Feature / Review
Cluster ‘1971 – 1981’
Released by Bureau B, 8th April 2016
Patriarchs of the German music scene, Cluster, are quite rightly celebrated for their contribution to the last forty-odd years of experimental electronic and ambient music with this latest grandiose gesture of adulation. Though attempts have been sporadic, past collections have gathered together, more or less, all the standard Cluster recordings, leaving out live and more obscure albums, until now. German label Bureau B, concentrating on the group’s output from 1971 to 1981, chronologically compile a full discography from that decade, which for the first time ever includes the previously unreleased Konzerte 1972/1977 album.
All attentively remastered, rather impressively I might add, by Willem Makkee, the nine-album boxset offers the die-hards another excuse to own the back catalogue, with the added bonus of requiring that former live LP that got away, Konzerte, and for those not familiar or with a passing fancy, the best complete picture and evolution yet of the much revered group.
A contemporary of Cluster, and for a time both a contributor and label mate at Sky Records, Asmus Tietchens has written an introduction on the group’s musical significance and development, whilst a series of insightful essays accompany each album. Tietchens’ gracious, though typically stilted, gratitude goes a little something like this: “Cluster’s role in the development of new German electronic music went unnoticed for a long while. Cacophonous noise in the 1970s and 1980s masked the subtlety of Cluster aesthetics, diminishing their force of impact. Only since the 1990s, and all the more so today, have Cluster been identified and celebrated as pioneers. The somewhat hackneyed “avant-garde” tag really amounts to nothing more than being ahead of one’s time. And those who are ahead of their time often slip out of sight. Now, twenty, thirty years later, with so many new aural experiences on offer, listening habits have changed to such a great extent that we are better placed to assess Cluster’s importance, their influence on subsequent generations of musicians. It has thus become easier to appreciate and enjoy their music.”
Join me now as I take you through one of the magnum opuses of the electronic music canon, detailing Cluster’s formative eight-album arc decade, and the delights that Cluster 1971 – 1981 has to offer. Hopefully, I’ll also reinforce their reverant and important role in shaping not only the early years of electronic music, but also their contributions to helping shape synth pop, ambient music, industrial, electro, and most importantly of all (arguably the originals that spawned this moniker) Kosmische. Of course most people will know or be familiar with Cluster as, and it isn’t exactly a heading celebrated by those who have fallen prey to it since its inception by the British music press in the early 70s, a “Krautrock” group. A missive really, though the collective title has stuck, and we all use it liberally, Cluster may have shared stages, band members even with many of the Krautrock family, yet they shared little in the way musically or ideally, except from a common bond to build a new German culture politically, societal and culturally. An erasure of the past misdeeds and infamy of Germany, was the only real theme that any of the Krautrock fraternity shared.
Cluster I & II
From an incubated state of experimentation at the legendary Zodaik Free Arts Lab in the late 1960s to the subsequent, ever-evolving, various adoptions that followed, the electronic music pioneers Cluster were spurred on by that conceptual behemoth of 20th century German art, Joseph Beuys and his famous “Anyone can be an artist” catchphrase. Originally a triumvirate of minds, the original incarnation of the collective, Kluster, was driven by the well-‘travailed’ Berlin born masseur and physiotherapist turned self-taught composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and two former art students, Conrad Schnitzler and Dieter Moebius. Another Berlin stalwart, a pupil of Beuys and co-founder of the Zodiak, it would be Schnitzler’s contact with the leading performance and installation progenitor that helped form the groups ideas of free play and experimentation. In a manner, already a well-known, maverick figure in Berlin, Schnitzler was the prime motivator of the new German Kluster aesthetic. Admittedly musical amateurs though, starting out on the road of self-discovery, breaking from the constraints of a traditional musical education, the Kluster ideals were inspired by a rejection of, more or less, everything that had come before. Sure, Conrad had already collaborated on the Tangerine Dream’s inaugural Electric Meditation peregrination, but this was uncharted water for him and his comrades, who were discovering the virtues of the early synthesizer and other electronic devices. Though progressive, the group would always still use, adapt and merge their synthesized, electronic sound with more traditional instruments, such as the piano, organ, guitar. They also used an assortment of found objects and handmade equipment, though production manipulation would play a key component in changing the sound that emanated from them. In fact their very first albums under the Kluster title, Klopfzeichen and Zwei-Osterei, would be organ-led evocative soundscapes: both ominously evoking the reverent and uncertain. Recorded in Godorf near Cologne, where they would also begin their congruous sonic relationship with the legendary German musician/producer Conny Plank, the trio, still unsure of their instruments and relative novices in composition, extemporised with a cello, violin and guitar, feeding them through various effect to generate both otherworldly and disturbing atmospherics. Though unsettling, even discordant at times, the added religious cantor of composer Oskar Gottlieb Blarr, who weaved German text and Oecumenic poetry into the monastic passages, would see the group release their duo of early albums on the renowned Church organ music label Schwann. Though religion, especially the Lutheran, was still woven into the fabric of the country (even after the cataclysmic, near apocalyptic, fallout of WWII) new ideas, including the Agnostic, spiritual and mystical alongside a healthy dose of atheism, were competing for attention. Those early recordings still adhered to the Gothic, but took the music of the church into very different, moodier and daunting places.
