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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Featuring: Can, Damo Suzuki’s Network, Electric Orange, faUSt, Floh de Cologne, Japandorf, Kraftwerk, Krautwerk, La Düsseldorf, Neu!, Wume.
Total time: 129 minutes

Four years (and counting) after Canterbury Tales, Washington DC-based filmmakers Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder have finally released the fourth instalment in their Romantic Warriors series, simply titled Krautrock. In fact, this documentary marks the beginning of a series within the series – a trilogy dedicated to the German progressive scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Among the myriad subgenres in which progressive rock has splintered almost 50 years from its inception, Krautrock is probably the one that most fully deserves the definition of “acquired taste”. In fact, for many “traditional” prog fans Krautrock has more or less the same appeal as RIO/Avant – that is to say, not very much at all. In terms of sheer “difficulty”, Krautrock can beat any but the most complex forms of RIO/Avant hands down. People who love the ambitious scale of traditional prog, but at the same time crave melody and a judicious sprinkling of hooks, will view a lot of Krautrock as unmitigated noise.

In terms of sheer innovation, however, Krautrock leaves most British-style progressive rock in the dust. Nothing in the prog pantheon even remotely approaches the genuinely radical attitude of those seminal Krautrock artists who emerged at the tail end of the Sixties, upending rock conventions and introducing elements into the rock fabric that went beyond European folk and classical music. Light years ahead of their time, they experimented with things that would have been too far-fetched even for the likes of King Crimson, and that some RIO/Avant bands such as Henry Cow would only attempt a few years later. This explains the subgenre’s enduring popularity with musicians who otherwise look at prog with disdain: name-dropping Can, Neu! or Kraftwerk among your influences is definitely cooler than mentioning Yes or Genesis, or even King Crimson.

That being said, Krautrock IS an acquired taste, and the bands and artists featured in the film do nothing to dispel that notion. A lot of Krautrock does not make for easy or even comfortable listening, and might be defined as the kind of music that people find more admirable than truly enjoyable. However, it is hard to deny its vitality, its groundbreaking power. Even the movement’s rather dubious name – based on what amounts to an ethnic slur – seems to be worn with a sort of defiance, emphasizing the music’s uniquely German nature as opposed to the slavish imitation of anything coming from the English-speaking world. The DVD’s minimalistic artwork  aptly complements Krautrock’s unique mix of austerity and intensity, running counter to the whimsicality of “standard” prog as embodied by Roger Dean’s stunning fantasy landscapes.

Though the bands examined in the first instalment of the Krautrock trilogy did not actually sound like each other at all, they shared a similar attitude towards music-making – as well as an intent to break free from the pervasive influence of British and American rock. On the other hand, with the exception of some of the protagonists of the Düsseldorf scene – such as iconic drummer Klaus Dinger – artists from the same hometown hardly ever collaborated from each other. On the other hand, the presence of non-German musicians – Malcolm Mooney (from the US), Damo Suzuki (from Japan), Jean-Hervé Peron (from France) – highlights the international outlook of the Krautrock scene, in contrast with the insularity of British prog.

With a nice touch, and a nod to Germany’s massive contribution to Western culture, the film opens with the words of Wolfgang Goethe, one of the undisputed icons of German culture,. The description of the coming of spring works as a metaphor for the changes brought to a staid musical scene by this bunch of musical bomb-throwers. It also reflects the reality of a country that was still rebuilding itself – and its reputation – after having been left in ruins at the end of WWII. The serene beauty of the Rhine at Cologne, dominated by the cathedral’s majestic Gothic towers,  the neat and orderly city streets, the verdant countryside all provide a modern foil for the palpable restlessness animating those young people born shortly after (or even before, as in the case of Can’s founders) their country’s disastrous defeat.

For Adele Schmidt, one half of the pair that makes up the Zeitgeist Media team, this trilogy is clearly even more of a labour of love than the previous three films, as it has allowed her to explore a unique aspect of the culture of her homeland. As an expat myself, I can relate to the care and love that permeate every shot, to her desire to spread the knowledge of the cultural climate of  her native country in those years of social and political turmoil, but also of immense creative ferment. Like my native Italy, Germany was experiencing the pains of rebirth after the devastation of war – further exacerbated by the division of the country itself, which made it a battleground for opposing Cold War forces. However, while Italy also produced a progressive scene that was amazing in terms of both quantity and quality, the Italian prog movement of the Seventies mostly operated within the framework of British-style progressive rock, albeit with unique cultural features.

