Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sleep among the circuitboards

(reposted because it was deleted somehow!)

VIII: in which a fanfare is blown across the stars for electronica's great pioneers

In 1974, two seminal albums of German electronic music were released. One of them, of course, was Autobahn, a concept album about driving on the eponymous German freeway, by Kraftwerk. Its style influenced subsequent electro and synthpop acts such as Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and the Human League, as well as Derrick May and a host of other early techno producers. Autobahn is undoubtedly a watershed moment in electronic and indeed popular music, a universally acclaimed release which connected Kraftwerk to a much wider audience. However, the other album had an equally profound effect on electronic music, but for different reasons. Its title track is arguably the most influential modern electronic piece ever produced.

The album in question is Phaedra by Tangerine Dream. It contains just four tracks, the whole thing clocks in at less than 38 minutes and it was improvised in the studio. To establish a context for the release of this unique and mesmerising work, I'll write a potted biography of the band's early years.

Tangerine Dream basically consists of Edgar Froese and a changing cast of other musicians. Froese, a musician who used to play at Salvador Dali's exhibitions and veteran of the Berlin art scene in the 1960s, initially formed Tangerine Dream with Conrad Schnitzler (a Stockhausen protégé and former member of Cluster) and Klaus Schulze, who went on to achieve success with Timewind in 1975. The band started out as a Kosmische Musik act, producing unnerving space-rock with elements of free jazz and "found sound". They were aligned with the Krautrock movement - currently influencing countless avant-garde and leftfield groups - the pioneers of which included Can, Neu!, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, Faust and Brian Eno. They began with acid-drenched feakouts, eventually putting out their primal, droning, unhinged debut Electronic Meditation in 1970. They followed it up with the gargantuan Alpha Centauri in 1971, which layered enormous waves of sombre organ lines over a thunderous and jaw-dropping barrage of percussion by the peerless Chris Franke - 16 years old at the time! Then there was 1972's Zeit (Time), which owed much to Ligeti and masterfully conjured up what, surely, it must feel like to float in space.

The following year, their fourth album arrived. It was called Atem and it drew together several strands of Tangerine Dream's music to create another strange and atmospheric record. It was more experimental than Zeit and combined wild percussion with electronics, organs, sampled voices and reverb and decay effects. At this point they broke with the Ohr label and singed with the fledgling Virgin Records, which at that point dealt in Krautrock and progressive music. Their newfound freedom and the vast array of cutting-edge equipment now at their disposal meant a sea change was imminent for the trio, and for the course of electronic music. Froese tried out the equipment in 1973 and the results were impressive; however, he didn't see fit to release his initial studio session until 1986, when after remixing it - and unfortunately steering the sound towards the 80s - he put it out as Green Desert. Although we will never know what it originally sounded like, it's still a lush and hypnotic collection. This signalled a move towards synth- and sequencer-based music and collective improvisation, and soon Froese, Franke and Peter Baumann gathered in the studio to record Phaedra.

When it came out, listeners were confronted with something truly original; overlapping, hypnotic electronic grooves, haunted mellotrons, ghostly organs, phased melodies, echoes of childrens' voices, classical structures, insistent pulses, crisscrossing time signatures and atonal crescendos. It was dark, bold, disquieting and unlike anything that had previously been heard. It was the sound of the "futurepast", of immeasurable distances and unmappable terrains. What it communicates is beyond language. This single 17-minute track is the solitary point we reach if we trace back from Autechre's organic structures and unusual time signatures or Aphex Twin's ambient works and spooked beauty (Aphex has cited Tangerine Dream as an influence on several occasions). Boards Of Canada's nostalgic 70s-inspired music, the minimal techno of Richie Hawtin and Robert Hood, Vangelis and John Carpenter's gorgeous soundtracks, the euphoric walls of sound on M83's debut, the interlaced melodies and polyrhythms of Plaid, Nine Inch Nails' sweeping instrumental work and the warm, textured lines of Thom Yorke's solo album owe something to this single piece, now 34 years old. Incidentally, the album is named after a character in Greek mythology who has her stepson (Hippolytus) killed after he rejects her advances, and finally, racked with guilt, kills herself. Heavy stuff indeed.

The year after Phaedra came out, Tangerine Dream released Rubycon and Ricochet - both classics in their own right - and eventually began to embrace prog rock and alter their sound, until they reached a point in 1982 when their peers had caught up with them. Peter Baumann left in 1977; he went on to release several solo albums and produced Cluster in 1979. The quality of Tangerine Dream's work diminished throughout the 1980s and they became that most hideous of things - a New Age group. However, in the first half of the 1970s, Tangerine Dream was probably the most important "band" in the world, releasing at least six genuine masterpieces. Their greatest work is Phaedra and its monolithic centrepiece is the peerless title track. Enough from me; turn down the lights and dive in.

Phaedra (from 1974's Phaedra)

Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola (from 1971's Alpha Centauri)

Ricochet Part II (from 1975's Ricochet)


Gardenhead said...

I've been listening to an american ambient electro duo called the fun years. The third track on their recent album 'baby it's cold inside' throws the most far out Phaedra style synth wobble out of nowhere before crackling back into a sleepy drone. I think you'd like them.

LoLo said...

I've been listening to Harmonia a lot, a side project of Neu! and Cluster. More on the electronic side than krautrock but definitely worth a listen if you're into Tangerine Dream.

niamh said...

We have a weirdly similar taste in music. Phaedra is one of my all-time favourites. Tangerine Dream don't seem to have dated the same way as a lot of their contemporaries.

Astonishing Sod-Ape said...

Gardenhead - Fun Years, nice stuff indeed, had the album for a while but only dipped in before now.

LoLo - Harmonia are great. Really great!

Niamh - Spooky! Although the stuff TD did after '86 is mostly dire. In the 70s, however, they were untouchable. Are you on

niamh said...

I'm oldwallpaper on

It would help if my reflected my actual taste in music, other than my obsessions with Boards of Canada, Bowie and the Knife.

rickdog said...

Find more Tangerine Dream in my mp3blog and forum searches:


Anonymous said...

24db said...

Slight mistake, Froese didn't form TD with Conrad and Klaus, they came almost 2 years after he started the group in sept 1967. Klaus was in the group for 8 months (bar a short return in 1973 for a month), he left before the first album was released. Conrad continued for a short while (even when Franke was in the group)

OneLifeLiveIt said...

My old girlfriend had a sister called Phaedra and she was very aloof and quite stunning. The problem was she knew it. If she had the personality and soul of her sister she would be the perfect women. Haven't listened to Tangerine Dream for a long time. ps love your randomness on Twitter.