Cristian Vogel: The Assistenz

If the grid is what gives techno its shape and its structure, then resisting the grid—warping its contours, cheating its grip, slipping through hidden cracks—is what gives techno its life. Syncopation, flux, slippage: These are all strategies for escaping the rigidity of the too-perfect beat, and all of these escape hatches have long been at the center of Cristian Vogel’s work. The Chilean-born, UK-raised producer has spent his entire career teasing out a fundamental contradiction: Repetition is both techno’s defining feature and its Achilles’ heel.

Vogel got his start in Brighton’s anarchic techno scene alongside artists like Si Begg and Subhead and in the mid-’90s on Berlin’s Tresor label, he began brokering a series of unstable truces between order and chaos. Compared to most techno, Vogel’s sounds have always been especially untamed. On landmark albums like All Music Has Come to an End and Dungeon Master, he favored squeals and squelches, a metallic scrape and glassy clank, all lending to an impression of greased ball bearings tossed on a dusty floor. It was techno that was designed to trip you up.

For the past decade, Vogel has focused his efforts on making music with Kyma, a complex software application and programming language geared toward generative processes and the real-time control of advanced sound design. Autechre are among Kyma’s best-known adopters, but its use extends far beyond experimental dance music; the WALL-E sound designer Ben Burtt used it to fashion the voices of the film’s robots, “performing” their pixelated pitch-shifting using a light pen and a tablet. In Vogel’s hands, the tools help him achieve a kind of rhythmic, loop-based music that is constantly morphing.

The Assistenz builds upon the sounds and ideas that run through 2012’s The Inertials and 2014’s Polyphonic Beings, juggling dub-techno, industrial crunch, and the queasy tones of academic computer music. A fine, grey dust seems to cover everything, and every beat kicks up tiny squalls of soot. He concentrates mostly on the tempo range between 130 and 150 beats per minute, forgoing four-to-the-floor rhythms in favor of lurching, uneven cadences. “Vessels” hurtles along like a ghost train just barely clinging to the rails, and though the force of the drums is unmistakably violent, it feels muted by the reverb that hangs over it. “Telemorphosis” has a similarly contradictory feel, with zapping electrical frequencies smothered by thick, noxious fumes. Part of his project entails breaking down the division between texture and rhythm: The deeper you listen, the more microscopic textural elements blossom into finely detailed patterns. To peer into the penumbra of these tracks is like getting lost in the inky tangle of an Albrecht Dürer woodcut. But Vogel isn’t above bashing out a spectacularly forceful groove, either. The shuddering electro of “Cubic Haze” is built around a gut-punching 808 whose every hit seems, like the bullets in The Matrix, to displace the air around it in tight, concentric rings.

The album is a pretty bleak affair. After all, it gets its name from a graveyard in Copenhagen, the city where Vogel recorded it. And if the album has a flaw, it’s that the mood is a little too uniform. Even given Vogel’s habit of changing up the flow mid-track only to drop out the beat and simply let everything breathe for a bit, the first four tracks pile up like a slow-motion car crash. Fortunately, the album’s back half is more varied. Immediately following “Cubic Haze,” the record’s rhythmic highlight, “Signal Symbol” offers a gorgeous stretch of luminous, beatless drones reminiscent of Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas material; at five-and-a-half minutes, it could easily go four times as long. Vogel brings his rhythmic interests and his ambient skills together on “Barefoot Agnete,” The Assistenz’s centerpiece and indisputable highlight. Throughout the album, faint murmurs can occasionally be picked out of the murk, but the haunting “Barefoot Agnete” is the only track to put the voice front and center. As a skeletal drum pattern beats out a ritualistic rhythm, a woman’s wordless voice is digitally liquefied until it burbles like a mountain spring. For eight minutes, nothing changes except the small contours of that voice as it trickles into the darkness, and it is absolutely spellbinding.

Manuel Göttsching: E2-E4

Some classic albums have origin stories that threaten to eclipse the music itself. My Bloody Valentine almost bankrupted Creation over Loveless. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was just a cassette demo that he carried around in his pocket before deciding to release it. Brian Wilson’s inability to finish SMiLE caused him a mental breakdown. Add to these E2-E4, the marvelous extended electronic work by Manuel Göttsching, former leader of the key krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel.

