Various Artists - Who's That Man: A Tribute to Conny Plank [Grönland Records - 2013]If the many and varied music styles presented here sound dated it is, in a way,testament to Konrad Plank's innovations in engineering and production. The vast range of music he recorded at his Cologne studios throughout the seventies and early eighties all bore his idiosyncratic enthusiasm for sound regardless of whether it was made on standard instrumentation, evolving synth technologies, or even using objects and field recordings (and sometimes combining all the above). While merging avant garde manoeuvres with rock and pop styles was certainly unusual in those days, time has normalised his approach to an extent. And so, just as Hitchcock's Psycho is hard-pressed to scare audiences as much as it did upon release thanks to its influence on pretty much every horror and suspense film that followed, this compilation goes some way to highlight how Plank has had a similar effect on popular music.
So while the 21 pieces spread across the first two disks of this four disk set lack the punch of surprise they would have had at the time, combined they emphasise the sheer breadth of new styles bubbling up out of Plank's melting pot. Post-punk, proto-techno, psyche, sleazy garage, EBM, jazz fusion, and even a stereo test recording all surfaceat one point or another as we are guided through a considered overview of his output.
Grönland's choice of tracks on disks one and two avoids many obvious, classic 'krautrock' selections that Plank developed with early Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel and Guru Guru. Instead it shows an intimate knowledge of his craft stretching across his relatively short active years. So, while as many as six pieces feature the dreamy, ascendent analogue experiments of Cluster's Dieter Möbius, and there are several exemplar outings for Jaki Liebzeit's exceptional rhythm-play, plus three airings of Michael Rother's cool, collected guitar, the remaining half jump around his less typical productions. In this way, we get both crackly sides of a 1980 punk 7" from Psychotic Tanks, an eldritch B-side from Eurythmics, a couple of broody industrial disco takes from DAF, the awful funky dinner-jazz of Ibliss and an equally terrible Beatles cover version from noodly rockers Streetmark. All this gets rounded off by Fritz Müller's band that adds what sounds like chickens and didgeridoos to a cosmic march, followed by a drunken Christmas song from Plank himself.
This crazed concatenation can be overwhelming for the listener and, perhaps, describes a problem shared by many compilations attempting to introduce or exemplify innovative periods in modern music's rich and recent history. Most of the pieces compiled here are taken from albums that were conceived as albums, making the short exposure to Eno & Cluster's groaning synth monsters (on 'Broken Head'), or Neu!'s awesome, confident and simmering 'Negativland', feel too brief an excursion to gain the full, furtive effect of listening to the classy albums they belong to.
This means that the first two disks provide a good, if at times obscure, introduction to this great producer. Whereas disk three spoils the party somewhat with nine remixes of Plank's works by contemporary artists largely culled from deep house/techno stables. With the exception of Boredom leader Yamasutka Eye's rapid-fire turntable chops of Neu!'s 'Für Immer', the rest largely place rigidly-sequenced house beats over the original majestic motorik rhythms, like putting straight-jackets on ballet dancers, losing elegance and charm along the way.
While disk three is perhaps an attempt to gain the attention of a younger audience, the fourth disk seems aimed at diehard fans. It's a previously unreleased live recording from Plank's final tour in 1986 before his untimely death the following year. Performing alongside Möbius and Arno Steffen, their set is introduced as "electronicus-acousticus" to a baying crowd before manipulations of an elephant's roar kicks off the wayward, electronic proceedings shortly joined by a loping drum machine, synth squelches and commanding vocals. The set's fast-paced computer rhythms and Dadaist samples, although lacking a low end payload, sound like a precursor to the frequently frenetic realms of 90s and 00s bedroom electronica, portending today's totally blurred distinction between producer, composer and performer.
Although seeming confused as to who this release is targeted at - those seeking an introductory overview, house hipsters ripe for turning, or dedicated fans looking to plug an otherwise elusive hole or two - this collection certainly firms up Conny Plank's place in modern music history. Encouragingly, connyplank.com refers to this compilation as "a teaser of what is still to come: The complete Conny Plank catalogue" to suggest that the unexpurgated glories of his many hard-to-find releases are to be made available once more.Russell Cuzner