Reviews \

Craig Leon Reissues His Techno-Futurist Masterpiece, ‘Nommos / Visiting’

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Label: RVNG Intl.

Originally released in 1980, Craig Leon’s Nommos bridged worlds in unlikely ways. Here we had an artist who had worked as a producer on some of New York’s most feral rock records — the Ramones’ Ramones, Blondie’s Blondie, Suicide’s Suicide — turning up with a solo album on John Fahey’s Takoma, a label best known for fleetly finger-picked folk music.

Not only was Nommos not acoustic; it was entirely electronic. Leon and his partner, Cassell Webb, created the five-track album using only the Roland Jupiter-4, ARP 2600, and Oberheim OB-X synthesizers along with a prototype drum simulator invented by Roger Linn that Leon learned to use without a manual or, indeed, any markings on the machine itself. The result was one of the strangest, most hypnotic, and most otherworldly examples of electronic music released before or since — a kind of four-dimensional proto-techno that fused buzzing, ring-modulated drones with shuddering, metallic rhythms, and that joined the techno-futurism of its materials with the myth system of Mali’s Dogon tribe, which a pair of French anthropologists had theorized might once have been contacted by extra-terrestrial beings. Like I said: far-out stuff.

The album is long out of print, save for a 2011 bootleg and an unauthorized reissue last year, and second-hand copies tend to go for around $100. So we’re fortunate to have this lavish “re-edition” from New York’s RVNG label. (For this edition, Leon broke out his original score and notes and completely re-recorded Nommos, apparently as a means of getting around some ownership dispute concerning the original album’s masters. The track lengths on the new versions differ slightly from the originals, and the sound quality is richer and louder, but otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to notice much difference between the two.)

The RVNG re-edition goes one better, pairing Nommos with 1982’s similarly out-of-print Visiting, meant at the time as a companion piece. Where Nommos was intended as a kind of work of speculative sonic fiction — an attempt to imagine what the music of the Dogon people’s alleged extra-terrestrial visitors might have sounded like — Visiting, Leon says, was intended to evoke similar ideas using a more “earthbound” system. Regardless, its shimmering drones and plucked metallic twang are just as otherworldly — poised suggestively between new age, new wave, ambient, and what would soon become known as techno.

Thirty-two years later, Leon’s minimalist masterpiece of unearthly electronic sound, along with its successor, still sounds quite unlike anything else. Its signature is immediately identifiable — a weird, tubular buzz that sounds like a thousand whirly tubes rotating in concert with an oversized jaw harp. It’s perfect for zoning out to, yet its thrumming, almost tribal pulsations separate it from Brian Eno’s far more contemplative vision of ambient music. Its mechanical chug often recalls Neu!’s motorik pulse, while its more placid harmonies and ethereal pads come close to the beatific frequencies of new agers like Suzanne Ciani.

Just going by sonics alone, Nommos would be an essential record for any fan of minimalist electronic music, analog synthesis, techno primitivism, etc.; it offers a direct antecedent to a vast constellation of contemporary music clustered around names like Container, Vatican Shadow, Demdike Stare, Sandwell District, Regis, John Elliott and his Spectrum Spools label, the Blackest Ever Black label, et al. And given the particularities of the Dogon belief system — the Nommos are supposedly amphibious, humanoid creatures able to live underwater — the project even anticipates, albeit obliquely, the Afrofuturist mythology of Detroit’s Drexciya, who dreamed up a race of subaquatic mutants born from African mothers who perished during the Middle Passage.

But beyond being a fantastically immersive listening experience, the record’s very existence is so delightfully improbable that this re-edition, which includes a detailed essay from Leon himself, feels like a celebration of the kind of aleatory magic that has become rarer and rarer in a record industry squeezed to death by project managers and bean counters. As we learn in Leon’s accompanying essay, the project’s backstory doesn’t just join the world of CBGBs with Takoma’s actual country, bluegrass, and blues; Nommos’ Six Degrees of Separation also extend to the Mothers of Invention, Phil Spector, Neil Young’s Harvest, The Exorcist, and “Muskrat Love.” (You’ll have to read Leon’s essay to get all those connections — plus a kinda-sorta cameo from Vincent Price — but I promise, it’s worth it.) Thanks to the Roger Linn connection, you could even argue that Leon’s crucial R&D work led, in a roundabout way, to “When Doves Cry,” probably the most iconic use of a LinnDrum ever. At the center of all these things — plus, of course, all the Nommos-inspired ambient music that has followed — the album sits like a kind of cosmic keystone.