INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork MAY 7, 2016 - by Andy Beta
Exploratory yet grounded, futuristic yet melodic, alien and charming, Cluster were among the best krautrock bands ever. This no-frills box set traces their heavenly horizon-to-horizon arc.
When the German rock renaissance began in earnest in the mid-'90s, it was the result of multiple factors. Can's catalog was reissued on CD; they gained verbally outspoken fans like Sonic Youth, Tortoise, and Stereolab; and Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler: One Head's Guide To The Great Kosmische Musik provided a crucial roadmap for casual listeners. For the most part, the revival foregrounded the era's headiest rock bands and no doubt appealed to classic rock fans looking for new thrills: Can, Neu!, Amon Düül I and II, Faust and the like. And while Kraftwerk already enjoyed success in the worlds of early hip-hop, electro and industrial circles at this time, a purely electronic act like Cluster went unnoticed for the most part. But as listeners dug and listened deeper, the charms of the duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius began to gain their own cult following. Now, their discography is rightfully regarded as one of the era's finest. Exploratory yet grounded, futuristic yet melodic, alien and charming, the eight studio albums they recorded from 1971-1981 are now compiled in a handy if no-frills box set. With it, Cluster's heavenly horizon-to-horizon arc - which spans from the dawn of electronic experimentation to the rise of new age and synthesized pop music - can finally be fully gleaned.
As Asmus Tietchens's liner notes put it, the group arose from a heady blend of post-war artistic intent: Fluxus, Viennese Actionism, the Frankfurt School, as well as the rise of '60s hippie counter-culture. The group began as Kluster, a three-piece featuring Roedelius, Moebius and fellow synth pioneer Conrad Schnitzler. Seeking to breach boundaries, this incarnation utilized the electronic components of academic composition in ways that moved from high art to all-night happenings. And while Schnitzler exited the group the same year, their 1971 self-titled debut (titled here Cluster 71) carries forth that rebellious spirit. Across three long untitled tracks, the unfettered live-wire sound of their early experiments continued on in the studio. While Kraftwerk's (now-disowned) debut album dates from the year before, it placed electronics alongside organ, flute, drums and violin; Cluster 71 is the buzzing, churning, crackling sound of electricity itself, made audible in all its untamed glory. Its closest peer would be Tangerine Dream's Electronic Meditation, but even that album feels more restrained in comparison.
The next year, Cluster II would venture even further into the lightning field. Some numbers, like Für Die Katz, have a slow cycling guitar line, but circuits spark and simmer on all sides around it, rising and falling like a cardiograph. One of the box set's meager bonuses is a live concert from this same year. It's slightly longer here, a shame since these early Cluster shows were usually all-night affairs that rippled and surged for six hours or more, soundtracking chemically altered mental flights much like Terry Riley's concerts would.
The first two albums fleshed out their obtuse experimental side, and by 1972 the duo moved out of Berlin. They relocated to the rural village of Forst on the river Weser and set up shop in a massive manor that might be regarded as the group's unofficial third member. Bucolic climes altered Cluster's music as much as Brian Eno, producer Conny Plank or Michael Rother would in the ensuing years. But don't think Forst just inspired mellow idylls; when they released 1974's Zuckerzeit, it was one of the most audacious about-faces any band had attempted. Rather than the unhurried, unstructured, beatless freeform explorations, Zuckerzeit (which I've seen translated as both Sugar Time and Sugar Era) was electronic pop at its most protean and still acts like a sugar overload: giddy, infectious, manic and a little queasy. The ten tracks belie the fact that the album is two solo halves welded into a whole, each person contributing five tracks and each mapping their musical personas. Utilizing an early analog drum machine, Roedelius's Hollywood is epic, its shuffling, chugging beat paired with sweeping synths that strafe across the song like eagles, each successive synth layer pushing towards a heart-stirring new summit. Whereas early Cluster albums might have taken an entire side to reach such a climax, now they moved to dizzying heights and back down in a pop song's runtime, anywhere from two to six minutes. Moebius' Caramel is equally infectious, his lines not as dramatic as his partner's but more kinetic, wiggling in and around the pistoning programmed beat. While Kraftwerk no doubt set the electronic paradigm for the decades to come across numerous genres, the dynamic established between Roedelius and Moebius was also influential. Theirs showed what a sound world two individuals could manifest - expansive yet efficient at once - and it's a dynamic that's powered most electronic music groups ever since, from the Chemical Brothers and Orbital to Daft Punk and any B2B DJ set.
