Tag Archive: Kraftwerk


This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’ (1977, Harvest/EMI)


Wire and their debut album ‘Pink Flag’ are a complex proposition: arriving at the tail end of punk but too early for the beginnings of post-punk and the ideas and attitudes that aligned best with Wire’s. They were not musicians merely discarding the excesses of progressive rock but a band learning to play their instruments and hating that punk rock was becoming a self parody, descending into the yobbish pub rock that they had reacted against. A band not only interested in making music but ‘art objects’ and concerned with image and performance.

Wire, like many art rock and post-punk bands, formed at art school. Originally called Overload the band comprised of Bruce Gilbert (guitar), George Gill (lead guitar) and Colin Newman (guitar/vocals) and they were later joined by drummer Robert Gotobed and bassist Graham Lewis. During this period the members were divided. Gill the skilled musician and main writer wanted to pursue a more traditional approach while the others were interested in their school’s guest lecturer Brian Eno’s ideas about non musicianship and limited skill not being a barrier to artistic expression. Even at this early stage Gilbert and Newman thought of Wire as more of an art project than simply a band. The pair considered that by wearing the same black and white clothing and having a disciplined presence on stage they would not distract from the music. This idea of distancing of themselves from their music became an important feature of Wire.

Wire also detached themselves from other punk bands though they were spurred on by the notion that punk broke down the traditional concept of needing to be a trained musician to create music. Lewis recalls “We felt an affinity but we weren’t part of the social scene” while Newman says “I viewed as a bit of laboratory, not musically but culturally, because the people were experimenting with themselves: with their behaviour, their appearance and their clothes. Everything was up for grabs.” Their age was a big factor as punk was focused on youth and rebellion. As Ira Robbins of Trouser Press Record Guides puts it “Wire seemed like adults. They weren’t just kids spewing invective. They were intellectuals making a very informed statement that just happened to sound like kids spewing invective.” Wire were allergic to the ragged rock ‘n’ roll traditions that their peers were morphing into in front of their eyes. Their discipline shunned the messiness of punk but kept its speed and aggression while imbuing it with a minimalism that was closer related to Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and Terry Riley and though they didn’t sound like these artists they embraced their aesthetics and principles. Appropriately for their arty sounds and ideas Wire signed to Harvest, a label famous for releasing progressive and art rock bands in the early 1970s, before releasing their debut.

This minimalism manifested itself in the artwork of ‘Pink Flag’, which started as a simple line drawing and then later developed from a photo of a bare flag pole in Plymouth where the band was playing. Gotobed’s drum kit was stripped down to the essential bass drum, snare and hi-hats and his drumming style followed suit. By the time Wire came to record ‘Pink Flag’ they were down to the classic quartet having shed George Gill and his winding solos.

The album opens with ‘Reuters’, a brilliant introduction with its crawling build of guitar and bass standing in stark opposition to their peers’ records that opened with an upbeat anthem. It perfectly demonstrated the Wire blueprint and a statement of their intent. Immediately countering its predecessor is the 28 second rush of ‘Field Day for the Sundays’ and pace-slower ‘Three Girl Rumba’ (which features their most famous riff that was later used by Elastica for their hit ‘Connection’). The opener’s use of unconventional structural framing that concentrates on the beginning and the end of the song not the song’s content and ambiguous lyrics are threads that run through ‘Pink Flag’, particularly on ‘Field Day for the Sundays’, ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ (with its misplaced count-in subverting that rock cliché) and ‘The Commercial’. The next big moment is ‘Lowdown’ with its slowed down funk riff and atmosphere placing it firmly in a trio alongside ‘Reuters’ and the title track as ‘taut minimalist exercises in dread and menace’. ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ separates Wire further from punk and together with ‘Fragile’ and ‘Mannequin’ hints at why the band signed to Harvest. Newman described the former as ‘Pink Floyd, fast’ referring to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, which the other songs echo and the jangly guitars of ‘Mannequin’ recall late 60s psychedelia. In another extreme swing the album ends with ‘12XU’ a punk blast that is one of the album’s standouts. It bursts out at full speed and doesn’t waste an ounce of fat adding to the split second feeling and then it’s over as quickly as it began.

