May 19, 2019

Caspar Brötzmann Massaker – The Tribe & Black Axis

By Craig Hayes. It takes a bold (or entirely reckless) band to deliberately destroy all the signifiers and motifs that define the music we hold dear. But that’s exactly what German guitarist Caspar Brötzmann and his avant-rock power-trio Massaker set out to do in the late 1980s.
By Craig Hayes.

It takes a bold (or entirely reckless) band to deliberately destroy all the signifiers and motifs that define the music we hold dear. But that’s exactly what German guitarist Caspar Brötzmann and his avant-rock power-trio Massaker set out to do in the late 1980s. The band butchered all those characteristics that help us identify and connect with the music we love, and then they endeavored to fashion something compelling out of the wreckage. Bold, for sure. Fucking reckless, indeed. Successful, unquestionably.

Many other noisy alt-rock innovators from the 1980s – see groups like Swans, Big Black, or Sonic Youth – found more international fame than Caspar Brötzmann Massaker ever did. However, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, who were as much audio terrorists as they were music makers, are about to enjoy wider exposure thanks to deafening music merchants Southern Lord. The label is remastering and reissuing Caspar Brötzmann Massaker’s first five albums, beginning with the band’s harsh and visceral 1988 debut, The Tribe, closely followed by their heavier sophomore album, 1989's Black Axis.

Caspar Brötzmann grew up in the shadow of his father, Peter, a free jazz saxophonist of some note. The younger Brötzmann was well aware of avant-garde music, growing up, but the elder Brötzmann definitely wasn’t a fan of the wild bohemian hard rockers who appealed to his son. The younger Brötzmann was left to his own creative devices, and the uncompromising music he made corrodes the foundations of rock while still paying tribute to Brötzmann’s guitar heroes, like Jimi Hendrix and Japanese underground legend Keiji Haino.

Brötzmann rejected formal training and took a ‘fuck virtuosity’ approach to his songwriting. Dissonant chords and mountains of feedback were seen as legitimate means of expression – as were warped tunings and teeth-rattling distortion. Brötzmann explored the palpable potential of volume + intensity + volume + (you get the picture), and Caspar Brötzmann Massaker were notably confrontational in their heyday.

Thirty years down the line, the band's debut, The Tribe, still sounds utterly unique and equally enthralling. Untamed tracks like “Blechton” and “Massaker” see fierce metallic riffs batter shards of hybrid art-rock and psych-rock, exposing the dark heart of The Tribe in the process, which often oozes menace. Elsewhere, the “Time” and “The Call” are fed into a no wave meat grinder – producing unorthodox albeit hard-edged songs, constructed out of twisted and tarnished scaffolding.

It’s all mind-bending magic, of course, and Brötzmann’s murmured vocals and oblique lyrics (which are scattered throughout The Tribe) only add to the unnerving and unhinged atmosphere. Brötzmann and his bandmates corral the chaos as best they can on The Tribe and they somehow manage to make music that’s as bleak as a row of rusting and collapsed factories and yet is overflowing with sizzling six-string insanity. Pounding drums and propulsive bass add to the mayhem, and The Tribe’s remastering captures Caspar Brötzmann Massaker's volcanic strengths in all their amp-melting glory.

The band’s second album, 1989’s Black Axis, features more impressively tight and expressively uninhibited interplay. (It also showcases the continued development of Brötzmann’s idiosyncratic guitar technique.) Like The Tribe, Black Axis was recorded at legendary jazz studio FMP in Berlin, but Brötzmann was so tall he could "barely stand up straight" in the rehearsal room. It might be wishful imaginings on my part, but you can almost hear that uncomfortable positioning boil over as bitter and crooked riffs are hurled at the listener on Black Axis.

There’s a heavier percussive punch to the album, mixed with a raw sense of physicality and starker industrial rhythms. The mesmeric mechanics of “The Hunter” calls to mind a critically adored industrial band like The Young Gods. And the mantric tempo on much of Black Axis fuels its hypnotic pulse, especially in the screeching/droning/transcendent depths of the album’s 15-minute title track.

The echo of Hendrix’s wildest adventures still resounds on Black Axis; see the scorching guitar on tracks like “Mute” and “Tempelhof”. There are plenty of anarchic noise eruptions throughout, and flashes of jazz and funk arrive, only to be wrenched inside out. Squalls of guitar eradicate easy handholds and, to be honest, much of Black Axis feels like Caspar Brötzmann Massaker are purposefully fucking with us as much as with themselves, which suits the band’s modus operandi to T.

Caspar Brötzmann Massaker’s desire to explore the darkest reaches of minimalism and maximalism sees them navigating post-punk and experimental gateways, as well as tearing open all manner of strange and pummeling musical portals. In the end, all that volatility means Caspar Brötzmann Massaker’s music is near impossible to classify – let alone describe.

Ultimately, it's that combination of Caspar Brötzmann Massaker’s innovative temperament and unrestrained methodology that lies at the heart of their appeal. Most bands are all too easily cataloged and duly marketed to the masses, but decades after their birth, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker still sound like eccentric outliers. It’s not even that alternative music hasn’t 'caught up' with Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, it’s simply that the band were genuine subversives making abrasive and aberrant art.

Caspar Brötzmann Massaker are constantly in flux on The Tribe and Black Axis – endlessly exploring the possibilities of their anti-music/music while simultaneously destroying and remaking their songs at the exact same time. Most importantly of all, by disregarding the rules of rock, and ignoring arbitrary genre boundaries, The Tribe and Black Axis remain daring, defiant and wholly challenging albums to this day.

NOTE: After reissuing Caspar Brötzmann Massaker's first five albums, Southern Lord are planning to release a collector’s boxed set featuring extensive liner notes and artwork by Brötzmann, including a hand-numbered silkscreened print signed by the artist. Details of that venture are forthcoming.

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