I first reviewed this album in January, which was, in turn, about two weeks after I “got” CAN’s 1971 masterpiece, Tago Mago. Now, over two months later, my mind is still being blown away by this album’s constant inventiveness. While they were in their prime, CAN were one of those truly rare bands (and even more so, Tago Mago is one of those truly rare albums) that no one has ever done anything similar to before, and that no one has done anything similar to since. Other groups have been just as groundbreaking, just as pioneering, just as creative, and just as original, but none of them managed to sound quite as good as CAN in the process. I am talking of bands like Faust, with their eponymous debut album, Captain Beefheart with Trout Mask Replica, Gentle Giant with Octopus, Van Der Graaf Generator with Pawn Hearts, Amon Duul II with Yeti, Magma with Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh, and a few others, all of which stand as being among the most inventive albums in history. But there’s more to it than that. While they have all been enormously influential, they escaped what I might call Dark Side of the Moon syndrome, a disease brought on, not by the creators (and through no fault of their own), but by the countless bands who have come along attempting to copy them. While these copies never live up to the original, they still, in a sense, stain its name. The albums I mentioned, however, have avoided this. They have not been copied, because, I believe, they simply cannot be copied. They are so unique, they become inimitable. No matter how hard a band tries (and many bands have tried hard), they cannot recreate the complex yet catchy Octopus (and when they do try, as bands such as Wobbler and Spock’s Beard have done, they fall flat on their face), the dark, bombastic, and yet still down-to-earth satire of Pawn Hearts, the composed-to-sound improvised Trout Mask Replica, the insane and zany Faust, the absolutely over the top strangeness of Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh, the mind-bending, stoned psychedelia of Yeti, or the crazy psychedelic landscapes of Tago Mago. Perhaps the greatest reason why these albums are so inimitable is that the band’s responsible for creating them didn’t try to copy them on future releases. They refused to resort to a formula, a mold. Think about it. Gentle Giant followed the warm Octopus with the cold In a Glass House. Van Der Graaf Generator followed Pawn Hearts by disbanding, before returning to create the vastly different Godbluff and Still Life. Faust followed their debut with the radio-worthy (in comparison to the incomparably dense debut) So Far. And CAN returned in 1972 with the avant-pop Ege Bamyasi. The same applies for each of these bands.
For this reason in particular, Tago Mago is a one of a kind album, even, as I noted in the previous paragraph, amid CAN’s discography. With every album (at least up until Landed), CAN found (or, rather, invented) a new sound for themselves (similar to Jethro Tull, only much better), ranging from psychedelic improvisations of Monster Movie to the mellower but still highly experimental Soundtracks, From the avant-garde insanity of Tago Mago to the avant-pop of Ege Bamyasi. And on, and on. Even on Soon Over Babaluma and Landed, both recorded after Damo Suzuki left the band, the band found a new sound for themselves. Tago Mago is the manifestation of the best “sound” the band ever created. This album served as my introduction to Krautrock (currently my favorite sub-genre of progressive rock). At first, I hated it, an all-too-understandable reaction, given the difficult nature of the album, but soon the bricks all fell into place, and I realized just what Tago Mago has to offer. As it turns out, what it has to offer is far more than ANY other album by ANY other band, removed by several orders of magnitude (for the less mathematically inclined, an order of magnitude separation implies the multiplication of ten to one value to get the other). Imagine in your heads an image of the tallest building in the world. I can’t remember which building this is, but imagine it anyway. Now make it just a tad taller. Now imagine a worker shining the bottom of the antenna sticking out of the top. That worker is Tago Mago. Now imagine the workers wiping the windows on the third story of this building. Those workers are the other albums I have given five stars. As for the albums that earn the one, two, three, and four star ratings, they are the people on the sidewalk. From the top of the Tago Mago tower, they cannot be seen. In short, this is not just my favorite album, it’s my favorite album by leaps and bounds. I am still waiting to find an album that will wipe the windows of one of the top floors, let alone the top of the antenna. I am willing to admit that Tago Mago can be surpassed, I just have yet to see it done.
