ALBUM REVIEW: Richard von der Schulenberg – ‘Moods And Dances’: a fun, exotique library music trip

REVERED in his native Hamburg and across the wider German electronic music scene, Richard von der Schulenberg has been admitted to the swelling ranks of the excellent Bureau B imprint – home to an ever-expanding canon of archival reissues from the Seventies krautrock scene, lining up alongside current works from some of the more interesting electronic artists working in the country today.

A quick burrow into his past works on Discogs reveal sets of releases under a dizzying matrix of inversions of his name; the very slightest fractal shifts: Graf von der Schulenburg, Schulenburg, R. v. d. Schulenburg, RVDS, Richard Graf Von Der Schulenburg, Richard V.D. Schulenburg, Schulenburg; and on into forever.

He is, thus, a difficult artist to track; but be sure his work is always burrowing into different forgotten corners, blowing off the dust, reinventing.

Take, for instance, his cassette-only release for Dom Chakra three years ago, Acid Lullabies, which reinvents the squelch and jerk of the 808 era by pulling it through a mesh of Suicide and Damo Suzuki-style freewheelin’ and eerie looseness. Try “Acid Lullaby 11”, for instance; that’s a good (and also a quite literal) jumping-off point.

You can maybe track back to the playful retrofuturism of 2004’s Universum; or the further acid-disco-electro adventures of 2016’s Shadows; size up “Arabian Moon”, which takes the “Rockit” blueprint out onto the autobahn.

For his debut album for his new label, Moods And Dances, he’s exploring a maybe more placid but no less quirky world; that of library music, the imaginary soundtrack, the incidental music for the film yet or never to be made outside his (and our) heads.

It’s a really curious world, for sure. No mention of the genre can be made without doffing headgear to the modern main source, Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story. In the past year, a couple of artists have taken the path less trodden with really interesting results; Bastien Keb’s The Killing Of Eugene Peeps was an Angelheart noir soundtrack with a husky narrator, which approached the status of a sound novel; Daniel O’Sullivan’s Electric Māyā: Dream Flotsam and Astral Hinterlands from last October really explored the richness of the fragmentary impression with strings, electronica, a huge tonal palette.

But what does Richard have in store with Moods And Dances? Well, Bureau B promise us it’s ” … a musical present from the future past, inspired by the otherworldly exotica and imaginative electronics of library music’s golden age.” OK; needle to wax, the proof of the soundtracky pudding of course, &c.

Richard von der Schulenberg, photographed by Nguyen Phuong-Dan

 An opening titular schemata: seven of the nine tracks herein are named after the equipment used to create them, offering a pleasingly geeky trip around the von der Schulenberg gear stash, for fans of hardware and software.

Our first pause in the itinerary is “Mrs Yamaha’s Summer Tune”, in which seaside gulls and environmental ambience underpin a tune with the subtle, airy Chinoiserie of glockenspiels, the salt and glimmer of the seaside. Richard notes it was: “recorded with Yamaha DX7, Miami Acid Lab, Tr 808 and Evans Super Echo during a very hot day in June. The sea in the background is recorded as well in June at Damp, Ostsee. Gulls were flying and I was happy not to get a sunburn”.

Caravan of the Pentamatics” steers the journey away in a downbeat, almost acid jazz, mysterious Persian tonality wending through the main motif. You could squint and almost see Corduroy or Matt Berry crossing its sandy paths. A rest bar and up a key it shifts, picking up a little classic spy movie atmosphere on the way.

“The Farfisa Sphinx” is a step into a radiophonic workshop; an eerie, selected ambient work worthy of a Seventies’ kids’ drama, the sort that are associated with watching from behind the sofa. It has a main melody with an eerie interval that needs a two-colour opening screen, with silhouettes only of the actors. That subtly discordant chime is joined by an astral wind and other chit-chatters and thrums, picking up a little of the layered, polyrhythmic malice of early Autechre.

Before the childhood night terrors fully overwhelm you we transmute into the gentler bleepscapes of “Roland’s Night Walk”, all kinds of exotic aural fauna chirping and busying themselves in the nocturnal foliage, a faux-theremin tone whistling with a sweet jazz meander glimmering away in the clearing that gains depth and texture that slowly seduces. Turn off your mind, relax …

… but not too much, because “DX7’s Broken Hearts” has more bittersweet plans; think an instrumental by one of the more overlooked pure pop bands of the Eighties, one with real class – maybe China Crisis – transposed into exotica, again unnamed beasts flocking and whooping. Richard notes, on a tech tip, that “the broken chords are played in a very strange measure which sounds like the DX7 has a broken heart”.

“The Space Pentas” is a space boogie built around a tonal sweep and chatter; it’s cosmic in a downtrodden, eternally rain-sodden, Bladerunner kinda way. Wordless background harmonies add a more ominous human dimension to the propulsive twang and shuffle. “Wersimatic Space Bar”, on which the cheesy-easy organ most beloved of eternal charity shop find Klaus Wunderlich takes the spotlight, is a bossa from the best off-world retro club you’ve yet to visit. The Wersimatic WM24 is a lost eddy in the stream of synthesiser development, which Richards prizes as it “plays very strange rhythms from another world”.

“Planet Dragon” suggests, maybe, some lurching but not unfriendly automaton, plodding its finger-clickin’ way over a landscape of hip-fruggin’ percussive presets and wacky organ vamping, all with the title chanted away in the next room, whoops and hollers. Fun! in other words. Demented fun, with a hallucinatory bend.

We’re nearly through; and our imaginary credits roll with “The End (Lala)” a suitably stately, Moogy final atmosphere.

Will Moods And Dances be your favourite new album? Nah. It’s incidental music; it’s not designed to grab you right there and whisk you into its arms like Valentino.

Will it be the sort of album you cheekily slip onto the deck at a very groovy soiree at about, ooh, midnight, to bring some bizarre and spacey dimensions to proceedings and during which at least two of your friends turn to you and say with a bewildered grin: “Wow, what is this?” Yep; it’s so that. In which case, I think we can say: Richard, job done.

Richard von den Schulenberg’s Moods And Dances will be released by Bureau B on January 29th on digital, CD and LP formats; you can pre-order your copy now, here.

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