‘Pink Flag’ could appear to be a collection of dissident tracks, certainly some were deliberately sequenced to jar, but this was conceived as an ‘art object’ and is best experienced as a glorious whole and it went on to influence a range of alternative and experimental artists, impacting on Blur, post-punk revivalists The Futureheads, radiophonic experimentalist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud who formed Githead with Newman in 2004) and the 80s US punk underground with the likes of Henry Rollins and Minutemen extolling its virtues. Despite everything that could have not worked Wire created a disciplined work that still sounds as unique and strong today as it did in 1977.

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Neu! – ‘Neu! 75’ (1975) (Groneland Records/Brain Records)


In May Neu! released a vinyl box set featuring all of their albums and a previous unreleased live album. This threw the spotlight back on Neu! (German for new) for the first time in almost a decade since their three earliest seminal albums were reissued on CD in 2001 and so for this month’s Classics Critiqued I have chosen to discuss the most acclaimed of those: ‘Neu! 75’.

Michael Rother (guitar, keyboards, vocals) and the late Klaus Dinger (drums, vocals, guitar), formed Neu! in 1971 after working together in an early line-up of Kraftwerk. The duo always improvised in short studio sessions and the consistent disagreements over the direction of the group had a profound effect on ‘Neu! 75’, produced after a two year hiatus and though they don’t agree on this either the album is musically split between them. Side one, belonging to Rother, is ambient and laidback whereas side two showcases Dinger’s proto punk sound in which he switches to guitar and vocals and is joined by his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe, who would go on to form La Dusseldorf with Klaus, on drums.

Neu!’s integral sound was the forward thrusting, repetitive yet subtly involving beat known as motorik, derived from the German for motor and musik. The style as invented by Dinger is noticeably absent from ‘See Land’ and ‘Leb Wohl’ from side one. It is instead replaced by gentle ticking sounds, synthesisers, piano refrains and Rother’s unique guitar style: long, silvery sustained notes that cut through the mix without distortion. On ‘Hero’ the beat returns with added emphasis provided by the double drummer line-up playing what Dinger referred to as the “lange Gerade” (long line), “endlose Gerade” (endless line) or ‘‘Apache’’. Dinger creates huge swathes of guitar chords and synthetic texture and song regularly peaks to a crescendo but constantly moving forward. I was surprised to discover that Dinger plays guitar on the album’s latter half because in many ways it sounds similar to Rother’s technique on earlier aggressive tracks. The successive ‘E-Musik’ brings the intensity down and strips the sound back with a simple guitar rhythm part interlaced with wisps of synth and the drums ticking away in the background. The closing track ‘After Eight’ returns us to the principle Neu! sound, what their producer Conny Plank described as turning ‘everything upside down and inside out’.

Dinger wanted rock stardom, which came close with La Dusseldorf, yet this is rock music minus ego and excess and when let loose on side two he holds back from creating overblown portentousness. ‘Neu 75’ was an inspiration to more open minded punks like John Lydon and succeeding post-punk bands PiL, Cabaret Voltaire and Sonic Youth. In a recently published interview with John Mulvey Dinger expressed his pleasure about Neu!’s influence on punk.

Neu! also made an instant impact on David Bowie when he arrived in Berlin in 1976. Having heard Neu!, Kraftwerk and Cluster through Brian Eno Bowie was convinced the capital was the best location for his next musical reinvention. Such was the influence of Neu! Bowie asked Michael Rother to play guitar on the title track of ‘Heroes’ but Rother has since revealed he was told by Bowie’s associates that he had changed his mind and later heard Bowie claiming that Rother had declined the invitation and Robert Fripp stepped in to record the part.

Since the 1980s their impact has been expanded to Sonic Youth’s noise rock (member Steve Shelley drums for Hallogallo 2010, a Rother-orchestrated band playing the Neu! catalogue at festivals this year) and electronica groups like Mouse on Mars and Stereolab. The fact that Neu! were birthed from Kraftwerk makes sense as their efficiently streamlined sound is closer to the innovators and the techno artists who developed their sound than any conventional rock band. Last year ‘Brand Neu! A Tribute to Neu!’ was released featuring indie rock bands Oasis and Foals, Cornelius, a Japanese electronica artist, and Krautrock lovers Holy Fuck. With the release of the vinyl box set, ‘Neu 75’ can find a new generation of listeners and their legacy can continue for another 35 years.

