On Tangerine Dream’s transmissions from Sol

The further listening series

Running in tandem to the familiar narrative of popular music from the 1950s onwards – with its inextricably complex relationship to evolving youth identities – was a parallel development in what could loosely be referred to as “sound art”. Despite the technological and economic conditions that were required to make the phenomena of popular music even possible – recording technology, mass production, amplification, radio, a workforce with disposable income and leisure time – the music’s development in relation to technological innovations has remained remarkably static. Pop songs today are structurally composed in largely the same form as they were in the 1960s. They may co-opt new technology into this process – synths and drum machines, production techniques, growing armouries of effects pedals – but these are more often than not folded back into the same recognisable compositional forms that have existed for decades.

Sound art by contrast is a form of composing music that grows directly from the technology and materials available. It is therefore intrinsically embedded in its environment. The term is probably too broad to hold credible explanatory power, arguably linking everything from contemporary classical music, to ambient, noise, soundtracks, art installations, and sound research. The line between the manipulation of sound as a scientific endeavour is blurred with the creation of artefacts that could be said to have artistic value.

It may sound hyperbolic, but Tangerine Dream are not only an institution of post war culture, but a discrete connecting tissue that bridged these exponentially complex branches of popular music from the 1970s onwards with the mysterious underbelly of sound artistry, driven as much by technological curiosity as they were creative expression. Throughout their lengthy career they have always maintained a foothold in the study of technics, in the manipulation of machines and materials that would become inextricably linked with – and largely determine – the ontology of their musical output. But the latter proved to be accessible and populist enough to reach an audience well outside the usually limited set of specialists and observers that make up the sound art milieu.

This loosely defined and highly informal approach to musical forms, dictated more by the administration of textures and volume over key and rhythm, was to come to be known as ambient music, and found its most popular resonance via film soundtracks. But Tangerine Dream were able to populate their music with more grammar and activity than is typical of the loose conglomeration of artists that make up the agreed canon of ambient as a genre, a fact largely responsible for their enduring presence within the zeitgeist, along with their longevity and foundational role in the creation of these musical approaches.

Boasting an intimidating discography by any measure, their recording career is traditionally broken down into eras based on record label signing, so naturally we are going to ignore that. Instead, we’ll adopt a looser account of their evolution defined by shifts in intention and spirit as much as the foregrounded timbral and thematic developments. A revolving door of clientele orbiting around the figures of Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke all left their mark, and many boast notable solo works of their own, including Peter Baumann, Klaus Schulze, and Froese himself. But as ever, we are more interested in the music as it presents itself to the listener over documenting personnel. What’s perhaps more compelling about Tangerine Dream’s evolution was how it mirrored discernible vibe shifts within the popular zeitgeist, refracting the impetus of mainstream music back in comprehensively expansive musical statements.

Sequence one covers their first two albums, ‘Electronic Meditation’ released in 1970, and ‘Alpha Centauri’ in 1971. Emerging from the Berlin school of Krautrock in the late 1960s alongside acts such Ash Ra Tempel and Agitation Free, the evolution of Tangerine Dream from their first to second album saw them marshal the loose psychedelia of these emergent movements into monolithic musical architectures, as brutalistically minimalist as they were contemplative. The music that emerged during this time was something of an impressionist’s painting to the romantic rigors of the fledging progressive rock movement in the UK. The latter understood musical freedom within the confines of strict standards of musicianship, the space created for the “jam” was borrowed largely from jazz conventions, rooted in an intimate knowledge of key and rhythm, and how to leverage this knowledge into a codex of when it could be deemed appropriate to break such musical dogmas.

‘Electronic Meditation’ by contrast is almost totally freeform. There are recognisable musical artefacts certainly, but the emphasis – and source of frustration for many – was on manipulating texture, volume, pulse, and pitch as the key drivers of the music, in a manner that would anticipate not only ambient but the post rock genres that would emerge from the 1990s onwards. The raw tools Tangerine Dream were using to decompose rock conventions were still largely recognisable; guitars, drums, organs, but they were undergoing a process of entropic dissolution in stark contrast to UK progressive rock, the latter of which was attempting to perfect the use of these same tools in service of infinitely complex and increasingly formalised musical sculptures.

‘Alpha Centauri’ took largely the same format but drove it in a structuralist direction. With a short organ driven overture in ‘Sunrise in the Third System’ to open the album, leading into the swelling, teleological jam space of ‘Fly and Collision of Coma Sola’. The closing title track anticipates the next phase of Tangerine Dream that would roughly define the Peter Baumann era from 1972 to 1977.

