If anyone happened to be curious where both industrial and black metal were born, all they would need to do is trace the dim light path from the ancient black star that was “Caledonia”, the first track off Cromagnon’s straight up bonkers 1969 Orgasm record. And while birthing two genres would be more than enough to earn a Wiki entry for any band, Cromagnon went on to sprout sub genres such as noise rock, no wave, and lo fi as well over the eight tracks that made up their only record. The fact that Cromagnon only had this one record is a feat in and of itself, leaving them one of the lone bands that had the sense to fade out while still on top. They came. They got really, really, really fucking weird. And then they left. Leaving the rest of us stunned in the eclectic, brilliantly-colored dust they left in their wake.
So who were these Cromagnons? That’s an abstract question when it comes to these dudes, but factually Cromagnon was a multi-instrumentalist duo named Brian Elliot and Austin Grasmere who were living in NYC but were allegedly both from Connecticut. Apparently there was a studio on the Upper West Side called A-1 Sound that was lenient enough to allow these two street urchins to record in its hallowed halls, augmented by a steady stream of winos and homeless individuals and Bellevue-bound souls who were ushered in off the street to help with the recording. And then there was a record label, ESP-Disc, who made the interesting decision to go on ahead and release the whole shebang under the title Orgasm in the autumn of 69.
It’s tough to imagine what the staff at ESP-Disc thought when they cued up Track One on this thing. A radio dial fade-in, crickets rubbing their legs together in some ancient forest of eternal night, then you have bagpipes crashing in over the most stone age drumming ever on record, and this is all before the first ever black metal vocal kicks in a full two decades before it ever happened again. Sure, you could write this all off as “experimental” and move on with your life, but that would be a mistake. For unlike with the majority of sound-for-the-sake-of-sound releases only of interest to music critics (we’re looking at YOU, new Low album), “Caledonia” is an actual song with a variety of hooks coming out of the woodwork, a chorus, a bridge, and an overall melodic feel completely in line with today’s breed of tuneful black metal tribes. “Caledonia” could very easily be slipped into a modern day buzz band playlist and you would be none the wiser. It’s no wonder Ghost covered this thing, given that they learned everything they know from it, but still they failed to capture the overall strangeness of the original with its seemingly disparate elements gelling together in a rollicking, tripped-out, eternally triumphant track that was just too good to remain obscure as fated.
What can anyone say about Track Two, a little ditty named “Ritual Feast Of The Libido” that consists of some lunatic screaming as if a hellhound were on his trail and dragging chains across the studio floor over a drum pattern so capital “P” primitive that it could have been a child or ape behind the snares, other than the fact that it’s easily one of the strangest songs in existence? Then there’s “Organic Sundown” with its PCP drum circle rhythm section and ritual chanting that takes cues from Sgt. Peppers and Satanic Majesties but gleefully runs them so far off the rails they spin out on the bad trip desert floor. How did they even record this “song”? There has to be at least 70 or maybe even a hundred individual tracks going on at the same time, all spliced together until they sound like teardrops in a dark ocean. Is that a cat on there at one point? And what types of awful curses are going on in those whispers that come in at the 6:48 mark? This is nightmare music right here, ladies and gentlemen, constructed long before creating an aural bad vibe was a thing. You could call it ridiculous, but that would be the point.
Speaking of ridiculous, “Fantasy” kicks off with some barber shop quartet vocalisms, the cackling of a stoned-out woman, what sounds like someone eating chips, and the hiss of an unspooling tape. And then things get really strange. Snatches of spoken word poetry that seem to be making fun of spoken word poetry, a coo coo clock, an urban hell of sirens congealing into a single drone, and the same radio stations flashing by on a hastily turned dial that we were greeted with on “Caledonia”. This all serves as a hot gate for a thing called “Crow Of The Black Tree” which turns out to be a completely unexpected, gorgeously shimmering acoustic folk track over which a bunch of lumpen hippies chant a bunch of witchy shit startlingly on pitch. Much like “Caledonia”, “Crow” is a track so far ahead of its time it would take decades to truly sink in. All that bearded, bombastic, pseudo-rustic freak-folk you listen to? These dudes were doing that in 69 on one song they liked enough to tack onto the back end of their album as an afterthought.
“Genitalia” sits right there with “Libido” as one of the strangest tracks ever laid down. Is that the screeching of vultures behind the dude randomly crooning a standard? And if so, does this represent the death of those standards? And what exactly is that “twisted banister” poem all about? For over ten minutes, “Toth, Scribe 1” full-tilt haunts you with its ambient, ancient dust vibes. Lots of songs have shot for the whole mystical ancient knowledge thing, indeed many bands have built their whole run on it, but this right here is the only song that actually sounds like it comes straight from a stone monolith temple as the solstice sun rises over it. It’s the closest thing to “soothing” Cromagnon ever managed, and even here there are distant awful crashings happening, the sounds of ancient laborers dragging rocks over barren terrain, digital fuzz…noise rock in other words, birthed on the Upper West Side of late ’60s NYC far from RISD or wherever it now resides.
What better way to close this synapse-frying trip out than “First World Of Bronze”? For the only time on the record we hear an actual electric guitar, competently played but buried under a mound of haze. “Knowing of the ships at ocean, the circuit board autumn harvest” goes the chant, fading out into an ether that lingers for several still minutes before the needle skips off the record.
An album so strange it’s tough to even write about, so influential that those influenced by it still can’t understand it, so completely obscure but abstractly well-known, the birth and the death of dozens of genres, indulgent but minimalist, ridiculous but mysterious, deconstructionist but strangely traditional.
It’s the last chanted line on “Bronze” that really hits home here, that makes one see that the Cromagnon dudes were fully aware of what they were creating and the long term effect it would eventually have on the musical landscape:
A promise made, a promised kept, in a day conceived but not yet born