“Why is the case?” you ask, and I must admit that that’s quite a good question. There’s no perfect answer to that question, but this is a review, and it would be a pretty worthless one if I didn’t at least attempt to answer it, so here goes. Tago Mago is not really an album to listen to for enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong, you can and most definitely should enjoy it, and you need only ask me to find out just how much you can enjoy it, which is quite a lot. Despite this, however, enjoyment is not the only reason, and maybe even not the main reason to listen to this album. Rather, the incentive to spend multiple seventy-three minute chunks of your life invested in this aural experience is to force yourself to think, to challenge your views of music, and to expand your horizons. I cannot say it enough, this is an album to be enjoyed immensely, but while you listen, put it in the context of music of the time. Allow yourself to appreciate just how groundbreaking this was, just how many rules of music this broke, and allow it especially to force you to rethink your views of what is acceptable in music. While it was never popular enough to make a noticeable dent in the overall direction rock music took (as opposed to, say, Pink Floyd), it still pushed rock’s boundaries further than any other album I know, both in new directions and old, has ever dared to do (and it is this factor that is probably the greatest contributor to this album’s lack of popularity).
Tago Mago is, in the purest sense of the word, a revolution. It rebelled. It was opposed to every standard rock music set, whether this standard was that the rhythm section mind its business in the background, or that music be accessible, or that songs have cohesive structure… whatever. They were against it (as their name implies --- CAN is an acronym for Communism, Anarchy, Nihilism). Thus, the music is inaccessible, some of the most inaccessible you will ever hear (but it has absolutely nothing on Faust’s music). Also, it is the drums that come to the forefront of the music, not the guitar, not the keyboards, but the drums. The drums play the main riffs (and yes, they are riffs). The drums that provide the energy. The drums sustain the songs. The drums make the music the living, breathing, grooving entity it is. Almost but not quite everything that makes this music enjoyable stems from Jaki Liebezeit’s drums. And then the band prove that they consist of five members, not one. Michael Karoli noodles around on guitar, and that’s all he does. He didn’t invent this style of guitar playing, but he is, to my knowledge, the only person to have ever made it work. It’s generally an insult to call guitar work noodling, suggesting that the guitar does not fit in with the rest of the music, but in Karoli’s case, it works. Rather than being meandering self-indulgence, Karoli’s noodling is focused, fits the music (in large part because it doesn’t fit, but rather plays off contrasts perfectly), and is highly skilled. I’m not interested in seeing what guitarists like Petrucchi of Dream Theater are capable of technically, I’m interested in what they are able to contribute to the music. And Karoli’s noodling contributes more to CAN’s music than any other guitarist has given to his or her respective band. Now add Holger Czukay’s delectable bass to the mix. It is constantly present, and always adding to the music. Also, Czukay was responsible for mixing the album, putting it together and making it work. And he did an admirable job. Irmin Schmidt takes on keyboard duties, and is just as formidable as his counterparts. He mostly plays in an avant-classical style (he studied under an avant-classical composer, if I’m not mistaken), but in the context of the album, it works perfectly, as is seen on tracks such as Halleluwah and Peking O, which feature some of my absolute favorite keyboard work. There’s one member of this band left, and, along with Liebezeit, he is the one who makes things happen. I am talking, of course, about Damo Suzuki on vocals. I have described this album as inimitable. If Tago Mago is inimitable, I shudder at the thought of trying to find a word to describe Suzuki’s voice. He is a completely unique vocalist, with a penchant for vocal experimentations, whose effects are only augmented by his strange voice. He could capture the very essence of bizarreness and beauty, at the same time. CAN, after losing the incredible Malcolm Mooney to mental illness, needed a vocalist, and they stumbled upon Damo outside of a bar, resulting in what is surely one of the greatest chance meetings to have ever taken place. As late guitarist Michael Karoli so perfectly put it, Damo Suzuki could “capture the sound spectrum of CAN in a single word.” Truer words have probably never been spoken.
The overall result of the enmeshing of these five unique musicians is Tago Mago. Its main purpose seems to be to challenge the listener, and it certainly succeeds. The mixture of avant-classical keyboards, grooving rhythms, noodling guitar, delectable bass, and vocal experimentations keeps you on your toes for seventy-three minutes. What this does for the album is essential. It prevents you from ever getting bored, because, despite the tremendous amount of repetition (and I mean it, CAN were one of the most repetitive bands to have walked this earth), you can never guess what comes next. This is an effect mirrored only by Magma. Second, and this is the big point, this challenge keeps the album fresh. It prevents this album from suffering from overplaying syndrome, because no matter how recently you listened to it, there’s still something there to challenge you that you haven’t noticed. I have listened to it upwards of thirty times in the past few months, and it’s still not grown old.
