Like many of their Krautrock peers from Tangerine Dream to Kraftwerk to Popol Vuh, Cluster's influence on the rise ambient, electronic and avant-garde rock music since the early 70's has been significant and broad; perhaps even broader than most, given that the duo never chose just one direction or style to refine and hone.

artist:
Cluster

country of origin:
Germany

style(s):
Krautrock, ambient rock, spacemusic, art rock, psyrock, minimalism

decades active:
60's - 00's

essential releases:

  • Cluster II (1972, Brain/SPV Records)
  • Zuckerzeit (1974, Brain/SPV Recordings)
  • Sowiesoso (1976, Sky Records/Caroline)
  • One Hour (1994, Gyroscope/Ars Nova)
  • Qua (2009, Nepenthe Music)

with Brian Eno:

  • Cluster & Eno (1977, Sky Records)
  • After The Heat (1978, Gyroscope/Sky Records)

Reviewed by Mike G

Krautrock icons Cluster - the duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and the late Dieter Moebius (1944-2015)  - were part of the same extraordinary art and music scene centred around late-60's Berlin that produced Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler and many others. In these heady early days of the scene the anything-goes ethos was strong. Moebius and Roedelius were making music with found objects and electronics and experimenting wildly, performing long improvisations on stage and releasing a series of improvisational albums with Schnitzler under the name Kluster.

The influence of these early free-form experiments is felt heavily on Cluster '71 (1971), the duo's first album together following Schnitzler's departure and a change of name. It was recorded with legendary scene producer Conny Plank (1940-1987), the studio wizard who played a significant role in many of the albums he produced for German acts in the late 60's and 1970's. Not unlike the debut releases of fellow experimentalists Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, the music is disorienting and alien, dissonant and fairly extreme, only occasionally subtle and spacey. There's really nothing in the way of melodies and no harmonic progression whatsoever; its essentially avant-garde musique concrète made with keyboards, percussion, tape manipulation and primitive effects equipment. Cluster '71 is unquestionably brave for its time, but in hindsight the album is not the accidental masterpiece some think it is; it's more the raw DNA of a band on its way to more coherent and beautiful things.

Early classics

The band's genius is more fully revealed on the 2nd album Cluster II (1972)  - also recorded with Plank - which forms a bridge between the barely controlled chaos of the first album and the melodically and structurally developed music that was to come. It's a stunning work. As an example of primitive, abstract, psychedelic spacemusic Cluster II is far better focused than its predecessor while remaining fundamentally an avant-garde record. It floats about in an ominous sonic universe of its own, unanchored by drums or discernible rhythms, although there is some semblance of pulsing patterns. Some of the instruments in the mix are quite recognisable this time, like the looped guitar melodies on on the beguiling 15-minute "Im Suden". You can see all the instruments Moebius and Roedelius were playing and twiddling in the wonderfully cluttered photograph that graces the album cover's centre spread.

By the time their next album Zuckerzeit (1974) appeared - co-produced by their friend Michael Rother of the band Neu! - the pair had abandoned city life for the German countryside where they had built their own recording studio. Both physically and musically more distant the freeform avant-garde rock of the early Berlin and Dusseldorf/Cologne scenes, Zuckerzeit's innovative keyboard/guitar rock and proto-synthpop instrumentals are driven by the band's first use of electronic sequencers and rhythm machines. The album is generally much more melodic and structured then its predecessors while still very odd in its own way. The chugging groove of "Hollywood" comes with unexpected chord changes and pitch shifts that reflect the band's playful sense of humour. Pieces like "Caramel" and "Caramba" telegraph 80's synthpop almost perfectly, while "Rote Riki" layers a single chord with trippy, twisted melodic bleeps and sounds like ambient pop for aliens. "Rosa" and "Fotschi Tong" are intricate and beautiful, their soaring, pretty Moog melodies sounding not unlike German psy-ambient pioneers Tangerine Dream and Ashra in their more rhythmic moments.

Around this time Moebius, Roedelius and Rother also recorded two excellent albums as the band Harmonia.

The Eno Years

Zuckerzeit certainly hints at the gentle, melodic ambient sounds to come on the Sowiesoso (1976) album released two years later. Sowiesoso is Cluster's most outright beautiful release, an expression of pastoral loveliness that seemed destined to surface in the duo's music after several years of living and recording in country surrounds. The band's electro-acoustic sound - melding of piano, synths, guitar and percussion - is now more polished but it's never over-produced. There is more silence and space in the music, too, yet the compositions are short and clearly structured; and there are tunes in abundance, yet it still sounds unlike any of the pop or art rock coming out of Germany at the time. If anything, Sowiesoso resembles the muted ambient pop of British pioneer Brian Eno in the 70's, a sound which the two parties seemed to arrive at quite independently.

