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Holger Czukay Retrospective Spans Five Decades of Genre-Bending Groove

Photo: Conny Plank (Grönland Records)

The "universal dilettante" Holger Czukay revolutionized music and minds, and this new collection is a fitting homage to what can be accomplished by a refusal to adhere to the restrictive definitions of style or genre.

Holger Czukay


23 March 2018

Where do you start with a review of Holger Czukay, a man who has straddled the liminal forefront of too many musical movements to list?

Is it with the jazzy tones of "Konfigurationen", a never-before-released track from 1960? The prog-rock strumming of "Oh Lord, Give Us More"? The eerie, noisy, Orientalist buzz of "Canaxis" (recorded secretly late at night in the studio of electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen - with whom he studied - without his knowledge)? The droning wails of the "Boat Woman Song", an experimental track combining 15th-century choral music with the vocals of Vietnamese singers taped off the radio?

Or is it the angry, proto-Neubauten-esque menace of "Biomutanten", combining angry vocal echoes with minimalist electronic hum? The reggae-inflected "Witches' Multiplication Table"? The ska-like "Two Bass Shuffle"? The Krautrock freewheeling of "Ode to Perfume"? The irrepressibly dancy funk of "How Much Are They"?

Holger Czukay is known to many as one of the geniuses behind early Krautrock/electronic music pioneers Can, so it's fitting that a new compilation focus attention on his other projects such as these. It's here that the truly spectacular range of Czukay's work can really be seen, along with its evolution over time. The five-disc Cinema retrospective covers material from across Czukay's five-decade career (he died last year), focusing primarily on solo material and collaborations, including previously unreleased material. Collaborators on various tracks include the likes of Brian Eno, Jah Wobble, Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Can members.

Czukay called himself "a universal dilletanter", and the collection is a fitting homage to what can be accomplished by a refusal to adhere to the restrictive definitions of style or genre. Czukay incorporates no shortage of instruments - from indigenous traditional instruments collected from all over the world, to the latest of each era's electronics, to found material culled from the airwaves and environment around him. The result is not dissonant but always textured within the "groove" (it was his ability to add groove to Can's erstwhile experimental rock that rendered him an indispensable element of that group's success, says Dr. Robert van Zahn, one of the many academics, musicians and critics who add commentary and context to the album's gorgeously illustrated and annotated booklet).

Czukay's dilettantism can be sourced not just to the innately rebellious and anti-authoritarian streak that characterized many German musicians who grew up in the wake of the war, but also to a deeply rooted sense of whimsy. It is this quality, too, that defines the collection - a sort of deliberate cognitive dissonance expressed on the one hand by intense absorption in the musical tools deployed in each track, yet at the same time mediated by a refusal to take oneself too seriously. Whimsical, quirky, and surprising, these tracks are the audio corollary of the idiom "the more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play". The result is a compelling and absorbing collection that flows despite its enormous range in style; hours of listening slips by innocuously.

Czukay, described by British musician David Sylvian as the man who "more or less invented the art of sampling", bridges multiple musical eras and hearkens back to a period of experimentalist creativity that's easy to romanticize. What is perhaps most compelling about the pieces in this collection is not just their diversity, but the way in which they demonstrate the combination of immense hard work evident in their composition, mediated by an irrepressible sense of fun. Music should be fun - and creative, experimental, and daring. When it is all of these things and possesses 'groove' to boot, it offers more than just the musical artifact of an era; it serves still today as an inspiration for musical futures. This box-set from Holger Czukay falls definitively into that inspiring and still-futuristic category.


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