As mentioned, I bought a shit-ton of krautrock in the last few months, trying to dig into the genre deeper than the more obvious acts like Can, Neu!, and Faust. Surely I'm not done, though I may be ready for a little break. The number of 20-minute rock excursions I've added to my library in six months is too much! Not all of it has been memorable; some of it has been amazing.
The Organisation: Tone Float (1970)
Kraftwerk: s/t (1970)
Kraftwerk: Kraftwerk 2 (1972)
Kraftwerk: Ralf & Florian (1973)
Kraftwerk has been one of those shameful holes in my musical knowledge for more years than I'd like to admit. I think back in my 20s, when I was first (and heavily) into electronic music, the idea of "old" electronic music sounded unappealing to me. The idea of dated synths and drum pads just seemed really silly, no matter how many people told me Kraftwerk were a seminal band who influenced the entire genre. History just wasn't where my head was at back then. Now that I'm headlong into the 70s German scene Kraftwerk are on my radar once again. I still haven't gotten to their more well-known and influential albums, but the opportunity to acquire all four of their early, out-of-print albums presented itself, so I jumped on it. I love taking things chronologically anyway.
It's interesting, I think, to come at these albums with a better understanding of the German music scene at the time rather than the context of what the group would later accomplish. Starting with Tone Float, the 1970 album by the pre-Kraftwerk group the Organisation, this music fits in much more with the kind of spaced out ambient rock of a band like Ash Ra Tempel. In that context Tone Float is okay but not terrific. Rechristened Kraftwerk the same year, the reconfigured group released two more albums still roughly in this vein--long songs, mostly traditional instruments (guitar, drums, bass, flute). Each subsequent release is better than the last, gaining a little more focus and composure. Ralf & Florian, from 1973, is the best of the bunch. Here the duo introduce more electonic sounds into their arsenal (though guitars are still the primary melody producers). The whole album is beautifully textured, more rhythmic in spots, and more varied.
- Kraftwerk: Elektrisches Roulette
Ash Ra Tempel: s/t (1971)
Ash Ra Tempel: Join Inn (1973)
Klaus Schulze: Irrlicht (1972)
Two albums, four songs, each clocking in around twenty minutes and each a loose, improvised jam. Klaus Schulze is on drums for both albums and his work is light and airy, often cymbal-driven, keeping the songs open and atmospheric as Hartmut Enke and Manuel Gotsching noodle around on bass and guitar, respectively. The songs don't exactly bore but they don't command attention either. Join Inn's second track, "Jenseits," is perhaps the most notable here if only because it differs from the other tracks. Schulze takes to the synthesizers for some droning notes as Gotsching too makes his instrument more textural, leaving Enke to draw out a languid bass line. The track is more overtly dark and moody than the others and is probably the best of the bunch.
In between these two albums Schulze had quit the band to embark on a solo career (he left again after Join Inn). Irrlicht is his debut and bears some resemblence to "Jenseits" in that it is all about the drone. Unlike that song, and unlike the rest of Schulze's vast discography, Irrlicht doesn't contain any synthesizers. It's all done with organs which makes its three tracks all the more ominous an gloomy. This is serious drone music and at times can feel quite oppressive. I'd like to hear some of his subsequent albums just to see how/if his approach evolved with the integration of more electronic instruments.
- Klaus Schulze: 2. Satz: Gewitter Energy Rise Energy Collaps
Popol Vuh: In den Garten Pharaos (1971)
Popol Vuh: Das Hohelied Salamos (1975)
Popol Vuh's second album, In den Garten Pharaos, is right in line with the Schulze and Ash Ra Tempel stuff that was being released around the same time. I don't know the biographic histories of most these bands, but I'd be shocked if PV's Florian Fricke and Klaus Schulze were not peers and friends. The sound of this album's second track, "Vuh," is right in line with what Schulze would do on Irrlicht a year later. I prefer "Vuh" to anything on Irrlicht, however, due mostly to the work of percussionist Holger Trulzsch. His shimmering cymbals ride along Fricke's droning organ until midway through the track, when the drone intensifies to a full-on clamor as Trulzsh clangs away at his cymbals. He plays in a violent frenzy yet never attacks the rest of his kit. It's all cymbals--a lesson in how playing minimally does not mean losing dynamics.
Apparently Popol Vuh abandoned their space rock habits after In den Garten Pharaos, as is made clear on their sixth album, Das Hohelied Salamos. Here Fricke is joined by an entirely different cast of musicians, including vocalist Djong Yun. The songs are shorter and more noodly. It's full of sitar and tabla, and guitarist Daniel Fichelscher basically solos from beginning to end. It's much busier than the other album but, strangely, more tedious. Fichelscher's playing is too flashy for my tastes.
