Music

Jan St. Werner: Felder

Felder, Jan St. Werner's latest solo record, is impressively expansive. But for all its challenging experimentation, the album is surprising comforting listen.


Jan St. Werner

Felder

US Release: 2016-04-01
Label: Thrill Jockey
UK Release: 2016-04-01
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Jan St. Werner -- whether working on his own, in Mouse on Mars, or as Lithops -- is unpredictable. His Fiepblatter series of releases, which Felder is part of, is a complex set of recordings, from the scuffed, thorny experiments of Blaze Colour Burn to Miscontinuum Album, which was based on an operatic live performance, the releases themselves seem to have nothing to do with each other. So it's hard to see what ties the series together.

Part of the joy of Felder is that it does nothing to solve that confusion. In fact, it doubles down on it. The album's name is German for "fields" and full of tracks that expand out in all directions, more overtly experimental than those on Miscontinuum Album but also more wide-open than Blaze Colour Burn. The album runs nearly an hour and seems to hint at several tangents in St. Werner's career while also adding some new wrinkles to his sound. He remains a difficult musician to pin down, and yet Felder is -- like so many of its predecessors in St. Werner's career -- fascinating and self-assured.

Felder plays like a collection that needs to be heard on vinyl, sequenced to have two distinct halves, each with its own centerpiece. The first half centers around "Kroque AF", a 14-minute epic of experimentation. It squawks and squeals its way to life, pulsing at first with feedback and static. The track slowly takes shape, though, trading that opening grit for watery synth notes surrounded by seemingly endless negative space. The use of space here, of silence, makes each ethereal note seem more physical, more concrete. This sets the stage for a dynamic, noisy second half, where any negative space is filled with a dense fog of sounds, some throbbing and steady, others quick whiplash blasts of noise. It's the most challenging track on the record, but also an essential one, because it connects perfectly to the dark uses of space in the beautiful opener "Beardman" and with the softer but still edgy groans of "Osho".

The first half of the record is all about puncturing space with a series of sonic barbs. The second half warms up the tones some, building around the excellent "The Somewhere that Is Moving". The song's first half beds down on a layer of treated, ambient keys, that get only faintly upset by howling brass notes in the background. The song cuts off in the middle, interrupted by a human voice -- saying "thank you very much" -- before the song starts up again. Now, it's all clean piano phrasings, the organic notes clashing with all the electronic production that preceded them. Though the song swells up in hazy layers again, it's that sweet, simple piano that acts as connective tissue in Felder. "Slipped Through Heaven" runs with that piano, clanging it up against snippets of guitar and other atmospheric layers that feel as much like free-jazz as they do electronic music. Later in the record, "Singoth" offers a new distortion of jazz, melding horns and feedback together into an aching, mechanized love cry.

The second half of the record hardly settles down -- check the tough, dark spaces of "The Abstract Pit" -- but it acts as a foil for the first half, suggesting warm undertones that run across the entire record even at its most sparse and challenging. Felder is an album about stretching out, but it's also about echoing back and forth across that created expanse. You could argue that's what St. Werner has been doing his entire career, each album a new stone with its own ripples that distort and muddle the ripples that came before. Felder may not have much in common sonically with the other Fiepblatter records, but there's enough faint echoes to see distant links. If this is part of a series, it's finest, most expansive and rewarding record of that series. But despite this album's title, Jan St. Werner has always built islands, not fields. But whether connected of standing on its own, Felder is a challenging experiment and yet an endlessly rewarding, even comforting, listen.

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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