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Abacus


Originating in 1971 as a beat-pop band (Fashion) in Hamm, near Dortmund in Germany, ABACUS were well received by over a quarter million attendees at the Germersheim Rock Festival alongside PINK FLOYD, SANTANA and ELP. Over several ensuing years, ABACUS lost their way a little and ending up unfettering four very different albums – two for Polydor, two for Zebra Records – that veered in different directions in a way that could not quite find their forte among the big boys from Britain. Musically, their eponymous LP was their most progressive, as during the 70s, changing personnel morphed them into a more mainstream British rock/ pop direction; Chris Williams (vocals, guitar, percussion) was in fact from ex London psych band GRAIL, while other original ABACUS originals featured Hans Rolf “Charly” Schade (guitar, sitar), Chris Barutzky (keyboards), Klaus Kohlhase (bass) and Felix Hans (drums, percussion).
Taking elements of classical and pastoral folk music, the opening Track on ABACUS (1971) {*8}: ‘Pipedream Revisited’, was a promising start, with Barutzky the musical kingpin in his tasty organ textures. While the two-part, 9+ minutes of music incorporated an outstanding 4-minute instrumental, it deftly segued into ‘Capuccino’ in which Barutzky excelled himself a la KEITH EMERSON-like runs; Schade also delivered a solo reminiscent of JAN AKKERMAN; all spelling out the musical ambition before a more folk-tinged edge rooted in British beat and psych took over (one could find echoes of EGG in ‘Don’t Beat So On The Horses’). There was some delicious sitar and organ work on the remaining songs, including one called ‘Song For John And Yoko’ – not so much a ballad. On penultimate piece, ‘Radbod Blues’, the rhythms were complex; the number playful like a revved-up NICE with a fine drum solo by Hans.
1972’s JUST A DAY’S JOURNEY AWAY! {*6} started off splendidly with the 7 minute nautical epic ‘Seasong’, and it was evident on two counts: that their music was no longer reliant on the organ and that Chris Williams was a versatile singer who delivered a memorable melody in an unassuming folk-rock style; example on ‘Munchen 23’ where the growing maturity of the song-writing was revealed and Barutzky’s wah piano and Schade’s guitar were very DOORS-esque. Indeed Schade was far more prominent on this album than their eponymous album, while Williams was far more assertive a contributor. Other songs didn’t come off as well and some country rock (a la ‘Ballad of Lucky Luke’) couldn’t match the band’s wayward style. Things got much better when they returned to a more experimental format; i.e. the sitar was prominent again on ‘White House May Come White House May Go’ – a very West Coast-styled song. However, the hoedown toward the end merely reinforced their lack of direction. The bit of boogie on ‘What Else’; where piano, synth, guitar, bass and drums joust it out, was more cohesive, even if it seemed ideas for the album were getting a tad thin on the ground.
Konstantin H. Bommerius came in on drums for EVERYTHING YOU NEED (1972) {*5}, while both Schade and Barutzky dabbled with Moog synthesisers. The album had a side-long suite portraying a dystopian vision of society that seemed like an attempt to emulate some heavy rock Brit bands, or perhaps fellow German bands such as TRIUMVIRAT in their “Illusions on a Double Dimple” heyday. Segues one and two, `What A Day’ and ‘Paranoia Agency’, sounded somewhat GENTLE GIANT-meets-glam, or indeed other Vertigo Records bands like NIRVANA (no, not that one!). It was a surprising departure of style, but then again all ABACUS albums were weird but not wonderful. The addition of sax didn’t really work and the singing and arrangement on songs like ‘Don’t Worry’ seemed quite lightweight overall. The album ended perplexingly with a STACKRIDGE-esque Charleston.
1974’s MIDWAY {*7} anchored itself with a mature piece of prog – the title track, clocking as it did at 10½ minutes (with excellent drumming from fresh face Allan Warran). Most of the other pieces were in the 3-minute price-range; exampled on the swirling ‘Be Beholding’. One minute they could jazz it up like GONG, other times they possessed a quirky manifesto due to Williams’ vocal stylizations. Songs such as ‘Herman the German’ was basically a folk singalong with harmonica and a necessary infusion of dark humour essential to the prog-folk world (think The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND). The old quixotic quirkiness was maintained on songs like `11 Farden’, whilst there was some tasty synth on ‘For the Moment (Unaware)’. The old organ based music had definitely dissipated.
ABACUS re-formed in 1979, but with only one original member, Klaus Kohlhase. Jurgen Wimpelberg from that line-up kept the band going into the new millennium with four more releases. With none of the original band members remaining, a French-only CD, FIRE BEHIND BARS {*3} was released in 2001, followed by the much-improved DESTINY {*5}, in 2010, both on the Musea label.
In 2012, Green Tree Records released re-mastered versions of their first four LPs on CD followed by a couple of “Archives” volumes in 2014 and 2016 respectively; masking the fact that a new set of songs, EUROPEAN STORIES (also 2016) {*4} was finding its way among the prog-rock revival/survival circuit. This album had featured Wimpelberg, the returning Patrick Pelzer on vocals (from their post-millennium debacle), Marc Klemme (lead guitar), Norbert Hotger (bass, guitar) and Giammarco Moroder (drums) – by all accounts ABACUS were never going to find their roots.
© MC Strong/MCS / Phil Jackson/PJ Sep2017

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