Spotify playlist:

Neu! – Neu! 75

Three Decades of Techno

Part one: The Conception and Development of Techno

A “complete mistake…like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

This piece will explore the beginnings of techno and the effect European music and artists, in particular Kraftwerk, had on young Detroit inhabitants and the parallel that runs between the group and the city and how this cyclical influence evolved into the genre.

Kraftwerk’s music was informed by the clanging, rhythmic noise emanating from the factories of their native Dusseldorf and the funk of James Brown and Motown, in parallel to the mechanical repetition heard from Detroit’s car factories that inspired Motown’s unique backbeats. The four-piece replaced traditional drums and guitars with machine drums and synthesisers which were utilised to create metronomic and melancholic yet funky odes to Autobahns and cross-European train travel perfection. Their propulsive grooves drove them into dance music territory and a dedicated rhythm section in Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur brought them close to soul music and thus to Detroit. Bartos recalls, “we [Kraftwerk] were all fans of American music: soul, the whole Tamla Motown thing and of course James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel with a European approach to harmony and melody.”

This futuristic sound appealed to young Detroit inhabitants whose teenage rebellion forced them away from their parents’ R&B and jazz records towards Kraftwerk and other European artists like Giorgio Moroder. They believed they had found the polar opposite of R&B yet in truth they were still listening to soul music only through unfamiliar sources. Genre pioneer Derrick May recollects in 1992, “Kraftwerk was always…culty, but it was very Detroit too because of the industry in Detroit, and because of the mentality. That music automatically appeals to the people like a tribal calling … it sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails.”

The sonic aesthetics of mechanics and industry are fetishes of the genre, which is reflected in the soundscapes created – robotic, precise and harsh. The exact drum beats and melodies written in step patterns with perfect quantisation, which would be unplayable by a human, feed into the obsession with impersonal industrial ‘hammers and nails’ clangour. Timbres are deliberately synthetic and multiple sounds are layered and affected to further convey the austere ‘machine music’ feel.  The atmosphere of techno is also indebted to its obsession with the future, whether this is one of streamlined technological perfection or an inhumane dystopia. A signifying code of techno and what defines it from disco and its cousin Chicago house is that its producers were, and still are, driven to find the limits of the technology. They experimented with hardware like Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines, made deliberate errors and used them for roles they weren’t intended for. For example the Roland TB303 was a bass sequencer designed to accompany guitarists yet it was soon realised that it could be manipulated to create eerie, other-worldly sounds and effects, which have become a foundation of techno’s sound. The genre grew in popularity because of its ability to induce emotion. House was commonly viewed as emotionally vapid whereas techno producers prided themselves on communicating ‘intelligent’ thought.

The early flourishes of the genre thrived in Detroit’s environment because it lacked the fickleness of large cities like New York or Los Angeles and was analogous to Dusseldorf’s industry-based economy. The Northwest of the city was the wealthiest part of Detroit and in 1979 the average income was 34% higher than other areas. This was mainly due to assembly-line workers at car factories gaining promotion to office-based jobs. The children of these newly-wealthy employees felt a need “to distance themselves, says Juan Atkins, from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto” and the negative stereotypes surrounding them. With few social outlets the NW youths filled the void by organising formal clubs, booking DJs, lights and equipment and hiring spaces. These had an elitist personality and were based on their beliefs of sophistication and exclusivity.

The city’s empty halls were tapped into with two or three club nights per school being established and multiple parties every weekend. At these teenagers were exposed to new wave and Italio-disco and as the attendees got older and bought cars they were able to visit night clubs further afield including ones that had been established by youths living in the East of the city, which tended to be more inclusive so more could attend. The music played was more funk-orientated and eclectic. Similar to the youth’s entrepreneurial approach to creating social opportunities they also realised the importance of radio programming and worked to conserve the variety of music played. New sounds were presented to the city’s residents and the young people fought to keep it available by petitioning radio DJs and stations, which opened the channels for discovery and acceptance of European dance music.

