Matter/Form; Surface/Structure; Instance/Essence
I love cosmic music. When downtrodden 1970s Germany had to re-invent itself, it came up with this devotional, esoteric, futuristic, reverent and hopeful music.
Cluster – Zuckerzeit
This is one of those albums that gets pointed out to you by the sage music veteran in a corner at an impromptu house party. “Yeah, you like Tangerine Dream and Eno? Try this out. It’s the real deal. A big improvement over those.” So you get it from your record store or favorite blogspot, and throw it on the speakers, and listen. What will strike you quickly is how aesthetically powerful and diverse this is. Each song picks a different set of sounds, and as a result, stands apart from the others. How they did this with 1970s technology I will probably never know, but I can imagine it involved hours of painstaking work. You will not find this breadth of richness of experience and variety on a Tangerine Dream album, and Fripp/Eno loses its surface shine in comparison. For this reason alone, I can see why so many people swear by this album. For those who like mid-1990s ambient, you can hear how this album must have been a major influence on Aphex Twin and clearly was on Electric Company. The same zen for many different perspectives on the same object applies. However, all the effort went into the surface: melodic development is near non-existent, and song structures are linear or cyclic but embrace no particular narrative and go really nowhere. The result is a listening experience that’s all on the surface and misses the real point of music, which is composition: writing melodies and fitting them into songs that sound like the profound truth of some experience. “Zuckerzeit” doesn’t hold a candle to Tangerine Dream or Fripp/Eno in this regard. Those august composers can show the same view of many different experiences, while Cluster resort to many perspectives of what is essentially the same underlying experience.
Ash Ra Tempel – Inventions for Electric Guitar
This is another album favored by insiders. Unlike many of the more keyboard oriented sounds of the 1970s, this is pure guitar noise. Hazy, beautiful guitar noise in long sprawling compositions. At least a thousand notes get played on each, it seems, and the styles vary in a deep tapestry from fast and furious to slow and bluesy. You can see every part of the whole that is our modern world embedded in this album. Unfortunately, it’s also a surface treatment; these songs are wholly linear. Ash Ra Tempel have mastered the aesthetics of the cosmic bands and in fact best them in that regard, but have not plumbed the underlying composition. These songs use the right type of simple infective melody, both cheerful and slightly melancholic, and build intensity in the way way as a Tangerine Dream song with lots of chaotic noise harmonizing, but there’s nowhere to go. Songs gradually get more intense and then fade away. They resemble nothing, whether objects in reality or in the mind; their experience is evident from the first note and as the last falls, is fulfilled but without surprise and thus depth. At some point, it becomes clear that Ash Ra Tempel make these songs from a pastiche of influences taken to a new aesthetic extreme, but there may be no content, which is why this release falls short of the true cosmic bands.
Your local hipsters will not understand the points made in this article. Good — the Dunning-Kruger effect triumphs again.