21:32

 

 

cluster-moebius-and-roedelius-seventiesI think I may have passed some sort of rock-ist milestone this evening. I’m now about 2 minutes away from listening to Cluster ’71 all the way through. If this means nothing to you at all then, you’re alright…

No problem, you can move on, nothing to see here…

But if you are aware of Cluster’s first record since the departure of Conrad Schnitzler and the exchange of the “K” for a “C”, you’ll possibly be raising an eyebrow quizzically (most cases), snorting dismissively into your Friday evening glass of red (probably quite a few), or possibly wandering trance-like over to your CD / vinyl collection, scratching your chin and chuckling to yourself.

Cluster

Cluster ’71 is made up of 3 tracks, all of which you’d have to say are pretty “investigational” – long shapeless feedback and reverb-drenched explorations that occasionally use conventional tools like rhythm and tunefulness, but are generally only on the briefest of nodding terms with such orthodoxies. There are no vocals, no instruments you can identify and nothing you’d call a “song”. There aren’t even any song titles as such – the two tracks that made up side one of the record are called “7:42”, “15:43” and I’m currently listening to “21:32” which made up the second side and is … well, you’re smart, you get the idea…

My younger self would of course be turning in his grave at this news and would no doubt be lobbying for some sort of sci-fi divorce from his later self. I remember gleefully chuckling away to myself when a friend admitted he often dozed off listening to Tangerine Dream and Eno. This was not what I felt music was for – dancing and leaping, yeah; arguing and studying, for sure; impressing girls with, given a chance; but sleeping? An admission of boredom, surely. Music needs rhythm, words, chords and above all guitars, as loud and as demented as possible.

Cluster ’71 has no actual guitars that I can recognise, almost no drumming that fits my definition, certainly no chords. It is shapeless and has no structure. It would stretch the patience of many listener. And yet, it really is compelling, you’re drawn in surprisingly easily to what on the face of it is just a racket.

I guess the only grudging concession my former self would give it is that it is certainly loud and definitely abrasive –r-766860-1156671425-jpegpretty much impossible to sleep to. Jarring shafts of metallic synth parade up and down stage, awkward loops of futuristic sound bounce from one speaker to the next, great fuzzy waves of electronic noise throb across and behind the synthesisers creating a sort of rhythm (the best we’re going to get). You’re really a long way from home here…

If we’re looking for touchstones to compare this strange, uncompromising record to, you could probably think about Florian Fricke and the early drone-driven Popol Vuh stuff, only a fair bit harsher and not at all “ambient”. And without any native percussion. Or you could perhaps compare it to the echo-y relentlessness of Neu!’s “Negativeland”, in the sense that waves of unforgiving sound stagger back and forth through your headphones. But again, without the drums. Or the bass.

There’s certainly no “motorik” elements here – you wouldn’t play it in the car, or when you’re jogging. You’d definitely not play it with friends round (maybe friends you’d really fallen out with) and I’d not be expecting to see it on the jukebox of any of the pubs I go to. I’m currently struggling with a dizzying head-cold at the moment, which may well be significant. Maybe this is a record you listen to with a mug of honey and lemon, your senses already cack-handed and askew. Maybe when you are kind of OK hearing the world bounce and twitch in what would normally be an alarming fashion, the opening murmurs of “15:43” slinking into your unsuspecting headphones.

Cluster were Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, (and for the purposes of this record only, Conny Plank) who went on to make a whole bunch of other records, some of which are far less challenging (although Cluster II, which I’m yet to hear, is by all accounts more of the same). Other records include Zuckerzeit, a gentler, more melodic affair which appears on various “Greatest of the Seventies” lists and is generally considered their best. They also worked intermittently with Michael Rother as Harmonia, and went on to record with Eno, releasing the much-delayed Tracks and Traces which I wrote about a couple of years ago.

As far as YouTube or anything else is concerned, there’s predictably nothing out there at all, apart from whole album posts (hard to see Moebius and Roedelius doing a cheery KEXP session, although the between songs banter would’ve been an awkward joy…). But how about a tap dripping onto a spoon and cereal bowl in the sink (to the strains of “Caramel” from the Zuckerzeit album)? That oughta do it…

 

(As long as you realise, I’m not giving you the real shit here, I love and respect you all too much…)

Sometimes in Autumn

tracksandtracesdon_1482986cI’ve finally finished wading through David Stubbs’ Future Days book on Krautrock, having bought it in September. It’s quite a good read, and I’m beginning to regret not making the time to see him talking about it at Psychfest. His profiles of Can and Neu! are particularly worth reading and the back stories behind each band are genuinely interesting. There are some great stories of the time (if you pick it up, and envisage not making it through to the end, do at least search out the chapter about the less-than-successful attempts by the head of Ohr records, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, to get Timothy Leary to record an album, whilst on the run from the CIA). He also refers to a pretty remarkable YouTube clip, involving Kaiser and a particularly radical musician called, Nikel Pallat, who loses it spectacularly during a televised arts discussion about the overthrow of capitalism:

 

The desk stands up remarkably well, no? (Some metaphors write themselves…)

Stubbs’ passages about specific songs and particularly about the kosmische bands all get a bit NME at times, but I can forgive him this – writing about actual music is a tricky business (the last seven years of PP have at least taught us this…) – dancing about architecture, for sure…

It’s got me going back through Can again and if anything enjoying the first two Neu! records even more than before. I’ve “discovered” the splendid, ragged sprawl that is the first Guru Guru LP, I’ve been giving some of the more “difficult” Faust tracks another go and I’ve even gained a grudging respect (if not affection) for Kraftwerk. But what’s taken me a little by surprise is the extent that I’m also starting to enjoy some of the more ambient elements of the period.

I’ve tended to associate “Krautrock” (a term with which Stubbs, and most of the musicians of the time are pretty unhappy btw) with the noisier, experimental guitar bands, and above all with the “Dingerbeat”, the relentless, locomotive rhythm patterns, propelled by Neu!’s Klaus Dinger. To be honest, I’ve always felt that ambient sounds are, well, a tiny bit dull and just a tad pretentious. I remember a friend of mine, “back in the day”, telling me, without a trace of irony, that Tangerine Dream would help him sleep at night… Hmmm…

Re-listening to this however, and I may be on the turn (so to speak).

Harmonia ‘76

Harmonia were the first supergroup of Krautrock, formed when Dieter Möbius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Kluster/Cluster started collaborating with the other half of Neu!, Michael Rother. They released three albums, which I’m yet to get to grips with, before drifting apart to work on solo projects. The moment Brian Eno rocked up at the band’s remote farmhouse was the moment when Harmonia turned into Harmonia ’76, and therefore, if I persevere with my glib supergroup metaphor, this would be the moment when der Kream turned into der Blind Faith. Except with better music (and cups of tea).

Eno had already pronounced Harmonia “the world’s most important rock band” so a collaboration was, I guess, always on the cards but I’m not sure the ensuing sessions were ever envisaged as an album in the making. Stubbs reckons it’s “music about making music” – buggered if I know what that means but there’s certainly a comfortableness and a relaxed quality about the tracks they recorded which suggests that the four men were just having a fine old time together. The picture later used as the album cover, depicts the four in their element, I think it’s fair to say, mugs of tea in hand, sitting around grinning amiably, surrounded by tapes, leads and guitars. In the event, the tapes were buried for many years and only released as “Tracks and Traces” in 1997 (indeed a reissue in 2009 unearthed a few extra tracks and there’s talk of still further material in Rother’s possession…).

Giving them a proper listen now, you can hear that there’s some motoric in there, some Kraftwerk plinking too, but to my mind the centre pieces of the session are a few tracks of ambient soundscapes that sound modern still, today, and in 1976 must’ve been really out there…

Now, this sort of ethereal, formless fare is not really my sort of thing at all but I can’t help but find myself returning again and again to it and , well, this track, really – “Sometimes in Autumn”

 

If you’ve persevered throughout the fifteen minutes (I know, but believe me, if this butterfly-brain can do it, you can – and you’ll be rewarded for it…), you’ll have heard a veritable (though fluffy) barrage of Eno-style effects and electronics, which come from a very different place than the jarring recklessness of Can or Faust. The track starts with something of a fanfare of not-really-going-anywhere noodling, but gradually settles down to the measured repetition of a two-note motif that seems to travel through reed beds of echoes and synthesised wails. A helicopter appears to pass over a couple of times, tides seem to come and go, winds envelope you periodically. It’s a funny, old, not entirely-satisfying journey across (I’m imagining) some sort of murky lake with no real destination or feeling that you’ve arrived.

That’s pretty much as far as I’m going to try and go describing it (architects, dancing, remember…) apart from to say that there’s something intriguing and remarkably compelling about it as a piece of music. It’s one of those “can you see what it is, yet?” pieces, except that I’d imagine that those in the know would probably  scoff at the notion of being able to hammer it into your own shape or metaphor. On the other hand, my narcoleptic Tangerine Dream fan of days yore would possibly stroke his beard and suggest that whatever interpretation you give it is … cool. Having given him the smack around the face he would so richly deserve, I’d probably have to concede (privately) that he might actually be right.

Do with it what you will… but do enjoy it.