The first of the famous letter-changing evolutions was prompted when Schnitzler left in the early 70s. The trio now down to a duo, were reborn as Cluster. With a change in scenery, a move to a new label (Philips), and a slight change in musical inspirations, Moebius and Roedelius recorded their next set of soundscapes in the famous Hamburg Star Studio with Conny Plank. A simple declaration, Cluster would indolently leave the stratosphere and heavens for space: The trio of serial compositions on their 1971 album probing and penetrating into new territories. What sounds like a motor-driven bed of humming, generating and caustic alien waves, evokes a disturbing navigation around the Tannhauser Gate. Believe it or not, transmogrified amongst the disconcerting audio generators and industrial whipped percussive piques is a lingering resonance of more earthly Hawaiian guitar and cello. Recorded more or less in tandem with Plank, the equally unimaginative entitled Cluster II appeared the following year, in 1971 on the famous German imprint Brain. An expansion of the sonic spectrum, with shorter, and more of them, tracks, II would continue to probe the peripherals of space whilst also sticking closer to home with a quasi-neoclassicist vernacular. Roaming the oblique wilderness, ‘Im Süden’ featured ghostly remnants of a repeating, arching guitar, much in the style of Michael Rothar. This may have convinced the Neu! co-founder, and architect of a whole new traversing musical style, to seek the duo out, as he would soon play a big part of the Cluster story. Cluster II was a subtle but marked change to the group’s earlier work: magnetic and fraught on ‘Plas’; searching out the fauna of a radioactive planet on ‘Für die Katz’; lurking once again in the sanctity of the church, but vibrating on a whole different spectral frequency on ‘Georgel’; and poking about in the innards of an organ for ‘Nabitte’. Gradually introduced to recording techniques by their silent third band member Conny Plank, Roedelius and Moebius were rapidly learning how to confidently produce their own material to great effect.
Zuckerzeit & Sowiesoso
By the mid-70s Roedelius and Moebius had moved to their legendary retreat in the serene German countryside of Forst, beside the Weser River. Located in a near medieval hovel, but transformed into a living space and more importantly a studio, this new base of operations would play host to a number of the great and good of ambient and electronic music over the years, including both Michael Rother and Brian Eno. The former of these, intrigued by the strange emanations resonating from the Cluster generator, originally visited Frost in the hope of enticing Roedelius and Moebius to Dusseldorf, to collaborate with Neu!. Failing this, Rothar stopped working with his Neu! motorik foil Klaus Dinger, and stayed to form the congruous side project Harmonia with Roedelius and Moebius – releasing two albums, which also featured collaborations from Eno. But before the Harmonia flag was unfurled (a two-year experiment that eventually fizzled out) Rothar would co-produce Cluster’s next record Zuckerzeit.
