Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dead & Co. Vegas Review by Renodoc

Editor’s note: Enjoy this review of the opening show for the current Dead & Company tour by fellow Deadhead and Nevada resident “Renodoc.”

The Renodoc is In!

Dead & Co. May 27, 2017
MGM Grand, Las Vegas, NV

I wouldn’t have traveled just to see this show. I saw 77 “real” Dead shows and stayed away from all the Other One Family and Friends incarnations until the Dead and I both turned 50 in 2015. I felt blessed to see the “Wake of the Flood” Santa Clara show—if not a touch disappointed that I missed the Live Dead extravaganza they put on the opening night of that tour. To me, the joy that Trey Anastasio displays on center stage is a pure sight to behold. Trey’s obvious pleasure at getting to front some of his formative legends was inspiring from opener to encore.

Gumby and I went to Vegas for the wedding of an old-school Vegas showgirl. I didn’t even know Dead & Company were playing on a night that worked into our schedule. And the fact is, the only reason I even looked twice was the nugs.net show displaying a Help>Slip>Frank and St. Stephen that got my attention. This John Mayer guy had chops!

Comparisons to all the Jerry Dead are easy to make, and since I’ve gravitated towards Phish since ’94, those side by sides seem standard as well. Especially since the venue, the “soon to be displaced by T-mobile” center of the Vegas jam universe has played host to the last two Halloween Phish runs, including the epic, and arguably best Phish show I’ve had the pleasure to experience in 2014.

So, we planned to hit up the made-famous-by Dr. Pauly bloody mary Pub 1842 at the MGM pre-show. There isn’t any “Shakedown” to speak of in Vegas. And where did that terminology come from anyway? Back in the late 80s and early 90s I don’t know ANYONE who referred to the “trade a puppy for a ticket”, “veggie burritos” lot scene by that name. Seems like most of the heads planned the same trip to the Pub 1842, and if it wasn’t for Gumby’s flashy smile I don’t think we would have received drinks or seats.

Two-martinis in, we make the short walk to the venue and are directed to a “short-cut” entrance down the stairs, across the street, and in a back door marked VIP. Cool.

Showtime is 8 PM and lights are around 30 minutes later. I’m psyched, get those old opening jitters and what comes together in my head sure sounds like it’s going to be Shakedown Street for a few elongated seconds until Bobby and John slowly get into “Music Never Stopped.” Good choice! Pretty darn sure I haven’t seen that open before, and, well, it’s about an obvious a message this band could have chosen to deliver to this crowd. Halfway thru I realize that indeed, the music is playing the band, but the hand-clapping children are nowhere to be found. The geriatric crowd (I was a youngster tonight)—many of whom probably traded social security checks for tickets has the energy of a catholic funeral mass—not even one of those funky Luthern services where everyone knows all the lyrics and by god they clap their hands together when they’re supposed to. And where’s the glow? The lights in the crowd? The glow-stick wars? The spinners in the aisles dancing their asses off to the point where security in flashlighting their faces to get them back to their seats?

The first set somewhat meanders through some standards with the basic old Dead formula. Bobby song/Jerry Song/Bobby/Jerry. And if Bobby just sang his songs and he let Trey—I mean John-sing, we’d all be grateful. The “we’re in Vegas theme starts to take shape with Dire Wolf and his card game and Loser later in the set. The side screens show some gambling related themes with slot machines and roulette wheels during much of these numbers. A very nice Jack Straw preceded the Loser and it had a fantastic slightly teasy intro that seemed to fake out most of the crowd, making me wonder if their Dead cred was suspect or their collective brains have just melted over the years. Brown-Eyed Woman and Friend of the Devil were serviceable, but nothing special. Birdsong then had its own trippy intro and the first real jamming of the night. At one point the chord progression broke down but the band quickly recovered and went into a slightly different direction before asking the crowd not to cry anymore. The obvious set closer here would have been Deal, thus the moment of disappointment when the band hung up their instruments and walked off. It turns out that Cassidy was programmed into the set closer spot, but for whatever reason (Bobby’s prostate?) they decided to take a pass on it.

