- by Sean Hewson Release Date: Label: Bellaphon Records
When Cottonwoodhill was first released, in 1971, it came with the following warnings on the sleeve: "After listening to this record, your friends may not know you anymore" and "Only listen to this once a day. Your brain might be destroyed!". The sleeve itself showed a screaming woman's head in a whirlpool. To be honest, it looks a bit crap. The album itself was recorded in Germany by a group of Belgians, British and Germans. The follow-up, Psychonaut, was recorded in Italy by Americans, Belgians and Swiss. It's all very mysterious. What's known is that Brainticket were led by Joel Vandroogenbroeck, a Belgian pianist with a classical and jazz background who had formed the band with guitarist Ron Byer and drummer Wolfgang Paap after being influenced by the new German bands - Amon Duul II, Can, Tangerine Dream, etc. Cottonwoodhill has two other major presences - Dawn Muir on vocals and Hellmuth Kolbe on production and sound effects. Kolbe is relatively well-known having worked with Stockhausen in the 60s, but I can find very little mention of Muir on the internet. It seems like she just turned up, delivered one of the most intense performances on record and then disappeared.
The album begins fairly normally with Black Sand - an organ-based song with stabbing lead guitar. The only indication of the weirdness to come is Vandroogenbroeck's use of a rotary speaker on his vocals. Places Of Light starts out normally too with a pleasant, almost Acid Jazz feel to it and Vandroogenbroeck blowing away on the flute. Then Dawn Muir appears for the first time, also through a rotary speaker, reciting her cut-up, acid poetry in a BBC voice like a Blue Peter presenter reporting from Syd Barrett's squat on the Cromwell Road. The three-part Brainticket is where the wheels really start to come off. It is roughly 26 minutes of a one-chord vamp played on guitar and organ (there doesn't appear to be any bass or drums) whilst Muir and producer Kolbe try to freak each other out. Weird electronic sounds are mixed with the sound of someone brushing their teeth. Muir's words appear to be jumbled up mayday messages from a crashing spaceship. There are countless phrases that stoners could quote if they ever get tired of 'Fast and Bulbous' such as 'The nucleus! The energy! The power!', 'Communication breakdown between you and you' and 'Sex? Of course you love sex, you have no choice.' All delivered with total conviction. At one point, towards the end of the second part, a monkey appears, followed by Beethoven, then silence, then Byer and Vandroogenbroeck start up again. Byer and Vandroogenbroeck are the foundations of the piece, they are always there to come back to or to re-introduce sanity after a particularly intense passage has been faded out. However, they have little control over the third part as Muir and Kolbe approach insanity. A strange, electronic sound appears and slowly reveals itself to be a voice saying 'BrainticketBrainticketBrainticket'. Muir gets increasingly freaked out ('It's not alright. It's all wrong.', 'I want to be alone. But not this alone.') before getting drowned in tape loops. Then silence.
This time Byer and Vandroogenbroeck don't return and it is in this silence that I realise I'm not sure if I've even enjoyed it. It was certainly memorable but, without Muir and Kolbe, it would be competent but a bit beardy (rather like Joe Ledley of Crystal Palace). It's not the kind of psychedelic album you'd put on to lie in the garden and look at the clouds. Certainly don't put it on if you fancy a snooze on a Sunday afternoon. I've had it for several years and I generally get it out every few months just to kind of marvel at. It turns out that the slightly crap sleeve is actually very descriptive - a freaked out woman drowning in an electronic nightmare.