Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Welcome To The Máquina!

I love the Internet. Without it I would never have tracked down this great little record shop on a recent trip to Cantabria in Northern Spain. 

The shop in question, Boikot in Santander, would be a tough one to stumble across without some prior knowledge of its existence as it's hidden away on the first floor of an apartment block, accessible only to those who discover the intercom in the stairwell and get buzzed in by the proprietor, Daniel. 

That's not to say that the shop is unwelcoming. On the contrary, Daniel, whose English is infinitely better than my Spanish, went out of his way to chat to me about the Spanish Psychedelic / Progressive Rock scene and how it struggled to be heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s under Franco's dictatorship. Coupled with the difficulty of getting hold of decent instruments and amplifiers, band members often found their musical careers curtailed when they were hauled off for a spell in the armed forces. Unsurprisingly, many Spanish bands of the era were of a political bent. Indeed, the mere act of being in a band was seen as a political one, a refusal to accept the controlling hand of the state.

Loathe to miss the opportunity to broaden my musical horizons, I got Daniel to point me in the direction of some notable Spanish artists of the Franco era and he came up trumps. Following on neatly from my last blog entry, much of Boikot's stock consists of 180 gram vinyl reissues. I picked up a copy of Máquina!'s highly acclaimed debut LP, Why? from 1970 and Musica Dispersa's eponymous and sole album, also released in 1970, both beautifully reproduced by Wah Wah Records.

It seems that many of the bands of the era were intertwined, sharing members and accepting changing line-ups as part and parcel of contending with compulsory military service. Some came to view themselves as collectives rather than groups with a stable and fixed personnel. The impression I have is of a scene that was dynamic, constantly evolving, and that burned brightly but briefly. It is no exaggeration to suggest that artists such as Máquina! were as important to Spain's counter-culture as Bob Dylan was to that of the USA. Even the sleeve art to Why? was designed to provoke and rally opposition to Franco's regime. Apparently, Salvador Dali approved of the image of a pocket watch embedded in a croissant, a thinly disguised call for Spanish youth to realise that it was time to wake up to what was happening around them. The name Máquina! is itself confrontational, originating as it does from an expression whose meaning is perhaps too culturally specific to translate well, but was used by those doing miltary service. They would exclaim "Máquina! Dos cafés" (Machine! Two coffees), meaning something along the lines of "Fuck You".

Poster insert

 Why? is the type of album that bands only produce before the spectre of self-awareness causes them to compromise their art. Once bands begin to analyze what they are doing, the music they produce is rarely a true representation of what is in their souls. Why? comes across as an unedited stream of consciousness, a disgorging of ideas that had been left unexpressed prior to the moment that they were committed to tape. This makes for a somewhat schizophrenic album, but one that is never less than captivating. The opening cut, I Believe, comes across like Dave Brubeck's Take Five with incisive fuzz guitar: mannered coffee house jazz on a Haight-Ashbury trip. The listener is left unprepared for the title track that follows and plays out over two sides of vinyl as the band sets the controls for the heart of the sun. It is a jam, a glorious release, a flood of ideas purged in one take. It begins with a pleading, almost bluesy vocal after which the track becomes progressively unhinged with fuzz, wah-wah and Hammond all vying for attention, scything around the elastic bass lines and the drums which flirt with jazz before launching into a full-on tripped-out Burundi assault. The final track, Let Me Be Born, regains a degree of sanity with a throbbing, suspenseful bass line, an urgent vocal, wah-wah guitar and flute to the fore, ending the LP with an element of psychedelic funkiness.

Musica Dispersa are aptly named as their music stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed. Is it Acid-Folk, Progressive, Avant-Garde, Psychedelic World Music...? Well yes, all of the above and more.

The LP opens with snorting and nonsensical muttering, setting the tone for an album that utilises vocals as another instrument rather than as a vehicle for lyrics. In the absence, for the most part, of a traditional drum kit, the bass player provides the glue that binds the music together with some beautifully engaging rhythms. Various hand percussion, slaps and claps add rhythmic texture throughout.

Musica Dispersa

 After just a handful of listens, one of the tracks that has made the biggest impression on me is Gilda, a dreamy, meandering, piano-led tune with a vibe not dissimilar to an even more chilled Planet Caravan. I bet that's the first time anyone's ever compared Musica Dispersa to Black Sabbath! Rabel sounds like something from a North African souk, whilst Cefalea, with its hypnotic rhythm, Cherokee chant and up-front Jew's harp twang, sounds like something the Beta Band soaked themselves in before hitting the recording studio. Arcano, the only track with a 'traditional' drum kit backing throughout, bounces along on a superb, almost dub-like bass line and features Hare Krishna-style chanting and snake-charmer flute. Listen to this bass groove and tell me that Damon Albarn and his Gorillaz didn't sit up and take notice of this LP.

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