KLAUS SCHULZE – IRRLICHT
This is the debut album by the master of electronic music, Klaus Schulze. Using a broken organ, a broken amplifier, and a small orchestra which he remastered backwards, the German godfather of electronica managed to obtain perfection from imperfection. In one release, however, the label got the master tape backwards for track 3, “Satz: Exil Sils Maria”. Nobody noticed. That’s the kind of music it is.
LED ZEPPELIN – PRESENCE
One facet of my personality is that I turn back to examine closely what the crowd has passed by. In 1975 and 1976 Led Zeppelin released two double-album sets, the first one studio and the second one live, and both were monster hits. In March 1976, between Physical Graffiti and The Song Remains The Same they released their best album, Presence, but hardly anyone noticed. There’s no ballads here, no funny instruments like the mandolin or synthesizers, it’s just Robert Plant plus a power trio with the power turned way up. And it’s heavy. This album is more Led, less Zeppelin.
The highlight here is the ten minute magnum opus Achilles’ Last Stand, which is sort of like Battle of Evermore meets The Immigrant Song, but on steroids. The energy and endless variety of this epic is astonishing. It gallops. You’ve listened to Heart’s 1977 track Barracuda? It’s a blatant ripoff of this song.
For Your Life is a hard rocker with a start-stop riff, a song that would be at home anywhere on the first disk of Physical Graffiti. You’ve heard it before, because sometimes classic rock stations actually play tunes from this gem of an LP, but they don’t overplay them. And that’s part of what makes Presence such a find.
Royal Orleans harkens back to the funk of Led Zep’s James Brown knockoff The Crunge but this time it’s done straight up, not as a joke.
You’ve also heard Nobody’s Fault But Mine, which has been interpreted to be a song either about someone who has become addicted to drugs, or someone who has sold his soul to the devil. Jimmy Page uses a great effects box or post-processing of some sort to give his guitar a multitracked, flangy sheen that sounds like it could cut concrete. But the best part is the scorching harmonica solo by Robert Plant. You’ve listened to Billy Squiers’ Lonely Is The Night? It’s a blatant ripoff of this song.
Candy Store Rock is where Led Zeppelin does rockabilly, with Plant doing his best blatant ripoff of Elvis. You almost expect him to mutter, “Thankyouverramuch” at the end.
Hots On For Nowhere is heavy but “poppy” at the same time, with a complex beat and a “Lala-la-la-la-la” chorus. Since I consider Presence to be Led Zeppelin’s last *real* album, this represents their swan song, so to speak, of Zep as a rock band.
I say that because the final track, Tea For One, is a blues epic in the same vein as Since I’ve Been Loving You on their third album, only it is heavy to fit in with the sonic template of the rest of the album. Led Zeppelin actually evokes wrenching emotions here. It is a great way to close the LP and their “canonical” studio career. Three years later they delivered the soft-rock abomination we know as In Through The Out Door. Don’t make me mention Coda.
Berlin School was a development of electronic music in the 1970s shaped by Berlin-based artists like Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel. The style is characterized by soaring electric guitar or synthesizer melodies in high-register accompanied by complex, shifting analog sequencer bass lines. The lead soloist’s warm, human improvisations were a counterpoint to the cold, robotic precision of the bass-lines. Sound effects such as wind, and washes of Mellotron choir, flute, or strings were often added for color. Experimental or ambient stretches were not rare either, especially as intros. Most works were instrumental, vocals were used sparingly. Vintage Berlin School tracks typically ran about twenty or thirty minutes, filling one side of a vinyl LP. The genre was so thoroughly identified with the long form that a general shift to shorter pieces in the 1980s seemed to herald the death of the movement. After the coming of the compact disc “retro” artists were no longer limited by the need to flip over a vinyl record. Some newer works run continuously as a single track for almost 80 minutes.
An outgrowth of Krautrock, Berlin School was so named because most of its early practitioners were based out of Berlin, Germany. The genre’s identification with space music made it distinct from the more percussive and rhythm-oriented Düsseldorf School which included Can, Cluster, Kraftwerk, and Neu!.
Berlin School was and still is a relatively self-contained style that has not had nearly the impact on music in general that Kraftwerk has had on synth pop and techno, but ambient, electronica, New Age, and trance are partially rooted in Berlin School. The genre is sometimes considered a sub-branch of New Age or ambient, though it predates the widespread usage of both terms.
In 1963, years before the invention of the Moog synthesizer, the UK television show Doctor Who had a theme constructed from tape recordings of oscillators, which sounds very much like Berlin School. In 1971 Pink Floyd recorded an instrumental titled One of These Days for the LP Meddle that sounded very similar to the Dr. Who theme (but used two bass guitars interacting with a tape delay system). Its use of wind and other incidental sound effects foreshadowed (or possibly inspired) the Berlin sound.
Tangerine Dream’s former drummer Klaus Schulze recorded the track Totem in 1973 but did not release it until 1975 in Picture Music (after Tangerine Dream’s seminal Phaedra charted well in the United Kingdom). Totem featured an ARP Odyssey synthesizer utilising the Sample & Hold function (combined with tape echo) that resembled the sounds produced by his later sequencer work.
