John Weinzierl - electric guitar, acoustic 12-string, vocal|
- C.I.D. in Uruk [5:30]
- All the years 'round [7:20]
- Shimmering sand [6:33]
- Kronwinkl 12 [3:52]
- Tables are turned [3:34]
- Hawknose harlequin [9:48]
Chris Karrer - electric guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, soprano sax, vocal
Lothar Meid - bass, vocal
Renate Knaup - Krötenschwanz - vocal
Danny Fischelscher - drums, congas
Peter Leopold - drums, tambourine
Karl-Heinz Hausmann - keyboards, Farfisa organ
Joy Alaska - backing vocals
Olaf Kübler - Soprano sax, door
Falk U. Rogner - organ
This is a terribly underrated album. The problem with a band like Amon Duul II is that their sound and approach changed very radically as their career progressed, which means that you will have fans from all sides of the fence each harshly criticizing what they think to be the "bad albums" -- that are actually awesome -- which simply happened to have departed from their particular range of taste.
This album (the band's fourth) is a completely different affair than the three that preceded it, in that it begins to focus more on songwriting, vocal work, and a degree of cohesion; as opposed to turning all the amplifiers up to 11 and freaking out for entire album sides (which is equally delightful, of course).
So, naturally, all the stoned "early ADII fans" hear Carnival for the first time, and come away saying ridiculous things like, "It's a pop album! There's no improvisation! They've lost it!" This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, it's on THIS album that ADII's lead guitarist (John Weinzierl?) really comes into his own, and proceeds to rip it up gloriously all over each and every track! The ten minute epic "Hawknose Harlequin" is one of my absolute favorite ADII songs, with a lengthy instrumental outro section that contains some of the most delectable guitar jamming I've ever heard. What's more, the "raw" sound quality of their previous releases has been replaced by a pristine, gorgeous sonic atmosphere replete with vocal harmonies (Vocal harmonies? ADII?!?), shimmering keyboards, washed-out sound effects, and tone-perfect guitar breaks (at times reminiscent of Hendrix's prettier moments).
Needless to say, I adore this album (and it's follow-up "Wolf City") equally as much as I do the drugged-out insanity best represented on the first three releases, and at various points in time, Carnival in Babylon has actually been my *favorite* ADII album.
So, when you've "freaked out" enough for one day listening to their earlier stuff, check this one out and prepare for one of the most perfectly chilled-out musical gems to ever come out of Germany.
After 1971's Tanz Der Lemminge, Amon Düül II changed the direction of their sound. They didn't exactly become normal, but they did start making music that was less schizophrenic and which adhered more closely to conventional song structures. In this sense, they followed a creative arc that had more in common with American psychedelic bands than with the British progressive rock movement. 1972's Carnival in Babylon was the first ADII album to reflect these changes and I have noticed that it often gets overlooked in favor of their other 1972 release, Wolf City. This is unfortunate; while I do agree that Wolf City is the band's best post-Tanz Der Lemminge release, I think that Carnival in Babylon is a very good album which, while uneven, has plenty to offer in its own right.
Carnival in Babylon may mark Amon Düül II's movement toward greater accessibility, but this hardly means they sound "normal" here. The dynamic shifts that occur within the songs aren't as dramatic as on earlier records, and although this results in music that could be construed as less daring and a bit more predictable, it can also be interpreted as a sign of compositional maturity; certainly, it isn't necessary that a musical piece contain drastic changes in mood and character in order for it to be interesting.
Some of the songs may be shorter but, for the most part, the general feel of the music isn't drastically different from past albums, although it is more subdued. The music is dark sometimes twisted, sometimes haunting. These tunes are infested by a moldy creepiness that makes the party-themed title out to be a total misnomer.
The album features the usual sort of Amon Düül II instrumentation, although this one is particularly colored by electric guitar and violin. The two bands are very different, but I like to think of this era of ADII as a German variant on the sound of England's Van Der Graaf Generator: dark, gothic, and more about textures than virtuosity. But whereas VDGG's lyrics were stridently sincere, ADII sang about wacky nonsense that I often find humorously appealing in the way that only basic competence with English as a second language can be.
