Faust: Non-Alignment Pact

Rob Chapman

Mojo, Nov 2000

Review of the Wümme Box Set

They were Krautrock's outsiders. They sounded like a Harley being sawn in half. Perfect, then, for psychotic psylocybin heads, says Rob Chapman - a review of Faust: The Wümme Years 1970-1973 box set.

A 5-CD box set comprising the band's first two Polydor LPs, Faust and So Far, and two further compilations of rarely heard material, BBC Sessions and 71 Minutes, culled from the band's prodigious output from their converted school building studio/commune at Wümme, Germany.

Faust are the refuseniks of Krautrock. Kraftwerk's influence on contemporary electronica is a given. The reactivation of Can's entire back catalogue has introduced them to a whole new geneation. Tangerine Dream have a symbiotic relationship with almost everyone who ever forged an ambient souncscape. Faust were, and arguably still are, the outsiders. "We realised we were doing something different," remembers original bass player and guitarist Jean Hervé-Péron. "We also knew there were other groups riding the same waves. But we didn't bother once to try and contact them."

Like Can at "Inner Space" or Kraftwek at "Kling Klang", Faust lived and worked communally, but their muse was expressed far more fractiously. Can played lock and go with Holger and Jaki's grooves. Kraftwerk listened to their motorik heart-beat. Faust launched from orbit to orbit. Nobody jammed quite like them.

Rock music's original sonic terrorists named themselves Faust because they felt they were selling their creatively to the devil of big business; they booked into major recording studios and fled before anyone discovered they weren't paying. When the first incarnation of Faust was wound up bankrupt in the mid-70's and their studio was put up as collateral, band members went in and asset-stripped it down to the last jack plug. Eat yer heart out, Sex Pistols. When they inflicted their collective mayhem upon the tubular-belled up tranquillity of Virgin's Manor Studio, they terrified the shit out of Richard Branson and his fledgling hip capitalists. This was not music for passive potheads: psychotic psylocibinn heads maybe. Trust me, I've done the litmus test. And as a live act they were, and still are, phenomenal. The gig they played with Henry Cow at Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1973 (complete with pinball machines, TVs and hot-wired heavy plant machinery) remains to this day one of the best half-dozen gigs this writer has ever seen.

On recording their collaging was as vicious as a their stereo planning - not so much cun'n'paste as slash and solder. A scything monolith riff could be cut dead by a medieval church organ of extraordinarily meditative beauty, and vica versa. And next time you read about Hurricane Smith or whoever whingeing about Syd Barrett almost sabotaging the first Floyd album by "playing the faders randomly", just consider that he could have helped them sound like this. Fittingly, some of Faust's lyrics evoke a great lost Barret LP. Meadow Meal in particular, on the eponymous debut album ("crash the sound, you loose your hand, to understand the accident is red"), sounds like a track that begins its voyage where Syd's "Bike" ends. Apart from a certain "Sister Ray" quality here and there, the other obvious kindred spirit is early Zappa, most noticeably on The Faust Tapes and most splendidly on the previously unheard version of Giggy Smile on 71 Minutes, where Ed Marimba also seems to have hopped on for the ride.

Faustrecorded their second album So Far under instruction to be more commercial. As a result a certain delicate pastoralism seeps in, but there' s little that you could ever call a concession to pop song. The title track vamps on the riff from Creedence Clearwater's "Run Through The Jungle", but by the next track Mamie Is Blue they sound as if they are trying to saw a Harly Davidson in half. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at the record company playback.

If you want to sample the sheer essence of Faust, go into your local Virgin Megastore (hey irony, come on in!), put on the headphones and listen to The Faust Tapes, tracks 7 to 12: an impossibly funky bass line, Hans Joachim Irmler's melancholic keyboard washes, a piercingly trebly guitar drenched in fuzz and wah-wah, descend in delicate layers one minute, splurging like an action painting the next, lush driller-killer noises of unidentifiable origin and various other cloudbusting devices that make the sun come out when you point them at the sky. Six minutes of perfect fragments.

Admirably researched and presented, right down to the information that "the X-ray on BBC Sessions is of Zappi's head", the only discrepancy on The Wümme Years appears to be the inclusion of a Peel session, supposedly boadcast on March 1, 1973. Ken Garner's essential BBC bible "In Session" gives a different tracklisting to the one here and reports that the Beeb studios didn't have enough sockets for their equipment so Faust gave them a tape instead, which was subsequently broadcast on June 6, 1973. If that's so, the version of Krautrock that they provided sounds suspiciously like a rough mix of the version that also appears on Faust IV.

The whole box set is beautifully packaged and the accompanying booklet is a delight. Original members Péron and Irmler, plus band Svengali/producer Uwe Nettelbeck, fellow traveller Peter Blegvad, engineer and equipment builder Kurt Graupner and project overseer Chris Cutler all have their say. Memories contradict and collide. Just like the music. "We didn't perform," says Péron, "we just played and played. We were just making music. Thinking about nothing." Some nothing.

Disclaimer: pointing box set at sky does not necessarily make sun come out.

Rob Chapman, "Faust: Non-Alignment Pact", Mojo 2000