Brian Eno loved them, and probably would not have made those beloved Bowie albums the same way without them.
Harmonia is one of the great unsung acts of Krautrock. Standing beside Tangerine Dream, Can and Kraftwerk in terms of sheer greatness, the trio has long had a visibility problem. Some of that may be because Harmonia only existed for a short three years when Dieter Moebius and Hans Joachim Roedelius of Cluster joined forces with Neu!’s Michael Rother. The group’s unusual sounds and compositions were enough to excite that most excitable boy, Brian Eno, as he famously blurted that Harmonia was the “world’s most important rock group” and joined the ranks for a quick go-round about 1976.
What Eno, who has long sense elaborated upon his seemingly hyperbolic utterance, meant was that there was a sense of adventure in Harmonia’s music: It was playful but not silly, experimental but focused, not amorphous and yet not overstuffed with steel wool and putty coming out from every musical orifice. It had a sense of the German about it as well; it was, as Eno has said, informed by the works of Stockhausen and others and its austerity was not malevolent nor was it benign.
Listening to the trio’s debut, 1974’s Musik von Harmonia, there’s something positively spacious, pastoral about the whole affair. This is perhaps because Moebius and Roedelius had moved from Berlin to the tiny town of Forst. The friends had occupied some aged buildings, where they were living when Rother paid a visit in early-’73. Their conversations about music inspired Rother to abandon everything and get it together in the country, a most hippie idea but one that suited the group well.
Oddly enough, though there was some agreement that they wanted to make something exciting for both themselves and the listener, their influences could not have been any different. Rother’s guitar approach was inspired by pop music, Moebius preferred anarchic styles and Roedelius was utterly focused on, well, harmony and melody. Somehow the confluence of those interests was enough to create something new and exciting, something that had the adventure of rock from era (and its beat) while maintaining something impressionistic, something borrowed perhaps from the world of the orchestral, and then something that would hook the listeners if they would only allow themselves to be hooked.
That resulting first album in 1974, replete with a nod to pop art on its sleeve (and perhaps an inspiration for Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine some two decades later) offers us a glimpse of something that has not really been paralleled in the 40-plus years since that album’s release: A masterful convergence of the old world and the new in such a way that each becomes absorbed by the other such that we are no longer aware of the boundaries. Witness “Watussi”, “Sehr Kosmisch” and the absolutely meditative “Hausmusik”. The influence of this album on Eno in particular can be heard through his work with David Bowie and Robert Fripp as well as on his own consciousness-expanding LPs from that same decade.
If 1975’s Deluxe was more “song”-oriented and, in its way, accessible, some of that may have fallen on the shoulders of producer Conny Plank, who’d worked with Neu!, Kraftwerk and Cluster and would go on to work with countless others. Plank brought Guru drummer Mani Neumeier in for some of the recording. The result is a deeply beautiful record that redefines the word meditative and shimmers with breathtaking passages of unhurried, received music across the title tune, the playful “Walky-Talky” and the memorable “Gollum”.
With two remarkably perfect albums behind them, the members struggled for a time to find a direction for a third album. Differences in their visions became more pronounced than they had been in the past and after a period of struggle the group called it quits. That was until Eno called, sometime in the middle of 1976. He was on his way to work with Bowie on what would become the Low album and wanted to see if his old friends (they’d all met in ’74) were up for some music making. There was no thought or talk of making an album and in fact tapes from the sessions disappeared with Eno when he left Forst. Those tapes would eventually surface as Tracks and Traces after two of three tapes were found in an archive.
It should be no surprise that that music and everything included here, including a highly spiritual 1974 live performance, and some material from ’75 is never less than remarkable or inspiring. The only disappointment, of course, is that Harmonia did not stay together to make more music. Or, perhaps, that is the band’s greatest gift as well. There is enough in the five discs of this set to last a lifetime as we visit and revisit and try one more time to unravel the mysteries of the muse.