Eno himself by this stage was a massive fan - particularly of Moebius and Roedelius' side-project Harmonia - and around this time he began collaborating with the pair. After aborted recording sessions in 1976 - released decades later on the interesting Tracks and Traces (1997) - the trio's first official release together appeared the following year as the self-titled Cluster & Eno (1977).

Co-produced by Conny Plank, Cluster & Eno is a haunting ambient pop masterpiece; fans of both couldn't hope for a better collaboration. The nine instrumentals traverse a remarkable range of tonal colours and seductive textures produced with analogue synthesisers and Eno's gift for playing the studio as a giant instrument, augmented with guitars, piano, bass and (mostly) gentle rhythms. Its also harmonically rich and as tuneful as anything as these musicians have put their names to, in any incarnation. It's not soundscape music like Eno's Music For Airports (1978); think more the elegiac miniatures of his Music For Films (1978) meshed with Cluster's Sowiesoso for an idea of how this marvelous album sounds.

The same lineup also recorded the mostly instrumental After The Heat (1978) which once again fulfills the promise of putting these great artists (including Plank) together in the one room. This one is darker, some of its melodies more oblique and jazzy, like the melancholy piano and wispy synth of "The Shade". "Old Land" suggests a kind of spacey, modern chamber music in its interplay of sparse piano figures with sighing synthetic strings. A daft, deadpan song by Eno called "Broken Head" somewhat spoils the flow but it's redeemed straight afterwards with another song on which he sings sweetly amid soaring, layered keyboards and a gently buzzing riff that you might call proto-techno. All up, After The Heat is another essential - and rare - meeting in the ambient zone between Krautrock and UK art rock.

Beyond the 70's

After the 1970's there were ever-lengthening gaps between Cluster releases and - for a while at least - the albums were erratic and more uncertain in their appeal.

Grosses Wasser (1979) and Curosium (1981) throw in a bit of everything and are maddeningly inconsistent. Some tracks have a simple beauty like the soothing toybox melodies of "Helle Melange"; some are mad (the stark thudding of "Proantipro"); and some are barely formed experiments in irritating noise (someone's having a laugh with "Seltsame Gegend" and it's not us). Several tracks on the Grosses Wasser also sound unfinished. Fans of the more experimental end of art rock will still find plenty to like here - particularly the uptempo numbers - but these albums are of fairly limited interest to ambient and downtempo fans. Likewise Apropos Cluster (1990), even if it's a more coherent statement than its two predecessors.

However, the next album One Hour (1994) is a quiet triumph and finds the duo somewhere in the spaces between abstract spacemusic, ambient rock and avant-garde classical. Consisting of 11 tracks edited from a live concert performance, the sounds include synthesisers, bells, Asian-sounding percussion, cosmic strings, and psychedelic organ meanderings ala late 60's Pink Floyd. The majority of the album's tracks exhibit a gently dissonant weirdness that's seductive rather than jarring, and every piece sounds like it belongs to a greater whole. It's one of Cluster's finest albums.

A gap of 15 years separates One Hour and Cluster's next and final album Qua (2009) which, like its predecessor, quite brilliantly treads the line between experimental risk-taking and accessible, tonal electronically-based music. Its spacey and gently rhythmic, sometimes drone-based, full of odd looped sounds and abstract embellishments and hovering between atonality and soothing harmonic ambience. It's remarkable that in 2009 it sounds neither of its time nor out of it. It's Moebius and Roedelius doing what they do best, having polished their sound from its raw Krautrock origins without blunting their good humour, natural curiosity or taste for the surreal. Friend and collaborator Tim Story produced the album and can take a good deal of credit for nursing the project through to completion.

Legacy

In 2010, Roedelius formally announced that Cluster was disbanding. The duo gave a final live performance in the UK in December that year. Moebius died in 2015.

Like many of their Krautrock peers from Tangerine Dream to Kraftwerk to Popol Vuh, Cluster's influence on the rise of ambient, electronic and avant-garde rock music since the early 70's has been significant and broad; perhaps even broader than most, given that the duo never chose just one direction or style to refine and hone. Thus, Cluster's music has been equally lauded by indie rockers, electronic ambient musicians, techno producers, classical minimalist composers and avant-rock acts.

Moebius and Roedelius also have extensive solo catalogues, especially Roedelius whose huge number of solo and collaborative album releases are often piano-based and sit comfortably under the ambient and downtempo banner. If you like Cluster's mid-to-late 70's sound, his solo debut Durch die Wüste (1978) is an excellent place to start digging deeper.

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