Where UK prog was steeped in literature, sci-fi, English folklore, or sober social commentary, Krautrock always exhibited a close alignment with the fledging interest in “new age” spiritualism that grew out of the hippie movement of the preceding decade. Whether this was a genuine attempt to reconnect with pre-Christian theology or a bourgeois program of cultural misappropriation is a debate for another day. For better or worse, this tag has attached itself to Tangerine Dream stubbornly over the years. But even at their lightest they retained a sense of gravity and scale that always sat at the imposing end of the aesthetic spectrum when compared to the utopian comforts of new ageism, 

1972s ‘Zeit’ is a firm rebuttal to anyone wishing to saddle this artist with the new age tag free of examination. Ushering in the second phase of Tangerine Dream, the sheer scale of ‘Zeit’ as a cultural object cannot be overstated. It stands as an eerie monolith of early 1970s futurism, displaying a stasis betrayed only by deep swells of volume and incremental tonal clashes. The Cologne Cello Quartet were enlisted to supply eerie layers of droning notes by way of contrast to the usual organs and Moog synthesisers.

The albums that followed in ‘Atem’, ‘Phaedra’, and ‘Rubycon’ are driven by a similar ethos, but the brute structural dynamics of early synthesiser sequences can slowly be felt holding greater sway over the Tangerine Dream format from one album to the next, supplanting the organic glacial waves of guitar, organ, and percussive feedback that defined the first two albums. Baumann’s influence and his dedication to the higher artistic potentials that could be unlocked by a close study of technological as much as musical mastery was making greater inroads into the format, just as Froese’s screaming bouts of guitar noise gradually take a back seat.

But for many the defining achievement of this era was the “live” album ‘Ricochet’ released in 1975. I say “live” because it was in fact pieced together from studio recordings during the UK leg of their 1975 tour of Europe. ‘Ricochet’ knitted together the organic and well defined melodies of mainstream instrumentation in guitars and piano with the restorative synthetic drones of their studio albums. An impersonal minimalism unlocked images of space as a chasmic void in the minds of the listener, imposing and unfathomably vast,  but ‘Ricochet’ is beset with a residual human factor.

This also served to link Tangerine Dream up with more mainstream collective signifiers of sci-fi in the 1970s following the Moon landing. The music is still structured very much as broad soundscapes defined by the linear interconnection of themes and moods over formal movements. But the backdrop is replete with activity, identifiable guitar and synth melodies wait in the wings, non-abstract drum patterns that serve the music rather than dictate to it with freeform improvisations, all sync up into music that – whilst rife with trepidation – speaks of shared purpose, shared futures, an optimism regarding what awaits us beyond the void.

Contrast this with ‘Rubycon’, the studio album released that same year, which relies on the same materials of patiently stacked synth loops and soaring minimalist harmonies, but instead invokes a feeling of impersonal foreboding, of something so massive we are only able to comprehend it in the most liminal fashion.

And it is here in 1976 and the release of ‘Stratosfear’ that Tangerine Dream’s third cycle took shape. Some may wish to contest laying the milestone here, given that the guitars, drums and other “real” instruments had already been entirely excluded from the picture by this point. But the reason for drawing the line here is based solely on compositional ontology rather than technics. Where previously Tangerine Dream’s output had one foot squarely in the abstract – that sound art demarcation mentioned above – ‘Stratosfear’ is where the Tangerine Dream of popular imagination begins to take shape.

The compositions were still lengthier than anything to be found in the pop sphere, and they still broadly followed the format of elongated soundscapes as opposed to the jagged, labyrinthine technicalities of progressive rock. But the deeper architecture of swelling textural clashes, endlessly sequenced loops, and soaring harmonic material are now a backdrop, expositional static deployed in order to transmit what would commonly be referred to as melodies or “hooks”. The tracks could easily be chopped into smaller radio friendly chunks, with memorably hummable tunes and other proto pop song prerequisites.  

Elements of the abstract remained, but the overall package was far more focused, compact, and rich with a populist 1970s sci-fi aesthetic. With the departure of Baumann, 1978’s ‘Cyclone’ would see Tangerine Dream step confidently into the light with a commercially viable object, decisively turning their back on music as an artistic biproduct of technological evolutions. Klaus Krieger sits behind a drum kit, delivering straightforward back-beats, and Steve Jolliffe – a relic from an earlier incarnation of the band from the late 1960s – joins to provide, amongst other things, vocals…?