Given all that I’ve said so far, you can probably predict what I’m going to say next, which is that this album is ahead of its time. Don’t fault me, however, for saying this all too predictable statement, however, because it’s true and deserves saying. In fact, saying that it’s ahead of its time is a grand understatement. Because, while it was ahead of its time in 1971, it would still be ahead of its time had it been released today, or even a thousand years from now (at least, I like to hope it would be), because it has not been done again. CAN are still waiting for the world to catch up to this album. In fact, I think that CAN got tired of waiting, and that is why they slowed down to the world’s pace in music for their albums beyond the appropriately titled Landed. Much like the musical world is still lagging behind Octopus, Trout Mask Replica, Pawn Hearts, Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh, and Yeti, so it is behind Tago Mago. There is no way then, in my mind, that this album could be anything other than ahead of its time.
Despite all the praise I’ve heaped on the album (and, I warn you now, will continue to heap on it for the duration of this review), I must still admit that I see where reviewers such as Greenback are coming from. In case you haven’t yet read his two star review of Tago Mago, Greenback called this album, among other things, “UNMELODIOUS” (capitalization preserved). There’s really nothing I can say to combat this accusation, because it’s true. If we really look at what the word unmelodious means, all the use of the word truly says is that, well, the album isn’t melodious, that it’s not reliant on the use of melodies. Well, okay, it’s true that there isn’t a trace of a melody to be found on this album, but as I said earlier, CAN preferred to spend their time inventing new ways of crafting rock music, and their particular vision did not include melodies. Gentle Giant’s similar vision did. What results are two completely different albums, both pushing the boundaries of rock music in new directions. Diversity is good. I will give you a fair warning, however. If you don’t like any RIO/avant-prog or Zeuhl, but rather focus on the traditional symphonic progressive rock as well as neo-prog and prog metal, you’ll have a very difficult time with this album. When I discovered Tago Mago, I fit this mold (I didn’t like neo-prog and prog metal very much, though that has changed somewhat since then, but I was focused mostly on symphonic prog such as Genesis), and I had my share of difficulties coming around to this album. What happened in the end, however, was that Tago Mago ripped away all my preconceptions about music and revolutionized the way I view music. And I love it for that more than anything else.
The music on Tago Mago is a unique blend of great ideas, a creative spirit, amazing musicianship (in their own special way – whatever they lacked in musicianship they made up for in using their instruments innovatively), a fair bit of psychedelia, a good dose of their political leanings (I’ll give you a hint of which way the band leaned --- their name, CAN, is an acronym for Communism, Anarchy, Nihilism), some avant-garde elements, and just plain insanity. CAN took all of these and stuck them in a blender set to a higher speed than the drum machine in the song Peking O. The result is Tago Mago, a smooth blend of all of these ideals with a taste you haven’t experienced before, one which is off-putting at first, yet intriguing, bringing you back again for more to satisfy your curiosity until you finally understand it and like it. Now, I used a similar analogy in my Spock’s Beard – V review (one star), and I’d like to clear up the reason why it’s good in CAN’s case but bad in Spock’s Beard’s situation. With CAN, as I explained, what resulted was a smooth and unique blend. With Spock’s Beard, however, the mixture contained recycled symphonic bits and cliché metal chunks, set to a low power for a short time, leaving only a chunky mixture with no texture and that only serves to leave a bad aftertaste.
Not only did CAN do something completely new and revolutionary on this album, refusing to fit into an established mold, they kept from creating a basic mold for the album itself, keeping each song radically different from the others. And yet, it doesn’t sound the least bit like a patchwork album, full of unconnected ideas. One of the beauties of this album is just how much better it is when listened to as an album than as a group of individual songs. For me, at least, a albums are like literature. An album that truly stands out as a single work is like a novel, with something connecting each of the different tracks (or chapters). Many albums, however, contain just a bunch of short stories combined into one, but without any flow between them. These albums can be and often are highly enjoyed, but not so much as a “novel” type album. Tago Mago is clearly an example of this “novel” type album, for you simply cannot listen to a random track and expect it to make sense, just as you can’t expect to read a random chapter of a book without getting completely confused. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Halleluwah is probably the most brilliant song I know, but I still cannot sit through it out of the context of the album. It truly sounds different in context, and I mean that literally. It is as if the actual sounds have changed, such is the difference between the two cases.
