The trippy underground rock that soundtracked the work of Jess Franco movies.
During the 1960’s/1970’s, library (or production) music provided an economical off-the-shelf solution to creating soundtracks for lower-budgeted movies and TV programmes. The very nature of the industry meant that creators of library music could not expect the critical attention, let alone acclaim, afforded to the composers of bespoke movie scores. Similarly, the artists involved remained faceless; performing under pseudonyms or as part of a fabricated rock group whose name would only ever achieve public exposure via the tail-end of a film’s closing credits. By those on the financial side of the industry – and probably many of the artists involved too – library music was clearly perceived purely as a functional product with little or no artistic value in isolation to whatever visual material it eventually accompanied.
However, by the late Eighties, certain examples of library music had begun to acquire a small cult following amongst hip retroheads, leading to the CD release of testcard muzak compilations and primal electronica from the KPM vaults. Meanwhile, among hardcore psych/prog enthusiasts, a reputation was steadily building around an obscure 1971 Italian record by an outfit named Blue Phantom. Information surrounding the recording was scant. The text on the album cover was minimal; band members were neither pictured nor even named. Sure enough, the mystique, the strange track titles, not to mention the remarkable music, ensured that Distortions became irresistible to those with a love for the druggy, vaguely occult vibe of early Seventies underground rock. As it later transpired, Distortions was library music.
Research eventually revealed that H.Tical, the credited writer, was actually Armando Sciassia, soundtrack composer and owner of the library music label Vedette. Beyond the fact that Distortions was recorded in Milan and received a limited vinyl release in Italy, France, and the UK, little else is known. However, some of the music recently gained wider exposure when Mondo Macabro released the long-sought-after Jess Franco movies Sinner: Diary Of A Nymphomaniac (1972, pictured) and Countess Perverse (1972). Both films make creative use of Distortions highlight tracks. In particular, the hashish fug that hangs heavy over the former’s nightclub scenes is made all the more intoxicating by the potent acid-rock of Blue Phantom’s Diodo.
It’s abundantly clear that, as library music, Distortions was created to provide a soundtrack to movies/TV programmes aimed at a younger audience. The overall emphasis is firmly on fuzzed guitars and pounding rhythms; a sonic attack that seeks to emulates the popular heavy rock acts of the day. Distillation is certainly indebted to the primordial murk of early Black Sabbath from its moody Butleresque basslines to the wailing War Pigs air-raid siren. Microchaos takes the brutal simplicity of I Wanna Be Your Dog, hammering it to death with punk rock conviction, before shrill space-rock synths ascend through the ether. And Diodo is what would happen if the stylus got stuck in the groove of a particularly good Cream tune, at least until an intense staccato keyboard riff pummels your senses (a pattern that’s repeated until concussion sets in).
Certainly, a key aspect of Distortions’ enduring cult appeal is that in its more aggressive moments it rocks considerably harder than much of the famed proto-metal of its era, and showcases some truly explosive playing from the mystery session musicians.
But Distortions would not be so well-regarded if it was merely an above-average hard rock album. The music here is much more a product of psychedelia than it is of heavy blues, and in keeping with its cinematic aims, there’s a breadth of mood and musical colour spanning the ten tracks. Compression begins as a polite waltz overlaid with pristine, delicate harpsichord before unexpectedly mutating into a deranged circus theme where pipe-organ and a mocking wah-wah guitar grind together to nightmarish effect. The Sixties jazz vibe of Equilibrium is introduced with an endearingly sweet keyboard refrain, and eventually, a serene lead guitar shimmers into view bringing a sense of reflective melancholy. A piece that will surely evoke memories of the comforting incidental music that accompanied test-card broadcasts on a wet 1970’s afternoon.
Perhaps Distortions’ most adventurous track is the brain-scrambling Psycho Nebulous. Simultaneously, ahead-of-its-time and very much a 1971 acid casualty, its creepy electronica and shards of skeletal guitar eventually succumb to a berserk robotic clatter and a penetrating primitive synth melody. These would have been abrasive, alien sounds to 1971 ears and, charged as it is with a disturbing, mechanical mania, it still has considerable impact today.
Kismet’s 2012 reissue of Distortions is an acceptable replacement for both the eye-wateringly expensive original vinyl copies and the MP3 files that have circulated on blogs over the years, but with one significant flaw: Compression has a brief but very annoying mastering glitch where the track momentarily slows down and then skips over a few seconds of the music. The sound quality is a marginal improvement on the compressed vinyl-rips that most are accustomed to, but considering its origins Distortions has always had a pleasingly assertive punch anyway. However, some background crackling indicates that Kismet’s version was sourced from vinyl rather than the master-tapes. As a ‘bonus’, the only other track recorded under the Blue Phantom name has been tagged onto the running order. Unfortunately, Uncle Jim bears more resemblance to The Push Bike Shop than the acid-fried rock and artful experimentation of the preceding tracks.
Proving that library music is not always an alternative term for ‘muzak’, Distortions is a kaleidoscopic blast of inventive psych, avant-garde insanity, and mellow beauty however you choose to explore its heady charms.
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