After one set I was thinking “meh.” But then this was a pretty common theme back in the day anyway! I was hoping for a second set Scarlet opener – especially since by now we all knew “we were too pat to open.” Of course, the elusive Help on the Way is always welcome, and even China>Rider would have got my juices flowing.

When they started instead into “Playin in the Band” I figured it was possible something special might happen a la 1973 Pauley Pavilion. You know… the old Playin>Uncle John’s Band>Morning Dew>Uncle Johns>Playin’! Heh. Wake up old man, do you want a nostalgia show or are you getting into the vibe that this half old/half young six-pack is throwing down? After a brief contemplation, I rolled with the latter and was rewarded by a long complex jam out of Playin that had Other One teases and eventually transmogrified into a fast R & B riff that was going to be “Truckin’” 900,000 times out of 900,001. But it wasn’t. This was instead the “New Deal” that had somehow escaped the first set and finally blew the roof off the place.* The geezers woke up, the crowd was dancing, the jamming was flowing—all was right in Deadland in the desert.

Mayer had to switch out guitars after that as he probably shredded that first one into oblivion in that “Deal.” Once situated with a new axe, he promptly initiated the funky China Cat riff. Bobby fiddled and diddled for many many measures before joining in and then the entire band powered thru a joyful rendition. The “>” was going to be a question in my mind- would they pull it off, or would it be more like the ScarletFire from Chicago where the “>” got aborted, ripcorded and skewered beyond recognition? Pleasantly surprised to report that the transition seemed fine- about what could be expected in this time and space. Cartoonish figures of Jerry on the screens seemed to garner almost zero crowd response when hailing a Northbound train. Where’s the love?

Drums came next and since I pretty much knew this part of the show, I went for water. Amazing bush-league stuff here as the entire venue was sold out of H2O. WTF? A $14 Corona would have to do for now. The space that followed was short and indeed, the previously teased Other One trembled and exploded, sort of, onto the stage. Several times in the set the band slowed down songs, adding extra measures and stretching out the lyrics. This was most effective here, as “The Other One” doesn’t really have much in the way of words anyway.

The tempo got even slower as the band slotted to play the “Comes a Time/Stella Blue/Wharf Rat” spot, this time filled by “Black Peter.” Not on the top of my list for penultimate song, but in common with the others is that Bobby isn’t supposed to sing it. Let John Sing More, please. Hoping for a palate-cleansing Sugar Mag to wrap things up, I had forgotten the day of the week and was reminded that it was indeed “One More Saturday Night.” This closer rocked, and showcased Bobby’s famous howl/scream vocals.

The encore, perhaps predictably, was “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” which got a loud reception when Gregg Allman’s image was shown on the main screen. I had expected the band to perhaps play an Allman’s song to honor the brother who died earlier in the day, but this was a nice tribute. “Playin’ reprise” closed the night. Hey, it ain't Tweezer but it let the audience go home upbeat.

If you’re going to see this band, leave your expectations at the door. Its paradoxical somewhat in that if the Grateful Dead had never existed this band would be much better than they are. But then of course, can you see here how everything lead up to this day?

*The roof of the place was actually blown off during “The Birds” on 10/31/14. Its ironic to me that in the early 90s everyone on tour compared Phish to the Dead with Deadheads universally looking down at these upstarts from Vermont. Now, the tables are turned and we have one band that must be near the end of their incredible live touring run and another that has essentially become a tribute band. Trey has more energy in his B-string then what’s left of the Grateful Dead. Yes, be grateful that Bobby and the Rhythm Devils are doing this, but don’t pass on the opportunity to see the true masters of jam a few more times before health, boredom, or other curveballs puts Phish on the shelf.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Krautrock: The Cosmic Jokers, Galactic Supermarket (1974)

A kind of accidental Krautrock “supergroup,” the Cosmic Jokers were truthfully just an assemblage of musicians whose jams were surreptitiously recorded, edited, and released without the oversight or permission of the participants.

In other words, they weren’t a “group” at all, technically, but rather just musicians turning up at acid parties hosted by producer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and his girlfriend-partner Gille Lettmann at Dieter Derks’ studio. (See the previous review for more backstory.)