Three of the most noteworthy names in techno met at school in Belleville, an area outside Detroit. Inspired by the cold European music of Gary Numan and Georgio Moroder they had experienced listening to the local radio stations Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (known as the Belleville Three) would theorise about how the artist made the songs and the steps the genre might take. Growing up financially comfortable they were able to buy turntables and a tape deck to learn to DJ and started remixing records and performed at friends’ parties, gaining experience and fine-tuning their knowledge of equipment. Atkins declares, “When I first heard synthesisers dropped on records it was great … so I got one.” From this Atkins, May and Saunderson began releasing music under various pseudonyms and each was playlisted on influential radio stations. They later founded the Music Institute, a club in Detroit’s centre that became a home for the second generation of techno DJs like Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen and Richie Hawtin.

In 1981 the triumvirate set up the record label Deep Space Soundworks to provide a platform for their music. Atkins’ project Cybotron sold 15,000 copies of the first single ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ in Detroit alone and ‘Clear’ from the debut ‘Enter’ is particularly influential. A Kraftwerkian balance of techno-pop and club oomph the track set the template for Detroit techno: moody machine music to be appreciated nocturnally. After ending Cybotron Atkins progressed to releasing under the guise Model 500 and founded Metroplex Records in 1985 with releases ‘No UFO’s’, ‘Interference’ and ‘Nightdrive’ selling well.

After reconsidering a professional American football career, Kevin Saunderson turned to DJing and formed the record label KMS. Known for a denser, more mechanistic sound his releases as a member of Kreem and Reese & Santonio were well received in the UK underground and his house-inspired group Inner City gained eight appearances in the UK Top 40 and four number ones in the American dance charts. Derrick May gained the most commercial success of the cadre, producing tracks which are considered some of the most original and influential in techno. The classic sound incorporates streamlined percussion and string samples with a warmth that he had picked up on while spending time in Chicago. His Transmat record label was home to some of his best known hits like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Kaos’, which were produced between ’87 and ’89 as Rhythim Is Rhythim. Though his releases nearly stopped during the ‘90s he maintained his profile as a DJ and positioned Transmat as arespected techno label worldwide.

May was the first of the Belleville three to tour the UK and was quickly followed by Atkins and Saunderson who were recruited for remixes and visited numerous times to perform at outdoor raves. By 1988 the UK had caught up with these futuristic sounds and artists such as the Black Dog, 808 State and LFO formed in large part to the Belleville Three’s influence while the second wave of Detroit techno grew momentum as the decade merged in to the ‘90s.

The second instalment of Three Decades of Techno will discuss the genre during the 1990s, focusing on minimal techno and its growth in Germany while neatly sidestepping rave.

Vier

Spotify playlist:

Three Decades of Techno: The early years

Psychedelia: The Return

Disclaimer: This post is in no way attempting to suggest or create a new  musical genre or sub genre. It is intended to observe some of the, at times tenuous, links in a burgeoning network of new psychedelic artists.

After a decade in development 2009 saw an organically grown set of artists exploring new and different ways of creating psychedelic music reaching critical mass. While the mainstream music press bangs on about ‘nu gaze’ they have missed a much wider and larger development that has and still is producing amazing, mind expanding music.

So who and what am I talking about when I refer to new psychedelic music? There are three main strands of this phenomenon. The first is the noise scene of UK and North America  where wildly oscillating colourful music has become the predominant feature for the likes of Animal Collective (who’ve come a long way from their humble beginnings), Black Dice, Fuck Buttons, Holy Fuck and 8-bit legend Dan Deacon. Animal Collective are currently earning the most column inches but they were virtual unknowns prior to the 2007 release of ‘Strawberry Jam’, which coincidently is when the band hit upon a winning formula for their music. Both ‘Strawberry Jam’ and the commercially successful 2009 follow up ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ showcased Animal Collective’s great musical achievements and exposed people to their contemporaries.