Making their biggest evolutionary leap forward yet, Zuckerzeit continued to hone the Cluster sound further whilst experimenting with entirely new ideas. Shorter, more defined and with a greater use of melody and rhythm, the 1974 album offered “sugary” cynicism (‘Caramel’, ‘Marzipan’) and angular bubbly synth pop. Bearing the hallmarks of Rothar, especially in the ironical ad world artwork, but mostly musically, a scratchy, more spring-y proto-new wave and bubble-gum punk sound emerged. An immeasurable influence on not only their contemporaries, but also every generation since, Zuckerzeit offered an off-kilter blueprint for futuristic electro pop. Tracks such as the tongue-in-cheek burbling ‘Hollywood’ would influence everything from the Sheffield synthesizer mob to David Bowie, the Aphex Twin and the whole techno genre. Basically merging Neu! with Cluster, this highly successful and original meeting of minds melded quirky, off-kilter, squelchy synth music with pan-Europa, Oriental and Tropicana illusions.
Still adapting and manipulating the organ (both Rothar and Roedelius each owned one), but now recording onto a four-track, the group would still need the caress and innovative touch of Plank when it came to mastering: The luxury of not only that desired knowledge, skill and adroit touch, but also owning a superior 24-track machine, gave the producer an advantage. Toiling in the woods and gardens of their humble Forst nirvana, Roedelius and Moebius (with their houseguest Rothar, and later on, Eno) were seduced and inspired by the obvious beauty and serenity of the German countryside. Now recording not only as Harmonia, but also preparing solo work and other projects, the duo left Brain to form their most successful recording legacy with that other famous German label of inventive and pioneering “Kosmiche” music, Sky Records.
Whilst the tear in the fabric of society and music disturbed the dinosaurs of rock and glitter pomp, punk just emerging to knock the comfortable pantheon of mediocrity from its slumber, Cluster, now back to a duo, were once again bucking the trends and returning to a more gentle naturalistic sound. Released in 1976, Sowiesoso was an ambient exploration of tranquil and expansive moods and locations. The full version of the opening title track, a pastoral, mellotron-like flight of fantasy, is featured in this collection. Almost leaning towards a slower organic, if stuttering polka, reveal, it has an endless quality, fading into infinite. There is still a touch of the strange and even the plaintive, with a kooky muck-about in the studio yelps over Apache style drums, on ‘Umleitung’, and the dystopian cloak of unease, on ‘Halwa’. The album finishes on the cocktail lounge overlooking the Sea of Tranquillity silky vista, ‘In Ewigkeit’, which translates as “for eternity”, the perfect sentiment for a group in transition; about to swell the ranks and work with the ambient music pioneer Brian Eno.
Cluster And Eno
In 1974, Eno came to a Harmonia concert at the Fabrik in Hamburg. In what would turn out to be a meeting of great minds, leading to a series of collaborative albums later on in the mid to late 70s, Eno joined Roedelius, Moebius and Rothar in the second half of the concert programme for an impromptu jam. Already aware of the one-time Roxy Music oscillator and knob twiddler’s own experiments in electronic and ambient music, they formerly invited Eno to join the group for some recording work in their Forst studio. He agreed and said that he would love to come and he did: two years later. Those first tentative steps led to the Harmonia & Eno 76 (also known as the Tracks And Traces) album. Eno could be said to have had a certain infatuation with his German cousins Harmonia and Cluster, going as far as to publicly state at the time that the former were, “the world’s most important rock band”.
However, he would also chime in with Roedelius and Moebius’ original exploration, Cluster. Enriching the group’s next two releases, After The Heat and no nonsense entitled Cluster & Eno albums, Eno paid back the influences he’d first taken from the German music scene (now imbuing his own on-going collaborations with both David Bowie and the Talking Heads), by reflecting his own inimitable twist to create a new sonic amalgamation. Released out of recording synch, the former of these, released not under the Cluster moniker but the Eno Moebius Roedelius banner, included a host of Eno mannerisms, including tape flange techniques and reversed vocals on ‘Tzima N’Arki’ – which features a chorus of Eno’s ‘King’s Lead Hat’ (itself an anagram of “Talking Heads”) song from his Before And After Science album. Can’s mischievous, and legendary music explorer, bassist Holger Czukay would play the hovering, hanging and anticipating bassline on this track. Elsewhere the gliding, almost liquid movements evoked tubular bell atmospherics in an alien climate (‘Foreign Affairs’); searching neo-classist piano meditations to castles in the sky (‘Luftschloß’); couplet cyborg vocals over a straining, arched metallic synth new wave (‘Broken Head’, possibly a flicker switch for Gary Numan); and Taking Tiger Mountain meets the Yellow Magic Orchestra (‘The Belldog’) sound tracking a Philip K. Dick augur.
