Box Set: 1971-1981
Cluster’s is a name that ought to command more widespread reverence, even among the musical cognoscenti. Genuine pioneers of electronic music, and a significant, yet oddly ephemeral component of the German experimental scene that mid-’70s UK music critics would unceremoniously dub ‘krautrock’, they never made substantive commercial headway but their influence has been deceptively pervasive. That said, no one has ever sounded quite like them, nor matched their facility for rendering electronic keyboards and drum machines as instruments of otherworldly transcendence, bucolic lyricism or playful, childlike insouciance – often all in the same song.
Originally a trio called Kluster, comprising Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter ‘Mobi’ Moebius (who passed away in 2015), they had their roots in a late-‘60s West Berlin hippy arts lab called the Zodiac, and their early recordings were deeply experimental affairs, featuring acoustic drums and cellos as much as toy organs, signal generators and even car batteries. By 1971 Schnitzler had left and the remaining duo had swapped the Germanic ‘K’ for a ‘C’ and set about recording a series of innovative, impish, often beauteous, long-players that were cooked up, from 1973 onwards, in a rambling farmhouse commune-come-studio at Forst, in rural Lower Saxony.
This lavish box set compiles all seven of the duo’s studio albums recorded for the Brain and Sky labels during a fertile golden decade, and also includes a disc of concert material. Extensive sleevenotes and some wonderful photographs round out what is a high calibre package. But what really matters, of course, is the music.
Their debut, Cluster ’71, is an exercise in liberatingly spiky abstraction – there’s certainly no identifiable ‘rock’ in the album’s three lengthy industrial kraut-clank essays – but the duo began hitting a more cosmic stride on the following year’sCluster II, whose trance-like 15-minute-long cornerstone, ‘Live in der Fabrik’, remains hypnotic headphone candy of the highest order.
Having moved to the country, 1974’s Zuckerzeit (‘Sugar Era’) signalled a change in direction – the spacey trips replaced by short, futuristic pop instrumentals with titles like “Hollywood’, ‘Caramel’ and ‘Marzipan’; their trilling, wonkily processed organ lines underscored by dizzyingly delayed cocktail drum machines.
Zuckerseit (along with the albums the duo also recorded, abetted by guitarist Michael Rother, as Harmonia) drew the attention of one Brian Eno, whose post-Roxy Music solo albums were evolving inexorably toward the same empyrean electronic plateau that Cluster were just cresting. Their creative paths would cross in 1976, when Eno visited Forst to record with Harmonia. Before that, Eno would deliver his 1975 masterpiece, Another Green World, an album whose pellucid atmospheres would find echo on Cluster’s high-water mark, Sowiesoso, released the following year. Here, the previous album’s mischievous drum boxes are pared back to provide heartbeat propulsion, and, partially thanks to Conny Plank’s judicious mixing, the electronics are rendered mellifluous, bucolic and magisterial, notably on the gorgeously plangent ‘Zum Wohl’, a mesmeric essay that suggests spring is burgeoning before your very ears, and without which its impossible to imagine swathes of subsequent pastoral electronica, from Boards of Canada to ISAN, even existing.
1977’s seemingly inevitable nexus, Cluster and Eno (recorded between Eno’s production stints on David Bowie’s epochal Lowand “Heroes”albums, on both of which Cluster’s influence is, arguably, palpable,), treads equally pastoral, meditative ground, while adding a quantum of more ominous, ‘looming thunderstorm’ textures. Like much of the subsequent trio collaboration, After The Heat (1978), it contains some of the most sublime moments in any of the participants’ extensive oeuvres.
The Eno-less Grosses Wasser, released in 1979, partially returned Cluster to the eccentric melodies and rhythms of old, and acts here as a suitable bookend to a decade of spirited adventure – something that the lugubrious Curiosum, from 1981, lacks. By then, a new generation of electronic musicians had caught up with Messrs. Roedelius and Moebius. No matter, the duo’s time would come again and, eventually, their originality and significance would start to become acknowledged, as it is here, in Asmus Tietchens’ extensive and perceptive sleevenotes.