Having been on a shamefully belated personal Can back catalogue trawl over the last year, it’s clearly apparent that not one album can truly represent and illustrate what made the band so special and so important. Even the over-polished and disjointed albums from the band’s twilight years are at least, in parts, crucial in explaining their meteoric and innovative sonic journey. That said; if you were only to acquire four Can albums then 1971’s Tago Mago would certainly have to be one of them, which in part justifies this 40th Anniversary deluxe reissue (bolstered by a disc of contemporary live material) being used as a trailer for next year’s promised collection of outtakes/live material and a gargantuan oil reserves-draining vinyl reissue boxset.
Although being the first album to fully feature passing-through and much-loved vocalist Damo Suzuki, Tago Mago is perhaps more notable for the galvanising group dynamics of Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), Holger Czukay (bass/tape-editing), Michael Karoli (guitar) and Jaki Liebezeit (drums) being stretched and folded in the studio. No better is this illustrated than on the towering epic 18+ minute centrepiece “Halleluhwah,” wherein Liebezeit’s colossal drums drive relentlessly, Czukay’s bass throbs with rubbery menace, Karoli’s guitar twists into multiple bastardised-funk shapes and Schmidt’s keyboards swirl into the impervious latticed grooves. Listening to “Halleluhwah” you can hear what the likes of Public Image Limited, The Fall, The Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, Tortoise and Wooden Shjips (amongst innumerable others) have stolen to make their own over the years but have never quite matched in terms of ego-less breath-taking democratic synergy.
Whilst nothing comes close to “Halleluhwah,” there is still much else to be recommended across Tago Mago. “Paperhouse” and “Oh Yeah” capture more peerless interlocking between Liebezeit’s trance-inducing drums and Karoli’s distended-funk guitar; the apocalyptic visioning of “Mushroom” fuses Suzuki’s most desperate vocals to a sublimely sinister polyrhythmic soundscape; and the closing electro-acoustic shimmering of “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea” reveals the softer more elegiac side that the quintet would develop most extensively across 1973’s equally essential Future Days. Perhaps the two tracks that will test the tolerance of newcomers and less obsessive fans alike are the lengthy “Augmn” and “Peking O,” which both example Schmidt and Czukay’s avant-garde roles more than elsewhere on the album, with tape-loops/editing, analogue synths, treated vocals, primitive drum machines and found sounds bending the studio rules of the time.
If the main album captures Can exploring the studio as an instrument then the appended bonus live disc, compiling three extended tracks from a 1972 concert, reminds us of Can the live band. Rough in sound quality, heavier instead of looser and with much more muscular vocals from Suzuki, there is a nagging feeling that there is stronger live material being held back for the aforementioned rarities set. Nevertheless, it’s still an intriguing trio of tracks. The opening take on “Mushroom” is almost unrecognisable in its arrangement in comparison to the Tago Mago version, being darker and murkier, to the point where it almost sounds like an outtake from the on-stage portion of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. In its wake, an insanely long half-hour version of “Spoon” (onetime hit single from 1972’s Ege Bamyasi LP) sprawls into a borderline garage-prog jam, with shades of The MC5 and Soft Machine slipping-in, which is hard to judge as a good or a bad thing. The closing performance of “Halleluhwah” is thankfully far less questionable, although it is slightly let-down by dips in fidelity and by being cruelly faded-out after nine minutes. Whilst ultimately it’s a nice enough bonus for those that might have purchased Tago Mago once or twice before, the live disc feels somewhat insubstantial next to main album it is supporting.
Although a little flawed, taken overall this repackage of Tago Mago is a strong reminder of an inspirational band that – like sometime peers Kraftwerk – can still be enjoyed directly in the present, due to a combination timelessness and foresight that sustains a remarkably intense freshness. Roll on the boxsets…