The German band Embryo is centered around multi-instrumentalist Christian Burchard. Embryo was founded in the late 60s, after Burchard had played in several jazz combos and allegedly had spent a short time in Amon Düül II. Busloads of musicians have played together with Burchard in Embryo and there are probably not two Embryo albums that have the same line-up. Nevertheless, several musicians stayed with Burchard for quite a long time. Roman Bunka and Edgar Hoffman were two excellent multi-instrumentalists who both stayed with the band for most of the 70s and the 80s and they have showed up every now and then in the 90s. The last decade, Jens Pollheide (bass, flute) and percussionist Lothar Stahl have been regular members of Embryo. From time to time members from other German bands showed up to play on one or a few albums: Chris Karrer (Amon Düül), Dieter Miekautsch (Missus Beastly), Robert Detrée and Peter Michael Hamel (Between), Sigi Schwab (Et Cetera/Wofgang Dauner) and jazz musician Charlie Mariano are a few examples.
In addition, Embryo has played constantly with musicians from outside Europe, especially musicians from Asia and Africa.. Most of them are completely unknown to me, but most of them appear to be outstanding musicians on their ethnic instruments. The continuous changes in the band line up and the wide range of musical styles probably typifiy the musical restlessness of Burchard. Although the band started as a Krautrock outfit, it was clear within a few albums that Burchard had a genuine interest in combining jazz (rock) and a large variety of ethnic music styles. Throughout the 70s, the jazz and ethnic influences were often embedded in a jazz rock/fusion format, while in the mid and late 80s the band often focused on purely ethnic music, especially from Africa. During the 90s, Embryo developed more or less into an "ethnic jazz" band, trying to combine and absorb all kinds of ethnic influences, but rarely restricting themselves to a strict compositional format and, as such, always allowing ample room for spontaneous musical interaction. Surprisingly, Embryo still exits after 30 years and the band still play many concerts and festivals, especially throughout Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Well, back to the beginning...
Their first album Opal features great psychedelic Krautrock with some jazzy touches, but it is not representative of their later output. There are similarities to the music of Amon Düül II or the first album of the German band Mythos. The CD also includes the 26 minute bonus track "Läuft" which reveals Burchard's jazz influences; it is a free jazz piece typical for the era.
The second album, Rache, was significantly different (after major changes in the line-up). Rache is a driving jazz rock album with excellent organ (and mellotron) playing by Jimmy Jackson and some great violin solos by Edgar Hoffman. Ex-Xhol member Hansi Fisher adds some nice flute playing. The weakest parts are the vocal sections, but fortunately the album is mainly instrumental. Embryo's style is clearly developing on this album, although some parts remind me of Zappa or even Xhol.
The next albums, Father, Son and Holy Ghosts and Steig Aus, were both recorded around late 1971 and early 1972. On these albums Embryo makes their first attempt to incorporate ethnic influences into their music. The results are fabulous: both albums are a mesmerizing amalgam of ethnic music, fusion, jazz, rock and spacey elements leading to an unique, unprecedented sound.
Steig Aus is generally considered to be their masterpiece from this period. It extends on the musical ideas developed on Rache, but on Steig Aus, all the elements seem to fall in the right place. Steig Aus contains only three long tracks. The ethnic influences are immediately audible during the intro of the first track with acoustic North African/Arabic music played on the saz backed by percussion. After some two and a half minutes an energetic jazz rock groove fades in with great mellotron, wah wah guitar and organ riffing and soloing continuing throughout the piece. Just gorgeous. The second track, "Dreaming Girls," is a beautiful, more relaxed track with slightly melancholic violin playing, dreamy organ washes and great vibes/marimba playing by Burchard. The last, sidelong track "Call" is more up-tempo jazz rock again with the focus on violin and organ solos with several mellotron outbursts on top. A classic album!
Father, Son and Holy Ghosts starts surprisingly with a quite heavy track, "The Special Trip," featuring distorted bass, active drumming and extended guitar soloing. Great! "King Insano" starts out quietly with a flute-led intro, maybe a bit like early Jade Warrior, but features a heavy intermezzo (a bit like Dzyan) with free rock riffing and rather psychedelic sounds effects before returning to the dreamy atmosphere of the beginning. The nine-minute "The Sun Song" shows obvious influences from Indian music with Sigi Schwab playing veena and tarang. It is a fantastic track reminding me of a more aggressive version of Between or Third Ear Band. "Forgotten Sea" is another nine-minute track, a beautiful track with an intro recalling the opening track on Santana's Caravanserai. Eventually, it turns out to be a significantly reworked version of "Dreaming Girls" from Steig Aus. The track features some great marimba playing by Burchard. Another killer album.