After the dissolution of Ash Ra Tempel in the mid-’70s, Göttsching began working solo as Ashra, moving away from his earlier band’s wooly psychedelic rock and toward structures based on ambiance and his interest in Terry Riley-style minimalism. Both the trance-inducing repetition of 1975’s Inventions for Electric Guitar and the softer drones of 1976’s New Age of Earth showed his mastery of these forms, and he would build on them. In December 1981, having just returned from a tour with his friend Klaus Schulze, Göttsching was alone in his home studio and decided to create an improvised piece as an exercise, and also to give himself a tape to listen to on an upcoming trip. Moving between his battery of synthesizers and sequencing devices, he settled on a gentle two-chord vamp on his Prophet 10, to which he added an array of pinging electronic percussion and simple melodic figures. And over the second half of the piece, he laid down an extended guitar solo. Cut live without overdubs in a single hour, E2-E4 became, upon its eventual release in 1984, an electronic music landmark.

E2-E4 has an elusive appeal, one that is mysterious even to its maker. In 1981 and ’82, Göttsching was partway through planning a new solo album—it was quite complicated, with different sections and laborious themes. He wasn’t sure what to do with this new music, which came so easily. By 1981, Göttsching had made many pieces at home on his own for many purposes, but this one was lightning in a bottle. Like the longjumper Bob Beamon—whose one perfect jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics set a world record that he never came close to reaching before or since—Göttsching puzzled over his flawless moment. He listened to his creation over and over, trying to figure out why it worked so well, looking for some reason it wasn’t as good as it seemed. But he was at a loss. There were no mistakes, no incomplete ideas. It wasn’t too loud or too soft or too derivative. For one magic hour, the perfectly realized music floats in space, inviting listeners to admire it from the outside and then dance within it.

There are two things to hear in E2-E4: what the music is, and what the ideas within it would become. It’s sublime as a present-moment listening experience, with beautiful textures and a glorious symmetry. E2-E4 is like one long pop song stretched over 60 minutes, which is to say it’s sort of like its own DJ set. It plays with pop structures, but on a much larger canvas—a change that might last for a few bars in a pop single might last, here, for four minutes. At the 23-minute mark, there’s a several-minutes-long section where Göttsching starts flanging the tones and it feels something like dub; it’s kind of like a bridge. At the 3:35 mark, a pinging melody first enters, and that feels like a verse. As with many pop songs, there is an instrumental break, and in this case, it’s a guitar solo that lasts for a full album side. Göttsching vibrates with his riff in harmony, winding out fluid lines in the middle register that function as a rhythmic counterpoint and shifting melody simultaneously.

If three chords form the skeleton of punk, then two chords are the soul of techno, the minimum the music can move and still be changing. Göttsching’s guitar solo is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, with its clean but expressive tone that mixes a touch of jazz and blues with a more free-floating pointillist psychedelia. And Göttsching’s guitar work highlights one of E2-E4’s most appealing qualities: that the music sits precisely at the point where the human meets the machine. The great bulk of the music is synthesized and sequenced, a Rube Goldberg-like device that winds through pre-programmed sections, but when his guitar enters, we hear the touch of a musician brought up playing classical music on nylon strings. The human hand and the circuits also switch roles, though. If the warm tone of the machines can feel almost human, like an invitation—a friendly and welcoming sound perfect for the communion of the dancefloor—Göttsching’s tightly controlled guitar work sometimes has a mechanical quality, existing in clear relation to the sequencer’s grid.

So that’s the music as it plays. But for those interested in the larger sweep of history, it’s impossible not to listen and hear how ahead of its time this record was. Simply put, E2-E4 sounds a great deal like techno would when it emerged roughly a decade later, and it came from someone with no interest in dance music. As he was contemplating releasing E2-E4, Göttsching visited Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records, his then-current label, on Branson’s houseboat in order to play him the tape. In a beautifully told story from the liner notes of this reissue, Göttsching says that Branson was rocking his baby in his arms as the tape played, an apt image given the gentle undulations of the chords. “Manuel, you could make a fortune with this music,” Göttsching quotes Branson as saying, and indeed, a fortune would be made from the ideas found on E2-E4. But Göttsching wouldn’t be the one to collect it. Göttsching eventually issued E2-E4 in 1984 on Klaus Schulze’s label, and it didn’t sell well, moving only a few thousand copies. But a handful of those wound up in the right hands.

