In the late ’60s, a group of Swedish hippies got together to attempt to play a rock ’n’ roll version of the minimalist, droning music pioneered by avant-garde composer Terry Riley. First calling themselves Pärson Sound, then International Harvester, members of those bands later went on to become Träd, Gräs och Stenar (“Trees, Grass, and Stone”), a more conventional rock-jam band that became a fulcrum of the eclectic, left-wing movement of Swedish music known as progg—not to be confused with prog.
But before that happened, International Harvester released a pair of strange, dark, droning albums: 1968’s Sov Gott Rose-Marie and, under the shortened name Harvester, 1969’s Hemåt. A new, five-LP box set from Sweden’s Silence Records collects both albums along with a bevy of contemporaneous recordings, and they sound as arrestingly batty today as they must have in the late ’60s.
To be sure, International Harvester were never a polished studio outfit. They often recorded on location, with a simple, two-track recorder catching their improvised jams alongside cavernous echo or nature sounds. At their most conventional, International Harvester sounded like an earthier, crunchier version of Pink Floyd at their spaciest, or an eerily accurate harbinger of the krautrock to come from West Germany, with single chords and plodding rhythms repeated for 10 or 20 minutes, aiming for a state of hypnotic catharsis and, more often than not, achieving it.
However, the first side of Sov Gott Rose- Marie (“Sleep Tight, Rose-Marie”) is an eclectic collage of short musical sketches and goofy hippie babbling, while Side 2 consists of a pair of lengthy jams, neither of which attains liftoff. Hemåt (“Homeward”) is the better album, with an engaging sense of balance between stoned, pastoral bacchanalia (“When the Lingonberries Are Ripen”) and dimly lit, avant-garde freakouts (“Nepal Boogie”).
But what the Remains box set illuminates is that International Harvester’s best stuff didn’t make it onto the two conventionally released albums. The box set’s three extra discs—titled “Remains 1,” “Remains 2,” and “Remains 3”—are a much clearer window into what these Swedish freaks were capable of. With more room to stretch out, the lengthier tracks are ominous, raw, and pagan-sounding, with sludgy instrumental grooves given otherworldly exoticism by piercing saxophones and droning violins. There’s even room for brief snatches of delicate beauty (“Blowing the Wind”) amid the elemental murk. It’s not for everyone, but this exhaustive look at International Harvester shows the group’s commitment to unearthing a heretofore-unheard type of thick, droning sound.
RECORD STORE DAY returns this Saturday, April 21. It’s become cool for hipper-than-thou grumps to vilify it as a manufactured retail holiday that clogs up pressing plants and record store bins with inessential reissues. But this decidedly blinkered hot take ignores the hugely positive aspects about RSD, the most important of which is getting physical, cash-wielding customers inside the walls of independent record stores. And there are plenty of great records to get in line for this year; check out Blogtown for our best buys for 2018’s Record Store Day.