The Bay Area has always been a haven for experimental artists, and during the late ‘70s, nobody personified this more than Chrome. The band went through a couple of permutations since being formed in 1975 by Damon Edge, but by 1979 had settled into a duo of Edge and Helios Creed. They could have been described as a “West Coast Suicide,” but this would be far too simplistic. To this day, nobody has played music like Chrome.
The newly released Half Machine from the Sun: The Lost Tracks from ‘79-’80 contains 18 previously unreleased Chrome tracks. My first reaction was to wonder just how extreme this stuff could be. The duo of Creed and Edge were known for some of the most intense music ever, and for there to be material that even they deemed unsuitable for release must have really been something. So it was a real surprise for me to hear the many recognizable song forms, and even melodies on this set. It seems that the songs were held back because they were too conventional.
Conventional is a relative term, though. Maybe some of these tracks were not as fully off the rails as others, but Half Machine from the Sun will never be confused with radio fodder, then or now. The odd title refers to the genesis of these songs. They were recorded and set aside during sessions for the Half Machine Lip Moves (1979), and Red Exposure (1980) albums. As Creed explains, “We had so much material, good tracks went unused.”
Good tracks indeed. Some of these lost cuts are phenomenal. Right from the opening, “Anything,” it is clear that this is not some cleverly marketed batch of scraps, but the real deal. The basic post-punk sound of “Anything” is adorned with classic Chrome touches such as synthesizers and weird vocal blips. It is an auspicious start. This is followed with the most mainstream-sounding Chrome tune I have ever heard, “Salt.” This is not to imply that “Salt” is some kind of sell-out or anything, though. As relatively easy on the ears as “Salt” sounds upon first listen, there is still a lot going on underneath.
The real test was the third track, the long (8:37) “Looking for Your Door.” If I had any doubts before that this material had been forgotten, “Looking for Your Door” ended them. This piece stands with the strongest krautrock ever recorded outside of Germany. That oddly named, yet brilliant German brand of music of the ‘70s also rears its head during “Autobahn Brazil,” which is another major highlight of the set.
“Fukishima (Nagasaki)” and “Ghost” tend to back up allegations of being San Francisco‘s answer to Suicide. But as much as I have always liked Suicide, Chrome went much deeper. They certainly prefigure industrial music with “Morrison,” and we hear their own version of heavy rock on “Sub Machine.” One of Chrome’s biggest acknowledged influences was the Stooges, and this is very obvious on “Something Rhythmic.”
The set closes with something of a suite, which is almost all instrumental. The songs “Sugar Moog Pops” (5:43) and the final “Sunset,” (4:56) are interrupted by a 16-second bit titled “Intervention.” This approximately 12-minute segment is Chrome looking forward, or maybe sideways, but definitely not backwards. I wonder if these are the tracks Creed is referring to in his liner notes as being unfinished, as the vocals are nearly nonexistent. Whatever the original intent was though, they conclude the disc in perfect style. That is to say that they leave the listener simultaneously scratching their head, and wanting more.
It is a strange thing to say, but these forgotten tracks work so well as to provide the most accessible introduction to Chrome that I can think of. Alien Soundtracks is considered by most aficionados to be their greatest effort, but it is not an easy record. This was the thing about Chrome. They were definitely a “love ‘em or hate ‘em” band. There was no middle ground, or at least not much.
Half Machine from the Sun has some middle ground. It’s not a lot, and nothing that could ever be called “sell-out,” but some actual melodies, and some fantastic playing. This is about as far from a “leftovers” collection as I could imagine. Chrome were at a peak during this time, and it certainly shows. This is an excellent, and highly welcome collection.