Krautrock wasn’t all about fuzzed-out guitars and primal drumbeats; much of the innovation that came out of the German underground in the late ‘60s and ‘70s (spilling over slightly into the early ‘80s) came from mighty Moog-wielding electronic sorcerers eager to rewrite musical history in their own image. From the hypnotic, highly textured synthscapes of rock’s first real synth band, Tangerine Dream, to the proto-techno man-machine music of Kraftwerk, the electronic side of the krautrock revolution could be soft or stormy, melodic or assaultive, accessible or out on the edge. But those trailblazing German synth meisters laid down sounds that influenced the whole world for generations to come, from the synth-poppers who followed in the footsteps of Kraftwerk to the trance nation that claims Tangerine Dream among its key influences.
Back in the stormy ‘70s, when Brian Eno was inventing ambient music in England and Tangerine Dream was mixing Moogs with Krautrock, a crew of electronic individualists in France was busy crafting some singular synthesizer tapestries of their own. Sometimes they were influenced by the aforementioned trailblazers and their ilk, but often they were finding their own idiosyncratic way into previously unexplored electronic thickets, without stopping to worry about what the end result might be or what anybody would think about it. With the notable exceptions of Jean-Michel Jarre, who found fame with his 1976 classic Oxygène, and Moog pop pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, these artists were working well under the radar, largely unnoticed in their own country and all but invisible on an international level. (And that remains the case today—a lot of this music isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ve created a YouTube playlist instead.) But the frequently quirky electronic vistas they created deserve their own chapter in the saga of synth music.
Paul Putti’s short-lived Pôle label achieved underground renown releasing albums by his project of the same name as well as fellow travelers like Philippe Besombes, freely utilizing minimalism and avant-garde techniques. Composers like Jean-Pierre Decerf and Teddy Lasry crossed over from the world of “library” recordings for film and TV but ultimately made intoxicating, atmospheric music that stood on its own. On tracks like “Speedway,” the duo Space Art came off like a Gallic version of Autobahn-era Kraftwerk. If there’s ever a synth-assisted apocalypse, Fredric Mercier’s doomy, titanic “Storm” would certainly make a suitable soundtrack. And Philippe Féret has all but vanished into the deep pockets of time, but his 1978 debut album nevertheless found him at the front lines of the ambient movement. Take a deep dive into a French river filled almost to overflowing with visceral analog electronic tones and maverick notions about what music could be.
This playlist was curated by Soft as Snow. Like what you hear? Subscribe to the playlist here, and check out their music here. And be sure to pick up their upcoming album, Deep Wave.Since its inception five years ago, the Houndstooth label has quickly emerged as one of the leading lights of progressive, experimental electronic music. From Marquis Hawkes to Guy Andrews, the musicians on the label have consistently privileged artistry and innovation, and they continue to push boundaries. The label also oversaw the emergence of immensely talented Call Super, who would go on to become one of this generations more acclaimed new electronic musicians. To celebrate five years releasing electronic music, Houndstooth are delighted to offer a free 15 track compilation Hound5tooth, available here.The Norwegian-born, Berlin-based duo Soft as Snow are one of the Houndstooth’s stand-out acts. Their sound mingles the more gothic-tinged edges of post-punk with liberal swaths of classic Detroit techno and a splash of glitch. The result is a sound that is foreboding and mercurial. The group recently got together to capture some of their favorite synth classics. The playlist is titled “Dark ‘80s Synth Pop,” though most of the tracks are taken from their contemporaries in the synth trenches.
The standard boilerplate narrative maintains that synth-pop is all about the Brits, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent that Germany deserves just as many synth-pop props as England, if not more. In fact, it was the Germans who switched the whole thing on.Sure, the UK was full of early adopters like Gary Numan, OMD, Human League, et al. But when it comes down to determining the true originators of synth-pop, nobody would argue against Kraftwerks status as the fount from which everything else flowed. While the Düsseldorf quartet were immersed in experimental Krautrock exploits as early as 1970, it was their international 1974 hit "Autobahn" that definitively married electronics and pop for the first time, daring to dream of what The Beach Boys might have sounded like had they been born a decade later in Deutschland and with oscillators instead of guitars.Alongside Kraftwerk, electronically inclined Krautrock peers like Cluster and Harmonia were making inroads in that direction as well. But the British synth jockeys of the late 70s and early 80s all took their cues from Kraftwerk, whether they owned up to it or not. And as the UK New Wave and post-punk scenes blossomed in that era, Germany was having its own musical revolution with the NDW (Neue Deutsche Welle) movement, with game-changing Teutonic knob-twiddlers like Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF), Pyrolator, and Der Plan hitting the same sonic targets.By the time the first generation of German synth-poppers had broken ground, it was anybodys game, and plenty of early-80s Deutsche electronic artists were going for the gold, combining synthesizer technique and drum-machine beats with a seemingly endless supply of infectious pop hooks. Bands like The Twins and Propaganda earned attention on the homefront, while Taco (who struck upon on the novel gimmick of setting American Tin Pan Alley tunes to a synth-pop style) and Peter Schilling even broke through in the U.S.But it was a band that came along just years later that would make one of German synth-pops most passionate, cinematic statements, which resonated all over the world. Alphaville emerged from Münster in 1984 with their debut album, Forever Young, the first single of which—the party-starter "Big in Japan"—was a huge international hit. But it was the soaring, larger-than-life track "Forever Young" that brandished their most outsized hooks and emotional gravitas. Born of Reagan-era nuclear paranoia, the song spoke from a place of fear, courage, desire, despair, and determination all at once, upping the ante on rocks "live fast, die young" ethos by proposing that the proper response in the face of existential angst was simply to stay young in perpetuity.Plenty of other German synth-poppers would follow in the years to come, from Camouflage and Modern Talking to Chicks on Speed and Stereo Total. But when you hit a peak like Alphaville’s classic, you can pretty much claim your immortality right there.