This scene also demonstrates that the genre is a step forward. Unlike Britpop this resurgence isn’t a retrograde movement looking through rose tinted glasses back to the ‘60s heyday of guitar and organ based psychedelic music. The employment of synthesisers, sequencers, drum machines, games consoles, toys, guitar effects pedals and circuit bending (the modification of musical and non musical toys to create new sounds) creates a digitised, corrupted version of psychedelia that is more in tune with the modern world. Occasionally these acts write lyrics with a similarly naive hippy vibe but by and large artists have shunned this in favour of a more modern post-irony lyrical slant. Much of the noise scene even avoids the use of conventional vocals. Though Animal Collective have two singers they treat the vocals as another instrument or effect in their music, veering from the disturbing and distorted to the ethereal and dub-like. Most importantly in a genre where it is difficult to establish yourself as unique and vital, to outsiders at least, all these acts have managed to achieve this, whether through a long development period like Animal Collective, Black Dice and Dan Deacon or a seemingly quick time in the case  of Fuck Buttons and Holy Fuck.

The next strand is the UK electronic and indie scenes that in recent years have received an injection of psychedelic sound. The main artists include Clark, Four Tet, The Big Pink and Maps. Over the last few years these acts have all released albums that resonate with their own unique sounds. Four Tet’s (Kieran Hebden) fourth album ‘Everything Ecstatic’ in 2005 delved into the relatively untouched worlds of late ‘60s psychedelic jazz of Art Ensemble of Chicago and Alice Coltrane and Krautrock (a German form of progressive rock) whilst retaining Four Tet’s originality. Hebden was a huge hip-hop fan and the joy he took in deconstructing and reconstructing these genres into a new sonic tapestry is indicated in the album’s title. Around this time his remix work shifted focus in the same direction and he began a fruitful relationship with Stone Throw Records and producer Madlib. The Krautrock influence would also rear its head again albeit in a colder form on the ‘Ringer’ EP from 2008. The next crucial release in this chain was 2006’s ‘Body Riddle’ by Clark on Warp Records. Though not the most obvious psychedelic album I’ve discussed it nevertheless reveals its twisted, swirling and dark heart with repeated listens. Like ‘Everything Ecstatic’ it uses modern hip-hop and R&B rhythms and production techniques to create a dense, evolving collage of sound to the extent that it feels as if ‘Body Riddle’ is the flip side of ‘Everything Ecstatic’ but where Four Tet looks backwards for his core influences, Clark uses modern sounds and electronic influenced noise to communicate a near pitch black sound of emotional turmoil. In 2007 these artists were joined by Maps (James Chapman) who released his multi-layered synthesizer heavy debut album ‘We Can Create’ to critical acclaim. The album was purely electronic music balanced with pop melodies. His sound is the most commercial that I’ll discuss but even Chapman is grounded in indie roots. Maps’ new album ‘Turning the Mind’ (2009) is true psychedelia. It takes the textures from his debut and adds new colours to what had been a very blue sound. ‘Turning the Mind’ is vividly colourful; resonating with bright reds, yellows and oranges yet there is a dark undercurrent to the sound, which is spoiled occasionally by Chapman’s naive lyrics and the odd Pet Shop Boys melody.

The latest arrival in this scene is the most hyped of the so called nu gaze bands The Big Pink. They combine electronic beats, guitar and synth sounds that owe to the original shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Jesus and Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins and their sound has much in common with Maps’ debut but employs guitars instead of synths. The Big Pink recorded their debut ‘A Brief History of Love’ at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York, stating that it helped create the vibe they wanted and ‘added a magic’ to it. Much like electronica and indie the noise scene is trying to forge a way forward instead of merely repeating past ideas and it has mostly succeeded in this aim in a time when this is near impossible.

The final strand is the underground hip-hop scene in the US andUK. The former is based around Stones Throw Records and Madlib and the latter helmed by Four Tet and Warp Records’ recent signing Hudson Mohawke. Though they are all different they have led to the creation of the first truly psychedelic hip-hop records and although the Beastie Boys and De La Soul had come close in 1989 with ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and ‘Three Feet and Rising’ and OutKast’s ‘Stankonia’ in 2002 was a brilliant tribute to classic Parliament/Funkadelic concept albums, Madlib is the first truly original psychedelic hip-hop producer. His name standing for Mind Altering Demented Lessons In Beats.

