It’s remarkably difficult to put together a really good compilation. If you’ve ever loved an obscure band, then you have probably come across this challenge yourself. You’ve busted out the blank tape or labored with multiple alternate playlists, assembling your own “best of” for a coworker, pal, or some hottie you’re trying to get into the sack. Obviously, all this comp needs to contain is the greatest music said act has ever produced. “But wait.” You get up and begin pacing the room. “The mix really should represent all facets of this act’s career, shouldn’t it?” You sit down. You stand up again. “And what about live versions of certain songs? Ooh, or alternate mixes! And then there’re the acoustic takes from obscure radio sessions!!” Looking at the sheer breadth of material from the glistening discography of your all-time favorite group of musicians in the whole wide world, it becomes clear that, in order to cram as many songs as possible onto your chosen blank medium, you will need to choose some single edits and maybe even perform some carefully rehearsed fade-outs of your own.
In addition to these same considerations, record labels face one other very key issue when putting together an official compilation to release to the public at large: Who is the target audience? For you, amateur home mixologist, all you have to consider are what you enjoy and which key songs (or key lyrical phrases within these songs!) will most likely drive the recipient of your “The Raddest Ever” mix (with hand-collaged inlay and wittily insightful liner notes) into your bed. (Of course, you’ll inevitably ruin your chances with that dodgy live cut on track seven. Aw, man, you went too obscure!) A major label, on the other hand, must ask itself whether or not their compilation is intended as an introduction to new recruits or a satisfying sampler for the old fans.
For the last twenty years or so, the art of the perfect compilation has eluded those who’ve tackled the works of Tangerine Dream. In part, this is because they are a difficult band to summarize. Without question, they are musical pioneers. But of what exactly? Founded by guitarist and keyboardist Edgar Froese in Berlin in 1967, the group has gone through many incarnations, with shifts in lineups and style. Primarily, however, they have always been architects of atmosphere. Their late ’60s and early ’70s output could be most neatly categorized as space rock, while, in later years, the band flirted with New Age music. What we are concerned with here, however, is the period in between, from 1974 and 1983, a decade-long run which most would argue was Tangerine Dream’s peak era. Having just signed with Virgin Records, Froese, along with drummer Christopher Franke and organist Peter Baumann, were granted unlimited access to some really nifty toys. Getting their hands on some early sequencers and the still-coveted Moog synthesizer allowed Tangerine Dream to move in new directions and to cultivate the propulsive, proto-electronic pulse that has become their patented sound. This combination of organic and synthesized instrumentation presaged the music of synth-heavy rock bands from Duran Duran to Radiohead. Tangerine Dream were the perfect middle ground between the more robotic, tech-exclusive Kraftwerk and the trippy instrumental passages from Pink Floyd. You could get totally baked while listening to TG, but you could also alertly and nerdily admire all the knobs and patch cords involved in procuring those trance-inducing sounds from all that unwieldy machinery.
To be sure, the band’s lengthy compositions allowed you plenty of time for either of these activities. The majority of their tracks during this era were epic in length, often consuming the entire side of an LP. This always proposed a problem for compilers of Tangerine Dream’s music. It’s hard to cover a lot of ground when a single cut gobbles up a large fraction of your total running time. So, previous compilers have edited and faded out and sliced and spliced, truncating tracks that are built upon build-ups, where the key to success is in prolonged exposure. The minimalist march of the sequencer captures your brain in delicious loops while the instrumentalists gradually alter the formula, filling out or stripping down the beat, adding organ swells, slowly surging into a guitar solo. All of this takes time to happen, and the running time of a compilation has always been limited by the physical constraints of vinyl, cassettes, or CDs.
Essential is the least uptight collection I’ve ever encountered. The folks at EMI (distributed in the U.S. by Caroline) cut through all of the crap, apparently worry-free, and simply decided to take one great track from each of Tangerine Dream’s great albums recorded during their greatest period of artistic accomplishment. And then, smartly, the label left the songs alone. The result is six tracks on one disc. Although this appears skimpy when looking at the track listing, the resulting 72-minute journey is totally consuming and sublime. Beginning with the extra-terrestrial wind wisps and space monkey chatter of the burbling and ambient “Movements of a Visionary” from 1974’s Phaedra, this set moves through the side-length “Rubycon, Pt. 1” (from the 1975 Rubycon LP), a track which simultaneously acquires a more directed force while also finding more open areas for the kinds of nuance that gave Tangerine Dream their heart: Stabs of synth here and there or a rise in percussive dynamics imbued their music with an organic, human flow. The title track to 1976’s Stratosfear sees the group coming more fully into their trademark sound, with more precisely delineated sequencing and the use of a cleaner, less abstracted palette. Although more robotically Kraftwerk-like, Franke’s drumming brings the song to life in its second half, as do improvisational flourishes from Froese’s electric guitar and Baumann’s deft organ playing; despite which, the latter would leave the band in 1977. Not documented here on Essential is Tangerine Dream’s first post-Baumann album, 1978’s Cyclone, which found them experimenting with incorporating vocals. By 1979 and Force Majeure, TG were very much back on track, as evidenced by the relatively succinct and rocking “Cloudburst Flight”, something of a return to their earlier, space rock roots. Solidifying another strong line-up that would last through 1986, keyboardist Johannes Schmoelling joined the band in 1980 in time for Tangram, “Set 1” from which is featured here. Although the timbre of their instruments were changing with the technology of the times, thus lending certain passages an almost synth pop feel, this nearly 20-minute track revealed a new version of Tangerine Dream who, fortunately, sounded mostly like the old. The final cut on this sampler, the title track from 1983’s Hyperborea, evidenced their coming shift into overly New Agey niceness was creeping in. Still, the cut’s moodiness makes for a very fine closing to the excellent Essential.
Confusingly, 2006 also saw the release of the double-disc The Essential Collection. Similar in both title and philosophy, this other compilation, issued by Metro Doubles, features full-length works from, oddly, both the early 1970s LPs preceding, and the late ’80s records following, the albums from which The Essential Tangerine Dream was culled. So, if the CD being reviewed here today piques your interest in Tangerine Dream (as it rightly should), a second tier of essential-ness awaits you. Make no mistake, though. One collection is absolutely more essential than the other. If you want the most essentially essential Tangerine Dream compilation available — that which boils down the band’s vital, peak, pre-eminent, and, dare I say, essential material to its very essence — then The Essential Tangerine Dream, my friends, is it.