Subscribe to Bill Brewsters Spotify playlist of the best San Francisco disco tracks here. Or, better yet, check out the full YT playlists here, which includes tracks not available on Spotify.It’s not surprising that San Francisco’s disco heyday has become a source of fascination for subsequent generations. Like New York’s undergrounds clubs of the ‘70s and ‘80s, San Francisco’s scene offered LGBTQ people, straight women, bohemians, racial minorities, and other folks facing discrimination a community that provided a safe space and a chunk of freedom. The music reflected the audience’s diversity, and you can hear that on For Discos Only, a compilation that features a cross-section of New York and SF disco from that era. But the SF dance scene didn’t suddenly materialize the night its most famous star and international LGBTQ icon Sylvester first walked on stage in a fabulous thrift-store gown, and it wasn’t principally about platform shoes, poppers, or any other superficial signifiers that would ultimately characterize it. The scene grew out of a culmination of sociological, musical, political, and economic factors rooted in related liberation movements of the ‘60s. San Francisco represented a mecca that welcomed all the beautiful freaks Middle America tried to flush out, and the city’s disco scene was first and foremost about sexual, communal, and spiritual love.If there was a single San Francisco birthplace for that kind of amorphous, amorous experience, it has to be the Stud, which still exists today. Originally situated on Folsom Street, this funky 1966-originated dance bar was one of several South of Market clubs that followed the Tool Box, an even earlier leather bar, to court a new kind of gay man who flouted stereotypes. Stud patrons were largely hippies who lived in communes, took drugs, preached revolution, and created what we now consider cultural institutions like the bygone Cockettes and the ongoing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – radical drag troupes that celebrate gay liberation, community service, and pan-gender outrage as elements of the same countercultural movement. Even Janis Joplin hung out at the Stud.This was when SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods showcased much of SF’s queer nightlife. The Castro had just started absorbing a gay crowd during 1967’s Summer of Love when thousands of kids from all over the US descended on the Haight. In the early ‘70s, a wave of Castro bars and clubs opened. Among these was the Pendulum, which welcomed a black clientele, and Toad Hall, which signified the earliest transition from dance bars to disco by becoming one of the first spaces to shun jukeboxes in favor of pre-recorded tapes featuring segued, continuous music.Opening downtown in 1972, The City offered another evolutionary step with a sizable dancefloor and cabaret where Sylvester performed. Three other SF disco pioneers worked there – DJs John Hedges and Marty Blecman, as well as its lighting man Patrick Cowley, who’d studied electronic music, composed gay porn soundtracks, and recorded hypnotic mixes of disco hits augmented by his own synthesizer parts. Boosted immeasurably by Cowley’s electronic contributions to his records and live band, Sylvester made the leap into the pop Top 40 with “Dance (Disco Heat),” here included on For Discos Only in its churchy 12-inch mix. Sylvester’s success meant that Fantasy – a Berkeley-based label previously known for jazz and Creedence Clearwater Revival – embraced disco in a big way, with several releases featuring Cowley, Sylvester, or his backing vocalists Two Tons o’ Fun in subtle and sometimes overt ways. Listen closely and you can hear Two Tons’ Izora Rhodes growling through the climax of Paradise Express’s “Dance,” or Cowley’s synth arpeggios percolating through Fever’s heated “Beat of the Night.” Around this time, SF’s club scene exploded with hugely popular dance venues like the End Up, the I-Beam, and arguably the most beloved in the city’s history, the Trocadero Transfer, where DJ Bobby Viteritti’s frenzied, Pan-like mixing style inspired a devotion exceeded only by New York’s Paradise Garage and its legendary DJ Larry Levan, who championed many of the Vanguard grooves also found on For Discos Only.When disco was declared dead in the early ‘80s mainstream, Cowley started his own gay-targeted, SF-based label Megatone, which began releasing Sylvester’s subsequent, defiantly queer output. Shortly thereafter, Cowley died in 1982 of a mysterious disease then not even known as AIDS. Consequently run by Hedges and Blecman, Megatone along with other local indies like Moby Dick carried the torch with hi-NRG club tracks until Sylvester, Blecman, countless other DJs, and much of SF’s original disco revelers also perished in the plague.The next dancers embraced house music and other harder sounds that reflected their experience. But as AIDS subsided when treatment and prevention methods improved, yet another generation came of age, one curious about the city’s illustrious nightlife past. Homegrown DJ collectives like Go Bang! and Honey Sound System have, in recent years, helped revive vintage SF disco; the latter’s Dark Entries label even issued Cowley’s porn soundtracks and other previously unreleased experimental work. The technology that currently defines San Francisco may have changed the cultural landscape of the city, but the sounds and spirits of love and liberation captured in For Discos Only remain a gateway not to paradise lost, but to hard-won ecstasies of the past, preserved for the present and future alike.This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.