Paperhouse begins your excursion into the land of Tago Mago, opening with some psychedelic sounds before giving way to drumming and noodling behind Damo Suzuki’s unique voice. The drumming, while precise and repetitive, holds your interest as it carries the song, the guitar lifts it to even greater heights, not through virtuosity or precision, but through Karoli’s incredible ability to, as I said earlier, noodle with a purpose, creating amazing textures in the process, and the vocals are some of the greatest I know (only surpassed by those on the next three songs on the album). The lyrics are complete gibberish, but they really serve only as notes for Damo Suzuki’s amazing voice. You really have to focus on the sound of the words, not the meaning. In fact, you can barely understand a word Damo’s saying (and if you can understand him, you’re focusing too much on the lyrics at the expense of the music). This song ebbs and flows, with an upbeat psychedelic section followed by a soft, almost easy listening bit, only to end with madness, as if to suggest that there will be no respite the rest of the way (and, let’s face it, there won’t be until the last song). Paperhouse is a sprawling psychedelic mess of a song with the focus and structure of a Genesis or Yes song, a phenomenon I’ve never seen repeated beyond the context of this album. The soft bit at the ending seems to say, “it’s only been six minutes, but you’ve been through a lot. Take a quick rest, because for the next sixty minutes, we’re going to keep you on the edge of your seat.” And then the music builds to the madness I just described, facilitating the perfect transition into Mushroom, a whole new being entirely.
Many reviewers, even those who give this album good reviews, dismiss Mushroom as too repetitive, too simple, too basic. The way I see it, however, Mushroom is the perfect minimalist track. Yes, it’s simple, but what CAN achieves with this is that they remove the clutter plaguing many bands’ songs, reducing the entire song to a simple main drum riff and some simple textures. Have you noticed the trend of this song, yet? It tends towards simplicity. Rather than going for complexity for complexity’s sake (something that, to my knowledge, only Gentle Giant has ever really pulled off), CAN strips away everything that isn’t essential, that isn’t absolutely vital to the song, but without compromising the song in the least. I love songs that have five different layers going at once, but it stands as a testament to the song’s simplicity that there are several times where everything drops out except the drums. You can tap your feet to the song as well, if you so please. Also, this is the only song on the album with lyrics that come anywhere close to meaning anything. They’re either about the atomic bomb (with its infamous mushroom cloud) or the drug sort of mushroom, take your pick. As I said earlier, if you’re really worried about it, you’ve missed the point of the music. The lyrics fit perfectly with the music, repetitive and simple, consisting of only a couple of lines repeated several times in a row, before moving on to a new line. What really matters, however, are Damo Suzuki’s vocals, which range from whispers to shouts to everything in between, but without any of the painful transitions between the two that marred Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. Mushroom is an uncommercial song displaying intelligent arrangements and that perfects the concept of simplicity.
Speaking of atomic bombs, the next song on the album, Oh Yeah (which you can sample on this site) opens with one exploding, followed by a thunderclap and the sounds of a rainstorm. On top of this, soon replacing it, comes a repetitive, strange, and catchy (in relative terms) piece of music, which is about as accessible as this album gets (at least until the last song). While the music proceeds forwards, the vocals come in backwards, and I really must say, other than the fact that the intonations of the words tend to rise at the end rather than at the beginning, they almost sound as if they could be forward. When the drums start building, leading us on towards a wonderful instrumental interlude, we are presented with one of the greatest moments on the album (and therefore one of the greatest moments in all music). Karoli comes in guitar, noodling as always, presenting us with *random* guitar twangs that occur here, there, and everywhere. Later in the song, Suzuki gives us a real treat as he sings in his native Japanese (though I think he does manage to incorporate and English line or two, unless, of course, the phrase, “nothing to do, everyday,” actually means something in Japanese). And then the song progresses yet again, building up with the twangy guitar and great drumming. Oh Yeah is an amazing progressive rock song, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with its progressiveness, something many bands (even the greats) had quite a bit of trouble with. The catch? Unlike Mushroom, which stripped rock, a genre of music that had been around for some time, down to its essentials, Oh Yeah strips progressive rock, a genre still in its infancy, and without the defining characteristic of more tempo changes than notes in any given song, down to its essentials. Yet again, CAN were ahead of their time, altering a genre that, in essence, had not yet been defined (’72 and ’73 were the defining years for classic prog, with albums such as Close to the Edge, Foxtrot, Thick as a Brick, Dark Side of the Moon, Selling England by the Pound, and many many more seeing the light of day in that time). It is for this reason that Oh Yeah is just as important as the other songs on this album. It is just as much progressive rock as Supper’s Ready and Tarkus, but without everything critics love to hate about progressive rock. Like with Mushroom, where CAN stripped a song down to its bare essentials, CAN here takes progressive rock and strips off the bombast, the “look at me, I’m a virtuoso (insert instrument here) player” mentality, the often needlessly complex arrangements, and everything else they felt progressive rock just didn’t need, leaving us with the very essence of what progressive rock is.
Up to this point, the music has been difficult, challenging, and groundbreaking, but it’s all easy listening compared to the three songs that come next. These three songs, each clocking over twelve minutes, will challenge your preconceptions about music more than any other songs I know, starting with the eighteen minute epic, Halleluwah. Halleluwah is still accessible when compared with Aumgn and Peking O, but it’s still incredibly difficult to digest. Corbet got it right when he called Halleluwah the “fattest drum groove ever.” If you look at the basic structure of this song, that’s all it is: an eighteen-minute long drum groove that defines awesomeness. With the exception of one minute about four minutes in, the drums repeat the same thing for all eighteen minutes. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Think again. This might well be, when taken in context of the album, my absolute favorite song. Corbet also wondered what life would be like without Halleluwah. Well, I, too, cannot imagine life without this song. It’s one of those songs that you don’t miss when you don’t know it (because, on paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing song), but once you’ve heard it in the proper context, you cannot help but love it as I do, and as Corbet does. You won’t be willing to let go, no matter the price. But enough of my rambling, and on to the actual music behind this masterpiece.
Halleluwah opens with the main drum riff (and I will maintain to my grave that what Liebezeit spits out on the drums is just as much a riff as the intro to, say, Aqualung, and much better, too – this coming from someone who loves Aqualung). As I said before, Jaki Liebezeit keeps up this riff for almost all eighteen minutes as all sorts of psychedelic insanity swirl around it. The guitar is twangy and noodly as usual, and even better than before. The real highlight (other than the drums, of course) is Damo Suzuki (as you might expect). As the song progresses around him, full of psychedelic effects, groovy drums, avant-classical keyboards, and a little bit of everything else in between, Damo Suzuki treats us to the vocal performance of his life. I mentioned the quote earlier about how he could “capture the sound spectrum of CAN in a single word.” Well, it’s now time for me to clue you in. That word is “Halleluwah,” or, as Damo Suzuki puts it, “Halleleleleleleleleleleleluwah.” He uses it in the middle of the song for a while, and also at the end, and he is simply amazing with it. The rest of the lyrics are rather witty, discussing everything from big mouths to recording studios to well-dressed snowmen that sleep in church (shame on them). Guitars, keyboards, and bass (the bass on this track is simply sublime) all work around the drums to create different textures and moods throughout the song, so that it never gets at all boring. This is another new idea CAN implemented with this song (in addition to the whole “fattest drum groove ever” bit). CAN, rather than fitting the generalization that the background section of a song (in this case, everything but the drums and vocals) remains the same as the foreground changes, chooses instead to keep the drums constant and let the background music change. As the song closes with Damo Suzuki yelling his head, “Halleleleleleleleleluwah,” we come ever closer to the infamous disc two of CAN’s 1971 masterpiece, Tago Mago.