Even more so than its predecessors, Krautrock 1 is beautifully shot, alternating interviews, archival photos and footage, and the lovely views of cities and countryside that give each of the Romantic Warriors documentaries the alluring look of a travelogue. Some sections of the film are somewhat light on live material – especially the one on Kraftwerk, which occasionally comes across as a long monologue by the band’s former drummer, Wolfgang Flür. This was obviously not the filmmakers’ choice, but rather caused by licensing issues. On the other hand, the section about Can, which opens the film, is probably the most complete, featuring not only enlightening comments by the band’s founder and keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt, but also the input of their two iconic singers, Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki – two lovely gentlemen who exude the kind of positive energy that is becoming increasingly rare in this cynical world. As in Canterbury Tales, care has also been taken to emphasize the continuity between the original protagonists of the Krautrock scene and their contemporary heirs, as well as the subgenre’s continuing relevance in today’s progressive music scene.

The film’s next-to-last section, dedicated to Hamburg-based outfit faUSt, seems to encapsulate the authentically subversive nature of Krautrock – starting with the band’s name (“the fist of revolution”) and their alternative lifestyle, then detailing their drive towards the creation of consistently ground-breaking soundscapes – a drive that continues to this day, as illustrated by the sequences filmed during the band’s 2017 US tour. faUSt’s founding members, Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Peron, and their younger collaborators clearly share a vision that transcends generational differences;  the music they produce on stage still pushes the envelope, perfectly at home in the arty surroundings of Louisville, Kentucky’s thriving cultural hub, and Tennessee’s cult Big Ears festival.

Although the deep poignancy that pervaded Canterbury Tales also emerges in Krautrock 1 – particularly in those sequences that feature the warm, gentle presence of Can’s drummer extraordinaire, Jaki Liebezeit, who passed away a few months after filming was completed – the documentary never lingers too long on feelings of loss, but celebrates the unbounded vitality of the movement and its protagonists. This is especially true of the sequences featuring Neu!’s larger-than-life drummer, Klaus Dinger. Though he is indeed missed, and his enormous influence on the whole movement emphasized on various occasions, there is nothing elegiac in the tone of those who speak about him. While the music produced by Canterbury bands possesses a sort of fragile, ephemeral beauty, Krautrock can be brash, defiant, even proud of its own anti-aesthetics. Indeed, the anecdote about Dinger splashing blood everywhere after cutting his hand on one of his favoured broken cymbals outpunks punk and its often contrived theatrics.

All in all, Krautrock 1 does a great job of summing up the long-debated difference between “progressive” and “prog” in a nutshell. In many ways, as the film shows with unrelenting clarity, Krautrock ran counter to the original prog movement, being closer in nature to punk and new wave than to Yes and ELP, though equally ambitious in its outspoken goal of creating a kind of music that was uniquely German.

The film works both as an introduction for those who are still unfamiliar with the movement, and as a fascinating insight into its development for those who are already invested in it. Whether it will be enough to convert any unbelievers remains to be seen. In any case, even if the music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Krautrock 1 is a must-see not only for fans of progressive music, but also for those interested in the history and culture of post-war Europe. The release of the second instalment of the trilogy, dedicated to the Munich scene, is expected at the end of 2019.

 

Links:

www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv/

 

 

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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 118 minutes

Located in Kent, the south-eastern county nicknamed “Garden of England” for its bucolic beauty, Canterbury is a city of barely over 50,000 people, dominated (not just in a physical sense) by the sprawling mass of its stunning Gothic cathedral. For all its rich history, it is easy to imagine how stifling such a place might have felt to its younger denizens in the late Sixties. Its very Englishness, in some ways, explains many of the distinctive features of the musical movement that originated there in those heady years.

Even within a quintessentially niche context such as progressive rock, the Canterbury scene has acquired a cult status that transcends its unassuming beginnings. With often mind-boggling connections and ramifications that would make the task of drawing a family tree rather daunting, this “movement” – born, in a polite, understated English way, from the early musical pursuits of a handful of middle-class teenagers – became extremely influential, though never achieving any of the commercial success that was awarded (albeit briefly) to some of the original prog bands.

Well over two years in the making, and nearly two hours long, the third chapter in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s Romantic Warriors saga is at the same time similar and different from its predecessors. Though by far the most technically polished of the three documentaries – its pristine photography providing a perfect foil to the grainy footage from the Seventies – it is also the one with the strongest emotional impact. Meticulously researched, yet somewhat hampered by the unwillingness of some of the key protagonists of the scene to release material, or even just show up, the film occasionally feels like a story told from a third-person point of view. This, however, proves to be a strength rather than a weakness, lending an almost mythical quality to the narration.

In spite of some glaring defections, many of the exponents of the early Canterbury scene agreed to contribute to the film, providing their unique insights on the birth and development of the movement. Their contributions are supported by those of three modern-day experts: Aymeric Leroy, who maintains the most complete and informative website on the Canterbury scene; Bruce Gallanter of Downtown Music Gallery, one of New York City’s few surviving independent music stores; and Leonardo Pavkovic, head of Moonjune Records.

