Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Plastic People of the Universe

  • Passion Play [Bozi Mlyn, 1980] B+
  • Leading Horses [Bozi Mlyn, 1983] A-
  • 1997 [Globus International, 1998] A
  • Magical Nights [Munster, 2010] A
  • Apokalyptickej Pták [Galén, 2017] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Passion Play [Bozi Mlyn, 1980]
In its heretical return to a time-honored people's form, its appropriation of available spiritual values as an antidote to materialist oppression, and its embrace of the Christ who "blasphemed against the order of the world," this smuggled religious message from the long-suffering Czech anarchists makes perfect sense. Out of context, however, it's a little hard to take--happy though I am to have a trot, I don't find myself personally enriched when I read along with the Biblical texts and stories. And despite the obsessive bass lines and ostinatos, the only "rock" it brings to mind is Henry Cow, which on a strictly compositional level seems purer to me. But that's not to say that this whatever-it-is music, masterminded by free saxophonist Vratislav Brabanec, isn't satisfying on its own terms--or to mention that side two, especially the long, painful "Father, Father," makes my stomach churn every time I concentrate. B+

Leading Horses [Bozi Mlyn, 1983]
Though it was the grim everyday comedy of Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned that made it not just a stirring document but the ultimate bootleg album, somehow they've gone and lost their sense of humor. Must have to do with their leaders going to jail and their concert sites getting torched. Yet through it all their sound has remained their own, just about the only "European"-"rock" synthesis that never stinks of sentimentality, of pretentiousness. And the aura of dour mockery around Vratislav Brabanec's saxophone on side one gives the odd turns of the lyrics (printed in Czech with translations on the inner sleeve) a significance they couldn't generate on their own. Unfortunately, side two is so dirgelike it'll attract only those with an established appetite for stirring documents. Upped a notch for staying alive anyway. A-

1997 [Globus International, 1998]
A great band at half the age and three-quarters the speed, they fended off the dreary horror of Prague '68 with a sardonic despond that the routine oppressions of Prague '78 ground toward somber mysticism. Eventually, as happens with sects right and wrong, their fellowship soured, and only by decree of their artist president did they regroup for democracy at this gig. But though they could still play the sax-viola-guitar-keybs-gripe top and bass-forward bottom of their old music, they weren't miserable enough to recreate its mood. At a clip that suited their existential confidence and funkier, younger drummer, their spiritual alienation fell away to reveal the sonic singularity that gave it form--a Reed-Zappa amalgam so Euro it makes a nominal blues seem like sleaze for an old Elmore Leonard flick, and so intent on forward motion that the part writing only spurs it on its way. A

Magical Nights [Munster, 2010]
Half of Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, that crucial early salvo in the former Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, is scattered through these two discs. That one still sounds glorious on its own. But it's no more likely to be reissued separately than Take a Look at Those Cakes. The long-gone live reunion album 1997, so guitar-heavy you can hear it dreaming of arena-rock glory, has only nine of these 31 selections. And although I miss the Leading Horses finale "Osip," this captures the band more persuasively than either of the six post-Bondy albums I've heard. The mood is eerie and sardonic, and the unchronological song order tracks like a Tarantino movie. Unobliged now to penetrate their considerable political significance, which got too Catholic anyway, I'm free to immerse in the bearlike vocals, jazzlike saxophone, unstinting drive, and gloomy harmonic devices of my favorite prog band. Can and Faust are noodling wimps by comparison. A

Apokalyptickej Pták [Galén, 2017]
PPU chronicler Joe Yanosik alerted me to this 2018 outlier, still findable with a second pressing expected, by the brave Czech Velvets and Mothers fans whose counterculturalism was far too perilous and thought through to belittle with the term "hippie." It's the most shambolic of the four long-players I've heard, but that only enhances its likability, and the disorder has documentary bite: recorded in 1976 at the last concert they played before being locked up for "organized disturbance of the peace," it embodies the antic, inebriated spirit with which they resisted a government whose iron fist was sheathed in a strait-laced priggishness that was so un-Czech. Saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec's title tune is but one musical highlight of a performance only enhanced by two silences up front and audible crowd chatter throughout. So boisterous. So anti-totalitarian. A-

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