- Popol Vuh: Steh Auf, Zieh Mich Dir Nach (from Das Hohelied Salamos)
Tangerine Dream: Alpha Centauri (1971)
Clearly the droning organ was in vogue in Germany in 1970-72! It's all over Tangerine Dream's second album, Alpha Centauri. Like "Vuh," however, it's not always the main attraction. Once "Fly and Collision of Comas Sola" gets going, the drums really kick the song into another space. Christopher Franke's playing is practically the inverse of Trulzsch's: it's utterly driven by the toms, basically constant fills. It absolutley electrifies the sustained organs and synths, eventually drowning them out completely. His epic drumming returns on the bonus track, "Ultima Thule," which was originally a single released at the same time as Alpha Centauri but did not appear on the album. Franke is a monster.
- Tangerine Dream: Ultima Thule, Pt. 1
Guru Guru: UFO (1970)
After so much drone it was refreshing to hear the first few songs on Guru Guru's debut. Maybe it helps that the band is led by its drummer, Mani Neumeier, meaning it was probably a foregone conclusion that most the songs on UFO were going to have some punch. "Next Time See You at the Dalai Lhama," the one song I was previously familiar with, is the highlight. It's a two chord chomper, aggressive and simple. The first half of the album has a similar high energy though the last couple tracks descend, again, into somewhat directionless improv. Unlike the other albums already discussed, Guru Guru shows some real muscle in their music, even when they're venturing into more spacious territory. The guitars are thick, the drums hit hard. If we're splitting kraut-hairs, I'd say the music of Guru Guru is a bit closer to Amon Düül II's noisier jams than, say, Ash Ra Tempel's cosmic music.
Incidentally, Moebius Plank Neumeier's Zero Set shows Neumeier's growth after a dozen years. The 1983 album (recorded 1982) is very far removed from UFO. I wrote about that album here.
- Guru Guru: Next Time See You at the Dalai Lhama
Embryo: Opal (1970)
Neumeier, as I understand it, came to Guru Guru from a free jazz background. So too did the guys in Embryo. In fact this group is the most overt example of jazz's influence on krautrock, since core member Edgar Hoffmann's primary instrument is the saxophone. Opal shares the spirit of acts like Guru Guru or Amon Düül II—fast and loose rock with a dash of humor and improvisation.
- Embryo: Revolution
Harmonia: Deluxe (1975)
Harmonia '76: Tracks and Traces (1976)
There are of course two strains (more if you want to split hairs) to the krautrock tag: the improvised/experimental rock, and the electronica. Most of the albums I picked up in the last six months fall into the former category, though those that fit the latter are actually my favorites of the bunch. I've already claimed that Cluster's Soweisoso is one of my favorite purchases of the year so far. Right up there too is Harmonia's Deluxe. Go figure, since two-thirds of Harmonia are, in fact, Cluster. The other third is Michael Rother of Neu!, and Deluxe does at times feel like a mashup of those two groups. Most of the record is closer to Cluster's sound—more electronic than organic. One song, "Monza," sounds like an outtake from Neu! 75, released the same year.
Hearing Harmonia in the context of the other records I picked up this year reminds me how far a little structure can take you. Deluxe is a welcome breath of fresh air if only for its repetition, versus all the open-endedness of the other records I picked up. Tracks and Traces, released the following year with Brian Eno in tow, is (perhaps predictably) another story. It begins with the Deluxe-like "Welcome" and "Atmosphere" but soon enough the rhythm section evaporates and the whole thing becomes much more of an ambient record. Ambient, not drone. There's still a world of difference between what Eno and Harmonia are doing on this record compared to Schulz's drone.
Conrad Schnitzler: Con (1978)
Schnitzler was an early member of both Tangerine Dream and Kluster but has been a solo artist since 1973. Con finds him a few years into an extremely prolific career, and is my first exposure to his work. It's made of five tracks, opening with the nearly thirteen-minute "Electric Garden" and followed by four shorter pieces. Unlike Harmonia, Schnitzler's work feels utterly electronic. No live drums, no guitars, no vocals. This is pure electronica. The opener is actually my least favorite thing here, mostly due to a repetitive rising and falling tone that is almost too childlike in its simplicity. Around that tone are other, interesting sounds—dunks, squiggles, plinking beats ping-ponging left to right—but that up/down, see-sawing tone dumbs the track down. The rest of the record is more successful. They have many of the same pulses and static and hums, sometimes quite simply and effortlessly presented yet never wearing out their welcome.
- Conrad Schnitzler: Ballet Statique