Saturday, 5 May 2012

Tangerine Dream - Phaedra


As music critics and reviewers, it's our responsibility to listen to a record in the hopes that our experience and our (hopefully) wide vocabulary helps to describe and translate the musical geometry of shape and features of what we hear into verbal form. Sometimes, we pull it off, sometimes we pretend to have pulled it off. Regardless, there will always come a time when we come across an album - be it via interest, intrigue, anticipation or simply out of that vagueness of giving something some breadth of a chance - that speaks to us in such catapulting richness, it completely takes a hold of us in both its content and its execution. Whether it's down to what we're hearing, or far more to that, what we're not hearing (but more crucially, seeing as a result), it only emphasizes the importance in what music as a medium of engagement and experience can have on our, at times, unworthy minds.

Tangerine Dream - at the time of this record's release, comprising of founder Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann & Christopher Franke - were born into this methodical ideology, their minds split between the conscious awareness of what had passed in the real-World, and the subconscious curiosity of reinvention and liberation into new avenues of creativity and self-discovery. Because, to analyze this immense 1974 record, is to analyze the scenario, and more so, the trauma and anxiety of post-war Germany which even thirty years after the war officially ended, still waved uneasy vibes across both sides of the Berlin wall - a new war of words, intelligence and outright tension rising between the East and West that Germany, unfortunately found itself slap-bang in the middle of, had become torn in two over. But this is not a political record. Let me make that clear. But at the same time, what's more paradoxical is that this record speaks vast lengths as to the potential anxiety and empathy felt during that period, it seems almost impossible to reflect on this album without relating it to the social and cultural tension Germans still found themselves living with in that period. True, there had been a miraculous surge of economical resurgence in the 50's, but so too there had been the rise of student protest and outspoken opinions to the changes politics brought about, as was the case in many other European countries at the time. But more so in Germany, where the connotations of political ideology and social working were, to think of a better word, troubled.

So we turn to the music itself, and even without all the moral socio-political undertones, you can tell that this a record fully immersed in a sense of discovery and curiosity, as I've said. Some people will initially look at this album, and maybe more so the three-piece themselves, and automatically (maybe even unaware that they're actually doing it) bring up the term 'krautrock'. Firstly, there was no such thing - at least, as far as agreeing or showing signs of acceptance of that coined expression between the handful of artists and musicians that made up 60s/70s Germany. Secondly, to establish this 'genre' as the be-all/end-all tag is to say that every one of these acts shared the same history and means to reach their own goals...when in fact what made this region of music so unique was that, there was no shared objective. Rather, the only thing that was similar, other than the fact that they all showed tremendous ambition, was that they had all started (or maybe, had needed to start) from square one; base zero, the start, the truest building blocks of sound composition and progression. No origin, no influence. Only progress.

It's Phaedra's titular track - seventeen minutes in length and coming across as more a spreading of movements and shifting ideas, than merely a solitary 'track' in the general sense - that highlights this concept of beginning, with an immediate and somewhat shockingly amazing perfection. The first movement - which is what I will be describing these sections for the time being - is all about the activation of this new-found electronic surge that Tangerine Dream had quickly found their skills specializing in. On previous albums, the trio had investigated merely with the constructed and the established, be it the minimalist ambience of Zeit, or the more experimental tides that Atem came across in. But on Phaedra, with the power that the newly-adapted synthesizer (a component of musical creation that even then, was still in its infancy) brought, the trio here have pushed the boundaries of synthetic sound into something more abrupt and offensive on the conscious mind. The sounds here feel more engaging. Whether it's the more arctic roars that lead the track in, the bubbly synths that tread atop the composition, or even the later encompassing of both mellotron and organ keys alike, there's something here that raises the tension and overall vibe of the musical notation.

