The Brain Box - Cerebral Sounds Of Brain Records 1972-1979 (8 CDs)
Throughout the first half of the 1970s, and on from there, too, Germany’s Brain label was one of the pillars of the Krautrock community - at least among those overseas fans who subscribed to the notion that there was such a thing as Krautrock, and didn’t feel too weird about calling it that. Fruits de Mer more recently rechristened it Kopf Musik, and that's a far more suitable term. Let's stick with that.
The “biggest” names… Kraftwerk, Can, Amon Düül II, Faust and so on… were wrapped up on other labels, UK and US majors. The brief residency of Tangerine Dream notwithstanding, Brain, like Ohr, was where you turned in search of more esoteric pleasures, with but one caveat. Neither label’s output was wholly devoted to what its foreign audience expected to hear, so there were always some peculiar surprises awaiting.
For every Popol Vuh there were some Scorpions; for every Cluster, there was Creative Rock. Hard rock and metal were as popular in Germany as they were elsewhere, and Brain was not a specialist label, designed only to tickle our Kopf Musik sensibilities. Caveat emptor, indeed.
Then and now. The Brain Box is a glorious-looking thing, eight CDs stuffed with the best of Brain’s output throughout the 1970s, with the lion’s share of goodies spread across the first five discs. The sixth rounds up some of the acts that the label licensed from other lands (Steamhammer, Atomic Rooster and Finland’s marvelous Tasavallan Presidentti among them); the seventh and eighth reprise an old vinyl recounting of the label’s festival spectaculars of 1977 and 1978, by which time even the most dedicated practitioners were rocking more than anything else.
But those first five discs… well, again, be careful. But not overly so. Yes, disc one opens with the Scorpions, first LP vintage but still as screechy and riffy as you’d expect; it slips then, however, into the title track from Gomorra’s I Turned To See Whose Voice It Was, all mantric bongoes and noodling solos and a reminder that the best bands in the Kopf Musik field lent themselves as exquisitely to acoustics as to electronics.
Jane, whose resemblance to an over-excited Uriah Heep should forever be held against them, follow; three tracks spread across the five discs (plus more on the live discs) confirm their status as one of Brain’s best-sellers, and purists will probably be hitting the “next” button now. Another of the label’s specialties, the squawking of the jazz rock contingent, is next, courtesy of the Wolfgang Dauner Group.
But then we’re into Kopf Musik heaven as Cluster, Guru Guru (the ineffable “Oxymoron”) and Grobschnitt launch the disc, at last, into the stratosphere, before Os Mundi and the ominously-named Creative Rock shatter the mood with their own takes on the dreaded jazz rock. Indeed, in the latter case at least, think of a really bad-tempered Chicago, hiding behind a gorilla mask, and you’ll know exactly what to expect.
The little-known Gash are next, reeling off some lovely harmonies in and around the sonic percussion and emerging a deranged second cousin to Faust. “A Young Man’s Gash Part II,” as you’d expect, is culled from a longer (three part) musical collage, and it ought to send you searching for more - this was one of Brain’s most remarkable musical triumphs, and it might well be the most obscure thing in the box. Funny how that happens.
More lumpenmetal clatters out of the sadly pedestrian Sameti, and there’s more jazz rock, too, this time hailing from Emergency. But there’s a lovely piece of psych from Cornucopia sandwiched in between, and the first disc closes with Guru Guru’s similarly sixties-soaked “Samantha’s Rabbit” - which is precisely the sort of song Tomorrow might have written if they’d not had ”Seven Jolly Little Dwarves.”
Disc two. Okay, let’s not just go track by track across the whole box, because we’ll be here all night. Highlights, though, are a-plenty, among them Lava’s “Tears Are Going Home,” which apparently begins with a room full of guitars being given the third degree, before the band launch into a perfect xerox of Hawkwind in absolute In Search Of mode.
