The skilful way Czukay constructs so evocative a musical narrative makes a powerful case for his continued relevance. This review originally appeared in The Wire 185 (July 1999).
Good Morning Story
TONE CASUALTIES tccd9944 CD
Despite his many landmark achievements, Holger Czukay has never really inspired the same reverence as other musical innovators of his generation. As a student of Stockhausen in the mid-60s, he was fully plugged into Cologne's thriving electronic music community, yet the achievement of his 1968 solo project Canaxis (recorded with engineer Rolf Dammers) has been to some extent overshadowed by Can's enormous reputation. From today's perspective, however, you could argue that the Can years were a hiatus in Czukay's career, disrupting the continuity from Canaxis's experimental montages of Western and non-European sound sources, to the cinematic cut-ups and splicing of later solo works like 1979's Movies and the hard disk constructions of his latest album, Good Morning Story. Of course, technological developments have long since done away with the laborious hours of tape splicing that produced Canaxis and Movies, but his solo works have always been marked by a hands-on physicality, and Good Morning Story is no exception. Shunning samplers and sequencers, Czukay cut and pasted his sound materials direct to hard disk ‹ and the result is a kind of seamless digital sculpture.
Czukay being Czukay, of course, there's no chance of this methodology producing anything austere or forbidding. His perpetual readiness to leaven the seriousness of his explorations with humour is perhaps another reason why his solo work doesn't enjoy the same prestige as Can. Well, Czukay's distinctively Germanic sense of fun can appear laboured at times, but his deceptively rich and fluid music is certainly worth the effort of listening through his jokes, even if you have to grit your teeth. The opening track, "Invisible Man", is a case in point. Over a typically taut Jaki Liebezeit/Jah Wobble dub groove, Czukay delivers, in his avuncular and eccentric tone, a jump-cut short story. It seems entirely inconsequential until you notice how his fluent editing opens and snaps shut sonic spaces with a strangely delicate abruptness, alternately trapping and releasing the whiskery tones of an unadorned trumpet mouthpiece. Meanwhile, the silvery voice of U-She - Czukay's wife and muse - guides it towards a fusion of European pop and reggae that is every bit as assured as Serge Gainsbourg's similarly orientated Aux Armes Etcetera.
The title track is another cut-and-paste narrative, with voices entering and receding at all points of the stereo spectrum. This time it points to the neue Hørspiel tradition of radio drama that, since the mid-60s, has been assiduously blurring the distinction between broadcast drama and sound art in Germany. Both on this track and "Dancing In Wild Circles", Czukay reclaims part of the Can legacy as his own by making free with the bass and drum pattern from Can's "Vitamin C" (from Ege Bamyasi). Firstly, he speeds up the rhythm to generate a breathless momentum, and then he slots into it a wild array of sound effects - clocks, birdsong, metallic percussion - with the casual aplomb of a master sound editor.
But it's the 22 minute closing track, "Mirage", that really takes root in the imagination. On to a warm, sweeping Arabic motif wrapped around a breathy organ drone, Czukay applies tonal colours and textures like acrylics. Tremulous violins, the whirr of rewinding tape, distant sirens and horns blur and separate as they hover in soft strata above the core drone, before the piece subsides into a murmuring string orchestra coda. The skilful way Czukay constructs so evocative a musical narrative, which doesn't so much resolve itself as finally dissolve in the listener's ear, makes a powerful case for his continued relevance.