Beyond The Year 2000
We are beyond the year 2000, and one thing is for sure: forecasts, developments and incidents turned out to be rather different from the mid-century modern prospects and thought bubbles in terms of the millennium. The colorful futuristic pop art of painters and illustrators like Syd Mead haven't become reality. But why the quibbles and negative rantings if the artifacts of the late 50's and 60's can bring us much joy – and so much more bewilderment plus a malicious grin. The 101 Strings fall into all of the above categories, at least their bravely and imaginatively titled 1969 release Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 does without hesitation. Oh boy, what a great title! I've already reviewed a few works of this ever-changing symphonic collective and will continue to do so. This work, however, is their best-known, much beloved and most accursed shark-jumping entry in their vast discography. It is worth mentioning on so many levels, since it affects and permeates our perception on so many layers, and no, there's no LSD involved! Originally, the 101 Strings were all about Easy Listening back in 1957 when the 120+ instrumentalists – and one female harpist – recorded their debut A Night In The Tropics in Hamburg, Germany under the watchful eyes of Somerset label boss David L. Miller. This first entry was definitely exotic enough to consider it a symphonic Exotica release, if only a distant one. From this point on, shedloads of albums were released, the 101 Strings became a label, institution and even a phenomenon, always relying on the string side of things, with occasional mallet or brass instruments thrown in wherever the respective conductor saw them fit. And then there's Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000. Recorded shortly after the height of the Space-Age era and moon race craze, this is, as I've implied above, their standout work. It's a hallmark of strangeness, a milestone of quirky psychedelia and a strong sign that the novelty factor of the mellifluous 101 string releases wore thin. Anyway, here's how the appeal of this release is to be perceived in one short sentence: psy- and surf-guitarist Jerry Cole (1939–2008) wakes up one day and finds himself in-between a string orchestra. There you have it. A kafkaesque start. But that's only one half of the story, for Cole and arranger Monty Kelly originally formed the ephemeral Krautrock collective The Egg together with a few other session musicians. Some of their compositions were then baked into the Astro-Sounds album and – depending on your viewpoint – ridiculed, enhanced or destroyed by phantasmagoric orchestra strings. Ten tracks are presented on the original LP which is easily available in dozens of formats with bonus tracks and other stuff. Read about the original cult-following incarnation of 1969 below.
The psychedelia launches with Flameout and is basically the original song of The Egg, but abridged by around 30 seconds. Sizzling staccato stabs of an electric guitar are complemented by the classic drum kit groove and eerie theremin-like violin strings that illuminate the otherwise warm track with their icy blue luminosity. While the incessantly repeated warm acoustic guitar backings are almost unnoticeable due to the various buzzes and hisses, their coziness is absolutely astonishing and balmy. It's a wonderfully glitzy track that is surprisingly catchy and spacey to the max. Re-Entry To Mog offers a Balearic take on the formula, with an upbeat base frame of jazzy warmth, a multitude of guitar textures, a honky tonk piano, short intersections of glacial violin strings and an occasional scent of cacophony, while the euphoric third track called Space Odyssey meshes the tonality of a banjo-fueled bonfire ditty with classic clean guitar glitters, harpsichord curlicues and a quick rhythm. It's a surprisingly catchy arrangement with great riffs, but it might be too saccharine for a great many people. Astral Freakout is another hit in my book, for the heavily filtered acid guitar is juxtaposed to sizzling-hot Hammond organ accompaniments, and both instruments rev up the Rock flavor of this LP. The organ goes nuts during a great solo in the middle of the track. But where's the strings? Well, they are only apparent in the last third of Astral Freakout where they gleam piercingly in sky-high regions. The following Orbit Fantasy injects a glaring Surf Rock attitude to the mix, with wonky electric guitar twangs, an oscillating trace of pink noise and much more prominent orchestra strings. The beat strolls along, is pinched and slowed-down at times, but it is Cole's catchy surf guitar with scents of nastiness and careless bravery that paint the wonderful picture of amicable surfers gliding on rainbows in space. No Nyan Cats necessary. The final piece of side A starts with foggy sounds of a jet engine and moves forward to syrupy realms: Barrier X-69 merges the thin but filtered sounds of misty guitar twangs, golden-shimmering acoustic guitar melodies and eupeptic washes of violin strings, and this time, they really add majesty and glee to the song. It's a perfectly warm ending of side A and a show-stopper for sure.
