The point at which a group becomes shrouded in its own reputation makes for one of the most interesting phases of a career. Having established the cornerstones of their art and the foundational ethos of what they’re actually about, gratuitous autonomy washes over. This can lead to a digging-in to what brought them here—a full forced entrenchment in custom. Or it can remove the shackles of convention with the group breaking the mold and moving away from their own inception.
In 1972 Amon Düül II managed both. Riding high off the cult success of the freakish triptych of Phallus Dei, Yeti, and Tanz der Lemminge, the collective were underground kings reigning over the hinterlands of pop-musik. Over the course of three years, the group had released as many records that have come to be regarded as masterpieces of heavy-psychedelia. Side-long improvisations, ornate proggy suites, and bullish hysterics we’re cementing a legacy that would endure the next 50 years of musical history—with these initial offerings still cited as foundational texts in the greater kosmische canon. Instead of repeating the long-form formula that brought out their full strength on Yeti and Tanz, Amon Düül went with a different approach in 1972. Gone were the 20-minute tracks and four-part suites over a massive double LP, and in their place came two individual records exploring vastly divergent ends of the spectrum.
The first of this dual output was Carnival in Babylon. Drawing from the excellent iconography of Yeti and Tanz der Lemminge’s legendary sleeves, we have a similar attempt here. Earnest conception doesn’t always reward, however, as the bizarre toucan chimera airbrushed against a door blown from its hinges evokes neither the menace of Yeti’s shrouded reaper nor the Dadaist unease of the prior release. In spite of the objectively bad cover art, Carnival commences in familiarity. Synthesizers and sawed fiddle echo in a wordless chorus of chants and jangled power chords. The verses begin and as the song progresses; a calm bridge adorned with fuzzed-out guitar work takes over. The chants resume and the number comes to a close. It’s that straight forward. A to-the-point piece of hard rock with almost none of the accustomed Düül embellishment. And while the structure has altered, the genetic makeup of their heavy churning sound remains. Then “All the Years Round” begins. This next number makes abundantly clear that this is band on a mission to separate themselves from expectation. What is presented is none other than a ballad. Still a far-cry from the crooning schlager of the German airwaves, and certainly not nearly as accessible as the mellowed-out offerings from Pink Floyd or kraut-compatriots Can, there is some whiplash to the unsuspecting listener.
In the event that one would think the change to be coincidence, it must be known that the middle of the record continues in notable candor, if not mediocrity. Light choogle with some heavier breakdowns. Some electric boogie rising up from the primordial slop that is Amon Düül’s source of inspiration. “Kronwinkl 12” pulses along like a long-lost T. Rex speed-bender of a track. By the standards of those that came before this record, however, Carnival comes across as a soft rock record—at its heaviest moments (and maybe a bit of a stretch) it borders on the glam rock territory of Bolan, Bowie, or The Move. It’s the underground equivalent of Black Sabbath following Master of Reality with Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure.
The record closes with yet another taste of familiarity. “Hawknose Harlequin” kicks off with the regularity of Carnival’s songwriting-oriented approach, but the back half of the 10-minute cut offers a bit more exploration as the group chugs along to a close. Clocking in at only 37 minutes, Amon Düül wrap up their shortest record yet in calculated atmospherics. It remains one of Amon Düül’s only oversights. In fact, most folks probably forget about it. And while it’s not a bad offering, necessarily, the issue is that it is smack dab between the foundational texts of the first three records and the slab of sheer power that would follow.
Based on sheer musicality, Wolf City could be the strongest record Amon Düül would ever make. The ensemble’s second record of 1972, released just a couple months after its predecessor, removes theatrics, limits improvisation, and its blistering riffs shake the very foundations of psychedelia. Things get quaking in wavering slink. The entire world begins to reverberate around the serpentine exchange of acoustic and electric guitar interplay. A false chorus ushers in a fiddle led freak-out and synthesizers begin to malfunction before heading into a lull. The pieces are collected and “Surrounded by Stars” reconstitutes itself. Though only momentarily. The ensemble loses control yet again and the number completely devolves. Once more, however, we can’t help but notice how much more tame Amon Düül have become in this newly awakened iteration. Stripped down, it becomes apparent that the group can write succinct and powerful songs. And while there was a certain lacking in brute force on Carnival in Babylon, the process by which they arrived at Wolf City is illuminated.
Perhaps, Carnival was the required impetus. In the grand scheme of artistic consciousness, a period of experimentation (whether failed or successful), is necessary to reach the next step of a logical progression. The original triad of Düül psychedelia established the required conditions for the group to do whatever they want, essentially. This permitted them to break outside their original mold; an artistic weightlessness that offered the freedom to invest in a record removed from their established affect. With this in place, the group found ways to get their point across in brevity. It could have been increased attention across the channel in the UK where the group was beginning to tour a great deal. It may have been the strain of creating monolithic double records that seemingly pushed the boundaries of musical possibility. Or maybe just a desire to try out something new. All that can be assessed was the fact that Amon Düül felt the need to make straight forward tunes that harnessed the energy of an entire side of improvisation into a five-minute statement.
Overwhelmingly, Wolf City succeeds to this end. Only the opening cut extends beyond the five-minute mark. The shortest cut, “Deutsch Nepal” maintains a Blue Cheer level of heaviness while still being weirder than anything you’d find on the radio at the time. “Jailhouse Frog” hops all over the place, making zero sense for the most part, and keeping the old-guard freaks appeased while ushering in the highpoint of a title cut. Almost mellow, the tune keeps a motorik putsch into the cosmos, and elevates the work through droning vocals and near Faust-level effect manipulation of the one chord employed over the course of the number. The beauty of Amon Düül’s greatest conceptions are on full display over the synth and tabla workout “Wie der Wind am Ende einer Strasse.” A cast of Indian musicians join the group on the instrumental, adding embellished cosmopolitanism to the already near-endless wellspring of inspiration.
Wolf City closes with its thesis statement. There isn’t a moment of doubt on “Sleepwalker’s Timeless Bridge.” This is a tune that, honestly, should have been a hit. There’s a rambling quality that evokes the Allman Brothers. A hint of Zeppelin’s grace breezes over blissful 12-string arpeggios. But of course, Amon Düül make it so much more interesting than the pop chart residents could possibly imagine. The group drops the hippie façade and make clear their violent intentions on the bridge, letting loose with blistering solos layered atop one another. It’s here that the real groove commences. The best (conventional) vocals to ever grace an Amon Düül track deliver an ode pastoral and a final piece of guitar mastery is placed atop this fading moment. The fattest chord of the record, stretched into eternity through manipulation of some sort, consumes every aspect of the song before fading a bit too abruptly to a close.
Amon Düül were the best at what they did, because no one else could do what they did. Not wanting a reign in isolation, the collective took a swing at the mainstream. With Carnival in Babylon and Wolf City, the bets were made. Amon Düül II would be playing the long-game. | j rooney