Experimentation and ‘supposed’ radical ideation were the watchword of a generation of musicians and critics shaping what was becoming a very marketable and accepted counterculture. As the turbulent 1960s turned to a far more domesticated 1970s, the Anglo-American culture machine was churning out a watered-down distillation of the very sounds that established its precedence. Pink Floyd reduced their psychedelic excursions to 3-5-minute radio friendly singles. Hendrix had died on the cusp of single-handedly merging the worlds of funk, heavy metal, and jazz—a task George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic would spend the next decade trying to perfect. Prominent songwriters that built their careers on a critique of injustice and rights violations had gone country; singing of domestic tranquility and rustic idyll awash in pedal steel. Of course, there are always exceptions. The Grateful Dead continued to craft spontaneous masterpieces every night they took the stage. Lennon and Ono remained at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, if only to serve as a perennial check on collective taste. Neil Young, taking on that classic country-fried impersonation, was pursuing the inner depths of sadness and articulating the darkness that shrouded countless romantics following the hangover of an overly-idealistic decade. And of course, the countless artists that were decidedly not entered into the mainstream for some reason or another. Those still tied to the ethos of the Avant-Garde and impulse of pushing the Rock & Roll thing to its breaking point existed at the periphery of the public eye. The tandem task of continuing a tradition while essentially reinventing it remained very much alive behind closed doors. And nowhere else so much as West Germany in the 1970s.
Before Tangerine Dream, Neu, and Damo-era CAN pushed the ‘Motorik’ thing to the point of Germany having its own determined national sound, the freaks of a rebuilt country excelled at one thing—the absorbing and honing of Anglo-American Rock & Roll. The musically adventurous saw this debut in 1969 with the release of CAN’s Monster Movie and Amon Düül’s Phallus Dei. The forefront of Deutsch psychedelic heavy-hitters. Even on these first offerings, the intensity of these ensembles was enough to make the Rock & Roll vanguard shudder. The Malcolm Mooney-fronted CAN pushed Arthouse proto-funk to its Avant limit. Yet to become the rhythm machine crafted on Ege Bamyasi, the group explored primitive Beefheartian rhythms over the course of Monster Movie with just a dash of psychedelia. On the other side of this coin was Amon Düül; pushing sensory trips and power to the extreme on Phallus Dei. As far out as the commune-gone-ensemble went cobbling together their debut, the following year’s Yeti would not only propel the collective to psychedelic Valhalla, but the upper pantheon of Rock & Roll’s finest achievements.
Amon Düül wastes no time getting started. Yeti launches the listener into the aural assault of “Soap Shop Rock.” The wandering, acid-drenched psychedelia of Phallus Dei is noticeably absent. The Mothers-esque eccentrics traded in favor of tectonic heaviness. As the four-part suite arrives at its second movement, Amon Düül clears a path for denim-clad stoner rockers to follow for the next half century. The third movement loses listeners in an opium-den of psychedelic wavering. Fiddles and lockstep guitar course through the haze as banshee wails and chants bounce from channel to channel. Chris Karrer’s violin moves to the forefront, parsing out a coming end; at first noble and triumphant, it gradually fades into a manic squall fighting to quiet the runaway ensemble. The monolithic, almost-rockabilly theme returns to bring order to the proceedings. The end of the suite initiates the hypnotic “She Came Through the Chimney”—here Amon Düül simultaneously find what Brian Jones was seeking in the Riff Mountains AND what The Beatles traveled to India for a few years prior. An assembly of 12-string guitars, violin, and synthesizer present one of the truest impressions of eastern modal music (NOT white facsimile, as so often was in vogue at the time) to grace a spool of magnetic tape up to this point.
