A MUSICIAN who ventured far in both life and his chosen creative form, Joel Vandroogenbroeck is maybe not a name that trips with ease from your lips; unless of course, you’re a proper head of the deep psych persuasion.
For Joel was both the driving force behind and ever-present in the hard-psych voyagers Brainticket, whose 1971 debut album Cottonwood Hill carries whispered notoriety for those in the know.
By way of illustration: you know how when you were younger you’d pick up on all these whispers about what a mad drink tequila is; the worm, it’s tricky, trippy effects, oh god go carefully, you shoulda seen the state of me after three … and then you try absinthe?
Cottonwood Hill is that; it’s the real deal or, more precisely, it’s the hugely surreal deal; it bears the same relationship to, say, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow as absinthe does to tequila. A total trip in which to tread extremely carefully, that it’s not better known is in part due to its emergence just after the Anglophone world had decided it was pretty much done with psych and was embracing the hard rock behemoth. Anyway, here. Listen for yourself. The usual caveats about driving, heavy machinery, &c.
But even Brainticket was but one chapter in Joel’s musical odyssey.
Born in Bruxelles just before the outbreak of war, he began studying the piano aged just 3; was an established, professing classical player by 15. He attended the prestigious conservatory in his own city, but turned away into jazz and after attending jazz clubs in his lunchtimes. Expelled, he began to tour with gilt-edged names such as Stan Getz, was the youngest jazz pianist contracted to Italian radio; ever following the cutting edge, Miles Davis’ move towards fusion and the arrival of the psychedelic sound, Can, Amon Düül and the kosmiche spurred on the formation of Brainticket.
“One night, listening to the Voice of America radio station, I heard Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper… album. Man, that blew my mind,” he said.
“Brainticket was seen more as a community than a band. Ever-changing exterior events made it that way. It was also the wave at that time to meet and experiment with new people, and these were extremely creative times when everyone had something to say and wanted to create new projects. With all this in the air, the ideas were also very disorganized and volatile at times.”
With Brainticket an on-off going concern peaking with 1973’s Celestial Ocean, Joel began to compose library music; a task both intriguing and easy for someone who had travelled so many musical worlds. His first such release was L’Immagine Del Suono for the Italian Flirt imprint (yeah? £250-plus if you fancy it); but his most fruitful relationship was to be with Coloursound of Munich, with whom he recorded 18 albums.
The music libraries gave him carte blanche to create music in any style; something he loved despite the absence of popular headline appeal – indeed, these records snuck out into the world under various pseudonyms, such as VDB, Joel, and Eric Vann.
“Those LPs were stored in [the] sound libraries of TV stations and radio stations all over the world […] not to be sold to the public. It gave me the possibility to explore and study all kinds of directions I liked,” he said.
“I let my creativity through music go from imaginative lost continents, to old Egypt, to Mesopotamia, to the Middle Ages to modern times with computer music productions and space fantasies. I had complete liberty in my work.
“I personally liked the contrast between heavy electric rock and the soft and quiet moods of nature and natural archaic instruments. One may say that I liked to look backwards to the roots of music. I wanted to know what the music sounded like in Atlantis, ancient Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia – stuff far behind our times. I visited all the tombs, pyramids and temples of Egypt, trying to find out what the music must have been in those antique times.”
Thus arrives Far View, a deftly selected compilation of tracks from the Vandroogenbroeck’s library music library, if you will – and presented to you by Drag City.
A sad postscript: Joel died suddenly, aged 81, just two days before Christmas 2019, while he was in communication with Unusual Sounds author David Hollander, who curates this collection (Unusual Sounds being an excellent and recommended tome on the arcane world of library music). David has made a careful selection carefully from a dectet of albums from Joel’s library music era, and it’s really quite the journey. Free your mind.
The set starts with blissful brilliance in the flute overbreathing and clicky bossa shuffle of “Fairy Tale”, rainbow music from a heads’ party – the sort of party that you measure in days rather than hours; where you talk to some guy on the stairs who’s getting it together and can’t really recall how long he’s been at this particular happening. “Summer Clouds” captures cicadas and crickets in pulsing, pagan pipes and a sense of hot, humming wonder, and “Rocks” struts out on a spy movie pimp roll that simply has to have turned up being used judiciously in the quality end of hip-hop already.
But then you have the weird, proto-industrial and cavernous fracturing of “Oil Tankers”, soothed by the sorta synth tonality you can see Shuggie Otis or Arthur Russell using, all knitted together by what’s pretty much a P-funk lope. Really bloody curious and you wonder what programme might use it: some extremely stoned lowlands port detective series, maybe. “Mutations” is a sparse essay in muted shuffle, thumb piano and Rhodes vamping that also has something of the Russell stamp about it; all the instruments in response to each other without finding a companionable coherence your brain is sorta looking for – and there lies its oddball power.
“Biblical Band” opens with declamatory jazz brass à la Freddie Hubbard bolstered by ouds and left-kilter percussion; really it isn’t a million miles from Jimi Tenor’s recent oeuvre. Also Afro-exotic is the following “Papyrus Of Ani”, a more nocturne and dusky synthwave nugget that refuses to resolve into forward propulsion, quite happily contemplating its own skeletal, cartoon-eerie intrigue.
“Easy To Love” is one of the few tunes here you may find has feet of clay; gorgeous jazz-funk flute is eventually filled out by a consciously TV-thematic thing, a little bit sorta minor Charlie’s Angels; but then, it is production music, remember. “New Wave Rock” does what it says on the tin, and very much sounds like the European and Eurocentric acts of the first wave of sophisticated synth-rock – I’m looking at you, Ultravox and Alphaville – elevated by some sweet sonic embroidery. But then also, doesn’t the music of that era sound stranger and stranger with each passing month?
In “Procession” you can hear the grandiose exotic organ majesty of Brainticket and fellow countrymen Focus subsumed into a sacramental movement that calls out for banners and pyramids and a cast of thousands, it becomes another thing entirely around the mid-point, the Eastern modality vanishing to leave a glorious, pinging host of chimes in deluxe resonance.
“Rock Program” curls its lip and eyes the double denim, at least in that break, the kinda break producers might fawn upon, hip-grindin’ and louche; however up above its more akin to Conrad Schnitzler, the collapse of the tonal system in full effect in whirr and clang and shear.
But the whole molten core of the album is the excellent longform discovery “Group Meditation”. You know how the thing with a lot of library music is its inbuilt brevity: primarily intended for use as cues, stings and themes across television and film, nothing outstays its welcome, even when you wish it to. There’s no such abiding by tenet for Joel as he unspools “Group Meditation”‘s new-agey, ambient bliss, full of high, euphoric wash and bubbles and splatters of pure space joy, over 14 minutes-plus – pretty much a side of vinyl. Yes, new agey, but tremble not; with Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson quite openly declaring their love for the sound on their recent Refuge album, it’s truly back on the cool agenda. Go with it, don’t fight it. “Group Meditation” eschews the worst dolphins and crystals excesses of the form in pure lysergic bliss, drops away to dronesome oscillation, always glittery interjections from above, distant astral winds.
Far View thus stands not just as an introduction to Joel’s eclectic, off-kilter, massively enjoyable later musical output; but also partly in memoriam of a musician who roamed free across the whole musical spectrum in search of excitement and vivacity and the new. Which, if you think about it, is exactly what all us real music lifers are about, too.
Joel Vandroogenbroeck’s Far View will be released by Drag City digitally and on vinyl today, November 12th; to snag yours you can order direct from the label, over at Bandcamp, or if you’re this side of the pond maybe try Manchester’s excellent Piccadilly Records or Rough Trade.