Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Tonto's Expanding Head Band—
Zero Time


Released 1971 on Embryo
The Seth Man, April 2001ce
Some of the warmest and most sweetly soothing sounds to arise from American synthesizer operators in the early months of the seventies, “Zero Time” is a no mere early Moog oddball release.

Well, oddball it is, yes. But by no means mere.

It’s far, far trippier than Beaver & Krause but cloaked in a sleeve just as out there, with further head art inside the UNIPAK gatefold. “Zero Time” shoots a wide load of awareness and expansion in six one word-titled, compassionate trip outs that vary wildly in approach. Far more naïve and less strident than purely synthesized Krautrock (although some of the passages wouldn’t be out of place within the quieter paces of side two of “Autobahn”) it is brimming with hints of some of the sounds the aforementioned Paul Beaver coaxed from his Moog on the soundtracks album of “Performance” or “The Trip” -- although more stratospheric in texture and with far lighter touches applied.

And this touch is the invisible guiding hand apparent throughout “Zero Time.” Entirely different approaches in terms of length are divided onto each side: reflected in the shorter tracks of side one subtitled as ‘Outside’ and side two as ‘Inside.’ All but one piece is entirely instrumental (but seeing as the ‘vocals’ on this track are so vocoder-ised into something more like deeply synthesized signals than vocals, it’s debatable.)

One thing not debatable about “Zero Time” is in its clarity of the richest Moog synthesizer bass tones ever, as well as an extreme palette of sounds that are manipulated and lovingly plucked from the ether by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, two members of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. The third member was their sound complex: a monstrously huge bank of several-floor-to-ceiling, customised Moogs they christened ‘The Original New Timbral Orchestra,’ anagramming it down to size as ‘TONTO.’ They’re pictured on the back cover grinning and pouting behind a portion of one of TONTO’s patch bays, above forest of wires and knobs in a fish-eyed lens photograph (by Joel Brodsky, no less.)

Side “Outside” opens with the airy “Cybernaut,” almost veering into background music for a 1970’s ninth grade filmstrip on NASA. But “Jetsex” follows, all spurting of electronic pistils and stamens in a furious love battle royale supreme, with nary a bed spring left taut afterwards. And although Tonto’s Expanding Head Band rarely get all that abusive with knob twiddling, they do here and perfectly. “Timewhys” ends the “Outside” side as filigree rhythms dance and ease in and out and frolic all around in and out of phase as an almost token-funken Moog lead line dances in front of all the gossamer curtains in a summery breeze teasing themselves to shadow.

Side ‘Inside’ is far more complex, starting out with almost “Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola”-type high-pitched Moog circlings that fade in and out like comets. In fact, much like Kraftwerk’s “Kometenmelodie 1,” only not as forbidding, but with a sky-full of comets as modulation and pitch send TONTO’s analog signals to rise and fall away like so much space dust. With “Riversong,” pools and rivulets of sweetly pitched Moog tweaking collects in upturned palm fronds as a parting in a glade reveals an abundant and organic natural beauty. A disembodied voice begins to softly intone the poem of “Riversong,” slightly quavering with syntheisized manipulations that modulate and reverberate in low tones like an apprentice muezzin softly at prayer. A barely structured rhythm created out of low bass tone clusters operate more as impressionism than rhythm, as mere snatches of the cosmic poem are left to slowly assemble themselves as only partially recognisable. Nine minutes (or an eternity) later, it’s carried it downstream softly and into “Tama,” which opens to further low end rumblings with all the audio presence of real storm clouds, resonating with all the clarity of real life. Then the melody begins: a small, soft whisper from childhood, a remembered fragment of reaching for something that was JUST out of reach for the first time. You never want it to end, ever. It’s so beautiful yet bittersweet AND hopeful all at the same time, you wonder how such a triumphant tone poem was reached with such a bare minimum of sounds...The invisible, guiding hand of TONTO at work in the most sublime manner ever.

I believe aside from the mid-seventies reissue of this album (the one with the far sillier ‘frogs and hands’ illustration sleeve) and the recent CD reissue, “Tonto Rides Again” (featuring more recent bonus tracks) they never issued another album under the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Instead, they wound up doing behind-the-scenes programming and general technical assistance for other musicians (Most famously, a quartet of successful albums by Stevie Wonder: “Music Of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.”)