E2-E4 is also the story of formats. When Göttsching first contemplated releasing it, he realized that its 58-minute length presented difficulties. It was conceived as a single flowing piece, but an hour was generally considered too long even for a single LP, if one wants it to sound good. A skilled disc cutter was able to get a 30+ minute side down in 1984, and thanks to the record’s popularity in clubs, it still feels like a vinyl artifact. Which is one reason this exceptionally well-done reissue is so welcome. Great care was taken in getting the cut right. The 31-minute side, though at a relatively low volume, is clean and clear, even in the inner grooves. One could argue that a seamless digital version of the piece is the “real” version, but if vinyl was good enough for Larry Levan—who, unbeknownst to Göttsching, made the record a regular part of his sets for a time at the Paradise Garage—it’s good enough for me.

The music’s reputation in dance music circles reached a peak when three Italo producers approached him about re-working the tune for a dance music 12” in 1989. That record, released under the name “Sueño Latino,” turned out to be an international hit, and a 1992 remix from Detroit producer Derrick May brought the music full circle. Which gets back to one of E2-E4’s essential qualities: cut in a single hour, it wound its way across the world, morphing and changing with formats and remixes, finding new contexts, a music that is constantly in the process of becoming.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree

People die in Nick Cave songs. They get wiped out in floods, zapped in electric chairs, and mowed down en masse in saloon shout-outs. For Cave, death serves as both a dramatic and rhetorical device—it’s great theater, but it’s also swift justice for those who have done wrong, be it in the eyes of a lover or the Lord. As I once heard him quip in concert: “This next one’s a morality tale… they’re all morality tales, really. It’s what I do.”

But despite amassing a songbook that needs its own morgue, on their 16th album together, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds must contend with something that is not so easily depicted: the sound of mourning. In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur—one of his twin sons with wife Susie Bick—died when he accidentally fell from a cliff near the family’s current home in Brighton, England. The writing and recording of Skeleton Tree had commenced before the tragic incident, but the album was completed in its aftermath, and its specter hangs over it like a black fog.

This is a record that exists in the headspace and guts of someone who’s endured an unspeakable, inconsolable trauma. And though the songs are not explicitly about Arthur they are uncannily about coming to terms with loss and the realization that things will never be the same again. As if to reinforce Skeleton Tree’s therapeutic quality, the notoriously taciturn Cave opened the studio door to director Andrew Dominik, who documented the album’s completion—in 3D, no less—for the companion film One More Time With Feeling. It’s almost as if by thrusting himself into the spotlight during his darkest hour, Cave was issuing a form of karmic payback, penance for the pain and reckoning he’s inflicted on so many characters in his songs.

If you try to listen to Skeleton Tree removed from its somber context, the album feels very much like a natural step from 2013’s Push the Sky Away, whose premium on disquieting, ambient textures and wandering-mind lyricism now seems like less like a momentary detour than the gateway into an intriguing new phase for the Bad Seeds. But where that record rallied for show-stopping epics like “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues,” Skeleton Tree’s drones and jitters offer no such moments of release. The skies, seas, and mermaids that previously dominated Cave’s thoughts are still very much present here. But on the opening “Jesus Alone,” he’s wading deeper into the chop, the safety of the shoreline fading further out of view as he gets swept up by pattering drum drifts, humming organs, and swelling orchestration. The song was among the first Cave wrote for the record, yet its opening image—“You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”—feels unbearably prescient. It isn’t so much about the finality of death as the ambiguity of the afterlife: Cave’s orator welcomes a litany of souls into purgatory, but his stern proclamation—“With my voice, I am calling you”—makes it unclear whether they’ll be redeemed in heaven or damned to hell.

This great unknowing serves as the album’s guiding principle. In Cave’s wounded voice, you hear him grapple in real-time with the incidental prophecies of his lyrics and his need to get the job done. In one of the album’s most harrowing moments, he closes the bleak, grief-stricken ballad “Girl in Amber” by repeating the words, “Don’t touch me,” as if a consoling hug would only exacerbate the pain. Not every song is infused with such omens, but their restlessness is emblematic of the album’s fraught recording process. By Bad Seeds’ standards, “Rings of Saturn” is practically a chillwave song, its dusty drum loop smothered in a soft-focus synth gauze. But Cave’s numbed, sing-speak delivery is laid bare above the smooth texture—not even a cooing chorus of millennial whoops can rouse him. And as surprising as it is to hear a dogged non-conformist like Cave embrace some au courant pop device, here it functions as a faded reminder of a more carefree time—like how, in our most helpless moments, a sentimental song can turn you into a mess.

