First active in the early ’70s, Germany’s Faust played a mix of jazz, folk, minimalism, rock, noise, pop and modern classical that refused to be defined. In doing so, its music managed to become allied with a number of ground- breaking styles. Industrial noisemakers trace their roots back to Faust as one of the first groups to approach rock as electronic studio music. Faust’s eclectic psychedelia also pigeonholed them as one of the most internationally influential (especially on the noise and industrial generation, starting with Cabaret Voltaire) of the early- ’70s German progressive-rock experimenters. Faust’s first album appeared the same year as Kraftwerk’s, but the group disbanded two years later without ever enjoying much commercial success (or even international exposure) and has thus become fairly obscure, although its work has been kept in print via reissues.
Released as a dramatic picture disc — an X-ray of a hand embedded in clear vinyl and packaged in a transparent sleeve — Faust consists of three long, post- psychedelic jams, each composed of a couple of ideas loosely strung together. The group uses droning fuzz guitar, primitive electronics, silences, piano tinklings, warbled vocals, cabaret accents, tape manipulation and probably at least one kitchen sink. The way Faust throws these elements together suggests dada music for the electronic age.
Faust So Far is far more tightly structured, boasting actual songs like “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl” and “Mamie Is Blue,” which makes something out of abrasive electronic bursts, wah-wah guitar and minimal vocals. As the album was recorded in 1972, some tracks include twangy distorted guitar/plucky bass jams. Bizarre little experiments pop up between songs: overlays of effects-treated guitars and the like, sort of a German analogue to the Mothers of Invention’s early sound adventures.
Although it’s just a collection of various experiments organized semi-coherently, The Faust Tapes is most impressive in terms of sheer sonic invention. You never know what’s coming next: an electronic mantra with chanting in a made-up language is followed by a tape collage of radio, kitchen sounds and someone climbing stairs. A moment later, almost-industrial electronics play over a funky rock beat.
Faust IV isn’t as consistently innovative as the band’s earlier albums, though it still arrived five years ahead of its time. “Krautrock,” a parody of longwinded German bands of the era that were heavy on atmosphere and light on content, goes on so long that it winds up indistinguishable from its target.
The original band lasted from 1970 to 1975, though lost studio tapes continue to be released. 71 Minutes of… is a whimsical but listenable album of bits and pieces that combines the Munic and Elsewhere record, a lost album that was to be called Faust Party Three and two unreleased songs.
In its heyday, Faust was invisible to its audience, rarely touring or submitting to photographs. But in 1990, the band re-formed, initially just to play several concerts. It was a mistake to show their faces, because in concert Faust simply seemed like hippies with shock tactics and a brutal back-to-nature agenda. Joined by a few stand-ins, original members Werner Diermaier and Jean-Herve Peron smashed television sets with sledgehammers, carried a live goat over their heads, stripped naked and played with paint and chainsaws and held up a goldfish bowl and chanted for the audience to “listen to the fish.”
Knowing this is important when listening to the two subsequently released CDs that document a 1990 performance in Hamburg (The Faust Concerts: Vol. 1) and a 1992 show in England (The Faust Concerts: Vol. II). The chainsaws make an appearance on the first volume’s “Legendere Gleichgultickeit”; on the second, jackhammers crash through “Axel Goes Straight.” Unlike the posthumously assembled studio albums, these two records of complete songs and noise collages hold together. The liner notes are painstaking transcriptions of each recording (including “unintelligible crowd expressions” and stage lines like “my amplifier is burning, Klaus”). The albums mix new compositions and butchered versions of past Faust butcheries, like “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl” on Vol. 1. At times, the recordings are dark ambient music, but mostly they sound like you-hadda-be-there performance art.
In 1995, Faust returned to the studio for the first time in 20 years and recorded Rien, modeled after the diverse bricolâge of its most innovative album, The Faust Tapes, and produced by Chicago guitarist Jim O’Rourke. The album cover, back and six-page booklet all consist of blank silver pages; the credits can only be found recited in German and English as the album’s seventh and final track. Rien is more a return to form than The Faust Concerts, with droning violins, pounding industrial synthesizers, odd sound effects, trumpet improvisations and, of course, power tools combining in an experimental haze. You’ll get no points for guessing the lyrics to the song in which the title consists of a drawing of an ear with an arrow pointing to a drawing of a fish.
In 1973, Faust’s Uwe Nettlebeck collaborated with Tony Conrad, an avant-garde film-maker and minimalist musician best known for his work with the composer LaMonte Young and for playing in an early incarnation of the Velvet Underground. Twenty years later, Table of the Elements reissued their long out-of-print double-album of an entrancing 73-minute violin-and-percussion drone, Outside the Dream Syndicate, as well as a 7-inch single of studio outtakes (“The Pyre of Angus Was in Kathmandu” b/w “The Death of the Composer Was in 1962”). The label then brought Conrad back into the studio to collaborate with Gastr del Sol, the Chicago duo of O’Rourke and David Grubbs. A rebellion against the tonality of Western music, which has its roots in the writings and theorems of Pythagoras, Slapping Pythagoras explores microtones (the notes between standard intervals of a scale) and new frequency relationships. To the less musically inclined, the album works as a chilling, torpid landscape of slowly bowed violin and steady-thumping drums.