Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

SBB
1


Released 1974 on Muza
Reviewed by achuma, 05/07/2006ce


SBB were, at least in their early days, arguably the best band to come out of Poland, and the fact that hardly anyone has heard of them these days (and probably back then too) could be said to have a lot to do with the fact that Poland is where they were from. Mention music from eastern Europe and many people struggle to restrain a mocking grin, probably conjuring up some atrocious Eurovision blasphemy of music in their minds. But, here is some adequate proof that these people need to get out more, because they don’t know shit unless they step in it on their front doorstep.
SBB were formed in 1971 as Silesian Blues Band, by bassist Jósef Skrzek (ex-Breakout), who also had a talent for keyboards and harmonica and handled the vocals, along with drummer Jerzy Piotrowski and Greek-born guitarist Antymos Apostolis. For a while in ’72 they were the backing band for well-known Polish musician Czes³aw Niemen, playing on his three albums of that year, as well as at the opening of the Munich Olympic Games. I haven’t heard any of these albums, but I wouldn’t expect much as at this stage Niemen was still largely in his soul-jazz progressive period and hadn’t really hit his more interesting points such as the 1974 ‘Aerolit’ album, and especially the bizarre Raymond Scott-meets-The Residents electronic ‘Katharsis’ from 1975. However, in early ’74 the band had again become independent, and shortening their name to SBB – now apparently standing for Szukaj, Burz i Buduj (Search, Breakup and Build) – they began to forge their own unique direction that was influenced by Niemen in parts, but took off into entirely more uncompromising flights of fancy. And the sound – these guys had a sound quality on their records that was all their own, or rather, theirs along with some other choice Eastern Bloc bands who recorded in the mid-70’s, many of whom seemed to be using the same equipment and recording methods or something, as well as having a shared love for fat psychedelic mini-Moog bass tones. Some of the music created by the early SBB is so extreme and instrumentally subversive that it’s remarkable they were allowed to flourish within what I imagine to have been fairly strict societal conditions under the Communists and their secret police, not known for tolerance of bands of long-hairs making confronting western-influenced music. I can’t understand Polish, though I doubt these guys were singing anything even remotely subversive – it’s just that the music itself gets so wild and free at times, it seems to be a direct opposite of what you’d expect from that time and place, indeed it’s almost a people’s demonstration in sound right under the noses of the authorities, but with them somehow being too narrow-minded to even realise it – or maybe it was just that the secret police were converted by this wicked music, and were in there dancing and clapping and getting into it with the rest of the audience – and telling their bosses the next day “No, nothing to worry about from that SBB lot, they’re playing with taste and moderation and not speaking against the state, you can take our word for it”, before going out to buy the album and make themselves SBB t-shirts... Well, maybe not, but it’s a nice thought.