Shocking as this revelation may be, aside from a few measures of so-so rock crooning here and there, what Jolliffe really brings to the table is a set of woodwind improvisations that mesh seamlessly with the dominant synth leads, rockist drum patterns, and Froese’s sparse guitar lines. The result sounds like a progressive rock band fighting for improvisational airtime with the inflexibility of Tangerine Dream’s by now patented synth loops. An ensemble performance that works despite the jarring and all too human theatrics that contrast so severely with their works to date.

Despite this minor deviation into full fledged British prog territory however, ‘Force Majo’ (1979) and ‘Tangram’ (1980) would consolidate this formula (sans Jolliffe’s contributions) into a product credible enough for the artistically minded, yet musically familiar. This allowed it to resonate with an audience that turn to music primarily for entertainment and comfort over abstract meditations on the psychological challenges posed by the blackness surrounding Earth. Progressive rock traits interact seamlessly with the synthetic elements in a way that complimented the miniaturism of the fledging synth pop movement with vast, cinematic soundscapes of ever unwinding melodic hooks that were built from essentially the same raw materials as their pop equivalents.

Much like the 1990s was for heavy metal, the expansive sonic battleships of the 1970s did not have an easy ride in the 1980s. Their fraught ambitions to compete at an artistic level with contemporary sound art and modern classical music battered them at one end, whilst the street level demands of punk, a dwindling commercial success amongst a public growing increasingly restless as neoliberalism’s pincer movement gradually closed in, and popular music’s appropriation of the technological advances of early synth pioneers such as Tangerine Dream, reinterpreting their textural oeuvre into pop compositional structures that had nevertheless remained largely unchanged since the 1950s.

Tangerine Dream’s response was twofold. Having dipped their toes into the murky water of film soundtracks back in 1977 by composing the music for William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’, they would throw themselves headlong into this peripherally elusive artform with gusto in the 1980s, scoring films such as ‘Thief’, ‘Legend’, and ‘Near Dark’ amongst countless others. Their second response to the shifting narratives of Western cultural overheating that defined the 1980s was to pop the hood on their own artistic format and undertake a complete overhaul.

For many veterans of 70s exceptionalism this essentially meant rolling up the sleeves, thinking of England, and writing some pop numbers with radio play potential. And whilst Tangerine Dream didn’t eschew the pop route entirely, they did it in a very Tangerine Dream manner. Despite some minor tweaks to the aesthetic packaging – slicker synth patches, more complex layering, an expanded timbral range – the overall output was still recognisably them. What had changed was the lasting impact these albums left on the listener, which dwindled with each new false start.

Thus their fourth phase was defined by instrumental synth pop that still retained a scope and size that spoke of broader ambitions. Where earlier works were soundscapes in the literal sense of the word, in that we study the components rather than the melodies to gain a broader understanding of the panorama presented to us, from 1981’s ‘Exit’ onwards Tangerine Dream were essentially composing a sequence of lyrical pieces, a medley of complimentary ideas and melodic lines organised through the bureaucracy of artificiality that still defined synth music in opposition to the “traditional” means of crafting music. Bright, naïve, comforting, yet no less complex or multifaceted as a result, this era remains highly contested precisely because of this conflict.

The instinct is to dismiss these albums for lacking the sober gravitas of earlier efforts. In attempting to sketch out a parallel evolution for synth music to the one showcased on Top of the Pops each week, Tangerine Dream were now following the zeitgeist as opposed to fashioning it. But this assessment is perhaps a little too heavy handed. Whilst it’s true that the run from ‘Exit’ through to ‘Underwater Sunlight’ in 1986 slips neatly into the general caricature people hold in their minds of 80s music – power synth arpeggios fit for a sports montage included – these were still deeply complex and sincere pieces of music that held many pockets of enriched sonic material indicative of both an intellectual and emotional core. The contention is rather that they were now following an external narrative rather than shaping one.

The hypnotic synth tessellation Tangerine Dream were able to marshal across these albums sounds remarkably fresh given their vintage, and foreshadows many of the channels electronic music would follow into the next decade. Tangerine Dream – along with Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis – were early adopters of digital technology as a means of producing music, arguably a natural evolution of their dual artisanal function as composers and masters of technics. The paradox many could not reconcile – which largely coincided with the recruitment of Paul Haslinger for ‘Underwater Sunlight – was the musical invocations to new age spiritualism. This much derided tag is decidedly difficult to pin down, and often comes down to whether pan flutes are audible (real or synthetic).