More transcendental, a gentler experience altogether, Cluster & Eno was a completely different album. Subtly traversing the globe, the group introduced Indian drones (courtesy of Dutch sitar player, keyboardist and producer Oskko Becker), visceral dreamy exotic panoramas and topographic ocean birdlife to a cerebral piano bed of diaphanous, often searching and at times moody, soundscapes. Lingering passages now melt into each other or sadly pine away and fade as if they were one continuous soundtrack of melancholic or wondrous visions. Lending a hand to proceedings, once again, were Holgar Czukay, and fellow Sky records composer Asmus Tietchens, who would play synthesizer.
Grosses Wasser & Curiosum
Eno may have now departed with a fond farewell, but his influence and touch would still run deep through Cluster’s next LP, Grosses Wasser. Co-produced by former Tangerine Dream group member Peter Baumann, once again shifting into another phase of sonic discovery, the group, again stripped to the duo crux of Moebius and Roedelius, would head into ever more otherworldly and avant-garde crevices. Corrupting a style of clockwork Baroque on the enchantingly alien sonnet of ‘Isodea’ and fairy tales on the warmly, twinkled organ seeped recital ‘Manchmal’, Cluster modified German traditions to weave new stories and environments, or at least evoke them. Taking a leap from the diving board that adorns the album’s cover, an undulating spring-y echo and ponderous piano, together with more searing scanning synth notes, shimmers on the opening ‘Avanti’, whilst the self-titled three-part closer roams through another alien landscape of piano accompanied reflection, radioactive glowing pulses and scuttling percussive eeriness on its journey through the mind fields of Faust and the Tangerine Dream. Building from the reflective to the primordial and into the chasms and caves of a lunar surface, with both lilting piano moods and outbursts of spontaneous drumming breaking out in the same song, Cluster integrate most of their signature traits into the finale. This last sonic statement would in fact draw a satisfactory close to Cluster’s 1970s output, their last LP of the decade.
As the 1980s beckoned, Moebius and Roedelius already working on their own solo work and collaborating outside the Cluster framework, would release just one more album before taking an eight-year hiatus from Cluster.
Doyens and pioneers of the electronic music scene, their original and developing experiments over the last tenure had inspired a generation of artists. A positive renaissance, from the electro Hip Hop scene now blowing up in the US, to the burgeoning post-punk synthesizer scene in the northern cities of the UK, electronic music was increasingly de mode. It must have been increasingly difficult to continue in an incubated separation, isolated and adrift of what was happening outside the Forst wilderness, but both Moebius and Roedelius’s, now almost telepathic, abilities to construct new musical horizons would continue unfazed and indifferent to those influences: or so it seemed. The duo’s next, and as it would turn out last LP of the 80s as Cluster, was perfectly summed up by its vague title, Curiosum. Recorded at the Hamet Hof in Vienna, you can’t help but hear certain tones and fleeting influences from their peers and spawned electronic music children. Squelching and wobbling to a kinetic soundtrack, redolent in parts of what sounds like synthesised homage to Stravinsky, the really odd lumbering opener ‘Oh Odessa’ is perhaps one of Cluster’s most strangely melodic and kooky compositions. As if to demonstrate the album’s amorphous, fluctuating moody tastes, it’s followed by the muffled stomping robotic ‘Proantipro’, which strides unabated for seven-minutes without much more than an occasional zappy shooting star to take away the sentinel beings progress through the trampled landscape, and the lunacy of the clangers lost in the cosmos, ‘Seltsame Gegend’. A curiosity, this final collection of vignettes and longer, undefined passages featured very little in the way of off-kilter, luminous rhythms, instead venturing further into ambient waltz netherworlds. A strange beauty indeed, but a beauty nonetheless, Curiosum marked a ten-year journey of experimentation, the highly sophisticated production and effortless evocations marking Moebius and Roedelius’s enduring partnership and progress from novices to, arguably, becoming two of the most important composers of the late 20th century.
