Album review: Conrad Schnitzler – ‘Paracon: The Paragon Session Outtakes 1978-1979’ – more solid-state wizardry from the Kluster genius’s archives

The Breakdown


IF YOU’RE an aficionado of a certain era of German music, one which has only gained in stature over time, the period, say, 1968-1980; you have a well-thumbed copy of Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler; have Faust and Magma and beyond all present and correct, express surprise at an all back to yours when someone’s jaw is agape because they’re listening to Monster Movie for the first time – if you’ve said to most of these, then Conrad Schnitzler is a name that probably needs no introduction.

But for those out there who are still alighting on the weird and wonderful shores of krautrock, let’s introduce an idiosyncratic and unique genius whose influence on leftfield music, if anything, only continues to grow.

Conrad always stood firmly outside the strictures of what was expected of him. His mother was evacuated to Austria during the Second World War; so, brother in tow, he made his way across land to her. Serving a mechanical engineering apprenticeship, he was dismayed, in 1956, at the re-introduction of national service in what was by then West Germany, so chose instead to serve in the merchant navy, one of the few available exemptions. 

On shore leave in Düsseldorf, he finessed a place at the art school after hearing of a professor who was willing to take promising pupils without formal qualification. This set his course into conceptual art and music.

He was with Tangerine Dream for just one album, their debut, Electronic Meditation, adding the conceptual weight that helped forge their reputation. He then promptly left, certain that the creative potential of the group had reached its limit.

He founded Berlin’s legendary Zodiak Free Arts Lab and, with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, was a member of Kluster.

But a friendship with fellow Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann was to endure, and after five self-released cassettes and a vinyl compilation of them, Conrad teamed up with Peter in 1978 to make Con, a first album proper, if you like, which only gained its first British release last August. (The story goes that Conrad arrived at the door of Peter’s Paragon Studios in Berlin with two synthesisers and a sequencer strapped to a bike, and set to work.)

Now, as part of Bureau B’s ongoing reissue (and in many cases, first issue) programme from the prodigious vaults of Conrad’s body of work, the label is presenting Paracon: The Paragon Session Outtakes 1978-1979, a ten-track set of instrumental recordings created in the late 1970s at Baumann’s Paragon Studio.

The years 1978 and 1979 saw Conrad on a hot streak, creatively: he released his album triptych Con, Consequenz and Con 3, which feature such nuggets as as the wonkily groovy “Fata Morgana”, the alien jazz of “Coca” and the enveloping propulsion of “Auf dem schwarzen Kanal”.

The recently discovered pieces compiled on Paracon take the aforementioned albums a stage further, give a wider context to what Conrad was producing at the time, where his head was at; they were rejected from the albums at the time, yes; but even the slight seconds of an artist this important well, there’s much to hlearn; much to hear.

Wolfgang Seidel, co-author of these pieces, has opened up his archive of recordings to Bureau B label. He and Conrad Schnitzler spent many years together experimenting with sound,capturing the results on the two Consequenz albums, amongst others.

Richard von der Schulenburg, whose own rather beguiling lo-fi electronica trip around his studio, Moods And Dances, we reviewed here a few weeks ago, had this to say of the Paracon project: “Conrad Schnitzler is incredible. I would dearly have loved to have meet him, to have been present when he, Seidel and Baumann were working their magic at Paragon Studio. I had the honour of meeting Wolfgang Seidel at the Golden Pudel Club during the 2018 Eruption Festival.

“In my opinion, this stellar period gave rise to the finest works: the Con, Consequenz and Con 3 albums.

“One surprise follows another – the third track sounds like clocks ringing at a pitch which only a bat could really hear.
Numbers 5 and 6 are not so far removed from abstract techno tracks by Jeff Mills, albeit with rather more swing; number 8 is an absolute dream/wave piece, sounding like a relation of the (then) emerging Throbbing Gristle project.

