The Revitalization of Caspar Brötzmann
Popular, classical, jazz, and experimental compositions alike enroll a listener via what can generally be regarded as hooks—instrumental, melodic, atmospheric, lyrical, and tonal elements or gestalts that seize conscious and unconscious attention. It’s relatively simple to identify hooks when considering work by, say, The Beatles, many of whose melodies, combined with and delivered via exemplary vocal leads and harmonies, trigger an addictive response, a desire to hear and reexperience the hook repeatedly. When referring to an instrumentalist such as John Coltrane, however, recognizing how a hook functions can be a more elusive exercise. While many of Coltrane’s tracks feature engaging melodic runs, his compositions succeed mostly as a result of tonal and atmospheric balances between, for example, starkness and busyness, delicacy and bluntness, and ethereality and earthiness, as well as intricate instrumental interplays; with a musician such as Coltrane, hooks function less as so-called earworms and more as subtle and cumulative emotional evocations.
Aesthetic engagement occurs, however, not only as a result of the artist’s ability to craft singular or complex hooks but also as a result of the listener’s ability to suspend prejudices, applying a proactive curiosity to the artistic object at hand. A reviewer, in particular, strives to engage not only with expressions that meet his aesthetic preferences but also those which may be incongruent with his expectations. In this way, he develops a capacity to be as critically observant of his own listening, including his default judgments, as he is regarding the piece or body of music in question. Describing his own audiophilic mission, a friend of mine says, “whatever trip they’re offering, that’s the one I’m going on.” Indeed.
The Los Angeles based metal and hardcore label Southern Lord has rereleased the first two albums from the Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, 1988’s The Tribe and 1989’s Black Axis, with plans for a 2020 rerelease of the group’s third and fourth albums: 1992’s Der Abend der schwarzen Folklore and 1993’s Koksofen. This well-deserved retrospective provides an opportunity for listeners to encounter or reencounter Brötzmann’s inventive and visceral recordings, reconsidering the original, derivative, and synesthetic qualities of his guitar-driven music.
On the introductory track of The Tribe, Eduardo Delgado-Lopez on bass and Jon Beuth on drums establish a stable rhythmic structure into which Brötzmann explodes with a bouncy and pseudo-riffy guitar part that soon segues into more sinister ambient intonations. Toward the end of the track, Brötzmann unleashes a chaotic melody that could easily have served as the mold for Kurt Cobain’s solo on “In Bloom.” “Massaker” opens with a guitar part vaguely reminiscent of Hendrix’s version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Delgado-Lopez and Beuth again provide anchorage for Brötzmann, much as Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell did for Hendrix, freeing the guitarist to ad-lib savage accents, noise-runs, and textures that for the most part elude the nomadic redundancies of jam-rock. The shortish “Heaven’s Gate” opens with a Motörhead-like riff that evolves into a roiling clamor-fest. The addition of Brötzmann’s mumble bringing to mind The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” or Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” “Time” is an incendiary navigation of soft/loud dynamics, the band moving between taut soundscapes and unbridled instrumental frenzies.
The eight-minute “Hunter Song” from Black Axis features a distinctly unmelodic vocal emerging from a welter of volatile instrumentation. While Brötzmann’s guitar part intermittently grows repetitive, relentless in its goth-maximalism, a listener remains entranced by the band’s confidence in their endeavor. As the track moves toward closure, the band relaxes into a cacophony of percussive and effect-driven guitar sounds, a stentorian looseness reminiscent of Hendrix’s psychedelically informed live performances. At over fourteen minutes long, the title track opens with approximately seven minutes of Brötzmann vacillating between prickly sketches and desultory doodles, a mix of intriguing melodic runs and clamorous emphases that would get a thumbs-up from Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, or Ty Segall. When Delgado-Lopez and Frank Neumeier (Beuth’s adventurous replacement on drums) enter the composition, the band offers an engagingly jazzy travelogue occasionally reminiscent of Bitches Brew (1970). The track smolders to a conclusion, the band straddling lines between metallic jazz, 80’s metal, and noise-rock.
Though clearly inspired by rock sources, Brötzmann consistently demonstrates an implicit resistance to rock n’ roll formulae. He utilizes moments of rock-based rhythm, entertaining anthemic riffs à la Black Sabbath, et al, but tends to instinctively move in avant-garde; i.e., experimental and atmospheric, directions, truncating his version of a hook before it comes to full fruition. In this way, Brötzmann has more affinity with the fluidity of improvisational jazz and the organic vibe of ambient music than he does with the structures of mainstream metal, rock, or pop. He draws from the rock canon, particularly guitarists such as the aforementioned Hendrix, Tony Iommi, and Jeff Beck—energetically more than stylistically. This is reaffirmed by tracks from Der Abend der schwarzen Folklore and Koksofen. “Bass Totem” for example, opens with several minutes of scratchy guitar, including sounds that reference the opening of “Iron Man.” Pulsing rhythms seem to indicate a settling groove; however, bass and drums abruptly drop out or slacken, Brötzmann splashing distortion across the soundscape like an abstract painter dashing acrylics on his canvas. Toward the end of the track, the band coheres for a couple minutes of roadhouse chemistry, a cohesion that crescendos and disintegrates as the track wends toward its splintered ending. The almost-eleven-minute “Sarah” features a similar approach, Brötzmann’s solo odysseys transitioning into instrumental cogency, replete with metronomic drums, the track ending with a sonic nova, each instrument prolongedly conflagrating in a different direction. The sixteen-minute and primarily ambient “Koksofen” opens with guitar antics reminiscent of thunder and fireworks, cosmic and quotidian pyrotechnics under a spacious sky. Spoken vocals are prototypically death-metal, snarls echoing and swirling as the audial field comes apart at the seams. Throughout the track, Brötzmann introduces metallic hooks and teases a listener with the possibility of headbanger bliss, dismantling each movement before the riff or groove fully settles.
Pop music epitomizes the legacy of Aristotelian aesthetics: the paramountcy of unity, necessity, and Essentialism. Improvisation, perhaps not in principle but certainly in practice, is the aesthetic doppelgänger of the West. When encountering extemporal music, a listener is implicitly asked to be process-oriented and anti-capitalistically expansive in his engagement, checking his orientation toward the immediate gratifications offered by grosser hooks. Clearly, improvisation, with its dead-ends and shimmering breakthroughs, has more in common with life than does polished art, even if the polished kind remains, for whatever reasons, preferred. Caspar Brötzmann’s work is energized, tangible, and sophisticatedly seductive; as a bridge-musician, the guitarist merges the energy and posture of rock and metal with the modus operandi of explorative jazz and ambient templates. Listening to his work may bring to the surface a listener’s biases, revealing the ineluctable potency of Western conditioning. There is life, there is art, we discover, we remember, beyond Hellenic principles.