Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot were successful pop producers in the mid 1960s. Despite their eminent reputations in the popular music industry, they wished to create a more experimental album, as a sort of hobby or passion project. The musical basis for their idea was a simple, yet intriguing, one: psychedelic rock mixed with tribal percussion, a combination of the revolutionary music of that era combined with archaic expressions of human emotion.
They pitched their idea to the seminal ESP-Disk label, who had released albums from Sun Ra and Timothy Leary. ESP-Disk, who was obviously no stranger to bizarre musical projects, was thrilled with the idea. Pretty soon Cromagnon were thrust into an expensive Manhattan studio, free to complete their project any way they pleased. Sound collages, transcendental chants, and innumerable bangs and booms were thrown into the mix. They recruited people off the streets to record their voices, and warped and twisted these voices into terrifying shapes. The end product, 1969′s Orgasm, was a beautiful mess, a stew of misshapen parts that could never have been embraced by the public at large; it was a release that seemed destined to become an oft-neglected cult classic. It would also turn out to be the only record Cromagnon would ever release.
The brief run of Cromagnon begs an obvious question: Why would Grasmere and Elliot, two comfortably accomplished pop masterminds, want to waste their time creating an album with such little potential for widespread recognition? Did they think that it was the only way they could adequately express their artistic inclinations? Doesn’t seem likely. Countless musicians throughout the decades, from the Beach Boys to St. Vincent, have taught us that artistically valuable music can be constructed within the framework of pop. Listening to their only album, a possible answer stands out to me—they did it for the sense of adventure. By abandoning traditional form and structure altogether, they opened themselves up to a world free of external reference, with the possibility of endless exploration. This seems all the more plausible when reading a quote from band member Sal Salgado, from a 2002 radio interview:
“The original concept of the album was to progress from different decades of music. Like, in ’59 Elvis was shaking his pelvis and driving people, well, women crazy. (And adults as well, making them very upset.) And then ten years later Hendrix was pouring lighter fluid on his guitar and getting a lot of great distortion out of his Marshall amps. And The Who was breaking up equipment. And then we were trying to carry it to the next decade. We were going to say, maybe in 1979 there’ll be a group of people onstage that’ll be blowing through reeds of grass while someone is reciting poetry, and another person is squirting water at a microphone onstage with a hose…”
Apart from this theme of speculation though, there seems to be no profound statements in Orgasm; stories are merely vague suggestions, containing no lucid meaning outside of the song itself. ‘Organic Sundown’ peppers a volley of indigenous percussion with dozens of voices, each imploring some unknown other to sleep. There is a sharp clash of emotions; some yell at the other with wild desperation, others fight through fits of laughter.
As the album comes to a close with the track ‘First World of Bronze’, the impenetrable themes of the songs are retained. Here the influence of psychedelic rock discussed by the band members is readily apparent. A free-form, Hendrix-esque distorted guitar solo wails in the background, contrasted by a rambling croon, like Frank Sinatra singing meaningless phrases. Eventually the song fades away and the story is over; but what has really been told? It’s unlikely that the even the musicians themselves knew the purpose of their narrative. It is the greatest form of experimentation, to create an album with no preconceived destination or design.
This can be problematic, though, when attempting to put together songs that are musically cohesive. Going in without a plan and throwing together every cool sound you can think of is fun, but these cool sounds have to work together to form a functioning whole. Cromagnon seem to struggle with this at times. For instance, ‘Crow of the Black Tree’ has a certain groove to it which is instantly appealing—a terse, propulsive guitar strum, the aggressive brand of percussion, a chorus of moaning, inhuman voices. That track contains a gem of a core theme. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly sustain itself for the song’s nine minute duration. Slight variations are covertly added throughout, but it doesn’t seem like Cromagnon incorporated them for developmental purposes; rather, they seem to be tossed in haphazardly, based on gut feeling rather than songwriter’s insight. Stream-of-consciousness musicianship can lead to some interesting developments, but oftentimes it allows an artist to fixate on a single idea for much too long. Also, given that dozens of found and manipulated sounds are used for each track, there’s bound to be cases where the various parts clash, failing to create a united soundscape. The middle section of ‘Fantasy’ is pretty grating: the shrill siren accompanied by horns, bell, and whistles of all forms is discordant and kind of ridiculous (well, the whole album is ridiculous in its own special way, but this is an annoying kind of ridiculous).
That’s not to say that every song is a veritable failure. In fact, quite a few of these experiments do end up working. And when Cromagnon are at their best, it’s a spectacle like no other. This is due to the immediate danger present in each track: even in the midst of a perfect jam, you expect the precarious arrangement to collapse at any moment. Just at the end of ‘Genitalia’, when the echoing marsupial cries become overbearing, a placid narration sweeps into the forefront, gently speaking about “curling crooked banisters” and “the sons of lakes”. It’s difficult to have the same reaction towards conventional music; the musicians, for the most part, are experienced in their craft, and though the song may be horrible, it usually doesn’t fall apart altogether.
This, perhaps, could also be the answer to another question you might be asking yourself: Why should I even bother listening to this album, the oft-forgotten product of juvenile experimentation? Because it’s an adventure, not only for the musicians but for the listener as well. Oftentimes we might be inclined to assume that art music always has to lead somewhere, that it must contain some sort of profound insight or technical revelation that will birth a whole new genre. This doesn’t always have to be the case. Experimental music can be enjoyed as a singular experiment, simply for the fact that it is experimental, that it dares to challenge established guidelines of music.
We now know that Cromagnon was slightly mistaken about their vision of ’70s music. Nonetheless, they predicted the rise of noise rock and industrial music, though none of the major players in those genres seem to give them any credit. Influence aside, it’s clear that Cromagnon had a lot of fun making this record. And if you approach it without any bias or misgivings, appreciating it as a unique relic of the psychedelic era, you’ll have a lot of fun listening.