Posted by: Necci – Oct 01, 2010
A couple of years ago, I read a book called Krautrocksampler, by psychedelic postpunk genius and mercurial wunderkind Julian Cope. It's out of print and goes for multiple hundreds of dollars on the collector market, but pdf files of its text circulate on the internet, so I was able to read it without dropping the necessary cash for a hard copy. I knew about the most famous Krautrock groups--Can, Faust, Neu, early Kraftwerk--before ever checking out the book, but what I learned from Krautrocksampler was enough to teach me how little I'd previously known. Krautrock was a German genre that evolved at the dawn of the 70s, out of simultaneous interest in primitive, unrestrained rock n' roll; and in the endless, droning grooves of late 60s psychedelia. From these twin fascinations, a variety of figures in the German music scene all worked together to create a genre based around rhythmic repetition, mind-numbingly simple riffs, atonal freakouts, and huge ambient spaces. The music those pioneering artists created was viewed as extreme and had only a tiny cult audience at the time of its creation, but has become far more influential in the ensuing decades, as the cutting edge of musical creativity has caught up with the ideas of the most visionary Krautrock pioneers. Klaus Schulze was one of those pioneers, and it was from the pages of Krautrocksampler that I first learned his name.
Klaus Schulze was an influential and important figure on the Krautrock scene of the early 70s. An easy way to explain the music collected on La Vie Electronique to people who've never heard of Schulze is to mention that he was a founding member of the synthesizer-dominated prog-rock group Tangerine Dream. And this is true--he played drums on their first album. But it is also misleading, as Tangerine Dream, at the time of Schulze's membership, had not found the sound that is most readily identified with them. That sound can be most famously heard on the soundtracks to a variety of 80s-era horror and fantasy films, such as Near Dark, Legend, and Firestarter. However, when Schulze played with Tangerine Dream, they were still closely associated with Krautrock, mixing tape collage and found sound with the more standard repetitive drone grooves of that genre. Schulze's next group, Ash Ra Tempel, was even more of a standard Krautrock group, generally writing primitive, repetitive rock n' roll songs that took up entire sides of albums. Eventually, though, Schulze came to a similar point in his musical evolution as that which Tangerine Dream reached, and he moved away from playing drums in favor of focusing on the synthesizer. It is this period of his career, the first few years after he became a solo artist, that the third and fourth volumes in the La Vie Electronique series are concentrated on.
Initially knowing only that I'd be writing a review of the latest Klaus Schulze release, I was a bit taken aback to realize that his label had sent me two different triple-CD releases. Even more daunting was the realization that these volumes, lengthy in and of themselves, were being issued in an attempt to break down Schulze's 50-CD Ultimate Edition box set into more easily purchased and digested fragments. Based on simple mathematical extrapolation, I imagine that the series will extend to at least 16 volumes. However, one assumes that only a Schulze superfan would feel the pressing need to own them all. At this point, I've had Volumes 3 and 4 in my possession for a few weeks, and still feel like I've only just begun to absorb them. The pieces contained on these albums are long and ambient, and each disc is loaded with as much music as it can hold. There are generally two to three pieces on each disc, and while a few are brief enough to clock in at less than ten minutes, the average length of the pieces is 30 to 50 minutes. So, there's a lot here to get your head around.
Many musicians whose work was considered part of the Krautrock genre bristled at that appellation, which they found xenophobic and belittling. The preferred term amongst these musicians was kosmische musik, and this term evolved into a separate genre of its own, distinguishing between groups whose music was still primarily rock-based, focused on the repetitive rhythms often referred to as motorik; and groups who focused on ambient, spaced-out sounds, predominantly generated by synthesizers. While Klaus Schulze's original claim to fame was decidedly on the motorik end of things, it is clear from listening to La Vie Electronique that he ultimately moved into the realm of kosmiche. There is a modicum of percussion on these discs, but it appears only rarely, and when it does, is usually just a prerecorded backing track that Schulze performed in a studio at some earlier date. The main focus here is definitely synthesizers, and since these recordings all date from the mid-70s, these are the old, analog synthesizers, with their complicated methods of operation and unpredictable sound palettes. Schulze brings all sorts of different sounds from these synthesizers, and spends long stretches of time exploring various tangents of the sound they present to him. The ambient humming that provides a foundation for the majority of his work might be seen as mind-numbingly boring by some listeners, and so be it. This music is not for everyone. However, for those who find ambience, repetition, and drone to be interesting approaches to music, there are vast depths to be plumbed herein. Schulze often spends so long on a single chord that something as minor as a chord change can seem like a major shift in mood. Meanwhile, the high, soaring melodies that he picks out overtop of these humming drones create pictures in one's mind, the sounds translating into vast, astral vistas. If Krautrock's endlessly repeating motorik rhythms are the sound of car tires on a German autobahn, then Schulze's cosmic soundscapes are just as surely the glowing buzz of starship engines. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.
There's a great deal of variety to be found on these lengthy compilations. The first disc of Volume 4, a continuous 74-minute performance entitled "Just An Old-Fashioned Schulze Track," spends considerable time towards the beginning of its duration on a rhythmic, uptempo movement that, indeed, seems closer to Schulze's Krautrock roots than to the spacefaring kosmische musik that is more common on these compilations. An hour later, though, as the disc draws to a close, it is strange to recall that speedy, droning segment, as Schulze has by then brought things around to a long segment of simultaneously droning and frenetic keyboard melodies. During this later section, his high, quickly-played leads do battle with a staticky assault of equally high-pitched buzzing sounds. The overall impression is of solar flares playing havoc with spacecraft transmissions, and of tiny asteroids falling into the sun and burning up. "Alles Ist Gut," the opening track on Volume 3, has no percussion but is based around a persistently repeating two-note pulse that reconfigures the autobahn-associated motorik beat for interstellar travel. Later on that same disc, "Der Blaue Glaube" features pinging noises that resemble the ones in Pink Floyd's 23-minute 1971 epic, "Echoes." In fact, it sometimes seems like Schulze is using Pink Floyd's music as jumping-off point, taking the furthest reaches of their sonic explorations circa 1969, and soaring across the galaxy with them. Don't expect him to arrive at anything anywhere near as coherent as Dark Side Of The Moon, though. That's middle-of-the-road musical mainstream compared to Schulze's work here.
Ultimately, this is music that will only appeal to a certain audience. That audience will probably cohere out of a wide variety of different demographics, from fans of ambient electronic music to psychedelic headtrippers to kids who cut their teeth on Aphex Twin and Radiohead but now seek something a bit more challenging. All of these groups, and potentially many more, will find something to appeal to them buried somewhere in La Vie Electronique. And for those who find direct engagement tiresome, it can act as pleasant background music, even at high volumes. This is yet another way that Schulze's solo work resembles the most famous work of his former group, Tangerine Dream; it would clearly serve very well as the background score for a movie, especially one with fantastical subject matter. If you want to focus intently on what's contained in these volumes, there is plenty to explore. But there's always the option of relaxing and letting all of it wash over you. Schulze's work serves that purpose very well.
By Andrew Necci