He is hugely prolific and flits between a vast array of black music genres but his work is always under the banner of hip-hop and almost always has a drugged feel. The high points of Madlib’s catalogue include the albums he released as Quasimoto  – ‘The Unseen’ and ‘The Further Adventures of Lord Quas’ in 2000 and 2005 and his work with MF Doom under the name Madvillian who released their debut ‘Madvilliany’ in 2004. He and Four Tet use hip-hop’s main weapon to create their unique sounds: the sampler. As Quasimoto Madlib created the weird vocal effects by slowing his beats down, recording vocals on top then replaying the vocals over the original beat. He also used his sampler and drum kit to create a disorienting dark world for MF Doom’s character Madvillain to live and breathe in for their album. This created a sound more akin to jazz or stoner rock music than traditional hip-hop. It was around the time of ‘Madvilliany’ that Madlib and Four Tet struck up a collaborative relationship and swapped remixes over the next year or so, many of which ended up on Four Tet’s ‘Remixes’ album. This then extended out into remixes of other Stone Throw artists and vice versa. Madlib has also worked under the guise of Yesterday’s New Quintet, in which he plays all four fictitious musicians and explores psychedelic jazz and incorporates influences from the Beasties Boys’ organic hip-hop and the atmospherics of Jamaican dub. With YNQ Madlib achieves his dual ambition of paying tribute to the styles of the past while being faithful to the progressive nature of jazz and his own innovative music.

Since signing to Warp Records Glaswegian producer Hudson Mohawke (Ross Birchard) has released the ‘Polyfolk Dance’ EP and debut album ‘Butter’. At first his sound was difficult to pin down but a little research revealed what made this strange brew. Mohawke grew up listening to soul and funk records and the rave tapes his cousin played and as a teenager he learnt the art of turntablism (becoming the youngest DMC UK champion at 15), which explains his unique sound that mashes together the luxuriousness of modern hip-hop, the day-glo noise of rave and found sounds and samples. ‘Butter’ is an apt title for a record that is so rich and textured yet has roughness indebted to the bass and found sounds and samples, lending the album an analogue feel evoking classic mid ‘70s Parliament/Funkadelic through a very modern filter. None of these three artists live in the same country but they have contributed to and influenced a new generation of hip-hop producers who can take these new ideas and twist them into varied shapes and sounds.

As stated earlier the music examined is not a retread of old psychedelic music genres but it would, however, be naive to suggest that these artists are rootless and are creating completely new music. There are three main components of influence, some of which interlink. The first is Krautrock or kosmiche music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s continuing throughout the ‘70s and up until the present day. Though many important Krautrock artists such as Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust and Can have been canonised for their work the new breed of psychedelic artists also take their influences from the ambient organic work of Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster and Harmonia.

Tangerine Dream emerge as the biggest influence and indeed achieved the biggest sound and sales at their height. Their authority is detectable in the music of Animal Collective, Holy Fuck, Dan Deacon, Maps and Four Tet. Their music, which is comparable to the dense texture and melodic styles used by their successors, allowed ‘sound patterns to build up slowly and blend into one another’. The classical and silver-toned guitar of Ash Ra Tempel and Neu! can be heard on records by Four Tet, Clark and Hudson Mohawke (though they probably aren’t a direct influence on Birchard’s work). Rhythms and harmonies employed by Can are mirrored in the work of Holy Fuck and Four Tet and are closely associated with Madlib’s style with Jaki  Liebezeit’s drum breaks been a constant source for sampling for hip-hop and dance music since the late ‘80s. The colder, pre-industrial ambient sounds of Cluster and Harmonia have also found their way into the corners of material by Maps and Four Tet’s ‘Ringer’.