As such, the records sometimes feel like the products of ethnomusicological research -- “field” recordings capturing the exciting, unpredictable pulsations of a uniquely talented tribe. Or perhaps like what you might hear emanating from the back room of some weekend wingding, and after you stumble down the hall to see what’s going on you suddenly realize whoa... these guys are good.

Galactic Supermarket is the second of the five Cosmic Jokers LPs released in 1974, organized in post-production as two side-long pieces each casually presented as three parts.

The first part of Side 1’s “Kinder des Alls” features mostly conventional bluesy jamming with occasional weird effects and female vocalizing dropped here and there to keep you from getting too settled. A synthesizer mimicking choral voices then heralds the second part, suggesting the musicians have dropped their instruments and wandered into the backyard after someone noticed an unidentified flying object hovering above the horizon.

Out of the electronic washes eventually emerges a doleful organ, thereafter replaced by agitated beeps and boops until the players make it back inside to their instruments. A few tentative gestures lead into the third and final part, a sometimes placid, sometimes frantic finale in which Klaus Schulze and Jürgen Dollase play keyboard pong over top of the rhythm section’s improvising.

The title track comprises Side 2, starting with an early Pink Floyd-ish bit of warming up underpinned by a “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”-like bass. The individual band members gradually rev up and recede, with the track gliding into the second part without any specific aural signpost to mark the transition. Disconnected bursts then continue to glide past on both sides without being weighed down by any rhythmic gravity pull.

The third and final part begins with another female voice -- either Lettmann or guitarist Manuel Göttsching’s girlfriend Rosi Müller -- announcing a heavily-echoed special over the PA: “Galactic Supermarket... presents raindrops... Galactic Supermarket... presents cosmic raindrops....” Things remain in an unhinged, experimental vein through these last eight minutes of the disc with the group gradually building a disorienting wall of sound before the final fade.

Though not as consistently gratifying as the self-titled debut, Galactic Supermarket nonetheless has enough prog rock staples on its shelves to tide you over until your next trip.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Krautrock: The Cosmic Jokers, The Cosmic Jokers (1974)

The Krautrock genre is an eclectic one, covering such a wide range of styles it’s really misleading to consider it a homogeneous category. That said, there was a lot of collaboration between individuals and groups to whom the label has been applied, including among those appearing on Julian Cope’s list of “50 Kosmische Classics.”

The high frequency of such get-togethers predictably led to some blending of styles and influences among the category’s members. It also makes those Krautrock “family tree” diagrams such as this one pretty damned complicated.

Probably the most famous example of such collaboration was the Cosmic Jokers, a Krautrock “supergroup” comprised of...

  • Klaus Schulze (Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, solo) -- electronics, synths
  • Harald Grosskopf (Ash Ra Tempel, Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- drums, percussion
  • Manuel Gōttsching (Ash Ra Tempel, solo) -- guitars
  • Jürgen Dollase (Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- keyboards
  • Dieter Derks -- bass

    Derks produced and/or engineereed a lot of Krautrock bands, including Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Witthüser & Westrupp, and Popol Vuh. (Later on he famously produced the Scorpions and Twisted Sister as well.)

    The story goes that another famous producer of Krautrock acts, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser (founder of the Ohr label on which many such acts appeared), and his girlfriend-partner Gille Lettmann staged a series of “acid parties” at Derks’s studio during early 1973, giving the musicians free drugs and inviting them to jam while recording everything.

    From these sessions came many hours of recordings, eventually edited down and produced as five LPs all released during 1974 (and all of which are included on Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”). The records’ release was met by varying degrees of animosity by those involved, none of whom had given permission for the music to be made public. All of it ended badly in lawsuits, fights over unpaid royalties, and eventually Kaiser and Lettmann ignominiously disappearing from the Krautrock scene altogether.

    All of which is to say, the “band” Cosmic Jokers was never really a band per se. Even if the musicians weren’t generally pleased with the Jokers’ recorded output, the LPs have grown to be regarded as important contributions to prog rock, with their reputations each enhanced somewhat by their participation.

    The self-titled debut consists of two side-long jams, the first suitably titled “Galactic Joke.” The side is divided into three parts separated by whooshy effects that give the impression of floating in space.

