Cluster: Cluster 71
Bureau B

Roedelius: Selbstportrait I
Bureau B

Roedelius: Selbstportrait Vol. II
Bureau B

If your initial exposure to Cluster was (like mine) via the collaboration albums the group released with Eno, you might find yourself taken aback by the primal rawness of Cluster 71. But it is, after all, the group's debut album and it was issued in 1971 so no one should be too surprised to hear the material gravitating more in the direction of kosmische musik experimentalism than towards anything like the serenading ambient music Cluster produced with Eno. For the historical record, the album and Cluster name came about when artistic differences prompted Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius to split from Conrad Schnitzler's Kluster (other reports have Schnitzler leaving) and venture out as a duo (helped along significantly by producer Conny Planck).

The three untitled tracks on the forty-five-minute recording find Moebius and Roedelius plunging into mutating and disorienting sound-worlds that boldly walk a high-wire of fearless abstraction and spontaneous exploration. The impression left by the material is that the duo were intrepid in their pursuit of a new tradition of abstract sound-sculpting for which few roadmaps existed. Though conventional beats of any kind are absent, the material nevertheless develops with an elusive sense of forward motion in play. Effects-laden guitars, organs, tone generators, ring modulators, found objects, household tools, and myriad other sounds (but no synthesizers) meld into sputtering waves that convulsive anemically in each of the long-form improvisations, with the result a mutant form of psychedelic space music that anticipates the emergence of industrial and ambient genres. Representative of the album in general, the twenty-one-minute final track comes into being with lava-like ooze spilling forth from an open wound. Shudders and wailing cries collide amidst a thick belch of metallic grinding, whirrs, and whooshes in a nightmarish piece that never flags in its explorative intent. Despite the alien character of the material, one always senses the presence of the duo as co-captains of this ship as it boldly pushes on into uncharted waters. Cluster 71 isn't an easy listen, then, but it is an important and, in its way, groundbreaking one.

In many ways, the Selbstportrait discs by Hans-Joachim Roedelius are the polar opposite to Cluster 71. The two volumes (actually Roedelius's third and fourth solo albums) feature music recorded between 1973 and 1977 and issued in 1979 and 1980 on Sky Records (the first dubbed “Soft Music” and the second “Friendly Music”) and thus are light years removed from the earlier group album's raw excursions. The solo collections feature charming, song-like pieces recorded at home in Forst, West Germany (on his Revox A 77 reel-to-reel) and created using a Farfisa organ. Though the album's eleven gentle and harmonious pieces might have come into being as spontaneous improvisations, they sound more structured and through-composed than is suggested by that description. There's a down-home production quality to the material that frankly adds to its charm by enhancing the intimate dimension of the listening experience (due to the high cost of tape, Roedelius recorded over old tape in mono at low speed). Not only that, the lo-fi production humanizes the music in a way that makes later electronic productions seem colder, even sterile by comparison.

The first volume's “Inselmoos” (“island moss”) stands out as a particularly pretty and wistful setting (interesting too that Bowie's Heroes would later include the track “Moss Garden”), and the distance separating Eno and Roedelius in these tracks is sometimes very small indeed—it shouldn't be forgotten that Cluster & Eno appeared in 1977 and After The Heat a year later. Tracks such as “Fabelwein,” “Kamee,” and “Herold” (with its flaring keyboard melodies accompanied by a simple drum machine pattern), for example, could easily have fit onto Eno's Music For Films (which itself came out in 1978) without anyone batting an eye. “Staunen Im Fjord” (“marvel at the fjord”) exudes a peaceful and pastoral quality that makes it feel close in spirit to one of the quieter vignettes on Another Green World. Bookended by a simple, ten-second prelude/postlude (“Signal”), volume two sometimes adds a subtle twist or two to the mix, such as when a bubbly rhythm track and animated background patterns lend “Aufbruch” a gallop that contrasts with its slowly unfurling main melodies and when field recordings introduce “Alle Jahre Wieder,” but generally speaking it departs little from the formula adopted for the first. Memorable pieces include “Schonheitsflecken” (“beauty spots”) with its placid calm, “Tee fur die Geisha” with its elegant Asian aura, and “Kicherbsen” for its joyous carousel air. Thirty years on from their recording dates, the albums hold up remarkably well, with the analog character of the keyboard playing the major thing situating the albums within a particular era. One could legitimately draw a parallel between the covers' stone sculptures and the staying power of the recordings themselves.

March 2011