The party line is that electronics first entered the rock realm via prog rock in the early to mid ‘70s, but in fact, synthesizers were already on the scene when a psychedelic haze was still hanging in the air. Though The Monkees were often derided as prefab pop stars, they were actually the first to employ synths in a mainstream rock context, using one of the earliest Moogs on two of their trippier tracks, “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector.” The Beatles got their licks in as well, from the big fat synth tones on “Because” to the screeching, Moog-generated white noise that builds up in the coda of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Even the blues-rooted Stones took an electronically assisted sojourn into outer space with “2000 Light Years From Home.” Of course, there were plenty of underground acts incorporating synths into their sound, from the Velvet Underground-goes-electronic vibe of the United States of America to the visionary Silver Apples and their homemade gear. It was an era when anything seemed possible; actor/singer Anthony Newley even teamed up with Dr. Who composer Delia Derbyshire for what was probably the first (and freakiest for its time) electronic pop song, “Moogies Bloogies.” Ultimately, all the aforementioned artists were innovators in electronic rock. With the counterculture in ascendance, the sky wasn’t the limit — the stars were.
Though synth-punk has birthed a dizzying assortment of mutant offspring, its basic aesthetic thrust sits upon a tension between rock and roll rebellion all hot ’n’ sweaty and the cold, dehumanizing pulse of the technological society. Its story begins with one band: Suicide, an eccentric and oftentimes terrifying duo founded in New York City in the early ’70s by Martin Rev and the late Alan Vega, a singer who sounded like a serial killer obsessed with Elvis’ Sun sides. In the coming decades, synth-punk would be blended with the bleak dystopianism of industrial music thanks to Brits like Cabaret Voltaire and The Normal, while Six Finger Satellite and Brainiac dragged the genre into the post-hardcore era by grafting it to noise-rock’s frantic, pummeling attack.
Subscribe to our "Best of Pharoah Sanders" playlist here, and follow us on Spotify here.Pharoah Sanders music is a place you can get lost in. It’s noisy and transcendent, carving out universes in tinkling vibes and jumpy blues grooves that are upturned by Sander’s trademark squawking, primal tenor saxophone. The music feels timeless. They frequently last for more than 20 minutes. But even beyond that, they seem to exist beyond our more pedestrian concepts of temporal matters. But there’s also a cultural context for all this ecstasy and upheaval, one rooted in a very specific cultural and political milieu. The New York-by-way-of-Arkansas free jazz icon had a coming out party of sorts on John Coltrane’s 1965 album Ascension. That album consists of one, 40-minute track (Spotify breaks up the track into two parts, for some reason) and marks Coltrane’s complete abandonment of post-bop for free jazz. The cascading, squealing interplay between Coltrane and Sanders sounds bracing even today, but the key to understand it is that it’s a product of a particular time and place. The Vietnam War was dramatically escalating, the social norms of post-war America were quickly being overturned, and, perhaps more importantly, the civil rights movement was splintering and turning increasingly militant: Malcolm X had been assassinated four months prior; the Black Panthers would form a year afterwards.But this isn’t nihilistic music. It’s the sound of confusion and propulsion, of being angry in a dark room, of taking a dive into a deep, unknowable abyss. In two years, Coltrane was dead, and Sanders would strike out on his own, becoming a band leader while employing the sonic template that Coltrane had forged. The 11 albums that he would release on Impulse Records over the course of the next either years -- starting with 1966’s Tauhid and ending with 1974’s Love in Us All -- serve as a high water mark or sorts for free jazz.Free Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once said that Sanders was "probably the best tenor player in the world,” while Albert Ayler famously quipped, "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.” It’s easy to understand why when listening to tracks such as “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah” or “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” The tracks capture the uncertainty and chaos of creation, they sound like either the big bang or the apocalypse. You have to destroy to build, and Sanders did plenty of both.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.