Music Features

CLUSTER 1971-1981

“At a time when most of the West was rocking out to guitar gods, something very different was brewing in Germany.  Electronic music was virgin: neither tainted by the past, nor an Anglo-American import.  And in 1968, it was being nurtured in Berlin.  A city like no other.”  — Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

Before World War II had ended, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, one of the founding members of the seminal electronic group, Cluster, was Pimpfen, which was the name given to the youngest members of the Hitler Youth.  In the documentary film Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany, which details the development and eventual impact of Krautrock (or Kosmische Musik) as a cultural movement and musical genre, Roedelius explained, “They tried to make us soldiers, but fortunately the war ended in the right time.”  To understand Germany in the late 1960s, Roedelius’s story provides a lot of insight, his own experience providing context into the country’s desire to undo its past and how this had inspired a generation of musicians and artists to find their voice. 

Along with Boris Schaak and musician Conrad Schnitzler, Roedelius was co-owner of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, a communal hang for artists and a venue for experimental music located in what was then West Berlin.  It was within those walls that Roedelius formed Cluster with Dieter Moebius, a partnership that bore an influential and ambitious body of work which is being reissued as a 9-album box set, Cluster 1971-1981

Cluster 1971-1981, as clear as its title states, documents the group’s creative trajectory during its most prolific period.  Cluster’s original 8 releases are accompanied by an album of previously unreleased live recordings called, Konzerte 1972/1977.  Packaged with photos and essays, and available in both CD and LP formats, the importance of this music in correlation to so much of what has followed musically would be difficult to deny.

On the face of it, the ominous circuitry that courses through the length of Cluster ’71, (produced by Conny Plank who is credited as a band member), the group’s first release, seems unimaginable for its time.  And while the idea of working solely in electronic mediums wasn’t necessarily new, (Karlheinz Stockhausen had been composing in electronic textures and tones as early as the 1950s), soundscapes as troubling as these and perhaps unlistenable at the time of their release had to have been difficult to understand.  The whole album sounds like aimless, comingling sonic frequencies, densely populating every available modicum of space.  But, there’s an intentional and almost orchestrated sense of dread involved that sounds too purposeful to be happenstance. 

By their second album, Cluster II, the environs hadn’t changed much, though the inclusion of guitar melody in Im Süden signals an attempted incorporation of conventional instrumentation.  Für die Katz, which possesses an excellent antiquated science fiction quality to it, is rife with the sort of incidental noise one might find when viewing a black-n-white classic depicting the world of tomorrow through the gaze of hyper-optimistic wonder.  And the melting waves of Georgel take on an almost theremin-similar quality, a queasy mix of tonal unease. 

In 1974 the group released a third album, Zuckerzeit, which was co-produced by Michael Rother of Neu!, another forward-thinking and significant presence during Krautrock’s creative ascendency.  Acting also as a collaborator with Roedelius and Moebius in the group Harmonia, (which had also featured ex-Roxy Music’s Brian Eno), Rother’s influence is heard as Cluster ponders melody, adding a clearer, more defined sense of instrumentation to their otherwise seemingly random fusion of layered sounds.  And while this album sounds more compositionally sophisticated, there’s no shortage of strangeness like Rote Riki and the gurgling friction of James.  Other tracks like Caramel, Fotchi Tong, and Marzipan are aflutter with synth melodies, aurally pleasant next to other more experimental moments on the LP.  The same can be said for the group’s follow-up, 1976’s Sowiesoso, which explores melody to richer, more arranged ends.  You hear this immediately in the album’s title track, a delicate rhythmic jog in place as electric melodies follow each other throughout its expanse.

With Sowiesoso, Cluster’s understanding of its own idiosyncratic tongue and how it could merge structurally with fluid arrangements seems to flourish.  When you listen to Halwa and its gently rendered air of foreboding, the gorgeous emotional resonance of Zum Wohl, or the sensitive sway of Es War Einmal, it’s difficult to trace this album back to the group’s beginnings when Cluster’s work meant more as a reaction against convention than manifest passion.

In 1977, through his involvement with Harmonia, Brian Eno began to collaborate with Cluster, which produced two albums: Cluster & Eno and 1978’s After the Heat.  In the liner notes for Cluster & Eno, the following is written: “The sparse instrumentation of Cluster & Eno exudes calm, a series of tracks with no obvious beginning or end, centred on minimal shades of sound—Cluster in strict ascetic mode. Still, the presence of Eno is no less audible.”

Cluster & Eno is an album of loops, a collection of cyclic sketches that don’t sound fully explored.  If anything, comparable to much of what Cluster had released before, especially Sowiesoso, Cluster & Eno seems flat and careful.  For Eno, however, this may have been a learning experience.  In Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany, Moebius recalls, “Brian came to our house to learn from us.  And, we didn’t go to him to learn from him.  He didn’t know what to do really, I think, in this moment.  He was at the dead end of a street.”  Eno had already entered the ambient phase of his career by the time he’d recorded with Cluster, but this experience had informed much of what he’d contribute during the sessions that would birth Low and “Heroes,” two of David Bowie’s Berlin recordings from around the same period. 