The next influence is closely associated with the Krautrock and kosmiche music artists discussed. It is best described as ‘70s synth music, a rough generic term bringing together the music of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Isao Tomita (Japanese synthesizer artist famous for his reinterpretation of Gustav Holst’s symphony ‘The Planets’), Klaus Schulze (Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel) and others. These artists and their music were musically ambitious, taking  Krautrock’s expansion of the potential of synthesizers to a symphonic level. Vangelis began his career in Greek prog rock band Aphrodite’s Child and, like Schulze, managed a smooth transition to a more symphonic sound; in Vangelis’ case, to successful soundtrack work which includes ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982). Tomita and Jarre made similarly bold synth-led, reverb drenched sonic adventures. Tomita produced his own brand of synth music and was a successor to the classical reinterpretations by Walter/Wendy Carlos. Jarre successfully turned this music into a commercially successful sound and created huge visual shows to compliment this. In 1977 Jarre hit the charts with ‘Oxegene IV’ in a breakthrough year for synth music, which finally saw Kraftwerk infiltrate the mainstream and Donna Summer top the charts with the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’. This became the catalyst for Jarre’s burgeoning live extravaganzas and the proliferation of synth music worldwide in the following seven years.

Schulze represents a darker, more contemplative and less grandiose sound but no less layered. He came from what is now referred to as the Berlin School, an experimental selection of  Berlin-based artists determined to discover the very outer limits of what a synthesizer and music could do.

The multi layered, ambitious and synth heavy material of the acts listed above has had an influence on the similarly layered and luxurious sounds of Maps, particularly ‘Turning the Mind’, which explores interesting sonic and emotional depths, Four Tet, Holy Fuck, Hudson Mohawke, Fuck Buttons and Animal Collective.

The last strand of influence on new psychedelic music is the ‘90s shoegaze scene which featured the heavily processed guitar sounds of the recently reunited My Bloody Valentine (MBV), Slowdive, Ride and their predecessors the Jesus and Mary Chain (JMC) and Cocteau Twins. This scene varied from the feedback driven sound of MBV and JMC to the ethereal ruminative guitar sketches of the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. The mainstream media have focussed on the ‘nu gaze’ scene but the influence of these acts has been evident for a while now. LCD Soundsystem covered ‘Slowdive’ by Slowdive in 2005; Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s verbatim theft of JMC’s sound and image; and the constant comparisons of Jonsi of Sigur Ros’ vocal style with that of Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Although it was the reformation of My Bloody Valentine that really thrust the spotlight on those that were obviously influenced by shoegaze’s brand of guitar pedal  noise. This ‘nu gaze’ scene is led by The Big Pink, No Age, School of Seven Bells, Atlas Sound however many of these acts are merely derivative. The really interesting manifestations of the influence are mainly on the noise scene. Holy Fuck, Health, Animal Collective, Dan Deacon and Fuck Buttons all take something from shoegazing even when they’re not using guitars. Health are the most indebted to MBV and the other shoegaze bands but they have managed to create a more obtuse take on the original sound that has more common with noise’s roots than most shoegaze acts. The density of the music by Animal Collective and Dan Deacon has the feel of a less attack oriented version of MBV, JMC and Ride. You’re not being abused but there is enough edge that it’s not merely background music. As I mentioned in paragraph three, the use of vocals as another layer or instrument can be traced back to Liz Fraser’s vocal techniques and are present  or rather deeply buried in the music of Holy Fuck, Fuck Buttons, Animal Collective, Four Tet and Hudson Mohawke . The fetishisation of guitar pedals and their analogue sound is also evident in the sound of the modern psychedelic acts that I’ve discussed and is another tie to the original shoegaze bands.

Though all the artists I’ve discussed are in themselves unique and individual, this article demonstrates that the artists that influence them and the techniques used to achieve their sound interlink in various ways to show a broad landscape of sub genres and artists that make up a reinvigoration of psychedelic music. In a time where the majority of bands and artists struggle to free themselves from commercial pressure or the inevitable repeating of what they’ve been influenced by these artists are attempting individually and collectively to direct us forward and to expose us to experiences and music that we may not have heard or felt before.

The influence of Krautrock and synth music is keenly felt but unlike previous artists who have just taken on these influences e.g. Stereolab and Muse these artists have discovered ways of creating something of their own in the spirit of those who had gone before. Their influences all ploughed their own furrow and it is difficult not to fall under their shadow so I salute the work of the extraordinary artists who’ve taken the risk on making something even more adventurous and exploratory.

Here’s a Spotify playlist (HTTP links, then Spotify URL) so you can check out the bands mentioned in this post:

Psychedelia: The Return

Psychedelia: The Return

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