    The first part is an earnest, forward-looking rocker highlighted by Göttsching’s inspired soloing. The second part starts out with a slower, more sinister vibe, then eventually builds into a sparse, rhythmic pulsation. The third part also begins gently then picks up momentum, keyboard riffs and pounding percussion eventually pushing the collective forward as though marching through the credits of some obscure ‘70s sci-fi flick.

    The second side -- called “Cosmic Joy” -- is split into two parts and is more meditative on the whole, the musicians separately floating in and out of Schulze’s quivering synths as though sending signals across the universe in the hopes of establishing some sort of interstellar contact.

    Though obviously improvised, the editing and production lends a very studious, polished quality to the proceedings, making for an enjoyable session of listening that’s more controlled than chaotic -- not at all like the less disciplined Timothy Leary-Ash Ra Tempel joint venture Seven Up in which the lysergic search for inspiration yielded less satisfying results for those of us listening in.

  • Friday, March 31, 2017

    Krautrock: Tony Conrad with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973)

    Faust, the band from Wümme in northern Germany outside of Hamburg, is one of a handful of Krautrock acts invariably named whenever the genre is considered.

    We’ll discuss the curious circumstances of their formation and initial marketing soon enough when the time arrives to consider the four Faust LPs included among Julian Cope’s list of “50 Kosmische Classics.” Today Faust gets to make an early, cameo appearance in our survey, though, as part of a discussion of one other record on which they appeared, one for which they played a supporting role to Tony Conrad, the avant-garde filmmaker, musical and artist from New Hampshire.

    As a filmmaker and later video artist, Conrad earned significant renown for his various formal experiments during the 1960s and after. His first film, The Flicker (1966), consists primarily of just solid black and white frames alternating in an intermittent sequence for a half-hour. Some walked out of screenings, while others endured headaches or nausea (take a look at excerpts on YouTube, if you dare).

    Other Conrad experiments in cinema included Yellow Movies (1972-73), actually patches of emulsion painted directly on walls inside of painted frames, with the emulsion subsequently reacting (very slowly) over time, and Pickled Film (1974) which involved stuffing film in bottles of vinegar and showing it that way (and not through a projector).

    Conrad passed away at 76 almost a year ago, and not long after his death came the release of an acclaimed documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. The trailer gives you a further idea of his personality and artistic envelope-pushing (while also featuring music from today's album):

    Conrad made a lot of music during his life as well, including belonging to a famous ensemble of experimental musicians known as the Theatre of Eternal Music, a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate. The group included important figures like La Monte Young, Jon Hassell, Angus MacLise, and John Cale, and tended largely toward minimalism and drone music. In other words, as with film, Conrad frequently challenged formal boundaries in music as well.

    Speaking of Cale, Conrad played an important role in the Velvet Underground’s backstory, and in fact with Cale and Lou Reed played in the Primitives, the pre-VU band that only lasted long enough to make one single in 1964. Conrad is in fact credited with having indirectly inspired the name of Reed and Cale’s famous band, the pair having once visited his New York City apartment where Conrad had laying around a copy of Michael Leigh’s 1963 book about sexual perversion, The Velvet Underground.

    During the middle-to-late ’60s Cale oversaw a series of recordings titled “Inside the Dream Syndicate” featuring the collective. The title of Conrad’s 1973 collaboration with Faust thereby casts the LP as a kind of companion work.

    The record came about after a chance meeting in New York between Conrad and a filmmaker from Hamburg. The filmmaker knew Uwe Nettelbeck, Faust’s producer, and suggested he might be interested as well in Conrad’s music. Conrad flew to Germany and met Nettelbeck who took him to a farmhouse.

    “It was these people Faust,” Conrad later explained in an interview. “They had been, to some substantial degree, incarcerated in this farmhouse for months, and they had their partners and sexual liaisons and different social complexities enacted on a long-term basis within this farmhouse. It was a microcosm, where everything seemed to have been evolving in some strange way over the course of months and months.”

    By then Faust had recorded its first two records (Faust and Faust So Far) and were in the midst of a process that would result in their next (and best) two LPs appearing in 1973 (The Faust Tapes and Faust IV).

    “It was no wonder that they really didn't really have a lot of involvement with me,” said Conrad of the group. ”But Uwe said that they wanted to do stuff too, so we did one that was my style, and one that was more like a rock 'n' roll style. That's how there's two sides.”

    Conrad refers to the two side-long tracks that comprised the original LP, culled from three days’ worth of recording at the farmhouse. Conrad plays violin along with Faust’s Werner Diermaier (drums), Jean Hervé Péron (bass), and Rudolf Sosna (guitar/keyboards).

    The song on Side 1, a 27-minute long experiment titled “From the Side Of Man And WomanKind,” is the one Conrad refers to as “my style.”

    “I basically said, ‘Keep an even beat going through the whole thing,’ which is almost impossible,” explained Conrad. The track is a remarkable feat of discipline, the Faust members keeping time and never wavering from their metronome-like march while Conrad’s violin drones overhead. Kind of like The Flicker, it’s a disorienting piece. Some will find it maddening, while others might be tempted to dismiss it as joke art. Meanwhile there are those who sincerely regard it as a powerful, utterly absorbing track.

    Side 2, “From The Side of the Machines,” lasts nearly as long, but features a generally lighter mood. It’s a more dynamic piece, though is still carefully circumscribed within relatively tight parameters of rhythm and melody. The intensity increases as it goes, becoming almost menacing at times. Sosna’s keyboard surfaces about halfway through, mostly mimicking Conrad’s drones while covering everything over with a kind of soft-focus psychedelic patina.

    (Bonus tracks of varying length from the same sessions appear on subsequent reissues but don’t introduce anything particularly distinct.)

    Some describe Outside the Dream Syndicate as “meditative” or “hypnotic,” but that’s not the case for me at all. The record just keeps aggressively demanding our attention, forcing us back time and again to focus on the mechanics of the performance.

    This is one of those records that reminds me of Brian Eno’s quote: “Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.”

    Even so, like some of Conrad’s hard-to-watch films, Outside the Dream Syndicate is often held up as a signal work in minimalism, drone music, and the eclectic Krautrock genre. Check it out, if you dare.

    Wednesday, March 15, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Sowiesoso (1976)

    Cluster’s fourth LP (and third and last included among Julian Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”) is perhaps the duo’s most melodic and pleasant disc, making it a good starting point for those wishing to be introduced to the Berlin-based electronic music pioneers.

    I haven’t delved too deeply into a lot of post-1970s stuff from Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius -- between the two they each appeared either together or separately on more than a hundred records during their long careers. That said, Sowiesoso stands as a favorite Cluster disc for me and the one I dial up most often.

    The seven-plus minute title track (which means “Anyway”) that opens the disc offers a rhythmic, soothing groove with an added fluttering synth that is always welcoming. Though repetitive, there’s an uncanny sense of forward progress evident throughout, and a polish that distinguishes this record from a few of the more slapdash-seeming Zuckerzeit tracks.

    “Halwa” comes next, compiling an moody, effective ensemble of keyboards and synth. “Dem Wanderer” (“the hiker”) then ambles through, circling back to its starting point in a pleasing way. The first side closes with “Umleitung” (“detour”), in which a soft two-note pattern provides a context for some playful percussion and wordless chanting as though we’ve stumbled on a hippies-in-the-woods campfire scene.

    Side 2 opens with the lovely “Zum Wohl” (“for the benefit”), one of those wistful, plaintive tracks Cluster sometimes produces that work both as non-intrusive ambient and as an aural object rewarding close study. Another delicate construction, “Es War Einmal” (“once upon a time”) follows, tiptoeing through a few different synth paths before resolving into a breathing-like pattern of exhaling and inhaling. “In Ewigkeit” (“for eternity”) rounds out the program, its jazzy “afterglow’ like feel like a nice nightcap.

    Following Sowiesoso would come Cluster’s famous get-together with fellow sound explorer Brian Eno, with the collaborations producing two well-liked albums by fans of both -- Cluster & Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978).