With its authorship attributed to “Eno Moebius Roedelius” respectively, After the Heat contains a better, more thought-out synthesis of the dual (or "tripartite" as the album is credited to three individual artists) personalities involved, as if this union had a better understanding of its parts and how each would factor into whatever musical happenings were to transpire.  Eno’s involvement was much more apparent this time around, his bass grooves running prominent in tracks like Oil and Broken Head, to which he also added vocals, which seem precursor to the bass thumps he would employ in his later collaboration with Talking Heads’ David Byrne for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

And though Eno’s expression had more weight this time around, Cluster’s application of synthesizer melody and repetitious electronically-induced environs remain essential to the album’s make-up.  Fascinating and effective, the lightly wandering phrases that breathe through Base & Apex and the melancholic and beautiful balladry at work in The Shade standout, not to mention the synthesizer riff that drives The Belldog, which, had Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James had any creative intervention, could’ve easily played backdrop to some 90s era trance number. 

Featuring the bass work of Can’s Holger Czukay, After the Heat ends with Tzima N'Arki, Eno’s very distinct voice run backwards as he includes a chorus from his own song, King’s Lead Hat, (an anagram of “Talking Heads”).

Tangerine Dream’s Peter Baumann was approached for Grosses Wosser, Cluster’s post-Eno follow-up.  Released in 1979, Baumann shared producer credit with the group for Grosses Wosser and provided the studio, Paragon.  Per the liner notes, “Peter Baumann had set aside plenty of time for the recording sessions, enabling Cluster to experiment with sequencers for the first time and explore some of the most up to date (for that period) studio gadgets on offer. Moebius and Roedelius made intelligent, measured use of the latest paraphernalia without being overwhelmed by it. New technology was deployed with an exactness designed to refine their (by this time—these recordings are from 1978) sophisticated and fully developed musical ideas.”

For Grosses Wasser, the sound cultivated by Cluster is pursued with a more minimalist and, at times, abstract (even for them) bent.  While the availability of new equipment at Baumann’s studio certainly presented an array of untapped musical possibilities, it could’ve been with an intuitive sense of how to proceed following the Eno collaborations that Cluster took a few steps back in order to progress, locating a new thoroughfare to travel down, investigating a different musical dialect unhindered by grand concepts, (though its epic title track could be perceived as such).   

Its first track, Avanti, could arguably be viewed as an early template for how mid-80s horror films would be scored using synthesizer instrumentals, (a la John Carpenter), while tracks like Prothese and Manchmal are comparably snippet-length practice runs, one building off of relatively simple percussive theme that morphs into something oddly tense, the other a key melody dressed in electronic harmony.  Atop a motorik movement of synthesized percussion, Breitengrad’s acoustic piano strokes humanize its otherwise calculated stride. 

For the title track, its first act possesses some semblance of melody but only as it exists in the context of Cluster’s non-musical ideas, which present themselves through cycling fields of heightened clicks and chimes.  Before the second act, all you can register is the incessant clicking.  Afterward, as if to offer homage to the percussive repetition of a group like Can, there’s a persistence of ritual to the drum rhythms employed, the severity of which give way eventually to a rather beautiful arrangement of acoustic instruments that carry the track to its closing.   

1981’s Curiosum would be the last album from Cluster for almost a decade.  Produced solely by Moebius and Roedelius, Curiosum plays like a half-serious cartoon, exaggeratedly atonal and mostly absurd.  With its relentless bounce and spindly tones, Proantipro exemplifies the album’s duality, which is its relatively humorless disposition being addressed via nonsensical sounds.  A track like Seltsame Gegendhas the feel of an infestation, smaller, wiry bytes of synthesized sound seeming to crawl over each other, as if scaling walls or crowding the track’s spatial design.  And the inebriated pace of Tristan in der Bar is a stumbling blur, perhaps appropriate to the song’s title.  The very subtle final track, Ufer, makes use of light melodies and what sounds like ocean waves caressing the shores, somewhat of a fitting end to the studio portion of the box set and what was then an unintended beginning of a lengthy hiatus.

While the lasting effects and influence of Krautrock has persisted over the years, Germany’s modernized outlook undeterred by the disparaging nomenclature with which it’s been both blessed and cursed, the possibility that Cluster 1971-1981 will reintroduce Cluster’s highly innovative and challenging work to new audiences of appreciators make this reissued set a worthy endeavor.  Cluster fashioned a space of their own, their composed language and means of conveyance difficult to define even within the category this group had helped propagate, a necessary development that would not only compel musicians to think differently about their craft, but welcome a future of creative prosperity whose genesis owed more to enlightenment than the mere perpetuation of hippie-borne blues.