Dieter Moebius's first solo album was a rough patch in a stack of diamonds.
As the incessant clatter of keyboards clicking off strings of “Komische” into word processors lulls, the umpteenth Kraut revival has begun to bleed its recurring zeitgeist reissuing wells dry. Amazingly enough, there are still sound texts to be surveyed from the Cluster curriculum. This year, Bureau B brings us Tonspuren, the first official solo album by Dieter Moebius, originally released in 1983.
“That date may suggest a period of lull, as contemporaries in the scene had either long withered (Can, Faust, Neu!), drifted towards schmaltz (Ashra, Klaus Schulze, Deuter), or faced supplantation by a new electronic pioneers, those being synth-poppers like the Conny Plank-produced Ultravox or electro hip-hoppers like the Conny Plank-produced Whodini. Far from being a denouement, though, this was a particularly fertile period for Moebius. Though his outpouring through these years was not as consistently stellar as the Cluster/Harmonia era from II to Soweisoso, Moebius’s 1980s were nevertheless shaping up to be an invigorating era for listeners thanks to a series of collaborations with Plank (1981’s industrial dub manifestoMaterial), Gerd Beerbohm (1982’s Strange Music and 1984’s Double Cut), and Plank with Guru Guru drummer Manfred Neuimeier (the singular 1983 technodelic edifice Zero Set).”
It takes much chagrin, then, to announce that Tonspuren is an utter disappointment. Amidst sparks of challenge and experimentation, it’s the one bid for irrelevance in the man’s catalogue up until this point. Coming off like a cluster of Cluster tunes that didn’t make the cut, Tonspuren has little of the magic or surprise that makes much of the rest of his catalogue so indispensable. Whereas concision had traditionally been one of Cluster’s strengths, the songs here are too short or too stripped to develop beyond their starting points, which mediate between dullness (“Sinister”), mediocrity (“Contramio’), or vexing provocation (the asynchronous major-minor mismatch of “Etwas”). As occasional partner Brian Eno could surely attest, none of those things by themselves spell death for a track. Given some mentoring, or some kind of oblique strategy at least, dullness, for example, can be transformed into something transcendental by stretching itself infinitely outward. Unfortunately, this kind of minimal-maximalism is not the album Moebius produced.
That’s not to say there aren’t some beacons of light/darkness amidst the humdrum. “Transport” rides a chugga-chugga rhythm on some brilliantly rusty and murky analogue engines. The noises in “Nervös” are sparse, ontologically disparate echo abstractions with bizarre and unexpected spatial dynamics. The rawness of the distortion pedal peddling “B 36” is metronomic and mechanical in a manner familiar to the result of the album, but it is timbre and tonality that rescue it from their fate.
Perhaps the passage of time does wind up becoming a hindrance for Tonspuren. “Rattenwiesel” and “Furbo” feature sonics that would soon be available on toy keyboards around the world and Moebius is far too much the studio wizard to let lo-fi chicanery hijack his austere spectrally regulated technics. This is precisely the decisive issue with Tonspuren, which may satisfy completists nevertheless. Moebius’s hit percentage ratio was already dwindling, but at least the gems on other albums created during this recording stage were of such lapidary exclusivity as to make the dross admissible. Here, the dross seems innocuous, inoculating even. If there weren’t other signs of life in the Moebius canon during this era, one might even have sympathy towards the dwindling flame.