Irmin Schmidt is 71 now, which seems ancient for a rock musician. But at the time of his arrival on the German Komische scene with an unknown group called Inner Space (eventually to become Can, one of the most influential and singular bands in musical history), Schmidt was already a grandpa amongst his peers. At 31, he had already studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Gyorgy Ligeti, conducted for and founded several orchestras whose works included the first German performances of many of John Cage’s pieces, and written pieces for stage and screen. As an avant-classical maestro, 71 suddenly doesn’t seem that old.
Needless to say, his 40-plus-year music history precedes him. However, Schmidt, unlike even some of his closest peers, never seems to have lost his sonic curiosity. His newest album, Axolotl Eyes, recorded with Jono Podmore (under the handle Kumo), boasts extensive liner notes that reveal a vibrant sense of play and experimentation engraved within the two gentlemen’s relationship, one that first revealed itself on 2001’s Masters of Confusion.
It’s never clear on Axolotl Eyes whether Schmidt has even been listening to much music since his days with Can. All of his projects seem to emerge from his own space, at his own time, with no regards to the trends and obsessions of the era of their release. His opera, Gormenghast, based on the Mervin Peake novels, took seven years to find its way onto disc. Axolotl Eyes finds another seven year chronological gap since we last heard from him. But dropping this disc into the CD changer imparts a sense that many of the Can-man’s sensibilities have remained extant despite their divarication from the musical foreground, showing up at odd and unexpected moments within the aural backlog of their innumerable legions robbing their grave or tilling their episteme for new cultivations (and reaping critical accolades.
That said, when the opener “Kick on the Floods” shakes off touches of mildly-dated Jack Dangers-style breakbeat drum ‘n’ moody sub-bass, one is reminded of the cosmopsych dub-funk of “I’m So Green” and “Mushroom”, and it doesn’t upset you too much that the track’s style has been bypassed for over an era. You get the sense that even when Axolotl Eyes explores treaded territory, it’s mostly Schmidt’s to stake for having dehisced the lacunal test tubes into which Can-inspired spawn could break new ground. Besides, “Kick on the Floods” goes many other places too, from its opening Nino Rota-cum-Angelo Badalamenti trumpets to the dizzying xylophone bridge to the nearly mosh-able Skinny Puppy-esque industrial breakdown (trite perhaps, but how many 71-year-olds do you know who would attempt it).
Kumo will be the wild card of the duo for any one coming into it (as I was) with no knowledge of their past collaborations. His resume includes mostly production and engineering work done with middle-of-the-road names like Jamiroquai, Bomb the Bass, and the Shamen and he credits himself with the album’s beat science, which means he’s letting his drum machines and processors fill in for the distinctly incredible Jaki Liebezeit. Which sounds terrifying. Add to this Schmidt’s history for restraint in obeisance to the larger sonic efforts of his projects (to this day, he claims to have played practically nothing on Can’s seminal Monster Movie record) and there’s serious potential for this album to come off sounding like a Kumo solo disc.
Luckily, Schmidt and Podmore work in service of each other. Largely a studio effort, Axolotl Eyes is a fastidious affair, framed by its details, like the granulized and buffered auto assembly line powertool samples on “Raketenstadt” or the tinny treatment of the invading tom-toms that sweep into the title track’s final third and gobble away the melody.
Schmidt’s fascination with film music is still in play as well on the album. Most of the individual tracks sound progressive and episodic, going through multiple phases and moods within their three- to nine-minute running times. “Drifting Days, Crime Pays” is trés Morricone; elegant oft-celestial piano sent through filters until it is “impossible to perform” interacting with hoverboarding daubs of theremin, fractured and odd-tempoed swings rhythms, and messy spurts of free-jazz trumpet.
Rhythm is key to the album. And far be it for Kumo to filch a tired JBs loop or an Amen Break for simple effect and cohesion. He certainly earns his keep by surgically doctoring fantastically bizarre and progressive frankenbeats, but their rough acclimation with the melodies and other textures makes for a difficult listen. And not just because it is, at its core, despite all its twisted pop leanings, avant-garde music. The drum pads, though certainly precise and affecting (read: disorienting), are the only major off-putting element of the disc, wherein the red hot rumba of a digital burlesque noir is too-often mixed like a standard pub rock drumkit, even if the kit contains unexpected found sounds. At other times, the percussion is too jaunty, like Kumo is scoring a heist film and Schmidt is dubbing a Fluxus short.
It’s not surprising then that the most successfully thrilling track of the album is its least rhythmic and least tonal work. “Umbilicus Clear” could be a few years too late for the forward-thinking Ambient 4: Isolationism compilation, but it’s an astounding slab of atmospheric tension, who initial beehive swarms of cacophonous noise metamorphize into slow-launching spaceships and, later, other hallucinatory ephemera.
“Umbilicus Clear” is a shorter, alternate take on the multi-houred audiovisual feast that comprises the album’s second disc, a DVD capture of a sound installation by Schmidt and Kumo called Flies, Guys and Choirs. It’s here where the two partners shine the most. Commissioned for the three-story foyer of London’s world famous Barbican Theatre, the piece was originally recorded on 16 audio channels to be parsed through 36 speakers (the DVD audio features a 5.1 surround sound to replicate the experience). The piece, intended to be more environmental than sensorial, is a massive extended din, a fluctuating “Aumgn”-style dirge of voices and insects (as the title implies), compelled by an assiduously striking bottomed-out bass as the piece’s heartbeat. The digital glitchery and tribal drums alternate between repetition and indeterminacy seemingly upon its own terms, but they’re mostly a fascinating trip set against the visual (though Schmidt assures us that the visuals were positioned against the soundtrack and not vice versa).
The optics are comprised mostly of nature videos, “field recordings” if you will, that are as processed as the sounds themselves, sent through solarization filters, color embossers, and the like. The places it takes you are familiar yet foreign, like the psychedelic bus ride safari (accompanied by tribal drums) through a downtown urban area. The fauna of the industrial safari are represented by technologic sounds; bottleneck plinks, raygun glitchout fizzes, and various metallurgic snaps. It also seeks odd surrealist juxtapositions between natural settings, such as when a fish seems to unexpectedly swim across hazes of neon yellow and iridescent blue grass, a journey leading to the death and decay of the fish. Its carcass becomes the subject of incomprehensible chatter on the soundtrack as black lips fade in, the undecipherable flow of words soon accompanied by glowing larvae as both crawl out of the mouth. The installation often retracts from large-scale movements to the smallest of minutiae, like a faucet dripping in time with an echo, or the dew off an ant’s back. The soundtrack is similarly expansive, ripping through intense panels of hurricane noise and settling into celestial sires of harmonic electronics as well as distributing sparse, constrained Clicks n Cuts. Occasionally, recurring imagery is even treated with multiple soundtracks, for a different experience of the same occurrence.
At one point in the film, sheets of paper with mechanical drawings of clocks are drawn towards the camera, almost as if the reels were absorbing the concept of time, making it irrelevant in the process. At times, Axolotl Eyes and Flies, Guys and Choirs have the power to surrender your defenses to that kind of logic, allowing its droning repetitions to achieve a Cage-esque gravity, making the unexpected left-turns more pronounced and enthralling. At other times, you feel stuck in the post-temporal time vacuum, wondering if tomorrow, or today for that matter, will ever come. At 71 though, Schmidt still doesn’t seem to care though. He feels equally out-of-place in both, though not necessarilly out-of-touch or out-of-reach.