Analog sequencers were used by Pete Townshend on The Who’s Baba O’Riley in 1971 and by Pink Floyd on 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, but the classic era of Berlin School commenced with the release of Phaedra by Tangerine Dream in 1974, their first on Virgin Records, and closed with Hyperborea by the same group in 1983. Bandmember Christopher Franke is credited with turning the Modular Moog’s control-voltage analog sequencer into a live performance instrument and launching the Berlin sound.
In 1975 Tangerine Dream more or less reigned alone with a studio album, Rubycon, and the live album Ricochet. Klaus Schulze delivered the popular but transitional LP Timewind. It contained the side-long track Bayreuth Return, recorded in one take, structured around a sequencer pattern transposed and manipulated in real time.
Moondawn by Klaus Schulze in 1976 is often regarded as his first real entry in this genre, joined by Jean Michel Jarre with Oxygène in the same year. Tangerine Dream delivered a studio work, Stratosfear, and the soundtrack to the film Sorcerer.
In 1977 Ashra (Manuel Göttsching) released New Age of Earth, along with Michael Hoenig’s Departure from the Northern Wasteland, and Vangelis’ Spiral. Tangerine Dream toured the United States and released a double live album, Encore, with three sides of Berlin School and a side of proto-Ambient.
Tangerine Dream drew some fire from fans for resorting to vocals on 1978’s Cyclone, but “Madrigal Meridian” (which occupies the entire second half of that disk) is a slab of pure Berlin School similar to the shorter “Frank Herbert” track from Klaus Schulze’ classic double LP X. Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe relies on the sequencer for more than half of the album.
Each artist had a unique signature. Tangerine Dream’s extremely complex sequencer lines used a variety of tone colors: the lines were created out of simple sequences by real-time manipulation, with the analog sequencer basically being treated as a performance instrument in its own right. Jarre’s galloping sequences were heavy on the bass. Michael Hoenig’s sequences (often several run in parallel) constantly and steadily changed, often creating polyrhythmic phasing patterns resembling some of Philip Glass’ and Steve Reich’s minimalist work. Klaus Schulze preferred his sequences to be an octave or two higher than Hoenig’s, shorter and more hypnotic. He tended, however, to transpose sequences in real time from a controller keyboard, thus introducing modulations in his pieces.
Between 1979 and 1984 Tangerine Dream exhausted most of the possibilities of this genre and began to record more accessible, short-form and increasingly New Age-like tracks for albums such as Exit, Le Parc and Underwater Sunlight. Jean-Michel Jarre delivered his ultimate sequencer statement with Magnetic Fields in 1981 and then began to record rock-oriented tracks that would please more fans in a concert setting. As the technology improved and MIDI came into the picture, musicians began to see synthesizers as a means to have the sounds of traditional instruments available at the touch of a button. It became apparent that the Berlin sound had arisen from work-arounds to technological limitations that were rapidly disappearing.
There’s a charm to the old Seventies stuff, in the same way Ray Harryhausen’s hand-made special effects are more fun to watch than the modern CGI mashups. So as time went on, newer artists began to deliberately record in the mode of Berlin School from a genuine affection and budding nostalgia for the genre. In 1988, five years after Tangerine Dream left the Virgin label, Wavestar released their acclaimed CD Moonwind. The clean picked-bass and synthesizer trills of “Chase the Evening” distilled the Berlin sound to its essence. Even Tangerine Dream continues to send an occasional nod in that direction, such as the track “Culpa Levis” from Dream Mixes 2: TimeSquare in 1997. And Klaus Schulze is still chugging along with the sequencer chugga-chugga a hundred LPs later.
PINK FLOYD – ANIMALS
Released early in 1977, “Animals” is the tenth album from Pink Floyd, and their best one, despite its appearance in bargain bins at places like Musicland only six months after coming out. Far more spontaneous than Dark Side of the Moon, this album emphasizes guitar licks over the synthesizer washes found all over Wish You Were Here (although there is still plenty of synth), and it was called “Punk Floyd” by some, but Punk songs eschewed synthesizers altogether and rarely exceeded 2 minutes. Animals features one epic track that is seventeen minutes long and two more that clock in over ten minutes, which made it absolutely poison to FM radio DJs who preferred somewhat shorter tunes (The Beatles’ Hey Jude at seven minutes was pushing the envelope).
I can’t tell you how many times I sat in front of the stereo listening to this masterpiece, reading the lyrics in Roger Water’s raspy handwriting on the back of the LP. It’s a concept album inspired by George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, which lumps everyone in society into three groups, the Dogs, the Pigs, and the Sheep. The Dogs are the capitalists, the go-getters, the people who burn themselves out climbing up the career ladder, often stepping on the people below them to get a leg up. The Pigs are politicians of both left wing and right wing persuasion who use the Dogs to control the Sheep, which are of course are you and me, the unwashed masses. The words are all very interesting, but I don’t listen to Pink Floyd to derive any great insights into philosophy or politics.
