Music

Thomas Köner: Nunatak/Teimo/Permafrost

Much like the soundtrack to a day spent trapped inside a refrigerator, each of Thomas Köner’s minimalist drone albums kept in this three-disc tri-fold release are rather limited in their sonic palettes.


Thomas Köner

Nunatak/Teimo/Permafrost

Label: Type
US Release Date: 2010-08-17
UK Release Date: Import
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Much like the soundtrack to a day spent trapped inside a refrigerator, each of Thomas Köner’s minimalist drone albums kept in the three-disc tri-fold release Nunatak/Teimo/Permafrost are rather limited in their sonic palettes, mostly confined to a bipolar frequency range of loose and windy highs and subharmonic lows that won’t even be heard on your MacBook’s tinny little speakers. To hear Thomas Köner, and to like what he does, one must commit. And, without considering any of the work’s previous acclaim, therein lies the fun of this triple release.

There’s not a point in really mentioning specific tracks and their names, rather the mood they uphold is what’s important. In fact, on the first disc, Nunatak, there are no track names, only 11 songs called “Without Title”. For that matter, nowhere in the packaging are the song titles for any of the discs mentioned. I only learned the titles for Permafrost and Teimo by reading the ID3 information.

The actual packaging is splendid: Type Recordings gives us Köner’s work in a metal-colored tri-fold digipak, which unfolds to reveal various halftone-patterned scenes of arctic explorers, huskies, glaciers, mountains and bleak empty ocean water. It’s a sublimely enveloping experience to have ambient music packaging free of abstract moodiness or psychedelia. With the grayscale images that grace the physical discs and the digipak’s imagery, the off-black text elements, the minimalist photography, here we have a package wholly representative of its content.

Perhaps the simplest criticism of Köner’s work in this series is that there’s little distinction between the three discs, or even between some of the songs. It’s true that Nunatak ebbs into Teimo and so forth, but the movement is made by the songs, the slow progression of gurgles, wisps, and foghorn-like dark ambient croons. There are moments of occasional near-silence, thin synthesized howls and, across discs, a glacial, natural pace. Permafrost's eponymous track is characterized by long passages of white noise-built winds, the sound of a tundra, only to lead into “Meta Incognita”, which reprises the palette but bores sonically deeper in tone, mulling over hollow ends until the third disc’s closer, “…(Untitled)”, a three-minute low-pitch buried-under-ice sort of field recording. All of it stays pretty much the same, but as it plays, it remains interesting. After all, this is a natural ambient album without the aid of percussive rain, no bird calls and no drum machines of which to speak. It isn’t rhythmic enough to become tiring. It isn’t melodic enough to remember. One might almost wonder if it isn’t all generative, built with careful stitches of sampled sequences from Native Instruments’ old ambient monster Metaphysical Function. Alas, it is not. Much of the album is built on electronically manipulated acoustic sounds, mainly, at least in the case of Nunatak, gongs.

I first mentioned that this review be considered without recognition of Millie Plateaux’s releases of Teimo and Permafrost. That’s an important detail to note, as there are two good reasons to own this collection and each reason is contingent on the purchaser. For those who’ve owned any of the albums previously, now is the chance to have to have the full progression: two hours of frozen love. For those new to Köner, this is the perfect release with which to begin. Without any gaps, the collection is seamlessly built: a pre-Stars of the Lid drone wonder.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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