Disc two opens with two “love ‘em or hate ‘em” tracks before ending with the relatively calm, mild, and peaceful Bring Me Coffee or Tea. The funny thing is that, easy as Aumgn and Peking O are to rip, the album would be much worse without them. I refuse to pick whether I prefer Disc One or Disc Two (though the answer might well be Disc Two, should I give the issue the time of day), because without each other, they are both utterly pointless drivel. It’s like having to choose whether you’d rather have a heart or a set of lungs. You can’t live without both of them. So it goes with Tago Mago. Without both discs together, this album is less than half of what it is with both discs. Disc Two tends to showcase the more nihilistic side of CAN. I looked up nihilism in the 1997 edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary, and the first meaning was, “the viewpoint that traditional views and beliefs are unfounded.” And in these first two songs on Disc Two of Tago Mago, CAN certainly discard (and invite you to do the same) every traditional view and belief about music, because rules, when applied to art, serve only to inhibit creative and expressive freedom. I am reminded of a great quote (which I will paraphrase) I was once told in person. “You have to know the rules of art before you break them. That is why, when Picasso puts both eyes on one side of a face, it goes in the Louvre, while when a three-year old does the same thing, it goes on the refrigerator.” CAN were well-versed in the traditional rules of music, and thus were able to pull off breaking all of them. Art’s boundaries are only set by the artists, and how far they are willing to push these boundaries. CAN’s music pushes these boundaries further than anyone else ever had and ever has pushed them, so, in effect, CAN set the boundaries of music that still exist to this day, waiting to be pushed further. Also, I hesitate to use anarchy here to describe CAN’s approach to creating music, because anarchy suggests that there are no rules. That is certainly not true. There are plenty of rules, CAN just decided to use their own set, one they created themselves, rather than use a well-worn, often rehashed guide set by others.
Aumgn is a psychedelic, avant-garde, twisted imitation of a meditative chant. Aumgn (pronounced much like the traditional “ohm,” only several times more sinister) takes the soothing nature of meditation and makes it dark and, quite frankly, disturbing. First, however, the song must introduce itself to us. It begins with a more slippery (just try to imagine what slippery sounds like) version of the same sound effect that opened Paperhouse (perhaps Disc Two is Disc One’s evil twin? – it wouldn’t surprise me the least bit). The guitar that soon comes in makes everything worse (in a good way), and, when listened to on headphones, some of the sound effects are amazing, sinister, and amazingly sinister. At this point, the song is testing the waters, trying to see how “out there” it can get without actually getting you “outta there,” preparing you for what is to come. There is some chanting (nothing serious yet), but things don’t really get dangerous until the appearance of washboard violins (a term I invented). Imagine taking a violin (preferably out of tune) and rubbing it back and forth on a washboard. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what they do here, and they make it work. The highlight of the song is the middle section, however, which consists mostly of someone chanting “aumgn” in very sinister tones (have you gotten yet that this song is sinister?). This is something you really have to experience for yourself, so I’ll move on, pausing only to say that CAN builds marvelously around these deeply twisted moans. For the last six minutes of Aumgn, we are treated to what could be the greatest drum solo ever (except it’s not a drum solo). It has enough going on that I cannot really call it a true solo. Discard all your previous notions about what a drum solo (or almost solo) should sound like, because these six minutes are like no others, insance, crazy, and not for one second boring, even in this studio track setting. Anything you think you know about the art of playing drums will be thrown out of the window with this one, and you’ll realize that, at least as far as drums are concerned, you really know nothing at all.
