Scientists believe that, between the big bang and the creation of the worlds, matter existed in a soup-like plasma state. Electronic Meditation is its musical equivalent: a primordial soup of sound that would coalesce over time into Zeit, Atem, Phaedra. Taking their cue from the early noise collages of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream filters them through the classical structure (or non-structure, depending on how you see these things) of musique concrete to create a post-modern tone poem. The individual sections of Electronic Meditation morph together into one long piece featuring the same musical (?) elements including groaning cellos, electric guitars (plucked, scratched and sometimes played), organs, crashing drums, flutes and even broken glass. In some ways, hearing this album is like discovering that the beacon of oddness from “Instellar Overdrive” is actually a star with its own solar system. There will be a tendency on the part of listeners at first to mistake Electronic Meditation as an experiment of accidents. It is, rather, chaos by design. The bass/cello, keyboards, guitars and drums are engaged in an alien dialogue from a shared manuscript. When order and calm emerge from chaos, as they do briefly during “Journey Through A Burning Brain” and “Ashes To Ashes,” a method to their madness also emerges. As a word of caution to later TD listeners, the album title is very misleading; there are no synthesizers or electronic instruments featured on the recording, and the music is anything but meditative. Instead, Tangerine Dream has recorded an orgy of sounds in a daunting and frightening musical opus.
Tangerine Dream’s second album, Alpha Centauri, marks the beginning of their classic period. It’s a substantially different record than their first, recorded with a substantially different lineup. Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler had left, leaving Froese plus new recruits Steve Schroyder and an 18-year-old drummer named Chris Franke to fill the void. And fill it they did, with a new lexicon of space sounds that prominently featured synthesizers for the first time alongside guitar, drums, organ and flute. From the opening moments of “Sunrise In The Third System,” Alpha Centauri reveals a band on a (space) mission. Instead of alien and disembodied sounds, the music moves purposefully and builds in intensity, existing as a single organism toward a shared goal. Electronic Meditation was fascinating at times but often sounded like three people doing their own thing. On Alpha Centauri, it appears that Froese has taken control of the ship, and it’s a much smoother flight for it. The first track could be seen as a kind of decompression chamber that helps the listener get acclimated to the alien landscape of Tangerine Dream’s musical world. The thirteen-minute “Fly And Collision of Comas Sola” slowly builds a heroic theme that eventually crashes into chaos via an amazing drum solo from new member Chris Franke. Its abrupt ending is one of the great mindtricks in the electronic canon. The side-long title track features very sophisticated (for their time) recording techniques that bend traditional sounds into alien shapes; gongs, synthesizers and flutes are blended into what seems like the tuning of the orchestral cosmos. It’s on this piece that the classical comparisons hold; in some ways, “Alpha Centauri” is a pastoral tone poem for the space age, the post-nuclear progeny of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in which Pan finds himself transplanted into a new world of strange creatures. If the band’s first album had seemed better suited to a horror film, Alpha Centauri is firmly in the science fiction camp. It’s one of the first truly great electronic records, and the first of many fantastic journeys to come. Later reissues of the album included both sides of the band’s mind-blowing “rock” single, “Ultima Thule,” plus the eight-minute atmospheric, “Oszillator Planet Concert.”
Phaedra is considered by many to be the band’s magnum opus. The side-long title track is a high-water mark in electronic music: a tone poem for the postmodern age that could have come from the pages of Fantastic Journey, so equally intimate and alien is its effect. The piece begins as an amorphous cloud of energy, like a star in infancy, before heartbeat-like rhythms draw the listener along a path peopled by alien shapes that proceed from and recede again into the blackness. This is brilliant stuff: more than just music you can synchronize your lava lamp to. The second side of music features shorter pieces that are suitably restricted in scope and effect. “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares” picks up where the title track leaves off: a mellotron sets the tone of religious solemnity, and is broadened and embellished, resulting in a standing study rather than a mind-expanding journey. “Movements of a Visionary” is tentative and eerie, grounded by a sped-up Jack-in-the-box effect and a handful of interesting sounds; listeners are likely to recognize the piece’s potential influence on the soundtrack music to the “Friday the 13th” movies, which is unfortunate. The final “Sequent C” is a brief, airy piece led by Baumann’s flute. If but for the title track alone, Phaedra is required listening for fans of Tangerine Dream. The band is clearly in uncharted territory here, and the discoveries they make are fascinating if not revelatory.
Long before Underwater Sunlight reached our ears, Edgar Froese went on an aquatic excursion of his own, the first of several ‘70s solo albums from the primary brain behind Tangerine Dream. Aqua is as much sound as music, designed (with the benefit of an “artificial head system” developed by Gunther Brunschen) to be experienced on headphones. In such a setting (which I haven’t tried since the days of the Stax electrostatic ear speakers), it’s easy to imagine the listener fully immersed in Froese’s waterworld. If electronic meditation is your bag and Klaus Schulze your green grocer, Aqua might be what you’re thirsting after. What occurs here are soundscapes and linear journeys that suggest Tangerine Dream on a more intimate scale. Rather than three voices telling you what to watch out the window, there’s only Froese’s voice (although Chris Franke does add moog sounds on the tunneling “NGC 891”). The result may strike some as unambitious, creating individual worlds of sound rather than Phaedra’s universe. At least that’s how I felt when I used to hear this. Cluster’s “Grosses Wasser” seemed the grander water portrait, Peter Baumann’s Romance ’76 the louder declaration of independence. But Aqua didn’t need to make a big statement; after all, Froese had Tangerine Dream for that. Instead, the composer explores some avenues he might have entertained along the way, from an electronic interpretation of nature (“Aqua”) to experiments in King Crimson’s contained energy (“Panorphelia”). Phaedra and Rubycon are the better albums, but Aqua could otherwise be seen as an introspective cousin to those works. If their later albums (White Eagle et cetera) didn’t float your boat, a return to Aqua may be in order. Also recommended to anyone who was tickled pink over Meddle’s “Echoes.”
I often wondered how Tangerine Dream would reproduce their amorphous tone poems on stage. Ricochet, their first live album, answers that question by avoiding it altogether, instead presenting two sides of completely new music billed simply as Part One and Part Two. In these live shows, Tangerine Dream operated as chemists in a quasi-religious laboratory of their own devising: rows of candles, acid imagery, and the trio encased in banks of synthesizers and sequencers, touching keys and twisting knobs, wizards of electronic magic. As an audiovisual experience, the early TD concerts were a wonder to behold. However, outside of some applause at the beginning and end of Ricochet, the album ceases to be anything but the next album from Tangerine Dream. Electronic sounds percolate, patterns shift, loops rise and fall, drums and cymbals come crashing in, and listeners strap themselves in for another space journey. In a developmental sense, Ricochet breaks little new ground, instead returning to the ebb and flow of electronica until a new organism should come bubbling out of it as an “Invisible Limits” or “Madrigal Meridian.” Part One is the darker of the two pieces, a deep space trip in the vicinity of Phaedra. Part Two is brighter and features a tighter pattern of sequencers, similar to the music that followed Rubycon and on. Some have championed Ricochet as one their best efforts, but I’ve always heard this as simply a swatch of the broader, classic canvas.
Tangerine Dream, which enjoyed an association with the progressive rock movement because of shared ideals, actually began to sound like a progressive rock band on Stratosfear. “The Big Sleep in Search of Hades,” for example, utilizes the same pastoral feel as King Crimson’s early work before yielding to Rubycon’s electronic space imagery. The sequencers are still present, though here accelerated and placed on an equal footing with the surrounding music, mixed with guitars that recall Pink Floyd and synthesizer melodies that share the directness of Vangelis or Cluster. The opening title track remains one of their most accessible works to date, forsaking their typically amorphous introductions for concrete electronic music. “3AM at the Border of the Marsh from Okefenokee” favors synthesizers that share the rich tones of a marimba, resulting in a bubbling mix of melody and texture. “Invisible Limits” marches out of the mist to feature perky sequencer patterns and a violin-sounding guitar that owes some debt to the pioneering work of Robert Fripp. By treating the sequencers as a third instrument rather than an electronic foundation, Stratosfear builds on the softer moments of Ricochet to create a suprisingly warm and immediate album. The cyclical nature of the arrangements gives the impression of individual songs rather than a single, epic tone poem, and despite its title Stratosfear isn’t nearly as eerie as previous albums. The brisk pacing and accessible melodies would continue to play a prominent role in their subsequent work, notably on Force Majeure and Tangram. Stratosfear would be the last studio album from the trio of Baumann, Franke and Froese, and many rank it with the best from this fruitful period.
Kronomyth 1.0: BICENTANGENTIAL. The funny thing is, I was totally into this record when I first heard it in 2002 (about 25 years after the fact). The solo Tangerine Dream albums had been pretty boring up to that point, which for me consisted mostly of a motley assortment of Froese, Franke and Schulze discs. Then I heard Haslinger’s World Without Rules, Froese’s Stuntman, and now I’m not so in love with Romance ’76. It’s still a solid solo album that puts Peter Baumann on a level with co-creators Franke and Froese which, as the “cute” one in Tangerine Dream, may come as a surprise to some. Yet it’s not the rich world of discovery it might have been. What first struck me as the disc’s directness now seems slightly superficial; the classically influenced “Meadow of Infinity” appears a poor man’s Carmina Baumana in spots, while the opening “Bicentennial Present” feels unfinished. Of course, in a dark room with headphones, Romance ’76 is an interesting experience. So are any number of Klaus Schulze discs. So is an electric clock. I’m not retracting my favorable opinion of this album, or the fact that it’s still better than I expected from the ostensibly “junior” member of Tangerine Dream (Franke is actually a few months younger), I’m simply inching away from my original “best TD solo album you’ve never heard” review (which you can still read at All Music Guide). Stylistically, the first side sounds like contemporary Tangerine Dream scaled down (“Bicentennial Present”) or Grosses Vater (“Romance,” and that would be a reference to Cluster’s Grosses Vasser), while the second side is a mix of classical and electronic music that isn’t likely to overshadow the work of Igor Stravinsky anytime soon but has its share of interesting shadows suitable for dark rooms. Since I have heard Repeat Repeat (sub-Numan nonsense) and suspect Strangers is a repeat of the same, Romance ’76 and Trans Harmonic Nights represent the bulk of Baumann’s solo work, with this record the most likely to please Tangerine Dream classicists (i.e., fans of the band’s 1970s output).