The story unfolds in chronological order, its very dense content sometimes hard to follow even for those who are familiar with the ins and outs of the scene – lively and colourful, yet tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness. Because of the unavailability of a lot of the material recorded in those years, the music often takes a back seat: in fact, Canterbury Tales is the first film in the series to have a score written expressly by an outsider to the movement itself – the very talented, Maryland-based multi-instrumentalist/composer Dan Britton, who appeared in the first Romantic Warriors. On account of this and other factors, the film’s focus on people rather than music comes across even more strongly than in the previous two episodes of this “progressive music saga”.

If I had to sum up Canterbury Tales in few words, I would say that it is, first and foremost, about absence and loss. The story of Soft Machine – probably the best-known and most influential of the Canterbury acts – is mostly told by people who (with the sole exception of Daevid Allen) were not involved in the original incarnation of the band, though the availability of plentiful footage makes the extremely intricate tale come alive. Some of the protagonists of the scene seem to view their connection to Canterbury more like an embarrassment than a badge of honour: iconic keyboardist Dave Stewart’s image is hard to discern even in photo stills, while Robert Wyatt’s 1995 interview makes it quite clear that he is not interested in revisiting the past (“I am not a museum”).

In most other cases, however, the absence is a direct consequence of death: in fact, over the years the Canterbury scene has lost a larger share of its protagonists than other prog subgenres. The slight, pixie-like figure of Daevid Allen – with his lined face and uncannily young eyes and smile – weaves in and out of the narration, his untimely passing (occurred while the film was in post-production) reinforcing its melancholy, elegiac mood. In the whirlwind of images, the headline of Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine that gained notoriety after the tragic events of a few months ago – flashes by a couple of times, perhaps easily missed, but adding to the pervasive sense of loss.

On the other hand, Canterbury’s trademark sense of humour and whimsy – a blend of quintessentially English nonsense, slightly risqué puns and highbrow suggestions – is suitably emphasized, in stark contrast with the stereotyped idea of progressive rock as an overly serious genre. Those characteristics are embodied by some of the musicians who appear in the film: Richard Sinclair’s gently eccentric, almost luminous presence, Mont Campbell’s charismatic allure and self-deprecating wit, Daevid Allen’s endearing quirkiness stand out, while others come across as more serious, but as a whole all the original protagonists give the impression of being content with their life, and still very much involved in artistic creation.

One of the most appealing features of Canterbury Tales lies in its “travelogue” aspect, apparently at odds with the narrow geographical focus of the original scene. Alongside Canterbury Cathedral’s majestic towers and pinnacles, the immaculately beautiful images of different locales – London’s Tower Bridge by night, Paris’ stately boulevards, the silver-grey North Sea shore, the peaceful greenery of the Apulian countryside, the bustling streets of Barcelona, the bright lights of the theatre district in Kyoto – illustrate the wide-ranging sweep of a movement that over the years managed to spread its influence well beyond the borders of its humble beginnings. Accordingly, the activity of non-English Canterbury bands such as Moving Gelatine Plates, The Muffins and Supersister is given ample recognition.

While watching Canterbury Tales, it is often hard not to feel that – unlike the first two chapters of the saga – the film’s main focus is on the past rather than the present. Daevid Allen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Gong’s newest member, maverick guitarist/composer Kavus Torabi, contrasts with the film’s final shot of David Sinclair’s deeply moving interpretation of his own signature piece, “Nine Feet Underground”, while the camera lingers over hands that, in spite of the evident marks of age, are as nimble as ever over the keys. Even if enough space is granted to those modern bands and artists who have picked up the baton (Forgas Band Phenomena, Planeta Imaginario, The Wrong Object and Syd Arthur), it is not enough to dispel the looming presence of the past, and the underlying poignancy so superbly conveyed by the opening and closing shots of Allen’s solitary figure on the sea shore. The dedication of the film to Zegarra’s mother and all the musicians who have passed away compounds the impression that Canterbury Tales is, in many ways, an epitaph.

Even if someone may find its relative lack of original music disappointing, Canterbury Tales is a beautiful, deeply touching (though not depressing) piece of filmmaking, a warm-hearted tribute to those protagonists of the scene who are no longer with us. While the film’s subdued mood reflects the impermanence of things, the lasting legacy of the music created by that handful of young people from a provincial corner of England is given its due, and the unavoidable sadness implied in Daevid Allen’s fateful parting words is somewhat mitigated. Highly recommended to every self-respecting progressive rock fan, Canterbury Tales is also an encouragement to delve deep into the treasure trove of this highly idiosyncratic subgenre’s rich output.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com/Progdocs.com/Home.html
http://calyx.perso.neuf.fr/index.html
http://www.moonjune.com
http://www.downtownmusicgallery.com/Main/index.htm

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