Reviewed by Johan Palme on 18th December, 2021
There’s a fascinating parallel between how traditional Tin Pan Alley pop, on the one hand, and prog rock, on the other, is treated by mainstream music journalism. Both are often depicted as bloated, gimmicky, snobbish and overwrought – and both are meant to have been usurped by a younger, more agile three-chord genre, rock‘n’roll on the one hand, punk rock on the other. This is of course a massive oversimplification, not least because of the malleable, porous borders between older and newer genres, but perhaps there’s a grain of truth in there nevertheless, especially with the snobbishness. Irving Berlin supposedly went around to radio stations in person to persuade them to not play the vulgar Elvis Presley version of “White Christmas”, without much success, and the purist end of prog absolutely looked down on other music of its time.
Weirdly, though, that same mainstream music press seems to be happier to embrace German progressive rock (much to the chagrin of the German punk movement, who still finds them pretentious). Perhaps this is because the German end of prog rock – Krautrock – was less insular and snobbish, and happily snapped up influences from, say, soul and funk or from simple blues-based hard rock, and seemed to have fun with it in the process.
Nowhere is this more evident than on this Christmas record by practically all the artists of the short-lived Pilz label. The music ostensibly is based on traditional German, English and French Christmas carols, which sometimes translates to straightforward covers and sometimes mere starting suggestions. The control seems minimal, but all the bands have run with the suggestions, creating some fascinating, eclectic rock tunes that stand up well compared to their non-holiday output, ranging from blues-soul, to jazzy riff rock, to experimental flute-electronic folk. And like the best progressive rock – and the best traditional pop – this is serious enough to never, ever be sloppy, while at the same time not so serious as to ever be stiff and boring.