Don’t even think about relaxing, however, as Aumgn ends, because Peking O drives the album into even stranger and more bizarre territory. It opens harmlessly enough, with some fairly random (but focused, if this makes any sense – perhaps another case of having to hear it to believe it) clumps of noise and Damo Suzuki’s chanting of “traveling my way, back to yesterday,” over and over again for two minutes before he morphs the “ay” ending into shrieks and screams. And, at this time, CAN does the unthinkable. CAN, the same band with Jaki Liebezeit, my absolute favorite drummer by leaps and bounds, CAN, the same band who earlier on this album had a song consisting of little more than drums, and who then, just two songs later, included the “fattest drum groove ever,” CAN, the shining beacon of all things uncommercial, CAN, of all bands, employs a drum machine. And, being CAN, they pull it off. Perfectly. They are the only band I know to have used a drum machine to good effect (and certainly the only one to use it to perfection as they do here), and there is one major reason why this is so. Unlike bands such as, say, Jethro Tull (I really seem to be picking on them in this review), notably on Under Wraps, CAN makes no pretenses about how the drum machine is going to further the music. Their lack of seriousness about it, their “just for the hell of it” attitude, however, turns out to be the main factor in making the drum machine work. And so, as Damo Suzuki babbles about who’s “gonna eat” (“mama gonna eat, papa gonna eat, mama gonna papa gonna mama gonna papa gonna mama gonna papa gonna mama gonna papa gonna mama gonna papa gonna… etc. ad nauseum… eat”), we are treated to the second greatest use of a drum machine ever, on top of a background of avant-classical keyboards and psychedelic guitar. Wait a minute, you say, didn’t IPOF just say that CAN is the only band to have ever used a drum machine well? Yes, in fact, I did. The best use of a drum machine, however, comes immediately after that section of the song, when CAN slap the drum machine on its flank and yell, “giddy-up” (meaning, in essence, that they set it to the highest possible speed). Soon after this comes my favorite part of the song, when Damo Suzuki on vocals and Irmin Schmidt on keyboards race each other and the drum machine to see who can spit out nonsense the fastest (Damo wins, with Schmidt not far behind). When CAN get bored of using the drum machine, they prove that their childish playful energy is not yet spent, as they spend the final three minutes ending the song with such chaos that you will be left reeling.
Thankfully after you have just “suffered” through what were perhaps the most difficult and trying thirty minutes of your life, you get a pick-me-up with Bring Me Coffee or Tea. This song defines the very essence of georgeous, especially by Krautrock standards. As far as doing something new goes, this song is the “worst” on the album (though it’s still perfect), which says nothing about this song but loads about the other six (all of it positive). Bring Me Coffee or Tea is full of nonsense lyrics carried by great vocals on top of peaceful psychedelia, and is the perfect end to this album. Tago Mago is an incredibly difficult listen, especially those first few times, and it’s only fair that you get some (relative) ear candy at the end to ease the pain on your recently shredded musical soul. I don’t have much to say about the music itself (I’ve already pointed out that it’s gorgeous, haven’t I?), because it’s the only song on the album that focuses more on how it sounds than on being revolutionary. It is the only song on the album that approaches normality. This is the one song on the album where you can sit back and listen without a care in the world, and you can’t ask for more than that after the sixty-six minutes of blissful aural torture Tago Mago already inflicted upon you. In that way, it is the perfect fit for this album, and, as I said, Tago Mago could not have ended better.
So, if I may recap quickly, I’d like to reiterate why each track is special. Paperhouse puts structure into a sprawling psychedelic mess (and is also probably the greatest psychedelic jam ever). Mushroom strips rock music down to its very essentials. Oh Yeah (apart from having a great title) strips progressive rock of everything critics love to criticize (hey, it’s what they do best), and leaves it in the purest form I have ever seen. Halle(lelelelelelelelelelelelelelele)luwah is the “fattest drum groove ever” and inverts the basic sonic system of rock music in more ways than one. Aumgn redefines meditation. Peking O shows silliness put to good use, and is one of the most bizarre and “out there” tracks I know (and is one of the only songs to ever use a drum machine well – the only other one I can think of right now is Spoon, also by CAN). And, to round it all off, the whipped cream on top of this coffee (I like it black, with no sugar added) is Bring Me Coffee or Tea, a song that brings comfort to the dedicated listener, topping off the already full Tago Mago perfectly.
No, I cannot recommend Tago Mago to everybody. Sorry, let me rephrase that. I can and will and do recommend as highly as possible to album to absolute everybody who knows what music is, because it is essential listening. What I cannot do is assure you that you’ll like it. In fact, let me warn you now, you probably won’t like it. At all. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a masterpiece of progressive music (and indeed of all music), and that isn’t debatable so far as I am concerned. I urge you to buy it, for, after all, how can you know what you’re missing (or not) until you’ve given it a fair shot. Nothing defines progressiveness like being ahead of your time… more than thirty five years after you were working (and many more years after that, I’m sure). And that, my friends, is CAN’s Tago Mago. Simply ahead of its time. Tago Mago has done more for my musical tastes than any other album except perhaps Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Mon (which got me into progressive rock), refining them to the point where I embraced challenge. In short, it brought them up to speed with my taste in novels (which is the same as my tastes in music that I’ve so thoroughly explained throughout the course of this review: I seek out novels that challenge my beliefs and the rules of literature, examples being George Orwell and especially Kurt Vonnegut). I understand that this challenge-seeking operates largely on a personal level, but I feel that Tago Mago can do the same for you if you give it a fair chance or two (or twenty).