The next album, Rocksession, is a more conventional jazz rock album. The first track "A Place to Go" is a cool piece of ethnic fusion. The other three tracks, all between 10 and 15 minutes, are long jazz rock improvisations with extended soloing for organ, piano, guitar, sax and violin. A good album, but less interesting than Steig Aus in my opinion.
The next album, We Keep On was another excellent album mixing rock, ethnic music and jazz. The 12 minute "No Place to Go" is one of Embryo 's heaviest tracks: it is an odd concoction of heavy rock guitar riffing and more jazzy excursions with excellent solos on saxophone by Mariano. The guitar playing here recalls Dzyan and Mahavishnu Orchestra. An excellent 70s jazz rock piece. A variety of ethnic influences can be heard on "Hackbrett Dance" and "Flute and Saz". On "Hackbrett Dance" four musical cultures come together: the nagasuram (an Indian oboe) is supported by African percussion. The Bavarian hackbrett (a dulcimer like instrument) and Latin American stylings on the marimba are featured beside the usual rock instruments. The nine-minute "Ehna, Ehna, A Bu Lele" combines African ethnic music with typical 70s jazz rock. (Note that the CD includes two great bonus tracks in the same style as the album).
In 1999, the double CD Invisible Documents was released, which features only five tracks ranging from 9 to 39 minutes with recordings from 1974, featuring a lot of improvised jamming and long solos by various members. Sound quality is mediocre and the instruments are not mixed very well, especially the vocals which are almost inaudible. This album is more of interest to die hard Embryo fans.
During the mid 70s, the band experienced increasing problems with record companies, finally resulting in the foundation of their own independent label April in cooperation with other bands from the German scene (the label name was later changed to Schneeball). The albums from this period (Surfin, Life, Bad Heads And Bad Cats and Apo-Calypso) are less impressive, but the band maintains a good standard throughout.
Surfin is a varied album, but considering their earlier releases I found this album a bit disappointing. Tracks like "You Can Turn Me On" and "Music of Today" are well done, rather funky fusion tracks, but in my opinion this type music does not really go well with the band. "Secret" reminds me of the fusion on the early albums of the German band Passport. "Surfin" is a nice, quirky instrumental piece with solos for flute and vibes. "New Ridin" is a strange track, where a sitar solo is backed by a wah wah drenched funk groove. The band excels on the 9 minute "Dance on Some Broken Glasses", a dreamier track combining jazz, ethnic music and rock. There are great solos for flute, vibes and percussion. Not a bad album at all, but the band seems unsure what direction to take.
The first album on April label was Bad Heads and Bad Cats. Here, the female vocalist Maria Archer and keyboardist Dieter Miekautsch from Missus Beastly join the band. It is a fine fusion album with ethnic elements being less prevalent. The first track, "Layed Back," is a relaxed fusion track, again with a funky groove, and features good piano and organ playing. The 12-minute "Nina Kupenda" starts as a more abstract and experimental piece with African percussion elements, but turns into a more jazzy piece (partly recalling Coltrane). Christian Burchard plays an excellent solo on vibes and Charlie Mariano adds a great saxophone solo towards the end. Other tracks like "After The Rain" and "Road Song" are sophisticated fusion with a prominent role for Dieter Miekautsch's keyboards. A good album.
The album Live from 1976 features a similar line up to Bad Heads And Bad Cats and the music continues in the same vein as well, although the album emphasizes the ethnic music element a bit more. The album is OK, but not excellent.
Apo-Calypso continues in the same vein as the previous albums, the first half of the album features refined fusion with funk influences, although "Endless Feeling" ends rather surprisingly with electronic impressionistic soundscapes. The second half of the album consists of two long tracks: "Amnesty Total" is a beautiful nine-minute jazz rock track with an almost Canterburian vibe. Edgar Hofmann plays several good flute solos. The other track is a 14 minute trip into ethnic fusion with Trilok Gurtu on tablas and Shoba Gurta on vocals and tamboura. Another decent album, but again not flawless.
