It features a photo of a huge lump of wood. Well, it’s actually a sculpture by Bernd Lohaus, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is a giant, solid, rectangular prism of wood. I like to think of it as a clue as to what you’ll find on the CD; solid slabs of sound.
As I‘ve alluded to in previous entries, Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s Zulutime is one of the most important records of my life. It’s up there with Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Helmet’s ‘Betty’, The Manic’s ‘Generation Terrorists’, Killing Joke’s ‘Revelations’, Wu-Tang Clan’s ’36 Chambers’, Cable’s When Animals Attack and…yes…Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. Look, it was the first album I ever bought, aged eight! It was quite the stepping stone.
Some records only feature in a short part of your life, others drift in and out of favour over the years; repeatedly being rediscovered. But then there are the special few that you stick with. Like any good long-term relationship there are peaks and troughs but the love is always there.
Zulutime is one of those albums.
I’m almost certain that there hasn’t been a month in the last eleven years in which I haven’t dug out the CD, and it’s certainly never left my iPod in the five years I’ve had one. It often has different neighbours either side, but like the TV News it’s always there…standing firm.
Why though? What is it about this particular album, one that horrifies most people who hear it, that pulls so hard on my heartstrings? This is not party music, it’s not club music – and if any radio DJ has ever played a track from it on air then well, frankly, I owe them a drink. Strictly speaking, it’s not even rock music. Yes, the electric guitar is the primary instrument, but the drums, bass, vocals and restrictive rhythms and repetition expected of that genre are nowhere to be heard.
I think the answer may lie in the respective talents of the two players involved. Helmet’s Page Hamilton and Massaker’s Caspar Brotzmann are nothing less than masters at this sort of thing. Although their two bands are wildly different, they both employ economy and space to create powerful, dense music.
At the point Zulutime was recorded Helmet were known for groovy stop/start riffs fused with totally whacked-out, but technically amazing, guitar anti-solos. They were also blessed with one of the most funky rhythm sections never to play funk (including drummer John Stanier now playing with the much touted Battles) . Helmet sold a million records and had a few hit singles along the way.
Caspar Brotzmann Massaker has always been a decidedly more challenging listen. The songs are much longer (albums generally have five or so tracks but clock in at an hour) and whereas you can dance to Helmet if you’re drunk enough, Massaker really pushes the repetition and jarring rhythm to hypnotic levels. They are sort of like the musical equivalent of Stewart Lee.
Where Helmet took the minimal blueprint laid down by bands like Killing Joke and Wire then heavied it up, Massaker always came across more like a tall, white, goth, German Jimi Hendrix Experience…with no tunes whatsoever. It’s often noted that Caspar plays a left-handed Strat upside down, mirroring Hendrix. He (rightly) states that this arrangement lets him make more sounds – there are few guitarists out there who use as much of the instrument as he does – but I’m sure Hendrix must have had some influence on the young Caspar.
Helmet and Massaker toured together around 93/94 (what a tour!) and it may have been when Caspar joined Helmet on stage for their closing track each night that the potential for this project was noticed. Nevertheless, when I met Page Hamilton last year he mentioned that the whole thing came together really quickly and was recorded in just a few hours.
In fact, I’ve had the immense privilege of meeting both Brotzmann and Hamilton; albeit some years apart. Although I was dying to ask Caspar about Zulutime I was a little too starstruck and blown away that he was being so warm and open, telling me about his young son, to crowbar in a few questions about a noise guitar record. When I met Page I was a little older and a bit more confident. I also had a copy of Zulutime in my bag to use as a handy prompt. Incidentally, Page was incredibly warm too and amongst the Helmet/Zulutime chat told me how awestruck he’d been when he first met David Bowie whom he went on to play guitar for after Helmet split. His advice – never be scared to approach the people who’ve influenced you, just get up there and do it.
But anyway, on to the record…
I may as well lay my cards on the table right now. Zulutime is the yardstick by which I judge all other records of this type. Not only is it the first noise/improv guitar record I ever got, it is also still the best. Everything is right.
