The sessions from which Tracks and Traces emerged represented Harmonia at perhaps the apex of its power, maximized to its full potential. Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, each of Cluster, were the two constants of the entire project. The Tracks and Traces productions were preceded by two albums with Neu!’s Michael Rother and no Brian Eno and followed by two albums of Brian Eno and no Michael Rother (the latter two were credited respectively to Cluster & Eno and, confoundingly, Eno-Moebius-Roedelius, but very much continue in the spirit of Harmonia). But only Tracks and Traces found all of these amazing musicians in the same room at the same time and it is here that they feel like a complete band; a layering of three disparate sensibilities atop one another, sure, but also a multidimensional stacking that fit just so, each player clotting the recesses left by the previous.
The group was able to come together in this incarnation as an acephalic mass, each ego in tandem and in synch with the next, smoothing out the sensibilities of the collective before staking out their own place in the mix. One can detect a distinct Rother riff, an Eno overtone, and a Cluster music box progression in many of the songs, but none of them are the defining trait of the piece in questions. Not a whole lot of supergroups can boast this kind of willed civil synergy, but not a whole lot of supergroups called themselves Harmonia either.
A formless, murky ambient piece like “Weird Dream”, with its tachycardic flapping beats and billowing backdrop ghostly squeals, sounds like it was initiated with no specific intent or plan of course. Rother’s deep-flanged guitars begin to pluck out melodies that sound vaguely like Imagene Peise’s rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” before they are obliterated by a bass drop into darker territory. Yet, the track’s uncanny course wound up being the perfect dessert to the wayward psychedelic drift of the preceding track and album centerpiece, “Sometimes in Autumn”, a cut whose aeriform badlands proved perfect fodder for a wonderful remix by Shackelton earlier this year. With this crew, a song called “Weird Dream” can be expected to be nothing but downright impenetrable.
Incredibly enough, the Tracks and Traces recordings were never even intended for release. The pieces were conjured in a remote studio in Forst, Germany, slightly before Eno hooked up with Bowie to produce the Harmonia and Krautrock influenced Low album. The sessions were intended to be low-pressure exchanges without the distracting and limiting structures of the album format intervening in the creative process. In fact, Harmonia had allegedly even “broken up” before superfan Eno showed up at their doorstep
The result of these no-pressure sessions is a wholly liberated series of gorgeous synthetic pearls that sat in closet for 20 years after they were made before anyone from the general listening public heard them. Remastered upon discovery by Roedelius in 1996 and released on Rykodisc in 1997, Tracks and Traces was like a myth materialized before fan’s eyes. Even more amazingly, Michael Rother later cleaned up his cassette tapes from the same era and found material from the same dates not on the Roedelius reels. In fact, the press release for Tracks and Traces indicates that enough new material survived on from the Rother collection to fill up a whole separate album, but, judging by the time it takes this stuff to find release, we will have to keep our fingers crossed if we hope to see that material in the next decade.
Oddly enough, the three new songs from the 2009 reissue frame the album, rather than tagalong at the end as standard issue “bonus” cuts often do. “Welcome” and “Atmosphere” commence the playlist as tracks one and two respectively, while “Aubade” closes out the set as the album finale. As such, the reissue represents a new way of hearing this material. The sweet anodyne organs and mellifluous guitar strands of “Aubade” are a far more fitting exit point than the Eastern-flavored breviloquence of 1997 closer “Trace”. Meanwhile, the elegantly sequenced “Welcome” is highlighted by Rother’s proto-post-rock jangle (soon-to-be-captured acutely on Flammende Herzen) and “Atmosphere”, which suffocates a haunting minimalist melody with a spectral whirlwind, is equally moving, albeit in a kind of encroaching shadows type of way.
Yet, the openers do not recontextualize Roedelius’s original layout quite as well as “Aubade” does, mainly because the two new tracks draw energy away from original opener “Vamos Camponeros”. Some have responded positively to the softening of the steam engine chug of “Vamos Companeros” and its sublime distortion-pedal heavy guitars, stating that the track’s textured rhythmic propulsion is misleading for a mostly beatless album that occasionally melts away into pure ambient rubato. It is hard not to be sucked in by the fuzzy, messy, and wonderful track, but it doesn’t necessarily demand more than it gives. Also, “Vamos Camponeros” serves as the perfect segue from the group’s motorik past into its later deformations of pop, represented justly by the ensuing track, “By the Riverside”.
“By the Riverside” is a series of serene wobbly dub ripples set by a bucolic landscape, embodied by farm animal field recordings (perhaps a more drowsy set than those found on Deluxe’s “Kekse”). Rather than quake towards a precipice as “Vamos Companeros” and previous works do, “By the Riverside” seems to simmer on eternally, congealing into a kind of perpetual dusk, a twilight reflection over the water by the riverside.
Tracks and Traces is an album that is wildly anodyne and relaxing, yet deeply unsettling and unfamiliar. A few minor problems still remain, even on the second remaster, such as a few loud pops that disturb the presence of these gorgeous tunes. Nevertheless, it remains a match made in electronic pioneer utopia, a testament to the seemingly ceaseless vitality of each of these artists at the time and the continued ability of their past selves to surprise.