SBB’s first album was this live platter on the state-run Muza label (keeping all the freaks where they can see ‘em), originally released as a single LP, which I believe consisted of the first three tracks mentioned below. I only have the CD reissue, which has been expanded to include what was probably the whole concert, and as the extra stuff includes some awesome moments that really make the album even better, it’s the CD rather than the LP version that’s being reviewed here.
‘I Need You Baby’ [4:41] starts off the CD not in any way giving a taste of what’s to come... you could almost be sitting in a ritzy cabaret restaurant listening with other socialites and clinking wine glasses as some guy reels off tasteful piano ruminations with occasional vocal asides, soon slipping into a slow soulful blues, still just piano and vocals. You’re better off skipping straight to the next track for some action...
‘Odlot’ [14:38] kicks off with a nifty drum roll before massive fuzz bass and guitar stomp out of nowhere and pull off some complex sub-Mahavishnu riffs, and just as quickly it all subsides into gentle cymbal washes, quiet guitar harmonics and wah-bass laying down resonant controlled-feedback swells and drone notes. They all coalesce into a gently rolling groove as some very cool vocals (all in Polish, so unintelligible to me, but they just sound really good and utterly appropriate to the music) float with feeling over the top. Actually, the music sounds quite a bit like mellow Agitation Free here, though no synths yet, and it spaces out blissfully for a while, drifting ever onward into the luminous depths of the cosmos. Just gorgeous. You can tell the bass is turned up really loud the way it just barely holds back from overloading whilst still holding the feel firmly in mellow territory with great control – that is, mellow until around the 7 minute mark, when guitar recedes to a mere quiet rhythmic padding and drums solely to athletic beat-holding as the bass finally unleashes itself, unfolding with riotous fuzz fury and wailing around all over the place in a frenzied solo. I do love a band that has a loud and capable brawny bassist and are happy to let him more or less front the band’s sound, as these guys do. Soon he’s joined by demented guitar for a bit of a whip-up, then some feedback and sustain wires us into a funky breakbeat heaven before they all take off into some unleashed rocking, fuzz bass and guitar trading off tasty solos like a punk-ass Mahavishnu Orchestra. There’s some weird sound processing and mixing going on with these instruments, sometimes making them sound like fat synth solo lines. After a few minutes the wailing leads fall back and the band ride out a lower-key psychedelic grind-strum bringing it down, down until we’re floating almost free-form through space again, leading straight into the next track, imperceptively so if you’re not keeping your eye on the track display.
‘Wizje’ [18:24] continues with unaccompanied electric guitar soloing freeform, winding down into a scraping distorted feedback drone that sounds suspiciously like he’s whipped out a tatty old violin bow to wheeze across his guitar strings, then jumping into some almost random riffing, collapsing into wailing raw angst and stopping suddenly, to a shout of “Bravo!” from the audience, warm applause, then straight into some of the kind of ‘classy’ piano tinkerings that opened the album, though here accompanied by light drums. It does prove to be different to ‘I Need You Baby’, thankfully, and although I could do without these moments when I just want to get to the meat & bones, this section is kind of nice if you can swallow classically-influenced stuff, at least until the vocals enter, the piano (and now sparse Gilmourian guitar as well – and funnily enough this bit does have a slightly similar feel to Floyd’s ‘Hey You’) taking on a more definite form, and now it sounds more like early 70’s mellow Niemen. Well, it’s not too bad, I’m finding it quite pleasant and relaxing with nice atmospherics this listen through, and it sure is more welcome in my ears than track one. At around 10 minutes it changes direction, drums and piano holding a frame for a menacing two-note Mahavishnuesque riff as mini-Moog solos creepily over the top... then it all seeps into tripped-out chaos, the piano having been left and something else picked up... it’s really hard to tell what, all the spacey drones blending to some degree, and re-reading the allocations of instrumental duties according to the CD liner notes (again, all in Polish, but it’s not hard to figure out the instrument listing) make it all the more confusing. It sounds like two synths and drums now, but only one of the guys is credited as playing synth... maybe it’s just zonked-out processed electric guitar, sounding utterly out of this world. After a few minutes the music seems to seep into a different sound bubble, as drums come to the fore, for a while coexisting with droning cyborg synths before they too fall away and we get a frantic but rhythmically impeccable drum solo for much of the rest of the track... well, that’s what you might think at this point, but the drum solo doesn’t hang around for long, the huge fuzz bass suddenly breaking into a speed-king rendition of the ‘Foxy Lady’ riff, then joined by guitar and drums as they all race it out to the end in a blaze of breakneck psycho-rocking flames.
‘Zosta³o We Mnie’ [6:06] continues in a gentle piano vein with subtle cymbals and violin-like shimmerings (it mus tbe something like that, but no such string instruments are credited – unless it’s acoustic bass played with a bow), along with more Niemen-like soul ballad slop vocals – another track you might want to just skip past, as there’s plenty more thrills to be had on this expanded disc. Again, it’s not as woeful as track one, but neither is it quite as passable as the similar bit in track three. At least, as long as the vocals are around, because when they’re not, the music itself is quite nice, though nothing I’d write up an Unsung review for if it were all like this, not by a long shot! Fortunately, it’s because there are enough wild highlights here apart from this sort of thing, that it’s worthwhile overall.
‘Obraz Po Bitwie’ [13:57] sees the stowing away of the piano and the cranking up of the amps again, as some free-form electric ambience is created, all drum rolls and controlled feedback, until pretty soon it’s not so controlled anymore, then crashing into a resonant hum and gliding into a low-key simple groove, the vibe mysterious and icy cool like one of those calm-before-the-kill moments in a mid-70’s Goblin-scored Argento flick. The bass is riding a basic moody two-note groove like a looser, more naturally funky Holger Czukay as the drummer takes on the metronomic organic robot role of a Jaki Liebezeit and the guitar explores cosmic nooks like a less experimental Michael Karoli (less experimental, yes, but oh so cool and cyber-fluid...). Not that this sounds like Can (actually it also reminds me of Guru Guru, spaced psychedelic Kyuss jams, and my own group Buttchunks at times), but you look at the individual ingredients and there are similar things going on, just with a rather different result, soon more so as it begins to depart from this simple structure, bass creating monstrous riffs like a Polish Jannick Top as guitar flails desperately into the upper register, before it all subsides leaving only bass, now quiet and un-fuzzed, until after a moment of silence an unexpected super-loud stab of distorto-bass punches you in the face, only to lapse into immediate silence, the audience too stunned to know what’s going on, has the song ended? No, as a repeated punch to the face ensues out of nowhere, but this time extending into a lengthy bass solo of highly varied dynamics (well, mostly between quiet and very fucking loud, but the dynamics are still awesome). Man, whatever distortion pedal this bass player was using, I want one! It sounds so nasty and over the top, but all the notes can be heard distinctly. By the end he’s just going nuts like a one-man free-doom metal maestro, Tony Iommi meets Cliff Burton, and you have to think as I did earlier “holy imperialism Batman, how did the communist regime let this kind of blatant sonic rebellion play out right under their noses? Not only that, but let them make more records?”
‘Figo-Fago’ [13:05] could hardly be more different, basically starting out as a down-home blues jam with just drums, harmonica and unimposing guitar that sometimes sounds like a second harmonica. This is real rhythm and blues, not the shit that gets called r&b these days. Then, let it rip fellas, as the harmonica drops to the floor and bass leads the charge into the sunset, the song switching up four gears at once like a high-speed Cactus boogie till the cows come home, then dropping back to more restrained harmonica jam humping with drums ticking along solid alongside. After a few minutes there’s just drums and the singer coaxing the fevered audience into a call and response vocal jam, building them to a polite frenzy before a drum roll brings back the guitar and bass from their hidey-holes and all kick into a tasty funk rock jam complete with the singer doing his best to be a white, Polish James Brown or nearest equivalent, and not doing too badly in the process(!), before a dextrous fuzz bass solo rudely shatters the groove, soon joined by guitar as all three guys crank up a delirious distorto frenzy of an extended crescendo (and the crowd goes wild, the last minute or so of the CD being the audience clapping for more – wouldn’t you be?).


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