Insight: Tranquility Bass
On this day, one year ago, the world sadly lost a very singular talent in the form of Michael Kandel, better known by his recording name of Tranquility Bass. His unique fusion of sixties psychedelia, seventies funk, and modern electronica produced Let the Freak Flag Fly, one of the great psychedelic albums of the 90’s.
It all began in the early 90’s though when Kandel and Tom Chasteen formed their own electronic music label Exist Dance. Together, under the name Tranquility Bass, they produced two very well received singles (considered now classics of the era) in the form of They Came in Peace and Cantamilla. Chasteen and Kandel separated ways in the mid-90’s but Kandel continued to record under the Tranquility Bass name. He spent almost a year in a homemade studio on Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington State, perfecting his album, and in 1997 released the seminal Let the Freak Flag Fly on the Astralwerks label.
Let the Freak Flag Fly was unabashed hippie music that also happened to play very well on the dance floor too, with its funky rhythms, trip hop beats and ambient downtempo vibe. It drew on distinctly American music, the kind of music Kandel listened to while growing up in Chicago in the 70’s: West Coast psychedelia, soulful funk and even traditional Americana folk. But he tied it all together with complex electronic beats and a crazy maelstrom of weird sounds, samples and trippy effects. It was electronica, yes, but it utilized the instruments of a full rock band from real drums mixed in with the electronic beats to smoking guitar solos, creating his own distinctive acid rock/electronica freak out. But it was the songwriting that really made the album standout. Kandel’s lyrics spoke of freedom, individuality and spirituality, in short, the things that were the hallmarks of his life.
In the opening verse of Never Gonna End, amidst the sinister, heavily processed chant of “Give the freaks what they want” Kandel sings two separate lines, one in the left channel about the exuberance of youth, and one in the right channel about punishment and responsibility. On The Bird, a sample of a young girl musing “I sit and think what God must look like” intertwines with the ominous sounding cult-like chant of “Lord makes us one, make us one” set to a stuttering, downtempo rhythm and multiple lines of jazzy horn musings. The title track is an anthem for the hippie dream, with march like horns and creative guitar soloing stitched together with a driving beat and lyrics about freeing the mind from the constraints of space and time. Its rousing chorus “Let your freak flag fly, let it fly, let the winds of change come blowing by” is a clarion call to hippies and neo-hippies all over the world to proudly proclaim who they are and what they stand for. The mix on the album is nothing short of astonishing, rich, complex and deeply involving. The album even contains a couple of left-field surprises in the form of two simple, acoustic folk songs, one a cover of cover of Jimmie Rodgers 1927 ballad Soldier’s Sweetheart.
Kandel spent the next five years working on Let the Freak Flag Fly’s follow up. Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs was finished sometime in 2002, but by that point the landscape of the dance music scene had drastically changed. Unable to find a label to release the album, Kandel quietly walked away from the music industry. He finally re-emerged in 2012 and released Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs digitally through Bandcamp. The album still retained Kandel’s trademark mix of dense textures and funky rhythms seamlessly blending rock styles with electronica styles. Though perhaps a little less of the acid freak out of his first album, Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs nonetheless displayed a remarkable advancement in the depth of his lyrics and in Kandel’s singing. Songs from the common man’s celebratory anthem Juke Joint, to the deeply self-reflective My Very Last Song to the soulful longing of Gone with Yesterday show the range of emotions Kandel was able to evoke. The centerpiece of the album is the 17-minute long Traveler, a hypnotic spiritual journey that goes from bluesy funk, to transcendent beat meditation to pure late night ambient bliss and back again. It’s a truly amazing piece.
Michael Kandel was in the middle of a rebirth of his artistic expression, having released several new Tranquility Bass songs that showed a noteworthy maturing of his sound, just before his untimely death at the age of 47, one day before his birthday. Throughout his life, Kandel did things his own way, following whatever muse possessed him and the legacy of great music he’s left behind is testament to that. Let the Freak Flag Fly.
Find the more recent music of Tranquility Bass at: https://tranquilitybass.bandcamp.com/