In the 1960s and ’70s, Bruce Haack led a double life. By day, he made children’s music. By night, demonic electronica. This reissue presents his most accomplished work in all its end-times glory.
Whenever a serial killer is arrested, there’s the inevitable doorstep interview on the nightly news with the incredulous neighbor who can’t believe such a nice, shy, quiet person could do something so evil. Bruce Haack was the musical embodiment of that double-life dichotomy.
Throughout the 1960s, the Canadian composer was as ubiquitous on children’s and variety shows as were exotic animals from the San Diego Zoo. But he wasn’t there to perform so much as demonstrate. Back then, electronic music wasn’t a genre; it was a scientific discipline, and Haack was among its most fervent early adopters. In his formative compositions for theatre and ballet, he had experimented with tape loops and musique concrète techniques; by the early ’60s, he wasn’t just playing around with electronic sounds, but also making the very gizmos that generated them.
As a guest on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Haack wowed kids with his Musical Computer—a homemade contraption built from a suitcase and cutlery drawer that was part synthesizer, part Theremin, part Clapper. Another invention, dubbed the Dermatron—showcased on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show—was a heat-sensitive synthesizer pad strapped onto a willing subject’s face. The novelty of these innovations coincided nicely with a ’60s-era appetite for space-age futurism, and, by day, Haack would eke out a living as a composer for commercials and a series of instructive, interactive children’s records made with collaborator Esther Nelson. But by night, Haack was making music that was decidedly adults-only.
Originally released in 1970, The Electric Lucifer was Haack’s first work pitched to a contemporary rock audience, released by Columbia Records in the dying days of a post-hippie moment when bizarro outsider-psych could still find a home on a major label. If it was not the first rock record to feature electronics, it was certainly among the first to give them a starring role—both musically and conceptually. For Haack, the advent of computerized technology represented not just a cool innovation; it was a turning point in the evolution of the human race, investing us mere mortals with the power to play God. And so The Electric Lucifer was envisioned as an ominous concept album consumed with religiosity and apocalypse, where the fate of humanity is determined by an epic battle between good and evil, love and hate, Mother Earth and modernity. It’s like a Henry Darger painting rendered in pixels.
Not surprisingly, this exceedingly strange record flopped upon release. But its commercial failure didn’t deter Haack from further exploration of the dark arts. While he continued to crank out children’s records through the ’70s, he also made increasingly primitive and profane exercises in avant-electronica—including an Electric Lucifer sequel and the infamous Haackula—that would go unreleased for decades. And in the years leading up to his death from heart failure in 1988, Haack’s outré experiments had begun to dovetail with the contemporaneous rise of hip-hop and electro, resulting in an oddball collaboration with future Def Jam don Russell Simmons on the 1982 single “Party Machine.” Since then, Haack’s quirky kids’ records have curried enough favor with crate-diggers to spawn an all-star tribute record, while his post-1970 catalog has been subject to a Stones Throw overview. But this reissue of The Electric Lucifer (via Toronto art-punk label Telephone Explosion) presents us with an opportunity to experience Haack’s most accomplished work in all its paranoia-stricken, end-times glory.
As much as The Electric Lucifer was ahead of its time, the album was also very much a product of it. You get a pretty good sense of the kind of rock music that Haack was drawn to, namely the organ-powered poetry of the Doors and the Dada-esque mayhem of the Mothers of Invention. To modern ears, parts of the record may initially scan as downright goofy—the opening “Electric to Me Turn” sounds like nothing so much an android hockey-arena organist going on the fritz. But even that silly introduction betrays what makes the album unique.
Much early electronic pop music—from “Telstar” all the way to Kraftwerk—projected a utopian quality that announced itself as the sound of the future, with clean, bright synth tones prepping us for the oncoming age of flying cars and interplanetary travel. But on The Electric Lucifer, Haack uses his hardware to foretell our demise. This is a thoroughly unsettled record, full of fidgety bleeps and bloops that envision a world choking on wires; vocoderized voices devoid of emotion; and sudden structural shifts that feel like the Earth’s crust being split open. On the sound-collage splatter of “War,” Haack subjects baroque-classical and marching-band melodies to synth-blasted shock treatment; they emerge distorted and decayed, faded remnants of our society for aliens to discover thousands of years from now.
The Electric Lucifer is split evenly between these sort of free-form interludes and proper songs, and the record actually gets stranger the more it leans on the latter. Haack enlisted a revolving cast of guest singers—including friend-turned-manager Chris Kachulis—to serve as The Electric Lucifer’s de facto narrators, investing expository tracks like “Cherubic Hymn” with a melodramatic gusto worthy of the Gilligan’s Island theme. (They’re also prone to disturbing spoken-word outbursts that channel Jim Morrison at his “Soft Parade” batshit craziest.) Where that song revels in the jarring contrast between its valorous vocal delivery and short-circuiting sound design, The Electric Lucifer’s man/machine dialectic manifests itself in more insidious ways. “Song of the Death Machine” is a seemingly innocent sing-along modeled after “You Are My Sunshine,” before it’s slowly debased by disintegrating sonics and Haack’s unnervingly demonic vocal. And while “Word Game” at first sounds like a throwaway, free-associative exercise in proto-fridge-magnet-poetry, things take a turn for the sinister when Haack’s cold, roboticized voice starts lingering on the eerie confluences and contradictions that exist in our everyday vocabulary: “Death/Breath/Earth/Birth/Life/L-I-V-E/Live/E-V-I-L/Evil/Lived/L-I-V-E-D/D-E-V-I-L/Devil/Divine…”
The Electric Lucifer climaxes with the foreboding majesty of “Super Nova,” whose intensifying oscillations and creepy, whispered incantations point the way to krautrock and the cryogenic chill of Suicide. But The Electric Lucifer’s great prophecies were as much philosophical as musical. On “Program Me,” Haack fashions a gospel spiritual for the dawn of the digital age: “My heart beats/Electrically/My brain computes/Program me!” With its subliminal synthetic-drum loop and urgent bass pulse, “Program Me” is one of the rare moments on The Electric Lucifer where the rhythm builds into a hypnotic groove. But Haack’s technophilia didn’t so much anticipate the rise of EDM as a modern world where computers can write Beatles songs and God has been forsaken for gadgets.