“Rings of Saturn” is one of several tracks on Skeleton Tree where Cave sings about or through an enigmatic female character. Like one of those “Sopranos” episodes where Tony is trapped in his dreams, nothing makes sense on the surface, but every hallucinatory image and mysterious gesture is loaded with circuitous significance. The “woman in a yellow dress surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds” awaiting her call to the pearly gates in “Jesus Alone” could very well be the one at the center of “Magneto,” whose quivering atmospherics and panting delivery suggest a goth Astral Weeks. “It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus,” Cave intones, before blithely revealing, “The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues.” But that prosaic setting is revisited from a different vantage in the parched-throat synth-pop serenade “I Need You,” where the crestfallen narrator sings, “I saw you standing there in the supermarket with your red dress, falling, and your eyes are to the ground,” as if observing a woman he once loved but no longer recognizes in her current distressed state.

And yet even the relentless ache of “I Need You”—the closest Cave has come to actually crying on record—hardly prepares you for a pair of closing tracks that will reduce the most hardened hearts to puddles. “Distant Sky” may initially come on like a simple invitation to escape (“Let us go now, my one true love/Call the gasman, cut the power off!”), but once the divine Danish vocalist Else Torp emerges, the song elevates to a form of secular last rites. Cave crystallizes the mood of Skeleton Tree in one trembling, devastating line: “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.” Musically, “Distant Sky” is all soothing organ tones and celestial orchestration, but the song’s weightlessness is utterly crushing, as Cave crystallizes the mood of Skeleton Tree in one trembling, devastating line: “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.”

By contrast, the lilting gospel sway of the final title track feels more earthbound. It’s an attempt to step out of the void and reconnect with the waking world while recognizing that grieving doesn’t happen on a standard timeline—you don’t just hole yourself up for three months of weeping and then emerge fully recovered. Grief is a wraith of love that haunts your soul, emerging when you least expect it from the most mundane triggers and surroundings. “I call out, right across the sea,” Cave sings, “but the echo comes back empty.” However, the darkness has at least acquired enough definition for Cave to make out a path forward. The last line Cave sings on the album is “It’s all right now,” less a declaration of closure than an acceptance it may never come. 

El Perro Del Mar: KoKoro

KoKoro, the latest album by El Perro Del Mar, takes its title from the Japanese word meaning heart or feeling, and from there you get a hint of what’s to come on: new musical terrain informed by an exotic “Far East” sensibility, couched in familiar El Perro Del Mar territory of melancholy and vulnerability. Almost 12 years into her career as El Perro Del Mar, founder Sarah Assbring’s appetite for reinvention remains strong. On KoKoro, the Swedish singer’s fifth album, her global wanderings bring her to unfamiliar places with inspiring albeit uneven results that showcase an artist who could easily make a turn for pop stardom.

Assbring has said that she’d been listening heavily to Japanese, Chinese, and Cambodian ’60s pop prior to the making of the album, but the influences of these sources on KoKoro are so overt and jumbled with modern pop and world music sensibilities, it comes off as a hodgepodge of cultural tourism. Throughout the album, Assbring utilizes classical Asian and Middle Eastern instruments such as the Chinese stringed guzheng, the Japanese shakuhachi, and various other flutes and strings—all played by a cast of Swedish musicians—and features rhythms and melodies casually identifiable with all of the above backgrounds along with Ethiopia, Egypt, and Indonesia.

Coordinated or not, Assbring does a remarkably good job taking all of these sounds and fusing them into vibrant, bouncy pop songs that are miles away from the ’60s-inspired tunes of her early career. It wasn’t until 2012’s Pale Fire that Assbring first attempted to seriously change up the El Perro Del Mar sound, but while it was evident that her voice and talents could translate to more radio-friendly dance-pop, the album frequently played like feathery nostalgia for late ’90s lounge house and trip-hop. On KoKoro, however, Assbring seems to have figured out the transition, and its strongest cuts are her best arguments yet for shifting the El Perro Del Mar paradigm.

“Kouign-Amman” (a type of French pastry) blends Assbring’s pan-Asian fetish with spunky futurist pop. Exploding from the speakers with a sunny and reverbed vocals, Assbring weaves in a guzheng string melody in a way that feels organic and enmeshed rather than simply appended. Title track “KoKoro” comes the closest to true 21st-century world music, with a huge, echoing “kinda Middle Eastern” chiftetelli beat and bleating flutes. Assbring’s voice is also loud and present, living in the fabric of the song in a way that it never did on Pale Fire. It’s music for smiling under the late afternoon sun on a party boat on the Bosphorus with a crew of happy hedonists.