If you are familiar with the reviewing process, you know that when you click beside the five star option, you get a message box asking you to think through your rating and to make sure you really know what giving an album five stars means. Well, to show you I’ve done this, I’ll address what the warning says, and explain how I would justify my masterpiece rating. First off, it asks you to make sure you know what each rating means, which I think I’ve shown that I’ve done in the previous paragraph. It then says to use one and five star reviews sparingly, which I’ve done, as those two ratings account for less than fifteen percent of all my reviews so far. And then it says that not every album I enjoy will be a perfect masterpiece. Well, honestly, not all the albums I enjoy (a lot) even make the cut to four stars, let alone five. Indeed, I have read five star reviews, that, had I written that particular review, I would have given only three. I am highly selective of my ratings, and make sure they are accurate before submitting a review. And I can assure you that Tago Mago is indeed a perfect masterpiece in every sense of the phrase.
Is this my favorite album? Yes. Although I am hesitant to say so, since these things have a history of changing on me overnight, I think that after two months plus of being my favorite album without a hint of competition, I can come out and say it outright that Tago Mago is my favorite album. It is certainly the most inventive, challenging, creative, and original album I’ve ever heard. No, it’s not for everyone, but that’s not what music is about. Just look at the music these days that comes the closest to being for everyone. Justin Timberlake, with songs like SexyBack, is not my idea of good music, and yet his music sells like crazy. Meanwhile, inventive modern groups such as Alamaailman Vasarat (honest question: have you even heard of them?) go almost entirely unnoticed even in the prog world, and completely unnoticed beyond that. All I mean is that quality is not determined by mass appeal, something that we, as progheads, ought to have etched upon our souls. Music is about exploring new ideas, making people think, and being enjoyable, just as all media is. This album certainly explores new ideas. That is not debatable. It made me think, and you’d have to try pretty hard to have it not make you think. The only part of it that really comes down to personal taste is the being enjoyable part. For me, it’s just fine. For you, I can only hope. For being THE masterpiece of all music, this album earns a full five stars, and were I allowed just one album to which I could give six stars, this would be it.
At this point, my official review is over, and you are now free to stop paying any attention to my ranting. What I am going to do now is expand upon an idea first set down in James Lee’s review, in which he suggested that “a more meaningful way to write about "Tago Mago" would be in free-form poetry comprised of a few different languages as well as numerous nonsense words, illustrated with impressionist doodles on the margins, and repeated ad infinitum for effect.” I tried this as I listened to the opening song, Paperhouse, and while I only managed to include one language (and zero nonsense words, unfortunately), and while the doodles wouldn’t upload to the computer, I feel my attempt at least somewhat achieves what he was aiming for. So, if the 6000+ words I expelled giving my opinions (a euphemism for “heaping endless praise”) on Tago Mago failed to convince you, perhaps this similar nonsense will:
The banana peel in a state of denial
Is no worse I thought to myself
Than the drumming of a deranged
T of a king’s daughter
Wooed by the prince of a foreign land
bills are the lining of birdcages
for more no more than a size thirteen foot.
And at the news I cracked open a bottle of bourbon
On the head of a now dead frog
And the French had frog legs for lack of a better word
“ah, the times we live in are fit for fools and drunkards”
Remarked the man of the mountain, buried beneath a mattress of
and his fossil may be turned up
in a few million years and
he will be hailed as a hero in
a new age of the Octopus that has
come out of the sea to be king
Well, there you go. Those are my rather more concise opinions on Tago Mago. Before I actually stop rambling, however, I’d like to implore you one last time to put this album first on your “albums to buy” list. Whether you like it or not, it is impossible to deny that it is an experience, and no progressive rock collection can be called complete without Tago Mago in it.