In 1979 Embryo released a fascinating double album called Reise, documenting their travels through parts of Asia (especially the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent). Unfortunately, the CD release does not include all the tracks of the original LP, because some of the masters were destroyed. Still the CD contains over 70 minutes of music. Reise opens with the 12 minute "Strasse nach Asien" (Road to Asia), one of Embryo' s most interesting tracks, as it incorporates almost all the developments the band had gone through in the last ten years. After some eastern sounding rumblings the track goes into groovy ethnic rock with some wordless vocals, an instrumental section with a heavy Krautrock/ethnic fusion vibe, recalling their early 70s albums like Steig Aus. After some five minutes, the pace slows down and we are in more traditional, acoustic ethnic territory, but the spacey background adds a cosmic Krautrock feel. Next, a beautiful, more upbeat section follows with a violin (or a violin sounding instrument) playing the lead riff. This part could be the perfect synthesis of Asian (i.e. Indian) music, krautrock and the typical Embryo ethnic fusion sound. The musical boundaries between these styles really seem to have vanished here. The rest of the album is varied: ethnic rock, traditional music from the Indian subcontinent, progressive fusion and even a short punk-ish! interlude occur, although the traditional music from the Indian subcontinent becomes more prevalent towards the end of the album. An outstanding album and among the best albums in their discography.
The albums that followed, (Life and La Blama Sparozzi) were again less impressive. La Blama Sparozzi covers an even wider range of styles and influences from around the world. Unfortunately, the album is marred by rather uninspired compositions such as "Abart" or "Jay", which have a hazy trace of New Wave stylings running through, which does not really work. Another thing I don't like about the album is the somewhat clinical, very 80s sounding synthesizers they experiment with on a few tracks (for example "Jay" and "Computer Killer"). However, there are great tracks as well such as the ethnic fusion of the title track. Overall, an uneven album.
In addition, Anthology (released on CD under the name Every Day is Okay) was released in 1980. The album features unreleased and live tracks ranging from 1973 to 1979 and is more of interest for Embryo afficionados. Pleasant, but not a very coherent set of tracks.
In 1984 the band released rather unexpectedly another masterpiece called Zack Glück. On this album their mix of ethnic musics, jazz, fusion and (kraut)rock sounds completely convincing again. Zack Glück is much more quirky and focused than their other releases from this period. There is not a dull track on the album, but probably most surprising is the experimental "U-Bahn" (generally the German word for "metro" or "subway train") capturing the band on a claustrophobic ride through the rock underground. It is actually not unlike early Kraftwerk, Harmonia or Cluster and features some austere violin playing on top. The two-part "Che Mangerai Domani Vipera" and "Hör, Spiel und Vergiss" are more typical, but great Embryo tracks fusing rock, ethnic and jazz music. Another classic album in their discography.
In the second half of the 80s, the band focused on African (percussive) music as can be heard on Africa, Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra and Live In Berlin, Jazzbühne 89. These are not bad albums, but for my ears they can get a bit monolithic to sit through in one listen. Recommended for people interested in African ethnic music or percussion dominated music in general.
On Africa, Embryo is joined by an ever changing group of musicians on each track. The CD booklet reports that the album is the "musical report of a long sojourn in Nigeria where direct contact was made with an extraordinary, intellectual heritage". Unsurpringly, the music strongly focuses on trance-like drumming and chanting.
One half of the Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra album is quite similar to Africa, but the album also includes ethnic music from various parts of Asia. On Live In Berlin, Jazzbühne 89 the "Talking-Drum"-Ensemble Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra stands in the spotlight once more for about half of the album. Also featured is the Morrocan singer and gembri player El Hussaine Kili. The best track is "Sawaba" a typical Embryo jam uniting all kinds of ethnic influences in a beautiful way.
In 1989 the band released Turn Peace, which shows again a wider range of influences. It is more or less a celebration album remembering that the band was 20 years in existence. The album juxtaposes and combines various styles and musical cultures: Arabic music, percussive music from Nigeria, North American jazz, Indian music supported by the Karnataka College of Percussion and Paramashivam Pilai and European electronic music. Surprisingly, ex-Between members Peter Hamel und Robert Detree make an appearance as well. A varied, but not completely satisfying album.
On Ibn Battuta, the focus has shifted towards music from the Middle East. Quite an excellent album mixing jazz, fusion and above all various styles of Arabic music. On the title track Edgar Hoffman plays some lovely Turkish clarinet. "Simai Ka" features a Coltrane like soprano sax solo by Chuck Henderson, and Edgar Hoffman plays a dreamy solo on the nay (a type of flute often used in North African/Arabic music). Burchard adds several virtuoso contributions on vibraphone/xylophone. "Kletta" is an interesting piece trying to merge percussive elements and structures of three continents. Dieter Serfas plays on the African talking drum and Yusuf Esqah joins on Indian tablas, while Burchard plays the hackbrett (hammer dulcimer).
