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Pitchfork DECEMBER 11, 2015 - by Mark Richardson
HARMONIA: COMPLETE WORKS
Digging into the music of Can, Neu!, Cluster, and early Kraftwerk has become a record-collector rite of passage, but during the early '70s, when these bands were in their most active and exploratory years, very few people knew this music existed. Of the many German bands from the period that would later be called "krautrock", Harmonia, though ostensibly a "supergroup," were among the most obscure. Comprised of Dieter Möbius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of astral synth explorers Cluster and guitarist Michael Rother of Neu!, Harmonia was less a band than a two-year-long Iron John retreat, with electronics swapped out for the customary hand drums. Living, practicing, and recording in the hamlet of Forst, Germany, Harmonia managed two full-length records in their short lifetime, and neither made a dent in the consciousness of your average German music fan. But copies of their records found their way into some famously open-eared and influential fans in the UK - Brian Eno and David Bowie, among others - and Harmonia's music has been part of the experimental rock canon ever since.
As with many krautrock O.G.s, Harmonia's initial standing was enhanced by the fact that their records were never easy to find, even after they were discovered by cognoscenti. That was especially true in the U.S., where their records were reissued sporadically, sometimes on dodgy labels. This heavy box set from Grönland fixes that. Gathering everything the group recorded together in one place - and it turns out to be quite a lot, with more music than they managed to release in their lifetime, including newly unearthed fragments released here as Documents 1975 - and augmenting the audio with a book of photos and an essay by krautrock expert Geeta Dayal and other goodies, it offers the definitive portrait of the band. With a group as odd as Harmonia, you take all the context you can get.
Harmonia were a key krautrock band because they brought together the most familiar strands of the sound and effectively perfected the whole. Krautrock in its platonic ideal should be basically instrumental; it should should seamlessly meld electronics and rock instruments; it should favour long, drawn-over structures over short dynamic shifts, and steady-state rhythms over syncopation. Can were too funky and had too much of an ear for pop; Neu!'s albums had jarring shifts in noise; early Kraftwerk leaned too heavily on flute and mid-period Kraftwerk was too heavy on synths; Ash Ra Tempel had a weakness for bluesy soloing, Popol Vuh changed their sound too often, and Amon Düül II were really a prog-rock band. Harmonia, in the midst of too much, was just right. And if that means their music could sometimes be pleasant and ambient instead of bold and challenging, that's not a slight. They made virtues of control, understatement, shading, and texture.
Musik Von Harmonia, the group's 1974 debut, was a precise meeting of their constituent parts - Roedelius' eerie beauty, Möbius' sense of tension, Rother's cool exploration - with each member contributing to the sound equally. It's a shade darker and a half-turn more tense than what would follow, and was also more crudely recorded. Tracks like Sonnenschein and Watussi are already underway when we first hear them, making them feel like they've always existed and go on forever. Dino's trebly rhythm brings to mind Lou Reed's hypnotic major-chord strum in the Velvet Underground, and on top of the rhythm bed Michael Rother's leads seem guided more than played, like he's directing the flow of water through a maze. The meditative Ahoi is both futuristic and folky with its piano chords and gently plucked guitar, channeling the type of new age that taps into something ancient while warmly embracing current technology. From the beginning, Harmonia could take what sounded like an interlude and make it hold your attention for minutes on end.
If Musik Von Harmonia mapped the range of everything Harmonia would ever do, 1975's Deluxe used a more limited palette to paint a more beautiful picture. Working with master engineer Conny Plank and adding the deeper bottom end of drummer Mani Neumeier from Guru Guru, Harmonia refined their approach into a kind of shimmering pastoral dub. Walky-Talky is right there with Kraftwerk's Autobahn and Neu!'s Hallogallo for the definitive smooth-humming motorway anthem; Notre Dame is an electro-pop update on Terry Riley in joyfully trippy A Rainbow In Curved Air mode, and Gollum is a startlingly minimal and precise look ahead at the sound the Too Pure catalog would be known for two decades hence. Even when adding new wrinkles, as with the chanted vocals on the opening Deluxe (Immer wieder), Harmonia sound tremendously self-assured and comfortable in their sound. And their integration of something approaching proper songcraft intersected quite closely with experiments being done some distance away by the former keyboardist of Roxy Music, a young man who became enamoured of Harmonia named Brian Eno.
Harmonia was pretty much always on the verge of breaking up, but not because of personal animosity; since the group was not well known, rarely played live, and was made up of three musicians who had other projects close at hand, their status was always tenuous. After Deluxe, they had no plans to continue, but Brian Eno asked to record with them and they re-grouped once more in Forst in 1976. The sessions with Eno were not released at the time, but have been re-packaged in various configurations since, and they are included here as Tracks And Traces. Eno's presence is clear and the music is more atmospheric, feeling more like soundscapes than the low-key minimalist rock songs they band made their name with. Not surprisingly, the set also sounds a lot like the electro-acoustic work of the Rother-less Cluster & Eno, a collaboration that would extend into the late '70s over several more records. Tracks And Traces is enjoyable, but serves more as a look ahead to those records rather than something that builds on what came before.
The real heart of the box, a disc that sums up the band as well as any, is the 1974 live set. It's both surprisingly high quality in its recording and also speaks to what made this band special. Rather than recreating tracks they had recorded for this album, they apply their music-making principles to a set of jams that are as beautiful as anything on their proper records. Thick with drones, highly repetitious, and often flat-out gorgeous, Live 1974 throbs, tumbles, pulsates, and twinkles, a gentle explosion in super slo-mo that unfolds over an hour.
Taken as a whole, Complete Works doesn't reveal Harmonia to be an especially varied group, but it does demonstrate that they did a small handful of things brilliantly well, and those happened to be things that no one else was doing. They also happened to sound like what various kinds of experimental music would sound like twenty years later and, I'm guessing, what some strains of it will sound like twenty years from now.