Yeti’s first side makes it apparent that in the mere months since the release of Phallus Dei, Amon Düül had replaced their more peculiar inclinations of psyched-out absurdity with a dedication to arrangement and organized sonic battery. With the multi-part suites, attention to themes, and cyclical song structures, the group is far more in-line with emerging prog rockers King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Caravan. Not to get lost in the weeds, Amon Düül manages to avoid the pitfalls of self-indulgence and excessive showmanship that typically accompany the prog moniker. At its base, the group remained a musical commune intent on the spontaneous projection of the collective’s musical ideation. And while improvisation of the highest order would surface on Yeti’s second disk, the work put into the formal structuring of the ensemble’s manic predisposition is none more apparent than on the disk one’s second side.
The Bo Diddley-gone-mad shuffle of “Archangel Thunderbird” initiates the second side onslaught. The band chugs away to a damn-near breakbeat from hell as the whole affair builds into a whirlwind of backwards guitars and face-melting fuzz. The reins are fully off, and the runaway acoustic flurry of “Cerberus” provides a rootsy reprieve before phased out guitars begin to play over themselves until the whole band erupts in a dizzying display of pandemonium—unleashing the namesake hound to prey upon the listener. “The Return of Ruebezahl” and “Eye Shaking King” create a one-two punch of German musicality. Both pieces offer a call and response grandiosity that would have Brahms simultaneously rolling over and begrudgingly taking notes in his grave. Distorted proto-vocoder experimentation transmit an indecipherable message before giving way to maniacal cackling and after a blistering twin guitar attack, the tune calls it quits in a final reiteration of the Kontrapunktal theme.
As the second disk begins, there’s a change in the air. Once more the unknown becomes the focus. Gone are the beefy arrangements and rabid shows of hard-rock groundbreaking. Organ and carefully strummed guitar craft the base drone that forms the basis of the improvised title track. Unlike Phallus Dei’s deranged shifts in dynamics and time signature, Amon Düül take their time on “Yeti.” The group eases into a molten two-step that erects layer upon layer of virile fuzz. A few asynchronous, but noticeably idyllic, passages are slipped amongst the cosmic dialogue taking place over the sidelong creation—a taste of what’s to come. The band continues building the piece up subtly enough that its violent crescendo is only apparent once the members begin to drop out of the tune one by one, until the only remnant is a halo of shimmering feedback. Many artists set out to find god in their craft—using spur of the moment possibility to lead them to providence. But as Amon Düül lets loose their newly-honed inhibitions in favor of psychic impulse, they produce a cacophony that seems intent on the destruction of all that is sacred. It’s in the seeming nothingness that breaks up the two main movements of “Yeti” that the gravity of the first half settles in. The group goes to war against whatever holy power may be out there. They look divinity in the eye and strike it down. As the “Yeti” improvisation winds down after this catharsis, Amon Düül relish in the newfound void. It is here that the group reveals their multitudes, offering meditative bliss to rival even the most Zen-inclined of artists.
Aptly, side four is a continuation of the third. “Yeti talks to Yogi” picks up on the droned-out guitar phrases of its predecessor and gradually gives way to wandering percussion, wide open drones, and haunted vocal chants. Switchbacking between sonic chaos and near silence, Amon Düül display a mastery over the active-reactive cosmology of wholly improvised art. In a celebratory return to their roots, a communal campfire dirge completes Yeti. “Sandoz in the Rain” remains in modal territory as the group stretches out in the heavy-mellow atmosphere of fiddles, flutes, hand drums, and strummed instruments of all manner. After the past hour of quite possibly the heaviest music recorded hitherto, and the whiplash of the group’s improvised spiritual provocation, the introspective nature of the final cut allows the entirety of what’s just happened to wash over the listener.
Yeti’s second LP, in particular, remains a landmark in improvised music. But taken as a whole, the album represented the endless possibilities of Rock & Roll at the start of the seventies. ‘Krautrock’ would take a decidedly more linear and electronic turn over the course of the decade, but Yeti would remain the pinnacle of a German music tradition that kept alive the trailblazing Avant spirit of the 1960s. While many of those seeming radicals of the prior decade would take refuge in the financial stability of radio friendliness, those intent on discovering how far they could reach out into the universe stayed on the path Amon Düül forged onYeti. | j rooney