We haven’t heard too many records from the mysterious Berlin art group Column One, and now with the arrival of this impressive double LP / CD set Cindy, Loraine & Hank (WVINYL020 / ZOHAR 107-2) I can see I need to reassess their importance and history. Well, I noted the Dada-inspired Präsident Der Sonne album in 2010, but aside from enjoying the pastiches of collage imagery in the cover artworks, it was clear I was pretty baffled and assumed the whole release was a bit of a put-on. More recently Ian Sherred fared better with Column One: Entropium, which was a collaborative epic work with fellow Berlin art-players Zeitkratzer. Before that we’d only noted their fleeting contribution to a 2007 compilation of drone music called I, Mute Hummings. In fact Column One have been active since 1991, and have an impressive catalogue of works, including collaborations with Genesis P. Orridge and Psychic TV…they also have a very fluid and hard-to-define membership, members participating in certain projects only as needed, which I think is also not unlike the way Psychic TV operated (not that I really know much about it), likewise other far-out collectives such as Doc Wor Mirran. Plus Column One like to keep a low profile, a strategy adopted by everyone from The Residents to Faust and Nature And Organisation, and some of their members enjoy unusual aliases, like the players in Legendary Pink Dots. All this said, names of key players and participants in Cindy, Loraine & Hank are printed plain to read on the CD, and include Andrew Loadman, Jurgen Eckloff, Rene Lamp, Robert Schalinski, Tom Platt, and others; and members of Zeitkratzer appear too.
What we hear on the two discs are some quite radical and inventive experiments in improvised music and electro-acoustic treatments, resulting in episodes of startlingly strange music. Unexpected developments are the order of the day, things end and begin suddenly, and the structural basis for each piece is extremely hard to discern. I get the sense the perpetrators are striving to keep the music as anonymous as possible, along with their own identities; personal playing styles or expressive musical tics are kept to a minimum, everything is clearly a collaborative effort and not about soloing or showing off, and a slightly chilly impersonal air hangs over the work. Though cut-ups and tape scrambling are sometimes allowed, humour or playfulness is not part of the agreed agenda. It is beautifully recorded; every stark note stands out with an almost monumental solidity. Yet even the general sound of the album seems cut off from reality; apart from the occasional item which seems to include a documentary of a live performance, the work occupies its own world, a hermetically-sealed zone of studio weirdness. So far, full marks for this imaginative and assured update on the work of H.N.A.S. or even P16.D4.
Some unused parts of their 2012 collaboration with Zeitkratzer have been recycled and revisited for this large project, but new recordings were also made, and there was a process of “reviewing the existing material”, which sounds like it might involve the careful work of selection and appraisal. If the credits list is correct, the sound production included some conventional musical instrumentation such as pianos, synths, zithers, flutes, percussion; also voices (though I don’t hear much in the way of singing or spoken word); field recordings; a device called the “singing glass”; and the montage technique of Andrew Loadman. “Musique concrète if you like,” drawl the press notes, as if leaving us to cling to our old-fashioned certainties and quaint, well-worn labels in the face of this staggeringly odd and inventive music, implying that Column One are already streets ahead of the rest of the world.
In a real sense, maybe they are. From what I can gather, musical production is not even the sole or primary aim of this collective, whose members are more interested in advancing ideas, theories and philosophy; they claim influences from cut-up innovators, extreme cinema, and the communication theories of Paul Watzlawik, the Viennese psychologist. While it’s not immediately apparent what their ideological stance is (I don’t think they are especially politically motivated, for instance), it is clear that they have one, and that something quite stern and unforgiving is informing their every move here. Column One themselves would describe this release in very impressionistic and subjective terms, calling it “a collection of incestuous figures, a museum of small, lovely bastards…criminal citizens, sacred Neanderthals, expert idiots…a voyage through the labyrinthine mind of Column One.” To further obscure the message, the images on the six panel digipak do everything they can to mystify the viewer. To begin with, the band members – if indeed it is them – are photographed wearing masks and simpering like unwilling carnival freaks for the camera. In another shot, they hold large lumberjack saws, perhaps implying the radical damage they will do to modern music. These surreal photos are further disrupted by cut-up abstractions, making the image incomplete; or they are overlaid with incomprehensible doodles and cryptic messages. There’s plenty of work for the active mind here, decoding the messages buried in the music and cover artworks, but Column One won’t yield their secrets easily. From 30 November 2015.