“The tenth piece is my personal favourite, evoking a wave-romantic atmosphere which might lead you to believe that Conrad Schnitzler had been listening to The Cure.”

Come on, let’s set up the reel-to-reel, discover what’s inside.

Conrad Schnitzler

A first pre-ambling note on the tracks; it would appear that these tracks, coming from deep in the archives, were unnamed at the time – or if they were, those provisional titles have been lost to the vagaries and depredations of time; they’re chronicled as Paracon 1 to 10. Everything more or less falls around the four-minute mark, save the slightly shorter final track. Right, sitting comfortably?

“Paracon 1” kicks thing up in suitably delightful kosmiche fashion, a three-way twining of deep, fizzing circuitry crackle, a wistful midground melody and higher, astral swoops of tone, somewhere very left of the bips and pings of the space disco of Meco then fashionable; very R2D2, if you’ll allow. “2” moves into a far more alien territory, begs for solar winds across lifeless craters, all hanging on a vibraphone-like, almost free jazz arpeggio that pings and thrums with joyous freedom as other tones try to grab at it from below in vain. “3” pushes into a sonic subterranea of electronics chattering among themselves, ascending, bubbling, melody arising in fracture; you can see why Frank Bretschneider absolutely delighted in being let loose on Conrad’s archive as a sound library for last year’s outing in the occasional Con-Struct series. It’s electronic music always threatening to rip apart into chaos, but just about holding to its own atmospheric rationale.

“Paracon 4” both seems to look to the Detroit techno scene of years to come, with its almost jackdaw chitting and futuristic bleeping coming on all Drexciya; a deep kickdrum and you’d be out there in wild abandon. It also has the eerie avian qualities of “Cyan”, the opening track of Monolake’s stunning 1996 album, Hong Kong; with maybe an added infernal touch. So very visionary he was, Conrad.

“5” plays out in the entrancing chaos of some haunted jewellery box, erstwhile pretty melodies rising and falling and twining and throttling each other; an over-ripe quality, difficult to hold onto. Best give up and allow Conrad to transport you safely. Resistance is, as they, futile. It has a sensory overload both pretty and discomfiting; while “6”, perhaps thankfully, returns us to a relatively more rational world of motorik, pulsing on in a metronomic cityscape of arc-lit underpasses and public art mosaics, perfect for a post-war brutalist architectural setting. The Barbican, maybe. Plymouth. Thrilling, and a soundtrack for your own urban movie.

“7” is all atmosphere, loose, faux-organic, with classical music somewhere in the metastasized DNA; mournful notes scatter across a flapping roof in a hurricane of percussion. “8” seems kin, in it’s eerie slides and ululations, with Mort Garson’s spookier works as Lucifer and Ataraxia, black magic incantations for the Moog (and the former of which is essential for any weird retrotronica lover); a shadowy smoke-filled groove of tonal slides and polyrhythm.

“9” readies us for the off in a jazzy bellscape, similar in texture and effect to “2”, hurrying, clicking, a theme for a tense Iron Curtain thriller maybe, with added metronomic trippiness; and “10” has a similar televisual or cinematic slant, trademark circuitry firing off into the upper atmospheres around a simple, repeating and modulated melody, coursing out in a soundscape it is at least relatively easy to step back out into this world from.

Outtakes these nominally may be, but a decade on these tracks would have all seen a parallel life in the 12″ and the like; a format which was only just starting to find its viability Stateside at this point in the Seventies. And remember not just that these ten tracks are culled from a year or more’s intense creative fire, but that those sessions gave birth to three albums. It may not be the first album you slap on for a new amour as you roll out your pasta signature dish; but it’s an album for intense post-dusk savouring, soundscapes to fall sideways down the rabbit hole into, deep and otherworldly sonic immersion from one of the greatest electronic music brains.

Conrad Schnitzler’s Paracon: The Paragon Session Outtakes 1978-1979 will be released by Bureau B digitally, on CD and on vinyl on March 26th; you can order yours now, here.

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