Album Review: Brainticket – Cottonwood Hill

Hype is a funny thing. Sometimes it invites scorn, mockery. Recently I received a press release heralding the latest album by “the most talked-about band of 2013.” As you might have guessed, said band has never had a hit, and I’d not heard of them at all (neither had anyone from among an informal survey I conducted when first making light of this breathless hype). Needless to say, my internal bullshit meter went right into the red zone upon reading the publicist’s breathless, over-the-top tag line.

But sometimes it’s just quaint enough to get a pass, just silly enough in an innocent, good-natured way that it doesn’t set off any alarms. That’s the case with a 1971 album, Cottonwood Hill, by an nearly-unclassifiable European group called Brainticket. The brief liner notes for the album (now reissued in 2013 by Purple Pyramid) read: “Advice: After listening to this disc, your friends won’t know you any more.” and even better, this: “Warning: Only listen once a day to this disc. Your brain might be destroyed!” Grammatical concerns notwithstanding, those are endearingly silly notices to have placed on an album, even in ’71.

The group and album are generally classified as krautrock, a catch-all term for repetitive, often (but not always) hard-rocking music of a decidedly uncompromising style. Brainticket were (are, really; more on that forthwith) initially based in Germany, led by Belgian keyboardist/flautist Joel Vandroogenbroeck. Cottonwood Hill is tough to classify, but in places it sounds a bit like what Deep Purple might have come up with had they been from Munich, had a girl singer, and ingested exponentially more psychedelics than they did.

The album starts out in a fairly conventional manner with “Black Sand.” Vandroogenbroeck’s heavily distorted guitar engages in a dialogue with Ron Bryer‘s equally (Iron Butterfly-ish) distorted electric guitar, while Werni Frolich‘s insistent and unvarying bass lines march in ominous lockstep alongside the no-cymbals drum work of Cosmo Malpis. There are plenty of wah-wah guitar lines supporting the vocals, treated here to the point of being unintelligible (mostly run through a Leslie rotating speaker). It’s oddly catchy, very heavy, and quite brief.

“Places of Light” is more accessible, and delightful in its own way. Vandroogenbroeck’s flute work floats atop some jazzy guitar and organ, and Lampis turns in some nice high-hat work while Frolich lays down a groove. Here Brainticket are vaguely reminiscent of early (post-Syd Barrett) Pink Floyd, but much funkier. Dawn Muir speaks rather than sings, providing a hint of what’s to come. The Leslie effect is dialed back, so listeners can hear and understand her spoken prose. One can almost hear the colored lights and lava lamps. This tune, too, is brief.

The remainder of the album is taken up by a deeply weird two-part track titled “Brainticket.” Kicking off like some unholy cross between Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” The Beatles-at-their-weirdest “Revolution 9” and a deconstructed Deep Purple’s “Hush,” this track is, on one level, nothing more than a one-chord riff with sound effects. Lots of sound effects. And it’s true that listeners will hear everything that’s strictly musical about”Brainticket” in the song’s first minute. But the piece has much more to offer than musicality. It’s a weird trip through the psyche of the band, a journey originally made with – one can safely assume – large quantities of mind-altering substances.

In the hands of a lesser (or less original) artist, the “Brainticket” riff (such as it is) would be monotonous to the point of annoyance, in a take-that-damn-thing-off-now kind of way. But the grinding, insistent organ-and guitar (various shadings of Dm and G) are joined by orgasmic spoken vocals from Dawn Muir. She really sounds like she’s on something (and, perhaps, someone) with all that moaning and heavy breathing. The whole thing is oddly fascinating, and wholly unlike almost anything else you could think of. If there’s any useful musical touchstone for “Brainticket,” it’s the only-slightly-less-obscure 1967 album Ptoof! By The Deviants. Lots of electronics (Hillmuth Klobe‘s “potentiomenters, generators and sound effects”) add to the swirl of bizarreness.

Having wantonly disregarded the original album’s warnings (the things I do for you people!), I can report that after three or four spins of Cottonwood Hill within the space of a day, I did in fact survive. I will issue a warning of my own, however: that “Brainticket” riff will be burned into your mind. Really, it will.

Dave Thompson‘s liner notes in the 2013 reissue provide some amusing and useful context.

Best enjoyed at maximum volume and with like- and open-minded friends (or alone with headphones; remember those?) Cottonwood Hill and “Brainticket Parts I and II” in particular are a rare treat.

Note: As it would happen, a variant of Brainticket is active today. In 2011, a lineup featuring only Vandroogenbroeck from the original group appeared as part of a triple bill at the “Space Rock Invasion” in Hollywood CA. Taking their place onstage, the group performed (with requisite visuals) a set that included “Black Sand” and “Pieces of Light,” but no “Brainticket” (at least, not on the DVD). The resulting show was released as the Space Rock Invasion 2DVD set, and also features performances from Huw Lloyd-Langton and Nektar (both of whose music I’ve covered on this blog). While none of the three acts is at peak performance quality, all three sets are worth hearing and seeing.