Walk into any hip record store in the mid-70s and as you leafed through the racks it wouldn’t be too long before your eyes were snared by the saturated day-glo photo-montages gracing Amon Düül II album covers.
Even up against some pretty stiff competition of the time, the surrealistic sleeves are both arresting and mysterious. The curiously amorphous landscapes of vivid, feverish worlds resonate with occult and oblique symbolism. Titles such as Phallus Dei, Yeti, Dance Of The Lemmings and Carnival In Babylon merely add another enigmatic layer to the band.Yet although purveying a gothic foreboding, the music isn’t nearly as austere as the brooding covers might lead you to believe.
Formed in West Germany in 1969 when the parent commune-based band Amon Düül split into factions, Amon Düül II’s recorded output throbbed with an alternative energy fuelled in part by agit-prop anger, earnest folkiness, seditious underground vibes and surprisingly perhaps given the all the exterior heaviness, a comedic streak lampooning ‘serious’ or ‘high art’ bourgeois culture.
Their debut reveled in the shock-tactic title Phallus Dei (God’s Cock) and at the time the music was intended to be both confrontational and provocative. At this remove, it sounds more amiable rather than unsettling. Adrift on psychedelic-era abandonment, it overflows with overdriven sustained guitars and tumbling percussion. The twenty-minute title track is less interested in musical technique than feel and expression. Any shifts in mood and pace appear ephemeral and wind-blown rather than a product of precise defined arrangements. Pieces like Luzifers Ghilom hastily and hazily form from the swirl of quickfire chords, tribal murmurings, space-opera screams, and caustic violin.
That primativism informs 1970’s Yeti, whose unfettered experimentation with style and form makes the studio sides of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma appear a model of brevity and self-discipline. Here, Düül let it all hang out across a sprawling double-album filled with a heady untamed mixture of cod-operatic satire, mediumistic trance states, and turbulent cosmic storm clouds competing with each other.
With shifts in personal a definite musical re-alignment can be discerned as the band orientates itself towards a more ‘professional’ sound, although 1971‘s Dance Of The Lemmings retains the lengthy modal jams, agitated bongo-driven work-outs, distorted sonics and using keyboards in a way that’s definitely not recommended in the owner’s handbook.
The acoustic and electric factionalism that tugged at their underground psychedelic sound is more successfully incorporated and integrated in subsequent albums, Carnival Of Babylon and Wolf City, creating very much a golden period. Though the 80s saw them folded, as Rob Hughes’ article in Prog 46 reveals they are back.
Perennial outsiders, Amon Duul II’s catalogue doesn’t fit into easy soundbites and though frequently mentioned in the same breath as Can, Neu! or other German bands of the period, beyond the connection of geography, there’s little commonality. Often uneven, they can be transcendent and trashy, obvious and obscure, frustrating and funny, Spartan and sprawling and all of the above, sometimes within the space of one their side-long epic freak-outs.So, at times they’re a challenging earful to take on board but as we all know nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.