Possibilities & Subversions

When I met Harry Rag, the singer with the German band S.Y.P.H., I discovered someone whose musical journey was very akin to my own. Reared on the bloated orthodoxies of 70’s rock and whitewashed television culture, when punk rock came along, for both of us, everything froze. History was scorned, our teenage worlds caterwauled and for a brief moment it seemed as though the future was now. In London, New York, and in nameless suburbs everywhere, luminous, empowering secrets were hurriedly being revealed. You sensed in your gut you had to grab them fast before they became as corrupted and boring as everything else you knew. Of course from our 21st century vantage point this historical moment can seem naive and over eulogized. But there was something in the air then, and I don’t feel foolish when I write that it felt very real and very sacred.

Certainly our shared story is far from unique. At the dawn of punk, countless record collections were discarded, countless wardrobes were re-imagined and countless bands were created. The defining thing about S.Y.P.H. is how they breathed in the defiant air of that time and blew it back out, in a singular and lasting way.

In 1978, when they formed, they were without dispute one of Germany’s first punk bands. But once you dig into their ten-album catalog it becomes clear that punk rock for them was more an attitude than an actual sound. Possibly only the spiky anthems of their self-titled first album can be definitively called “Punk.” By the second album “PST”(1980) Holger Czukay from Can was on board as producer, and the fast and loud aesthetic of the debut had given way to a loose, freewheeling sound montage. There was no manifesto to follow, only infinite possibilities and subversions. One can easily argue, it was at this point that S.Y.P.H. helped create the apex that united the Kraut rock pioneers (Can, Neu! & Faust) with the metallic K.O. of the punk generation. Other important bands attempted this fusion (P.I.L, The Fall, D.A.F), but few have pulled it off with the same ease and lack of self-consciousness.

Not being able to speak German beyond a few words on a menu, I know I miss many of S.Y.P.H’s charms and subtleties. But one shouldn’t let linguistic handicaps deter them from seeking out this band. Harry Rag’s voice is a language in itself: taunting, vulnerable, shambolic, confident, earnest, ironic. And the music is a kaleidoscope of experimentation, ambition and texture. Punk rock, ambient dirges, Kinks-like pop songs, frenzied guitar workouts, bleeping electronica and slow, dark dub, all miraculously rub shoulders on this collection. While the words might elude you, there is still plenty to chew on. The emotion is fractured, the energy is fluorescent and the musical images are sharp as crystal. Like all great rock and roll, these songs resonate deep and true, even without translation.

Chris Eckman. Ljubljana. Feb. 1st, 2004