Review Summary: Faust’s “bonus” album remains one of their greatest triumphs.
1973’s The Faust Tapes was the first Faust record to be put out by Virgin records, and its story is fairly odd. Comprised of bits and pieces of unreleased material mashed together, it was never meant to see the light of day. Yes indeed, The Faust Tapes is technically considered a compilation record. But the confusion doesn’t stop there. To market this to the British public, Virgin decided to do something very unusual. In an attempt to get people listening as quick as possible, Virgin decided to sell the album for the price of a single, a measly 48 pence. This was quite unconventional at the time, considering the album costed more to produce than what they were selling it for. Nevertheless, their plan worked. With estimated total sales totaling at around 50,000 copies, The Faust Tapes was a commercial smash, despite not being eligible to chart due to its price tag. Not bad for a compilation that was never even meant to be sold.
Still, even with the added low price, Faust was never truly commercially-friendly. Their progressive rock tendencies and experimental flair never really hooked many-a casual listener. In fact, many people that bought The Faust Tapes back in the day hated it. But today, the album is revered as a pioneering effort in krautrock, and has undoubtedly stood the test of time.
The original LP version of the album came in two parts, with each side labeled “Untitled." The cover is sprawled with text explaining the origins of the album, how it’s not really meant to be their third album, the use of no post-production, and quotes from the press. I give it to Virgin and the band; this was very smart on their part. If the album wasn’t well received, they could always point back to the cover and say how it was merely a ‘bonus,’ and that it was never really meant to be an album at all. But I’m sure the album sales and growing popularity of the band made that a non-issue.
But I digress; let’s get to the main event: the music.
The album begins with a cacophony of droning piano, setting the tone off just right. The eerie start sets the rough-around-the-edges tone of the album perfectly, preparing the listener for the ride of their life. It also serves to warn those who may not enjoy the album early on, because this album is a tough listen, without a doubt. While those familiar with Faust will most likely not have a problem, many listeners finding the band for the very first time (back in 1973, and even today) might not be ready for this kind of experimental music. No disrespect, it just that I don’t want people going into this album expecting to fully enjoy it with their first spin.
After that, the album wastes no time getting to the weirder portions of the album. Multiple layers of voices, drumming, and a second of saxophone then immediately lead into an acoustic guitar and our first taste of real lyrics:
“It's only a garden made of sandwich
marshmallows jumping around and smiling quiet
inside a stone of cream there is a language
bring our minds together, press them tight”
As you can tell, English isn’t this band’s specialty. While the lyrics are a bit nonsensical in some parts, they don’t really detract from the music in any way. Bizarre, off-kilter lyrics are kind of a Faust staple, even back on their first album (“Why Don't You Eat Carrots?,” anyone?). Still, I can definitely see how this aspect can put some people off, but once the album wraps you up in the performance, it’s not that noticeable. The vocals are more an instrument than anything for Faust, and it all blends together to form one cohesive sound that’s so distinctly theirs.
The musicianship is truly what’s to be on display here, as Faust compose some of their best soundscapes here. One part beautiful, the other utterly demented, The Faust Tapes can either make you get up and dance, have you stunned by blasts of avant-garde improvisation, or get you to stomp your feet to some of the earliest hip-hop-style production you’ll ever hear.
About one-third in is where the album really starts picking up, though. Here, we find more experimentation as the music starts to take over. Robotic chirps, rampant drumming, and plucky guitars transition into sirens of saxophones and droning with minimal effort as the record flips over to Side B. The guitar playing even gets a twinge of flamenco-stylings as we then shift to this foreboding combination of shrill synth this underlying bellowing, all with this loud, yet ambient feel to it. This then quickly translates into some rather pretty piano stylings, some acid/house-style beats on the synth, and a bit of the beginnings of post-rock before we go back to what I can only assume is a tin can with some coins in it overlaid atop an onslaught of vibrant sounds.
The final stretch of the album has the band return to more conventional songwriting, complete with, surprisingly, some of the band’s best lyrics:
“The wind has come
so the leaves, they are gone
because the wind has come
see her lying in her bed
must be a nice feeling for her head”
The slower pace of this final portion of the album helps the listener wind down after the auditory blitzkrieg that just transpired just a few minutes prior. The album ends with a French spoken-word passage with a rather beautiful guitar behind it. It’s almost jarring to hear this very calming voice speak to you after everything that’s happened, but somehow, it just feels like the perfect way for the album to stop. And it does: The perfect, perhaps the only, conclusion to an album of such scope and importance.
This album’s stuck with me for a very long time, which is quite a difficult feat. Repeat listens haven’t deteriorated my enjoyment of this in the slightest, and that’s about the highest level of praise I can bestow on an album. And even though the majority of this very review is just summarizing the album, that’s about all I can do. It’s just one of those albums you have to listen to for yourself to truly appreciate it. My one hope is that I’ve convinced you to do so.
Can I wholeheartedly say everyone will find this album as enjoyable as I do? Not by a longshot. Even 40 odd years later, The Faust Tapes wears its inaccessibility like a badge. For the average, pop-driven listener, I can’t say you’ll find what you’re looking for here. But to a Faust fan, a krautrock fan, an art rock fan, an experimental rock fan, or any other-genre-of-music fan willing to let an album grow on them, I would suggest you give it a listen immediately, because it may just be the best compilation album ever made.