Best of all, if not quite as archly pop as the others, is the stunning baroque opener “Endless Ways.” Featuring delicately embedded strings and backing vocals that moan and tug, “Endless Ways” is a perfect synthesis of all of El Perro Del Mar’s developments as an artist. Lyrically it also represents an important touchpoint for Assbring’s transformation, outlining her sense of self-reflection in figuring out how to become a better artist: “I think I was too softly defined/I wish I was all pure/The goal I have is carved in my mind/Perfection is hard.” It sure is, but as pop songs go, “Endless Ways” certainly gets close.

Because of Assbring’s attempts at drawing from these ethnocultural traditions without a sense of clear rhyme or reason, its weaker compositions sound more “White Euro-Woman Does ‘The Far East’” rather than the breezily blended post-globalization culture mashes of M.I.A. Tracks like “Ging Ging” and lead singles “Breadandbutter” and “Ding Sum” don’t just feature the aforementioned guzheng for flair but spotlight it as a conspicuous driver of sound to a degree that feels fetishized rather than borrowed. KoKoro isn’t perfect, but Assbring’s knack for creating well-written, catchy melodies carries the record it even in its slightest moments and a huge step forward from Pale Fire, positioning El Perro Del Mar well for an interesting Act II as a modern world pop purveyor.

Frank Ocean’s Blonde No Longer on Spotify

Frank Ocean’s Blonde No Longer on Spotify

On Friday, Frank Ocean’s new album Blonde became available on Spotify following a window of exclusivity on Apple Music. Now, however, it appears that the album is no longer available on Spotify. While the album still appears on the streaming service, each track is greyed out and attempts to play the songs are unsuccessful. It’s still currently available on Apple Music. Pitchfork has reached out to representatives for Frank Ocean and Spotify for comment.

Read “Frank Ocean‘s Boys Don’t Cry: The Complete Timeline” and “Frank Ocean’s Blonde: 6 Things to Know” on the Pitch, and check out our interviews with artists and Ocean collaborators Wolfgang Tillmans and Tom Sachs.

Nikki Mudarris & Safaree Samuels Are Catching Feelings | Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood

Is it possible that Nikki Mudarris, aka Miss Nikki Baby and Safaree Samuels are really falling for each other hard? Hear how they met and what keeps them attracted.

Subscribe to VH1: http://on.vh1.com/subscribe

Shows + Pop Culture + Music + Celebrity. VH1: We complete you.

Connect with VH1 Online
VH1 Official Site: http://vh1.com
Follow @VH1 on Twitter: http://twitter.com/VH1
Find VH1 on Facebook: http://facebook.com/VH1
Find VH1 on Tumblr : http://vh1.tumblr.com
Follow VH1 on Instagram : http://instagram.com/vh1
Find VH1 on Google + : http://plus.google.com/+vh1
Follow VH1 on Pinterest : http://pinterest.com/vh1

Nikki Mudarris & Safaree Samuels Are Catching Feelings | Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood http://www.youtube.com/user/VH1

Neil Young / Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Time Fades Away/Zuma

Neil Young boasted of steering his career into “the ditch” in the early 1970s, choosing to make sad, lonely, difficult records in the wake of Harvest’s wide success. The “Ditch Trilogy” (as Young enthusiasts dubbed it) of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach marks his creative peak—yet for decades, this era was neglected and incomplete. On the Beach only made it to CD in 2003, and Time Fades Away was never reissued digitally.

Thanks to the vinyl revival, the trio is finally available. Rereleased initially as a pricey Record Store Day box set, and now as individual LPs, the “Ditch Trilogy” records—plus its sunnier epilogue, Zuma—are back in print for the first time since their original releases. So while On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are well-established masterpieces, now’s the time to consider the on-ramp and the off-ramp to the Ditch, and understand how Young entered that dark spiral and how he escaped it.

Time Fades Away is the album Neil Young didn’t want us to hear; in several interviews over the years, he’s bluntly referred to it as his “worst album.” In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s 2012 memoir, the 1973 live album is mentioned exactly twice, which is approximately 1,000 times fewer than his electric Lincoln and his Pono music service. Even when major missing pieces of his ’70s catalog were patched in 2003, Time Fades Away was left to rot in the archives.

