainy, overcast day and gazing out the window whilst disassociating into a deep shamanic journey.

‘Apricot Brandy’ [6:05] is a track that Schickert would re-explore later with his group GAM, and also on his second album, ‘Überfällig’. Here, though, it’s at its most spaced-out, with the structure – basically one tentative guitar riff and a string of lyrics – more restrained and abstract than either later version. Opening with the signature three note riff over which a simple melody is repeated, with Günter lazily oozing out the lyrics sounding a bit like Holger Czukay in a semi-spoken/whispered drawl. This repeats and repeats, slowly building in subtle layers of fragile weirdness, before the lyrics and melody float away in a light breeze and the structure just disappears in a mist of fractured sounds echoing around the inside of your skull. Chiming echo guitar strums enter and set up a glassy pathway which carries it all, the lyrics and vocal sounds re-entering and now hard to decipher even if you speak German I’d imagine, and then it concludes with a minimum of fuss.
‘Kriegsmaschinen, Fahrt Zur Hölle’ [16:40] concludes side 1 and is broken into four parts, not that it’s clear where the divisions are – a) ‘Komm Doch in Meine Fabrik’, b) ‘Sagt der Personalchef’, c) ‘Kriegsmaschinen Bau’n’ and d) ‘Dafür Gibt’s das Meiste Geld’. It begins as a wash of droning echo guitar fades in and out, hovering in the background ominously, as electronic tones and shimmering layers of treated guitar herald some alien energy field descending over your now prone and immobile body. This otherworldly soundscape makes me feel like I’ve been abducted by aliens who are now casually examining and passing over me with their strange instruments, taking notes and acting like I’m not even there, but there’s no fear, just a dazed, paralysed acceptance of this bizarre procedure. Soon they’re probing deeper and deeper (and painlessly) into brain tissue, tunnelling out new pathways straight into the pineal gland, as the layered guitars echo and throb, ever changing, creating complex lattices of sound that are both pleasurable and unsettling, as disembodied voices occasionally waft in and out in ür-speak chanting. Somehow the whole thing manages to maintain an air of sustained suspense that gives the feeling that you’re being taken somewhere that may or may not be where you’d like to go, but hell, you’ll hang in there and make the journey anyway, because the sight-seeing sure is interesting along the way, and it’s not like you have a choice in the matter. Even as the now-thick layers are stripped away and it all shifts into another different level, though still floating on guitar, the suspense and ominous portent remain, the chants continue to wash in and out unobtrusively like a shaman intoning protective spells over your journeying spirit, the whole psychedelic operation swelling and subsiding like waves of a cosmic storm. It’s restrained but unrelenting in its continuous onward plod, with layers of sound cascading all around but skimming over one droning groove. Suddenly the guitars start clashing and climbing to a frenzied climax, and for a while it seems like something’s gone wrong in the alien brain tinkering, is the operation out of control? Will the specimen enter psychic meltdown? But the technicians whip it back into equilibrium just in time, the human’s mind and spirit becomes stable as “hello, hello, hello” echoes in your ears as though spoken from across the room through an ether haze, and the oscillations of some healing machine pass over you a few times to restore normalcy so you can get up to turn the record over.
‘Wald’ [21:26] takes up the whole of side 2, and as you’d expect it is a deep and through journey into the mind every bit as much as side 1, and perhaps even more so. Fading in sounding quite similar to the start of the previous track, you’d wonder how much further Günter could possibly take things with just his guitar, voice and echo devices, but this guy is a constant source of surprises, and ‘Wald’ quickly enters its own cyber-mind realm. Intersecting lines of echo guitar lay down rung after rung in an interstellar ladder that is unfolding in front of us, as you glide into a tunnel of smooth shards of light. However just as you get close it all falls away, as a crystalline (echoed, of course) guitar riff enters as though having existed for eternity and carries us on a soft flight into heavenly skies. But it’s not all roses and sunshine, the cold shards from before are still following beneath the waters, and occasionally waft in and out of view, but now dark and ominous and threatening like lurking cyborg sharks, lending a shudderingly intriguing feel of paranoid melancholy to it all, as the dark and light intertwine and become entangled, eventually resolving into a unified structure but still being threatened by ever-darker washes of more alien droning guitar armies. Layers come into being and melt away like ghosts, as ‘Wald’ burrows deeper and deeper into the furthest recesses of your mind, aching with beauty and sadness but striving ever onwards with faith in its own inner strength and resolve. This pays off, as the layers are etched away and banished with a repeated simple guitar riff that fades into an echo loop, itself fading into a return of the crystalline guitar from before. So the journey’s not over yet, but reprieve is in sight, and despite the still-present ominous shifting undercurrent, the positive element is now more charged and confident, pretty but with chain-mail armour and a sword of blinding light. Android seek-and-kill drones shimmer darkly as they pass by closer and closer, hovering alongside, trying and failing to find a chink in the crystal lattice that has been built up around your core as you dive onward to your destination. As you get there, the threat falls away like so many harmless shadows in the night and the briefly played theme from ‘Apricot Brandy’ tells you you’re home again, and stronger for it.

Sadly there’s no CD reissue of this album yet, and it currently dwells in that same netherworld as Achim Reichel’s ‘Echo’ (and other albums of his that, whilst existing at one time or another on CD [unlike ‘Echo’], legitimately or not, are nevertheless currently unavailable or at least near-impossible to obtain on CD) waiting for someone to lavish upon it the reissue attention it so richly deserves.


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