Repetition is the image of eternity in music / The music of the past justifies itself for its limitation / The music of the future is sparing itself this effort
American blues musician, Robert Johnson (1911-1938) recorded only 29 songs during his short life. An remarkably limited catalog for an artist when you consider the major impact Johnson’s legacy has had on music and culture. Twenty-nine songs recorded over a five day session in a hotel-room studio about one year before his death. Humble output for a musician who’s songs have become staples in the rock and blues cannon. With tracks like Love in Vain, Cross Road Blues, Me and the Devil Blues all being recorded by notable rock bands, including Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream. Of course, Johnson’s legacy has as much to do with the folklore of his life as it does his music. That is, the story of a young Robert Johnson‘s meeting with a certain Prince of Darkness.
According to the legend, Robert Johnson, then aspiring bluesman, took his guitar to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, near Dockery Plantation in Clarkdale, Mississippi at midnight. The place he had been told to wait at those crossroads for the arrival of an dark stranger. After a long, torturous wait Johnson was indeed visited by a demon; Beelzebub, the fallen angel who ranks second only to Satan himself. And there the two agreed that Johnson would be given a very special gift; to be greatest guitar-playing bluesman alive. And in exchange for this gift, upon Johnson’s death, his soul would face eternal damination in hell. It’s an amazing story and it touches on something deep within the human psyche. After his death in 1938, word of Johnson’s deal-with-the-devil story slowly spread; it was a great, sinister rumor that musicans on the blues-curcuit told that also encapsulates the betrayal and hopelessness that accompanies a life on the road. Eventually, that rumor became an important part of the cultural and musical folklore in the American South. Folklore with an origin that can be traced back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s magnum opus of German literature, Faust I (1808). In fact, the premise of the Robert Johnson‘s Deal with the Devil is directly lifted from Goethe’s drama; with Satan sending his right-hand man Mephistopheles to luring the ambitious Faust into a wager for his soul. Nearly a direct match to the deal Beelzebub offers to Robert Johnson.
Of the 29 songs Johnson recorded, perhaps the most notorious is Hell Hounds On My Trail; a song that seems to directly addresses the topic of the deal with the devil legend. The story adding a level of mystery and weight to each word and phrase of the song. But we need to move beyond the title and lyric to discover the true importance of the music. To begin with, the Hell Hound recording is filled with a troubling atmosphere; the crackling surface noise of the original recording gives the song the ambience of a lost transmission from the underworld. In an artistic sense, Johnson vocal is transcendent; leaving behind the small musical circuit of the Mississippi Delta where Johnson spent most of his life. Instead, the vocal is thick with the lonely life of every man. Johnson conveying the most important aspects of the song indirectly. The words and music hinting at the Faustian bargain so many people make with their lives. The assumptions are ours to consider. And it’s these unspoken aspects that take us deep into the music. There are no screams of torment from Robert Johnson on Hell Hounds on My Trail. Instead, the vocal is gentle, almost melodious, in its delivery. His attitude is casual and his pain is forever unmentioned. Like Goethe‘s Faust, Johnson accepts the bargain and signs his fate with blood;
“I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Tremblin’ on the tree / I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Hmm-hmm, hmm-mmm / And the days keeps on worryin’ me / There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail / Hellhound on my trail…”
Departure from the Northern Wasteland is Michael Hoenig‘s solo debut from 1978. Born from the Krautrock/Berlin community, Hoenig had already earned an amazing reputation by the time of the albums release; his keen interest in experimental music got him an invitation to join the German Krautrock band Agitation Free in 1971. Recording with the band on the ground-breaking debut album, Malesch in 1972. Then touring with the group throughout Europe, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Even performing at the Munich Olmpics in 1972. Eventually, Hoenig’s concepts began moving beyond the standard “motorik” of the Krautrock sound. His electronic keyboards developing in a new direction; the Berlin School of experimental music or Kosmische Musik developing a more space-bound, electronic-keyboard template. Combining ambient soundscapes with the minimalist classical traditions of composors like Steve Reich and Moondog. Oddly enough, on Northern Wasteland, Hoenig‘s also incorportate a distinctly American character. But let me explain; the music rides the edge between adventurous kosmische music, modern classical and the New Age sound associated with the Windham Hills crowd. It’s a combination that really shouldn’t work. The New Age sound creates a (non-)musical relaxation / enviromental lifestyle slickness that plagued music that fell under the moniker. Nevertheless, Hoenig maintains the balance perfectly. Creating an album that sounds like nothing else at the time.
Hoenig uses the dry, studio slickness to his own advantage; providing the compositions on Northern Wasteland with a rich commercial platform that enhance the details of his experimental music. Taking a cue from the work of both Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, Hoenig and Conny Plank (who helped with the album’s sound production) use the full studio as a musical instrument. Creating vast towers of icy-sound and then peppering the template with irregular sequencer rhythms that wouldn’t seem out of place on a techno-pop record. On Voice of Where, Hoenig uses a series of melodic, rhythmic keyboard-phrase to create a pulsating heartbeat at the center of the music. Then adding a singular, soothing progression of free-formed keyboard fills. These strangely beautiful synthetic fills or themes rise and fall with a simple, steady repetition. Each waves of sound then descending into the watery ether of the sound. The entire pattern eventually disintergrating into a distorted cluster of odd voices and repetitions. It’s a remarkable piece of music. And these repetitions are key to understanding Hoenig‘s philosophy of making music. Unlike many musicans within the electronic realm, Hoenig‘s music remains based on the simplicity of repetition and familiarity. Maintaining the music’s humanity and emotion qualities.
On the surface, the pulsating beats of Michael Hoenig would seem at the opposite end of the (musical) specrium from the delta-blue of Robert Johnson. And some readers will struggle to understand the connection between the two. That’s understandable. But when we look beyond the issue of style, the similarities reveal themselves. On Northern Wasteland, Hoenig creates an atmosphere of detailed, structural sound that captures a sense of humanity within its ornate atmosphere. And although very different in style from the complex emotional performance of Johnson, Hoenig creates electronic music that stirs the same emotions of human struggle and loneliness. Both musicians enveloping the listener with their heartbreaking account of life on an endless highway; the place where all men seek to hide from their fate.
Looking for more? There is great electronic music to be found under the moniker of New Age. Among the dozens of bland non-music albums, you can find mis-labeled gems. If you look. For examle, try to find the brilliant Interior S/T album from 1982. Produced by the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haroumi ‘Harry’ Hosono, Interior is a mindblowing ambient / techno-pop record original released in Japan. However, Interior was released in the U.S. on the aforementioned Windham Hills label in 1985. Worth the hunting).