Under the label “Neue Deutsche Welle” (German New Wave) German music was really hip in the early 1980s. Sometimes, this led to strange conjunctions: record companies and magazines indiscriminately lumped together crap like Nena, EAV or Hubert Kah on the one hand with excellent and influential bands like Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten, FSK, Fehlfarben and Cassiber.
Cassiber (the name means "a message smuggled out of prison") were a visionary, radical, left-wing avant-garde collective featuring Christoph Anders (voice, synthesizers, guitar, tenor sax, cassettes, violin) Heiner Goebbels (keyboards, guitars, bass, synthesizers), Alfred Harth (saxes, clarinets, trombone, trumpet and cello) and This Heat and Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler exploring the limits of post-punk, funk, free jazz and sampling techniques.
Their first album “Man or Monkey” is a plain masterpiece using pre-composed structures as well as free improvisation (with emphasis on the latter). Christoph Anders rather barks and shouts than sings his rudimentary lyrics, it sounds as if he was panicking. Alfred Harth is in charge of the free jazz part, while Goebbels adds serious new music piano clusters. The whole thing is driven by Cutler’s energetic punk/art rock explosions. In their best moments Cassiber sounds as if a free jazz band is jamming with German kraut rock legend Can.
However, they have always had a postmodern approach using references to pure pop from the very beginning - like in “O cure me” with its melodic saxophone line and its mainstream keyboard sounds, which they immediately alienated by disharmonic chords, honks, the strange vocals and an angular violin. Other songs are based on allusions to the music of Robert Wyatt (“Die Verunreinigung des Flusses ist gerade noch erträglich”). The title track presents a world which is completely apart at the seams, a total chaos illustrated by a collage of horror organ parts, strange speech samples, lost saxophones and trombones, dissonant guitar splinters and junkyard percussion – even from today’s point of view a very ambitious and visionary track. “Man or Monkey” presents Cassiber as a band which improvises “with prepared texts and an intention to arrive at coherent structures” (Chris Cutler).
The next three studio albums, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Perfect Worlds” and “A Face We All Know”, focus more on the avant-garde art aspect and sampling in the disadvantage of the free jazz elements or – as Chris Cutler also says in the liner notes – the approach had changed as the group had evolved. Music and words were used as a form of cultural debris in order to alienate familiar sounds and melodies. “Beauty and the Beast” contains fragments from Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw” and Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” (“In einer Minute”), Brecht/Eisler and Sun Ra elements and a Nile Rodgers composition (“At Last I am Free”). While Chic’s original is a glamorous, proud and beautiful hymn symbolically charged with the political situation of the 1970s, Cassiber relate the track rather to the musical situation and enrich the song with strange noise.
The fact that improvisation was less important for them was the reason why Alfred Harth left the band in 1986 and the concept changed again to even more written stuff. “Perfect Worlds” was a “more coherent set of compositions … stripped down and augmented with overdubs”, as Cutler says. It is most obvious in a track like “Crusoe’s Landing” for which the trio uses samples of Beethoven’s third symphony while Anders is reciting the German version of Daniel Defoe’s novel. “Perfect Worlds” seems to try to combine sophisticated culture with alternative art music.
Consequently, the band’s last studio album, “A Face We All Know” was completely pre-written and dramaturgical. According to Cutler it had to be read more like a movie than like an album. Based on Cutler’s writings and on texts by Thomas Pynchon the record is a conglomeration of speech samples, elaborated noise elements and intellectual art rock.
The box also includes a CD with “Collaborations”, live performances which present the band in a different line-up. The first collaboration was assembled for the Moers Festival in 1983 and the band, who played the gig without Christoph Anders, was augmented by Dagmar Krause (vocals), Tom Cora (cello, bass, tapes and electrics), Fred Frith (guitar, bass and tapes) and George Lewis (trombone). It is Cassiber’s most radical approach, both as to music and as to politics. As a reaction to the installation of Pershing and SS20 missiles in Germany in the early 1980s the band used a lot of Brecht/Eisler material and tried to include more free improvisation to express that there was no safety in these times. Many compositions sound like early John Zorn tracks (or vice versa, of course).
The second collaboration is “Cassix”, seven tracks (all of them duos) which were recorded as part of a public workshop project in Italy in 1983. Here Cassiber are joined by Franco Fabbri (g), Umberto Fiori (voc) and Pino Martini (b). The music is very unlike the rest of Cassiber’s work, sometimes even close to early 1980s pop music like Peter Gabriel, for example.
Additionally “Cassiber Box” contains “The Way It Was”, live recordings and studio sketches from 1986 – 1989, which provide interesting work-in-progress understanding.
Even more than the CDs, the DVD “Elvis has just left the building” shows the power and the intensity Cassiber generated live. Especially the concert at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt in 1982 impressively demonstrates their concept of “inclusivity, hybridity and fragmentation” (Kersten Glandien in the liner notes). This live footage of their best tracks “Our Colourful Culture”, “Man or Monkey” and “O cure me” is worth buying this box alone.
The DVD also presents another live gig from Sao Paolo in 1984 – a different, although very energetic performance as well – and “Cassiber at Akademie der Künste der DDR”. Although the title suggests it this is not a live concert but rather a mixture between documentary and video.
In a nutshell: Cassiber were a fantastic band. Having almost all their recordings in a six-CD-box (plus a DVD!) is a real treat.
“The Cassiber Box” is limited to 1000 copies and available InstantJazz.
Listen to “Our Colourful Future” from “Man or Monkey”: