Album Review: Can - Future Days

At the bottom of the bed of sensuous purple that backdrops the cover to Can’s 1973 album Future Days is one of the ancient Chinese ‘I Ching’ symbols. Traditionally used as a way of telling the future, its inclusion is by no means a coincidence. Title aside, the similarities to Can’s discography are prescient. Their three-album run from 1971’s Tago Mago to 1972’s Ege Bamyasi and concluding with Future Days, remains indisputably influential- informing almost every genre and artist. With Mago and Bamyasi, they cemented their legacy; with Future Days, they cemented their deification.

Krautrock, as it was coined by a British Journalist, referred to the creative spark that ignited in Germany in the late 60s and early 70s: bands such as Neu!, Cluster, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, Amon Duul and Can came to be some of the most novel and exciting at the time. Krautrock took the mentality of prog-rock and stripped it down to the basics, enhancing the creativity and dulling the fanciful self-indulgence. It was both uncompromising and highly complex – endlessly repeated rhythms and motifs, including the now-famous Motorik drumming style, combined with traditions of old and cutting edge electronics to birth a vibrant new genre all unto itself. At the centre of this movement and Krautrock itself, was Can.

Can’s journey is a simple one, formed in Cologne in 1968, they went through two uncompromisingly different vocalists and five albums by the time they reached 1974’s Soon Over Babaluma. Up to 1974, it was only the vocalist who had changed, keeping their core membership of Michael Karoli on guitar, Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, Holger Czukay on bass and Jaki Leibezeit on drums. Malcolm Mooney, their first singer, left the group after their hard-hitting and rollicking debut, Monster Movie. After a brief compilation album of an introduction – Soundtracks- Tago Mago properly introduced their new vocalist: the indelible Japanese street performer, Damo Suzuki.

Suzuki behaves like no other vocalist, which is fitting, as Can behave like no other artist. They are a band without Ego. Theirs is one of purest collectives in history. Their tightly wound and interlocking grooves, drawing as much from funk as from rock, allowed each member to share the spotlight at once. The listener is spoilt for choice as to what to focus on, whether it be Karoli’s spindly and trebly guitar, Schmidt’s pioneering synths, Leibezeit’s masterful drumming, Czukay’s purposeful bass or, as mentioned, Suzuki’s individual vocals. In a verse, Suzuki can go from whispered suggestions to maniacal preaching without so much as a warning. Singing in something resembling English but too impressionistic to be easily defined; his words can be whatever you want them to be, even when they’re merely vocalisations. He never outstayed his welcome and sometimes merely pops in to songs to reinforce a melody or emphasise another member’s playing. It’s this wonderful cohabitation of the moment that divides Can from all artists before or since; they behave selflessly at all times and, as a result, create music that gives much more than it takes.

Can’s influence has been more like background radiation – subtler, equally damaging and more dangerous. The Geiger-counter spiked on Future Days.
– Kieran Baddeley

In a way, it was Rockhaq’s own Nathan Brooks who inspired this review. In his review of The Beatles White Album, he states that, “The Beatles are, of course, not the first avant-garde musicians, but the genre had never been thrust into the mainstream like this before.” Never a truer word has been spoken. But what happens when a band isn’t so much “thrusted” into the mainstream as ‘gently drip-fed.’ Can are avant-garde in a much more extreme way than The Beatles and as a result, their pop-sensibilities are much harder to expose (the closest they got- as on tracks like Moonshake, Vitamin Cand Spoon-was cloaked in their usual discordant methods.) The mainstream has therefore been slowly acclimatising to their influence, with more and more bands and more and more critics giving them the credit and exposure they deserve. Unlike The Beatles, whose influence was like an atomic bomb, Can’s influence has been more like background radiation – subtler, equally damaging and more dangerous. The Geiger-counter spiked on Future Days.

1973’s Future Days is the last album of their famed trifecta and Suzuki’s last in the band. It’s also where they reach their peak. Whereas the two preceding albums were built around tense and incessant rhythms as on Bamyasi or inspired freak-outs as on Mago, Future Days takes a left turn into the sublimely spaced-out. It’s almost jarring to hear Can sound this relaxed. The title track segues in on a wave (literally), slowly introducing the listen to the world of the album and slowly incorporating the central, lilting rhythm that makes up the track for all of its nine minutes. It’s difficult to describe what the track actually sounds like, much like the whole album for that matter, but so is the nature of Can’s music. Imagine the love child of funk, ambient and prog and you may just come close to the genius that is Future Days. The tension of Bamyasi remains but instead of prevailing, the track builds and builds, teasing release but never actually fulfilling. This is to its credit.

