Tago Mago (40th Anniversary Edition)

It’s been four decades since Can released their groundbreaking pinnacle work, Tago Mago, but listening to the new 40th anniversary edition of the album, it’s hard to put a date on the record’s unique soundscapes. To say that Tago Mago was ahead of its time isn’t really accurate; Can’s third album was not of its time or any time before or after. While the German band was no doubt influenced by the psychedelia of the late ’60s, as well as the idiosyncratic din of The Velvet Underground (it was after hearing the band in New York that Irmin Schmidt abandoned classical music and headed down the road that led him to Can), by Tago Mago, they had begun forging their way into a thicket of propulsive rhythms and off-kilter song structures of their own making.

By 1971, there were few artists creating work as individualized as Can. One can liken Tago Mago to Soft Machine records like Third and Fourth or Tanz der Lemminge by Can’s labelmates Amon Düül II, but the record’s seven tracks cumulatively amount to an album so multi-dimensional that it is truly beyond comparison. In fact, on tracks like Tago Mago’s centerpiece, the 18-minute “Halleluhwah,” it is Fela Kuti and his Africa ’70 who spring to mind again and again. Jaki Liebezeit’s motorik drumming is not so unlike Tony Allen’s playing on Fela’s seminal work, while the rest of the Can core—bassist and electronics wiz Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli, and Schmidt on keyboards—creates a groove that is mesmerizingly funky and adventurous. Vocalist Damo Suzuki sings and shouts in bursts, at times understandable and other times completely incomprehensible regardless of the language he is utilizing. The song begins to reach its apex 14 minutes in, with each member taking time not really to solo but to diverge from the main train of thought they’d been on for so long.

The rest of the record is equally fascinating. Where modern musicians would most likely use a loop to achieve the repetition that Can creates on songs like “Oh Yeah,” it is Can’s organic methodology—along with some old-fashioned tape edits after the fact—that give the album’s modern sensibility a human touch. Unlike their brethren in, say, Kraftwerk, Can seemed just as interested in the inherent peculiarities and imperfections in their creations as making something futuristically perfect.

For the anniversary edition, not only has the original double-album been remastered, but a selection of cuts captured live in 1972 have been included on a bonus disc. While Tago Mago’s “Mushroom” and “Halleluwah” are among the three tracks (interestingly enough “Mushroom” is twice as long live, while “Halleluwah” is half the playing time of the studio version), it is “Spoon” (from Ege Bamyasi) that at nearly half an hour takes up the bulk of the recording. Hear the band shows unnerving patience, building the song in such small increments that 17 minutes have passed before they start to diverge at all. Tago Mago is without a doubt a landmark album, and though it has long since been re-evaluated to that stature, it’s worth remembering just how uniquely amazing it truly is.
Stephen Slaybaugh