Their next album, Ni Hau, showed the band researching the music from China and Mongolia. Ni Hau compiles various recordings made between 1992-1996. The album starts with the nine minute "After Small Coming Good Coming", a beautiful synthesis of jazzy elements (including great soprano saxophone playing) and Karnataka music from India. Ni Hau abounds with oriental influences next to Arabic music and various ethnic musics from India, but they particularly investigate music from Mongolia and China. In the spotlight on many tracks is the Chinese musician Xizhi Nie, who plays a wealth of ethnic instruments including the erhu, an instrument that sounds like an exotic violin. Most of the tracks are played at a moderate pace, but complex rhythms and meters are used throughout the album. "Haikus" actually does not sound Japanese, but is a vehicle for Roman Bunka on setar, a Persian instrument sounding rather similar to the Arabic lute (oud). "Raft" starts with abstract interplay between guitar and vibraphone, but eventually Sascha Alexandrov joins to play a beautiful solemn bassoon solo. A mesmerizing piece. "Schen/Sikablues in Shan Dong" is another excellent track with complex rhythmic structures and great solos for flute, bassoon, guitar, marimba, saxophone and erhu. An excellent and varied album.
The double album Istanbul Casablanca - Tour 98 is another document of their live performances. Sound is of varying quality, but the performances are lovely. As always a wide variety of influences can be heard, but as the title suggests, the music from Turkey and Morocco stands in the spotlight. On several tracks Embryo is joined by the Turkish band Oriental Wind. "Istanbul Suite" is based on a famous Turkish folk melody, but it has been turned into a great jam with a prominent role for Oriental Wind's percussion player Okay Temiz. "All Alone" is a beautiful ballad showing once more that boundaries between jazz and ethnic music are not necessarily existent. It features great solos for flute, vibes and clarinet among others. Most of the second disc contains music recorded on their Moroccan journey reporting the intense collaboration with Mahmoud Gania. There are also a few tracks with Chinese master musician Xizhi Nie on erhu and one poorly recorded track features the outstanding lyra player Ross Daly.
One Night At The Joan Miró Foundation (Live In Barcelona, 2.September 1999) features Jurji Parfenov on trumpet giving the album a stronger jazz flavour than Istanbul Casablanca - Tour 98, but is otherwise fairly similar in style .
The most recent albums, Embryo Live 2000 and Embryo Meets Mahmoud Gania contain more live material from recent years and they are comparable to the two albums above. Personally, I prefer Casablanca - Tour 98 above the other albums from the 1998 - 2000 period, although all albums are worth investigating if you like the Embryo sound of the 90s.
Summarizing, I would suggest to start investigating this band with the
albums Rache, Steig Aus, Father, Son and Holy Ghosts,
Rocksession and We Keep On, which are arguably the most
interesting for progressive rock listeners. Reise and Zack
Glück are two other essential albums in their discography. If you want
to hear excellent representations of their music in the 90s, try Ni
Hau or Istanbul Casablanca - Tour 98.
Reise was a double album released in 1979. The CD release unfortunately does not include all the tracks on the original LP, because some of the masters were destroyed. Still the CD contains over 70 minutes of music. Reise opens with the 12 minute "Strasse nach Asien" (Road to Asia), one of the defining Embryo tracks as it incorporates almost all the developments the band had gone through in the last ten years. After some eastern sounding rumblings the track goes into groovy ethnic rock with some wordless vocals; an instrumental section with a heavy krautrock/ethnic fusion vibe recalling their early 70's albums like Steig Aus. After some five minutes the pace slows down and we are in more traditional, acoustic ethnic territory, but the spacey background adds a cosmic krautrock feel. Next a beautiful, more upbeat section follows with a violin (or a violin-like instrument) playing the lead riff. This part could be the perfect synthesis of Asian (i.e. Indian) music, Krautrock and the typical Embryo ethnic fusion sound. The musical boundaries between these styles really have vanished here. The rest of the album is just as varied: ethnic rock, traditional music from the Indian subcontinent, progressive fusion and even a short punk interlude occur. More or less traditional music from the Indian subcontinent becomes more prevalent towards the end of the album. It is a fantastically diverse album and among the best albums in their discography.
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