Graded on a Curve:
Tony Conrad with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate

How best to describe this remarkable 1973 exercise in minimalist drone by U.S. avant-garde composer Tony Conrad working in collaboration with the Krautrock avatars Faust? Boring would be one way of describing it. But I prefer to describe it as mesmerizing.

I generally give a wide berth to avant-garde music for the simple reason that I’m too dumb to appreciate avant-garde music, but this sounds like a couple of guys sat down, gobbled a whole bunch of thorazine, and proceeded to warm up for a pair of songs they never actually got around to playing because they were too wasted on thorazine to remember how said songs went. I recommend it to psychotics, minimalist noise freaks, and people who have just taken a lot of thorazine. I’ll bet you Outside the Dream Syndicate sounds simply spectacular with a head full of thorazine.

Tony Conrad was a member of Le Monte Young’s The Dream Syndicate (original name, Theatre of Eternal Music), and played on a pair of LPs (the second of which is primarily attributed to John Cale) that were recorded in the mid-sixties but didn’t see the light of day until the early 2000s. The album came about after Conrad was invited by a Hamburg film producer to come to Germany where he met Uwe Nettelbeck, Faust’s producer. The man and the band proceeded to record this experimental two-song LP (issued under the Caroline label) in an old schoolhouse in Wümme, which is mysterious as Wümme is a river rather than a place. I can only assume their instruments got wet. At any rate, no subsequent LPs bearing Conrad’s name were released until 1995; his career is perhaps best summed up by a 2011 article in Gramophone entitled, “The Minimalist Pioneer Time Forgot.”

Outside the Dream Syndicate is not Krautrock. It’s two lengthy exercises in seeing how far you can go by going nowhere. As I stated before, I find it mesmerizing and would go so far as to say I love it. And I didn’t have to “learn” to love it; I loved it from the get go. It kind of reminds me of a Velvet Underground drone that has been stripped of everything (no more Lou, waxing decadent! no more Lou, playing freakout guitar!) but the drone. Outside the Dream Syndicate is a lesson in what the Velvet Underground took from Le Monte Young and Company, namely John Cage’s static violin screech (played here by Conrad) and Mo Tucker’s primitive drum thump (played here by Faust’s Werner “Zappi” Diermaier.)

I won’t lie to you; Side One’s “The Side of Men and Women” is a slog. It’s as if someone shouted “Forward, march!” and that’s exactly what the band does. They march. They never break into a trot or build a bridge or stop to fire off a solo or do anything as perverse as that. Well, they may tweak the old tension nob upwards a micrometer or so. And that’s where the joy resides, in listening to the moments where Conrad and his Krautrock co-conspirators seem almost, improbably, on the verge of doing something. I can honestly call this the dullest music I’ve ever loved. I don’t know how to describe it. It rather reminds me of the later, stripped-down prose of Samuel Beckett in one way, and a rainy Scottish funeral in another. One almost hears the funereal echo of bagpipes, although there isn’t a bagpipe in sight.

Side Two is more energizing. Not madcap by any means, but far from enervating. “From the Side of the Machine” actually builds, and could almost be termed spellbinding. It is, dare I say it, driving even. Jean-Hervé Péron’s bass throbs and pulsates, virtually pushing the song along; Conrad rouses himself; and Diermaier does amazing things with the cymbals and brushes. As for guitarist-keyboardist Rudolph Sosna I can’t tell you what he’s doing because I don’t hear him. But that’s on me; I have lousy ears for a guy who reviews records for a living. I don’t merely appreciate “From the Side of the Machine,” I practically jump around to it; for my money it beats Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the V.U.’s “European Son,” and even some of Neu!’s less pulsating numbers hands down. On a good day I’ll even take it over “Venus and Furs.”

I find it hard to compare Outside the Dream Syndicate to other minimalist music for the simple reason that I’ve heard so little other minimalist music. I can say I prefer it to the ambient music of Brian Eno because I find the latter “too pretty.” And I can say the same about the minimal doses of Philip Glass I’ve been able to tolerate. When push comes to shove I’ll take a good drone over Satie-inspired wallpaper music any day, especially when said drone comes complete with an abrasive edge. These are not eager-to-appease aural soundscapes; they’re far too visceral and in your face. Too stripped to the barest fundamentals as well.

To return to Samuel Beckett, he once compared himself to James Joyce by saying that after Joyce attempted to put everything into his books, he commenced to throw everything back out. That’s the impulse at work here. There may be not much there but what little is there sounds like rock ’n’ roll to me. There’s nothing classical–or soothingly, droopingly ambient–about Outside the Dream Syndicate. And the same goes for what little other music I’ve heard by Conrad. How great is this album? It wouldn’t even sound better with Krautrock icon Damo Suzuki–or PiL’s John Lydon for that matter–singing over it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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