Irmin Schmidt ‘Electro Violet’ (Mute)

A 12-CD retrospective of the Can man’s solo work delivers a thorough listening experience for those with stamina

A taste of Irmin Schmidt’s solo material was made available a couple of years ago with the enjoyable ‘Villa Wunderbar’ compilation. Clearly it went down pretty well, because Mute have now gone the whole 12-disc-boxset-40-page-booklet retrospective hog. It’s an epic amount of listening, but remarkably there’s never a dull moment.

The first CD, ‘Toy Planet’ (1981), is a collaboration with a fellow pioneer of electronic music and high/pop art jazzer Bruno Spoerri (who recently had a decent payday after winning a legal tussle with Jay Z over an uncleared sample). It was recorded at Spoerri’s studio in Switzerland where they may well have been using his EMS Synthi 100 (which recently turned up on eBay with a £70,000 price tag) to generate some of the electronic pulsing. It certainly sounds like it. The album combines Spoerri’s sax with danceable electronic beats and some junk percussion, which gives the whole thing a lush, shambolic countenance, rather like a charismatic lounge lizard turning up pissed at your dinner party. Given the reputation of Schmidt’s collaborator on the next clutch of projects, it’s an appropriate image.

Duncan Fallowell is a writer who was something of a counterculture figure in the early 1970s when he had a music column in The Spectator. He was one of the first British music journalists to cover the German scene, and came close to actually joining Can when Damo Suzuki left. He’s since gained a considerable reputation as a novelist and travel writer, and his input looms over 1987’s ‘Musk At Dusk’ and beyond. Schmidt sings Fallowell’s words, and the album retains a sense of the writer’s strangeness throughout. It’s a drowsy collection, slinkily subverting bossa nova rhythms and jazz to create an enjoyably sleazy easy listening experience unadulterated by irony. It sounds more at home alongside Kurt Weill than 1970s krautrock, especially on the standout, the fabulous and disturbing ‘The Child In History’.

The 1991 album ‘Impossible Holidays’, a continuation of the themes and louche feel of ‘Musk At Dusk’, ends with ‘Gormenghast Drift’, signposting the arrival of the opera ‘Gormenghast’ (libretto by Fallowell), which was premiered in 1998 in Germany and released in 2000. It mixes arias delivered by sopranos with the beat mongering that doubtlessly led to more than a handful of German opera lovers covering their ears in horror.

‘Masters Of Confusion’ and ‘Axolotl Eyes’ are collaborations with Jono Podmore, aka Kumo and also records as Metamono, and represent a wholehearted leap into the electronic sounds of 21st century beat production. Both albums are notable for some flamboyant piano playing, explosive electronics and “concrete” recordings; mostly plate smashing left over from the ‘Gormenghast’ sessions. The multiple sound textures Podmore and Schmidt conjure up frankly put a great deal of contemporary electronica to shame. If Miles Davis had lived into the laptop electronica age, maybe he’d have made a record that sounded a little like parts of ‘Axolotl Eyes’.

The film music (half the CDs here are culled from various TV and film projects) is equally interesting. Moments like the catchy ‘Mary In A Coma’ combine Schmidt’s love of melody, humour and experimentation, and there is a wealth of similar explorations to discover.

While 12 discs of one composer’s output might seem a little daunting, especially when that composer has avant-garde chops to spare and an opera to his name, ‘Electro Violet’ is actually an eminently listenable and enjoyable retrospective with enough depth and variation to suit every occasion, and enough of a stretch for the average listener without ever veering into horror show territory.

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