By the time 1976's Sowiesoso appeared, the effects of rural living were audible on tape. While there's a stiff, rigorous Teutonic aspect to many of krautrock's biggest artists, there's a pliancy and playfulness to Moebius and Roedelius in contrast to the other sounds of the era. Kraftwerk was more formal, Can was more kinetic, Faust more Dadaist, Neu! more manic, leaving Cluster as the most Romantic, and no where does that shine through than on their latter albums, beginning here. Melody, ambience, wistfulness and gentleness underpin songs like Zum Wohl and the title track. But that doesn't keep weird quirks from arising, like the little drum circle that emerges around the campfire-warm Umleitung or the drunken lilt of closer In Ewigkeit.
Around this time, charmed by both Cluster's output and that of Harmonia (their trio with Neu!'s Rother), Brian Eno trekked to Forst for two collaborative albums, which no doubt solidified an aesthetic begun with Another Green World that would soon carry over to David Bowie's Berlin trilogy and Eno's ambient series. And while oblique strategies informed Eno's work during this time, there's a casual tone to Cluster & Eno and After The Heat that suggests neither strategy nor willful obliqueness were needed in the forest. The cover of the former hints at the sounds within, a microphone craning towards the evening sky as if to record drifting clouds. And while one might be inclined to chalk these albums as the work of a trio, producer Conny Plank's fingerprints are all over these albums, suggesting a quartet at work. The ten tracks are as formless and minutely shifting as that photo suggests, lovely and intangible daydreams.
Elegant piano and twanging guitar entwine on Ho Renomo and then drift apart, while pensive piano chords slide across synth flares on Wehrmut. The ambience suggests peacefulness, but there's always something a little unsettling in these pieces. Die Bunge sounds like frog and bird calls from an alien bog, a concept that Eno would revisit for Ambient 4: On Land a few years on. Recorded a few months on, After The Heat kept the open experimentation of the previous encounter intact while edging closer to Eno's sense of song craft. Songs like Broken Head and The Belldog could have landed on Before And After Science, the lone instances of vocals intruding upon Cluster's otherwise wordless music. There's more of a pulse to the album, from the brass burbles of Oil to Holger Czukay's wobbling bass on Tzima N'Arki, and fans of Eno's mid-'70s highs will find yet another green world to be had here.
As the decade drew to an end, the synthesizers and drum machines that had once defined the avant garde had increasingly become part of pop music's fabric. After years of working with Plank, for Grosses Wasser, Cluster recorded with Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann, finding a sound both darker (Avanti), sweeter (the charming etude of Manchmal) and funkier (the too-short space-disco of Prothese). After years spent exploring shorter times, the title track comprises the entire second side, an epic that touches on Cluster's tropes from the decade prior: sustained piano chords, strange synth trickles, eerie drones and skeletal drums. By the time of 1981's Curiosum, British new wavers, new-agers, synth-poppers and industrial miscreants alike had fully embraced Cluster's examples within their own music, so much so that the miniatures of their last full-length album that decade sound more like Cluster emulating these newer artists (be they OMD, Cabaret Voltaire, or Throbbing Gristle) than the other way around. It still speaks for Cluster's prescience, to render the mechanistic noise of early electronic devices and warm them up in such a manner so as to reveal that no matter the new technology, such components are ultimately human after all.