Sunday, January 07, 2018

1970's German Experimental Rock ~ Cluster & Harmonia

For any nascent music movement finding a place where you are left free to perform. experiment and refine your ideas is central.  For experimental rock in Germany this was the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin. The Lab was a late sixties hippie happening performance venue through whose doors passed Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schultze and Tangerine Dream.  Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Konrad Schnitzler were two of the founding members of the Lab. There they met Dieter Mobius and formed a band called Kluster, producing three albums, independently released in limited 300 pressings. When Schnitzler left, Roedelius and Mobius carried on but changed one letter of the name to Cluster.

Their present day reputation is based upon Cluster and Harmonia's work in the 1970's period. The music they made was spontaneous and of the moment, they improvised as they went along, following any idea to see how far they could take it, with little self-censoring. A legacy of their Arts Lab days is that Cluster's work feels to have a natural and organic evolution to it, whilst it is largely electronic or electronically modulated sound. Over the seventies their music slowly shifts from longer avant garde industrial noise improvisations to shorter melodic vignettes, similar to painting an abstract portrait or landscape in miniature.

On Cluster 71, there first album each track has no name, each piece is denoted only by the length of time it runs for. The tracks have no melody, no rhythmic beat and the soundscapes they evoke prompt feelings, that are often rather bleak and darkly modulated. They explore the aural shadows with intimidating walls of screeching noises, that shift and fade in and out. It can be a distinctly unnerving listening experience that grabs your ears and refuses to let you go. Though harsh and austere you can detect from the long sustains and tangled interweaving of sound where their gentler sound would eventually evolve. This track, 7.42, starts very quietly and builds to create the effect of entering an aural nightmare.

Cluster 2 followed in 1975, this time all the tracks have a name. The music pieces are generally shorter in length, and sonically the sound is more inviting, slightly less angular and bleak, they include moments of rhythm ,small harmonic loops and flourishes.  Its a truth of any musical form that starts off being so resolutely extreme, that this leaves you with nowhere else to progress to but back in the direction of rhythm, melody and harmonic conventions. This track, Live in der fabrik, is a recording of 14.42 minute live improvised performance at The Fabrik in Hamburg.

In 1973 they started a side project, joining forces with Micheal Rother from Neu! to form Harmonia. This new conjunction of personalities and talents shifted the Cluster sound further away from industrial technik noise. Their first and second album Musik von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975) found them firmly established in a more recognisable world, each short piece having its own sense of place and dynamism. This piece Sonnenschein rattles along like some off kilter medieval barrel organ.

These albums were hugely influential. Brian Eno's enthusiasm and collaboration brought them to the attention of a much wider music buying public. The albums he made with Cluster ie Cluster & Eno (1977) and After The Heat (1978) plus a previously unreleased album of work with Harmonia called Tracks & Traces recorded in 1976 but released in 1997, all show what a huge influence Cluster had upon Eno's own musical ideas and future direction. Cluster's work never became ambient, they were never purists and more anarchic free spirits, but nonetheless you can hear in them the sources for it. The music is becoming more minimal and tightly structured, this track from Tracks & Traces called Vamos Companeros has a fabulous rhythm like a steam train powering up a mountain side.

I'm sure there are plenty of other gems yet to be unearthed from Cluster's or Roedelius and Mobius's individual back catalogue.  Enjoy your research.

No comments: