AS WELL as hosting a whole stable of contemporary bands that are mainly spinning in the leftfield electronics and synthpop galaxies, Hamburg’s Bureau B has also been doing sterling work in curating the krautrock archive, keeping the torch burning with deep dives into the unreleased tapes of Conrad Schnitzler, reissuing lost gems and offering that sound gallery out for reinterpretation by the likes of Pole, Frank Bretschneider, et al.
There’s also been that essential recent Faust box, seven LPs or eight CDs, you take your definitive choice; and as the weary year runs down, they’ve one more touchstone to offer from the vaults – because this week they’re reissuing the debut album from Cluster, a whirlwind of electronics and possibilities and a proper snapshot of an evolving, synthetic music which was about to shift out of the labs, the communes and the freaks’ crashpads and towards the bigtime.
It’s a debut album, of sorts; Cluster had, in 1971, recently evolved from the ashes of Kluster, losing a member (Conrad Schnitzler – who else?, who quickly found himself another situation with Tangerine Dream, before just as abruptly leaving them, in turn) and modifying their opening consonant to mark the new era.
As Kluster, the initial trio issued two studio sets: 1970’s Klopfzeichen, Zwei-Osterei following a year on; there’s a live album from the era, too, Eruption, which was released much later. Both studio albums came in impossibly low pressings and were longform, electronic expressions, caring not a jot for the trends of the wider world. This, of course, was an approach favoured by Schnitzler right through his career.
With Schnitzler departing and that name flexed from K to C, the remaining duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius decided to leave the hotbed of politics and ideas that was Berlin, 1970 and retreat to the countryside, which pastoral setting was launching Faust, elsewhere; they set up base in village of Forst, Lower Saxony, some 700km out of the loop. There they constructed a studio and began to work with intrigued and intriguing like minds such as soon-to-be legendary producer Conny Plank, Eno, and Michael Rother, later of Neu! and Cluster evolution Harmonia.
For this, their first album, the two entered the big league for the first time, signing with the Dutch giant Philips; the album would be self-titled (it only gained its dated reissue title, kept here, upon recalibration in the Eighties); it would be free of the encumbrance of titles. It would contain just three tracks of an increasingly longform nature: seven minutes, 15, and 21 minutes, respectively.
You have to look at the context in which electronic music was being created in order to see the aural landscape in which Cluster ’71 emerged. Yes, there was plenty of precedent, dating right back to Louis and Bebe Barron’s howling, primeval soundtrack for the sci-film Forbidden Planet in 1956. There was Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples Of The Moon, and other highbrow circuitry manipulators such as Charles Wuorinen, getting a platform for their weirdscapes on Nonesuch, Stateside; Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan were cooking the valves and the wiring in the Netherlands, as was Pierre Henry, in France; hell, even a Beatle had got in on the act, with George Harrison and his curious, otherwise unexplored cul-de-sac, Wonderwall Music. And then, of course, there was Berlin, Conrad Schnitzler and the Zodiak Arts Lab salon.
What there wasn’t at the time, however, was any sense of a unified scene; interlinking circles, correspondence and admiration, but all across the globe a sense of convergence and seeking and confluence emanating from isolated pockets of experimenta.
Where Cluster ’71 (and we’ll stick with this subsequent tweak in the naming) steps forward is a move away from sheer, inchoate, wide-eyed delight in all the head-mashing noise and incredible, alien possibilities of circuitry, and a step towards a sonic discipline, a structure – relatively speaking.
There is, within the trio of tracks, a pulsing, a progression, a motorik, threading through the massive cosmos of wheezing, sliding, hallucinatory soundworlds. There’s an anchor, deeply buried, but nevertheless there. Standard notation and the like, fully eschewed, a concept which any of us into modern electronica are fully at home with, now: but then …
It’s difficult to broadly separate out the three tracks of the record, which has a tricksy, amorphous quality which, rendered words, relies heavily on the onomatopoeic and the adjectival: it clicks, surges, whirrs, yaws, whistles, crashes, haunts, thrums, expands, dives, thrills, sirens, oscillates …. it sounds like a mere snatch into some valve and wiring sonic conversation of an eternal nature, plucked from the ether for the duration for two sides of vinyl but still busily inventing itself out there when the recording devices were switched off.
Is it a pretty record? Hmm … yes, discomfiting, but pretty – far more extreme is, of course, available these days, and it does have the raw edges of musicians breaking new ground. Is it an experimental and avant-garde classic? I’d fall on the side of yes, despite it not making supreme commentator, critic and guardian of the genre Julian Cope’s top 50 krautrock albums (although three others from the Cluster catalogue do, and no disrespect at all to Julian Cope, whose love and erudition far outstrips mine).
Is it a seminal record that stands the test of time? Oh god, yes. With the ‘cosmic’, whooshing, soundscaping quality soaking into major head bands such as Hawkwind and Gong, on the one hand; and with the torch being carried for the delight of this sort of circuitry through Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom, Mixmaster Morris’s Irresistible Force, The Orb, Broadcast and Stereolab and on into the Ghost Box stable, Vanishing Twin, clare rousay and so many others working out in the marginalia of the sound map, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to imagine a longform electronic work of exactly this stripe to be critically adored were it to emerge today. It would probably be cassette-only, mind you … . And that’s quite a quality to award to a record made a half-century gone.
It’s that crucial step on from its immediate electronic predecessors and towards, if you like, a pop music of the future; and actually sounds more now, with its dark edges and element of chaos, than another bloodline leading forward from here: the one that carries on through Harmonia and Tangerine Dream and begins to lose itself in a certain Whispering Bob Harris outmodedness by the time it reaches Jean-Michel Jarre.
And, of course, there’s the most potent future synergy of all; for this album and this album only, Conny Plank was listed as a full member, thereafter gaining instead production credits on Cluster’s work. He’d worked with another young German band who were doing unusual things with twin drummers, organs and flutes, and of which one member was increasingly interested in the possibilities of the synthesiser; that’d be Kraftwerk, then, whose first album Plank would produce; and that curious musician, Ralf Hutter.
Conny would go on to be involved with Kraftwerk behind the scenes for every album up to and including 1974’s Autobahn – at which point such electronic music had ceased to be an intriguing but essentially weird and ghettoised concern, and eyebrows began to be raised and brows furrow in the rock press worldwide. There was really something to this, you know; there really was … .
The rest, of course, is
history – scrub that, it’s the musical landscape which we know today; and Cluster ’71, I’d suggest, is a real pivot point in that development, the cresting of a hill from which the momentum took hold and electronica immutably found its place in the wider musical discourse.
It ain’t necessarily for everyone, sure, and thus I’ve scored it accordingly; but it’s a proper head trip of textures and sounds finally gathering themselves to change the way we think about music. One for the Christmas list for any lover of the weird and valve-based and wunnerful.
Cluster’s Cluster ’71 will be reissued by Bureau B on strictly limited (500 only) numbered, gatefold 180g vinyl this Friday, December 3rd; you can order yours from Rough Trade, Norman Records or direct from the label.