But even without the synthetic disturbance, the more organic instrumentation - Froese's hollow, even empty bass - brings with it an uncanny visualization of something open yet unknown. It's this plucked playing of the bass guitar that amplifies the record's overall build of atmospheric uneasiness, as if the very nature, or lack of it, and actions of the outside World have established some malevolent thought of their own. And it's the expanse into the surroundings that the music itself truly defines and then refines for us to react against. For all the expanse of ambient distortion and echoing of synthesizers and looped sounds, nothing comes across more impactive than the supposed second movement starting around the seven-minute mark. As the collective of electronic and organic combine together, the tension of the unknown and the distant soon comes into direct view. It's the way the bellowing and treading of these sounds come across that only amplifies the return of the bubbling of synths, fog-like horns only densifying the track into a sort of post-apocolyptic bewilderment. Gradually, the synths increase in pitch, and so too the ambience of the accumulative sounds continue to pass over us; everything from the vacuuming of air that are the VCS 3's and Moog's, to the trembling of bass strings and mellotron keys, is an opaque blot of paradoxical fantastical-reality opaqueness. Its third and final movement in the final five minutes does more than act as a sort of reflection and emotive conclusion to this, but more so, it opens up the realm of synthetic and organic into a sort of beacon-esque glow of organ/piano keys and investigative treading of more adventurous electronic distortion. Much like its previous two counterparts, the composition is one made from the conscious surroundings and the subconscious ideas of what the surroundings might actually manifest as in its truest, untainted form.

Like many albums that followed it, Tangerine Dream did with Phaedra as they would with later recordings where the titular track was the epicenter of the band's journey and detailing of what they were trying to seek out and express. But where later albums such as Cyclone and Stratosfear would encompass of a more open and varied approach to the album's overall content, Phaedra on the other-hand continues the same context of the conscious-subconscious reaction. And so, the second track 'Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares' in the wider aspect of the album's structure and placement, feels in some respect as a total and immediate reaction to what Phaedra conjured up both physically and meta-physically. But rather than being stuck to some monotonous aim or goal of simply reflecting what has taken place, the track instead takes the potentials demonstrated so magnificently in the electronic components and decides instead to conjure up a more gracious and frivolous variation on the former more abruptly tense and emotive engagement of previous. Even as the synths rise to and fro, differentiating between whereabouts in the soundscape to stand and expand outwards, the sound is one of unity, but not one that isn't born from the resulting musical topography.

Likewise, 'Movements of a Visionary' feels less menacingly in its intensity, but still manages to produce this overwhelming force of musical energy, be it in its frosty electronics or once more in the bobbling and bubbling of both synthetic and organic notation. Even when it starts out as a somewhat empty shell of echoed voices and rustled droning, the sounds contain as much layering of texture as previous tracks do. Even as the track progresses, while the leveling and mixture of sounds remains pretty much the same, it's the variety and decisions into what takes centre stage or what become a priority increases the interest and often unknown nature to this album's overall construction. The album's closer 'Sequent C' which, despite being limited to a distortion of flute playing and tape loops actually creates a similar level of fantastical withdrawal and further increases the album's investigative contribution to how sound can be presented upon creation.

But all of this analysis and descriptive detailing, in the long-run, feels somewhat minor when you take into account the grand scale this album presents itself in. As I listen to this record, and then later come back to it time and time again, there are new elements and unique bits that I hadn't picked up previous. This is one of those albums that isn't necessarily concrete and staying exactly in the same perceptive place when it comes to what we hear and what we experience. It's an album of immense magnitude and deliverance of composite music that not only leads us into this new World it's conjured up, but follows us in afterwards - amplifying the resulting emotion of the situation into something totally unexpected and unrivaled by anything both in and out of its respective field. Later on during that period, the band would continue to experiment and later, develop their sound into an almighty establishment of part-improvised part-conceptual electronic music. And while those later records would show a respectable maturity about their deliverance and choice in sounds - Stratosfear and Force Majeure remain two of the more outspoken records (and personal favorites too) of this late-60's/70's catalogue - Phaedra, holds the unchallengeable title of being one of, if not the, pinnacle of both improvisational experimentation and investigative structuring into the journey behind of musical exploration. Where the majority of the western World was still holding to a majority interest for guitar rock and pop ballads, it was in Germany where the very first signs of true electronic music came into full fruition. And it's Tangerine Dream's 1974 masterpiece that stands as one of the finest by-products of this formulaic combination of both new natural discovery and the old human venturing of curious thoughts and the even-curiouser creative will.
~Jordan

9.5

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