Suzuki’s vocals are pushed far back into the mix, so as not to disrupt the current of calm that keeps the track moving, but his words are never far from your conscious. “Save that money for a rainy day” he sings, imploring like a preacher before climaxing the song with the repeated screaming of “For the sake of Future Days.” Even when Suzuki does burst, the actual volume never eclipses the music. Once again, this is proof of Can’s foundational understanding of ego – while Suzuki’s preaching is utterly compelling, it remains no more so than Karoli’s restrained filigrees. Schmidt’s synth work can be seen as vital to the band’s sound also. His approach was less about showboating or forming the groundwork to a song – Can had Leibezeit for that – and more about providing texture. His pioneering work alone has come to be commonplace in the music of artists like LCD Soundsystem and modern-day New Order. He decontextualizes electronics, applying a hazy warmth that would predate experiments like this on Deluxe by Harmonia and Zuckerzeit by Cluster. But once again, he’s merely a pawn in the great chess game of Can’s music.

Without the wish to sound flippant, it is my opinion (and I’m not alone in this) that the late Jaki Leibezeit is the best drummer to ever pick up sticks. A tall claim, I know, but across his stretch with Can, he mastered every technique possible and became a Master in the process. Take the opening track of Ege Bamyasi, Pinch. His drumming is disparate and fanciful but it never strays from its central groove- it keeps the track from falling into oblivion while never repeating a phrase or pattern. Leibezeit made Can what they were, without him they would have been good, but nowhere near as legendary as they are now. On Future Days, like everything, his presence is more muted but just as impactful. On Spray, his roots in jazz come to the fore, constantly expanding and shrinking in time with those around him. He ushers in the track and manages to hold the attention throughout. Leibezeit gets a chance to show off on Moonshake, the albums shortest and most pop-orientated track, prefacing and bookending every one of Suzuki’s chorus’ with a flurry.

Can were immediate, compelling and confrontational but on Future Days they became resigned. They took a step back to observe what they had created and in doing so, lifted themselves up higher than they had ever been before.
– Kieran Baddeley

Bel Air ends the album on a gorgeous note. The 20-minute piece is the ultimate showcase of Can’s ability- it never tires on you, it never once overwhelms you and it never feels a minute too long or too short. The track is purposefully disjointed with each section belonging to a different melody from Suzuki. In some places, you can even hear the tape changing between vignettes. Holger Czukay, aside from laying down some amazing bass work, was the band’s resident tech-wiz. Can’s music came from long jamming sessions that were edited down by Czukay in the studio at a later date. Some compositions have been cut down from over three hours’ worth of improvisation. It’s this approach that informs much of Talk Talk’s later experimental work – the idea that improvisation can be edited to be more palatable whilst still retaining the rawness and immediacy that it exuded when being created.

It’s a liberating approach, knowing that no suggestions are off the table, but all suggestions are prone to being cut. Czukay was a genius in that the disparate elements of many Can songs, like the found-sound interlude on Moonshake, manage to co-exist with the more precise work of say, Karoli’s scratches. It’s this trust in Czukay that allows side-long suites like Bel Air to retain a certain amount of cohesion.

The future-predicting symbol on the cover can be seen as startlingly forward-thinking when looking back on the album. Can lay the ground work for ambient and post-rock whilst outdoing Miles Davis at his own brand of Jazz-fusion. Artists as diverse as The Fall, Happy Mondays, Stereolab, Spoon, Roxy Music, Brian Eno and LCD Soundsystem can all be seen as being indebted to Can and this album in particular. Without Krautrock, Bowie would have never realised his transitional album Station to Station, without which there would be no Low. Without Future Days, it’s doubtful that Talk Talk would have reached the quiet brilliance of their final two LPs. Without Can, some of the best music of the 20th and 21st century wouldn’t have existed. Enough thanks cannot be extended.

Future Days is seen as the lesser of the three albums Suzuki did with Can. In many ways however, this only adds to the mysticism. Suzuki’s leaving left a whole in Can. Despite the retort of 1974’s masterpiece, Soon Over Babaluma, Can never reached the peak they had done under Suzuki. This is all part of the legend. Can were immediate, compelling and confrontational but on Future Days they became resigned. They took a step back to observe what they had created and in doing so, lifted themselves up higher than they had ever been before. Whether it was the production, the lilting rhythms or the general airiness to the record, what can’t be disputed is the heavenly quality to the music on Future Days, a platform for God’s to observe their creation. They may not be as recognised as other artists but they’re just as important- here lies their deification. They are legendary in the sense that they are allusive. They’re unknown God’s of modern music.

They’d never admit it. I’m not even sure if they know it. Someone should tell them.