Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #86: The Essential Collection (2006)

At number 86 is the latest attempt to chronicle the 40-year career of German electro-prog superstars Tangerine Dream.
It is extremely difficult to reduce a career spanning four decades into the space of a paragraph. It becomes even more difficult when this band is not as acclaimed, as famous or as popular as some of its contemporaries. Tangerine Dream were founded in 1967 by guitarist Edgar Froese, an art student at Berlin University after the disbanding of the R&B group The Ones. Inspired by the surrealist movements - Froese was taught art by Salvador Dalì himself - he formed Tangerine Dream with drummer Klaus Schulze and organist Conrad Schnitzler. They released Electronic Meditation in 1970, beginning a career which produced over 100 albums and involved constant personnel changes, on a scale rivalled by only Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull, with Froese being the only constant member. From the outset their music was marked by a fascination with technology and long, winding instrumental pieces which only rarely featured vocals. They have become widely regarded as unknown pioneers, inspiring the genres of Krautrock and New Age which dominated the 1970s and early-1980s.

This album begins with a live track, 'Poland', taken from the 1984 album of the same name. This may seem an odd place to begin, but in fact, with a brief reading of history, it's actually quite apt. Tangerine Dream were one of the first Western groups to become popular behind the Iron Curtain; the use of instrumentals meant that their music was not censored by the communist authorities. The actual song, to get to the point of this review, unfolds very nicely. It is very difficult to identify many of the instruments involved, and there is a good reason for that. Froese was renowned for custom-making instruments for indivudual albums, and jimmying up the latest technology to radically change its sound. As such you can't really put your finger on much here, save acknowledging the presence of multiple synthesisers and a subtle drummer. The best part comes in the final third when things quieten down, becoming sparse and brooding.

After a good start, we remain in the 1980s with 'Bois De Boulogne'. Taken from Le Parc (1985), it begins like a catchy French electro tune, before morphing into a gloriously mysterious piece. Unlike its predecessor - which clocked in at an almighty 22:25 - this is only 5:07, and it's a lot better for it. Like Mike Oldfield at around the same time, Tangerine Dream were succumbing to the electro-pop culture of the 1980s and producing shorter, punchier songs that before - for an example of Oldfield, compare the sprawlingly indifferent Hergest Ridge (1974) with the semi-pop Crises (1983). There is impressive keyboard work from Chris Franke, one of the more consistent members in the flux. Though it sounds like a keyboard on violins setting, real violins would have ruined it.

'Song Of The Whale: Part I - From Dawn...' is, even at this early stage, superior to everything else on the album. The previous two (excellent) pieces wrestled with the technology in different ways - 'Poland' stretched things out to create a veritable soundscape with multiple movements, 'Bois De Boulogne' compressed their experiments down into something which could, with lyrics, have passed as a continental pop song. This song, from Underwater Sunlight (1986) is the perfect harmony of the two. It features an insanely catchy 8-note riff on what is too thudding to be a keyboard, but two synthesised to be something like a tubular bell. The flaw is that the song's great white-out ending seems to come too soon before the end, but this is made up for and then some by Froese's work on both acoustic and electric guitar, which sing out over the hubbub of electronic gadgets.

'Livemiles II', as the title suggests, is the second and last live track, taken from Livemiles (1988). This returns to the drawn-out ultra-prog of 'Poland', built around the stable mid-80s lineup of Froese, Franke and Paul Haslinger. But this is more melodic, and attractive, than 'Poland'; while that track relies on darkly sinister noise effects to set the tone, the classical background of Haslinger brought structure and finesse to the Dream. This feels meticulous, prepared and cleverly orchestrated - odd for a live performance, let alone one which incorporated light shows. In the middle third, we get the first taste of bass guitar, albeit a heavy processed one. Its presence it much appreciated, adding a different dimension to the three-piece.

The next two tracks, taken from Tyger (1987), also feature bass guitar, although in this case it is hidden under and muted by extensive keyboards and 'noise'. '21st Century Common Man' is split into two parts, in the same way that 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' was done - making it a much more accessible product. 'Part I' is obtrusive and sinister, with unrelenting and repetitive keyboards and brooding bass lines which demand close inspection to the point of obsession. The ending, however, is very different. With all the effects temporarily removed, we are treated to swirling keyboards giving us what sounds like an electro outtake of 'Barber's Adagio for Strings'. 'Part II' sees bass and hi-hat working together to produce a more likeable and accessible rock track - I can hardly bring myself to describe Tangerine Dream as 'toe-tappers', but this is the closest that they have come. This song doesn't develop as greatly as the rest, but still - so far, so very good.

Now the bad news. Without a second's hesititation, the clock is turned back to Electronic Meditation and the appropriately titled 'Genesis'. But rather than being the burst of creative energy you might expect from a 5-minute track, it's a loose and haunting jam featuring whooping banshee cries and cymbal crashes a-plenty. It's disorganised, directionless and utterly fails to grip your attention after the initial curiosity has waned. In fact, both the next two tracks, also from the 1970s, fail in the same way and on the same grounds. Both are over 15 minutes long, and both are boring artifacts of experimentation which now feels distinctly antiquarian. The title track of Alpha Centauri (1971) feels like a barren landscape outside a broken-down radio station, with what sounds like a badly-played flute in the background amid the feedback. It is utterly directionless and takes up too much room; then again, 'Zeit' - again, a title track, from 1972 - doesn't fare much better. It retreads old ground, bringing you back to where 'Alpha Centauri' began, like your in a desert, going round in circles as you follow the tracks left by your own footprints.

With all this in mind, one would expect 'Atem', from 1973, to be much the same. In fact, from the opening two minutes alone it becomes a surprise improvement - because there are drums in this one, not just white noise and other now-trashy effects. There are proper synthesisers here, probably incorporated the famous Mellotron as well, which is always a good thing. There is also a good repetitious phrase of four notes, which while not exactly infectious at least gives the listener something to grapple with and hold on to as the song meanders to its conclusion. The late John Peel made Atem his Album of the Year in 1973.¹ While, considering what other, better records came out in 1973, this might appear stupid, in hindsight he may have been onto something.

'White Clouds' is a good choice to finish with, with its great drumming from Franke (he was originally a drummer before switching to synthesisers after the end of their psychedelic phase in the mid-70s. Taken from the album Green Desert (1986), it is a return to 80s form in disguise, since the material was actually recorded in 1973. The Mellotron is writ large, played beautifully and catchily by Froese, and the whole thing feels like both classic TD and a development of the kind of groove that Procol Harum pioneered on A Salty Dog (1969). Add some tropical noises and you have a classic.

Tangerine Dream are always a difficult band to talk about, because (a) they're incredibly difficult to sum up; (b) few people outside of the prog cult know about them; and (c) they tend to be grouped with - dare I say it - Yes as the 'bad guys' of prog, too caught up in the pretensions of doing long, meaningless pieces to pay attention to the purpose of the music. Making a compilation of them is therefore near-impossible to get right. This manages it well enough, not by selecting the best stuff, but by showing you why TD are so difficult to deal with. Clocking in at nearly 2-and-a-half hours, this is DEFINITELY not one to listen to all the way through. It shows how the Dream so often got it spot on with shorter pieces, but in the early days especially wasted their time in aimless meanderings through the cupboard of 70s technology. Fans of more accessible progressive artists like Pink Floyd will find this hard, and it would be an indie fan's worst nightmare. But, in the final analysis, it's a good record to have and dip into occassionally, if only to prove how idiosyncratic they really are.

3.73 out of 5
¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangerine_Dream. Accessed on July 24 2007.

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