Several theories have circulated to explain the conspicuous snub, most often returning to the cursed fog that hung over Young’s 1973 tour. Originally, the band was supposed to include Danny Whitten, Neil’s guitar foil in Crazy Horse—but, fighting drug addiction and alcoholism, Whitten couldn’t hack it at rehearsals in fall 1972, and he was fired and sent back to Los Angeles. That same night, he was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and Valium. Whitten’s death cast a shadow over the tour, which started the following January and wormed its way across the United States in a rigorous 62 shows in 90 days.

The stories from the tour, as regaled in Young biographies, are like a nightmare version of Almost Famous, replete with drug indulgences, money arguments, audience riots, medical issues, and technical problems. Two-thirds of the way through, Neil’s vocal cords were shot, leading to show cancellations and inclusion of David Crosby and Graham Nash, to no great help. Young’s band the Stray Gators, the murderer’s row of session musicians from Harvest, didn’t translate to basketball arenas; drummer Kenny Buttrey had the worst time of it, with Young asking him to play louder and louder until he literally bled on his drums. Legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche, playing piano, self-medicated his stage fright with alcohol; for his own part, Young spent the tour chugging tequila and trying out a new Gibson Flying V guitar instead of his totemic Old Black, his dissatisfaction with the sound leading to endless soundchecks and after-show spats.

So this wasn’t exactly the tour you’d want to commemorate for eternity with a live album—but at least initially, Young was perversely excited to reflect its chaos, and left the recording mostly free of the overdubs that glossed many live albums of the era. “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me, but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while,” Young wrote in the liner notes of 1977’s Decade.

But in retrospect, he was too harsh. The Stray Gators were one of Young’s most interesting bands: they were fragile, straining, and desperate. One could easily see where their heavier material, such as “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and “Last Dance,” would have fit Whitten-era Crazy Horse. Here, pedal steel wizard Ben Keith levels up from a classy hired hand on Harvest to assume Whitten’s role, his instrument providing wobbly, intoxicated howls that amplify the haunted mood. Nitzsche plays a deceptively clunky piano that turns “Time Fades Away” into a chicken-wire saloon and creeps with tinkling anxiety around the edges of “Last Dance.” When Crosby and Nash show up, they create an alternate-dimension CSNY that uses their harmonies as a weapon instead of a balm, with Young and Crosby’s “Yonder Stands the Sinner” choruses particularly deranged.

Coming on the heels of the slick Harvest, Time Fades Away was a crucial swerve for Young, and it established the proudly flawed aesthetic that has kept his work immediate and powerful for decades. These are weary, acidic songs about the hollowness of stardom—recording them during a tour from hell is an asset, not a flaw. Even the crowd noise between songs heightens the despair—blissful, oblivious applause from an audience too remote to see Young’s naked pain. Songs previously lost on Time Fades Away are key parts of Young’s story. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of Young’s best autobiographical songs, wistfully telling the story of his Canadian childhood through Buffalo Springfield’s early days. “L.A.” is a wonderfully cynical kiss-off to the city where that band found stardom, a land of dreams beset by earthquakes, traffic, and smog.w

Because Zuma was packaged with the trilogy for the Record Store Day vinyl box set, there’s been some recent chatter of a “Ditch quadrilogy.” But Zuma is a poor fit with the other three; it’s a record made on a beach instead of On the Beach, a happy reunion and fresh beginning for Crazy Horse, and a goofy boys’ club hangout released only five months after Tonight’s the Night’s tortured slog. It hits the reset button in many ways—most literally with its opener, “Don’t Cry No Tears,” which recycles the melody from “I Wonder,” one of Young’s first recorded works with his high school band, the Squires.

It also marked Young’s decision to reform Crazy Horse for the first time since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro filling the big rhythm guitar shoes of Danny Whitten. That Young could even stomach replacing Whitten, two years after his death, signaled that the session in Malibu would be one of recovery and rebirth. That period was particularly debauched, with the recently divorced Young and his bandmates enjoyed the company of California girls and Colombian powder, and the party carried over into the “studio” (essentially just a room in producer David Briggs’ rental house). There, the new Crazy Horse got to know each other over some hastily written material, simplified to work with Poncho’s rudimentary guitar.