By my estimates, the top-notch songs are "C.I.D. In Uruk", "Ballad of the Shimmering Sand", and "Hawknose Harlequin". This is where Amon Düül II's old attitude, tripped-out style and ability to throw in catchy riffs are most evident to me. There's nothing really new happening here, but it's hardly a going-through-motions exercise, either.
My favorite track is "Hawknose Harlequin", an excursion which starts out as a cooly-loping rap punctuated by fluttering guitar riffs that seem inspired by Jimi Hendrix and finishes with a pulsing spaciness reminiscent of early Pink Floyd.
The other three tracks aren't bad, but I think they do expose some limitations.
"Kronwinkl" and "Tables Are Turned" are short, folkish songs without a whole lot of personality. They remind me a little of some of Fleetwood Mac's tunes from the same era. They're easily the most conventional songs on the album and perhaps there was an extent to which ADII could be conventional and remain interesting.
"All the Years Round" suffers from a weak vocal melody and has lyrics that I find to be distractingly silly. Nevertheless, after about five minutes the song abruptly shifts from being mostly acoustic and turns into a heavy-riffing, Hawkwind-style guitar workout. That works for me.
Carnival in Babylon is no masterpiece, but if you like Amon Düül II and for some reason thought that this album wasn't worth buying, I'd encourage you to give it a try. In my opinion, about 2/3 of the disc is made up of some choice ADII material. I should note that the 2002 remaster on Repertoire Records has three bonus tracks; I have not heard this release, however.
2005. Matt P.
As the 70s progressed, Amon Düül II put the kibosh on their lengthy, side-long improvisations and the meandering psychedelic madness that flowed from their previous albums. Carnival in Babylon saw them with tighter musicianship and, for the most part, following standard rock song structures and length. Despite these concessions to accessibility, however, one still couldn't really call the band conventional at this point. Their brand of psych-rock looked to the West Coast for inspiration, and seems particularly to fit in nicely as across-the-Atlantic companion pieces to the early Paul Kantner-led Jefferson Starship albums: layered acoustic and electric guitars; a distinctive lead woman vocalist playing off male vocals; and the free-spirited, cryptic lyrics that were the currency of the counterculture.
All of the songs on this album have something to offer. My favorite is "All the Years 'Round", led by the aforementioned lady lead, Renate Knaup. The song's verses sound almost like Knaup is submerged in fog or waking up from a dream. There is some fantastic lyrical imagery: "At the circus they were waiting/for a splendid slot machine/ which could turn wine into water/and reality into a dream." In the final moments, however, the song shifts gear into a great, electric jam centered around a simple, ascending E-minor scale.
"Kronwinkl" is also built around strong riffing, this time in a 9-beat, and has some more playfully odd lyrics ("Taking the cake means baking your own time").
"Tables are Turned" is another strong point of the album, an acoustic song that puts the listener on safer footing with its gentle, tuneful atmosphere.
"Hawknose Harlequin", the final track, comes closest to the looseness that harkens back to the earlier albums, seemingly cobbled together from three different ideas. The first section has vocals, apparently recounting the legend of the title character. This leads into the middle section, a mellow, legato jam that would not have been out of place on Pink Floyd circa Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon. Finally, in the last third of the song, the band disconnect the fuel rockets and jump into the stars never to return, with a more laid back jam characterized by echoing lead guitar and glistening organ.
If I had to name an Achilles heel of the band, it would have to be the vocals. Renate Knaup is easily the band's best bet in the vocal department, though even hers are still an acquired taste, with often piercing intonations that are like the German equivalent of the Incredible String Band's Licorice McKhenie. Once you get past her, the pickings are slim: the remaining male vocals are generally abysmal and sometimes not even audible, and the group harmonies together (e.g., "C.I.D. in Uruk") are limp and unconvincing. Also, this was obviously not the most meticulously produced album. These negatives, though, are easily countered by the band rolling up their sleeves and slapping a lot of energy in between those vinyl grooves. An enjoyable German rock import, and one that tends to get looked over for the next album in the AD2 discography, Wolf City, though it's probably just as good.
2005. Joe McGlinchey