INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork APRIL 6, 2006 - by Mark Richardson
CLUSTER & ENO / ENO MOEBIUS ROEDELIUS / ENO MOEBIUS ROEDELIUS PLANK
For fifteen or so years Brian Eno was the Zelig of Western music, popping up wherever new ground was being broken. He was more than just "around," of course; he was also making history on his pioneering pop albums and the records on which he invented ambient music. But Eno seemed to be on hand for a sharp observation even when he wasn't directly involved. From his instant recognition of Donna Summer's I Feel Love as a watershed moment in pop, his tireless championing of German bands that would later be canonized, to his role as the curator of the No New York album, Eno was always understood to have exceptional taste. Perhaps that's why he saw such success as a producer, a job that requires above all that one be a good listener.
In the mid-1970s, Eno was particularly enamored with the synthesized music Dieter Moebius and Hans Joachim Roedelius were making as Cluster. He traveled to the town of Forst, Germany, where Cluster lived and worked in their home studio, and began a collaboration that would result in two classic albums.
The first recorded material to emerge from this meeting was Cluster & Eno, which was recorded in June 1977 at Conny Plank's studio, and suggested that the collaboration was completely organic. Eno's relentless sound experimentation helped Cluster get the most out of their synthesizers; the record is filled with textures that must have seemed otherworldly in 1977, but still manage to hold up today. The vibrato quiver of the Moog in Schöne Hände, for example, overflows with tension and mystery, soundtracking perhaps a hesitant exploration of a potentially hostile alien planet. Piano is in the foreground on Wehrmut and Mit Simaen; at that time, a few notes on a baby grand with the sustain pedal to the metal brought to mind the furniture music of Satie and sounded terrific surrounded by wispy synths. On tracks like the warmly percolating Ho Renomo, Cluster contributed a heightened ear for melody and an interest in repetition that pointed directly to where electronic music would eventually go. Cluster & Eno demonstrates that the parties had developed along parallel paths but discovered something new and fresh by working together.
When they convened again a number of months later, the trio dropped the Cluster name and turned its focus in the general direction of song. After The Heat differs sharply from its predecessor in tone, as well as its English language titles and the occasional vocal presence of Eno. "Most of the day we were at the machinery," he sings on The Belldog, alluding perhaps to the creative ferment happening in Plank's studio. With evocative synths bubbling underneath, The Belldog sounds like a more technically sophisticated update of Another Green World, like the three had happened upon a new sort of music that would one day grow noisier and be called dreampop. For Tzima N'arki, Moebius and Roedelius constructed an anxious simulation of a modern string quartet while Can's Holgar Czukay adds a dubby bass; Eno's vocals are played backward and somehow don't sound appreciably weirder than they normally do. "If God had listened to me / None of this would ever had occurred," is what he's actually singing; had they recorded this song in the late 1990s, I'd think he was talking about alternative rock. Eno does his talk/rap thing on Broken Head, a menacing slab of slowburn funk with an unchanging bass and drums groove and strange noises spinning off in all directions. A few piano-centered instrumentals hint at the sound of the earlier record, but After The Heat exists in a fantastic sphere of its own.
They'd made brilliant records before hooking up with Eno, but Moebius and Roedelius have never shied from acknowledging the impact the association had on their approach to sound. The two compilations bearing the title Begegnungen (German for "encounter") give an idea of the different ways those initial seeds sprouted. Adding Plank to the name of the project, both Begegnungen volumes compile tracks from the sessions with Eno along with contemporaneous solo and Cluster material in a similar vein. Johanneslust is a gorgeous solo Roedelius track from 1978, where he combines a simple acoustic guitar pattern with synths in a manner that reinforces the bucolic "back to nature" possibility of electronics. Nervös and Pitch Control, both from 1983, bring the earlier experiments into the realm of '80s electro-pop. The former is solo Moebius with a grim layer of industrial soot, while the latter finds Cluster working with Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier to reclaim the stiff funk of Herbie Hancock's Future Shock for the European continent.
In Moebius and Roedelius' favor, they never seemed bound by any experimental orthodoxy. Genre experiment came naturally to them, as evidenced by the title of their 1981 album Rastakraut Pasta. Conditionierer from Begegnungen II actually moves into the realm of hyper-minimal country & western, with a perky guitar groove and bottleneck slide. And then Roedelius' 1978 piece Mr. Livingstone gorgeously combines gamelan-style gongs with indeterminate far Eastern scales. Despite a dull patch or two, both volumes of Begegnungen are constantly engaging and full of surprises.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a fantastically exciting time to be experimenting with electronic music, as technology changed almost daily and possibilities expanded exponentially. In such a chaotic and unfixed environment, it took smart people with a strong musical sense to make the most of it. These guys fit the bill.