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CD Feature/ Tangerine Dream: "Zeit"; Vidna Obmana vs Bass Communion: "Continuum Recyclings Vol. 1"

img  Tobias

Experts mainly associate Germany's underground music movement of the early 70s with 'cosmic' tendencies, prominent use of electronic equipment and the suspension of conventional song structures. From their naive coverband days, their line of reasoning goes, formations like Ash Ra Tempel at first merely wanted to play the same kind of music as their American heroes and stumbled upon creative extremes through technological progress and an exorbitant use of illegal substances. It was gear like the Moog and Mellotron which allowed the creation of lengthy textures, mind-altering patterns and a plethora of instrumental colours, while the generous ingestion of LSD set the controls for the heart of the sun. From this perspective, Krautrock in general and „Zeit“ in particular must be considered as historical accidents, as groups toying around with dreams, drugs and novel sound devices to arrive at something completely their own.

This presumed libertarian spirit, supposedly the immediate result of then-popular laisser-faire education, still yields 21st century writers the excuse to coin quickly compiled collections of cliches about Krautrock „reviews“. The generally agreed-upon canon of these journalists seems to be that „Zeit“ is still – almost fourty years after its inception – close to unlistenable, monolithic in its dimensions, „non-musical“ (Paul Russell about „Nebulous Dawn“ in the liner notes), and „will probably not appeal to the majority of readers“. The latter of which could actually be true but for a very different reason than most usually suspect. In terms of sheer length, „Zeit“ may have been radical at the time but soon came to be eclipsed by other releases (Klaus Schulze's „Cyborg“ exceeds it by over 20 minutes). In terms of friendly nods towards Edgar Froese's great hero Ligeti, preceding „Alpha Centauri“ was certainly much more openly Avantgarde. And for those willing to listen deeper, there are not only some passages of undiluted beauty to be found here – Froese's soft Guitar washes at the opening of „Origin of Supernatural Probabilities“ or the tranquil Organ meditation at the heart of „Birth of Liquid Plejades“ for example – but even a lot of lyrical melodies, even if they are sometimes tucked away underneath clouds of organically undulating sound effects.

The reason why „Zeit“ continues to divide is mainly because it has, for better or worse, become part of mainstream music history and as such will be examined and analysed by informed insiders and curious amateurs alike. Having an opinion about it is, so to speak, considered proof of your artistic education, regardless of whether your usual musical diet mainly consists of Blues and Rock. The same can not be said about 99,9% of today's Sound Art and Dark Ambient releases which are, in terms of concept and construction at least, quite often strikingly more radical. Compared to these works, „Zeit“ must decidedly be characterised as „highly musical“: Even an initially amorphous, forebodingly floating soundscape like „Nebulous Dawn“ is organised by an extremely effective dramaturgy, striving towards a finale of alarmingly pulsating harmonies. And in the title piece, longing Theremin-sighs are placed on top of yearning chord cycles, flowing through (most likely field-recorded) water-babblings and clouds of crackle. Even though electronic synthesis is a key element here, instruments like the Cello and aforementioned Guitar and Organ are clearly discernible and play a seminal role in the overall sound design.

What really distinguishes the album and sets it apart are two aspects: Group dynamics and ambition. All tracks contained on „Zeit“ are audibly the result of several musicians performing together almost on a daily basis. One has to remember that, at the time, Tangerine Dream held a strict doctrine of never playing the same piece twice on stage and embraced improvisation as a vital tool to enrich their compositional process. If, from previous articles on the album, you've come to expect a monotonous and dull affair, therefore, dare to be surprised: Despite its conceptual obsession with stasis, there is actually quite a lot happening here at each given moment and the sensation of standing still is achieved inside the listener instead of the music. Most of all, the degree of completely natural interaction between elements which many consider raw noise was unprecedented at the time and still seems unparalleled today: Metallic morse code is answered by sparkling tonal cascades, underwater echoes are speared by aggressive string tremolos and cavernous resonances flirt with swelling voices.

It is the daring architectures of these tracks and the absolute will to realise them against personal differences (formerly ousted Steve Schroyder returned for a few vital contributions) and through the inclusion of classically trained instrumentalists which marks „Zeit“ as something more than just a contemporary document. Its epic arrangements are not the result of a preconceived desire to shock but of a band gauging the consequences of their ideas and then following them to their logical extremes. It was an experiment, too, which could not be repeated: You can hear the musical material wearing thin towards the end and the band reaching the very limits of what they could creatively do with it. Maybe this inner coherency and stubborn insistence on a minimum of musical means is, however, also what makes it so utterly unique: Four decades of ripening, quite contrary to many other „classics“, have done this record a lot of good.

It will be interesting to see whether the same will be said about „Continuum Recyclings Volume One“ in, roughly, the year 2050. Its dimensions alone certainly warrant comparisons: A double album consisting of four long tracks, each around 19 minutes of length and spanning an entire side of Vinyl, it is an uncompromising effort defying even the regular boundaries of the already adventurous Continuum cosmos itself. The genesis of the album, meanwhile, seems to suggest a different story: While the project's 2007 second full-length ventured into the sinister realms of spooky Ambient Drone Metal and marked a hence-and-forth exchange of files to arrive at quasi-band performances, „recyclings“ effectively constitutes a one-way remix project by Vidna Obmana's Dirk Serries of unreleased material by Bass Communion's Steven Wilson. Quite opposed to „Zeit“, it is the outcome of solitary studio sessions rather than streamlined improvisations by a fully-fledged live formation.

And yet, one can't escape the notion that the very same spirit of unrestrained ambition and guided creative freedom is at work here. Serries has sculpted a quartet of tracks which seem all but immobile at first and appear to delineate processes, movements and spaces rather than harmonically or melodically motivated musical developments. The opening section especially feeds from the subtle confusion of repetition and a non-cyclical stream-of-thought: Fleeting Bass shifts, intermittent chord flashes and opaque washes of texture create the impression of loops which are too long for the mind to satisfyingly analyse – you're never quite sure whether changes are non-existent or simply too discreet to consciously notice. Quite in sync with „Zeit“, there are timbres, sequences and rhythmical palpatations which re-appear on different tracks, creating a strong sense of coherency, even though each piece has a strong idiosyncratic touch of its own.

If „Continuum Recyclings“ hasn't been filed under the Krautrock-Revival label but mostly been tagged as a work of „drone music“, then maybe that's not a bad thing at all. Both artists have, after all, never sought to turn their passion for the genre into slavish tributes but instead seamlessly integrated its ideas and techniques into their own worlds- The spirit certainly shone through in Serries' humongous 2CD set „he spoke in dead tongues“ as Fear Falls Burning, while Wilson's „Molotov and Haze“ opened with a hint at the Leitmotif of Tangerine Dream's „Rubycon“. The same is true here: Devoid of the typical Organ sheets and any kind of overarching philosophical contexts, the record manages to create the same kind of dark immersion and inexplicable pull as „Zeit“.

In the absence of obvious quotes, it would probably be best to assume that any kind of connections are completely unintentional and must have seeped in through the backdoor. On the other hand, it is this attitude of creating something big and imposing on the strength of one's imagination alone which should turn it into a favourite among fans of Froese & Co's early works nonetheless. The members of Tangerine Dream, who certainly did not intend to found a tradition or school, would probably nod in agreement.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tangerine Dream
Homepage: Vidna Obmana
Homepage: Bass Communion
Homepage: Tonefloat Records