Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Mannheim Rock Ensemble - 1971 - Rock of Joy

The Mannheim Rock Ensemble
Rock of Joy

01. Hungarian Dances
02. A Song Of Joy
03. Nocturne Op.9-2
04. Wedding March
05. Ave Maria
06. Fur Elise
07. Invitation To The Dance
08. Going Home
09. Fantaisie-Impromptu
10. Turkish March

Bass – Masayoshi Kabe
Drums – Hiro Tsunoda, Takeshi Inomata
Guitar – Kimio Mizutani, Shinki Chen
Keyboards – Hiro Yanagida, Masahiko Satoh
Violin – Hiroki Tamaki

So, during the boom days of the great Japanese New Rock gold rush, many, many exploitation albums were released. Major label bosses, stacks of yen gleaming in their eyes, would corral a well-known studio/jazz musician, sign him to a contract and tell him something like "Here, go and get a bunch of your weirdo hippy friends and record a rock album! What? Original material?! Are you out of your mind? Just do a bunch of show-tunes or something. The kids will love it! By the way, you have 2 days to knock this one out, so I better not see your face outside that studio until Monday! Now get lost!". Well, I don't know if that's how these conversations ACTUALLY went, but it is how I like to imagine them. In any case, most of these things were completely silly and utterly forgettable, as you might imagine. But a precious few times, a mystical thunderbolt appeared from the heavens and struck these poor bedraggled groups of talented musicians with a type of divine inspiration (or temporary insanity), and something magical was born. Well, maybe I'm getting a bit carried away here, but... Anyway, the infamous People "Buddha Meet Rock" is one such example, and here is another. Nobody's certain who actually played on this thing, as despite the extensive liner notes related to the classical pieces themselves, there are no musicians credited anywhere ("Musical credits? Who needs those?! Now take your damn checks and get outta here!"). However, it's almost a certainty that some of the usual suspects were on the job, meaning Akira Ishikawa on drums, Kimio Mizutani or Ryo Kawasaki on guitar (I'm going with Mizutani here based on style), and of course the one and only Yusuke Hoguchi and his magical exploito-organ to really get the party rolling. So, what we have here is obviously rock exploitation covers of classical music. But to leave it at that would never do this album justice. No, you just can't properly understand the true beauty of classical music until you've heard it played as crazed early 70's Japanese psych/prog full of blasting fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar solos, vintage organ assaults, and a fat, thumping rhythm section (including the wholly incongruous but oddly effective use of congas). There's even a couple of more mellow tracks, backed by a real string quartet, for you fussy types that might want to listen to some "real" classical music. Whatever, man. All things considered, this is probably one of the most entertaining albums you'll hear (or not hear, as the case may be) any time soon. Of course, it should go without saying that this thing is rare beyond belief, only a few copies known to exist, almost totally unknown, yadda yadda yadda. ("How did it sell?! Don't make me laugh! We decided to print up around 50 copies, but we gave most of them away to the secretaries at the office Christmas party, and... What's that? You want one copy to show your wife and kids?! What do you think this is, a charity?! Now get back in the studio and don't let me see your mug again until next Friday!") Sadly, an album of this ilk is unlikely to ever see a legit (or even non-legit) reissue, but the People album did, so hope springs eternal! (maybe...).

Now THIS sonofabitch took some time to find. And it's so all over the place I'm going to have to break it down track by track. Strap in.

Hungarian Dance starts things off well. There's no reason a fuzzed-up cover of a classical piece should be this engaging/good, though that'll change as the album progresses.

A Song of Joy (I dunno why they didn't title it Ode to Joy) starts with reverent strings and electric bass, then goes into a cheesy strings-and-rock interpretation before spending its last minute and ten on a killer jam.

Then things grind to a halt. Perhaps it's my fault for liking Chopin's Nocturnes, but the strings-and-rock version of Nocturne Op.9-2 bothers me a lot. Moving aside the boring reasons like it being a piece that doesn't lend itself well to this arrangement at all, the rock bit feels more like them accompanying an orchestra that's already playing something. It comes off as intensely awkward.

Luckily, their heavy psych take on Wedding March picks things up again, although again, I don't know who was the idiot that picked some of these. Nobody's ever been at a wedding and heard this piece at the end and thought, "Y'know what this song needs? Fuzz guitars and wah-wah pedals. Lots of them." It's still a bit uneasy, but the jam at the 2/3rds mark almost completely redeems the track, being indescribably loud and badass. At least when they get to jamming they stop giving a shit about the melody of the piece in question and just rip.

...Ave Maria?!?!?!? WHO PICKED THESE?!?!? Ok, well, the good news is the strings still haven't shown back up yet, and they're still in band mode, but they now sound like Procol Harum. It's psych-ballady. Not a lot to get excited about.

Their take on Fur Elise is much better, with a lot of room for solos and a hell of a lot louder performance. Still not crazy about selection. I must stop mentioning that.

The strings show up again on Invitation to the Dance (not gonna say it), and by "show up again" I mean there are nothing but strings for the first three and a half minutes. The band shows up for the last two minutes but don't do anything interesting.

Going Home might as well be library music. Sounds like upbeat schmaltzy end credits music for a feelgood movie from the early 70s. Strings-and-rock again.

But then Fantasie-Impromptu happens and I suddenly don't care about anything I've said in the rest of the review. We finally, finally get a fully recommendable track. The heavy psych tracks work much better with the less rigidly Western classical tracks, and this is an interpretation that completely 100% works. And will get your head moving.

And that just leaves Turkish March, which doesn't quite work as well as the track before it but DOES have what might be the best barely-related-jam-played-after-the-introduction-of-the-piece's-theme on the whole album, with some monstrously unhinged guitar playing. Shame it's only 2:20.

So... ten tracks over thirty six minutes, one of which I loved, five which were sort of good, and four I couldn't stand. Not a good result, really. I can see the cheese appeal of this possibly lifting some of it up a bit, but not for me. As it is, it's another odd one-off intermittently heavy psych album from Japan that sounds as if someone at the mixing boards was constantly telling them to knock it off whenever they'd start jamming. There's more restraint here than there ought to be, and I wouldn't spend more than $20 trying to get a copy.

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