Birth Control: Backdoor Possibilities (1976) by Ben Miler
Birth Control was a German group that was only considered marginally progressive, much of the time they were in the Deep Purple or Uriah Heep vein, lots of heavy guitar and organ work, although a lot of their music often had prog tendencies. I have to admit they made their share of great albums, 1972’s Hoodoo Man being perhaps their finest from their earlier, more hard rock phase. By 1975, the group consisted of drummer/vocalist Bernd Noske, bassist/vocalist Peter Föller, keyboardist Zeus B. Held, and guitarist Bruno Frenzel. At this time, they released the album Plastic People which found the group dropping most of the hard rock for full-on progressive rock. “Rockin’ Rollin’ Roller” off that album does harken back to their more hard rocking days, while “This Song is Just For You” is a horn-driven rock song not unlike Chicago, while the rest is full-on prog rock. The prog rock was taken to an even higher degree with their following album, Backdoor Possibilities. The band switched from CBS to Brain, and this album ended up as one of the final releases on the green Brain label (after that, the label changed to the orange label). You’d find it hard to believe this was the same band that gave us albums like Operation (1971) and Hoodoo Man (actually, the only members in common to Plastic People and Backdoor Possibilities to those earlier albums were Bernd Noske and Bruno Frenzel). No more reminders of Deep Purple or Uriah Heep, instead strong reminders of Gentle Giant, with complex instrumental and vocal arrangements.
Backdoor Possibilities is a concept album regarding a New York businessman named Adam Striver who meets Death (aka. Mr. Scheleton, that is Skeleton, but spelled “Scheleton” in the album lyrics included in the LP gatefold) in the subway, who plays him flashbacks to his childhood and tells Mr. Striver that his yuppie life was pretty much meaningless. Basically, I get the impression the lyrics were regarding about the lost childhood innocence during adulthood as Mr. Striver becomes a bureaucratic businessman. The album’s concept was rather half-sketched, but I was able to get the message still the same (many Birth Control albums and songs often had strong social messages in their lyrics). Also the album cover art depicts scenes that hardly look like any place in New York, or America in general, but much more like Europe. I guess I can’t be totally surprised, given Birth Control was a German band, but even in Germany, people are familiar with how New York looks even if they never been there. The album consisted of a bunch of suites demonstrating that there was going to be little in the way of straightforward material. And you’ll know that right away from hearing “One First of April” which you’ll notice that Gentle Giant influence right away, with lots of compex instrumental and vocal arrangements. Zeus B. Held’s keyboard work was heavily influenced by Kerry Minnear at this point, with lots of Minimoog, clavinet, Hammond organ, string synths and electric piano. Drummer Bernd Noske used not only drums, but tons of percussion at his disposal, so a lot of the album used all sorts of percussion. “Beedeepees” starts off rather calm, with dominant string synths, but then gets rocking in a Gentle Giant-like manner, before the second second part kicks in (called “Childhood Flash-Back”) with an extended drone on string synths, the sounds of children playing, and great vocal arrangements showing that Birth Control was able to pull off a lot of the same things Gentle Giant were also doing. “Futile Prayer” is generally a mellower piece, with lush string synths and nice use of Moog. “La Cigüena de Zaragoza” is a three piece suite, and the album’s only instrumental piece that has some jazzy sections, including use of sax, as well as some nice synth passages. “No Time to Die” is a great closing piece, especially those vocal harmonies as well as those mellow lush passages.
OK, this is probably the least typical Birth Control album you’ll ever hear. If you want a more hard rocking Birth Control, Operation or Hoodoo Man would be your best bet. For adventurous progheads who don’t mind another band trying their stab at the Gentle Giant sound, then Backdoor Possibilities would be more up your alley. The album has been frequently slagged, many people even call it a disappointing followup to Plastic People but I hardly see that myself. It’s that the band was doing something way more ambitious than ever before. This album really does require a few listens to let it sink in (but then so does Gentle Giant). And I actually find myself humming parts of this album (especially “No Time to Die”), so the band actually didn’t abandon melody amidst the complex arrangements. Aside from Canada’s Et Cetera, I really think this is one of the finest examples of another band trying their stab at the GG sound. Unfortunately, Birth Control never repeated this experiment again (can’t be too surprised, Gentle Giant themselves were starting to record straightforward material starting with The Missing Piece, and the fact the second half of the ’70s wasn’t as so prog friendly to begin with). I really think Backdoor Possibilities is one of the most underrated albums I have ever heard in a long time, and comes highly recommended by me!
– Bernd Noske: drums, percussion, vocals
– Peter Föller: bass, vocals
– Zeus B. Held: keyboards, vocals
– Bruno Frenzel: guitars, vocals