I’ve always had a soft spot for “cult” classics. As a teenager, I was always looking for classic films, such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the quasi-gothic classic Donnie Darko. In music, I’ve been the same way. Underground music always tends to speak to me a little more deeply, such the Italian double bassist Fernando Grillo or the Argentinian composer Mario Davidovsky. Hermann Szobel’s self-titled record certainly falls under the cult following category, but this title is obtained more because of the history surrounding his record, rather than what his record actually sounds like.
A prodigy at the age of six, Szobel was modestly known in Vienna for being a monstrously talented pianist. In 1976, Szobel released his first and only recording at the age of eighteen on Arista Records. He suffered from a nervous breakdown shortly after its release…fleeing the music scene and never to be heard from again.
Szobel’s record was only just re-issued by The Lasers Edge on CD, for the rest of the world to finally hear. From a first listen, the instability of his emotions is extremely clear, starting with the opening track “Mr. Softee.” Throughout this track, the listener is taken on a highly erratic, yet beautiful ride, opening with a beautiful ballad style piano cadenza. Less than a minute in, Szobel darkly introduces the percussion and bass, foreshadowing the curving moods that are so prominent on the record. Less than a third of the way into “Mr. Softee,” we get the main vibe of the record, which features highly complex and fast riffs played in instrumental unison. Featuring an instrumentation of piano, woodwinds, bass, and two percussionists, the record sounds very similar to the music of Frank Zappa or George Duke, who utilized the language of jazz harmony but often approached it with more of a rock feel. “Mr. Softee” is certainly one of the strongest tracks on the record, for it goes through so many different styles and moods that it is impossible for the listener to not take notice. However, the track ends with a disappointing fade-out, leading me to believe that Szobel had a hard time finishing his acrobatic works.
Throughout the rest of the record, Szobel and his group impresses me on so many levels, not just on a technical level (the musicians deserve as many props as even Szobel himself!) but on a production level as well. For instance, the use of phaser on the drums on “Transcendental Floss” give the track a very loopy feel, but not in a funny way. In this light, the music really does stand apart from its colleagues such as Zappa, who although was notorious for being a ball buster on the road and in the studio, created a very comical and accessible product for his listeners. While the music on Szobel can sound comical at times (mainly due to its instrumentation), the logic behind the compositions are so convicted that they are parallel with any serious composer. At first, the advanced language of Szobel’s felt like muscle flexing to me, since very rarely did the record fall back on a more melodic approach. However, the final track “New York City, 6AM” leaves on the note that I felt was lacking. The sweeping electronic sounds paired with the busy drums leaves an impression of the never dormant city taking a much-needed breather. However, the track ends the record with yet another fadeout, which really leaves the listener wanting more (in a bad way).
When Szobel was released in 1976, Downbeat magazine praised its provocative approach, but not so much on what the music actually sounded like. Downbeat claimed that Szobel had “a conception and technique far in advance of most musicians twice his age,” and there is certainly no denying that. While in today’s world young musicians all over are producing incredibly complex music, at the time of its original release, most people were in their late thirties creating their magnum opus. However, while “Szobel” clearly showcases his compositional and technical abilities, it is not as if he was the first one to create a record such as this, since musicians such as Zappa, Miles Davis, and Weather Report were already far into the game of progressive fusion. The variety in Szobel’s personality, though clearly distraught and full of emotion is somewhat lacking, since he only was able to muster up one record in over forty years. However, the record still merits a hearty and enjoyable listen, with much replay value at that. “Szobel” certainly is a cult classic, but had he created more music in the past forty years, this record would only be considered an ambitious debut. According to the liner notes on the record, rumor has it that Szobel is still alive and well, living somewhere in Austria but completely out of the music scene. I can only hope that he breaks out of his shell yet again and produces another record, which I have no doubt would be leaps and bounds ahead of his already fascinating repertoire.
Key Tracks: Mr. Softee, Trancendental Floss, New York City, 6AM
August 14, 2012