In 1974, two seminal albums of German electronic music were released. One was Autobahn, a concept album about the eponymous German freeway, by Kraftwerk. It's undoubtedly a watershed moment in electronic and indeed popular music, a universally acclaimed release which brought Kraftwerk to the attention of a much wider audience and influenced subsequent electro, synthpop and techno acts such as Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and the Human League, Derrick May and Afrika Bambaataa. The other album had an equally profound effect on music, but for different reasons. Its title track is one of the most influential modern electronic pieces ever produced.
The album in question - my favourite ever - is Phaedra by Tangerine Dream. It contains just four tracks, the whole thing clocks in under 38 minutes and it was improvised in the studio. To establish a context for the release of this unique and mesmerising work, here's a potted biography of the band's early years.
Edgar Froese, a veteran of the Berlin art and music scene, initially formed Tangerine Dream in 1967, settling on an official lineup in 1969, with Stockhausen protégé Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze, who went on to achieve enormous success with albums such as Moondawn and Timewind. The band started out as a "cosmic music" act, producing unnerving space-rock with elements of free jazz and "found sound". The press lumped them in with Krautrock - the pioneers of which included Can, Neu!, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, and Faust - although Froese didn't claim to be part of any such scene. They put out their fried, tape-splicing debut Electronic Meditation in 1970. After Schulze and Schnitzler moved on, Froese followed it up with the gargantuan Alpha Centauri in 1971, which layered enormous waves of sombre organ lines, courtesy of Steve Schroyder, over a thunderous barrage of drums by the 17-year-old Chris Franke. 1972's Zeit (Time) owed much to Ligeti; it sounds like the listener's become untethered during a spacewalk. A year later, they put out Atem, a heady mix of wild percussion, electronics, organs, sampled voices and effects that predated Animal Collective's psychedelic excursions by three decades. These two LPs brought them to the attention of UK audiences, via John Peel.
They broke with the Ohr label, signed with Virgin, tried out the studio (a version of those sessions would be released in 1986 as Green Desert), and grappled with new sequencers and synths in their quest to make something brand new. They succeeded.
When Phaedra came out, listeners were confronted with something truly original as soon as they dropped the needle; overlapping, hypnotic electronic grooves, haunted mellotrons, phased melodies, echoes of childrens' voices, classical structures, insistent pulses, crisscrossing time signatures, huge crescendos, unpredictable detours. It was dark, bold, disquieting and unlike anything that had previously been heard. It brings to mind immeasurable distances and unmappable terrains. It's atavistic and futuristic. There are no reference points to help us pin it down. It could be anywhere and anything. A network of tunnels in the mind. The atmosphere of an undiscovered planet. A terrifying underworld. An ancient dream. Et cetera.
This 17-minute title track is the solitary point we reach if we trace back from Autechre's organic structures and unusual time signatures or longtime fan Aphex Twin's ambient works and spooked beauty. Acid house, techno, trance, Boards Of Canada's nostalgic 70s-inspired music, Vangelis and John Carpenter's epic soundtracks, Plaid's layered melodies and polyrhythms, Radiohead's and Thom Yorke's electronic textures, and any number of prog/electronic music producers (particularly analog synth/sequencer acts like Redshift, Node and Boys of Summer) owe something to this piece of music, now 41 years old.
There are three other tracks on the album, each of which conjures up a similar mood. Is mood the right word? What's the mood? Sadness? Grief? Yearning? It's not for me to say. Froese played the exquisite Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares on the Mellotron, solo, which is quite an achievement in itself. Movements of a Visionary is a bridge between this album and Rubycon, which would arrive a year later. Sequent "C" is a cloud of flute melodies and delay effects, and it sounds utterly desolate. 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.
A year later, Tangerine Dream released Rubycon and Ricochet. The former, another tour de force, was an essential, sort-of companion piece to Phaedra. The latter was the band's first live album. Both are classics in their own right. Froese continued to alter his group's sound with the superb Stratosfear. Peter Baumann left in 1977; he went on to release several solo albums and produced Cluster in 1979. Froese never stopped working. His own solo career produced countless gems, notably Aqua (amazingly, from the same year as Phaedra) and Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. Much of it was on a par with the band's best material.
Edgar Froese took inspiration from the pioneers of electronic music, building instruments, repurposing electronic devices and devouring intimidating new technology for which there was often no manual, as himself and as the driving force behind Tangerine Dream, released over a hundred albums and dozens of film scores. His decision to move away from acoustic instrumentation in the early seventies led to a genuinely new form of music; vowing never to perform the same piece twice, the group improvised all their live shows at the time. His music has always been around, his fanbase as dedicated as ever. It's just that it's been under the radar for the past few decades. However, in the mid-70s, they were arguably the most important "band" in the world, releasing at least five genuine masterpieces. Their greatest work, right in the middle of that period, is Phaedra, and its monolithic centrepiece is the peerless title track. Enough from me; turn down the lights and dive in.
RIP Edgar Froese (1944-2015)
Where to start with Tangerine Dream and Edgar Froese:
Alpha Centauri (1971)
Green Desert (1986)
Sorceror OST (1977)
Edgar Froese - Aqua (1974)
Edgar Froese - Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975)
. . . . .
James Thomas, 2015