We get a brief (by their standards) glimpse of Atem-era Tangerine Dream, all icy winds and ominous whispers, and another slab of Guru Guru, bookending a lump of Thirsty Moon freak jazz, and then comes Sperrmüll, a band whose best known cut is the inaptly titled “No Freak Out.” It is, after all, already familiar from a host of past Kopf Musik samplers and, happy day, now it can be familiar from this one. Like Gash, the full Sperrmüll album is a beauty to behold, one of those mid-seventies Brain purchases that amply repaid one’s faith in buying it blind… and maybe compensated for all the ones that you apologetically returned to the shop.
“I’m sorry, this album has a serious pressing flaw.”
“No, that’s a saxophone.”
“As I said, this album has a serious pressing flaw.”
To be honest, “Rising Up” might have been a more effective inclusion, especially if you’ve ever wondered what Floyd’s “One of these Days” would sound like if it was played at double speed, but no matter. Sperrmüll’s name might translate to something approaching “a pile of rubbish,” but they weren’t.
Nine minutes of Novalis’s “Laughing” drift on a silken acoustic bed, which again conjures images of Floyd, circa Obscured by Clouds, and although it changes tack soon enough, the period Floydian imagery remains. It certainly ensures that Curly Curve’s “Shitkicker” arrives utterly out of the blue, a manic rocker that thinks it’s a medley of recent glam rock hits (“Hell Raiser” and “Jeepster” are both loudly in there), before deciding to subvert them all beneath a singer who sounds like he’s shouting underwater.
Harmonia are as Harmonia does… you know them well, after all; and Embryo follow through nicely, further tribal percussion and mysterious mutterings. Kollektiv’s “Rambo Zambo,” igniting disc three, follows softly in the footsteps of the first couple of Kraftwerk albums; Yathra Sihra’s “Meditation Mass Part 3” sounds exactly like it ought to (but again suffers from being hacked from its whole); Novalis’s “Dronsz” is hyperactive ambience and, if you haven’t got there already, it will definitely nudge you to want to hear more. And you don’t need anyone to tell you what to expect from Klaus Schulz.
But again, it’s a minefield, as Thirsty Moon honk to the skies and Emergency return with more of the same, and we fall gratefully into the arms of Satin Whale. The delirious “Desert Places” is all maniacal organ and wailing guitars and, again, there’s a hint of the Heeps about them. But it’s a good hint.
So far so spotty, then; the good bits are great and the less good bits are simply not to your tastes. Disc four, however, is almost non-stop magnificence, as simply a glance at the track listing will tell you… Grobschnitt’s “Solar Music” sets things off, a driving firestorm of merciless rhythm and synthesized squeaks; and their solo flying drummer Eroc,reveals "Des Zauberers Traum.” Cluster, Klaus Schulz and Harmonia reappear; and while the average white bread of the Release Music Orchestra, and yet another cut by Emergency do spoil the mood, Schicke, Führs & Fröhling’s “Explorer" proves that not all jazz has to blurt and spurt and make your head hurt in order to impress. Not when you have a synth to hand.
The fifth disc is dominated, and sensibly so, by Anyone’s Daughter’s four part “Adonis,” an epic Yes-like ballad that shifts and shimmers through as many moods and changes as it ought to. Birth Control’s “Titanic” lives up its title in a slinky, funky way, and Liliental’s “Vielharmonie" is a hurricane-force slice of ambience whose slowly rising volume does not distract in the slightest.
What you do with the remainder of the box, however, is your choice. The international disc is a well-chosen trawl through the Brain archive, although only a handful of the tracks seriously repay further investigation; and, while the live discs are definitely worth hearing, they are perhaps of interest more to Brain completists than folk who care only for the purple patch. Who would probably be best advised to seek out CDs of the relevant albums.
As an introduction to the label’s full scope, however, the entire package is next to flawless, and to the German market at which it’s aimed, it’s a remarkable capsule of a remarkable time. Plus it is an impressive looking box, with the CDs slipped into a cardboard folder, a lavishly illustrated hardbound book (just seventy-four pages, but they use them well) and, because what is a box set without a piece of ephemera, your very own Brain records tote bag, perfectly sized to hold a few LPs. And everything’s as green as the original classic label, and if that’s not attention to detail, it’s hard to say what is.
Yes. You need your brain in a box.