The sequencer-based arrangements of past albums find their fruition on Force Majeure. With Steve Jolliffe gone and Klaus Krieger reduced to an ancillary role, Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke parlay their longstanding collaboration into a complementary musical dialogue that is at once lean and evocative. The album’s highlight is the side-long title track, which suggests nothing less than the creation of the world, with the hands of God communicated by the purposeful sequencer patterns, followed by moments of hope and heroism that approach the sublime, and closing with the lighthearted counterpoint of a futuristic J.S. Bach. “Cloudburst Flight” begins with a lazily passionate* acoustic guitar and warm washes of synthesizer, but soon Froese’s grating and garbled guitar pushes the musical discussion into one of conflict, which is finally resolved with the coexistence of peace and turmoil. “Thru Metamorphic Rocks” contains more heroic guitar from Froese, but is generally a return to the amorphous and eerie compositions of past albums, with percussive space echoes that occasionally suggest the work of Klaus Schulze. Krieger, who served as an independently minded element on Cyclone, appears here more to lend credibility to Froese’s rock-like guitar segments than act as a third voice. Force Majeure’s greatest achievement is the overwhelming sense of purpose that marks this music. If earlier albums were susceptible to charges of improvisational noodling at times, no such charge could be reasonably leveled against this album. This is a calculated and compelling work from two experienced artists who move through the electronic medium with grace and precision. (*I have no earthly idea what this means.)
I’m in one of my “Edgar Froese is a musical genius” moods, so you’ll have to forgive me. Yesterday I was in a “Fluorescent light bulbs are a work of genius” mood. (So many geniuses, so little time.) My fancy for Froese didn’t spark out of the blue but from listening to Stuntman for several weeks now. And I’ve come to the conclusion (or crept up on the conclusion and am now poking it with a stick to test its consistency) that Stuntman is a work of natural music genius. Now you noticed the “natural,” didn’t you? That’s my way of saying that Stuntman doesn’t try any new tricks. New songs, sure, but they flow from the same creative spring that fed Force Majeure and Tangram. Like Aqua before it, Stuntman aligns with contemporary TD. It’s an extension of his musical expression at the moment rather than a departure from it. (Okay, I think I beat that point to death.) So I listen to a “Stuntman” or “Drunken Mozart in the Desert” and it’s like sneaking into the museum basement at night or hopping a fence to find a walled garden (or like buying a compact disc for fifteen bucks and sitting on my butt and listening to it, if I really wanted to embellish). As much as I like Phaedra and Rubycon, they were a little static (I thought). Beginning with Stratosfear, the band began to paint with smaller strokes and more color. Stuntman is Edgar Froese with a full paint box, a brush in each hand, replicating (with perhaps a bit less precision) the music of Force Majeure and Tangram. These songs are more than sketches from the same creative period, they’re finished paintings. And the more I listen to it, the more I see the genius in its handiwork: the sounds, the melodies, the mastery of mood, the cold nurturing bosom of analog synth wrapped tight around its electronic soul like a, well, like a fluorescent bulb.
With the addition of keyboardist Johannes Schmoelling, Tangerine Dream adopted a more melodic and accessible sound on Tangram. The fluidity of movement and integral nature of the sequencer patterns are carry-overs from Force Majeure, but Schmoelling’s presence adds an element of delicacy and intimacy that stands in marked contrast to the alien and foreboding landscapes of the previous decade. The title track takes its name from a Chinese puzzle that requires a square to be divided into five triangles, a smaller square and a rhomboid, which are then shifted to create different shapes. This subject is ideally suited to the band’s often sinuous arrangements, allowing Edgar Froese and Schmoelling to move their music around Christopher Franke’s sequencers and resolve various musical “problems.” Despite many familiar elements — disembodied voices that recall Carmina Burana, percussive echoes that serve as segues to new sections, flute-like keyboards — Tangram represents a further shift away from progressive rock toward the economically evocative language more recently popularized by Kraftwerk and Vangelis. Froese’s guitar eschews the heroics of past efforts for a screechier style that will sound familiar to fans of Adrian Belew. Sets 1 and 2 move with the buoyancy and technical sheen first revealed on “Force Majeure,” though they never reach its sublime heights, instead aspiring to loveliness and grandeur (a further link to Vangelis, whose fans will discover in Tangram an accessible entry point). Those who thought their earlier work too ethereal may find Tangram the most succinct and substantial work in their catalog.