But the real dynamic at play here was simply the fact that history was catching up to Tangerine Dream. The technological foundation of their sound and ultimately their uniqueness were commonplace by the mid 1980s, defining the radio friendly pop of the era. It was therefore necessary to retreat further and further into the abstract space of digital production and synthetic timbral resources to stay ahead of the game.

But the pitfall of crafting music so tightly interconnected with the tools of its creation is precisely this lack of control. We like to imagine early ambient music of the 1970s being crafted by individuals desperately trying to marshal various pieces of prototypical technology into a coherent piece of sound art. But as digital technology afforded the humans in the equation greater control over the compositional output, the textural, timbral and productive possibilities afforded by digital technology increased exponentially. Faced with these near limitless potentials, it’s no wonder that even those at the forefront of these developments struggled to organise these components into convincing works of both technical and artistic coherence. 

Thus it was hardly surprising that Tangerine Dream would lurch from various competing impetuses with little evidence of a conscious destination. 1987 saw the release of ‘Tyger’ and the final era of Tangerine Dream under this schematic. Despite retrospective attempts to salvage this as a heroic left turn for the band into uncharted territory, this work is very much of the 80s. This was a decade that saw the term “power ballad” gain meaningful currency. 50s nostalgia was rampant. An inevitable offshoot of this fixation was a resurrection of the ballad form which had been largely jettisoned from youth culture for a time, consigned to pulling the heart strings of a slightly older war torn generation. But the form gained new traction thanks to the ever evolving production techniques of the 1980s. Where some of the hits generated by juicing up this drab, love torn style with punchy production and anthemic choruses – Whitney Houston, Bonnie Tyler – have enjoyed a posthumously ironic second wind, the understated, left-field approach taken by Tangerine Dream on ‘Tyger’ with the aid of vocalist Jocelyn Bernadette Smith has not aged well enough to even retain a humorously distanced retroist appeal.

Few artists with a lengthy resume set firmly at the outer borders of their given field can look pop so directly in the face and come out with a convincing product (King Crimson may have injected a severe experimental edge to their brand of new wave in the early 1980s, but the balance was short lived and not commercially viable). Tangerine Dream were no exception here. Chris Franke took the decision to leave the outfit having been partnered with Froese since 1971. Despite Froese being the centre of a whirlwind of shifting clientele for some years, Franke’s departure was significant not just for the duration of his service in the band, but also because he owned most of the gear that was so fundamental to these holistic synth led monoliths.

With this puncture in their technological offering, 1988’s ‘Optical Race’ – despite embodying many of the same recognisable facets of their glory days, and ejecting the awkward ballad ambient of ‘Tyger’ – was a defanged iteration of Tangerine Dream. The sound – although brimming with activity and topography – was considered sterile, thin, lacking the nuance and richness of Tangerine Dream at the height of their powers. All darkness was stripped from the formula, and a kind of clinical new ageism claimed dominion over an outfit that was at one time capable of raising mountains of sonic texture before the listener in real time, as bracing as they were dreadful in their imposition.

Froese’s brief partnership with Paul Haslinger during this digital stint in the late 1980s was supplanted by one with his son Jerome in 1990, and the pattern of increasingly pedestrian rock music was foregrounded, relegating synths to accompaniment status. Following Edgar Froese’s death in 2015 the band continues in one form or another, but with none of the original members and without the blessing of Jerome Froese, it’s disputable whether this entity exists today beyond a vague brand recognition.

The nature of this artist’s impact is as difficult to fathom as it is to precis. They maintain a standing in the peripheral vision of most music fans, even if those that don’t consciously recognise them. If you haven’t stared down their body of work directly, chances are you’ve seen a film they’ve scored, or heard their music referenced, or encountered any dance music born of the crucible of British rave circa 1992, they have affected your musical journey in some way. But their real legacy is not one of influence or cultural resonance. The heart of the Tangerine Dream story is one of fearlessly exploring the breadth of sound, and charting the vastly unexplored reaches this priceless commodity can be sourced from.

But what makes them stand out from the more obscurantist reaches of sound art and musique concrete was integrating a remarkable accessibility with near boundless profundity. They maintained an equilibrium – for an impressive number of years – between pushing the boundaries of where sound could go in a post industrial Europe whilst lending an ear to the populist zeitgeist, and learning how to pull at its desires and fears to create works whose value reverberates across a plethora of mentalities, outlooks, and drives.

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