Sunday, 19 January 2014

Cromagnon - Orgasm

Orgasm is the only studio album by the experimental band Cromagnon.

Orgasm was recorded at A-1 Sound Studio in the Upper West Side of New York City in 1969. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique, which producer Brian Elliot was a fan of, heavily influenced the album's sound. During Orgasm's recording, band members would bring in random people off the street and ask them to contribute to the album.

On the album's conception, band member Sal Salgado recalled:

The original concept of the album was to progress from different decades of music. Like, in ‘59 Elvis was shaking his pelvis and driving people — well, women — crazy. And adults as well, making them very upset. And then ten years later Hendrix was pouring lighter fluid on his guitar and getting a lot of great distortion out of his Marshall amps. And The Who was breaking up equipment. And then we were trying to carry it on to the next decade. We were going to say, maybe in 1979 there’ll be a group of people on stage that’ll be blowing through reeds of grass while someone is reciting some poetry, and another person is squirting water at a microphone on stage with a hose…

Cromagnon was a project formed in the late ’60s for the influential ESP-Disk label, which put out some of the wildest, most freeform music of the era, including albums by the Fugs, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and even the godfather of the psychedelic era, Timothy Leary. The official story behind the band is that it was started by a pair of successful pop songwriters named Brian Elliot and Austin Grasmere who wanted to do an experimental album. When they approached ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman about the project, he allegedly asked what their theme would be, and when they replied, “Everything is one,” he gave them the go-ahead.

At this point, the story gets a little murky. Supposedly, Elliot and Grasmere decamped to some kind of hippie commune to record with a group of musicians known only as the “Connecticut Tribe” that may or may not have included future members of The Residents and Negativland. Whoever they were, the Tribe helped Elliot and Grasmere record a single album under the Cromagnon name. Originally released in 1969 as Orgasm and later reissued as Cave Rock, it’s an absolute mind-fuck of a record, a dadaist/tribal freakout combining primitive percussion and musique concrète; creepy non-verbal groans, grunts, chants and shrieks; bagpipes; Hendrix-esque blasts of psych-rock guitar; Brian Wilson harmonies; sampled radio broadcasts; and a whole host of other sounds whose origins are impossible to discern. At the time of its release, it must’ve been enough to send even most the tripped-out “Revolution No. 9″ enthusiasts scurrying back to their parents’ Johnny Mathis records.
Andy & Jake

Despite its tragically shoddy sleeve and label art, Cro-Magnon's Orgasm is, in my opinion, quite simply the most important experimental (for want of a better term) record of all time.

In its day, it was mostly dismissed as an oddball exercise in psychedelia - yet, in truth, it's about as far removed from disposable crap like 13th Floor Elevators, Love, and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd as it's possible to go. There are eight eclectic tracks that each boast more original new ideas than nearly all other bands achieve in a lifetime - and despite this wide diversity, they all work perfectly well as a whole, in their chosen sequence, and combine to provide an adventure that's unpredictable, exhilarating, startling, and at times unnervingly absurd.

Revisiting Orgasm in 2009, one is immediately struck by how many subsequent bands and genres echoed these ideas: Nurse With Wound, Faust, The Residents (who some allege were involved with the Cro-Magnon project, though it seems that Cro-Magnon's Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot were in fact bubblegum pop songwriters), neofolk, drone, avant-garde, noise, guitar improv freakery, and more. And of course, my own music too: this album was unquestionably a huge inspiration, not only musically, but also in the sense of artistically opening a mind to a truly radical imperative.

It's difficult even to appreciate what Cro-Magnon were thinking at the time, or how they were inspired to make these mysterious sounds in the first place. Robert Ashley, perhaps? It's like it almost dropped out of the sky from another galaxy. And I can think of no greater compliment than that with regard to its uncompromising originality.
William Bennett

Originally released in 1969 (as Orgasm), Cromagnon’s first and only full-length is intriguing and utterly confounding, a jumble of rackety percussion, chants, shouts, moans, giggles, whispers, drones, found sounds, bizarre rituals, ethno-freak-outs and one actual song, “Caledonia,” a sort of metal bagpipe reel. Its two main songwriters, Austin Grasmere and Brian Eliot, were, by all accounts, bumping hard against the limits of writing bubblegum pop for money. They heard somehow about the eccentric ESP-Disk label and dropped in to its studios for one day to record this odd, possibly brilliant, but only marginally listenable CD. The album went on through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s to become a kind of lost Atlantis type of recording, heard about more often than heard, an entry on Stephen Stapleton’s famous list. It was released on CD for the first time in 1993, again in 2000, once more in 2005 and this time, possibly prodded by Ghost’s cover of “Caledonia” two years ago, in 2009. It is always released by the original label, ESP-Disk, and the critical reaction always seems to be the same: How could anything this weird, this prefigurative of industrial out-rock and experimental psyche have possibly been produced in 1969? 

Certainly, you can listen a long time without hearing much overt reference to the 1960s. There’s a jangly, campfire-ish guitar at the foundation of “Crow of the Black Tree,” though it’s mostly obscured by wild group shrieks and moans, women and men together, though not exactly in unison. Scrubbed and well-behaved 1960s radio-jingle harmonies kick off “Fantasy,” but it doesn’t take long for the cut to dissolve into maniacal cackles and an altered voice careening through Doppler-altered non-linear observations (“I’m bleeding.” “Having died there…”). The tone is both stone-aged and futuristic, sirens cut through with stray radio broadcasts, tribal celebrations framed by electronic squiggles and blasts. “Caledonia,” by a huge margin the most accessible cut on the disc, thunders with drums, whines with bagpipes. Other bands of the era – Pentangle, Fairport Convention, etc. – were working with updated takes on Celtic folk, of course, but none of them were adding this kind of harsh, over-amplified vocals.

In fact, most of the bands that Cromagnon recalls – Faust, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, etc. – didn’t exist in 1969. The band’s total disregard for melody, structure, narrative or time signature is shockingly modern not just for 1969, but even now. “Ritual Feast of the Libido” tests the listener with an extended barrage of really unpleasant, unmusical sounds – a whip-beat, and a man howling in either pain or pleasure. “Organic Sundown,” where members of the “Tribe” credited on the album trade whispers, yelps, hisses and intonations of the word “Sleep,” rides a ramshackle percussive rhythm that could be NNCK or Sun City Girls. 

It is not easy to listen to Cave Rock all the way through, and even if you find it interesting, you may not be able to muster any real affection for these difficult tracks. There’s a palpable fog of self-indulgence hanging over the whole enterprise, a sense of weirdness for weirdness’ sake and lack of discipline or structure. Still, there’s no question that Cromagnon achieved something remarkable in its strange concoction of noise, spoken word, folk, electronics and field recordings. It’s worth remembering that the top four songs of 1969 were the Beatles’ “Get Back,” the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman,” Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525,” and the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar.” Nobody was doing anything remotely like this, and certainly not in Connecticut.
Jennifer Kelly


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