This lackadaisical formula explains the uneven nature of Zuma, which is equally filled with classics and duds. “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird” are two triumphantly moody, electric epics—lesser cousins to the “Down by the River”-style sprees of the first Crazy Horse, but still spacious opportunities for Young to revive his trademark lacerating guitar tone. It’s here that the sludgy Crazy Horse known today takes shape: the trade-out of the communicative Whitten for Sampedro’s simpler style creates that blunt sound. The rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina lurches menacingly through “Cortez” and “Danger Bird,” and Sampedro’s blocky guitar caddies for Young’s lengthy soloing.

The album’s two other highlights revive a breezy, poppy Young that had been missing since After the Gold Rush. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” is simple twangy country-rock well in the Horse’s wheelhouse, gilded with innocent backing harmonies. “Barstool Blues,” despite being a fairly shameless rip of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is a convincing and catchy depiction of drunken euphoria—and a pretty accurate portrait of Zuma’s making. On the less lovable side of the endless party, “Stupid Girl” is nowhere near good enough to justify its casual misogyny and title swipe from the Rolling Stones, and “Drive Back” is barely a song beneath its mighty riff and creepy piano. Leftovers tossed in from Homegrown (“Pardon My Heart”) and the aborted second CSNY record (“Through My Sails”) don’t quite fit the mood, presaging the less cohesive and spottier records over the rest of Young’s decade.

Still, if Zuma is an epilogue to the Ditch Trilogy, it’s also a prologue to the rest of Young’s career, kicking off his fickle, impulsive zig-zagging between genres and volume levels. That restlessness would keep Young vital long after his peers faded—and it can be traced all the way back to the stoned sunsets of Malibu, where Young decided to cry no more tears and move onward down the road, swerving all the way.

Neil Young / Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Time Fades Away/Zuma

Neil Young boasted of steering his career into “the ditch” in the early 1970s, choosing to make sad, lonely, difficult records in the wake of Harvest’s wide success. The “Ditch Trilogy” (as Young enthusiasts dubbed it) of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach marks his creative peak—yet for decades, this era was neglected and incomplete. On the Beach only made it to CD in 2003, and Time Fades Away was never reissued digitally.

Thanks to the vinyl revival, the trio is finally available. Rereleased initially as a pricey Record Store Day box set, and now as individual LPs, the “Ditch Trilogy” records—plus its sunnier epilogue, Zuma—are back in print for the first time since their original releases. So while On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are well-established masterpieces, now’s the time to consider the on-ramp and the off-ramp to the Ditch, and understand how Young entered that dark spiral and how he escaped it.

Time Fades Away is the album Neil Young didn’t want us to hear; in several interviews over the years, he’s bluntly referred to it as his “worst album.” In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s 2012 memoir, the 1973 live album is mentioned exactly twice, which is approximately 1,000 times fewer than his electric Lincoln and his Pono music service. Even when major missing pieces of his ’70s catalog were patched in 2003, Time Fades Away was left to rot in the archives.

Several theories have circulated to explain the conspicuous snub, most often returning to the cursed fog that hung over Young’s 1973 tour. Originally, the band was supposed to include Danny Whitten, Neil’s guitar foil in Crazy Horse—but, fighting drug addiction and alcoholism, Whitten couldn’t hack it at rehearsals in fall 1972, and he was fired and sent back to Los Angeles. That same night, he was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and Valium. Whitten’s death cast a shadow over the tour, which started the following January and wormed its way across the United States in a rigorous 62 shows in 90 days.

The stories from the tour, as regaled in Young biographies, are like a nightmare version of Almost Famous, replete with drug indulgences, money arguments, audience riots, medical issues, and technical problems. Two-thirds of the way through, Neil’s vocal cords were shot, leading to show cancellations and inclusion of David Crosby and Graham Nash, to no great help. Young’s band the Stray Gators, the murderer’s row of session musicians from Harvest, didn’t translate to basketball arenas; drummer Kenny Buttrey had the worst time of it, with Young asking him to play louder and louder until he literally bled on his drums. Legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche, playing piano, self-medicated his stage fright with alcohol; for his own part, Young spent the tour chugging tequila and trying out a new Gibson Flying V guitar instead of his totemic Old Black, his dissatisfaction with the sound leading to endless soundchecks and after-show spats.

So this wasn’t exactly the tour you’d want to commemorate for eternity with a live album—but at least initially, Young was perversely excited to reflect its chaos, and left the recording mostly free of the overdubs that glossed many live albums of the era. “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me, but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while,” Young wrote in the liner notes of 1977’s Decade.

