Cinema is a testament to how the artist slowly built a stable of collaborators whose artistic visions prodded and reshaped his own.
When he passed away last year at 79, Holger Czukay left behind one of the most formidable legacies of 20th century music. As one half of the unimpeachable rhythm section of Can, Czukay could sit in the pocket long enough for his nails to grow, or wind loping, psychedelic shimmer to the group’s spacy explorations. More than anyone, Czukay threaded the band’s disparate influences of acid rock, jazz, pop, motorik and avant-garde classical into an unclassifiable but cohesive whole. But the Can years cover barely a decade of Czukay’s career, and much of his subsequent work lies at the outskirts of availability and awareness. Cinema, Grönland Records’ five-disc retrospective of Czukay’s solo explorations, is an attempt to redress that collective blind spot, and its sheer, formidable size offers an immediate testament to the breadth of the musician’s ambitious career.
Most of the set concerns Czukay’s post-Can material, save for the first three tracks of the compilation. “Konfigurationen,” an unreleased recording from 1960 of Czukay in a jazz quartet, is a quaint peek at a young, unformed but nonetheless musical young man before both side-length epics of his 1968 Canaxis 5 album lurch into the proceedings. “Canaxis” and “Boat Woman Song” showcase the gulf of experience between the 22-year-old playing post-Giant Steps modal progressions to the 30-year-old student of avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Built out of tape loops and early sampling, the tracks, recorded with fellow Stockhausen pupil Rolf Dammers, hew closely to their teacher’s electronic composition. “Boat Woman Song” makes a von Bingen-esque medieval choir out of recordings of Vietnamese women spliced with wordless chanting and occasional throbs of percussion. “Canaxis” explores even further reaches, coalescing out of alien noise until what might be Native American song bursts into its spacious wall of radio hiss. Looping and manipulating the voices, Czukay and Dammers drift in and out of blissful stretches with sudden, terrifying lurches of bent vocals and hellish moans. Taken together, the tracks, cut during massive political unrest, obliquely incorporate the prevailing social mood without being literal protest music, an attempt to escape western brutality that can only find the victims of that violence.
The timeline of the set then leaps to the end of the ‘70s as Czukay strikes out from Can, and the profound influence of that band is immediately felt in the stylistic shift. Cinema shrewdly collects all of Movies, the artist’s first solo LP. A masterwork of mutant disco, the LP spreads Czukay’s wide musical interests across four slabs of teutonic funk. “Persian Love” updates the sampling of Canaxis 5 as a boogie made from Iranian recordings, while “Cool in the Pool” is dada disco par excellence, blending chicken scratch guitar, shuffling synths, the mechanical interplay of Czukay’s bass and Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and even a few baffling passages of French horn into a slowly disintegrating groove. Even better, somehow, are the two epics, the suite-like “Hollywood Symphony,” and “Oh Lord, Give Us More Money,” which gathers all of Can together for arguably the greatest track the group cut post-Soon After Babaluma. Pitched perfectly between Can’s early acid jams and later turn toward pop for a Top 40 station on Mars, the song sounds like it’s perpetually fading in, always dive-bombing in from the farthest edges of the panned speakers toward a center it never quite reaches. Czukay’s bass here is astonishing, darting and unpredictable, intuitively abandoning a groove the precise millisecond one gets comfortable with it.
From here, the set springboards around the stylistic diaspora of Czukay’s post-Can career, tracing a largely chronological path that is filled with so many off-the-wall musical excursions as to provide no sense of linear progression. “Biomutanten” and “Menetekel,” cut with Germany’s robo-dub impresario Conny Plank, are sludgy grinds of noise and bass, while tracks culled from 1984’s sardonic Der Osten ist Rot show off Czukay’s playful side, leaning on goofy synth patterns and club-ready vocal repetitions. “Ride a Radiowave,” from 1991’s Radio Wave Surfer, is avant-surf rock that arrives like an old radio transmission that escaped Earth decades ago and somehow got bounced back at us. In its broken twang and waterlogged groove is some of the same energy that Mike Patton and his high school buddies would bring to Mr. Bungle, and the random, crystalline guitar solo that erupts from Can’s Michael Karoli is so bracing in its clarit that its childishly simple phrasing sounds dynamic and spellbinding against the fogbank of tape hiss. And then Czukay can roll effortlessly from this into the same album’s “We Can Fight All Night,” an 85-second goofball chest-thump that inexplicably comes across as a funky belated parody of Black Flag’s aggro declamations.
Czukay’s restlessness is above all epitomized in the importance of collaboration, and Cinema is a testament to how the artist slowly built a stable of collaborators whose artistic visions prodded and reshaped his own. This is most profoundly felt in the ubiquitous appearance of Liebezeit on this set, reflecting a clear understanding by the musicians that the mercurial, complex yet fundamentally irresistible rhythms they made together were too singular to try and replicate with anyone else. It may be for that reason that the compilation’s stand-out moments tend to be its longest, such as “Ode to Perfume,” which is so diffuse that it threatens to fully dissipate, held to Earth solely by Liebezeit’s hi-hats and Czukay’s slow bass rumble. “Breath Taking,” a 2008 composition that samples Stockhausen, is the greatest unreleased trip-hop dirge of all time, a ghostly shimmer of looped patterns with enough soothing vocals and twinkling beats to program a post-rave playlist. Of particular interest are the four tracks from the pair’s collaboration with Jah Wobble, the post-punk heir to Czukay’s own bass-heavy forays into world music. Wobble handles the low end with Jaki on these tracks, but the general heaviness of these tunes is full-on apocalyptic jazz, sidewinding through funk, dub and electric Miles oblivion with a confidence that defines the music encapsulating in this sweeping collection.