[Ok, non-guitar geeks may wish to skip the next two paragraphs]
The guitars, recorded by longtime Brotzmann studio cohort Bruno Gephard and longtime Hamilton studio cohort Wharton Tiers, just sound incredible. Brotzmann has always kept it simple with a pedal setup of Wah, RAT distortion and an ancient Roland Phaser or Chorus running into some battered Marshall stacks. When this album was recorded, Hamilton was probably at the peak of his effects experimentation. Photos of his rig at this time are mind-boggling. He also changed stuff so frequently that it’s difficult to pin down much of what he uses, but it’s likely that a his magenta ESP Horizon and Harry Kolbe GP-1 preamp are responsible for most of the basic sounds here.
Like Brotzmann, Hamilton relies heavily on a wah (in fact he credits Brotzmann with teaching him to use a wah as a device to control feedback pitch and tone rather than a do things with it that someone like Slash might). But amongst the noise I can definitely pick out a harmonizer and the unmistakable octave-up sound of a Prescription Electronics Outbox; a device I once read that Hamilton uses solely for ‘white noise’. Needless to say, this record is textural heaven.
[OK, welcome back. Thanks for sticking around]
The opening title track simply explodes out of the speakers. I talked about the first time I ever heard Zulutime before, so I won’t go into it again, but needless to say the mission statement is clear from the outset. There’s no fade-in to lull you into a false sense of security, you are thrown straight into the maelstrom. It takes half a minute until the first discernable note even crops up.
But this isn’t just pointless thrashing at guitars. Despite the aural violence on display here the playing is actually surprisingly dynamic and focused. Caspar is clearly taking the lead, his guitar steams along whereas Page’s parts are slightly more subdued, as if he’s teasing you, holding back the goods. It roars at you for a good few minutes until at 6 min 12 sec they pull together one of the most eerie things ever put to tape. Somehow they suddenly hit the same harmonic of wailing feedback before they start weaving around it. The melancholic effect is simply sublime.
The next track ‘Head Hunter’ takes a slightly more tactical approach. Beginning with choppy guitars, it grandually builds up into an absolute noise monster. Caspar’s divebombs weave in and out of Page’s more metronomic pulse before he moves on to attacking the springs of his guitar vibrato. This isn’t the sound of guitar strings, it’s the sound that the guts of a guitar make. Guitars were never meant to sound like this.
‘Hit Single’, yes ‘Hit Single’, follows a similar path but stretches the method out to nearly twelve minutes before the album’s ‘ballad’; ‘Dream Date’. This is actually quite pretty to begin with, and when the guitars do start to go off the rails again, they’re expertly reigned in. The pair never let the song run away despite repeated attempts at self sufficiency.
Penultimate track ‘Suburban Blight’ is a study in bottom end frequencies that also has the dubious honour of being my favourite song title ever. Think about it; Suburban Blight. Amazing. The sound is all derelict factories and detuned radios.
The closing track ‘Imbiss’ (a German term describing the small snack huts that dot the country’s city streets) veers dangerously close to a verse/chorus/verse structure. Oddly, it’s the also most representative of both artists other bands. Caspar’s howling high-up-the-neck playing could have easily come from his 1992 ‘Der Abend Der Schwartzen Folklore’ record, whereas Page stays within the lower register so familiar to Helmet fans. Sure, it’s still noisy as anything, and Page’s Tesla Coil guitar stabs are deeper and more fluid, but the space created in the gaps help to accent and punctuate the blasts of fuzz.
The debt I owe this record will probably be clear to anyone who listens to any of the heavier Kowa Axis tracks. It taught me that the guitar could be used as a means of pure expression and through that, I learned to do the same.
This is an album at will please very few. It’s about as un-listener friendly as it gets. But it’s also a masterpiece. On the train, at home working, at home not working, it seems to soundtrack so much of my life.
In fact, the album became so much of an obsession I even managed to track down a promo poster for it which hangs in my home office/music room.
The writing is surreal, urban, confusing, difficult, but ultimately rewarding.
Just like the music…