Side B only contains four songs in the original version, but they continue to shine on. The creatively titled A Disappointed Love With A Desensitized Robot is a pumping Rock tune loaded with car horn organs, the crunchy overdrive of the warm guitars, moments of wurlitzer goodness, ethereal violin strings and a climax of four rising notes that grow in intensity and happiness. Where Were You in 1982? reduces the attack of the guitars and puts the focus on the orchestra strings that are blurred as they're being filtered with analogue equipment. Apart from these particularities, the song structure is similar to the previous track. Trippin' On Lunar '07 is a different beast, as it starts with a wonderfully galactic electric guitar riff which is followed by a strolling downbeat full of spiraling colorful strings that reside yet again in a threatening dark matter galaxy, but boost the mystique of this rather strange composition. The final A Bad Trip Back To '69 takes the listener back to warmer, much more mundane territories. The organ is swirling frantically, the castanet-hand clap rhythm as well as the flowing cascades of violin strings provide a more human, upbeat atmosphere. As the space elements are strongly reduced, this is undoubtedly the weakest track with all of its unique selling points removed. It's a profane Rock song, and though the orchestra strings are filtered and modulated, they cannot elevate this track to higher dimensions. A lackluster outro of an otherwise – dare I say it? – vivifying and multicolored journey through space, as imagined by the people in 1969.
Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 is, in the end, intriguing and worth your while. It's by no means a good album per se. And true-spirited Exotica particles? Forget about them. But since it so utterly differs from the 101 Strings' widespread and vast material of the 50's and 60's and due to this LP being on the brink of a new technocratic decade, it's an important cultural artifact of the times, or rather: it's their most important release that has since then been cited, analyzed and mashed-up several times on the internet, an invention which remains curiously neglected in the liner notes, hehe. If you did not know about the inclusion of the 101 Strings on these Rock tunes, you'd never believe it. The orchestra strings are only scattered on this release and never in the limelight. And yet does their inclusion enhance the quality of the release, whether you like it or not: it's not just a quirky Krautrock album by a bunch of isolated hippies. These gentlemen rather are surrounded by the 101 Strings and a high-budget smell. Could this be the most expensive Krautrock/Space-Age production in the history of music? I don't know, but it's undoubtedly a unique enough fact to stress the importance of this singular sidestep in the history of this symphonic orchestra. Why is it intriguing today? Firstly, it depicts futuristic sceneries from the viewpoint of 1969, right after the moon landing, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 and the overwhelming technocratic feeling of quality-enhancing lives and better daily routines through technology. Secondly, this release focuses on Jerry Cole, not the orchestra. The strings are clearly added as an afterthought, and this might cause a stale aftertaste. However, I can relate to these tactics and accept this fact. If your opinion varies, that's perfectly fine and understandable. Lastly, the wonders of electronic music production enter a 101 Strings record. Released at a time when the Dub genre rose in Jamaica, the inclusion of rudimentary electric pianos and related gadgetry gained acceptance, if only on a slowly increasing level. Astro-Sounds even contains traces of Funk. Since it is on the brink of so many stylistic movements, historic events and a clever augmentation of Daniel L. Miller's original vision of the symphonic orchestra, it's definitely worth mentioning and knowing. I for one fell prey to its gorgeous melodies, spacey licks and haunting strings. It's no Exotica album per se, but closely related due to the glaring Space-Age inheritance. It's neither tropical, nor Polynesian, but if you're open-minded and generous, consider this album as a strange but interesting footnote on one of the last pages of the Exotica genre. It's greater than you think, and the benign space opera aura is totally inviting.
Exotica Review 135: 101 Strings – Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 (1969). Originally published on Oct. 20, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.