    Despite being a dedicated Enophile myself, I only have a modest liking of these two albums, in part because they sound as though Cluster’s identity gets subsumed by Eno, making the records less satisfying (to me) than either Cluster’s own work or Eno’s ambient output from the same period (Discreet Music, Music for Airports, Music for Films).

    Take Sowiesoso for a walk here while you surf or work on other things, and see what you think about this “thinking music”:

    Sunday, February 19, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Zuckerzeit (1974)

    Along with Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze (both of whom appear with entries among Julian Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”), Cluster is part of the so-called “Berlin school” of electronic music also regarded as an important Krautrock offshoot (or interloper, depending on your point of view).

    Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s variety of “space music,” much of which might be classified also as “ambient” or “thinking” music, would directly influence some of Brian Eno’s later experiments, as well as David Bowie’s collaborations with Eno later in the decade. In fact, Eno was in the middle of collaborating with Cluster on two full-length LPs at the time he began working with Bowie on his famed “Berlin” trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger).

    Cluster’s third album Zuckerzeit detours from the duo’s first two records (and the three Kluster LPs that came before), offering a more accessible variety of proto-“synth pop” instrumentals with a greater emphasis on melody and rhythm. The title means “sugar time,” and with Michael Rother of Harmonia helping with production, the sweeter sound contrasts sharply with the darker moods of the earlier discs.

    “Hollywood” is an absorbing opener, immediately rewarding the listener for having set the needle down with a groovy, mellow march. “Caramel” similarly employs programmed percussion while cycling through a slightly more zealous-sounding loop, though the mood remains light.

    That track segues directly into “Rote Riki,” a lengthy collection of electronic buzzes and chirps underpinned by a kind of equestrian-flavored clip-clop percussion (kind of a distant precursor to the goofy “Die Bunge” from Cluser & Eno). “Rosa” then completes the first side with an echoey synth exercise similar to some Kraftwerk and Harmonia.

    The second side opens with “Caramba,” another track featuring a repetitive rhythm hammered out on overlapping keyboards. “Fotschi Tong” follows, giving the drum machine prominence while the duo dance up and down the synth in a somewhat claustrophobic way. “James” then incorporates plodding multi-tracked guitars and bass in a manner that might suggest a kind of 25th-century John Lee Hooker if you cup your ears just right.

    “Marzipan” is another bite-sized confection, featuring still more synth noodles tangling with each other. The slight “Rotor” likewise aims for cuteness amid mechanized monotony. Finally the short “Heiße Lippen” saves things by reprising the cool formula “Hollywood” in a merry, head-bobbing way.

    This record starts promisingly for me but trails off, with most of the latter tracks sounding a little too much like inconclusive dabbling with available machinery for my tastes (“Heiße Lippen” being the exception). I mean, I have a sweet tooth and love candy as much as anyone else who does -- but you can’t make a meal out of it.

    I’ll grant the record’s historical significance. I’ll even argue that the best tracks here challenge contemporaries like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia while variously prefiguring the work of later artists like Four Tet, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Bill Nelson, Air, and -- most importantly -- the Eno of Another Green World and certain other ambient outings.

    But for the most part I tend to agree with Julian Cope’s assessment that “the whole album seems like merely snatches of some passing car’s stereo turned up full.” See what you think:

    Monday, February 13, 2017

    Krautrock: Cluster, Cluster II (1972)

    As noted at the start of this series, the category of “Krautrock” is hardly homogeneous. Rather it includes a wide variety of wholly dissimilar artists, many of whom didn’t even care that much to be thought of as belonging to a musical movement (let alone one named after an epithet).

    In any case, within the Krautrock kaleidoscope there’s a subcategory of electronic and/or synth-based music such as represented by groups like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and others. Some prefer to carve these mechanized maestros away and set them outside the Krautrock circle, keeping bands that tend to feature (mostly) prog-rock instrumentation like Amon Düül, Can, Faust, and Neu! positioned at the center.

    I’m not one to fuss too greatly over where the lines are drawn, usually inclined instead just to consider as Krautrock just about any music made in Germany during the late 1960s and 1970s that cannot readily be described as “Schlager” -- that is, the inoffensive, lightweight pop that often filled the German charts during those years.