To me the highlight of the LP is the track Dogs, a seventeen minute song which nearly fills the first side. It is the last Pink Floyd song to be of such epic length, and it is the direct descendant of Shine On You Crazy Diamond from the preceding album, which in turn can trace its lineage back through the side-long Echoes on Meddle, Atom Heart Mother on the album of the same name, and the progenitor of them all, A Saucerful of Secrets. Structurally, Dogs resembles Echoes the most, with a slow lead-in, a furious main section, a contemplative “night” section, which then gives way to a reprise of the main section, but far more furious. Dogs sustains the aggression right up to the very end of the track.
The plaintive mood Pink Floyd conveys during the aforementioned “night” section, with the sound of barking dogs far far away, dogs barking through a vocoder even, and a brilliant modulated synthesizer solo by Rick Wright in high register is worth the price of admission right there. There’s also an endlessly repeated tape loop of David Gilmore saying “the stone…the stone…the stone…” that pops up again in the track Sheep, lending an evocative sonic unity to the album. In the next album, on Hey You, Roger Waters asks if you will help him carry “the stone”, which ties Animals together with The Wall into a conceptual whole. It was at a concert, in fact, performing songs from the LP, when Roger Waters surprised himself by spitting into the face of a “sheep” fan, and his introspection following that incident led directly to The Wall.
Pigs (Three Different Ones) is my least favorite track, because Roger Waters snarls some very nasty lyrics about some very nasty characters. I suppose that is the point of the piece. David Gilmore uses the same device made famous by Peter Frampton which lets him make his guitar sound like a pig talking. To me the highlight is Waters’ ascending and descending bassline in the long outro.
It gives way to Wright playing an expressive solo with the Rhodes electric piano as Waters rumbles in the background on bass, a pastoral setting that soon gives way to a storm of sound very much resembling Run Like Hell on The Wall. Not to be missed (you get it twice): Roger Waters’ trademark maniacal scream giving way seamlessly to a shimmering synthesizer howl with exactly the same pitch, which then crashes along with the drums and guitars in a virtual rock explosion. During the slow middle section you get a funny altered version of the 23rd Psalm recited by Waters through a vocoder right before the mass uprising of the Sheep and the death of the Dogs, but the casual listener won’t make out what he’s saying. You have to sit in front of the stereo over and over again, reading the back cover.
TANGERINE DREAM – PHAEDRA
In 1974 modern electronic music was born after a number of years gestating in Krautrock hell. For the record, Krautrock was a sort of cargo cult that arose in Germany in the 1970 to 1973 time frame when early records by Pink Floyd such as A Saucerful of Secrets and Ummagumma arrived on the Continent. Some German kids figured out you could make some far out space music by running a microphone stand up and down the strings of a guitar while it was hooked up to an tape-delay echo box, and they immediately began to record a number of albums to “document” the sound of the era, when all they were really doing was going over the same psychedelic ground “real” rock bands in the UK and America had explored in the late 1960s before moving on. So you got Tone Float from The Organisation, before they morphed into Kraftwerk and delivered Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2, and Ralf & Florian. From Tangerine Dream you got Electronic Meditation, Alpha Centauri, Zeit, and Atem. Klaus Schulze recorded Irrlicht and Cyborg with organ before he ever laid eyes on a Moog synthesizer.
Then out of the blue, Tangerine Dream signs with Virgin records and delivers a masterpiece that completely changes electronic music forever: Phaedra.
The first ten minutes of the title track is an experiment where Christopher Franke uses the Moog’s analog control-voltage sequencer as a substitute for bass guitar. He performs this bass guitar by moving pins around on a board, which changes the pattern gradually throughout the piece, while the other guys pull out all the stops and deliver a soaring, ever-changing slab of audio that sounds so electronic. This part of the song is the first appearance of the classic Tangerine Dream sound which would define 1970’s Berlin School. At about ten minutes, all this bliss ends abruptly, and we move to a non-rhythmic section which focuses on Mellotron strings and sound effects meant to evoke barking dogs, perhaps inspired by Pink Floyd’s Echoes here. Before the end it starts to get downright scary, like Halloween music.
Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares features Edgar Froese soloing on a Mellotron which is treated to slowly sweeping filter effects. It sounds a bit like a continuation of the second part of Phaedra, but more lush and liquid. The sweepy filter idea is used a lot in trance music today, but this is where it begins.
Movements of a Visionary begins with synthesized whispers, which reminds me of the soundtrack from “Friday the 13th”. There’s an organ drone that evokes the sensation of great velocity, and there’s an underlying sequence, an octave higher than Tangerine Dream prefers, which suggests endless activity on a very small scale. The track would be perfect for one of those films you remember in school about the life of tiny critters on the forest floor during a rain storm.
Sequent C’ is a short but memorable dirge by Peter Baumann on flute, with tape echo. Just two minutes long, but it really sticks with you.
The album reached #15 in the UK. It definitely had an impact. Klaus Schulze set aside his organ drone experiments and delivered Blackdance in May 1974. Kraftwerk stopped screwing around and delivered Autobahn the following November. Phaedra is one of the very few actual good things from the 1970s, like Star Wars or Daisy Dukes.