Tangerine Dream – “Alpha Centauri” (1971)

November 26, 2008 at 9:16 pm (Krautrock, Reviews & Articles, Tangerine Dream)

Written by someone named stereomachine, this was written for the Head Heritage/Unsung website (to which I have contributed pieces over the years), Feb. 5, 2005. Link to this site is in the blogroll section…
The first Tangerine Dream album, called Electronic Meditation did not contain any synthesizer, which makes it an anomaly in the band’s catalog, who’s made reputation by using all the cutting edge synth technology in past three or four decades. Rather, it was a jam session made by a psychedelic rock band interested in improvisation and unusual unconventional sound experimentation, which was marred by being a bit too unfocused. The line-up consisted of, besides guitarist Edgar Froese, multi-instrumentalist Conrad Schnitzler and drummer Klaus Schulze, both of whom became solo artists using mainly electronics, just as would Tangerine Dream subsequently. After Electronic Meditation, changes would come: exit Shnitzler and Schulze, enter Christopher Franke and Steve Schroyder, the latter being an organist who was however kicked out of the band after recording the second album, the former being a multi-talented young 17-year old drummer also having interest in the works of Stockhausen and Ligeti, and who had acquired a VCS-3 synthesizer. Not only did the line-up change drastically, but the music was about to change as well. Exit (most of the) rock influences, enter synthesizer experimentation and space themes.
Recorded in January 1971, this album consists of three pieces. Original Side 1 had two shorter songs, which were one foot stuck in the original Pink Floyd-ish psychedelic space rock influences, and other foot stepping to the furthest reaches of unworldly cosmos in its avant-garde electronics, whereas side 2 would embrace the latter paradigm fully. “Sunrise in the Third System” opens up with delicate plucking of a harp-like instrument which gives way for church like organ playing a meandering pseudo-classical chord progression in the minor A key, which resembles the final part of Pink Floyd’s “A Saucerful Of Secrets” with Edgar Froese’s eerie ghost-like moaning glissando guitar taking the centre-stage in the composition. This 4-minute track also sets the whole mood for the album; dark, desolate, “abandon-all-hope” type of gloom and sense of tragedy mixed with far out trippy spaciousness.
Coming next is 13-minute “Fly and Collision of Comas Sola”, which appears to be the most structured composition on the album, opening with trippy violent pulsating VCS3 signals, then followed by fading in of another chord progression in minor A, played on guitar this time around, which forms as a backdrop for more medieval organ melodies and also melancholic flute improvisations, played by guest Udo Dennebourg. Space signals from VCS3 synths (there are two VCS3’s played on the album, one by Chris Franke and the second by another guest, Roland Paulyck) return at the middle of the track and they start burying out all the music played by natural instruments, and just when you think it’s all going to hell, Chris Franke comes in at the 8:30 mark to save the situation and finally provides us the much-needed drum work. Needless to say, it appears that Franke’s drumming abilities proved to be quite underused and under-rated, and he also gave up his drum set by mid-70s, but on here, Franke starts with quiet tom-driven improvisational patterns that suggest typical psychedelic rock motifs, but as his drumming goes louder (and meanwhile, flute returns to the scene as one of the dominant instruments again), it develops into a crashing jazz-inspired drum-solo that would put most generic drum solo muso-ism to shame; a violent energetic free-form fluency that sounds the craziest drum bashing this side of Robert Wyatt, and is truly an equivalent of planets and meteorites crashing into one another and truly a part of the over-all cosmic sound, rather than plain wanky show-off theatre, as most drum solos tend to be.
Finally, the title track of Alpha Centauri, 22-minute improvisational proto-ambient epic to take up the whole original Side 2, and also one of the first side-long cuts, which paves way for everything from their next album Zeit to all their famous lengthy epics like the title track on Phaedra. With rock drums dispensed, and the famous Moog sequencers also still waiting for their exploitation in the later TD era, “AC” has no conventional rhythm to speak of, it’s a large abstract sound sculpture, mixing natural instruments like the opening clanging cymbal washes, improvised flutes and occasional experimental guitar sounds with reverberated droning organs, pulsating synthesizer freak-outs and sine wave generators, and even coffee-machines (as Froese is credited with playing one, but you couldn’t tell). Whole tune builds rather slowly, instruments moan, drone, instead of fast rhythms, the listener is treated to alternation between meditative relaxing sound washes and unsettling eerie shrieks. Beautiful, fragile flute solos that represent the worldlier and more ‘normal’ aspects of the sounds are standing out against the cosmic unworldly forces embodied by dark organs and synthesizers and occasional experimental gliss guitar drones. It is hard to write this kind of music off as boring self-indulgent ambient, this composition has a rather dark and scary, even tragedy-like sense of doom to it, which might come across as a soundtrack to the Judgement Day, and the said otherworldly apocalyptic implications are further helped by the final four minutes when the tune finally settles for another cluster of eerie organ chords, with guest Udo Dennebourg reciting a spoken-word text in German that perfectly seems to fit the over-all concept of God in mono-theistic religions, and the wordless choir-like moaning vocals might suggest either lamenting angels or souls being tormented in Hell, you decide. Except that the ironic thing is, it all sounds so chaotic and improvised that it comes across as stoned-out meandering psychedelic lunacy. But the tone, which closes the 22 minute title track and the whole album, is dark, haunting and dirge-like all the same and the improvisation deprives nothing from the sense of tragedy so present on the entire album.
Alpha Centauri is considered as the “first electronic space album,” and it’s hard-pressed to find any other preceding album that in such grandiouse manner would suggest a lengthy and dramatic exploration of other-wordliness that also implies how most of us are mere mortals who are sometimes, while listening to more upbeat music, too ignorant of the terrifying, but huge forces of the universe which are completely independent of our whims. Tangerine Dream would go on to attempt topping such achievement on their next album Zeit, which, while indeed darker and even more desolate than its predecessor, is ultimately marred by its reduntant ambitiousness and even less focus than found on the title track of Alpha Centauri; and then make their electronic space-rock style more palatable for the whole world with masterpieces like Phaedra, but Alpha Centauri is still one of the most unique works in their lengthy catalog.

stereomachine

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2 Comments

  1. siemos said,

    very nice

  2. 24db said,

    ‘multi-instrumentalist Conrad Schnitzler’?

    at the time Conrad couldn’t play a single instrument, it’s against his whole music from Noise ethos. At the Zodiak Free Arts Lab he used to ask the audience…’can you play an instrument’?, and if they could he’d ask them to leave, the rest were sometimes asked to join in with the jam sessions. Conrad was trying to bring as much noise into TD to break up any Rock n Roll…in his own words to ‘make it Kuputt’!

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