Try to imagine yourself back in time about 45 years. It’s not easy to do in our post-everything digital age, but I’ll provide a few signposts to help you along the way. In 1971, “word processing” had just been proclaimed a buzz phrase. In one year’s time, clerical word processing units would have monitors attached for the first time. Igor Stravinsky had just passed away and George Lucas had only one feature film to his name. Not many people outside of Iran perceived the Ayatollah Khomeini as any kind of threat and almost no one was seen wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. If you ever used the word “ambient”, it was most likely an adjective to describe the general sound of the out-of-doors.
Culturally, we could still see the Summer of Love in our rearview mirror as wave after transitional wave continued to hit us. Art, entertainment, technology, and what we did behind closed doors entered a whole new experimental phase, though you can’t say that all of it caught on right away. Take, for example, the German electronic music duo Cluster, formerly the trio known as Kluster. Their 1971 record sounds about accessible today as it did then — that is to say, not very.
Nowadays, the name Cluster automatically commands reverence, the kind that only the bravest pioneers get to enjoy. Commercially speaking, the present day is probably the closest that the Cluster legacy will ever get to having a day in the sun. Almost 50 years after the fact, that first Cluster record (named either Cluster or Cluster 71, depending on whom you ask) still sounds miles ahead of the curve.
For whatever occasion, Bureau B has seized the present moment to release a ten-year span of the duo’s work in a nine-CD box set. The era highlighted on 1971-1981 was a very creative and productive time for the electronic avant-garde and musique concrètists. With each release, Cluster was riding on the crest of that wave.
Sometime in the early ’70s, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius parted ways with their musical partner Conrad Schnitzler, turning Kluster into Cluster. From that point forward, Roedelius and Moebius pretty much made the genre of electronic music their own. “The eight [official] Cluster albums presented here trace the group’s arc of development over a period of around ten years,” writes Asmus Tietchens in 1971-1981‘s liner notes. “Not a particularly extensive oeuvre compared to many of their peers, but prolificacy was never a feature of Cluster’s constitution.”
Actually, by today’s standards, that’s pretty productive. When you factor in just how great these albums come across individually, that brings Cluster’s achievements into even finer focus. These 60 songs spanning six hours over nine discs, coming in both plastic and vinyl, have an astounding shelf life.
Cluster 71 starts off the set by capturing Roedelius and Moebius at their most abstract. Made of three untitled tracks, or sometimes named after their running times, 71 conveys the feeling of being lost in the cosmos. Up, down, left, right, a mile, a meter — all perceived dimensions wash away in anchorless music devoid or key and time signatures. Dynamics are a brighter benchmark for the coming and going of noise phases, both at a full rush and at an eerie quiet.
The Wire placed this record on their list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire (When No One Was Listening)”. Normally, this perceived sense of clairvoyance can get on my nerves (no one was listening, you say?), but listening to 71 is similar to feeling the earth move.
It was a tough act to follow, and Cluster was wise enough not to repeat themselves. The following year, Cluster II found the duo making their warped sound slightly more accessible. Far from being a compromise or a “sell out” move, II placed more identifiable musical features in the listener’s lap.
Rhythmic pulses could be detected from the opening throbs of “Plas”. “Im Süden” made a four note ostinatos its melody. Songs were generally shorter and came with more conrete titles. Having said that, the whole shebang was still light years ahead of the curve. If Cluster were going to make any inroads with the masses, they were going to take their sweet time doing so.
You could make the case that “Hollywood”, the first track on 1974’s Zuckerzeit, helped lay the groundwork for the post-rock scene of the ’90s. By this time, Cluster are giving their listeners something to which they can tap their toes, like the pleasingly repetitive pop of “Heiße Lippen. Sowiesoso (1976) is Cluster’s transition album pointing to the two atmospheric collaborations with Brian Eno, 1977’s Cluster & Eno and 1978’s After the Heat. With a few exceptions like the tribal beat-driven “Umleitung”, these three records represent Cluster’s spring time phase where flowers bloom in full for nearly two hours.
Grosses Wasser ushers us out of Cluster’s ambient era and into a period that is part atonal goof, part heavenly atmospherics, and part rootless abstraction circa 1971. Two years later came Curiosum, Cluster’s last album before going on hiatus for much of the ’80s. Curiosum begins with a delightfully benevolent take on industrial music with “Oh Odessa”, only to be followed by two tracks shrouded in too much mystery to be easily labeled.
Flip the record over and “Helle Melange” makes life a little easier a two-note figure repeating over top featherbed noodling. Though it was a little more unified in sound than its 1979 predecessor, Curiosum still wasn’t going to bring about any commercial watershed for the ambient / electronic music genre.
As indicated by its name, the final disc Konzerte 1972/1977 is pulled from two different concerts. As can be easily expected, these two tracks confirm that Cluster used the live setting to stretch themselves considerably. “Fabrik” and “Festival International de la Science-Fiction”, performed in 1972 and 1977 respectively, sound like they both came from the same spaced-out era of Cluster as their 1971 album. The sounds that come and go are solely tethered to Roedelius and Moebius’s impulses, never setting aside time for traditional form and function.
Roedelius and Moebius would eventually reunite several more times. By the time those later Cluster releases came into being, the rest of the electronic music world was in the process of catching up to the duo. That world, however, has only rarely surpassed the sense of adventure embodied by Roedelius and Moebius during the ten year span highlighted in this superb box set.
If your unfamiliarity with Cluster makes this review feel like a symptom of overstating, then perhaps you better hear what the fuss is all about on your own. Find Cluster 71, put it on, and imagine a time before Pong.