Essential albums: Klaus Schulze

E-music pioneer and multi-instrumentalist Klaus Schulze was part of the Krautrock phenomenon of the late 60's and 70's, and alongside a handful of other German acts from that era he is a pivotal figure in the development of modern electronica and ambient.

Klaus Schulze

country of origin:

Spacemusic, ambient trance, Krautrock, prog rock, psychedelic, orchestral

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Irrlicht (1972, Magnum/Thunderbolt)
  • Timewind (1975, Blue Plate/Virgin)
  • Mirage (1977, Revisited Records)
  • X (1978, Revisited Records)
  • Dune (1979, Revisited Records)
  • En-Trance (1988, Revisited Records)
  • Beyond Recall (1991, Virgin)
  • Dark Side Of The Moog V [with Namlook] (1996, Fax)
  • Dark Side Of The Moog VIII [with Namlook & Bill Laswell] (1999, Fax)
  • Evolution Of The Dark Side Of The Moog [with Namlook] (2000, Fax)
  • Dark Side Of The Moog IX [with Namlook] (2002, Fax)

Reviewed by Mike G

E-music pioneer and multi-instrumentalist Klaus Schulze was part of the Krautrock phenomenon of the late 60's and 70's, and alongside a handful of other German acts from that era he is a pivotal figure in the development of modern electronica and ambient.

It is interesting to look back on that first wave of German electronic pioneers and compare how they have faired since the 70's. Kraftwerk, for example, have released very little new music since 1986 and focussed mainly on live shows. Tangerine Dream sold out to American corporate new age music by the end of the 1980's and released mountains of bland electro pop/rock right up to founder Edgar Froese's death in 2015. Schulze, in contrast, has fared much better. He remains both active and creative in the studio, and he is one of the very few of his generation who has collaborated with new-school ambient techno-trance figures such as the late Pete Namlook.

Early years

Schulze's early career included a brief stint as drummer with Tangerine Dream, followed by several noisy years with the band Ash Ra Tempel which he formed with Manuel Gottsching. However it wasn't long before Schulze turned his attention exclusively to what would become a highly productive solo career. During the 1970's he produced a number of albums that remain monumental in scope and imagination. Mind you, they are also very serious and quintessentially German. It seems Kraftwerk’s wry, self-conscious sense of humour was an almost singular phenomenon.

His earliest albums are the sound of Schulze finding his feet amongst a variety of electronic keyboards, studio equipment, acoustic instruments and percussion devices. At times they are a little too grim and suffer from a pronounced heaviness of tone but his debut Irrlicht (1972) is classic spacerock nonetheless, somewhat in the vein of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. It doesn't actually feature any synthesisers - Schulze plays percussion, organ, guitar and is accompanied by live strings, but using feedback and phasing he creates an unmistakable cosmic electronic feel.

70's classics

Schulze was prolific in the 1970's and much of his greatest music was released during this period.

Timewind (1975) is the first classic Schulze album. Unlike his earliest work, synthesisers and sequencers now dominate his sound, captured in two lengthy, shimmering, deeply textured compositions. With sustained phrases of electronic strings, mysterious melodies and subtle bass rhythms Schulze creates soundscapes that positively scream "epic". Timewind sounds like a giant sci-fi fantasy novel set to music and that's no coincidence; during this period he often talked about his search for the “music of the future” and one can imagine his 70's albums as soundtracks to innumerable science-fiction films.

The blissful Mirage (1977) and the Frank Herbert-inspired Dune (1979) explore further in the quasi-orchestral style established on Timewind with intelligence, imagination and subtlety. Mirage is perhaps the most beautiful Klaus Schulze album of them all. Just two long tracks - “Velvet Voyage” and “Crystal Lake” - are built upon slowly evolving clusters of melody and mile-long cosmic synth washes. There are some rhythms, but no beats. Drama, but no shocks. Mirage is psychedelic ambient of the most epic, spaced-out kind, a 70's soundtrack to countless sessions on couches where the air was thick with bong smoke, incense and stoned conversations about life, the universe and everything.

Also from this period is the more demanding but still essential double album X (1978). Long pieces of 20 to 30 minutes were the rule on Schulze's albums of this period and on X he uses that format very effectively to showcase his classical influences. Fortunately these influences never overwhelm the contemporary, spacious quality of his music, even in the presence of a live orchestra as on the majestic, hypnotic "Ludwig Von Bayern".

Return in the 90's and beyond

The 70's is still widely considered to be Schulze's heyday, even though not all his albums of this period were great ones. During most of 1980’s his recordings lurched between conservative and wildly erratic, sometimes reverting to the kind of throwaway electropop and sequencer-driven monotony that came to afflict Tangerine Dream.

However by the 1990's he had found solid ground once again. On the double album En-Trance (1988) the overtly cosmic flavour of his earlier music has receded against a throbbing, pulsing barrage of rhythms. There's also a distinctly industrial edge and some drum programming that nods towards the beginnings of club techno and house music that was occurring at the time. In contrast and of more interest to ambient listeners is the equally fine Beyond Recall (1991) which re-asserts his more reflective side.

But the most notable of his post 80's albums remains the series of collaborations with late new-school ambient icon Pete Namlook. In a series of 11 albums up to 2008, several stand out. Dark Side Of The Moog V (1996) finds the pair at their most mystical and trippy and boasts some exquisite passages of ambient trance. American bass player and synthesist Bill Laswell joins them for Dark Side Of The Moog VIII (1999) which proves a fine showcase for their more upbeat excursions. Dark Side Of The Moog IX (2002)  is exquisite tone colour music in the best Berlin-school tradition, muted and gently rhythmic, mournful yet beautiful, perhaps the best album the pair have recorded together.

Evolution of Dark Side Of The Moog (2000) makes a great introduction to the series overall, even if a few of the uptempo moments falter with a dated early-90’s club sound. Far better are the tracks where the beats are less insistent or not there at all. The excerpts from the suites “Psychedelic Brunch” and "Phantom Heart Brother" are stunning exercises in sequencer-driven, layered, euphoric ambient trance with rich, spacey chords and melodies.

Schulze fans can argue until the proverbial cows come home over whether his more recent work can stand alongside his 70's classics. I believe some of it does. In the very least, his continuing exploration of new technology and a wealth of inspired ideas continues to make his music worthy of attention in the new century.

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