But in retrospect, he was too harsh. The Stray Gators were one of Young’s most interesting bands: they were fragile, straining, and desperate. One could easily see where their heavier material, such as “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and “Last Dance,” would have fit Whitten-era Crazy Horse. Here, pedal steel wizard Ben Keith levels up from a classy hired hand on Harvest to assume Whitten’s role, his instrument providing wobbly, intoxicated howls that amplify the haunted mood. Nitzsche plays a deceptively clunky piano that turns “Time Fades Away” into a chicken-wire saloon and creeps with tinkling anxiety around the edges of “Last Dance.” When Crosby and Nash show up, they create an alternate-dimension CSNY that uses their harmonies as a weapon instead of a balm, with Young and Crosby’s “Yonder Stands the Sinner” choruses particularly deranged.

Coming on the heels of the slick Harvest, Time Fades Away was a crucial swerve for Young, and it established the proudly flawed aesthetic that has kept his work immediate and powerful for decades. These are weary, acidic songs about the hollowness of stardom—recording them during a tour from hell is an asset, not a flaw. Even the crowd noise between songs heightens the despair—blissful, oblivious applause from an audience too remote to see Young’s naked pain. Songs previously lost on Time Fades Away are key parts of Young’s story. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of Young’s best autobiographical songs, wistfully telling the story of his Canadian childhood through Buffalo Springfield’s early days. “L.A.” is a wonderfully cynical kiss-off to the city where that band found stardom, a land of dreams beset by earthquakes, traffic, and smog.w

Because Zuma was packaged with the trilogy for the Record Store Day vinyl box set, there’s been some recent chatter of a “Ditch quadrilogy.” But Zuma is a poor fit with the other three; it’s a record made on a beach instead of On the Beach, a happy reunion and fresh beginning for Crazy Horse, and a goofy boys’ club hangout released only five months after Tonight’s the Night’s tortured slog. It hits the reset button in many ways—most literally with its opener, “Don’t Cry No Tears,” which recycles the melody from “I Wonder,” one of Young’s first recorded works with his high school band, the Squires.

It also marked Young’s decision to reform Crazy Horse for the first time since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro filling the big rhythm guitar shoes of Danny Whitten. That Young could even stomach replacing Whitten, two years after his death, signaled that the session in Malibu would be one of recovery and rebirth. That period was particularly debauched, with the recently divorced Young and his bandmates enjoyed the company of California girls and Colombian powder, and the party carried over into the “studio” (essentially just a room in producer David Briggs’ rental house). There, the new Crazy Horse got to know each other over some hastily written material, simplified to work with Poncho’s rudimentary guitar.

This lackadaisical formula explains the uneven nature of Zuma, which is equally filled with classics and duds. “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird” are two triumphantly moody, electric epics—lesser cousins to the “Down by the River”-style sprees of the first Crazy Horse, but still spacious opportunities for Young to revive his trademark lacerating guitar tone. It’s here that the sludgy Crazy Horse known today takes shape: the trade-out of the communicative Whitten for Sampedro’s simpler style creates that blunt sound. The rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina lurches menacingly through “Cortez” and “Danger Bird,” and Sampedro’s blocky guitar caddies for Young’s lengthy soloing.

The album’s two other highlights revive a breezy, poppy Young that had been missing since After the Gold Rush. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” is simple twangy country-rock well in the Horse’s wheelhouse, gilded with innocent backing harmonies. “Barstool Blues,” despite being a fairly shameless rip of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is a convincing and catchy depiction of drunken euphoria—and a pretty accurate portrait of Zuma’s making. On the less lovable side of the endless party, “Stupid Girl” is nowhere near good enough to justify its casual misogyny and title swipe from the Rolling Stones, and “Drive Back” is barely a song beneath its mighty riff and creepy piano. Leftovers tossed in from Homegrown (“Pardon My Heart”) and the aborted second CSNY record (“Through My Sails”) don’t quite fit the mood, presaging the less cohesive and spottier records over the rest of Young’s decade.

Still, if Zuma is an epilogue to the Ditch Trilogy, it’s also a prologue to the rest of Young’s career, kicking off his fickle, impulsive zig-zagging between genres and volume levels. That restlessness would keep Young vital long after his peers faded—and it can be traced all the way back to the stoned sunsets of Malibu, where Young decided to cry no more tears and move onward down the road, swerving all the way.