    Many Krautrock acts had a dim view of Schlager, thinking of it as mindless and redundant, and were thereby motivated to shun the traditional forms and themes exhibited by it. And while some Krautrockers certainly absorbed Anglo and American influences (blues, rock, jazz), others very deliberately eschewed those influences as well, wanting to create something entirely new and seemingly untouched by other influences.

    Worth noting here as well was the country’s troubled, horrific political history which for many young adults discouraged any identification with their own nation’s past. Some of these artists pointed back to Germany’s “stunde null” or “hour zero,” a reference to the moment World War II concluded and the start of an entirely new Germany disconnected from its former Nazi-led state.

    This idea of an absolute break with the past was sometimes reflected in the free-form, experimental music some of these acts created, with the electronic tradition being especially inviting given its relative newness and the lack of history or set of common practices. The band Cluster -- essentially the duo of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius -- is our first example of such technological trailblazers from Germany who helped shape the modern era of electronic music.

    To step back just a bit, we should mention that pair’s earlier work with another important figure in German electronic music, Conrad Schnitzler, in a band similarly (and confusingly) named Kluster. First forming at the short-lived though influential and fertile Zodiac Arts club in Berlin, as a trio they made three LPs in short succession at the start of the ’70s, each of which is innovative and interesting.

    Klopfzeichen (1970), recorded at the same time as Tangerine Dream’s debut Electronic Meditation (on which Schnitzler also appears) emphasizes percussion and voice. Zwei-Osterei (1971) provides an eerie soundtrack to a dramatic reading of a nonsensical text Schnitzler claimed sounded better if you didn’t know German. And finally, Eruption omits the spoken word entirely, instead mixing organ, cello, electric guitar, tape effects, percussion, and feedback in rhythmically pleasing ways.

    All three Kluster LPs originally had very limited pressings (just 200 or 300 copies), though were reissued on CD in the 1990s and found their way online not long after that, making them much more accessible.

    Schnitzler then moved on, leaving Moebius and Roedelius to start afresh as Cluster, with producer Conrad Plank initially listed as a new third member. The debut was released in 1971 by a label run by the Dutch electronics company Philips whose list of acts included early Kraftwerk plus an eclectic variety of pop and classical acts from around the world.

    Cluster (or Cluster ’71, as it sometimes appears) features a more cinematic and expansive sound than is found on the sometimes claustrophobic Kluster LPs, its resonating waves smoothly progressing from one “scene” to the next in intuitive, logical-seeming ways. That the tracks are titled after their lengths (“15:33,” “7:38,” “21:17”) further underscores the tendency toward abstraction.

    Cluster then signed with Brain Records of Hamburg run by a couple of artists & repertoire guys who’d defected from the popular Krautrock label Ohr. Though only active for five years, Brain would issue numerous Krautrock classics including releases by Neu!, Harmonia, Klaus Schulze, all Popol Vuh who all also appear among the “50 Kosmische Classics.”

    For Cluster II, Moebius and Roedelius presented themselves as a duo with Plank being listed as a producer and earning co-writing credits for all six of the tracks.

    The mechanical, ominous “Plas” kicks it off, sounding like a dark, disorienting ride through an underground mine shaft with the mix of sounds disorienting your sense of near and far. The almost 13-minute “Im Süden” follows, featuring distorted, menacing guitars marching through a repetitive though slowly evolving dirge that ultimately resolves into a quiet, industrial wasteland. The first side then ends with the short “Fur die Katz” (“for the cat”), a collage of effects, modulated guitars, and electronic purring.

    The second side begins with the almost 15-minute “Live In Der Fabrik” (“live in the factory”) featuring a rapid rhythm that mimicks some sort of futuristic production line. “Georgel” follows, a spooky experiment with organ and tape manipulation. The noisy cacophony of “Nabitte” (“there you are”) then provides a rapid postlude.

    There something remarkably stimulating -- both intellectually and emotionally -- about both the Kluster records and these early Cluster LPs. It’s all very different from the other Krautrock we’ve covered, and indeed different from much else happening at the time.

    That’s the point, of course, although soon enough many other artists would start to cluster around Moebius and Roedelius and demonstrate their influence for many years to come.