Edgar Froese founded Tangerine Dream in autumn of 1967 in Berlin, and over the next few decades the band became a pioneer of instrumental and ambient music. Nominated for seven Grammy Awards, the band has done movie soundtracks and survived several member changes. 40 years and many albums later, Tangerine Dream is still making music.
The new album Madcap’s Flaming Duty is true to Tangerine Dream’s form, full of hollow sounds and spacey atmosphere. It is dedicated to former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett, and the lyrics of each song are taken from the poems of British and American poets, ranging from William Blake to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman. Depending on your tolerance for such kitsch in your music, the idea is either insufferably pretentious or delightfully frivolous. Either way, the poetry fits perfectly with the layered landscape of the music. Chris Hausl, the vocalist, inflects the poems with despair, although at times he sounds like he’s doing an impression of Ian Curtis. However, for a band that has often been criticized for failing to integrate vocals effectively within the music, Madcap’s Flaming Duty is a coup. Hausl uses his voice in an understated way, and his reservation manages to mesh with the ambience of the album.
Within an album of sounds, there are specific sounds that absolutely stand out. Linda Spa’s harmonica on “Astrophel and Stella” feels like something out of an old Sergio Leone film. The synthetic drums on “Solution of All Problems” shake and shine. The flute on “A Dream of Death” provides a degree of airiness that perfectly undercuts the thudding drums. Highlight tracks include “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, which has a subtle piano part that underlies urgent singing by Hausl and a soothing guitar part played by Bernhard Beibl. “Mad Song” has a catchy melody and its pace is fast enough that it almost feels like a pop song. “Blessed Damozel” is full of blips and beeps, and Hausl’s vocals are deep and robotic.
For people who can’t stand ambient music, this album will seem to break no borders, and thus is certainly not essential. And at 70 minutes long, it can all be a bit much. But for fans of the genre, Tangerine Dream’s sound is challenging, odd and complex. They are legends, and their new album does justice to the reputation they have built for themselves. Madcap’s Flaming Duty is not groundbreaking like past Tangerine Dream works, but it is a wonderful journey into an odd little musical world.