Though the Cluster discography contains a few ‘live’ albums, there isn’t much in the way of concert recordings from the group’s most formative years. Most of what is on offer is taken from later tours. However, Bureau B have included the previously unreleased Konzerte album, which features two twenty-minute plus vaporising, fizzing and static charged performances from both Hamburg’s legendary cultural hub, the Fabrik, and Metz’s Festival International De La Science-Fiction.
A former factory converted into arts and music spaces by the painter Horst Dietrich and architect Friedhelm Zeuner in 1971, its industrial environment suited the Cluster music machine well. The first of these performances, would take place in the venue’s second year, around the time of Cluster II. Whilst in the same realms, the oscillating, generating live performance evoked a return to the Forbidden Planet after a comedown. Travelling through a vibrating, discordant and caustic space, with more than a fleeting glimmer of early Amon Düül II, Tangerine Dream and UFO period Guru Guru, the spectre of exploration turns eerily ominous.
Taking a different cue, improvising a congruous soundtrack to the occasion, Cluster’s performance at the 1977 International Science-Fiction festival in Metz, was a magical voyage into the questioning, curious space of Arthur C. Clarke. Separate in many ways to the material they were producing at the time with Brian Eno and Michael Rother, this subtly rotating and roaming vision breaks out from its swaddled purring synthesiser and raspy modulations into a glowing dawn. Finding a way out or a brief glimmer of hope in the fog, the mysterious and alien atmospherics make way for something more human and reassuring. It’s a great addition to the discography, and will prove the most interesting part of the boxset: at least the most inquisitive.
Of course, 1971 – 1981, isn’t the full picture. Even though Cluster was shelved during most of the 1980s, with Moebius and Roedelius both concentrating on recording and performing solo and collaborative projects (Roedelius alone is said to have made at least 80 albums), the duo reformed in 1989 to produce the Apropos Cluster album. Recorded over the next year, this return to the music of their Grosses Wasser period collection was released in 1991 on the, rather aptly entitled, Curious Music label. The follow-up, One Hour, took another four years to materialise. A seamless epic passage, cut down from an original four-hour improvisation, One Hour was a warped, chiming, mind-bending soundtrack, demarcated into 11 tracks (though this merely acted as vague guide and method of suggestion to changes, in what was a seamless hour long performance). Linear notes paid homage to their friend, confident and silent partner Conny Plank, who passed away in 1987.
In a familiar repeat of their last hiatus, Cluster once again dissolved, parting company after their first ever United States tour in 1996. Roedelius would however once again work with his old comrade and Kluster co-founder Conrad Schnitzler (the first time in thirty years), whilst Moebius would find time to join forces Michael Rother, during their break. Both releasing a host of solo work and continually collaborating with a wide range of artists, the duo eventually returned to the Cluster fold in 2007, with a series of performances throughout Europe, including the Kosmiche Club in London, documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany and at the fourth annual More Ohr Less festival in Linz, Austria. A year later, they’d return to play dates in the United States.
The final album together, Qua, was released in the Spring of 2009, followed in the Autumn with a support slot for a band who owe more than a little gratitude to Cluster for their existence, Tortoise. Announced by Roedelius via social media channels on 17th November 2010, Cluster were to split for the third, and as it would turn out, final time. With the enduring Moebius/Roedelius partnership wound-down, Cluster was reimagined on a different tangent as the intergenerational Qluster, with Roedelius (now approaching his eighties) joined by the spritely (at only half his age) sound installation artist and keyboardist Onnen Bock, on a quartet of live, extemporized albums. In 2013 the ‘neu’ duo became a trio once again when bass player virtuoso Armin Metz was congruously asked to swell the ranks. Since then, the trio have released the recent acoustic piano experiment Tasten, and the beautifully rendered, flowing synthetic electronic sketches collection Echzeit – a return in many ways to the more serene and ambient pastures of Cluster.
Unfortunately both Schnitzler (in 2011) and Moebius (in 2015) would pass away, leaving Roedelius to solider on. Any reunion or revival would now seem an empty gesture, unless Rothar and Eno would like to crank up the generators again for one last trip around the nebulous. 1971- 1981 will serve for now as a worthy testament and awakening of the Cluster back catalogue and legacy: now sounding better than ever, the remastering for once, very much welcomed.
Words: Dominic Valvona